Words and ships: a terminal error?
Continuing our study of the growth of Newspeak in government circles, we come this week to Mr Edward Yau Ting-wah, who is the Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development.
Mr Yau was answering questions in Legco about the Kai Tak Cruise Terminal.
This should not be a difficult task. Although many Hong Kongers are sceptical about the terminal and few of us have actually visited the thing, it is shaping up to be a bit of a success story.
Planned targets in number of ships visiting and number of passengers disembarking to sample local attractions, such as they are, have been exceeded long before expected dates. The terminal is apparently busier than comparable facilities in China or Singapore.
It is incontestably in an awkward place. The government pays for free buses to nearby shopping malls, following the established principle that the purpose of tourism is to enrich local landlords by filling shops with eager customers, thereby doing little for most of us but justifying higher commercial rents.
Local visitors, however, have to pay to get there, and the new Kai Tak MTR station is neither close by, nor open yet. In the distant future the terminal will be one end of a monorail, if this dubious project ever sees shovel put to dirt. In the meantime there is a minibus from the Kowloon Bay MTR. The public park on the roof of the terminal is well spoken of.
Mr Yau’s performance was prompted by questions from two Liberal Party councillors, who complained that the terminal was bereft of moored ships much of the time, shops there were in consequence not making as much money as they would no doubt wish, and suggested government action to remedy these deficiencies.
Most of Mr Yau’s reply was routine stuff: number of visits, number of passengers, number of events held, government promotes such events and will continue to do so, etc.
But he couldn’t resist a comeback at the claim that the terminal is shipless for half of the time.
The terminal had ships there “virtually every alternative day,” he said, “Therefore it is not factual to say that the Kai Tak Cruise Terminal is vacant most of the time.”
An unfortunate choice of words, I fear. If the terminal is occupied “virtually” every alternative day on average, what does this mean? “Virtually” in contexts of this kind does not mean “exactly”, or “more than”. It means “a bit short of”. If we say the theatre is “virtually” full we mean there are only a few seats left. If we say a glass is “virtually” full we mean there is only room for a little more beer.
So I take it that when he says the terminal has an occupant “virtually” every alternative day he means it has hit 49 per cent of days, which by a happy coincidence was the prediction given in a Legco answer early last year.
This means, unfortunately, that it is factual – though certainly unkind – to say that the Terminal is empty most of the time. Mr Yau might have complained with some justice that “most of the time” was not the most illuminating way of describing emptiness on 51 per cent of days, but it was not factually inaccurate.
No doubt staff of the terminal would say that 49 per cent occupancy was a good figure, and days on which there are no boats are offset by days on which there are two of them. The merits of the terminal are not at issue here, only Mr Yau’s way of seeing off its critics.
Mr Yau might be more successful at disarming critics generally if he was less prone to lecturing them on the obvious. According to the Standard, the only English medium to report on this little exchange, Mr Yau also explained that “the cruise terminal was built mainly for cruise ships to berth.” Who would have guessed?