Thursday, April 06, 2006

 
Of Toilet Seats and Disgraced Barmy Judges
Through no fault of my own I seem to have become The Standard's temporary defacto No 2 court reporter following my Annie Pang inquest coverage. Which is all by way of saying that I've found myself recently at another courthouse reporting on another "only in Hong Kong" kind of case.
It involves a former Hong Kong judge, an 82-year-old Brit named Miles Henry Jackson-Lipkin (whom I'll refer to as MHJ-L) and his 81-year-old Chinese wife, a former lawyer named Lucille Fung. Both are charged with three counts of fraud in connection with welfare housing and medical aid applications. Basically, despite telling social services that they had only about US$323 to their name it appears they owned property in Canada, had a slew of investments, hidden savings and somehow were able to fly to Beijing three times and the UK twice in the same year that they were applying for public housing.
MHJ-L is a character straight out of a Paul Theroux Hong Kong novel. "Eccentric" is a polite term. He was at his height in the '70s and '80s here, a time when he needed the assistance of two chauffered automobiles to simply get to the office. The government provided one which he used to ferry his briefcase. The other was his personal Rolls Royce in which he rode.
He and his wife now use public transporation and rely on the kindness of old friends for their wheels. Though MHJ-L still sports a nicely trimmed white beard, wears tailored three piece black pin-striped suits and an honest-to-gawd bowler, he is no longer bedecked with the British military medals which ultimately led to his decision to retire from the judiciary "for health reasons" in the late '80s.
Sharp eyed UK vets here noted that he would have had to have been about 14 years-old to have been awarded several of them and it was later confirmed that he, in fact, never served.
Last year in preliminary hearings for the current trial he made more news by flashing a handwritten sign at the omnipresent HK press papparazzi pack -- a living, swarming predatory organism whose native habitat is courthouse steps and entry ways -- that said "Barbarians" in Chinese. A nice touch, actually, and somewhat apt.
He's mellowed some since and as I've been covering his trial he's glommed on to me as the only white, male, native English speaking "barbarian" in the press gallery. He also sits about 10-inches in front of me 5 days a week, giving me more time than I really need to contemplate a continuing series of small nicks and wounds on his bald, freckled pate and his right ear. He dabs white cream on the head injuries and keeps the ear bandaged in white gauze. (Speculation, fueled by me, is that it's the result of rough geriatric sex with his wobbly wife, a woman whose face appears to be melting. The gals in the HK court press corps found the concept hilarious and shocking and continue to giggle and whisper madly when he appears with fresh ear gauze and a new dab of ointment gleaming on his head.)
MHJ-L's grasp of the world outside of Hong Kong is antiquated and somewhat tenuous at best. A typical exchange with me begins outside the court room when he approaches, cane in hand, bowler jauntily cocked and asks in very posh, upper crust tones: "Say, who is this political fellow in your country (it's clear he can barely restrain himself from referring to the US as "the colonies") who seems to be in trouble?"
Me: "Which one?"
MHJ-L: "A French name. De-something, I believe."
Me: "Oh! Yeah, Tom Delay. One of many corrupt Republican scumballs."
MHJ-L: "Corrupt is he? Is he French?"
Me: "Uh...no. No. Actually, he's from Texas. "
MHJ-L: "A French name, though."
Me: "I guess. Maybe French ancestry. We're a nation of immigrants, you know."
MHJ-L: "Yes, a pity that. A pity also that so many governments have elected leadership. It only leads to trouble."
Me: "You'd prefer a monarchy?"
MHJ-L: "Yes, of course."
****************************************************
But toilet seats. Yes. The Kowloon City courthouse in which the MHJ-L legal saga is proceeding at glacial speed is also one of the newest in "Asia's world city." It was also dedicated on my birthday: October 26, 2001. As such, one might reasonably surmise that a modern 10-floor courthouse dedicated on Justin Mitchell's 2001 birthday would have seats on the public toilets.
One would be mistaken, however.
Two or three days into the assignment I began to note that no toilet in any men's room on any floor (and I checked them all, intrepid investigative journalist that I am) had seats. Only the bare, cold and often filthy porcelain rims. All seats had been removed.
Occasionally I had to sit to do my business and it wasn't pretty or comfortable. I eventually and gingerly then asked the queen of HK court reporting, a woman I'll call CH, who has been doing it for about 8 years, what the deal was for women who, of course, have to sit more frequently.
"Ai yah! (Cantonese for "Oy vey!" or "Ay, yi, yi!")" she replied. "No seats. Very bad. It's not comfortable, not clean." She added that it had been that way as long as she could recall and that some other courthouse restrooms were even worse -- no seats and so filthy that the reporters and employees would go to other buildings or else hold it and suffer.
"So who do we complain about this to?"
She gave me the name and number for an office called "Judiciary." I called a Chinese guy named Mackenzie who expressed surprise at the topic but asked me to email a list of questions.
Here are the questions.
Dear Mackenzie,
I'm Justin Mitchell, a reporter at The Standard who contacted you on Thursday morning at about 11am regarding a story I'm planning soon about why a "world class city" such as Hong Kong (with a proud judicial tradition) has no toilet seats in any of the men's or women's washrooms in the Kowloon City court house.
They have all been removed. The situation is similar, but not quite as dire in the Eastern Magistrate. A few stalls in mens and womens rooms have seats, but not all.
I spoke with long-time Hong Kong court reporters, both male and female and they told me that the only court house in Hong Kong where none of the toilet seats have been removed is High Court. Why is that so? Some of the reporters - even though they are from different newspapers - are currently providing me with a list of other courthouses and a total of removed toilet seats.
You may think this is a frivolous topic. You may wish to ignore the fact that there are toilets in mainland bus stations that are in better shape than in many modern Hong Kong courthouses. Nonetheless, here are some preliminary questions.
1. Why were the toilet seats removed, particularly in the relatively new Kowloon City court house built in October 2001?
2. What purpose does it serve to remove toilet seats?
3. It is obviously uncomfortable and unhygenic for anyone - male and female - to try to sit on a bare toilet rim in order to do their business. Why has no one in the judiciary taken this into consideration, particulary concerning sanitation in a city that still wrestles with the memory of SARS and is currently under threat for bird flu.
4. Whose decision was it to remove the toilet seats? I'd like a quote from whomever it was justifying their decision. Does this person or persons themselves routinely sit on a bare, cold filthy toilet rim when nature calls? If not, why not?
5. Toilet paper. Yes, that too. Why are the toilet paper rolls communal and outside the toilet stalls in all the courthouses? Is the logic behind this that it will save paper? Guess what! It doesn't because people routinely take more than they need rather than risk the embarrassment and discomfort of having to emerge for more if needed. I have quotes and personal experience to back me up on this one, also.
6. Do the judges use toilets with no seats? Do they have communal toilet rolls outside their stalls? If not, why not? Because they are judges and the rest of us aren't?

