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The Last Days of Hong Kong

1.

“Everything you need to know about a new life abroad…. It’s all in the pages of The Emigrant.”

—Advertisement for a new Hong Kong periodical, 1989

May 1983: It was exactly seven months after Mrs. Thatcher stumbled and fell on the steps of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing that I arrived in Hong Kong to take up a job. The prime ministerial fall; which preceded a fierce quarrel with Deng Xiaoping about the future of the British colony, was regarded in Hong Kong as a dark omen: a few days later the stock market crashed and the Hong Kong dollar slumped to a point not seen since the riots of 1956.

As usual in Hong Kong, the market bounced back, some canny speculators made a killing, and corporate towers of silver- and gold-tinted glass sprouted up in a Babylonian frenzy that lasted until the end of the decade. Still, I thought as I arrived on that hot spring morning, this place must be feeling jittery, not to say fragile, not to say terrified of the likely prospect of being handed over to a Communist regime. It was still only a prospect, to be sure, for the deal was yet to be concluded, but Deng had made no bones about Beijing’s firm intention to take back what it saw as rightfully its own.

On the afternoon of that same day I was taken by an old friend to a barbecue party attended by a bunch of what the white folks call “expats,” and the Cantonese call gweilos, or devil men—a collection of nice, suntanned young Aussies, Brits, an American or two, and the odd Chinese girlfriend for local color. The talk was of parties, boat trips, restaurants, and absent friends. Partly out of boredom but also out of genuine interest I asked my new acquaintances how worried people in Hong Kong were about the not too distant future. There was a moment of rather awkward silence, as though I had asked the wrong thing. Then I realized it was simply the result of a misunderstanding.

“Worried?” asked an Australian PR man in Bermuda shorts, “Us worried? ‘Course not. Lots of opportunity here. Why, Bob, he’s opening a new hair-dressing salon. And Kevin is doing great in advertising, and Ann’s just got a huge pay rise at the bank. No, no worries, mate. Every day I wake up I’m glad to be in Hong Kong, and the moment that ends, I’ll move somewhere else.”

It was a valuable lesson in Hong Kong anthropology: it had not occurred to my PR friend that I might be referring to six million Chinese and not to our cosy bunch of expatriates. It was also clear that people were not in the habit of measuring time much beyond the immediate here and now, that you avoided thinking of the future (or, for that matter, the past) until, well, until you moved somewhere else.

I found this extraordinary insouciance both refreshing and perplexing. It came in different forms: “Give Hong Kong back to China? Oh no, dear boy. That will never happen. You see, it’s simply not in China’s interest to take Hong Kong back. Too much money to be made.” This was said to me by a charming old hand who had lived in “Honkers” for almost thirty years. We were having lunch at the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club, where there was no dearth of such old hands to sort out the ignorant newcomer on the Chinese mentality, not to mention China’s interest. Such experts were always ready to explain that the Chinese are by nature indifferent to politics. Making money is all they really care about. And the Hong Kong Chinese, they’re a clever lot. No need to worry about them. They’ll manage to make some kind of deal. Anyway, it’s in China’s interest to let them be.

* * *

Perhaps I am being unfair. How were these people to know that only one year later, on September 26, 1984, a declaration was formally signed in Beijing by representatives of the Chinese and British governments, which formally sealed Hong Kong’s fate? The formula was one country, two systems: Hong Kong was to be a Special Autonomous Region under Chinese sovereignty, allowed for fifty years to retain its own legislation, judiciary, and socioeconomic system. There was no mention of a bill of rights, and freedom of speech would not extend to criticism of the Chinese government.

But even then the propensity for wishful thinking in certain circles was extraordinary. On the day of the announcement, the British editor of the most authoritative local news magazine wore a Union Jack T-shirt and arrived at his office to celebrate the good news with a bottle of champagne. He wrote an editorial firmly in support of the agreement, and put the “dark voices prophesying doom” sternly in their places. Hong Kong, he said, would help put “China back on to its traditional search for peace, stability and prosperity—the Confucian Golden Mean….”1

Perhaps he was not to know either that Hong Kong was the victim of a cruel confidence trick often termed a “conspiracy of euphoria.” Everything would stay the same. Stability and Prosperity. Lots of money to be made. Democracy with a fully elected legislature. (Just how it was to be elected was never made clear.) The Confucian Golden Mean. All this, and more, was promised by officials from London and Beijing who kept on grinning fiercely in the hope that this would keep the locals quiet.

But things didn’t stay the same. Hong Kong is hardly stable, though still relatively prosperous. Hong Kong is run by a British governor appointed by Her Majesty’s government, who presides over a legislative council, none of whose members are directly elected. Democracy never materialized, and probably never will. Instead we have had a succession of grotesque financial scandals; a string of broken banks that had to be bailed out; a calamitous collapse of the Hong Kong dollar which had to be pegged hastily to the US currency; a serious shortage of labor; forced repatriation of Vietnamese refugees; a judiciary compromised by corruption—and on top of all that, the Beijing massacre. And still the incantations ring daily in our ears, albeit with an increasing tone of desperation: it is not in Beijing’s interest to change Hong Kong; everything will be all right; democracy will come, albeit at a slower pace; stability and prosperity, etc., etc.

