Back in Hong Kong from Wuhan, I looked for work and found bits and pieces. I proposed a piece to Asia Law and Practice, which turned out to be owned by my old London employer, Euromoney--not that it did me any good.
Because of my time in shipping journalism, which I loved, I had the rudiments of business journalism. Then there was my time on the business desk at the now defunct Hong Kong iMail. At Euromoney I had learned about the syndicated loan market, sovereign borrowing, petrodollars and Eurodollars--enough to dazzle the editors at Asia Law and Practice.
But I wanted to do something completely different: explore the legal ins and outs of the sudden resignation of Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong's first chief executive since the 1997 Handover from British control. It was an amusing story because of a strange wrinkle in constitutional arrangements, whereby he could resign only for reasons of health. Otherwise, in theory at least, a cop could arrest him and make him resume his duties as chief executive. After this absurdity was papered over to everyone's satisfaction, there were new doubts whether his leaving in the middle of his second and final five-year term meant that the next chief executive would be beginning two maximum five year-terms from that point or merely completing the old CE's uncompleted second term.
The latter is what happened. Donald Tsang--Sir Donald, though he did not use the title--who was the first non-Brit Financial Secretary, took over when Tung Chee-hwa quit, completed his term, and was re-elected by the Beijing-appointed Election Committee of 800 (later enlarged to 1,500) for one five-year term. I thought Tung Chee-hwa was an okay guy, nothing special but acceptable. In Beijing's maniacal persecution of Falun Gong, Tung Chee-Hwa did the acceptable thing when he said he "guessed Falun Gong was an evil cult," sounding as though Beijing was twisting his arm. At the time, that is the way his words were taken and it was deemed acceptable by most people.
Falun Gong combines meditation and qigong cultivation exercises with a moral philosophy. It identifies with the Buddhist school, though it also incorporates Taoist traditions. But the Reds insist that there can be no other belief system but theirs and certainly nothing that supersedes it. Catholics on the mainland can operate, but their bishops must be approved by Communist Party. Not in Hong Kong, of course. The leftist pope yielded, but not the Falun Gong.
Donald Tsang handled the Falun Gong question in a different, more forceful, yet subtle way. When he accepted the office of chief executive, TV reporters were given access to him in various ceremonial settings--of his choosing. Being a Catholic, he chose to have himself televised kneeling before his bishop and kissing his ring, and answering media's Falun Gong questions firmly: that freedom of conscience was guaranteed in the Basic Law of Hong Kong.
That started me off as a big Donald fan, and I would thereafter with trepidation pass newsstands every day scanning all the headlines, mostly relieved that all was well, as he was not to be seen in the newspapers. He also handled the SARS scare superbly, providing just enough drama to keep the press occupied but doing nothing to slow business.
I was not pro-democracy in those days. When Churchill said democracy was the worst system in the world except for everything else, he had the misfortune of being unable to assess the rule and role of Sir Donald Tsang in the last glory years of Hong Kong, before the rise of Xi Jinping in Beijing and his stooges in Hong Kong, CY Leung and later Cary Lam.
I had a good time doing the article, and I even had a lawyer say it was impressive. I was hoping to continue doing such pieces. Like shipping, law was one of my passions. I had read the Blackstone Commentaries, and in reading both David Hume's A History of England as well as Macaulay’s, I was most attentive to legal developments as landmarks, from Magna Carta to Petition of Right and the dispute between Coke and the king, James I. I took contract law to be the practical foundation of personal morality, that keeping one's word was paramount in that it was a good over which one had complete control.
But looking at what I told the editor of Asia Law and Practice about my Euromoney experience, which was hardly joyous, and being a sub on the business desk at the iMail, which wasn't much more so, I seemed the ideal man to do a roundup on their annual multi-page feature about all the M&As, mergers and acquisitions, they had processed that year. Which meant interviewing 60-odd lawyers in Hong Kong and Macau.
