King Kongs

Rich Chinese profess unconcern at the colony's return to China. They're throwing a party to celebrate the handover. It's called `Taking Hong Kong to greater heights'. Sheila McNamara reports on the show that never ends. Photographs by Michel Setboun
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Every day of the week, among the waterfalls and fountains of Hong Kong's scenic central park, groups of newlyweds - brides a-glitter in elaborate white gowns, tuxedoed grooms self-consciously carrying the train - seek out the best setting for their photographs. What is most striking is that then the bride will change into the ornate, red bridal costume of a dutiful Chinese wife and serve tea to her mother-in-law, in an act of filial piety.

Such wedding ceremonies demonstrate how Western and Chinese cultures merge in modern Hong Kong - even though grandparents still see white as the colour of mourning. Western trends are pursued by locals, in the past with comical results. One young, English-educated couple from a wealthy background issued a gift list for wedding guests, and a Chinese tycoon, who had never seen such a thing before, did what he thought was expected: he bought everything on the list.

Nobody makes those mistakes nowadays. Hong Kong's elite are at home in either culture. Five years ago, the social columns were awash with pictures of grinning expatriates, often in elaborate fancy dress costumes. Now local Chinese dominate the glossies, looking rather more sedate, much more image-conscious, and inevitably swathed in designer wear.

The tai pans of the old days lounged in leather armchairs under the chandeliers of the Hong Kong club and mapped out future strategies for the island in a fog of cigar smoke and Napoleon brandy. Today, local Chinese with more money and power than these British masters ever dreamed of shape the destiny of Hong Kong, forging their deals across banqueting tables at sundry charity balls and fund raisers, where businessmen from the Chinese mainland revel in a glamour that even Hollywood could not outshine.

It was British wives, desperate to do something useful while servants ran the house and amahs raised the children, who started charity balls and made them de riguer for the socially ambitious. Tai tais have replaced them. A genuine tai tai is the pampered wife of a rich man, whose main function is to display the family wealth to greatest advantage, although that role has changed dramatically, too.

"It's terribly hard work," says Pearl Lam of the tai tais - one of the brightest of Hong Kong's women, she runs her own art gallery. "They're up at dawn to work out in the gym, they drive the children to school, and rush to get their hair styled for power lunches. They're golfing in the afternoons with the wives of their husbands' business partners, and then they have to dress up for an evening on the town."

Their charity events have several functions. They give the mega-rich a chance to put something back into society, a duty the Chinese take seriously; it's also a good opportunity to get the rocks out of the bank vault; and, most important of all, they are where networking is done. Connections, - guanxi - is all. Westerners would have a good time in a good cause. Cantonese dine, talk shop, make their donations and leave before midnight as soberly as they arrived, only to be up at dawn and start all over again.

In these social engagements, you can always count on the Chaus to attend. Kai-Bong and Brenda Chau are the king and queen of kitsch, at every event of consequence, always in matching ensembles but chauffeured in individual Rolls Royces; at home, in the appropriately named Villa de Oro, they dine off gold plate. Yet nobody commands more affection - Kai-Bong for his courtly wit, Brenda for her gentle charm. In Hong Kong, there is Old Money, which thinks it has nothing to prove, and New, which believes that, if you've got it, flaunt it.

The Dynasty lot includes jet-setters like Cecil Chau of the Wah Kwong shipping family, whose romantic entanglements are followed as avidly as any TV soap opera. But Hong Kong's speciality is the squillionaire with a rags-to-riches background, whether it be humble beginnings or a spell of bankruptcy. Even the leader-in-waiting, Tung Chee-hwa, was bailed out by China when the shipping empire his father built went belly-up. And the apartment building where Mr Tung will stay after the handover was built by Henry Fok, a property and casino mogul now worth pounds 1.5 billion who smuggled for China during the Korean War.

Of all these tycoons, Li Ka shing is the best known. He started off selling plastic flowers; now he owns half of Hong Kong, and has generously built a $1 billion office block on a prime site as a gift to the new ruler. He's also busy across the border, throwing up bridges, hospitals and other projects at hectic speed. But even he's not the richest man around. That's 69-year-old Lee Shau kee, from Guangdong, who came to Hong Kong to work in a finance company and now owns two of the largest blue chip companies on the Hang Seng Index.

It's rare to see either man on the social circuit. Li usually asks his son, Victor, to host for him at major fund-raising events, but Victor, the deputy chairman of Cheung Kong, is also against fuss. When he married two years ago, he gave to charity the money that might have been spent on a lavish ceremony.

Hong Kong's most prominent philanthropist is TT Tsui, head of China Paint and Citybus, who has donated billions to the British Museum and to art collections in Paris, Shanghai and Canberra, and also has a museum of his own in the local China Club. According to one local commentator, TT was "toiling in a rice paddy 20 years ago". Not quite fair, but there is a shadow over his future right now following a Hong Kong Customs investigation into a family-owned company called Rex International Development. The firm is alleged to have handled shipments to Iran of high-grade steel pipes, suitable for use in chemical or explosive manufacturing. Mr Tsui, a member of the Chinese People's Consultative Committee and the Preparatory Committee, sold his share of the company in 1988 but remains a director of its major shareholder, Norinco, a Chinese arms and ammunition firm.

In a city as cosmopolitan as Hong Kong, Indians are well represented, especially by the Harilela clan, whose empire includes hotel chains, pharmaceuticals, travel and food. Hari Harilela left school at 12 to peddle goods to British soldiers, when his father went bankrupt in the Depression. He went on to get the army's uniform franchise, and now he has a family of 40, all living under the same roof in their huge, Moghul-style mansion in Kowloon.

The night-life is dominated by a Canadian - Alan Zeman, who bought and made-over premises in rundown Lan Kwai Fong, in the city centre. Today, "the Fong" is ablaze with similarly trendy clubs and restaurants sought out by "Chyuppies" and expats. And now Zeeman is repeating his success with Xiamen in Guangzhou.

On the night of the handover, however, the party, with 800 international guests including Lisa Minelli, Claudia Schiffer and Naomi Campbell, will be hosted by Sally Lo, "Queen of the Scene". She is a Londoner married to a local banker, and the organiser of the annual event which eclipses all others: the Hong Kong Cancer Fund Ball. Princess Diana, European blue bloods and box office idols from Beverly Hills all jet in for this bash, which raises around $7 million for charity. The Cancer ball has more glamour and theatricality than the Oscars, and the money raised helps hospitals, laboratories and clinics in both Hong Kong and China, as well as funding a Chinese language service on the Internet.

Her "handover party" is called "Climax - Taking Hong Kong to Greater Heights", and that just about sums up her attitude to the change of sovereignty. "It will be even more fun here after July," she says. "Hong Kong is just coming into its own."

So the show will go on. Lo's next project is a telethon Millennium Party - she's been chosen to represent Hong Kong and China. "I'm thinking of a chain of people holding candles spread along the whole length of the Great Wall," she says. Will China agree, I asked her? "I haven't asked yet," she retorted, "but they will"

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