Fifty thousand Hong Kong people a year know better. They are already boarding the planes, bound for Sydney, Vancouver, Singapore, New York. They have seen the future and they are moving somewhere else.

2.

“Opinions on the decor were as mixed as the drinks at last week’s opening party for Hong Kong’s newest nightclub. ‘Sort of 50s,’ offered one reveler, ‘but with a bit of 60s’ and 90s’ as well,’ she concluded.”

South China Morning Post, January 1990

The first time I visited Hong Kong, in 1974, you could still see vestiges of the old colonial city. Portly Indians played cricket with English bankers and civil servants in the middle of the Central district, between the Hong Kong Club and the old Supreme Court building. The highest buildings in Central were the Bank of China and the Hilton Hotel. The waterfront was a collection of ramshackle warehouses still redolent of opium dens and mysterious Oriental skulduggery. I remember walking up Queen’s Road Central and striking up a conversation with two beautifully dressed Asian girls who emerged from an expensive jewelry store. They spoke exquisite French. They had come from Saigon on a shopping trip.

I have no idea where those girls are now, but I know that the Hong Kong Club, a charming Victorian building resembling a square Wedgwood bowl, is gone, the cricket ground is gone, the Bank of China has been replaced by a brand-new I.M. Pei building, and the Hilton Hotel is so dwarfed by new skyscrapers that you hardly notice it anymore. The physical change in Hong Kong has been so devastatingly fast that if you put two pictures side by side, one from 1974 and one from 1990, you would hardly believe they were of the same city. It is as if midtown Manhattan were built in the last ten years, with nothing left to remind one of the 1950s, let alone the nineteenth century. Hong Kong looks like a city without a past.

“Cities,” wrote Lewis Mumford,

are products of time. They are the molds in which men’s lifetimes have cooled and congealed, giving lasting shape, by way of art, to moments that would otherwise vanish with the living and leave no means of renewal or wider participation behind them…. By the diversity of its time-structures, the city in part escapes the tyranny of a single present, or the monotony of a future that consists in repeating only a single beat heard in the past.2

Mumford’s convictions would have been shaken by Hong Kong, for little is left behind in this city of immigrants, so many of whom ended up moving somewhere else. There are hardly any museums in Hong Kong, precious few libraries, no great historical buildings, and no monuments to speak of. Well, perhaps there are two. One is the terrace of the Repulse Bay Hotel, rebuilt after the original hotel was pulled down some years ago. The other is a well-known tourist trap called the Tiger Balm Garden. This extraordinary piece of moralizing kitsch—plaster models of Chinese deities, folk heroes, wild animals, and torture scenes in a Buddhist Hell—is a monument left behind by a rich Chinese businessman named Aw Boon Haw, the inventor of, among other things, Headache Cure Powder, Chinkawite Wince Mixture, and of course Tiger Balm. Aw Boon Haw was born in Rangoon and died in Honolulu. His theme-park fantasy of Chinese folk culture is a monument to the enterprise of an overseas Chinese, a permanent drifter, the emigrant who made good.

* * *

There is, perhaps, another reason for the jangled sense of time in Hong Kong, the lack of any feeling of continuity, besides the hurried mentality of the immigrant on the make, and that has to do with a more ancient Chinese approach to cities. The Chinese were never in the habit of building cities as monuments. There is no Chinese Rome or London or Paris, a repository of centuries of civilization, to be handed on and added to from one generation to the next, cherished as a precious heirloom, meant to last for ever. Mao Zedong may have been one of the great vandals of all time, but long before the Chairman was born, travelers in China remarked upon the nonchalance with which Chinese let the vestiges of the past rot away. Instead of preserving the old, people would rebuild in the same style. Hence, a pagoda erected during the T’ang dynasty, but entirely rebuilt in, say, 1912, would still be regarded as ancient, for it is not so much the age of the bricks as the style that counts.

It is also true that Chinese connoisseurs always tended to make fetishes of the ancient, which explains, perhaps, why China has the oldest industry in fake antiques in the world. But fake, to a Western ear, has a pejorative sound not entirely appropriate to the common Chinese view that a good fake can be admired in its own right.

Instead of eternal cities, China had eternally shifting cities. With a new dynasty often came a new capital, whose layout was based on geomancy and other signs of auspiciousness. These seats of administrative power sometimes lasted about as long as the dynasties that built them were blessed with Heaven’s mandate. Thus once great cities—Ch’ang-an, K’ai-feng, Hangchow—are now provincial towns, with only a few monuments, frequently rebuilt through the ages, as reminders of past glory.

Most Chinese capitals were in the north or center of China, in the heartland of Chinese civilization. None was ever in the deep south, long considered a swampy region filled with ghosts and other undesirables. Trade is what made the southern coastal cities tick, not bureaucratic power. But commerce and cosmopolitanism were not highly valued by Chinese governments; on the contrary, merchants were strictly controlled and contacts with outsiders limited, if not forbidden. Mandarins, in the name of the Son of Heaven, ruled China, and they kept the businessmen firmly under their long-nailed thumbs. In its entire history China had truly cosmopolitan cities only twice: between the eighth and thirteenth centuries, during the T’ang and Sung dynasties, and again, from the latter years of imperial China to the beginning of what is still called, without irony intended, Liberation.