I learned a lot during this arduous assignment, which went on for four painful weeks. Feeling shabby in my battered old suit, I felt inadequate before these resplendent bejeweled lawyers in their thirties and forties telling an old codger of 60 about their deals in arcane legal gibberish that was totally new me. While not wanting to appear the fool, I still had to understand what they were saying and was forced to ask what they meant, in the face of raised eyebrows of incredulity that I didn't know. I looked like an old hand who should know what they were talking about, as Asia Law & Practice was the top legal journal in town. But my law experience was limited to covering criminal courts at the lowest levels in England, Ireland and Canada. Corporate law, the ins and outs of M&As, was as remote as neurosurgery and not nearly as interesting.
But after my fifth lawyer, I came to understand the mechanics and began to appreciate what was to become known as an interesting stage in Chinese corporate history. "From murk to markets," I would later write in another publication recalling the process, which I vainly hoped would be an exit strategy from communism itself. Already, fewer and fewer cared about communism on the mainland. I likened it to the Church of England's commanding presence in men's minds in the 16th and 17th century, but now little more than the forgotten official religion of England that has faded away as an empty form.
The late Chinese leader Deng Xiao Peng had done much, and his spirit--“Is it not glorious to be rich?!"--was alive and well among the people. Communist ideologues would be wheeled out on feast days, of course, the way Anglican bishops were in England, and the people would listen respectfully, trying not to be seen glancing at their watches but earnestly hoping for proceedings to end so they could get back to their private lives.
Much of the M&A activity that involved me had to do with a mass privatisation scheme sweeping the country. Typically, there were huge state-owned money-losing operations all over China. The Wuhan Financial Fair had failed to unload the ones in Hubei province by selling the truly worthless computer gear and empty office buildings, so privatisation of the less than profitable was the next ploy.
Let us imagine a fictional case, the Wuhan Widget Works, employing 40,000 unwanted workers. Now the state, perhaps the People's Government of Wuhan or the People's Government of Hubei Province, wishes to unload what has become a toxic asset but could be revived under new management and a major injection of foreign direct investment (FDI).
First, there are the prospective new owners. They all may be Communist Party members, but that doesn't mean they like each other. Being a party member just means you can play the game. Typically, prospective buyers are bunch of guys--roguishly characterised as someone's "brother-in-law"--who can scrape up the amount required to buy the failing WWW and find overseas partners with the money to buy a substantial minority share, typically venture capitalists and private equity firms.
All this has to be approved by a local judge, who makes as much money in a month as what one of these deal-making lawyers makes in a couple of billable hours. So there is a lot of talk about money changing hands improperly at this stage.
It all has to be okayed in Beijing by SAFE, the State Administration of Foreign Exchange, responsible for drafting rules and regulations in the forex market. At that stage, SAFE passes everything with a nod, but not for long. At the time our imaginary WWW is bought and sold, and with the arrival of the new overseas partners, it will no longer be state-owned, and will be renamed the "WWW International" with a new headquarters in Hong Kong, London, Singapore or the Grand Cayman Islands, from where it will be listed on one of the world's stock exchanges, and properly "sarboxed," as we used to say--that is, coming under the US Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 that established rules to protect the public from corporate fraud.
From SAFE's, or Beijing’s point of view, the layoffs that come when WWW is restructured and makes widgets of a type and volume that can be sold can be blamed on the foreign devils. Later, SAFE becomes vexed at the success of the scheme because WWW and other such turkeys are now flying again and doing well from their offshore listing IPO (initial public offerings) income stream. Of greater concern to SAFE, I was later told, was how the Chinese investors--those brothers-in-laws of old--were keeping their gains, themselves and their families out of the country, too.
This was all the rage that year and law firms were all doing much the same thing in the China M&A field. For me, it was exhausting work, because what could have been easily done on the phone and/or by email had to be done in face-to-face meetings, on the insistence of the editor of Asia Law and Practice. They seemed to be particularly keen that I collect their business cards, with which I noted the lawyers were slow to part.
As this was a freelance job, I was still looking for full-time work and at last found some. The HK iMail had revived itself as the Hong Kong Standard, a business paper. I thought this unwise because the business community would always opt for the bigger paper, the South China Morning Post, unless there was a reason not to, which there wasn't. Still, they were paying me and that was all to the good. What was bad was that I was still only halfway through that endless Asia Law & Practice annual deal roundup and had yet to interview two Portuguese lawyers in Macau.
