Opening a little dry whine

IN HONGKONG, we do not have pubs with no beer. We offer restaurants with the liquor locked up. As staff hurry the sizzling prawns, the flambes and the steak and kidney pies across the $70-a-square-foot floors, past the $250,000 designer walls, bar staff pick their teeth, wine waiters hibernate and customers zig-zag their way to tables under the weight of their own six packs and plastic bags of plonk.

In the repeated telling of the Icelandic saga of Hongkong liquor licensing, many listeners have grabbed the wrong end of the bottle. It is not the liquor licence that is, in itself, hard to come by. That will be issued in a fortnight if the applicant has no ''form''.

What he must have before he is even looked at is the restaurant licence, and to get that, the applicant should be in possession of a fully fitted out, operational restaurant that does not operate; not until the dolorous officials of the Crown Imperial have completed months of slow-motion circuits with their black plastic briefcases.

It is quicker, cheaper and a great deal more sensible to attempt the journey from Fujian to the Bronx by freighter than attempt to open a restaurant to the letter of the Hongkong law.

And so, something comes to pass that the restaurateurs like to talk about only very quietly because it defies much reason and they have to keep pinching themselves to see that they are still there when they think about it.

All those restaurants that cannot serve any form of the electric soup because they have no liquor licence have no restaurant licence yet. They are up and running half an instep in front of their overheads without so much as a boy scout certificate in knot-tying or a permit to switch the lights on.

The Governor's demand for visible efficiency in his own departments has led to notices at the beginning of the Transport licensing office queues confessing to how long you might be expected to wait in them. There is no such thing as the tangible restaurant licensing office.

If one did exist, the queue notice would say on present performance: ''Ordinary restaurants - three months; gweilo-style restaurants - 3-6 months; gweilo-style restaurants with naughty long bars - six to nine months; foreign-owned restaurants with a family clientele selling imported draught beer - up to one year.'' There is nothing quite like cock-eyed government for throwing up anomalies. McDonald's, which can afford to be goody two shoes about these things, sat ready and in perfectly-formed darkness for three months in Pacific Place until the ritual visit of the short-sleeved shirt and plastic briefcase brigade was completed - and it did not even want to serve booze.

Any new five-star hotel which opens its doors on completion cannot be operating with as much as a dog licence. On the other hand, Asia's Finest feel less than comfortable booting their way through gilded lobbies and carrying off the liquor stocks in cardboard boxes. A five-star hotel is probably owned by somebody important.

The elegant Portico Restaurant in Central operated in a legal half-light for nine months before being licensed at all. One very highly thought of European restaurant gave up the ghost on a restaurant licence and went for the speedier, less demanding requirements of club status. I am told that, as a fire escape provision, a rope ladder is rolled up under one of the windows. The Governor dines there.

As a man who likes a sip, albeit at medically approved rates these days, the Governor will feel for the difficulties the drinking pedestrian might encounter making his way from Central to Wan Chai on no particular evening.

He might start in Pomeroys' new premises on the ground floor of the new building in On Hing Street. The term ''imported beers'' has a whole new meaning in Pomeroys. They come from a bottle shop, opened next door in the building lobby.

Pomeroys has no liquor licence. So it was on one of those speedy miracles of economics that, like a tick bird on the back of a hippo, a bottle shop opened right next door to service the place - and another half dozen restaurants in the district that have fun stuff under lock and key, or serve it with speed when the coppers aren't about.

So quick was the bottle shop to please, thoughts of a proper ceiling and much more than a single light bulb were put aside for the time being. With bottles of Jacob's Creek at $100 and Chaponas at $150, there is a mood of near giddiness in the packed restaurant next door, where food is on special offer at 50 per cent off. I approached the bar empty-handed and the barman seemed genuinely puzzled as to what he might be able to do for me. An orange juice and soda was what.

Manager Kim Murphy is happy just to keep customers, for the while at least. An Australian, she has also run a very upmarket Melbourne restaurant on a ''Bring Your Own'' basis.

