On a wall in my bedroom hangs a framed photo of the Hong Kong skyline. I’m quite proud of the shot, which I took myself during a short visit 18 years ago. You can see the Bank of China Tower in the middle, and the old Star Ferry Terminal in the foreground (before they tore it down).
The picture is a testament to my deep fascination with a place to which I have no obvious connection. I have friends and former colleagues who have lived here, whereas I myself have visited only three times, and then quite briefly (plus transiting the airport a handful of times).
The city has, however, left a strong impression on me as a melting pot, a fusion of East and West, and a place with a rich and somewhat turbulent history.
I have actively read books set here, notably John Lanchester’s Fragrant Harbour and James Clavell’s Tai-Pan, but also made my way through The Last Governor, a non-fiction account of the former colony’s final years under British rule.
In one of my earlier forays into poetry, I even wrote my own ‘ode to Hong Kong’:
simplified or traditional
neither is sufficient
ninety-nine years is forever
where skyscrapers come and go
at the blink of an eye
man of the world, man on the street
living together and never meeting
six-lane highways to future and hope
restricted access, divided in unity
up on the peak the air is clear
the city shrouded in smog
but from below, looking up
even the sky’s no limit
an oasis in the world
It is with sadness I watch what is happening in the city this year. The ‘haze’ I was referring to back in 2003, was just smog and masses of people; not tear gas and a murky future.
Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 with a 50-year deal ensuring “one country, two systems”. This meant guaranteeing the people of Hong Kong freedom of speech and assembly, notably absent in mainland China. Nearly half-way through that period though, it seems plausible that Hong Kong in 2047 will look much more like Shanghai, and much less like London.
Whether Hong Kong is Chinese or not is a moot point; the handover is long gone, as is the era of colonialism. Should Beijing intervene more heavy-handedly, it is well within their right. What is more, for all our nostalgia and solidarity, nobody will be rushing to Hong Kong’s aid. You don’t offend the dragon on its home turf. Just look what happened to the NBA.
And whatever importance Hong Kong has as an economic powerhouse may eventually be eclipsed by Shanghai and Shenzhen. By copying its economic success, minus the freedoms, China may eventually render Hong Kong obsolete, along with any democratic ambitions its people may have had.
When I look at the photo on my wall, however much I want to support the protesters and their cause, these are the prospects that come to mind. I do hope a brighter future is still possible.