The former Portuguese colony of Macau (pop. 680,000), an hour away by turbojet ferry, is technically an island but connected to the mainland with a bridge, the other side of which is Zhuhai (pop 2.02 million). Macau has been there without formal treaty, just a commercial lease, since 1557. I had been there several times before for three-month visa renewals, when I did not leave the ferry terminal but simply went back to Hong Kong with the next ferry, as that was all the law required. On another occasion I toured the place and viewed its slice of church, the colony's iconic tourist site, and had an indifferent meal of cod, which was definitely not as good as El Gitano's in Montreal. On my first visit four years earlier, I was stricken with a gastric flu when invited to the first-class Fernando's restaurant. I left the table, headed for the adjacent beach and lay down in agony until we had to leave.
I had always had good thoughts about the Portuguese, thinking of them as fellow jolly jack tars of a hale and hearty Atlantic breed. The Portuguese were the first globalists, setting up bases in China and Japan, taking the big bite of South America with Brazil, and nailing down Angola and Mozambique in Africa. Sorry, but I am an unapologetic imperialist. I like empires; on balance they do more good than harm. And I like our British Empire best. The Spaniards--"uncertain allies," Wellington called them--were an inward-looking Mediterranean people; and while I liked their empire the least, it was no worse than what it replaced: constant internecine warfare, slavery and a stone-age culture for the most part.
I enjoyed my treatment at the hands of my Portuguese hosts. One busy lawyer dealt with me briskly but gave me a desk at which to compose my notes and the services of his secretary to sort out the names and addresses with all the Portuguese accents needed to dot every "i” and cross every "t". The other one, while being fully cooperative, was more interested in showing me the town and having lunch at the Clube Militar de Macau, where big deals were done. It was all very nice, in the company of a very nice guy, if I were in the mood for that sort of thing.
That night I tried to put the day together in my room at the Holiday Inn, but the Mardi Gras noises in the hall and on the street made it difficult to concentrate. In the hall, it was outbursts of drunken male and female laughter. Not getting work done, I went out into the street, where I saw more prostitutes than cops at a riot. They were all big-boned Russians, clumping about like Clydesdales. When they weren't accosting passing men, they were kibitzing with each other.
Home at last and soon done with Asia Law & Practice, I made it clear that this had been a most unhappy experience; but if they had strictly legal stories to write, I would cheerfully take them on. They did have some work on REITs (Real Estate Investment Trusts), the latest financial instrument to emerge from the legal hatchery, but I declined. Little did I know that they would become the very toxic assets to bring about the 2008 international mortgage crisis.
I was beginning to fathom that high-sounding financial legal terms, which seemed weighty and solid, like the very word "securities," almost meant the very opposite of their face value. Securities were not at all secure, and REITs were no more so, certainly not trustworthy. These terms held no permanency at all. I had been holding them to the equivalency of medical terms like "myocardial infarction" or "invasive lobular carcinoma." These terms mean something and will mean something forevermore, while the verbiage produced from the corporate legal word smithy has little more staying power than hula hoops.
So I was back to the HK Standard as a business sub-editor. I was happy to see my bank account resume its cheerful northward course, but had an unpleasant time tryng to keep awake editing the financial news from the Chinese reporters, who seem to have great trouble with tenses. It was difficult to determine from their stories if something happened or was about to happen or was in the process of happening.
Now that my Tung Chee-hwa resignation story had come out, I thought I could use it to talk my way into reporting for the paper or a feature-writing job. But no, they could not pay me anything like what they were paying me as a sub-editor. They were paying half as much to the increasingly young and female reporting staff. The editor quite liked my story, though. "It's the first time I have understood what that business was all about," he said.
There was a hateful oddity about Hong Kong daily journalism. It was a law that required Hong Kong-listed companies to publish their annual reports, good or bad, in a local Chinese and English daily newspaper. But because of the pervasive nature of the internet, annual reports were available to all online. So in six months, the good times would end.
What made the "notices," as they were called, so hateful was that they represented the bulk of the newspaper's revenue. What made the Standard attractive to such advertisers was that it was the least read of the English dailies. Being forced to advertise, the companies advertised in the least read newspapers in town.
