Salt Lake City Weekly Adapting Hong Kong

Navigating the complex politics of capitalism and China.

By Katharine Biele

July 21, 1997:  "Don't believe anything you read out there," the e-mail begins. Don't believe anything about Hong Kong and its handover to China.

"Honestly, it just goes to show the weaker side of human nature, doesn't it, how titillated we are by sensationalism and bad news. No one seems to want to hear simple 'no news' news."

No news, the message says, despite all the talk about human rights and the fading British Empire. The focus, instead, might be on the Chinese people who populate that small but vital island, who, like my friend, Cecilia, look at the world with a large dose of practicality.

"Sure, there must be changes, and we are already living them out as the new masters' policies and preferences are being tested," she writes via Asia On-line. "That's not to say that everything will be a bed of roses — there is no such thing anyway! But the honest truth is that life will continue to be lived out, the people of HK will adapt as well as they always have through difficulties, and love of possession and power and money will continue to thrive in this materialistic city, with the new masters and their entourage being the first and immediate benefactors, inevitably."

I first met Cecilia in the Hong Kong of the early '70s. The Vietnam War was going on next door. Watergate was being played out across the sea. The people of Hong Kong raced shoulder-to-shoulder in perhaps the most active business district in the world, concerned with neither war nor scandal. It must have been something like pre-Communist Shanghai, a glittering melting pot where the world meets with a singular motivation — to live fast and make money.

The island itself is only 31 square miles, but 6.3 million people live in the colony, which includes 355 square miles of mainland China called the New Territories. Only a few hundred thousand of those people are British, although they have always held the upper hand. When I lived there, English was the only official language, despite the dominance of Cantonese. The British had reluctantly allowed the Chinese into their clubs, but they rarely allowed them into their country.

That was the plight of the Hong Kong Chinese. They had become used to being convenient nationals. Those who were rightfully Hong Kong citizens could travel abroad on visas, but could not emigrate to Great Britain, under whose rule they lived, unless they held a special British passport. Not many did. After all, the British were confined to islands as well, and were holding back the tide. There was quite a tide: From 1949, when the Nationalist Chinese fled the mainland and Mao Tse-tung, to 1962, Hong Kong took in more than 1 million refugees looking for a better life. And for money.

Cecilia and I roomed together in a small flat on Old Bailey Road, across from the jail. At night, you could see and hear the guards playing mahjong and occasional rats climbing up the side of the jail. Buses, cabs and cars continued through the night, while sturdy Hakka women trudged up the steep hills carrying yokes of water over their shoulders. The lights of high-rise buildings shimmered on the harbor below while the first typhoon of the season would surely wipe out the makeshift colonies clinging to the harbor cliffs. Hong Kong was always a study in contrasts.

You could take a hydrofoil to the Portuguese colony of Macao, but you wouldn't want to gamble there. The ah-mas, or professional maids, always had more money than any foreigner and managed to dominate the tables. Their foreign masters gave them everything, and they saved it all. Whether rich or poor, the Chinese of Hong Kong were adept at putting something aside — for an eventuality.

"Some of the changes we are beginning to experience are: new barriers of the granting of first-time work visas to foreign nationals, people are scrambling to secure one foot [at least] in each board, one in the Chinese and the other foreign," Cecilia writes. "People are frantically oiling their Chinese guanxis [working their connections]." Many, she says, are reworking their ID cards to reflect their Chinese roots. "The HK democrats are almost euphoric as their potential for martyrdom increases with each passing day, you hear more and more people in the streets speak Mandarin [presently 150 legal Chinese immigrants are allowed in every day, and these are just the legal ones]."

If there is a touch of cynicism, it is by virtue of a life lived by wits and wisdom. The fear from the West has been that Hong Kong, once so free and vigorous, will suffer the fate of those who advocated and died for democracy at Tiananmen. "Thousands of people have been jailed over the past decade for advocating political reforms or forming small political groups. Many were detained following the 1989 crackdown and received long prison sentences for 'counter-revolutionary' offenses," says an Amnesty International report, which is part of a campaign to expose the violation of human rights.

But the Hong Kong Chinese are unlike any others. They have learned to navigate the tremendously complicated politics of an island that no one owned, and to hammer out their own rights in places they had been denied.

On June 27, Cecilia sent me a postcard from Hong Kong: A picture of an orange-sailed junk motoring in the harbor. with the queen's profile on two stamps on the back. It was the last postal day under British colonial rule. Hong Kong treated it like the Vietnam War and Watergate.

E-mail Katharine Biele at bielegch@slkc.uswest.net.


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