Pandas get VIP suites in Hong Kong

TWO GIANT pandas, An An and Jia Jia, touched down in Hong Kong from mainland China yesterday to be be whisked off to unprecedented luxury at what is described as the Ocean Park Panda Hotel. The complex is a specially built, pounds 6.5m panda "habitat" with separate "his" and "her" bedrooms, lush vegetation, electronic temperature control and - believe it or not - a sliding roof for when the weather becomes temperate.

In typical Chinese style, the gift of the pandas to Hong Kong has strong political overtones. They were offered by Peking as part of the celebratory package to mark the end of British colonial rule.

This endangered species, which survives only in China, has long been used by the government in Peking to cement political relations and to reward so-called "old friends".

In the past, panda gifts have had an uncanny knack of coinciding with the political demise of their recipients. Edward Heath got his just before losing a general election. Richard Nixon's pandas arrived alongside the Watergate scandal.

Hong Kong's head of government, Tung Chee-hwa, will be hoping that the panda curse does not blight his administration - although An An and Jia Jia are arriving just as Hong Kong lumbers into one of its deepest recessions.

The pandas are expected to do their bit for species survival while in Hong Kong by mating. Whether the five-star accommodation will induce these notoriously difficult creatures to breed remains to be seen.

Garry Marvin, the author of a book called Zoo Culture, described the lavish panda home as "the architecture of guilt". He told a Hong Kong newspaper that although a lot of money had been spent, the environment is not really suitable for wild animals and has been designed to reflect human attitudes towards animals, rather than anything else.

An An and Jia Jia will be kept under wraps on arrival and will only go on public display in two months' time.

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