Ch’ang-an, the capital during the T’ang dynasty, was a center of trade with central Asia. Official control was relaxed, and business was good. Then, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the imperial governments put the lid back on. As William Skinner observed in his fascinating study of Chinese cities, the impact was especially severe on the southeastern coast, which is precisely where foreigners arrived in the nineteenth century to blast China open again.3 They were led in this enterprise by the English and Scottish opium pushers who settled in a rocky little pirates’ lair called Hong Kong. Once more, Chinese merchants, stifled and disdained for centuries by the supercilious mandarins, were able to escape their official leash, and, protected more or less by foreign laws, were free to make money in Amoy, Fuzhou, Tianjin, Shanghai, and, of course, Hong Kong. It wasn’t long before Shanghai became the most cosmopolitan city in Chinese history.

* * *

Some Chinese were very rich as a result, many were better off than before, and many remained miserably poor. The pursuit of wealth and happiness led to the usual things: well-organized crime, well-stocked brothels, and well-greased palms, but also the richest cultural life China had seen for centuries and, despite wars, famines, and terrorism, the freest marketplace for ideas Chinese had ever known. One of these ideas was Marxism.

Naturally, when a new breed of Chinese mandarins took upon themselves Heaven’s mandate in 1949, all this had to go, except the Marxism, of course. Destruction is easier than one sometimes thinks. Whenever I enter the battleship-gray headquarters of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank to cash a check, and watch in wonder the silent efficiency of this modern capitalist beehive, Hong Kong appears, for a moment, indestructible. But in Shanghai, once the government put its mind to it in 1952, it took exactly two months to turn the great metropolis into what one observer described as a dead city. (Pol Pot worked even faster, but then Phnom Penh is not Shanghai.) Businessmen were systematically humiliated, persecuted, and above all squeezed of their assets, which, according to the correct line of the day, they had “stolen from the people.” One of the many curiosities of China after Mao is that you can still hear, in remote villages of the poor Northwest, traces of the Shanghai dialect, spoken by the children and grandchildren of businessmen booted out of their city thirty-eight years ago.

Hong Kong might not be treated in quite the same way. But when people speak blithely of China’s interest, they do well to remind themselves that China plucked its interest from a thriving business city before, by plunder. It is also useful to remember that however wellmeaning or, to use a favorite word in this part of the world, sincere, China’s mandarins may be, and however much they speak of Open Doors and Reforms, their understanding of commercial enterprise is more akin to that of the imperial mandarins than to the views of Milton Friedman, or even John Kenneth Galbraith. The traditional instinct is not to let the flowers of business bloom by encouraging the free pursuit of riches, but to control and to squeeze. Many Hong Kong businessmen already are paying their dues by donating vast sums to the motherland to curry favor with officialdom. The more they pay, the more will be demanded, for this only confirms to the mandarin mind that business is there to be fleeced.

Hong Kong and Shanghai are the peculiar products of historical events over which a feeble, decadent, insular China had little control, and the humiliation of being forced by foreigners to concede extraterritorial rights on Chinese soil is still keenly felt in Beijing. When Mrs. Thatcher, still flushed with her victory over the “Argies,” stumbled into Beijing in 1982 to convince Deng of the validity of the nineteenth-century treaties, Deng answered with expletives, which were, I believe, deleted from the record, but would have made even the Iron Lady blush. Hong Kong was promised autonomy nonetheless, which sounded very well on paper, but before reaching for their bottles of champagne people might have paused to contemplate the fact that virtually throughout their history the rulers of China did everything in their power to deny their cities precisely what Hong Kong has been promised.

The freebooting, vice-ridden, cosmopolitan, mercenary, wonderful urban bitch goddesses—Berlin, New York, Shanghai, Hong Kong—are never much liked by those who live in the hinterlands, but the hatred, awe, and envy inspired by Hong Kong is often extreme. Intellectuals in Beijing usually express a disdain for its empty materialism, its lack of culture, and the rough-and-ready manners of its mainly Cantonese inhabitants. To most ordinary Chinese Hong Kong is a wealthy Xanadu, so far away it hardly seems real. To millions of southern Chinese it is the place they would rush to, if only they could. And if they are lucky enough to live close by, they watch Hong Kong television and ask their friends and relatives who have made it to Xanadu for money, electronic gadgets, anything they can carry. To provincial Communist cadres Hong Kong is a place for freebies. You see them walking about in groups, in their badly cut suits and pudding-bowl haircuts, gawking with open mouths at the shops, the buildings, the restaurants, hoping perhaps that one day all this will be theirs. To the mandarins in Beijing, often men from China’s poor interior, Hong Kong represents everything they loathe: it is southern, urban, subversive, vice-ridden, rich, relatively free, and, above all, full of foreigners and their polluting foreign ways. It is, in short, horribly un-Chinese.

So of course it would be in Beijing’s interest to keep its hands off Hong Kong, but if the men who rule China today were to follow their instincts, they would stamp on the bitch goddess, after having picked the last bit of meat off her carcass. Few tears would be shed over Hong Kong’s demise, for it was never a Chinese heirloom to be cherished, but rather a monument to a past that still hurts. Why then, you might well ask, hasn’t China pounced before? What has kept the mandarins so long from booting the Brits out and grabbing what is theirs?

