The Hello Kitty Prison

Chinese New Year. The Year of the Rabbit begins today. This is something of a relief since so much of Hong Kong has been devoted to enhancing the Zodiac in order to accommodate the year of Hello Kitty. As some wag noted, it is true that the new HKIA is, in fact, the Hong Kong International Airport and not the Hello Kitty International Airport.

Nevertheless, Hello Kitty shops proliferate here, taking over the closed down branches of The Gap and Benetton stores who have had, until recently, as many as two or three shops in the same mall. More than 600 new Hello Kitty products hit the shelves each month, and young brides are flocking to open registries at HK shops: toasters, microwaves, coffee makers, sheets, quilts, pajamas, dishes, purses, underwear, jackets, shirts, and skirts are all plastered with HK’s insipidly cute face. Perhaps it is happening in the US, too, where I have not seen evidence, but here HK-isms seem part of the infantilization of society that sees university students wearing expensively tailored Snoopy sweaters, carrying Garfield pencil boxes, and talking on their pink Hello Kitty mobile phones. There’s even a credit company that now sponsors, as I hear nightly, the Aeon Hello Kitty MasterCard Weather Report. And if I charge HK$ 3000 on my new MasterCard, I will be entered in a Hello Kitty lucky draw. First prize is a pink Hello Kitty Daihatsu commuter bug car; second prize is a three-day trip to Hello Kitty Land in Tokyo.

Don’t you wish I were making this up?

The good news is that the Aeon company has a trusting soul and so sealed its Hello Kitty dedicated Automatic Teller machines with only a strong padlock. In the space of four days—the first four days the machines were available in the SAR—several were broken into; HK$ 500,000 (US 63,000) went missing, no doubt to be spent at a Hello Kitty store.

Well, Hong Kong is still more than that. The International Arts Festival is just over, and though I was more slovenly than I’ve been in the past, I did see some good performances in the last few weeks—particularly necessary since Nancy is off in Chicago tending to that branch of our increasingly international family (e.g., daughter Meredith, who is doing a Filmic MA at American, will spent next semester at American’s Prague studios). Gidon Kremer brought his young group, the KREMERata Baltica. They played a wonderful concerto for two violins, prepared piano and strings by Arvo Pärt and a most wonderful novelty—the Seasons Project. Eight seasons, says Kremer, recognizing the southern hemisphere for the first time in musical history. The second four were provided, on commission, by Astor Piazzolla. These jazzy pieces revealed how much jazz is available in the Vivaldi (and revealed, too, how simplistic the now-famous Pachelbel canon seems next to Vivaldi when slyly quoted in the new piece.

But the real news from Hong Kong has to do with the legal system. Perhaps you’ve heard that the High Court here in HK recently ruled that the mainland resident children of Hong Kong citizens not only have the right of abode here, they must be granted that right immediately. At present, HK doles out some 150 permanent residency permits a day, and the PRC authorities can delay people for still longer—for years. The court went a step further and suggested (though this was not part of the official ruling) that the High Court in HK could overrule those acts and actions of the National People’s Congress in Beijing if those acts contravene the Basic Law, HK’s mini-constitution.

That weekend the Beijing government was silent on the issue, but numbers of lawyers, professors of law (something of a joke in China), and NPC members were sent forth to announce that the decision was bad, wrong, inimical to the smooth operation of One Country Two systems, and clearly prohibited by the Basic Law. A few days later, the PRC government suggested that the decision was wrong and should be “corrected.” Tung Chee Hwa, HK’s Chief Executive, played tar baby, and he don’t say nuffin’. Instead, he dispatched Elsie Leung, Secretary for Justice, to Beijing to calm fears, explain HK’s ways, and try to defuse the situation.

Lamentably, her visit to Beijing came less than a week after the local Bar Association, many academics, and hundreds of letters to the press called for her to be sacked. Why? We’ve had quite a contentious trial here that has lasted many months and has recently resulted in a number of high executives going to jail. The ICAC, the Independent Commission Against Commission (that which keeps us different from most of the really corrupt societies in Asia), arrested a number of folk at the Hong Kong Standard, the second English language newspaper. They were charged with defrauding advertisers and others by inflating circulation figures. Indeed, these people set up a dummy corporation or two which bought 30,000 copies a day and then delivered them straight to the recycling plant. Now these executives were indicted for conspiracy. Their partner in conspiracy was Sally Aw, owner of the paper, daughter of a tycoon who set up the paper, friend of Tung Chee Hwa (still, and once again, playing tar baby on this one). Somehow Ms Aw was not treated as an unindicted co-conspirator à la Nixon in the good old days. Rather, while the others were indicted, tried, and convicted of conspiring WITH HER, she was not indicted at all because, as Elsie Leung patiently explained to the legislative council, the government didn’t have evidence that she had conspired. Some credulity was strained, so Ms Leung proceeded to make a terrible mistake. She went on to say that she also thought it was in the public interest not to try Ms Aw because the Standard, always the poor sister to the South China Morning Post in the newspaper world here, had fallen on hard times, what with the recession and all. So many people would lose their jobs.

Legco was, it seems, willing to accept the first amazing explanation on the grounds that the government can try or decline to try anyone it chooses. It’s okay to have blood on your hands as long as you don’t lick your fingers. But saving the business of your rich friends was another matter altogether. Why, this even smacked of cronyism. So the bar association, responsible for gathering about it rules that allow lawyers here to make Michael Jordan salaries for conveying a piece of property, decided she had to go.

And go she did. To Beijing to explain the niceties of Hong Kong’s common law system to a government that acknowledges only that law and the party are the same thing.

So the illegal fireworks keep exploding down the mountain from my flat, and the fire trucks keep racing around putting out the hill fires that mark this relatively dry time of the year, and the Hello Kitty Airport has laid on 700 additional flights to get holiday travelers in and out of the SAR. I stay at home and work out the sound effects scheme for Golden Handcuffs, the radio drama I’ve written (and directed and acted in) which will have its final technical work this Friday and its broadcast perhaps by the end of the month. Its subject: how ex-pat life in HK runs into and runs parallel to life in the detention centers for Vietnamese boat people. Hello Kitty is a prison.

Hong Kong
February, 1999

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