Curiously, the Standard's advertising rates for this were high. Not as high as the South China Morning Post, but almost. This was quite unlike its other advertising rates, which were much lower than those charged by the SCMP. But when it came to notices, if you wanted your ad in the least read paper in town, then, by Jiminy, you'd have to pay big time. And pay they did. So the Hong Kong Standard management was consciously making a profit from its second-ratedness. If it ever successfully challenged the SCMP in the market, it would be rewarded by losing 60 per cent of its income.
It reminded me of the time that closet Marxist prime minister Trudeau the Elder started to wreck my beloved Canadian Army by creating the Canadian Airborne Regiment, stripping the other three regiments of their Alpha jump companies and combining them into a killer-dog unit with no older hands to keep a lid on things when those murderous chimps got out of hand. In the end, a wrongful death and torture scandal ended the Canadian Airborne in disgrace. I did not weep.
My thoughts on the significance of the notices were volubly expressed, to my cost, while drinking in front of the newly appointed editor, who only wanted to be congratulated and glory in his new appointment. He was no mood to hear that he would have his paper destroyed if he merely did nothing in response to the loss of the notices in six months, and that we ought to do something.
Continuing on as a financial paper seemed suicidal. There was no evidence that the Standard was being read in preference to any other by the business community, which always takes the biggest and best connected paper.
I drunkenly told the new editor and his worshipful entourage what should be done. I imagined renaming or reclaiming our old name, "The Hong Kong Tiger Standard", which the Chinese still loved. Chinese staffers had little pictures of tigers discreetly placed on the wall around their desks, the significance of which was unknown to all but them and me.
I knew because my mother's old CBC producer, Joan Barberis, fashioned as Auntie Joan when we were kids, had mustered out of the Royal Canadian Navy and went to Hong Kong, joining the paper when it first started by the Malayan-Chinese Kwok family. It was still known as the "tiger paper" by the Chinese. I was fully aware why the tiger name had been rejected in the mid-'60s by the journalists. They dumped the name as well as a picture of an insipid-looking tiger, more suitable to promote a soothing lotion than symbolise the spirit of a newspaper, because it was stuck on the front page to advertise Tiger Balm ointment. Of course the journalists hated blatant advertising polluting their front page masthead. But to me, it was a gallant, aggressive name that could be redesigned and reclaimed with a new tiger on a relaunch.
I suggested it become a free distribution paper--a freebee--following a trend I had seen developing worldwide starting with Metro in Sweden, of which there is still a lackluster local version in Hong Kong.
For my efforts to piss on his victory parade, the new editor had me fired a day or two later and I was out of work again. In the end, successful lobbying on the part of the powers that be simply put off the execution date for the notices and they continued to be published for a couple of years.
When the dread day finally came, the Standard became a freebee--something I suggested they do four years earlier. As a freebee, it enjoyed some success in terms of readership, perhaps its greatest ever, but did not exploit to the fullest its new advantage--that more than half its readers were women.
This, I noticed, was a universal feature of freebees. Women will take almost anything of apparent value if it is free of charge. Since its house ads promoted the fact of its more than 50 per cent female readership, somewhere in the Standard organisation they were aware of it, but they failed to see how they could now challenge the SCMP without fear of losing the already lost notices.
According to my surveys, now informal but constant, I had long established that paid-for newspapers had 80 to 90 per cent male readers at newsstand take-up. If they were brought into the home, women would read them, too. But they did not like to carry them around, much less pick them up and be responsible for them. If they paid for a newspaper, they did not like throwing it away. But the freebee was different. They could throw it away without guilt, as they had not paid for it. Suddenly female readership went up. With more than half of Standard readers women, this opened the door to serious retail advertising. Not only that, but a way to topple the SCMP from its perch. Already, the paper enjoyed a success it had never known, but it was as though it had a will to fail that had dogged it from the beginning. "Wheels within wheels," my friend and fellow Standard sub David Kerr said, as if that explained the frequent inexplicable developments that punctuated our Hong Kong experience. And in the absence of any other explanation, that would do.
