HONG KONG DAYS: White ghosts fade as society takes on a new complexion

The pony-tailed Briton, his T-shirt wet with alcohol, stumbled down the steps of Joe Bananas nightclub, close to the red-light district of Wan Chai, laughed and then stooped low and threw up noisily into the kerb.

The taxi driver nodded at him and sniffed. "Mah fahn-a [trouble]," he said, dismissively. "To think that 40 years ago they were beating us with sticks."

It is safe to say that Britain's place in Hong Kong high society is not what it was. Britons may be pouring into the colony to witness the setting of the sun on the last bastion of their empire, but as far as the social scene is concerned, the real handover has already happened.

Whereas 20 years ago Hong Kong's finest events were likely to be studded with the merchant princes of Jardines and Swires, the two great British hongs, Hong Kong Tatler laid today's situation bare with its 1997 "Guide to the Social Season".

Of its "500 most prominent people", white faces make up a little over 10 per cent, and only a handful are British. According to Ong Chin Huat, social editor of the magazine, the change has been swift. "I've been at Hong Kong Tatler for five years and I was the first Chinese to be hired in the editorial department. The pictures then were 80 per cent expats and 20 per cent ... Chinese," he said. "When I arrived I was given a mandate to change it, to bring in more Chinese faces." Circulation, said Mr Ong, who is himself featured in the list, subsequently shot up.

"We change the top 500 every year because Hong Kong society is very dynamic, but the basic makeup has changed a great deal. Take charity balls, which are the bedrock of high society. Whereas before the fundraising committee would be made up of expat women, now it's local Chinese."

The Operation Concern gala dinner last September is a case in point. Held at the Grand Hyatt ballroom, with a modest 35 tables, its organising committee comprised a Chiu, a Kwok, a Chan, a Cheng, a Chow, a Lee, a Ma and a Yang. The evening raised around HK$3.3m (pounds 270,000).

In Hong Kong's new society such amounts do not raise any eyebrows. "You mustn't forget that if you compare it with England, Hong Kong is not a welfare state. There's no NHS, no unemployment benefit, so elderly or handicapped people are in need. So that's why so much money gets raised," Mr Ong said, adding: "It's also because of Hong Kong taxes. Giving to charity is tax-deductable."

To be pictured in Hong Kong Tatler at such events is a marker of one's position. "Hong Kong Tatler is very high society, like English Tatler ... We only feature the top, top people."

In fact, Hong Kong Tatler was a little too like the English Tatler - a fact that elicited a law suit and a subsequent out-of-court settlement. Even this has proved fortuitous. Now, instead of Tatler's distinctive British "spy" figure, Hong Kong Tatler's logo features a man in Mandarin robes - perhaps more politically correct in these times, in which, as legislator Christine Loh noted this week, "a sneeze from China matters more than 140,000 voices".

Perhaps tellingly, a large proportion of HK Tatler's 500 are said to have interests in, or "good relations with" China.

"The movers and shakers are people like Li Ka Shing [the head of the Cheung Kong-Hutchison group and second- richest man in the territory], or the Kuok family [owners of the Shangri-la hotels and the South China Morning Post]. "They are the big, big money," said Mr Ong. And in Hong Kong, money is the bottom line.

One regular on the social scene, Sophie Benge, said that these days gweilos (white ghosts) are "very much in the minority" at social events. "But many events are held by consumer brands and the Chinese are who they are marketing to," she said. She cites the example of a recent event held jointly by Hermes, the Paris-based fashion house, and John Lobb, the London shoemakers, together with entrepreneur David Tang.

"There were only Chinese people there," she said. "You're much more likely to see Britons down at Joe Bananas now. They've come to work at the [new] airport."