HONG KONG HANDOVER : Ringing up the tills as 1997 rings in the changes

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Many Hong Kongers are not particularly excited. On the contrary: they seem in almost shoulder-shrugging indifferent mood, ahead of the handover to China in five days' time. But the territory's canny businessmen more than make up for the enthusiasm which ordinary people sometimes lack.

Stores all over the colony have devoted themselves to the handover, with special offers in abundance. Many hotels - which notoriously doubled or even tripled their prices, and therefore still have rooms available - have set special package prices at HK$1997.00 (around pounds 160) per night. The poshest venues offer just dinner for the same price. Handover cocktails are sold for $19.97. Even Marks & Spencer has joined in the rush, advertising champagne at the reduced price of $199.7 a bottle.

Nor are the retailers the only people to go crazy. The environmentally- minded have a chance too: there will be a ceremonial planting of 1,997 trees. The fireworks display on 1 July is already billed as being the biggest and most expensive ever.

In the next few days there will be a crawling marathon for 1,997 babies. The fastest gets a prize. But the grand prize goes to the crawler who is selected by the computer to have entry number ... yes, 1997. The 1997 baby will, the organisers say, enjoy "great happiness"; 1997, it seems, is briefly deemed to be even luckier than the famed 888.

One would hate to suggest that the commercial organisers of the crawlathon might be seeking to gain brownie points with Peking. But it is interesting to note that the first name on the list of honoured guests is Sun Nan Sheng, head of the propaganda department at Xinhua News Agency, Peking's de facto embassy in Hong Kong.

For some, politics are everywhere, even if sometimes overlaid with a touch of irony. Shanghai Tang, a store owned by tycoon and socialite David Tang, announces in its windows: "1997: the Chinese Empire Strikes Back".

For others, politics remain strictly secondary. A 1997 time capsule includes the usual obligatory newspapers. But the blurb for the capsule, whose contents is currently on display, emphasises that it contains "items that define and characterise an era in Hong Kong". These include: an Hermes scarf; a Gucci handbag; and a Dolce & Gabbana trouser suit. It seems reasonable enough. Nothing, after all, could be more distinctively Hong Kong than a pile of designer accessories and clothes.