Chinese whispers

Just when Hong Kong thought it had got shot of the British, along came its very own Private Eye-style satirical magazine.
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Chris Patten would be tearing his hair out. After all the former Hong Kong governor's efforts to ensure the territory's smooth transition from British colony to a region of China, a group of British journalists is hell bent on scandalising local society.

They have launched a mischievous satirical magazine catering for the expatriate community, in which they have depicted the Hong Kong chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, as a monkey and lampooned the sayings of local dignitaries in a column called Gobble D Gook. The latest Spike cover even mocks the Chinese programme of population control by featuring a picture of an indignant Michael Jackson with a speech bubble saying: "I've come about the one-child policy."

The publisher, Steve Vines, says that there are already "mutterings of lawsuits" against his magazine, which was launched late in November. However, so far "none has evolved into a writ".

The format seems to bear more than a passing resemblance to Britain's own satirical magazine, Private Eye. Regular features include Media Follies (a Chinese Street of Shame); Gobble D Gook (a Chinese Pseud's Corner); and even mock jottings from Betty, the wife of "a very important person" (a Chinese Dear Bill). There is also a column called Hi So by AbScene - billed as a "hangover cure for the HK cocktail circuit" - that drops names and gossip.

If grumbles on websites are any indication, Spike is hitting a few nerves. "Vines sounds like a spiteful imp," one critic jeers from cyberspace. "It's a pretentious mishmash," another complains.

But then, some people just don't get it. Spike is a good read for the most part, a mix of schoolboy humour, liberal doses of original wit and intellectual rigour. It is also selling very well, according to Max Kolbe, the media columnist at the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents' Club.

Vines, a former correspondent for The Independent, covered the return of Hong Kong to China. He acknowledges a debt to Private Eye, but points out that his product is not a complete imitation. "We are not entirely satirical, and not quite as savage," he says. "People in Hong Kong are used to high production standards and wouldn't accept anything that looks as rough and ready as Private Eye."

In fact, he was relieved when the Eye's acid-tongued editor, Ian Hislop, was interviewed on the BBC World Service and sounded "extremely gracious and supportive" about the launch. Vines had been braced for a more scathing response to his upstart rag.

His intention had been to launch a brash English-language lampoon as an entertaining weekend read for like-minded misfits, but then the mood in Hong Kong shifted last July. Half a million mostly middle-class protesters took to the streets against China's imposition of anti-subversion laws. "People were deeply cynical and genuinely very angry about the government. We needed to tap into that," Vines says. "We had a sense that satire best explains many of the weird and wonderful things going on in Hong Kong. So we are dedicated to absurdity."

This isn't much of a stretch in present-day Hong Kong, where the outbreak of Sars was preceded by an ill-chosen tourism slogan: "Hong Kong Will Take Your Breath Away."

Later, a runaway crocodile - which managed to outwit Chinese trappers and even defeated a cocky Australian hunter - was voted Personality of the Year for staying on the loose for months. The 5ft-long reptile became a symbol of defiance and freedom.

Vines thinks it is about time for an irreverent voice. Hong Kong may be part of China, but seven years after the handover there still is a discernible difference with the mainland. "The rule of law as introduced by the British has not evaporated," Vines says. "Hong Kong was never a democracy, but there is a higher degree of liberty here. The fact that we exist is an example."

Even though the internet is full of Chinese chat-rooms that poke fun at current events, nothing critical appears in print. This is not surprising, Vines says: censorship, and self-censorship, get in the way. "Free expression will wither away in Hong Kong unless it is tested to its outer limits."

Spike comes out weekly (the Eye is fortnightly), and runs plenty of scuttlebutt about the media. These are mostly snippets about the staid South China Morning Post and the Far East Economic Review, whose acronym FEER tempts the seven Spike staffers to make silly plays on words.

"This shows just how reduced Hong Kong has become," said Anthony Spaeth, the executive editor of Time Asia. "I don't know who would want to read about these same guys week after week. It is not sophisticated at all."

With reprint rights to Spectator articles and topical translations from two Chinese publications, Spike stirs in a bit of commentary, reviews and sceptical investigative pieces with the cartoon sleuth Peony Pang and the Agony Aunt from Hell. An astrologer dispenses "another load of crystal balls". Business news gets a look-in, because brokers and bankers outnumber the chattering classes.

Inevitably, the main targets of Spike's satire are Hong Kong politicians and poseurs, and the magazine caters to a niche of about 8,000 expats and elite English-speakers. "Some bits are hard to explain to an outside audience who don't know all the baggage," Vines admits. A piece called "Let's speak the language of Economic Integration", for example, lists handy phrases with translations, ranging from: "May I have some Coca-Cola with my Château Lafite?" to: "The primary school is radioactive."

Expat TV, a bogus listings column, is more typical: "8:45pm Movie: The Chinese Have No Word for Love. Award-winning, tear-jerking feature film in which an expat family moves to Hong Kong and discovers that everything is shit. 11:15pm: Expat Eye for a Local Guy. Fashion makeover special, in which a group of pissed expat bankers poke fun at a local colleague's dress sense."

One consistent Spike theme is the Hong Kong chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa. "We did not realise that he would be quite so hopeless," Vines says. "He is a gift to a magazine like ours. He always fails to rise to the occasion." A portrait of the white-haired Great Leader appears on a recent cover. It is juxtaposed with an albino gorilla, which wears an identical deadpan expression, beneath the line: "One system, two monkeys."

Vines knows that if even 10 per cent of Hong Kong residents are fluent English-speakers, there is a market of 700,000 subscribers to be wooed. He is nothing if not determined, and has even been spotted shoving copies of Spike into the hands of commuters streaming into to the city centre, looking a bit like a bloke hawking the Big Issue.