There is a possible answer to this, which sounds paradoxical, but isn’t. The reason for Deng’s decision to take back Hong Kong was, I believe, the result of his Open Door policy. Mao never wanted Hong Kong back, for the colonial city was hidden from sight, a Chinatown that was in China, but not of it. The vice, the subversion, the spiritual pollution, never penetrated China enough to be a threat. This only began once China’s door was ajar, and Deng realized that the only way to impose control was to turn Chinatown back into a Chinese town, subservient once again to the mandarins in Beijing. Yes, he wants Hong Kong to make money but he also wants to suppress some of the very ideas and institutions that produce the wealth: Deng’s dilemma in a nutshell.

Alas—and after thousands of years of subservience, who can blame them?—most Chinese need little encouragement to fall into line with officialdom, particularly when the spirit of patriotism is invoked. And with the unfailing accuracy of an experienced acupuncturist, Beijing has time and again managed to prick the one raw nerve in this hard-bitten community of refugees and their offspring: patriotism—the need for a sense of the past, the need to feel Chinese.

3.

“Chinese authorities yesterday claimed that Mr. Lee Cheuk-yan, the Hong Kong pro-democracy lobbyist who was detained in Beijing, had confessed to supporting ‘counter-revolutionary organisations.’ Mr. Lee, a senior official in the Christian Industrial Committee, was allowed to return to Hong Kong on Thursday after he was ‘educated’ by police in the mainland capital, Radio Beijing said.”

South China Morning Post,
June 1989

iconAlex Wong/Getty Images
Lee Cheuk-yan, today a member of the Legislative Council of Hong Kong, testifies during a U.S. Senate hearing before the Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill, March 4, 2004. A pro-democracy activist, Lee was detained in Beijing during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 and confessed to supporting “counter-revolutionary organizations” before authorities permitted him to return to Hong Kong.
There are few more melancholy sights than Martin Lee, QC, standing on a platform in the rain, manfully singing “We Shall Overcome” with a crowd of three hundred fellow crusaders for democracy in Hong Kong. His cause is just, his criticisms of London and Beijing are unfailingly correct, his methods always peaceful and polite, which makes it all the sadder that he appears to be fighting for a lost cause. Hong Kong was promised direct elections by various representatives of the British government, who were, however, always carefully vague about the practicalities; Beijing doesn’t want direct elections to take place, or only to such a limited degree that they will be virtually meaningless. According to the just completed Basic Law, less than half the legislature will be directly elected by as late as 1999. Although Beijing has made it clear that the Basic Law can no longer be changed, London still promises that something might be worked out. The people of Hong Kong, who have seen too many promises made and broken, maintain a sullen silence.

Martin Lee is not, a professional politician. He is a highly successful barrister. And he showed little interest in politics until six years ago, when he realized that without elections Hong Kong would be bereft of an accountable local government, without which the future so-called Special Autonomous Region would have no protection against the whims of Beijing’s mandarins. He is of course absolutely right. And if you ask many ordinary people in Hong Kong, they agree that he is right. Indeed, he is quite a popular and much respected figure. And yet, there he is, with the long-suffering face of a sensitive camel, bravely singing songs to no more than a few hundred people.

The reasons for his failure are complex, but they are mostly to do with fear and a crippling sense of futility. The problem is not that Chinese people are by their nature uninterested in politics. This is a self-serving myth propagated by mandarins in Beijing, in London, and, indeed, in Hong Kong itself. But the myth has been sustained for so long in Hong Kong that it has become self-fulfilling; and it also accounts for an astonishing political naiveté, as well as a deep suspicion of the whole business, especially among the worthies who still help to run Hong Kong today.

* * *

One of these worthies is the glamorous Dame Lydia Dunn, director of Swire’s, one of the oldest British trading houses, appointed member of the Legislative Council, campaigner for the right of Hong Kong people to live in Britain, wife of the former attorney general, winer and diner of every titled and famous face in town. She is, despite her anglicized name, completely Chinese, although one can hardly tell from her almost faultless Knightsbridge drawl. Perhaps to remind people of her Chineseness, she likes her official photographs to have Chinese screens in the background. She is, in short, a typical product of empire, an honorary native member of the colonial Club.

Dame Lydia, like her fellow worthies, native or British, never believed in democracy for Hong Kong, but, again like many others, she was so shocked by last year’s events in Beijing that now she at least pays lip service to the necessity of some democratic reforms. Her shock was in itself the result of naiveté, for, as she admits, she had had no doubt that China was on the right track and that Hong Kong’s future was assured: What, then, I asked her, about this democracy business?

“Well,” she purred, “you see, the problem with the Chinese people is that they are simply too individualistic for a democracy. They have no discipline, which is really most awkward if you have to work for the common good. The Japanese, of course, are quite, quite different. They are a disciplined race and so they can have a democracy.”

I was too baffled to argue with her. But I should not have been surprised by this complete incomprehension of democratic principles. For when it comes to politics, the tycoons and civil servants of capitalist Hong Kong are really not so different from the mandarins in Communist Beijing. Thus, in a fascinating little book of interviews, we hear Simon Li Fuk-sean, former high court judge and drafter of Hong Kong’s Basic Law, expound the following theory:

As a society the people in Hong Kong are politically immature. By not having universal suffrage we keep out a lot of people who make absolutely no contribution to society in Hong Kong, are totally ignorant of any form of government, and are exploited by unscrupulous politicians.