It was about this time that I ran into an old associate from my iMail days, Sara, the cartoonist. We first met when I wanted cartoon renderings of the multiplicity of banknotes circulating in Hong Kong. In those days there were even old bills from the colonial period with the Queen's picture on them, but also money from each of the banks. I would have just as happily photocopied the various bills, but was told that was illegal, so I thought of cartooning them instead.
It was part of my scheme for the monthly Amazing Hong Kong magazine I edited as the head of advertising features. Sponsored by the Hong Kong Hotels Association, it reportedly circulated in 30,000 hotel rooms. My idea was that since the readers constantly changed, there was no need to change all the content every month. So a few pages picturing the bank notes with explanations of what their various illustrations signified, together with monthly tallies on current value, could run for four pages every month will little change. But even that had to run a slalom of objections, and we never heard back.
Sara and I met and started talking about opportunities in his country, Sri Lanka. He thought he could scrape the capital together to start an Amazing Sri Lanka, again to be circulated in hotel rooms, as Colombo had become a major tourist destination.
I was also interested in the civil war between the Sinhalese (75 per cent of the populace) and the Tamils (11 per cent) concentrated in the north far from the southern capital of Colombo and the tourist zones where we were to operate.
What struck me was that the rebel Tamil Tigers with their 2001 suicide mission to knock Air Lanka's planes on the ground at Colombo airport, arguably had a greater economic impact in their theatre of operations than the Muslim forces had in knocking down the Twin Towers in their 9/11 New York attack.
That airport attack destroyed eight of the air force's planes (two IAI Kfirs, one Mil-17, one Mil-24, three K-8 trainers, one MiG-27) and four Sri Lankan Airlines planes (two Airbus A330s, one A340 and one A320), dampening the economy and causing tourism--a vital foreign exchange earner for the government--to plummet. That year the Sri Lankan economy posted negative GDP growth for the first and only time since 1948 independence.
I arrived in Colombo at the airport to find uniformed ladies in saris from the tax department pouncing on returning housemaids to fleece them of a portion of their earnings as they arrived from Hong Kong and Singapore. Remittances from housemaids were Sri Lanka's No 1 GDP earner; tourism was No 2 and tea came in at No 3. Outside there were soldiers with their banana-magazined Klasnekoffs standing at intervals, giving me sad thoughts about how thoroughly my old friend the Lee Enfield rifle had been eclipsed even in a former British colony.
I was taken to a guest house off the Galle Road, where I met the owner and his wife and appeared to be the only guest. From the Galle Road into town was 15 minutes in a motorbike tri-shaw. Galle city was two hours away, or 70 miles south. I found mein host to be a garrulous sort who had opinions on everything, mostly politics, which he was delighted to share. This suited me fine as I waited for Sara attempting to get our Amazing Sri Lanka magazine project off the ground. There was nothing to do but read the newspapers, whose content was subject to a running commentary from mein host, who seemed to know current events and had a grasp of Sri Lankan history.
His guest house, run with his long-suffering wife, was one among other similar two-storey establishments towards the bottom of a 50-yard paved drive. It was chosen by Sara because his money man lived up the street and knew mein host. At the top of the drive, cars, motor bikes and motorised tri-shaws served the many guest houses with their fenced-in sparse gardens, cut off visually from one another except from the upper storeys.
Also on the busy Galle Road at the top of my drive was an "Internet Cafe," which served no coffee. Nothing at all, in fact, but it had a bank of four desktop 486s and a desk for my laptop to plug into the internet at a reasonable price. I downloaded encyclopedia material on Sri Lanka from the Britannica and Wikipedia, which was new then.
I delighted in the country's official name, the "Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka." What made it weird was that it was constitutionally "democratic" and "socialist," a contradiction. If one were truly democratic, voters would be free to choose what governing philosophy governed them, but the very name of the country dictated the ruling meme. It reminded me of Henry Ford's dictum that purchasers could have his cars in any colour they liked, as long as it was black.
I told Brother Joel this in my updates on my Sri Lankan sojourn. He had jumped off one rolling log called Dealcomposer.com and alighted on another, AsiaWise.com, a news and feature site about Asia. It was one of those companies that had enjoyed a hearty welcome from investors but very little in the way of paying customers, the fatal flaw in the dotcom world generally.