Mackenize called me late on Friday begging for time. No problem. He begged for more time on Monday. I told him I couldn't wait too much longer but, yeah, sure.
Tuesday was a public holiday.
Wednesday I went to court, checked the men's room on the 10th floor and - though I still hadn't heard back from Mackenzie - there were, VOILA, seats! Gleaming new toilet seats!
Same situation on the 4th floor and two others I checked randomly.
I asked CH to scout out some women's rooms. She returned grinning, gave me an awkward high five and then began speed dialing her delighted colleagues on her cell phone with the news.
"You are the toilet king!" she said. "Thank you. But what about toilet paper?"
One thing at a time, CH. Today the seats, tomorrow individual Charmin despensers.
It's just nice to know that the press can still make a difference.
Comments:
Hilarious post! The phrase "Asia's world city" always elicits a sort of grim chuckle from my HK-born wife and I when we hear it invoked like some sort of incantation in television commercials or spoken by local politicians. If we aren't careful, we end up ranting to each other about how crappy HK can be and how it's being run into the ground at breakneck speed.

HK could only be considered Asia's world city if the sole factor under consideration was the number of sex workers from less-developed neighboring Asian nations who ply their trade here. In any other respect, not so much. Tokyo stomps on Hong Kong, steals its lunch money, and gives it a mean wedgie.

Also a note about the toilets - have you seen the ones on the immigration floors of the govt. building near the MTR exit in Wan Chai? WHen I was getting my residency straightened out in 2004, I had to spend a fair amount of time up there and, though there may have been toilet seats, the restrooms were in ghastly shape (solid and liquid waste visible outside of toilet bowls and on the floor, a stench that left me reeling at the entrance, etc.) and I couldn't use them.
 
Funny you mention those, nairb. I, er, smelled them about two weeks ago but decamped to a nearby McDonald's for relief.
 
You've just made me feel better about:

my job.

my life.

my life in hong kong.
 
You're not an employee at the Kowloon City courthouse are you? Nonetheles, it's my sincere pleasure. Glad to help.
 
You are the King of Commodes. This, if nothing else, will be your legacy, Mr. Mitchell. Unpon this day I'm proud to call you a friend.

As a guy writing from the Mainland I'm having a hard time getting riled up over disgusting bathrooms, but I'm floored that they actually made a move on it. At least the leaders of HK can be shamed and guilted into providing the bare essentials. How many decades/centuries do you figure China Proper is away from being susceptible to similar persuasion?
 
And they claim the Hong Kong Civil Service contemptuously ignores journalists' questions. Shit houses are pretty terrifying across most of Asia. I usually bottle things up, so to speak, until I get to the FCC which is usually spotless. Since I only go there once week, this has encouraged the development of unusually strong sphincter muscles. I have found this can be quite useful in reporting.
 
Justin
I think you may have found your calling. As political columnist poking the sleeping dragon into providing a small semblance of care for the body politic. Congratulations. Some journalists never find their nitch.
Now a question – is the communal roll of TP the large 1/2m size or the regular size of TP roll? If regular, than there is an opportunity for some inventive person to provide portable TP holders that can be moved from stall to stall.

Keep up the great work.
 
Justin...just one more thing for us to drink to when we meet up again! Knew you'd find your calling someday.
 
Good job Justin! Pretty amazing how such a normal thing as toilet seats can be neglected like that? Hail the free press! (and grumpy old men!):-)

Now please write an email to my wife that you feel wronged by the low amount of smooching I am allowed pr week. If you fix that one too, I’ll send you our first born!
 
Yeah, no toilet seat huh? Those wacky Asians...I love that the Brit talks to you just cause you speak English...
 
Justin

it seems we are both Hong Kong based journos. Would you be interested in cross linking our sites? we might even be able to establish a ring of same by linking other HK journalism sites.

Hong
 
Do you like to write? If so, I'd like to hear from you. simplybrilliant@gmail.com
 
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