Instead, says Mr. Li, only professional people with “interests to protect” should be elected by their peers to run Hong Kong, for “they, and not the parasites, deserve representation.”4

* * *

For years the likes of Dame Lydia, Simon Li, as well as such local tycoons as Y.K. Pao, who made his fortune in shipping, or newspaper editors like Louis Cha, have warned Hong Kong people not to rock the boat, not to push for divisive politics, which would only upset Beijing. After all, wrote Louis Cha in an editorial last June, the Communists “are Chinese. There are good Chinese and bad Chinese, but most Chinese are good.”5 And as Clive James once described so well, whenever there was a good party in China for a visiting British worthy, there was Y.K. Pao (“Powie”), grinning and hand-wringing like an oily compradore. No wonder such people have been so pathetically easy to intimidate. Louis Cha said it all in one sorrowful and all too typical sentence: “We felt we were doing our best to serve the country.”

The worthies are still doing their best. When, some months ago, the Hong Kong Arts Centre wanted to screen a documentary film about China, footage of last year’s massacre in Beijing was censored, because, as a local official put it, “we have to pay attention to the shifting political sensitivities of the Chinese Government.” One of the main galleries in the Arts Centre has been named after Y.K. Pao. His son-in-law, an Austrian worthy called Helmut Sohmen, is chairman of the board.

No wonder, with an establishment like that, that Martin Lee has a hard time, and that few people in Hong Kong wish to stick their necks out when the tycoons and mandarins refuse to stick out theirs. Far wiser, if you have the chance, to take to the planes and move elsewhere.

4.

“We are Chinese by race. We love our country with Chinese blood flowing in our bodies. But we don’t like the communist system.”

—Martin Lee, Hong Kong,
February 12, 1990

“In the past, Hong Kong people thought that they were colonial citizens. But after the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, we knew that Hong Kong would go back to China after 1997 and that Britain would not take care of us any more.”

—Letter to the South China Morning Post,
February 13, 1990

Martin Lee faces another, perhaps more intractable obstacle than the cowardice, connivance, and bullying of mandarins: the perennial question of many immigrant communities, especially the overseas Chinese: Where do they feel they belong? It is an important question, for there was never enough identification with the colonial Chinatown, ruled by benevolent British patriarchs, to stimulate the majority of people to engage in politics. This suited the patriarchs in the past, but it suited their subjects as well, for they were pleased enough to have escaped from political mobilization back home. As long as they were left alone, they were content to let the British mandarins govern. The recent half-hearted talk about democracy from the patriarchs themselves—who feel they must give their Chinese subjects some hope, even if only on paper, now that the British are gearing up to leave—must sound decidedly hollow to the Hong Kong Chinese, and devious to the Beijing mandarins, who had counted on a neat transfer of power from one authoritarian government to another. That is what they meant after all by Hong Kong staying the same.

* * *

To develop a political identity, people must feel a sense of continuity, of a shared past, but, more importantly, a shared future for which they can be responsible, as citizens, not subjects. This is precisely what is missing in Hong Kong. For once, Dame Lydia hit it right on the button: “Apart from lunatics, condemned prisoners, and small children, Hong Kong people must be the only people in the world who seem to have no right to decide their own fate.”6 Political deals are negotiated over their heads, and their more critical representatives are dismissed and sometimes insulted in London and Beijing—Martin Lee’s protest activities have been branded as “counterrevolutionary,” and he claims to have been told in Beijing that even if he were elected after 1997, he would not be allowed to be part of any government.

So who in this colony (tactfully called “territory” in the local press) do the Chinese residents think they are? Where do their loyalties lie? Racially and culturally, there is no question that they feel Chinese, sometimes defensively, sometimes aggressively so. The Chineseness of the overseas Chinese kung-fu found its most popular expression in the movies featuring Bruce Lee, a native of San Francisco, who rose to stardom in Hong Kong. In one of his early films, entitled Fists of Fury, ethnic pride is the main theme of the story, set in Shanghai in the early 1930s.

Lee plays a member of a kung fu school whose master is murdered by a gang of evil Japanese, who add insult to injury by stamping on the master’s picture and offering a calligraphy, which reads: “The Sick People of Asia.” In the rest of the film, Lee redresses the insult by showing the evil Japanese what’s what, and not just the Japanese but also the white folks, in the form of an odious Russian, whom the Chinese hero, his magnificent torso bared to the waist, hacks and kicks and pummels so convincingly that there can be no question left in anybody’s mind about the superiority of Chinese manhood.

The usual racial slights are rather crudely rehearsed, including the infamous sign outside the Shanghai park: “Chinese and dogs not allowed.” When Lee’s entrance is barred by the most grotesque-looking Indian the casting director could find, he demolishes the sign with a high kick and, while he is at it, demolishes a bunch of Japanese in kimonos too. The most evil character of all is, however, neither Japanese nor Caucasian, but a Chinese collaborator called Wu, whose toadying to the wicked Japanese comes to a symbolic climax when he is forced at a geisha party to “walk like a Chinese,” that is, on all fours, doggy-style. Naturally, Lee knows how to deal with Wu: he beats him to death and hangs him from a lamppost.

