They're under starter's orders in Hong Kong
This city's passion for horses made it the obvious venue for the Olympic equestrian events. It's not the only British tradition to die hard here, says Raymond Whitaker
Sunday 03 August 2008
You can go to Hong Kong this month to experience a bit of the Beijing Olympics. That's right: even though the Chinese capital is more than 1,000 miles away, the former British colony is hosting the equestrian events at this year's Games, and there's a strong chance that you will be able simply to turn up on the day and watch.
Such geographical point-stretching is not unknown in the world of showjumping, dressage and eventing. In 1956, before it became commonplace to fly horses around the globe, the main Olympics were held in Melbourne, but the equestrian events took place in Sweden.
This time the reason is animal quarantine regulations – since the British bequeathed Hong Kong a passion for horse-racing, the territory has international agreements in place, and facilities, such as air-conditioned stabling, that do not exist anywhere on the mainland.
The Olympic competitors will take over Sha Tin, one of Hong Kong's two racecourses, which is not usually used during July and August because of the heat and humidity. The eventing course is just outside the New Territories town. It is an easy train ride from Kowloon and you get to see a less touristy area of Hong Kong. Tickets may well be available, since the locals see no point to any sport involving horses unless they can bet on it (another pleasure denied their compatriots elsewhere in China).
But even though riding in jackets rather than silks has never become a tradition here, a surprising degree of British influence lingers, more than a decade after Prince Charles and governor Chris Patten handed Hong Kong back to China and sailed away in the royal yacht Britannia. I was there in the pouring rain to see them off, but it was not until the next day, when with something of a jolt I saw that the communist star had replaced the British coat of arms over the government offices in Lower Albert Road, that the change of ownership really sank in.
In truth, though, you have to look quite hard for such concrete symbols of the new regime. The postboxes may have been painted green, but Lower Albert Road, Victoria Street, Queen's Road and Queensway survive, along with numerous streets named after long-departed colonial administrators such as Des Voeux, Pedder, Macdonnell and Pottinger. Patten joked that the governor's mansion would be turned into a museum of colonialism, and the first chief executive after 1997, Tung Chee Hwa, refused to live there, claiming the place had bad feng shui. But his successor, Donald Tsang, had no such qualms, and moved in a couple of years ago after a hugely expensive renovation.
The public fuss over the cost, which included a fish pond for Mr Tsang's collection of koi carp, illustrated another way in which Hong Kong remains sharply different from the rest of China. Beijing may appoint the chief executive, but that does not deter the territory's citizens from holding him to account in a manner unknown on the mainland. And every year on 4 June, they march en masse to commemorate the 1989 massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. Anyone who tries anything similar in the capital during the Olympics will quickly discover the limits of China's tolerance.
But even though Hong Kong has its own way of doing things, there is not much room for sentimentality. Take the much-loved Star Ferry pier, built in the 1950s to an Edwardian design which echoed its 1912 predecessor. When the authorities decided to relocate the terminal, to accommodate yet more harbour reclamation, they thought public outrage at its demolition could be stilled by building the new pier as a half-baked replica of the previous one. Never mind that the new terminal, which opened in 2006, forces commuters to walk another 300 yards in the steaming heat: redevelopment came first.
We stayed at The Peninsula, which is celebrating its 80th anniversary, positively historical by Hong Kong standards. Its afternoon teas in the lobby, for which there are long queues, carefully evoke the spirit of Kowloon in 1928, but the hotel would not have preserved its reputation for opulence without adding a skyscraper at the back, which has suites overlooking the harbour and a helipad on the roof.
Just below that is the Philippe Starck-designed Felix restaurant, where, notoriously, the urinals in the men's toilet look over the city. If you've got the money to be up here, the principle seems to be, why not flaunt everything you've got? Our suite also had a corner bath and Jacuzzi where, if you chose, you could leave the blinds up and show off your assets to the less fortunate in neighbouring tall buildings.
Discreet displays of wealth have never been Hong Kong's style, and certainly not now, when the city feels it has to run hard, and build frantically, just to keep up with Shanghai and Beijing. If the former British colony does not seem to the horsey set to have changed all that much, it is because the rest of China is adapting to what has always been the philosophy here – that it is glorious to be rich.
HOW TO GET THERE
Raymond Whitaker flew to Hong Kong with Air New Zealand (0800 028 4149; airnewzealand.co.uk). Economy fares start at £599 return, premium economy from £1,158. He stayed at The Peninsula (00 800 2828 3888; hongkong.peninsula. com) where doubles cost from HK$4,400 (£285) per night.
Hong Kong Tourism (discoverhongkong.com).
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