The place that changed me: Hong Kong

Brian Hennigan remembers the charms of the skyscraper metropolis

When I arrived in Hong Kong I was strip-searched because I had come from an area of mainland China associated with drug-running. I had no money as I wasn't allowed to convert my Chinese currency, so had to share a room in a hostel with eight illegal Filipino workers. I even found myself contemplating selling my passport or running mule trips to Taiwan to raise cash. While I was there a Pakistani small-arms dealer I met disappeared - I never saw him again.

When I arrived in Hong Kong I was strip-searched because I had come from an area of mainland China associated with drug-running. I had no money as I wasn't allowed to convert my Chinese currency, so had to share a room in a hostel with eight illegal Filipino workers. I even found myself contemplating selling my passport or running mule trips to Taiwan to raise cash. While I was there a Pakistani small-arms dealer I met disappeared - I never saw him again.

I had been teaching Shakespeare in a remote part of China for a year and needed to see civilisation again. But I wasn't ready to return to the UK, so I decided to go to Hong Kong, which at the time was still a British colony. I ended up staying there for two and a half years; the experience changed my life dramatically.

The pace of life in Asia was completely different to that of Europe - the fast-moving environment and rapid development was intoxicating. It was as if there was a whirlwind around me which left me feeling constantly out of breath. Part of the thrill came from the compactness of a city where every bit of land has been built on and from the exhilarating crush of people.

I started to realise that although outwardly Hong Kong had a lot of the trappings of Western society, it wasn't Western at all. There was a sense of tension and slight lawlessness, and the suspicion of unseen forces at work. Although you were aware of the Triads and saw the results of their work, you didn't meet them. But there was a feeling of malevolence - as if you could disappear overnight (as the Pakistani man had) and no one would give a damn.

Hong Kong can be summed up for me in the smell of mechanised cleanliness; the air conditioning dripping on to the pavement; fish bowls for sale on the ferry; constant downpours and storms in the rainy season; watching the planes land every half minute; the ebb and flow of the backpackers.

Asia seeped into my blood, and when I finally left Hong Kong it was to go on to Japan. Subsequently I took a Masters in Japanese and ended up returning to Hong Kong as a businessman working in the automotive, textiles and whisky industries. Going back under these circumstances I saw a completely different side.

When I went back for the handover to China, it was wonderful to watch Britannia sailing out of the port. Whenever I return I find that Hong Kong is increasingly a Chinese city but still as exciting as ever.

* 'Patrick Robertson: a Tale of Adventure' by Brian Hennigan is published by Cape at £ 10.

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