Hong Kong Voices
City on the Rocks: Hong Kong's Uncertain Future
Hong Kong Countdown
“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…
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