By Edmund Price
"Never stand between a billionaire and a bucket of money," jeered Stanley in broad Aussie, much broader than usual, "to paraphrase Paul Keating."
We were speeding through the elevated footbridges of Hong Kong Island from one large property conglomerate to the next. Stanley was striding ahead, I was scuttling behind. He had a long stride for a Chinese, probably from growing up in Melbourne. I was carrying presentations and struggling to keep up.
"Huh?" I said.
He glanced back, contempt melting his face. "Billionaires. Keating said state premiers. In this town, read billionaires; they have more power anyway." He sighed. "I've been in Hong Kong too long."
The striding was part of his foul mood. I sympathised. There's nothing quite like being bawled out by Jabba the Hutt. Stanley's report, a one-paragraph e-mail, merely said that the short-term outlook for the local property market was dim on account of the number of expats that were leaving. He estimated their numbers would halve in three years as the banks, lawyers and accountants downgraded their Hong Kong operations in favour of Singapore and Shanghai. No more detail than that.
The recriminations started immediately. There were over seven million people in the city, who cared about the expats, even 350,000 of them? But as Stanley told clients on the phone, businesses that required confidentiality and a secure legal and regulatory system were moving to Singapore, while the China-related stuff was steadily migrating to Shanghai. With the wealthiest part of its middle class leaving, so was demand for flats, restaurants, bars and, of course, office space. Given that the bottom had already fallen out of the luxury shopping market, it was a pretty depressing analysis for rents in a city built on high property prices. Hong Kong, neither developed world fish nor Chinese fowl, needed to reinvent itself.
Someone leaked it all to the press. They said our bank was talking down a city that for 50 years had only helped it; people would take their business elsewhere; Mainland Chinese would not take kindly to these kinds of ill-considered and badly-researched assaults on a city in transition. Our bosses told us to hit the streets, state our case for the record – but on no account plead it – and then grovel until our heads rubbed through the floor. And if a subsequent customer satisfaction survey deemed the grovelling inadequate, we should expect to lose our unvested bonuses on a technicality (there is always a technicality) and be lucky to find a job covering mud hut prices in Bolivia or Chad.
Hence, our meeting with Jabba the Hutt. I used to get a thrill from meeting billionaires; it was one reason I was here. Not today as we met three chairmen's confidantes in turn, each checking we had got the message before ushering us into another room to await the chairman. The boss would swish in and dress us down ever so politely for our errors and omissions – quite understandable as we were only foreigners who didn't understand the city, although as Chinese we should know better – and we would agree and nod our heads and promise that in the future our research would accurately reflect the realities of the city.
After the first meeting, Stanley ground his teeth, kicked a wall and bought a packet of cigarettes. After the second, he smoked six in succession over a black coffee. I'd never seen him drink so much as a can of Diet Coke before. He used the F word a lot as well. And then we went to meet Bib Fortuna, Jabba the Hutt's major-domo (I watch a lot of Star Wars when I'm not reading gay movie tie-in books; they are both ways to avoid coming out. I have a thing for Tom Cruise, but never expected the War of the Worlds to be set in England. I've just finished Goodbye to Berlin. I have a thing about Liza Minnelli and Michael York too. And Harrison Ford).
The conversation meandered for half an hour in a mixture of Cantonese and English. Bib was satisfied and withdrew to collect his billionaire. It was the first time I'd met him. He was quite unlike the first two. He was not slim and urbane, he did not offer a suave smile with his firm handshake. He was not wearing a tie, let alone a jacket, and we did not sit across from one other around a polished wooden meeting table. Despite the changes of the last couple of decades, Hong Kong still mostly conformed to British business standards, including the neat dark grey suit. Stanley sometimes said they just needed a frock coat and monocle to complete the picture. Jabba's open-collared white shirt was distended by a potbelly that rolled over the top of his light grey trousers. He looked more like a tycoon from back home in Indonesia. The large TV along the far wall of the reception room, upholstered seats around the walls and no meeting table, merely confirmed the impression. In Indonesia, however, the TV would have been on. He glanced our way as we stood for him and then rested on the long white leather couch opposite us, both legs on the seat, one raised and the other tucked underneath. Bib handed him a copy of our presentation, which he placed unopened beside him, and then led Stanley back into the discussion, covering the same ground, our errors, omissions and misunderstandings of the dynamics of the market. Jabba just watched. He was one of the richest of them all. It was intimidating.
As the conversation again meandered in and out of Cantonese and English, it wasn't clear how much the man was getting. Perhaps he was merely interested in the gist and tone. Stanley entered into his bank-approved summary of current demographic trends, Westerners out and Mainlanders in with no change in demand overall. Jabba pulled a toothpick from his shirt pocket and picked at his teeth behind the cross of his upturned hands.