* * *

Once in a while racial defensiveness breaks into racist aggression, not only in fantasy but in fact. The hostility toward the Vietnamese refugees, huddled in their ghastly prison camps in Hong Kong, is a case in point. To be sure, their arrival in large numbers poses a problem for a small congested place like Hong Kong, but to hear Cantonese schoolchildren protest in front of TV cameras against sending Vietnamese refugee children to local schools, because “they stink,” and to hear civic leaders virtually begging the British to send the refugees back to Vietnam, is to lose fast one’s sympathy for the plight of the Hong Kong Chinese themselves. And to observe, as I did recently, Cantonese accusing the Vietnamese of being “noisy” is to enter the realm of absurdity, for whatever the Cantonese virtues may be, silence is not one of them.

To be Chinese, then, is not the same as to be a citizen of China, but the relationship with the motherland is complicated, vague, and wide-open to political manipulation. “China,” wrote a Chinese-American in a Hong Kong magazine,

is a cultural entity which flows incessantly, like the Yellow River, from its source all the way to the present time, and from there to the boundless future. This is the basic and unshakable belief in the mind of every Chinese. It is also the strongest basis for Chinese nationalism. No matter which government is in power, people will not reject China, for there is always hope for a better future a hundred or more years from now.

China, in other words, is both real and utopian. To engage in politics in Hong Kong, indeed, in all overseas Chinese communities, almost always means politics in China. The average Chinese restaurant owner in San Francisco or Vancouver may not have been interested in American or Canadian politics (“as long as he was able to make money”), but when it concerned the struggle between the Nationalists and the Communists, he became passionately interested, for it involved the future of China. When that future is at stake, the racial, cultural, and political merge in a sometimes combustible mix.

* * *

That moment arrived in the spring of 1989, when the students in Beijing occupied the heart of the Chinese empire. It was a sign for the Hong Kong people to show that they were more than rough-and-ready Cantonese traders, that they, too, cared for the motherland, that they, too, were Chinese to the core. It was in many ways Hong Kong’s finest hour: people supposed to be greedy money-grubbers donated millions of dollars to the students in Beijing; people supposed to be indifferent to politics took to the streets. At one rally, attended by rock stars, TV comedians, politicians, professionals, workers, indeed, le tout Hong Kong, almost a million turned up, one out of every sixth person in the colony. Martin Lee, who spoke at last to a mass audience, must have hoped his hour had finally come. It was as if every person on Hong Kong had a glint in his or her eye, a glint of hope, of joy, of patriotism. But then the tanks of the People’s Army rolled, and soon the whole thing collapsed.

But not before a moving and dignified demonstration of grief swept over Hong Kong, which for several weeks was draped in black (the Western color of mourning, incidentally—the Chinese traditionally wear white at funerals). Even the procommunist press expressed its solidarity with the students and its disgust with the massacre. Every taxi in town flew a black ribbon; the New China News Agency, the unofficial Chinese embassy here, was surrounded by mountains of wreaths and banners decrying the “butchers of Beijing”; slogans in the streets compared Beijing 1989 to Nanking 1937. “Chinese must never kill Chinese” was another popular phrase (as though non-Chinese were more legitimate victims). There was even a banner hanging from the almost completed Bank of China building, decrying the butchery, and its architect, I.M. Pei, vowed not to engage in any more projects for the motherland.

Grief was followed by confusion. To be Chinese was no longer a simple matter. This was neatly demonstrated in June when the then foreign secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe, turned up in a maladroit attempt to calm things down. He was greeted by a kind of battle of songs. On one side of town, in Victoria Park, where a hideous old bust of the old Queen-Empress has found its last resting place, protesters gathered to demand the “right of abode” in Britain, as the country of refuge. They played a tape of Dame Vera Lynn’s “Land of Hope and Glory,” and made speeches, often in English, about Hong Kong people not wishing to be second-class citizens, and displayed banners that said “Shame On You, England!” and “Howe Can You Sleep at Night?” Dame Lydia Dunn flew to London to plead Hong Kong’s cause. Newspaper ads appeared in the English-language press, pointing out that “There’s no point in being almost British.” The full-page ad was accompanied by a picture of a Chinese boy in a British school uniform. The text deserves full quotation:

The coins in his pocket bear the impression of the Queen. On Saturdays he plays football. His school flies the British flag. He doesn’t think about freedom because he takes it for granted. He was raised in the British tradition in a British colony. He is one of the millions of people for whom Hong Kong is home. And who want to continue living here. All they want is some form of insurance. And the only form of insurance that will mean anything to them is the right of abode in Britain. Otherwise, being almost British is like being homeless.

But another ad, asking for the same thing, made the point of emphasizing that “we wish to stay in Hong Kong, as it is our home, and we are proud to be Chinese.”

* * *

The demand for insurance was understandable, even right, but why the stuff about the Queen on the boy’s money, why the reference to football, and what did pride in being Chinese have to do with anything? A conversation with Dame Lydia, or any of her peers, titled or not, tells one why. Those who understand the irony of playing Dame Vera’s song, and not many in Hong Kong do, are trapped between colonial dependence and old-fashioned Chinese patriotism.

There was, however, another set of songs being sung in Hong Kong that week. Members of the Hong Kong Federation of Students gathered in one of the busiest shopping areas of Hong Kong island and sang the Chinese national anthem. They handed out leaflets written in Chinese saying that the right of abode in Britain would only benefit a small, rich elite, that it was humiliating to ask for help from the colonial masters, and that the duty of the masses was to stay in Hong Kong to struggle on for a democratic China. “China and Hong Kong are one family,” read the headline of their pamphlet, “and helping the motherland is the way to help Hong Kong.”

