Orestes Returns to Hong Kong, Ten Years Later

When I arrived in Hong Kong in 1987, the ‘astronaut’ emigration had already begun. People (or their parents) who had fled the mainland in 1949 lined up all day at the venerable Kai Tak Airport. Their tickets read Vancouver, or Toronto, or San Francisco. In many cases, the journeys were one-way. Departing from Kai Tak was always an adventure because the occupation-era Japanese runway runs quite some distance out into the harbor, and from your seat you can see nothing but water. Such a take-off and the future mirrored each other: crash and drown in Hong Kong or escape into an unknown.

An uneasy joke had it that, in 1997, Hong Kong would cease to be an English colony and would become a Chinese one instead. The promised fifty years of non-interference wouldn’t last a decade. To make matters worse, the new colonizer was dirt poor and would drown Hong Kong in its own debt. Still worse, the colonizers were rubes, bumpkins with shit on their shoes fresh from the farm. Those who traveled between Hong Kong and Guangzhou on the Kowloon-Canton Railway (the Brits never quite got round to recognizing the Chinese version of the name) were easily recognizable. Waiting for the train home, they squatted on their haunches, their heels crushing the backs of their cheap sneakers until they flopped like ill-fitting sandals. They spit. They carried cages of chickens on the same train that served the well-dressed commuters who understood that the world’s business was business. They were uneducated. They murdered infant daughters. They carried out public executions of bicycle thieves, and bused school children into sports arenas to witness the tutelary murders. So the tens of thousands flew off into exile.

Thirteen years have passed and the re-colonization process is almost complete. The Legislative Council rubber stamps Beijing’s will. Self-censorship protects the media. Hong Kong struggles to find ways to protect itself from being swallowed whole. For instance, this week the government proposed to raise the minimum real estate investment by a mainlander from 6.5 million Hong Kong dollars (US $833,333) to ten million (US $1,202,000). The aim is to discourage mainlanders from buying flats and driving up the real estate prices. (Home prices are up 46% since last year.) Some mainlanders buy, intending to move here sometime. Others buy to rent out the flat, holding out the possibility of relocating. Last week a mainland woman in town for a shopping spree—this is a true story—bought, on an impulse, a ten million dollar flat because she couldn’t carry all her purchases home to China. She was merely following the advice of a friend who, like many others, bought a flat for similar purposes. Curiously, these shoppers don’t stay in the flats when they come to Hong Kong, they stay at the new W hotel.

The W is 76 stories tall. Next door is a twin tower divided between offices and very high-end apartments. I had lunch at W today with three former students and my colleague and successor, Eva. I asked about the newspaper accounts about the flat buying frenzy. The reply: when they try to get a table in certain up-market restaurants and make the mistake of speaking in Cantonese, they are ignored. If they speak English, they’ll do better. If they speak in Mandarin, they are served immediately. One of my students is a flight attendant for Cathay Pacific who flies to the US and Europe every week. He reports that the Prada store in Paris used to be a rather modest establishment—maybe five staff to attend to rich shoppers. All of course preferred to speak French; maybe one or two spoke some English. These days there are fifteen attendants in the Paris Prada, and ten speak Mandarin.

Former Site of Cheap Souvenir Shops

So the rube with shit on his shoes has turned the tables and looks down his nose at his Hong Kong cousins. The astronauts are now returning, hoping to find a decent place to live before they are priced out of the market. When they arrive, they deplane at the shiny, efficient, quite beautiful, and vast Norman Foster designed airport, the last astonishing boondoggle of the last British administration. While they might have built the new airport in the rural New Territories, they chose instead to: put the airport on Lantau Island, a dozen kilometers out at sea; knock down a mountain, dump it into the water, and build on this reclaimed land; run a series of island-hopping bridges and a tunnel to join Lantau to the western edge of the Kowloon peninsula; do more reclamation along that western edge and run a who-knows-how-many-lane superhighway into town; build new towns along this route; run a new express train out to the airport; complement that train with new subway lines to serve the new towns; build a new and immense Kowloon Station that serves the airport, connects the W with the offices and apartment towers that surmount the station, and will serve as the terminus of the new Kowloon, Shenzhen, Guangzhou Express, the bullet train that will, ultimately, make it efficient to travel to Beijing by train.