Then the hands dropped, the toothpick flung aside. He leant forward and straightened his back. The legs uncurled and the feet planted on the floor. The placid, even vacant face was gathering itself, like clouds for a storm. The sallow skin darkened in sympathy as its surface filled with dark blood.
I'd been drifting. I'd heard it all before, six times. It's really very boring sitting in meetings where you're not allowed to talk. But I was also trying not to watch the tooth-picking, I've never liked it. That's why I noticed the scowl form. It was like the temperature in the room dropped, as it does before a rainstorm. Stanley was still re-explaining himself to a nodding, even smiling, Bib. Both were shocked when Jabba powered himself upright.
"Temporary period of softness!" he bawled. "No softness in the market! Strong property market is essential for the stability and prosperity of Hong Kong!" He lurched across the room. He was really out of condition. Stanley recoiled into his white armchair, then quickly thought better of it and stood to meet whatever challenge was shambling towards him. Bib stood too and cringed. If Jabba hit Stanley, any self-defence would mean an immediate transfer to Chad.
A pudgy right index finger jabbed into Stanley's firm chest. Seventeen times. I counted. There was really nothing else to look at.
"You think you're so clever? You think you're worth a hundred billion? You think you've built a business yourself? How am I to make money when people like you talk rubbish?"
He certainly did know how to make money; he was arguably the most ruthless of the lot.
"No, sir," said Stanley, looking at Jabba's very ugly shoes. They probably cost almost as much as Stanley's Australian half-boots, but really they didn't look like it.
"You tell everyone to buy flats in Australia! Are Melbourne and Sydney better than here? Why are you here, then? You like them so much, you go be an analyst there!"
Stanley had said no such thing, but the city's digital and print media were awash with adverts for 'cheap' Australian property, along with Toronto, Vancouver, London, public evidence for the capital flight everyone discussed in private. All Stanley said was, "the market dynamics militated against further strong rises in the short term. Nevertheless, supportive government policies should sustain investor sentiment at a time of continued diversification of funds outside Mainland China under the central government's overseas investment drive." Perhaps Jabba understood what this meant, in which case his English was a lot better than he let on.
He glared at Stanley, who eventually realised he needed to speak. As he lifted his eyes to Jabba's, I think we both saw this was a humiliation beyond the necessary. Stanley was frowning even as he fawned. I also wondered what was really on Jabba's mind.
"I'm sorry, sir. No, of course not. I've been very happy here over the last 15 years, made a lot of money – including in property."
Jabba spat at him. Their faces were close together and it could have been an accident. It wasn't much, but it was enough to make Stanley recoil and Jabba gloat. The man shambled back to the sofa as Stanley stood rooted to the ground.
"Because of you, sales are down," said Jabba. "No one wants to do business with me. You are stupid and ignorant. You should go back to Australia." He hurled the presentation, which caught Stanley by the neck and then fluttered open to the floor like a bird with a broken wing.
"I'm sorry, sir," said Stanley. "I will try to do better in the future."
Jabba tossed his hand in the air, pulled opened the door and left. Bibi conciliated as Stanley silently wiped his chin and checked his neck, which was oozing spots of blood. We were ushered out with soothing words of how mistakes provided an opportunity to learn.
Downstairs, Stanley strode away and I scuttled after him. He wanted a place to smoke unseen. We passed a coffee shop and then on to a footbridge with an orange rubbish bin. The smouldering ashtray on top stank, but it would have to do. Stanley paused, sipped the coffee, lit the cigarette and fell silent.
Below us was a road into Admiralty, the government district. There was shouting and we both looked down onto yet another march, normal these days, all protesting something. Unusually, this one was pro-government. It wasn't very well attended, perhaps a few hundred people in a straggling line a hundred metres long. They were heavily guarded by police. That was because of the shouting.
Usually, anti-government protesters were heckled by small gaggles of old ladies with a megaphone of pre-recorded Mandarin propaganda. Here, several dozen young men were roving up and down the line, waving colonial–era blue flags and open yellow umbrellas and singing 'Raise Your Umbrella' and 'Under a Vast Sky', two songs from the Occupy protests. One, about my age, was riding a bicycle up and down the line while holding an open yellow umbrella above his head. He was athletic in his figure-hugging T-shirt; it gave me faith in the future.
Even with only a few hundred marchers, it would take some minutes for them to pass beneath us and our next meeting wasn't for an hour. Stanley was still unwinding with his legal stimulants, so I pulled out my phone to check the news.
