Hong Kong delights in Patten's return

Click to follow
DOWNSTAIRS IN the giant shopping mall the crowds who had been gawking at a lavish display of bridalwear quickly switched their attention to the commotion above, where Chris Patten, who jokingly refers to himself as "the last colonial oppressor", was struggling to get through the crowds. His destination was marked by a queue stretching endlessly from the entrance to a bookshop.

Mr Patten, the last governor of Hong Kong, had returned to Shatin, the overbuilt new town in the heart of the former colony's hinterland. He was trying to get to a book-signing ceremony in a bookshop which usually sells few English-language works. But yesterday it sold 700 copies of Chris Patten's East and West before he had even arrived and, according to the manager of the shop, the Popular Book Company, "We could have sold more than a thousand if we hadn't run out."

Mr Patten was running late because at every previous stop he had been overwhelmed by the huge crowds who seemed reluctant to let him go. And, as he pointed out, he no longer enjoyed the Governor's privilege of having the traffic halted so he could get around quickly.

His first visit back to Hong Kong since the end of his governorship has turned into a whirlwind of activity. Perhaps it was predictable that he would be greeted warmly on the streets of the financial district and in the upmarket shopping areas. But in Shatin, where few people can read English fluently and government is more remote, a book-signing might have been expected to be a low-key affair.

It was nothing of the kind. The people clapped, waved eager hands in Mr Patten's direction and shrieked with excitement when he came close.

Was it nostalgia that drew the crowds? "He was the last governor, you might say the last taste of royalty," said Grant Fong, an unemployed English teacher who had spent his dwindling resources on a copy of the Patten book.

Interestingly, most of those interviewed in the long queue outside the bookshop spoke not of nostalgia, but of their appreciation for Mr Patten's struggle to bring democracy to Hong Kong, something which is firmly off the agenda under the current regime.

"We learned a lot from him about open government and democracy and how to stand up for our rights, that's why so many people are here," said Simon Ko, another teacher.

Miranda Ting, a sales administrator, took the day off in the hope of getting Mr Patten to sign her copy of the book. She brushed aside any idea of missing the former governor, but was clear on one point: "He did something to kind of fight for more democracy. So I say you did something good for us, so we have to do something for you."

Arguably the crowds who have been turning out to meet Mr Patten are an unrepresentative, self-selecting group who supported his reform programme. However, what is striking is that they are a very mixed group, giving every impression of being made up of a wide cross-section of society.

Extricating himself from the Shatin crowds, Mr Patten rushed off to his only meeting with his successor, Tung Chee-hwa, who carries the title of Chief Executive.

Mr Tung would not have liked the Shatin crowd very much. Some expressed sympathy for the hard task the new leader confronts in trying to deal with Asia's economic crisis, but most were giving him low marks in comparison to Mr Patten. "I want him to come back," said Chu Ling-yee, a student. "Yes," chorused her friends. "Maybe he can have greater success in England as something like prime minister," said Jacqueline Lam, another student.

This thought may well have crossed the mind of the former chairman of the Conservative Party, who looked every bit as though he were on the campaign trail, albeit in a place where he is not even entitled to vote.