Chimes at midnight

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The date of 1 July, when Britain finally returns Hong Kong to China, will be a defining moment in the history of the most extraordinary place on earth - the only colony in the world that is richer per head of population than the colonial power itself. Jonathan Fenby, editor of the South China Morning Post, introduces a special report on the colony's last days and remarkable quality of life, from its high society to its food and fashion

At midnight, amidst the hot and humid night-life of Lan Kwai Fong, a smiling, middle-aged man emerged from the crowd in the street. He wore a white hat, on the front of which was a card reading simply "Chris Patten". He handed me a yellow, A4-size leaflet.

On one side, the wording, all in capital letters, read: "DEEP-ROOTED SYNDICATED CORRUPTION OF MANY OF THE TOP-LEVEL POLICE OFFICERS CONTROLLED BY A CONGLOMERATE; THE CANCER OF HONG KONG." The text on the other side, in neatly paragraphed upper and lower case, made mention of Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl and a mysterious Miss XXX, before asking: "How can a female executive director of a commercial conglomerate who is the operations commander of the Gestapo know so much about the top-level operations of the Hong Kong Government so focused, so fast and so accurate?" How indeed? The text was signed Ng Kai Man, Everett.

As if in premonition of this encounter, one of the leading sociologists in Hong Kong had been telling me that morning about the state of tension into which he believed Hong Kong was falling. He said that, since people were wound-up because of their concerns about the return to China on 1 July, it wouldn't be surprising if their subconscious worries led to disturbances among the orderly passengers on the underground railway system.

Between talking to the sociologist and bumping into Ng Kai Man, Everett, I had also lunched with Martin Lee, chairman of the Democratic Party. The largest party in the elected legislature will be closed down at the stroke of midnight on 30 June. So here was somebody who should have been exhibiting high anxiety, as he flourished his schedule of wall-to-wall interviews, and accused his assistant of driving him to an early grave.

Mr Lee had just got back from London where he was drumming up support for democracy in Hong Kong. He and his colleagues face an immediate future in which Hong Kong will not have a single democratically elected body. It will be a year before the legislative elections next summer in which, because of the system to be adopted, their representation will be severely cut back.

Eating his vegetarian quiche, Mr Lee said some of his colleagues did not realise how difficult life would be after the handover - no legislative platform, funding problems and, he feared, little coverage in the press. But, for a man dismissed by opponents as "Martyr Lee", he was strangely relaxed, flashing a grin that cut his age in half. He may be the darling of the international media, Hong Kong's putative replica of the man with the shopping bag who faced down the tank in Tiananmen Square, but his strength is partly that he clearly belongs to the colony's mainstream. He is one of our highest-paid barristers; he sends his son to an English public school. And we were lunching at the Establishment haven of the Hong Kong Club (in the second dining-room, actually, because, as always, Mr Lee brought along his super-effective female assistant from Tennessee, and the club does not allow women into its main trough).

At the end of the meal, as Mr Lee sipped his hot water with lemon peel and I drank a double espresso. The man whose future will be scrutinised as a barometer of Hong Kong's true state narrowed his eyes and asked whether a strong coffee really gets the adrenaline coursing, as if seeking an extra spur for the battle ahead.

With only a few days to go to the handover, Hong Kong is highly unsure about its future. Depending on whom you talk to, the barometer can swing wildly. In many ways, the change has already taken place. Clubs are busy dropping the "royal" suffix, for instance, and the Jockey Club, a key Hong Kong institution once run by British military men, is now under the direction of a former Ford motor company executive in Taiwan who admits that he doesn't know much about horses and likes to talk of "customers" rather than "punters".

In the shops are cigarette lighters with Deng Xiaoping's face, and 1997 commemoration champagne is on sale at the Mandarin Hotel. Troops of the People's Liberation Army are installed in barracks formerly occupied by British squaddies. And the Hong Kong police chief makes regular trips north for discussions with the authorities in Beijing.

Meanwhile, the provisional legislature set up by China is meeting each Saturday across the border in the Chinese boom-town of Shenzhen; it doesn't want to risk having the Democrats issue a writ should it meet in Hong Kong itself. The future chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, consults his future executive council each week, and has appointed task forces to map out policies for the Special Administrative Region which Hong Kong will become.

Mr Tung will stay in a larger version of his present flat after July instead of moving into the Governor's residence, which will probably be turned into an official guest house. And the parade ground on the harbour, where Prince Charles and Chris Patten will officiate at the last rites of empire before sailing away on the royal yacht, is now dominated by a nearly completed, blue-tinted tower built by China's principal overseas investment company.

From the soon-to-be-dissolved elected legislature and the best leader the Tories never had, to the PLA soldiers in their black berets and the hucksters cashing in on Chinese patriotism, everybody knows that this is the defining moment in the history of the most extraordinary place on earth, a territory without natural resources which a largely refugee population has turned into the only colony in the world that is richer per head of population than the colonial power itself. If Hong Kong has been a borrowed place living on borrowed time, that is about to end.

