Flat Earth

On the buses

One of Hong Kong's most celebrated characteristics - its love of ostentation - threatens to make a mess of things tomorrow night, when Britain attempts to get out of here with as much dignity as the Chinese will allow us.

With so many security-conscious heads of state in town, not least China's President Jiang Zemin and Prime Minister Li Peng, the authorities are shutting off streets and urging local guests at the handover ceremonies to come on official buses. But demand for bus passes has been conspicuously thin - no self-respecting Hong Kong taipan is going to leave his Rolls at home and come by public transport, and afterwards the streets are expected to be full of chauffeurs looking for their masters. Add the possibility of demonstrations and a cloudburst of the kind that has people outside my window scurrying for cover, and you could have the mother of all traffic jams.

It's no problem for Chris Patten or the Prince of Wales, who will sail off in the Britannia, but the handover itself may look a bit under-rehearsed. There has been so much squabbling between Britain and China - the British and American consuls, for instance, learned from the radio that their governments had decided to back down and send them to the swearing-in of China's puppet legislature - that there has not been much time to practise the ceremonial.

Good riddance

What T-shirt sloganeers are calling, with various degrees of wit, the "Great Chinese Takeaway", the "1997 Hong Kong Hangover" or "The Last Night of the Poms" is just one big excuse to party for thousands of young British expats. All the twenty and thirty-somethings who have seized their last chance for permitless work delivering sandwiches or pulling pints will be out on the street from Lan Kwai Fong to Causeway Bay, drinking themselves to oblivion with their American, Canadian, Aussie and South African chums, not to mention friends from home who have just flown in - after a panic caused by their own greed, the hotels now report 93 per cent occupancy.

It must be these types that the Hong Kong Standard columnist Bernard Fong has in mind when he speaks of locals dismissing Britain as "irredeemably irrelevant" and tiring of its nationals "abusing their hospitality". But his main attack is on Hong Kongers recognised in the Queen's Birthday Honours list, who will receive their awards from Prince Charles during his visit. These "nonentities and lackeys whose collective betrayal of Hong Kong down the years for career and profit is an art form", he writes, are "relics queueing to receive badges of shame from the Prince of Wales, here to fold empire. This in contrast to the Princess of Wales, who uplifts by promoting haute couture and banning landmines."

That last bit is a joke - isn't it? Either way, I predict a bright future for Bernard's somewhat incoherent polemics under the new order.

A plaque's place

When Saigon was on the point of collapse in 1974, a loyal Vietnamese employee unscrewed the brass plaque at the entrance to the Reuters bureau and carried it to safety, lest it fall into the hands of the Communists. It found its way to the walls of the Foreign Correspondents' Club in Hong Kong - which is about to fall to the Communists.

So where should the plaque go now? To Singapore? In theory, at least, there will be more press freedom in Hong Kong after the handover than there is in Lee Kwan Yew's nanny state. To Seoul or Tokyo? A bit lacking in the romance of Saigon or Hong Kong. Manila? Too far off the beaten track.

Of course, Reuters is back in Ho Chi Minh City, as we must learn to call Saigon, so the brass oblong could always go home. But until the People's Liberation Army storms the bar of the FCC, the plaque will stay where it is.

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