Hong Kong

June 16 2008

Wikimedia Commons (image may be used subject to conditions with attribution to David Iliff)

I’ve added links to clips on Hong Kong in 1953 to yesterday’s post.

The films offer a view of Hong Kong past, the colony that was built until 1975 around a cricket field.

Above, from the Peak: Central, and the harbour and the mainland now, a skyline already (whatever I said about the absence of cranes) different from what it was in 1997. For one thing, the restrictions on building height in Kowloon were removed when Kai Tak airport was closed in 1998. The mountains in the New Territories are starting to be obscured. Central looks as crowded as it can get. The harbour has lost some of its sweep as more and more land is reclaimed. Pollution is now so bad that many people don’t want to move to Hong Kong.

The style, verve, energy and beauty of Hong Kong in the ’80s and early ’90s were incomparable. The city and harbour and sky must have sparkled even when Rogge made those films. I need to go back there so that I can stop speaking in the past tense.

Britain won Hong Kong island absolutely after the first Opium War, in 1842, and Kowloon, on the mainland, and Stonecutter’s Island, after the second, in 1860. It won a 99-year lease on the New Territories on the mainland in 1898. The colony became unsustainable without the New Territories and the whole of Hong Kong was ceded back to China in 1997.

What had begun with an opium war turned into an Anglo-Chinese partnership which was moving to behold because it was unspoken, because it was a partnership of action, not words: this was the Tao of Hong Kong.

Chris Patten, the last Governor, introduced words, in preparing Hong Kong for the transition.

In its final phase the colony was an astonishing material success, the most stupendous mark ever made on the face of the earth. The success was based on human energy, the rule of law, light government and relatively low wages. Poverty wasn’t eliminated, but the worst slums were. Petty corruption was eliminated. The almost entirely, at the end, Chinese civil service was staffed by people who were the professional salt of the earth.

Koreans and Japanese like cosiness. The Chinese prefer luxury when they can get it, but luxury in Hong Kong doesn’t slow the city down at all.

Hong Kong people dress professionally, Singaporeans don’t care about clothes and the Straits Chinese have a modified idea of luxury. Singapore is multicultural, but Hong Kong tycoons, even if inclined to kowtow to Beijing, are uneasy with the control-freakery of Singaporeans and don’t mind calling it a police state.

I was in Hong Kong at the handover to China on the night of June 30 1997. Only happened to be, because I was flying to Manila and it hadn’t occurred to me what night it was. I didn’t even know that my BA flight was touching down in Hong Kong, and when it did, I was told that my luggage wasn’t on board. I remembered the date and thought: “I may as well stay here”. Without a toothbrush, I found a place to stay opposite the Grand Hyatt in Wanchai. Prices always drop at the last minute on occasions like this. I called friends, but failed to reach them. A pity on such a night.

I wandered out and watched the British royal yacht, Britannia, slipping away in the pouring rain. Afterwards, I took a cab to Central.

The driver refused my fare: that can happen, out of friendship, in poorer parts of the middle east, but it doesn’t usually happen in Hong Kong. I sat in a bar somewhere above D’Aguilar Street and watched with a barely attentive but companionable crowd an endless series of words from the incoming régime.

6 Responses to “Hong Kong”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    The idea of “kowtowing” to Beijing “from” Hong Kong is beginning to sound passé. The obsolescent word “tycoon” comes from the Japanese taikun, a title for the shoguns, and is thus an equivalent of “mogul”.

  2. Umi Says:

    Dear David,

    This is Abitare China writing. We are editing an article about HK greening and wonder if we could use your photo taken from the Peak. It would be great to include it!

  3. Jon Says:

    Amazing Picture. Can you say with witch Camera and Lens it was made? It is really sharp, one of the best I ever seen.


  4. davidderrick Says:

    You will find it on Wikimedia Commons. The description might say what camera was used.

  5. davidderrick Says:

    My comments on Hong Kong here and elsewhere are beginning to seem very old-fashioned. All the accounts I have say that, for good or bad, there is not a vestige of the pre-1997, the “British”, Hong Kong left and that the entire place is now dominated (and the prices set) by (sometimes floor-gobbing) mainlanders. Most of the old-style Chinese markets and stalls on the island have gone.

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