Hong Kong 1997 - here comes the movie, the book, the TV series

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The Independent Online
Fact and fiction are becoming rather confused in Hong Kong these days. The other day a friend asked me to introduce Jeremy Irons to some journalistic "old hands" in the colony, to help him play the role of a British journalist who has lived in Hong Kong for two decades. Against the backdrop of the handover of the colony to China, he gets romantically involved with an ex-bar girl, played by the Chinese actress Gong Li.

It is not merely the journalists who are gearing up for the return of Hong Kong to Chinese control in just over 100 days' time. So are the film- makers - both feature and documentary - and publishers. "Audiences around the world will be able to witness the psychological state of Hong Kong's people towards the handover of this vital city," gushes the blurb issued by the makers of Irons's film, Chinese Box, directed by Wayne Wang. The handover ceremonies will be filmed for inclusion in the movie, to be released in the autumn.

"I've got to get into a journalist's skin," said the actor. I suggested he come to the Foreign Correspondents' Club on a Friday night, known as "bear night", when he could watch hacks getting a skinful. It was not a success.

The only seats available at the bar were at the end usually frequented by lawyers. Almost immediately I had to rescue the star from one of Hong Kong's more tedious learned friends. "Who's that?" asked Irons, keen to speak to some real hacks. But he had made the mistake of singling out a magazine editor whose Filipina wife was auditioning for a bit part in the film.

Was there anyone who was not a lawyer or dying to be in movies? Well there was Hugh Van Es, the Dutch photographer who had taken the famous Associated Press picture of desperate people being evacuated by helicopter from the top of the American Embassy in Saigon as Vietnam finally fell to the communist forces. Irons was less keen on Van Es taking a picture of him on a bar stool, though. Others gathered round with their tales of journalistic heroism. The actor drank more tequila, I drank more gin and tonic.

Although Wayne Wang was born in Hong Kong, he may have a tougher job on his hands than he thinks. Local film makers claim to find the whole handover too tedious for words. "Since this is a subject which is in the newspaper every day, it's not likely we would want to tackle it," sniffed Su-kei, a Hong Kong film director. "The whole thing's boring enough, really very boring and very frustrating." The Chinese are preparing a lavish history of Britain's crimes in the Far East, The Opium Wars, which will be released on 1 July, the day they get their hands on Hong Kong.

Publishers are producing a spate of thrillers with a Chinese theme, such as Dragon Strike - The Millennium War, by Humphrey Hawksley and Simon Holberton, former Hong Kong correspondents for the BBC and the Financial Times. Endless conversations of a "what if?" nature created a plot in which China brings the world to the brink of nuclear war.

The tide of supposedly more factual books - some churned out by authors who have dashed into the colony to sniff the air and sift the press clippings - and TV documentaries is also rising. In the television industry the most curiosity surrounds the thousands of hours of "fly on the wall" material recorded by Jonathan Dimbleby, who has had unique access inside Government House since Chris Patten became Governor in 1992. The result will start airing on the BBC just after the handover, while Channel Four will show the less expensive but equally ambitious project of Po-che Leong and his daughter See-wing, Hong Kong based film makers who are recording the transition to Chinese rule through the eyes of a large number of local people.

A dramatic moment it will certainly be, but for those - like the Chinese Box team - seeking to turn the handover into drama, there remains the problem of determining where fact begins and fiction ends. When the chief of immigration has been fired amid a massive government cover-up, a rival legislature has been established as plans are being made to dismantle all elected forms of government and the local media brushes all this aside to make space for the latest news of the division of an aging Chinese opera star's fortune, what scope is there for fantasy?