Ask anyone who knows: dogs are tasty as heck. I am a product of western taboos, I count several handsome dogs among my friends, and I probably wouldn’t get stuck into a plate of what the Chinese fondly refer to as “earth mutton” under ordinary circumstances—at least any more than I already have. I was also born into a generation that usually has the sense to avoid theorising about the provenance of certain meat dishes at certain Footscray restaurants. Apparently, the same cannot be said for Australia’s former foreign minister.
By the early ’90s, Gareth Evans had already cemented his reputation as a sweary-mouthed headkicker. Word had leaked to the press about his office tantrums, and his propensity for throwing ashtrays and office stationery at ministerial staff. Contemporary press reports insinuated that he was off his face after negotiating the Timor Gap treaty with his Indonesian counterpart in 1988. His record in office is mixed,¹ but his charms, his wit and his sex appeal were formidable and remain celebrated.
In his parliamentary career, Chris Patten ate shit sandwiches for a living. Elevated to the British cabinet a decade into Margaret Thatcher’s reign, Patten was the public face of the poll tax, the ferocious public opposition to which precipitated the Iron Lady’s downfall. Her successor appointed him to oversee the 1992 election campaign; the increasingly clapped-out Conservative Party was reelected (topical!) but Patten lost his seat.
Had he held on, Patten would’ve likely been Britain’s next foreign minister. His consolation prize was a patronage appointment, three months after the election, as Britain’s last governor of Hong Kong—a role usually reserved for career diplomats. By all accounts, his media profile, fondness for urban strolls and abandonment of some of the stuffier conventions of protocol initially made him and his family popular figures among both the Sino-British commercial elite and the wider public.
In November, Evans was invited to discuss the future of the city with Patten, as the UK prepared to cede its last Asian dependency to Beijing. The day before his arrival, the Patten family lost their seven-month-old puppy, a diminutive Norfolk Terrier by the name of Soda. Patten, his wife Lavender, and their two daughters frantically searched the neighbourhood for hours, to no avail, and the family soon appealed for public assistance in the doghunt.
Evans was informed by the staff at Government House that the Patten family were in great distress over Soda’s disappearance. Following a press conference, he brought up the subject of the missing pup at a hobnob with local journalists, offering this theory on her whereabouts:
“The governor’s dog is probably a supreme delicacy. They’ll turn it into hors d’oeuvres for Deng Xiaoping—who, I’m told, eats four puppies a day.”
Evans’ insights into the culinary habits of China’s paramount leader were dutifully reported in the South China Morning Post and made their way back to Australia in time for his return to parliament.
The Labor government had spent much of its time in office using accusations of racism as a cudgel with which to beat the opposition; now the Liberals must have thought that the boot was on the other foot. Evans thought otherwise. When Liberal senators began to assail him in a Senate estimates hearing, he began to rail against the “breach of faith” arising from the publication of what he claimed were off-the-record comments, and insisted that an apology to Beijing was unwarranted:
“Someone at that stage made a tasteless remark—to coin a phrase—about the likely attractiveness of the Governor’s dog to those who might be minded to embark on some exercise in Cantonese cuisine as a result. I responded to that particular sally by saying that in fact I had heard in gossip in Beijing that Deng Xiaoping, who is a Sichuanese and for whom dog is a delicacy, did have some culinary tastes of that kind… It is not a matter of apologising to the Chinese because nothing has been said by me in any context that justifies an apology.”²
Indeed, no one in Beijing or Hong Kong—or elsewhere in Australia, for that matter—seemed altogether bothered by his remarks. The Chinese embassy in Canberra declared that it was “unable to comment on Mr Deng’s culinary habits, but four puppies a day seems a little excessive.” Patten called Evans “a very good friend to Hong Kong.” Rob Sitch paid homage to the incident in the opening minutes of that weekend’s edition of The Late Show:
…but the opposition had other, pointier sticks to beat the government with in the lead-up to the next election, and the incident was soon forgotten.
Evans and Patten evidently continued to hold each other in reasonable regard. The governor’s esteem in Hong Kong plummeted dramatically after he extended the country’s democratic franchise, earning him the title of “Whore of the East” in China’s state press and a stiff reception from the city’s British banking circles, who reliably privileged commerce over popular will. When Patten travelled to Australia in 1994, Evans expressed admiration for his reforms and received a public slap from Beijing in return.
At that time, the biggest shit sandwich of Patten’s career was still many years to come. Appointed BBC Trust chairman after the Conservative Party returned to office in 2010, he was the public face of the broadcaster when the Jimmy Saville scandal broke. The long-suffering Patten retired shortly thereafter; his legacy lives on in Hong Kong, where he did perhaps more than any other person to embolden the city’s democrats.
Soda was found by morning joggers four days after she disappeared. She was returned to a grateful Lavender Patten.
1. “An aberration, not an act of state policy.”
2. Less convincing was his rebuttal to another quote in the same SCMP article, in which he characterised the current battles withing the Chinese politburo as a process of “kicking against the Marxist pricks”. He claimed that his words were inspired by Biblical phraseology and proceeded to quote from Acts 5:9. (“And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.”)