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What briefly seemed like a tempest in the tube refuses to die down. When a child visiting from mainland China last month dropped noodles on the floor of a busy train in Hong Kong, a shouting match erupted between the tourists and angry locals who scolded the mother and called security guards to force the family off the train. Inevitably, the video of this sorry episode has gone viral.

This is not just evidence of how punctilious Hong Kongers are about adhering to the rule not to eat on trains. It is also a reminder of the growing resentment of the influx of mainland buyers for everything from luxury brands to luxury apartments. They now account for a fifth of all apartments sold in Hong Kong. Residents also complain that better service is offered if one orders in the Putonghua – which is spoken across China – rather than in the local Cantonese.

Dolce & Gabbana made things worse when security guards at its store in Kowloon inexplicably forbade locals from taking photos of its window displays, but allowed those from the mainland to do so. Last week a group in Hong Kong was raising money to issue a newspaper advertisement criticising “locusts”, a derogatory term for mainland Chinese mothers who give birth in the city’s hospitals so their children can automatically gain residency in the city.

As the debate has roiled internet chatrooms, mainland Chinese have highlighted a photo taken last March on the tube in Guangzhou, just across the border from Hong Kong. It shows a young child eating – and inevitably dropping – biscuits on the floor of the train. A stranger cleans up after the child while the mother smiles beatifically. Better still, the good Samaritan sports a Gucci bag. Take that, Hong Kong. Not only is she a good citizen, but she wears Gucci. As any etiquette expert who can fold her napkin would tell you, the correct response to a child dropping food is not to shout at the mother, but to set a good example yourself – with or without a Gucci bag in tow.

Oracular nonsense

The fortune stick drawn at a closely watched ceremony in Hong Kong over the Chinese New Year has been frustratingly ambiguous in its prediction of what to expect in the Year of the Dragon. The literal meaning was: “It might be difficult to differentiate a god from an evil ghost, but there will be little danger of the sky and earth not knowing how to make it out eventually.” Oracular perhaps, but decidedly unhelpful in making decisions on a stock portfolio.

According to the South China Morning Post, a feng shui master said that the fortune stick’s message was that Hong Kong in 2012 would encounter “a lot of falsehood and gossip.” If the 21st century is to be China’s century, it might also just be time to disregard such utterances and treat the country’s soothsayers and occasionally bizarre aphorisms much as we would anywhere else in the world.

As Frank Dikötter relates in Mao’s Great Famine, the Chinese leader had Nikita Khrushchev befuddled during a meeting in the late 1950s after he said, “You, Comrade Khrushchev, even though you are a lotus, you too need to be supported by leaves.” A couple more baffling observations later and the meeting was reduced to “a deathly silence”.

Here’s a resolution for 2012: When it comes to making sense of China, a lotus is just a lotus. And in the unlikely event that one is visited by a god or an evil ghost, the difference between the two is likely to be pretty obvious.

Macho Tang

As the election for chief executive, Hong Kong’s de facto mayor, heats up, the front-runner’s performance is becoming increasingly puzzling. On Thursday, readers of local newspapers awoke to photographs of Henry Tang, widely believed to be Beijing’s favourite, kick-boxing in tight sweatpants.

In a burst of Putin-style machismo, Tang, who stepped down last year as head of Hong Kong’s civil service, told reporters he believed he could beat his main rival at a bout of kick-boxing. Later that day, however, he declined an invitation from environmental groups to debate with the other candidates. Tang has done this before: after relinquishing his post last year he stumbled reading a prepared statement and took no questions, leaving Hong Kong’s feisty journalists shouting after him.

Tang’s excuse: a debate would be premature because he has not yet released his election manifesto. In a deft riposte, his main rival said he was too busy for sports. Ouch.

rahul.jacob@ft.com

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