He told me to write about Sri Lanka and that he would pay me. And that task, while I waited for things to happen, formed the bulk of my activities while I was in Sri Lanka, though I got no closer to the front than talking to a couple of suspicious guys I was told were Tamil Tigers in Clancy's Irish pub in Colombo, and from whom I learned nothing. But together with assiduous reading of the highly partisan local newspapers, and the commentary of my opinionated hotelier, who was dying to explain things to someone beyond his totally uninterested wife, we produced pretty good reports, though there were a few hostile comments from partisan readers. Joel said my reports were the hottest material the site had published and was generally pleased with the result.
I did meet Sara's money man, and he treated us to a grand dinner at his house 30 yards up the drive. He seemed pleased with me and with our plan. He suggested I set myself up with his well-appointed, internet-connected, air conditioned real estate office downtown. Which I did and was treated like visiting royalty by the pleasant, educated staff, which included a beautiful woman. She and another colleague invited me to their Colombo Club, where we were all turned out in our finest attire. Then the lights went out as they frequently did in Colombo, and because everyone was of such a jet black complexion, they all looked headless and handless in their dazzling white collars and cuffs as we sat at the white lawn table sipping drinks al fresco in front of the grand colonnaded clubhouse. It was quite an astonishing sight.
There was much talk about being Aryan, a point made repeatedly not only there but on other occasions. Even mein host brought it up once. If it were not for the complexion of the speakers themselves, one would have thought we were discussing National Socialist race theory.
While not at the highly civilised gathering at the Colombo Club--it so reeked of Raj-- or even among that circle, in my presence at least, there was much talk about sex. It was a bit like Ireland, where the ambient air of prohibition generated voluble interest in the subject, to a far greater extent than elsewhere.
While the top of the drive had the internet cafe and trishaws at the ready to take me into town, the hovels on the beach produced bevies of girls for sale or rent, sold by what looked like their mothers. Trains from Colombo to Galle would go by, sometimes with people clinging to their sides. I noticed they were Canadian trains, undoubtedly some giveaway by the Canadian International Development Agency.
On the other side of the tracks lay an endless cluster of ramshackle hovels, teeming with people in rags, beyond which lay a rubbish-strewn sandy beach pounded by surf some distance away at low tide.
When I wasn't covering the Tamil Tiger war, as Joel liked to characterize it, I was waiting for Sara to turn up with news of how our Amazing Sri Lanka magazine venture was coming along. I would often wait for 45 minutes to an hour to have him arrive with no news but great expectations of the next day or two--but always with more immediate news of a task to perform that had to do with something else entirely--another deal. This time it was with a Hong Kong woman who was setting up a joint venture delicatessen with him along a highway. It was across from a clothing factory, which seemed to employ thousands. Next door to the deli a gang of 30 men clustered around an electronics shop window watching a televised cricket match between Sri Lanka and India.
That day, the deal involved buying a countertop display refrigerator from a Dutchman who had one. We piled into a van, together with Sara's three "bodyguards," ornaments to the big man persona he adopted for all to see on his homecoming. And over hill and dale through jungley-looking terrain, we went through the unbearable heat with the feeble truck's air conditioner only able to cool Sara and his body guards in the front, with me getting very cranky at the back as he reassured me I would be rewarded with whiskey when we got there.
While there was no whiskey when we got there, I did see a genuine Dutch home and observe its very Dutchness while it still was authentically Sri Lankan. This harkens back to the period of colonisation by the Dutch East India Company, ruled by the Protestant Dutch republic, then allied with King of Kandy, the Sinhalese monarch. Together they expelled the Portuguese in 1640, a situation that might have continued beyond 1796 had not the Netherlands found itself on the wrong side of the Napoleonic Wars, thus making Dutch colonies French assets, intolerable to the British, who would also take over Dutch South Africa. It was interesting to hear Dutch-accented English from a man so obviously a Sri Lankan, as he and Sara concluded a deal for the deli reefer unit, which was switched on and off to make satisfactory fridge noises before being loaded on the truck by the bodyguards.