For some, visitors in particular, this conjures up lurid prospects, from public executions at the Happy Valley racecourse to the PLA stamping out demonstrations. For most people living here, question marks are the rule, but feelings are there, for this is not the veneer-all-the-way-through commercial centre it's sometimes made out to be. For example, the annual Tiananmen Square vigil in Victoria Park on 4 June attracted 55,000 people, some of them wishing to attend because they feared it might be the last such commemoration. It was a moving statement that gained depth from its mixture of emotion and restraint. Those who say that the right to demonstrate here needs to be restricted in order to safeguard public order could draw no sustenance from that night - the crowd even scraped up the candle grease before they left.

Put aside Ng Kai Man, Everett and the warnings of riots in the underground, and the judgement has to be that Hong Kong is ready to meet its future. Many people, indeed, profess indifference to the handover. Question: what comes after 1997? Answer: 1998. Let's get on with it. Let Martin Lee, bereft of any effective help from his friends in Westminster, grapple with the challenge he has been preparing for all these years, and let the underground passengers find their way home to the dormitory towns in the New Territories

The people in the photographs on these pages will attend lavish parties on 30 June and, when business resumes after a couple of days of holiday, they will be back at work as before. Indeed, some of them will certainly be tracking the international markets while Hong Kong's own stock exchange is closed for the handover. Hong Kong will remain the informal capital of the overseas Chinese with their amazing business network, and non-Chinese companies will go on pouring into this unique bridge to the greatest consumer market in the world.

It is now two years since I asked one of Hong Kong's leading tycoons what role he saw Britain playing in the handover. He smiled politely and assured me that the process was being looked after by China and the Hong Kong Chinese. Galling though it may be for London, the empire ended some time ago as far as Hong Kong is concerned. The people here, from the glitzy figures on these pages to the inhabitants of the tower block cities in the New Territories, have known for a long time that it is up to them to chart their own future. Their native jup sang will see them through.

Like so many evocative vernacular expressions, jup sang bears no exact translation.It denotes the ability to get out of a tight corner, the survival instinct, coming up trumps against the odds. The refugee background of so many of Hong Kong's people plays an important element in this - Tung Chee-hwa was born in Shanghai, Martin Lee's notably liberal father came from there, and Hong Kong's main business hero, the tycoon Li Ka-shing, was a penniless immigrant from the mainland who started off selling plastic flowers. Illegal immigrants (or "IIs" as they are known in my newspaper's headlines) still head for Hong Kong as the capitalist mecca, dodging the naval patrols in small boats and managing, goodness knows how, to scale the huge coils of barbed wire along the frontier.

Jup sang is to be heard from many mouths these days. A member of Mr Tung's executive council proclaims that "nothing must threaten Hong Kong's spirit of jup sang - its instinct for picking the right straw, for surviving and prospering". From the other side of politics, over dim sum at David Tang's ChinaClub, a serious but still-jaunty member of the democratic camp invoked jup sang as the passport to political survival.

Look at the people in these photographs. Probably the conventional British attitude is to laugh patronisingly at their love of conspicuous consumption, the way they decorate their homes, their flash cars - our neighbour's son has just added a red Ferrari to his Porsche, in a place where fast driving is virtually impossible. The rift between the Governor and the business class here has been one of the features of late-colonial life, but for many in Hong Kong, wealth is, in Deng Xiaoping's phrase, glorious.

Polls show Li Ka-shing to be the most admired man in town. Penny-pinching billionaires are the stuff of folklore - like the man who descended from his Rolls a hundred yards from the hotel where he was lunching so that he would not have to tip the doorman, or the elderly tycoon who insisted on saving money by riding to work each day by public transport, not realising that his firm had to employ four bodyguards to protect him. When my newspaper runs a headline about the extraordinarily high pay earned by a chief executive, it is a matter for emulation, not envy. Cedric Browne and the bosses of Camelot would feel a lot more comfortable on the shores of the South China Sea.

The book titles and magazine headlines have delivered their verdict: The End of Hong Kong, City on the Rocks. Certainly the colony will change; this momentous marriage of societies cannot mean business as usual. But living here, sniffing the air and watching the way people are going about their everyday existence, it is difficult not to feel that jap sung may come up trumps, thanks to the sheer resolve of the people of Hong Kong, particularly given the Territories' extremely close relationship with southern China. Take even the single change which carries the heaviest political price - the disappearance of democratic bodies on 1 July. It would have been infinitely preferable for an elected legislature to have continued through the handover but, that not being the case, there is still something to fight for - elections scheduled for next summer. How mainland China evolves will be the single most important factor in the future of Hong Kong, but that does not mean that this territory of six million people cannot still aspire to influence its own future.

History does not stop on 1 July; it starts a new chapter, one which could make this ex-colonial pimple on the backside of China into one of the pivotal points of engagement between the Chinese superpower and the 21st century. That engagement may be among the most important questions facing the world, so what happens to Hong Kong does matter profoundly