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The Last Days of Hong Kong

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.


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.

March 15, 1990

  1. 7

    William Shawcross, Kowtow! Chatto counterblasts, No. 6.

  2. 8

    Kevin Rafferty, City On the Rocks: Hong Kong’s Uncertain Future, to be published by Viking in April.

  3. 9

    George Hicks, Hong Kong Countdown, US distribution by The Cellar Book Shop, 18090 Wyoming Street, Detroit, Michigan 48221.

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