Near the turnstiles of the ferry boat to Kowloon, a group of young people had set up a booth, representing a kind of mini-Tiananmen Square: the Internationale blasted from a loudspeaker, lurid cartoons of the blood-soaked Chinese leaders were displayed, and recorded speeches by the Beijing student leaders were endlessly repeated. And in another ad, placed in a Chinese-language newspaper, one hundred show-business personalities renounced their right of abode in Britain, for “We Stand Upright and We Don’t Beg.”

And what, while Dame Lydia was begging the British for the right of abode, did her fellow worthies at the top of the Hong Kong heap say? Well, they didn’t all say the same thing, of course, but the predominant message was twofold: not to rock the boat any further in China, and to kick the Vietnamese boat people out as quickly as possible. The replica of the Statue of Liberty, or rather the Hong Kong replica of the replica that was crushed in Beijing, had to be removed from Victoria Park, for, as one prominent Hong Kong businessman, Vincent Lo Hong-sui, said: “China will become skeptical about the people of Hong Kong if they continue to organize what Beijing has already criticized as counterrevolutionary activities.”

* * *

What we saw here, then, was a fine irony: those least emotionally involved with China were most inclined to appease the Chinese leadership, while the young patriots wanted to fight on. They, and Martin Lee, are still the only ones fighting, albeit for slightly different aims, since Lee confines his ambitions to a directly elected government for Hong Kong. Even as I write, three thousand students are marching to the New China News Agency to protest against the inadequate Basic Law, whose final draft was recently imposed by the Chinese on a joint drafting committee, causing one of the Hong Kong representatives to return home in tears. On the eve of the lunar New Year, in February, I visited a “democracy booth” set up by the young patriots, to find out more about their views on democracy. I didn’t find out much, but bought a coffee cup engraved with the spirited, though not especially democratic slogan: “I am Chinese. One country. One heart.”

And the British? They have done their best to appease the spokesmen of local bigotry and forced the first group of Vietnamese to return to the country from which they risked their lives to escape. And they have appeased the worthies by offering the worthiest, fifty thousand of them to be exact, the right of abode in Britain. This has already unleashed the British variety of bigotry, in the shape of right-wing Tories, led by the Right Hon. Norman Tebbit, who has vowed to fight against the admission of even one Chinaman from Hong Kong in his green and pleasant isle, an attitude, alas, shared by the Labour opposition, worried about losing working-class voters.

So far there has been surprisingly little overt hostility in Hong Kong toward Britain. There is a general but vague feeling of having been let down, certainly, but little outrage, a sign perhaps of the lack of emotional involvement with that country. Whatever most Hong Kong Chinese might feel they are, they don’t feel British, always excepting, of course, that small number of worthies, who appear, ad nauseam, in the social pages of the Hong Kong Tatler.

* * *

Perhaps to feel truly outraged at Britain it helps to be British, for the most outraged criticism of the British government for not doing the right thing by its colonial subjects has come, by and large, from the British themselves, and particularly from those Englishmen who feel most outraged by the likes of Norman Tebbit. These tend to be patrician in background and inclination. It is no coincidence, for example, that the magazine which has done more than any other British publication to voice concern over the shabby treatment of Hong Kong is The Spectator, a patrician magazine I personally hold dear. And the most trenchant, not to say outraged, critique of British government policy was written by William Shawcross, a gentleman of impeccable patrician credentials, who has done more than any other writer to concentrate our fickle attention on the suffering of refugees.7 Kevin Rafferty, the author of City on the Rocks,8 is not to my knowledge a patrician, which might account for the somewhat blander tone of his mish-mash of a book, which is part travel brochure, part business journalism, and part history lesson. But even he draws pretty much the same conclusions.

Everything Shawcross says in his polemic is correct. Yes, “Circumspection, prudence, kowtowing, have been the watchwords of our behavior.” Yes, “We have been afraid of [China’s] force, not confident of our strength.” All this is perfectly true, but how much strength does the old lion really still have? And how much of this strength is it still willing to use for the sake of a lot of foreigners, reputed to eat monkey brains? Is there not a hint of outrage in these polemics at the fact that Britain is no longer a great power that can set right the world’s wrongs?

George Hicks, an Australian observer, has argued in his collection of polemical articles that by formally committing the British to govern Hong Kong until 1997, Beijing has London, as they say, over the barrel.9 For to ensure a smooth transfer of power, with a minimum loss of face in both decaying imperial capitals, London doesn’t feel it can do much to thwart the wishes of China’s mandarins. Nonetheless, this shouldn’t let Britain off the hook, and the patricians are surely right that history can still make demands on the present, and Britain, even though it is now a somewhat seedy power of the second rank, is morally obliged to feel responsible for the fate of six million people (a figure loaded with unfortunate symbolism) being handed over to a harsh regime. For better or for worse, however, the estimable William Shawcross and the noble Spectator are less representative of the New Britain than is Norman Tebbit, who hates patricians, doesn’t care much for foreigners, and, to use his kind of language, doesn’t give a toss for the legacy of Empire.

5.

