Street level view of Hong Kong's last days

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The Independent Online
In the crisp, pastel-shaded rooms of Government House, Jonathan Dimbleby's film crew are shooting the final sequences for a BBC series on the last years of colonial rule in Hong Kong as seen through the eyes of the great and the good. A few miles down the road Po-chih and Sze-wing Leong, a father-and-daughter team, are installed in a cramped high-rise flat transformed into an editing suite, putting the final touches to a Channel 4 series called Riding the Tiger.

The Leongs are looking at the transfer of sovereignty through the eyes of less elevated Hong Kong people whose struggles to cope with the changes are transformed into a gripping people's history. Mr Leong, a well-known Hong Kong-based film-maker, started the work as a private project and roped in his daughter, a television producer, once Channel 4 showed interest in commissioning a series.

Given that Hong Kong has been given an unprecedented 13 years to prepare for its change of sovereignty, it is remarkable that no one else has attempted the kind of oral history.

Mr Leong says he wanted "to capture the essence of Hong Kong in the last two years". Did he have a sense of doom about the change in sovereignty? "No, not doom, it's more like foreboding". Ms Leong stresses that they came to the project uncluttered with the burden of promoting a particular point of view. As local people, they wanted to demonstrate how "this city of survivors" was making out during the changes.

Mr Leong said the series shows "that Hong Kong is not just about 1997; in a sense that's happened already".

"Hong Kong people have the same problems as everyone else but 1997 is always there in the background, sometimes it comes to the fore and then it goes away, but it is always there," Ms Leong added.

Over the past four years the Leongs have got to know the main characters in the series as friends.

Among the principal characters are the leader of Hong Kong's main pro- Peking political party, Tsang Yok-shing, and Christine Loh, a legislator in the opposite camp. As the handover draws closer, such people are increasingly seen as symbols of particular viewpoints; Riding the Tiger shows them as human beings. Mr Tsang is transformed from an intense ideologue into a glad-handing politician; Ms Loh, a political novice, ends up forming her own party and searching for a way out of the gridlock of non-communication between the pro- democracy and pro-Peking camps.

The real star of the programme is 60-year-old Mrs Leung, single-handedly bringing up a family of eight from the confines of a squatter camp after her husband died of cancer. While others in the series change their minds, Mrs Leung remains "rock solid", Mr Leung says. She is resolutely sceptical, declines to vote and fixes her sights on her next meal is coming from.

Meanwhile, Jimmy Yip is struggling to build a new life for himself across the border in China. Most Hong Kong businessmen whisk in and out of China furiously wheeling and dealing but rarely staying put for long. Mr Yip is different. He is hell bent on a make-or-break project to set up a giant theme park.

Arriving in 1994 with all the typical arrogance of a Hong Kong businessmen telling their "country cousins" what to do, he learnt to adapt to China's way of doing things and invested heavily in making the right connections. His story could be a microcosm of the story of Hong Kong's business future.

Riding the Tiger even has a love plot, involving an expatriate police inspector and a local female police constable whose relationship breaks up under the pressures of work. The Leongs refuse to say whether they get together again in the last part of the series, but the film shows them both learning a great deal more about themselves and getting a clear idea of what they really want to do as the 1997 deadline approaches.

Ms Leong says the main thing they have noticed in making the series is "that people have grown up and become more aware of what's going on". The reflex response of blaming the British for everything or trying to pin the blame elsewhere is giving way to a realisation that Hong Kong people have to take responsibility for themselves.

8 Channel 4 shows the first episode of Riding the Tiger on Saturday 7 June at 7pm.