China's big night fails to put locals in party mood

HONG KONG HANDOVER: Steve Crawshaw in Hong Kong on the downbeat feeling in the colony's last days
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The Independent Online
"It'll be just like an ordinary day. We'll watch the fireworks on TV at home. Just the family. Most of our friends will do the same."

Paul Chan's description of how he and his wife Elaine plan to spend the historic handover night in just four days' time is downbeat, to put it mildly. At midnight on Monday, Britain will hand Hong Kong back to China. Television and newspapers are filled with excitement about the triumphal day. But Paul and Elaine are not alone in remaining resolutely unimpressed.

In many respects, they are typical modern Hong Kongers. Certainly, Paul's business is very Hong Kong - based on pragmatism, money and space. He builds cemeteries in mainland China, and sells burial plots to Hong Kongers who want their bodies or their relatives' bodies to stay in the ground for a decent period. Hong Kong does not have room for its own bodies, and digs its dead out of the ground after only seven years.

China, meanwhile, is happy to make money by providing burial grounds for the overflow. Paul's company has found a market niche, providing tens of thousands of Hong Kongers with extra dying space. Elaine is a secretary in a hospital X-ray department. They live with their two children in a crowded apartment in the busy central district of Wan Chai.

Both Paul and Elaine - like many Hong Kongers, they use European names when speaking to foreigners, instead of their given names Hok-chi and Mei-ling - first express dutiful enthusiasm about the handover. "The handover will be a special day for all people here and on the mainland," Paul insists. He and his family are likely to prosper as a result of the changes; business links with the mainland will go from strength to strength. And all Hong Kongers agree on one point at least: it is good that Hong Kong will no longer be the colony of a European power.

However, Paul sounds a note of caution: "Mainland people will be much happier [about the handover] than people here in Hong Kong. The timing is too soon. If it could be 50 years later, that would be better. The mainland's policy is not good enough."

Elaine is equally wary: "Being Chinese, I should be happy. But because I'm born in Hong Kong - it's only glorious for the [mainland] Chinese. A lot of factors make me feel uncertain. They are too corrupt. Even when they have a good idea, it goes wrong. There is no freedom of speech.They never tell the bad things - only the good things. It makes no sense."

Like many in Hong Kong, Paul is a refugee from mainland China. In 1968, 17-year-old Paul and his sister embarked on a remarkable eight-hour swim from Mao's China to Hong Kong. The story is as astonishing as it is average, in Hong Kong; Paul tells the story with an apologetic shrug.

Today, he admits it "feels a little strange" that the regime from which he escaped will now have power over the safe haven he escaped to. And yet, it is not the politics that bother him most. First on his list of complaints is what he regards as China's economic clumsiness. "I don't believe China has the ability to manage Hong Kong. For the short term, there won't be any change to business. But that could change. I'll give Tung [Chee-hwa, the incoming chief executive] six months' probation."

Elaine is dismissive of Tung: "He'll be under the control of people from China. He's been elected by people from China."

If there is a political crackdown in the months or years to come, Paul thinks that Hong Kongers will not simply lie down. "Up to a certain limit, they'll just look and watch. But if the changes get too much to bear, they will demonstrate."

From Peking's point of view, one problem is that - despite the tail-wagging enthusiasm of big business - Hong Kongers are not keen to be told what they may or may not do. Hong Kong-ers are famous survivors. But they do not like to be pushed around. Paul and Elaine's 14-year-old daughter Avis (Ying-ying) recently brought home the words and music of the Chinese national anthem. All pupils were supposed to sing it at school. But, as Avis makes clear, the teacher was having no truck with this idea. "She told us: `If you want to sing it at home, you can do that'."

In a sense, the return to China is indeed the joining together of a single nation, unnaturally kept apart. In stubborn Hong Kong, however, things look different. Elaine argues: "I feel I'm a Hong Konger - not a Chinese. The difference is in politics, in freedom, in the system. In Hong Kong, there's a lot of information. In China, they cannot read true things. In a country like that, how can you think?"