“The Police Commissioner, Mr. Li Kwan-ha, yesterday expressed concern at the marked increase in violent crime in Hong Kong, which he said was caused by uncertainty about the future among young people.”

South China Morning Post,
January 1990

“Vietnamese boat people are being forced to draw lots to decide who will attempt suicide in a bizarre plan aimed at winning international sympathy, it was alleged yesterday.”

South China Morning Post,
February 1990

“The Twenties’ atmosphere of the Champagne Bar lured those who could physically manage yet more champers, and those with real stamina stuck it out until way after midnight—Now that’s an opening!”

Hong Kong Tatler
February 1990

“Hong Kong,” exclaimed an Italian China hand, “feels like Shanghai in the Twenties!” My friend is fond of exclamations, it is true, but one sees what he means. There is a whiff of The Last Emperor about the slim young Chinese boys; dressed to the nines in retro styles, their hair slicked back like wet black silk, languidly sipping champagne in the neo-art-deco hotels that are in fashion these days. There is something distinctly devil-may-care about Priscilla Chois, the Rawley Chaos, Pansy Hos, and the Dickson Poons dancing the nights away at their Venetian masquerades, their Fifties parties, and their Marie-Antoinette balls, while the young Brits from the banks and trading houses have fun ruining their dinner jackets in custard pie fights. There they all are, you might think, tuning their fiddles in anticipation of the great conflagration.

And yet decadent is not the right way to describe late-imperial Hong Kong. For decadence suggests a bored dissipation of wealth acquired over the ages, indeed the squandering of heirlooms. Hong Kong really lacks the cultural richness for true decadence. And the squanderers are too busy making more money to throw away. In fact, there is a raw, not to say vulgar, vitality in the way the gilded youth enjoys its excess; not so much divine decadence, as nouveau riche flashiness. There is something Gatsbyish about Hong Kong high life. Instead of bored dissipation there is a frenzied scramble for wealth and a childish desire to show it off, before it is too late, before it is time to move on, to the next party, somewhere else.

The brain drain is already so serious that people with special skills have to be paid more and more to stay on. At the same time people must pay more and more to leave, legally or not. Doctors feel they can no longer afford to work in public hospitals. Policemen might be more tempted to take bribes. There is a flourishing trade in fake passports, fake IDs, fake travel documents. A former principal of the Hong Kong College of Language and Commerce, who also ran an immigration consultancy business, was arrested earlier this year for having forged immigration stamps. Corruption, always endemic to Hong Kong, is reaching such proportions that half the legal department seems to be under investigation. Far from dying, then, Hong Kong is becoming a free-for-all, battling against the clock.

Now, more than ever, Hong Kong feels like a city without a past, or a future, only a frenzied present. Almost the only institution still talking about big investments in the future is the government itself, just to keep the morale up, to show that not all is lost. A new airport is planned, for example, but quite who will finance such a grand project is still unknown. Before anything can go ahead these days, there are matters to be considered which have little to do with business. “Sensitivity tests” is what these considerations are called in the charming jargon of the day: how will Beijing react, how will it affect the morale in Hong Kong, will it give the government face, and so forth.

The morale of my own Chinese friends is already such that most of them are actively seeking a way out, even those who vowed never to leave, when I first met them some years ago. One is trying to get a Taiwanese passport, another might move to Canada, a third is thinking of Singapore. But these friends, sad though their departures are, do not deserve our greatest sympathy. That should go to those who stay behind, because they have no choice, and especially to those very few who still fight for political change, however naively or quixotically.

As I prepare my own departure, I often think of an image that captures the melancholy of this slowly breaking city. It is a scene I saw on the television news, almost surreal in its violent intensity, the scene of a great bulldozer crushing a mountain of fake gold watches, all made in Hong Kong, until there was nothing left but dust.


  1. Derek Davies, in the Far Eastern Economic Review, September 1984.
  2. Quoted by F.W. Mote in The City in Late Imperial China, ed. G. William Skinner (Stanford University Press, 1977), p. 116.
  3. Skinner, The City in Late Imperial China.
  4. Gerd Balke ed., Hong Kong Voices, (Hong Kong: Longman, 1989).
  5. Ming Pao, June 13, 1989.
  6. Speech at the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club, June 30, 1989.
  7. William Shawcross, Kowtow! Chatto counterblasts, No. 6.
  8. Kevin Rafferty, City On the Rocks: Hong Kong’s Uncertain Future, to be published by Viking in April.
  9. George Hicks, Hong Kong Countdown, US distribution by The Cellar Book Shop, 18090 Wyoming Street, Detroit, Michigan 48221.
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Ian Buruma was educated in Holland and Japan, where he studied history, Chinese literature, and Japanese cinema. In the 1970s in Tokyo, he acted in Kara Juro’s Jokyo Gekijo and participated in...
Reviewed in This Article

Hong Kong Voices
edited by Gerd Balke, with an introduction by Anthony Lawrence
Longman, 288 pp.

Kowtow!
by William Shawcross
Chatto CounterBlasts, No. 6 64 pp.

City on the Rocks: Hong Kong’s Uncertain Future
by Kevin Rafferty
Viking

Hong Kong Countdown
by George Hicks
Writers’ and Publishers’ Cooperative, 136 pp.

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This article was first published in the April 12, 1990 issue of the New York Review of Books.

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