It’s the little things that give you away. I mean, HK$140,000 is not a lot of money in terms of government spending, but it is our money, and the way in which it slipped through our collective fingers tells you a lot about how things are run these days.

The story starts last October, when a “community group” (which has so far managed to remain nameless, but is I suppose one of those small birds which eats the fleas off the DAB’s black rhinoceros) decided that it wished to see PRC and SAR flags hanging from New Territories lamp posts to celebrate National Day.

China Hong Kong flags Lee Tung Avenue
China and Hong Kong flags in Wan Chai. File photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

The time-honoured way of gratifying wishes of this kind was to get the local District Council to pay for it. The Transport Department’s charge for the use of its lamp posts was paid for by the council funds and was simply a transfer from one government account to another. Flying the flag was a piece of costless performative patriotism.

However the district councils have effectively been abolished. After the purge produced by the oath-taking requirement and official lies about what would happen to councillors who were disqualified, very few councillors were left. The by-elections required by law were unlawfully postponed by Carrie Lam on the grounds that the government was too busy with the Legco and Chief Executive elections. Mr John Lee has no such excuse but there is still no sign of by-elections.

We do not have the rule of law. We have the rule of selected laws.

Anyway, here we have our nameless group of rural super-patriots suddenly confronted with a bill for the use of lamp posts, running to HK$147,670. Apparently the transport people charge HK$6 per post per day. I have no idea whether that is reasonable but there is a safety angle because errant flags will presumably drop onto passing traffic.

The plight of our lamp post lovers came to light when a columnist, Chris Wat, wrote a piece about it in a pro-Beijing freesheet, Headline Daily. It was, Ms Wat opined, “ridiculous” that people should be charged for “patriotic behaviour.”

Chris Wat
Chris Wat (right). File photo: Hdklp32, via Wikicommons.

The following day two legislators wrote to the Director of Highways about the matter, posting the letter on Facebook for maximum brownie points. And the day after that the Chief Executive announced, also on Facebook, that he had “instructed administrative and inspection fee exemptions for national and SAR flags hung on lamp posts.”

The Highways Department then promised that the flag fanciers would get a refund.

As a piece of public expenditure this represents an interesting departure from traditional procedure. No budget, no Finance Committee, no quibbling. The decision-making flow goes from pro-Beijing columnist to DAB legislator to Chief Executive to the relevant department.

And henceforth, patriotic adornments to lamp posts will be free of charge. Who knows what other variations on “patriotic behaviour” will attract spontaneous support from public funds. May I charter an airship to float over the SAR for ten days flying the flags?

Actually it seems a bit backhanded to insist that patriotism should be free of charge. It ought to be a pleasure for a true patriot to fork over HK$140,000 for the honour of being the sponsor of the celebration. If it is not costing them anything, where is the virtue?

Chinese National Day Oct 1, 2021 Tsim Sha Tsui flag
A group of Hongkongers wave Chinese national flags at the Star Ferry Pier in Tsim Sha Tsui on October 1, 2021 to mark 72 years since the founding of the People’s Republic of China. File photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

But it is a serious mistake to expect deep thought, or even superficial thought, from our legislators these days. Consider Mr Chu Kwok-keung, who now sits for the Education functional constituency.

Mr Chu was consulted by local media about a curious little scandal involving mermaids.

Wah Yan College, a fairly up-market boys’ school (it’s the one across Waterloo Road from Kwong Wah Hospital) has a swimming pool. In the summer, like most similarly supplied schools, it lets outsiders rent its pool, which would otherwise be idle and produces a small income.

Some parents were surprised to discover that one of the uses to which the pool was being put was a “mermaid movement experience class”. People were swimming in mermaid costumes and were allowed to take photos in the pool.

Parents characterised this as renting to an organisation that “claimed to be a sports group.” The school promptly collapsed in a heap, announcing that “someone had violated the school’s rental terms and the school had immediately terminated the rental contract.” I am sorry the rental term was not specified. No fishtails?

Chu Kwok-keung
Chu Kwok-keung. File photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

Enter Mr Chu. Schools had the right to let their facilities but “the school must review the background and activities of the organisations, otherwise it will lead to irresponsibility. The affected school received complaints from parents and their opinions and concerns are reasonable.” Mr Chu has a condition commonly found in senior teachers: he talks to adults as if they were children and happily orates about matter of which he knows nothing.

Because the fact is that the parents’ concerns are not reasonable. There is nothing indecent or illegal about mermaid movement classes, which are offered by several organisations in Hong Kong. Not my cup of tea but it makes exercise, which is fundamentally boring, more interesting for some people.

I quote from one website: “Mermaid Dance is different from typical swimming and can be used as a unique form of exercise. Because both legs are held together in an iridescent fishtail, kicking really develops the core and leg muscles to develop an overall healthy body. It also teaches grace and is a fun way to express yourself creatively underwater!”

Some people offer it as a variation on yoga; some simply see it as a form of exercise likely to appeal to girls, many of whom do not warm to more traditional sports.

Mr Chu had a chance to stand up for freedom, reason and common sense, by pointing out that if people wish to be photographed disguised as fish then that is their own business and does not justify ill-informed parental puritanism. He blew it.

The new-look patriots-only Legco: living down to expectations.

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Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.