Places – a series of essays

Places – the first in a series of essays.

Hong Kong – published 8 October 2010

There is a large part of me that will forever be in Hong Kong.

I do not know when I fell in love with this city and its people; but I did, and every time I return reaffirms that affection.

It started when I was a child; there was something whimsical about a remote eastern colony growing up British but which had to be returned to its rightful owner. I always wondered where I would be on 30th June 1997. All I knew was that I would just be 40 then and I do not know whether it was an objective or dream but it is somewhere that I wanted to be even though it seemed then a very long way away, in years and distance.

Then there was Wei Wei Wong; she used to dance on my TV screen – I think with Pans People – maybe on the Andy Williams show. But among all the real and unreal blondes she was chinese, tall and lithe and a little aloof from the rest, she had long, strait dark hair and I wanted her. Except I was about nine at the time.

Confession time; my ex wife was born in Hong Kong and still lives there. My son was born in Hong Kong just before the 1997 handover or return to the motherland.

I was 13 years old before I caught an airplane. There was no reason for me to head east; my traveling was in Europe and to Africa, and in 1984 my first Asia trip took me through Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore.

So it was not until 1986 that I first went to Hong Kong. I was working for Reuters, the UK based news and information company, and my department was meeting; not in London, but gathering in Hong Kong. I flew in from Bahrain where I had been working, on Cathay Pacific; my first introduction to an airline that remains just a little bit special, and my first attempt at the checkerboard approach into Kai Tak. Wow. The sweeping 51 degree turn through the roof tops of Kowloon was one of the great joys of flying. The harbour smell would hit you as soon as the plane landed and you knew there was no where else that you wanted to be.

We were all supposed to gather at the old Hilton hotel; sadly, it is now the site of the Cheung Kong building; another big office tower. A colleague and I had other plans. We needed to explore. We crossed the harbour on the star ferry; we then took the tram on the island to the eastern terminus and back again to the hotel; where we were a couple of hours late; everyone had eaten. But I would not have missed it for the world. I loved it.

Two years later I had left London for Toronto. It may not be Hong Kong but in 1988 Canada’s links to Hong Kong were growing stronger. Maggie Thatcher had confirmed Hong Kong’s return to China ten year’s later. She had done what history needed her to do. Hong Kong’s people were concerned and those who could fled to Canada in search of a foreign passport and security for their families. Many of course have now flooded back to Hong Kong and to mainland China.

The Tianenmen Square crackdown on 4 June 1989 only affirmed many Hong Kong fears. A day that deservedly will be remembered in infamy and which is remembered every year at memorials in Hong Kong.

By 1992 I had met my Hong Kong born (now ex) wife. Born in Hong Kong she had left school for University and then Law School in Toronto. She pursued her MBA and I worked. Her friends were all part of that international Chinese/Canadian community with roots to Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Mainland China. But they had all found a home and a life in Canada. But the links to Asia were being forged.

In 1994 I took a call from our London head office. Please be in Hong Kong in a week. The disruption was huge. But it was not an instruction or offer that you say “no” to. My new wife would follow me to Hong Kong a few months later; but the time apart was hard. Email, internet chat, mobile phones etc were still in the future; and we survived through faxes and occasional phone calls.

I was working hard; too hard. But that is what you did in Hong Kong. I walked past Hong Kong harbour every morning inspired by the energy and constant movement. I could see Cathay’s 747s and Tristars banking into runway 13. At night I would walk home through Hong Kong’s neon. At weekends I would explore the markets, the Peak, Lamma, Lantau and Cheung Chau.

We used to go and watch Hong Kong films; I enjoyed them because there were always sights that you could recognise. They felt personal. And of course their were my favorite singers and actresses; the ethereal Faye Wong; Maggie Cheung; even Anita Yuen. One movie from each actress: Chungking Express; Comrades, Almost a Love Story and Who’s the Woman, Who’s the Man. Watch these films and you will love Hong Kong.

Alex was born in Canossa Hospital in Hong Kong in 1997 shortly before my 40th birthday and a little more than two months before the handover. My 40th was with friends at the restaurant on top of the Excelsior overlooking Hong Kong harbour (thank you Stephanie). The dream that I had as a boy had come true.

The return of Hong Kong to China was one of those days when you do not know what you should feel. In the days before the handover there was a Last Night of the Proms – an apt farewell to British traditions. On the day itself it rained. Chris Patten gave an emotional farewell. There was a leader who genuinely cared for the city and her people. The Chinese discreetly marched in. Waved their flags. And people went about their business of making money.

We moved to Singapore in late 1997 returning often and permanently in 2000. In 1998 the old Kai Tak airport closed down. It was as though someone had ripped the heart out of the city. Suddenly the noise had gone. The planes were flying from a new airfield on Lantau Island – all concrete and glass and new and shining; and no where near as much fun. At Kai Tak you knew you were in Hong Kong. At the new airport you were in could-be-anywhere land. But people adjust; many just grateful for being able to sleep again. And the closing of the airport has meant the regeneration of Kowloon; as high-rises can now be built to match those over on Hong Kong island.

SARS was perhaps the bleakest time in modern post war history for Hong Kong. Hong Kong was the centre of the epidemic; there were deaths and mass quarantines. The airport almost ceased to operate as flights were cancelled in huge numbers. Others found ways to make money; sell more face masks; decorate face masks; sell more hand gel. In hindsight it was probably not a bad thing to clean the place up a bit. The city bounced back quickly. It always has.

I still go back when I can; I walk along the harbourfront walk from the Star Ferry to Tsim Sha Tsui East; I take the bus over the Peak to Stanley; I take a ferry to Cheung Chau, I walk through the island’s western suburbs, and I reflect that I am very fortunate to have been connected to this special city.