One of the real estate agencies had put out new data on the rentals market. They were down, both the number of agreements signed and the rates achieved. It was a massive decline for one month, like the moment when Wile-e-Coyote realises he's run off the edge of a cliff and starts to fall. I checked the share prices. All the blue chip developers had slumped over four percent, the second-liners were down twice that. I passed my phone to Stanley, flicking the screen between the two sets of data. He grunted, handed the phone back and pulled out his own. "Hi Mandy," he said and then went off in Mandarin. He was calling one of the most aggressive of the new Mainland developers to open in the city in the last few years. "Is that right? Interesting. Well, I'm sorry to hear that, but I'm sure you're right. Just a lull. Things will pick up soon."
He slipped the phone in his pocket, exhaled a long, slow jet of smoke and then looked at me.
"They're screwed," he said. "Haven't sold a single one. At the price they paid for the site, they can't afford to discount either. They'll need a miracle or they're out of the market. We'll brief the traders later. Too much muck to shovel right now." He gave a subconscious wipe to his chin and then peered over the railing at the marchers. "What's going on with this city? It never used to be like this. It's a joke. Much more of this and we'll need a miracle."
I didn't know. I'd only been here three years and it had been like this all that time at least. Still, I liked it here. Jakarta is fun, much better than Singapore, but here I had truly escaped my family, even if we told each other I was gathering information for future investments in China. Right now, Dad was making plenty of money building apartments back home. I would take over one day, but no better way to learn about the wider world than spend a few years in Asia's property capital. And if it helped me stop reading books of the film and pluck up the courage to come out, so much the better. Another reason not to be in Singapore.
Jabba was the kind of man we wanted to get close to. Dad knew him a bit, they were both Chiu-Chow, but we barely registered on Jabba's Richter scale, just dabblers. Still, there was word down the grapevine, from Australia actually, that he wanted help. We'd been dabbling there for a while and it had funded our early projects back home. Jabba wanted in but didn't know how. He wanted to make a splash, be seen as a player, the way Mandy's group were doing here, but he without overpaying. Word south of the equator was he was going to fund it by selling a stake in his Hong Kong business to Mainlanders. I hadn't said anything about it to Stanley; it was just rumours, what he called "Chinese Whispers".
He pulled back from the railings and looked at me. He seemed happier. There was another six cigarettes-worth of nicotine in him and the rentals news did vindicate him. Everyone likes to be right, even if no one acknowledges you.
"I guess you're too young to remember the good old days," he said. He was even starting to grin. I suspected I liked Westerners, I certainly liked Kevin Costner, but highly-Westernised Chinese like Stanley sometimes seemed like a good option as well. I'd met several at Uni in Sydney. But Stanley was married with a boy and a girl, living in Zen-like contentment until this week.
"But these clowns," he waved his cigarette hand airily over the railings, "are losing the plot. In office, but not in power, as Norman Lamont once said. Contemporary of Keating, different country though." I nodded. "Either they pull themselves together or the brollies really will take over and then what will Beijing do? Those figures of yours were really bad."
The brollies, "brollies off their trolleys", were his name for the pro-democracy movement with their yellow umbrellas. He wasn't anti-Occupy. It was just that, like most business-people in town, he simply thought the whole thing was futile. I tended not to comment. Democracy was new in Indonesia and cherished. We were moving, fitfully, to something better. Stanley's one-paragraph e-mail was yet another hint that Hong Kong was moving the other way, exactly the reason the brollies were protesting, half the expats were leaving and the locals were all buying property in Australia.
"You still with me?"
He was grinning and looked like he would step forward and tap my head, checking for echoes. He'd done it before. It was annoying, but I suppose it served me right for daydreaming.
"Sorry, boss," I said. "Yes, you're right."
"Let's get some lunch. The next ritual humiliation isn't till two."
He strode off, dragging at his victory cigarette as he did so. The rental figures had been catastrophic.
"What do you think Beijing will do?" I asked as I hurried behind him, taking in second-hand smoke as I struggled to keep the presentations under my arm.
"Not sure," he said. "But they'd better do something or there won't be anything left next year. Then I really will have to go back to Aus and pay 50 percent tax. This city really is nothing but a gigantic bucket of money; they'd better stop it leaking away."
I knew that. But it takes someone born in a country like Australia not to fully value its attractions. Just as the Jewish Landauer family fled for France, so Jabba was fleeing for the land down under, even as his peers prepared to fight. Those Savile Row suits would never let things drag on as they had in the Weimar Republic. Faced with similar economic weakness and political instability, like the 'monocles' of 1933, they would 'do their stuff', put their foot down and keep the buckets of money brimmed.
It must have seemed the best way to preserve the stability and prosperity of the country at the time. Still, nobody in Germany wears monocles any more.QLRS Vol. 14 No. 3 Jul 2015