Click to follow
I have always had mixed feelings toward Hong Kong. It is, at once, one of the most thrilling and one of the most unattractive places on earth: a place where courage and corruption, ugliness, discomfort, luxury, divisiveness, opportunity, vainglorious greed, open-handed charity, racial mixing and racial contempt, modernity and the last kick and scream of old colonial values blend in a charmless but terrifically stimulating soup. There is little that one can predict about the outcome of the handover in June, except that the place will never be the same again. To the millions who have know the city state, this, in itself, will be a source of great sadness.

It was this sadness, more than any of the other emotions - fear, uncertainty, resentment, suspicion of masters past and future - that Modern Times: Hong Kong (BBC2) touched repeatedly upon. All of the people interviewed, save the young activist, Jo, who had settled there relatively recently, seemed overwhelmed by the inevitable passing of the civilisation they had known. Lucy Blakstad's film was a powerful and moving account of the sensation of living in the shadow of a live volcano.

They were a mixed bunch, cleverly picked for the gaping contrasts between the imponderables they faced, and their common situation - of moving from the status of person to non-person - was highlighted by the fact that we never knew their full names and didn't even, until the pay-off titles, learn their given ones. Tom, a colonial of the old school who had reached his declining years with no discernible roots or contacts, was living in a sad Anglo-Chinese old people's home where he had no friends: "I've heard them say, 'Oh, bloody colonial snob'... if I could get out of here I would."

Kavita, Indian by blood, qualified for neither Chinese nor British passport, though she had been born in the colony, and faced a stateless future. Granny Kwong, a shrivelled old girl from Guandong, was living in what looked like a hole up a ladder, surrounded by cardboard boxes of junk. Jimmy owned the biggest newspaper in the Territory and the largest fashion empire in Asia: he had smuggled himself in from the mainland after tasting chocolate ("My first impression was that there was food everywhere") and knew his outspoken views had left him in bad odour with the incoming regime. Jo had fled the republic after years of torture following the Tiananman Square massacre, and faced a bleak future if he couldn't get asylum elsewhere.

Their stories unfolded without comment: tales of extremes, experiences that were as striking in their similarity as their difference. Kavita, moving in the world of designer labels, said "What's interesting about Hong Kong is that it doesn't really take heritage and breeding to make it in society. All you need is cash." Granny Kwong, standing in front of her run-down little street stall, echoed the sentiment. "Life is certainly good in Hong Kong if you have money. Those who do, feel good about themselves. Those who don't, are just like rotten grass. I see myself as rotten grass."

The camera played across ancient, care-lined faces and sparkling skyscrapers built and rebuilt by billionaires obsessed with the annual changes in feng shui. Tom bemoaned the loss of the old ways: "The Chinese are not grateful people. They're most ungrateful. The kinder you treat them, the more they kick you in the teeth. I know their character." Jimmy paused, buried his face in his lidded tea mug, wiped his eyes. "Hong Kong means everything to me," he said. Jo, maybe habituated to seeing despotism, maybe just the product of a country that has entirely rewritten its history, was actually glad about the handover: "It's insulting to have been under foreign rule for so long," he opined.

And throughout, overwhelming sadness. The melancholy, strangely, was massively emphasised by the impassivity of Chinese self-expression. High emotion is far more affecting when the emotionalism we're so used to seeing in Western culture is removed. This was a splendid, lyrical piece of polemic, riddled with images that stay long after the experience is over. The millennium is here, the old Empire is over. And the future is obscured by the grimy smog of politics.