Could the snail's pace licensing usher in a BYO system in restaurants by default? Kim's eye's twinkled with nostalgia, then hardened to reality.

''Competition from licensed premises would be stiff. Service standards would have to be high, and staff have to still be trained in all the arts of drink handling. That is why you have 'corkage'- to cover the servicing costs. Yet I don't charge that herebecause in Hongkong, the customer doesn't appreciate the need for it.

''It would only work if you had strings of decent bottle shops open late at night,'' added Kim. ''The wine volume in this town - taxed as heavily as spirits anyway - probably wouldn't support it.'' Around the corner in D'Aguilar Street, the Hezbollah seem to be in control in ''Beirut''. There, corkage is $50 a bottle and nothing but wine is allowed down their wickedly long bar.

The Lan Kwai Fong district is behind much of the difficulty faced by Western-style operations. The New Year disaster is widely attributed to drink. The media had a fit of piety and named unlicensed bars selling the stuff.

Foreign restaurateurs are putting a face on things that is so brave, their smiles could be pinned back by campaign medal clips. Along the road at the splendidly Americanised ''L. A. Cafe'', they have settled for club status, which they admit, softly, moved things somewhat.

They are enthused about being a cafe that is in fact a club. Temporary membership is granted at the door. Full membership is then applied for.

L. A. Cafe talks keenly about customer loyalty and a sense of belonging that a club brings, and I thought keenly about the membership card and other club mailings finally arriving on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln or anywhere somebody lives who popped in to this attractive place off the street for a drink or meat loaf.

Further to Wan Chai, in Hongkong's solitary legitimate Greek restaurant, Bacchus, they are smiling from ear to ear with eyes as wide as the Tunnel entrance at their unconcern at not being able to serve fine Greek wines shipped up from Melbourne. It is enough to make a Greek weep.

Yet it has a creative upside. They tell me that customers bringing their own wines at shop prices perceive that they have more to spend on the food. They are ordering more expensive dishes. Parties are forsaking economic set meals and browsing through the menu.

Is this another argument for a BYO system if only the tick-bird bottle shops would land next to restaurants with greater frequency? Not for the unfortunate Harry Ramsden's fish and chips restaurant it isn't. Ever since China Jump's management jumped up and down with a public slagging for the authorities, who returned the compliment by refusing a liquor licence, restaurateurs have devoted themselves to the PR equivalent of praise in prose for the KGB. Harry Ramsden's manager Bob Teesdale is running out of equivocations.

They opened in August 1992. By November, still without a restaurant licence, they were compelled to start selling their glorious Tetley's draught ale. After Lan Kwai Fong, they stopped booze sales voluntarily. The restaurant licensing procedure snailed on. In April, they were compelled to sell it again. In the meantime, they have twice been prosecuted for not having a restaurant licence by the Urban Services Department, the authority that grants licences.

Last week they were raided by the police. A party planned months before to launch draught beer had to be cancelled. Two hundred kegs of it sits, doing no good to itself, in a Chai Wan godown.

''The different licensing departments drip-feed you their structural objections. That way each change can take 14 weeks to resolve,'' said Mr Teesdale. ''If you had said a year ago that we'd be celebrating our anniversary in Hongkong without a restaurantlicence, I'd have said 'Naaaah!'. We're nearly there.'' I asked Ted Thomas, spokesman for the Restaurant and Licensed Premises Association, if these drip-feed procedures were not textbook soil for corruption to grow in.

''They used to tell us corruption didn't work. This is proof of the opposite. Civil servants are so scared of being accused of it, they are seeing things in the law that aren't there.'' Like Bob Teesdale's three little sinks. They are in a kitchen room technically designed for food preparation, though food is only stored there. The authorities insist there is a little sink for staff to wash their hands, when, in fact, they wash them elsewhere. There has to be a bigger sink for the mop, which is washed elsewhere too, and the biggest of all for washing pots and pans, which are never used in that room. But all three sinks are there, nonetheless.

Just remember that if one little sink is not there in a restaurant, you'll be bringing in your own six-packs for another 14 weeks. A legitimate item for the next Exco, don't you think?