In short, the new Western Corridor—much of it built on reclaimed land—has been an engineering and economic miracle. But more! More! It is also meant to be the location of the Western Corridor Cultural Area. Five years ago, when I last visited here, the finalists to build the place had just been announced, and models of their extravagant plans had been erected in the City Hall, the wonderful concert hall right on the waterfront on the Island, the hall, by the way, where I sang in 1965 with the Yale Glee Club. Frank Gehry’s proposal did not make the final cut, so his backers set up a rival exhibit in the then-most-posh shopping mall. All the plans called for two or three or four museums, a theatre, a covered garden that ran the length of the corridor (maybe 3/4s of a mile, maybe more) to connect all the venues and to protect the strollers from sun and rain. Above all these venues would be more shopping malls; above them, more flats. Each of the finalist architects had cast his lot with a prominent construction company. Each company was made to promise that it would underwrite the museums and arts venues for twenty years and then, once profitability was assured, turn the management and the profit over to the government. The companies would continue to draw profit from the commercial properties.

Disputes arose when it became more or less clear that the developers might welsh on the deal, skimp on the arts venues, and concentrate on the commercial properties. So, all the plans were shelved and a second competition begins soon.

Last night, by the way, I went to a City Hall concert by the Baptist University orchestra (not at all bad) to hear pieces by two of my old colleagues there. Before the concert, I strolled from the front door of the concert hall the 30 yards to the sea wall where, historically, one could sit and marvel at the cityscape on Kowloon-side, watch the ferries ply the harbor, soak in a bit of sea breeze. As Sydney knows, as the HK Cultural Center across the water knows, there’s nothing quite like having a delicious concert hall right smack on the water front. Alas, the reclamation projects on the Island-side have advanced to such a degree that the old sea wall is now 200 yards or more from the water. The new landfill will, eventually, sport a promenade that runs from Central all the way to Wan Chai, a six lane highway, and a tunnel that skips traffic further down the island. Presently, however, there’s nothing but the disappointment of having lost an old friend, the seat by the most dramatic harbor anywhere.

Now that Hong Kong is a Chinese colony, my students figure that the price of the reclamation projects on both sides of the harbor will increase by 20-35% to cover the cost of the necessary bribes. My student, who has her own PR firm and regularly does business on the mainland, budgets a minimum of US $ 20,000 to cover emoluments.

Eva, my successor Course Leader, a member of 9 government committees, a philosopher and aesthetician takes a somewhat different look at the Cultural Corridor. Not only are Hong Kong people not the most active museum goers, the current holdings are not nearly so large as they might be. Moreover, mainland collectors are invading auctions avidly, driving up prices, and making off with art that might be happy in a HK museum.

In a way, this last remark of Eva’s had a comforting effect. That the colonizers were buying art was at least something, even if they weren’t then donating it to a museum. The newspaper today had two stories that had set off all my questions about the new colony, the acquisitiveness of the parvenu class, and a cravenness about style, fashion, trendiness that made me feel downright prudish.

Story One: The Vertu phone company, a subsidiary of Nokia, is set to launch its latest 3G phone in Beijing and Shanghai (Tier Two cities which number 300 come later). The base price is HK$ 50,000 (US $ 6,400). For this price you get concierge service, “surgical-grade, brushed stainless steel and black leather.” You can also order a customized phone. You can have a gold case and jeweled numbers. The most expensive custom phone Vertu has produced to date cost 250,000 Euros or $400,000. Somehow, that device went to an Italian. The iPhone was all the rage here for a while, and it will be when the 4G model is more readily available. The 3G version is so outré that it is now most often purchased as a bribe for the driver of the man you need to seriously bribe.

Story Two: The headline reads: “Material Girls at Mainland Colleges Seek Sugar Daddies.” A senior at Shanghai University has come to the rescue of undergraduate girls who need money. He began by distributing fliers to the chauffeurs of expensive cars. He built a stable of students (acting students are the most expensive, earning HK $ 175, 000 a year; those not pretty enough for the drama school can earn 30,000) who are willing to be the paid mistresses of wealthy men who don’t want to cruise karaoke bars. One girl explains, “People’s attitudes have changed. They laugh at poor people, but they don’t laugh at prostitutes.” The entrepreneurial pimp says, “Most of the girls are financially comfortable, but they see their classmates carrying Louis Vuitton or Gucci bags, and they’re jealous. These girls want to have better lives.” That’s when the prude in me emerges: Gucci=a better life.

Then there’s this: “Xiao Li insists she is drawn by something deeper than the cash and perks. She says she has fallen in love with her patron. Sometimes, she says, she even takes him out for a meal. She can’t imagine getting married any more, because she has lost faith in male monogamy and hates the idea of playing the role of the wife, sitting at home while her husband steps out with a young woman like her.”

And yet, and yet, more than once during my wanderings (the bird garden being one new discovery), the last line of D.H. Lawrence’s sad little poem, Piano, which recounts his sitting beneath the piano while his mother played—the last line won’t leave me:

And I weep like a child for the past.


October, 2010

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