Hong Kong is probably the one place in the world where I felt closest to a sense of home.
That was more than twenty years ago. It was the mid-1990s, just as the curtain was coming down on more than a hundred and fifty years of British colonial rule. It was a time of tension, uncertainty, and fears for the future – which two decades on have surged back to the surface, raw and unresolved.
The British and Chinese governments had negotiated the Joint Declaration – an international treaty to return Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) while guaranteeing it a high degree of autonomy. Its political, economic and legal systems and way of life were to remain unchanged for at least fifty years – ‘one country, two systems’, as proposed by Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. The Hong Kong Basic Law would come into effect as its new constitution at the moment of the Handover on 1st July 1997. I arrived with four years left to go, just as the last British governor, Chris Patten, was shovelling in dramatic last-minute reforms aimed at making the electoral system more democratic – antagonising the Chinese and earning a battery of vicious epithets of which the politest was ‘sinner condemned for a thousand generations’ (千古罪人).
At seven years old it would be some time yet before I absorbed all this. That may be why Hong Kong retains so special a place in my memory. It is the last place where I remember an existence at least partly free of the alienation and conflicts with human society that have defined my journeys since. After the handover I would arrive in England as a teenager and it would all go horribly wrong. Hong Kong – the last place the world seemed to make some sense.
|The Hong Kong handover ceremony, 30th June - 1st July 1997 (from South China Morning Post).|
An innocence? Of sorts. Though it was beyond my consciousness at the time, I lived in an extremely privileged position in Hong Kong’s colonially-defined social geography. I was the son of a British diplomat installed in a comfortable apartment in Mid-Levels, halfway up the slopes of the Peak on Hong Kong Island and largely the preserve of white people with means or in government service. The windows that made up all of the north-facing wall commanded a panoramic view across iconic Victoria Harbour – the skyscrapers of Central, the museums of Tsim Sha Tsui at the tip of Kowloon, and of course, at the centre of the view with its fluttering Blue Ensign, the white palatial Government House where my dad’s boss Chris lived.
Of Hong Kong’s history, socio-economic problems and broader international context I gleaned little. I had a basic awareness of course that Britain had got the territory off the Chinese a long time ago in dodgy circumstances and was now due to give it back. On a certain level this felt like justice, but it also gave people real anxieties in the wake of the 1989 Tiananamen massacre. My dad’s work occasionally brought me in contact with Chinese political dissidents and survivors of the crackdown, major characters in the struggle for a freer and more humane PRC who would leave on me a deep and lasting personal impression. Beyond that, most of it passed over my head – and in colonial bourgeois surroundings, attending an English-speaking international school in Pok Fu Lam (regularly butchered upon English tongues into ‘Pok Fulham’), it was not as though I would receive an impartial assessment of Hong Kong’s complex story, least of all the more notorious British behaviours therein.