With the unit loaded in the van, we departed. By now the heat of the day had subsided and we were on our way to my first visit to Sara's family home with his bodyguards still in tow, one guarding the van lest the reefer unit be stolen.
I could see the whiskey bottle on the table and a few glasses beside it. But Sara insisted that I sit and be served. But where was the servant? Nowhere to be found. I said it didn't matter. There was the whiskey. There was the glass. I could do it myself.
"No, no, no," he insisted. "You must be served!" He sounded as if his standing in the household, or in the wider community, among his bodyguards, depended on whether his guest was served a glass of whiskey by the proper servant's hand and not by some untouchable, as the two-storey house seemed to be teeming with minions and scullions. The master's arrival prompted all hands to rush about and search for the missing miscreant.
Eventually, she was found gabbing with her friend two or three houses away and was brought before Sara, whose voice from the next room took on all the menace of Hanging Judge Jeffreys.
But did I get my whiskey poured? No. Not at all. There followed a lengthy inquisition of the girl, where she had been, how she went there, when did she go, why did she go there, who was her friend anyway, etc., etc. Not knowing how this would end, I broke ranks, got up and poured a healthy shot for myself.
With a flourish from the next room, I heard Sara yell something like "Get out of my sight!"--quite forgetting I was still waiting. He then entered the room looking exhausted. I poured him a double, asking his forgiveness for doing it the Canadian way. He tried to recover his old vehemence of saying how improper this was, but accepted the drink as he slumped into the easy chair I had been warming throughout the interrogation.
We went out on the balcony to watch giant fruit bats--truly impressive creatures-- fly about in that floppy way of theirs in a nearby cluster of trees, and returned to the topic of Amazing Sri Lanka. Sara said a yea or nay would come in the next few days and for the first time did not sound hopeful.
I managed to get two more stories to Joel about the Tamil Tigers, whose fate I was more hopeful about than I had reason to be. There was something lacklustre about the war effort on the Sinhalese side. Newspaper accounts from the field were inconclusive, as were the sparse television reports I saw at the guest house with mein host, who agreed with me. What struck me was a lack of will displayed in the army recruiting TV commercials, which focused on joining the army to impress girls. It all seemed so unreal.
The causes of the civil war were straightforward enough. It could be ascribed to religious differences between Buddhist and Hindu, but that was only the demarcation line between the two. The argument was not theological. What divided them was that the Hindu Tamils got on with the British colonial powers while the Sinhalese had not. The Sinhalese had made a deal with the Dutch in 1640 to push out the Portuguese who wished to enslave them.
At first, the British were happy enough to have the Dutch run the place until the Dutch reluctantly sided with the French in the Napoleonic Wars. It was either that or be invaded and occupied. That alliance, however reluctantly undertaken, made the Dutch persona non grata on India trade routes and had the British take over Dutch South Africa.
Britain sought to break China's monopoly on the tea trade, and set up tea plantations in Sri Lanka, then Ceylon. Sinhalese shunned the work, so the British imported the Tamils from the southern tip of India. The real divide was when the British started public education in the 1870s, open to all, but only accessed by the humble Tamils and shunned by the haughty Sinhalese. So by the turn of the century the Tamils ascended the colonial social ladder while the Sinhalese did not. In 1948 came independence, and while the Tamils were running the show under the British, the Sinhalese were now the majority and the Tamils were in the doghouse.
It was a common worldwide pattern. It happened to the white South Africans when the black South Africans took over; French Canadians ousted the English minority in Quebec. The Hutu majority in Rwanda slaughtered the Tutsi minority. The Malay majority in Malaysia beat up the Chinese minority.
With a final Tamil Tiger story sent to Joel, it was time to leave Colombo. I was making money from Asiawise, but it turned out that the Amazing Sri Lanka project was a bridge too far. Something enticing visitors to come to Sri Lanka rather than telling them what to do when they got there was what was wanted. Yes, they liked the idea, Sara said, but not now. So I resumed my life in Hong Kong, where uncertainty was the only certainty. My only comfort was a touch of schadenfreude knowing that so many of my colleagues were in much the same situation I was. Between appointments. Still, one had faith that Hong Kong was Mr Micawber country--where something would turn up.