In the teeth of the Dragon
CHINESE leader Hu Jintao inspected troops in Hong Kong yesterday as a weekend of celebrations to mark the 10th anniversary of the handover from British colonial rule got underway.
Since Chris Patten, the last British governor, left on July 1, 1997, China has tried to encourage Hong Kong residents to develop a deeper feeling for the motherland and consider themselves Chinese citizens - not 'Hong Kongers' distinct from their mainland compatriots.
The point will be hammered home this evening by a spectacular fireworks show over the world-famous harbour, which will spell out 'Chinese people' in red pyrotechnics.
There were fears at the hand-over that the Chinese army would invade, stifling dissent and ending Hong Kong's freewheeling capitalist days. We spoke to four Scots who stayed on about how the former colony has fared since the Union Jack was lowered after flying for 156 years over this colonial outpost.
BRUCE WALKER businessman and property developer
Bruce Walker remembers the magazine headline well: "Hong Kong: RIP." It was July, 1997, and the obituaries were being written worldwide for the former British colony. "British TV came across looking for the Chinese army yomping in through the New Territories," he said. "They reported there was no shooting yet. It was absolute claptrap, there was never going to be a Tiananmen Square scenario here. The Chinese could have taken over Hong Kong anytime they wanted, but that's not the message they wanted to send out to the world."
Ten years on, what he and is family are celebrating is that there has been so little change. "This place has stayed remarkably the same," he said. "The only physical change is the Hong Kong flag flying over the police station rather than the Union Jack. Even in 1997, we thought it was a bit strange that the British flag should be flying over a South-east Asian island."
Walker, from Ayrshire, arrived in Hong Kong in 1981, witnessed the signing of the handover treaty negotiated by Margaret Thatcher in 1984, carried on with business as usual in 1997, raised his three sons on the island, and 26 years on, has no intention of returning to Scotland.
"Hong Kong has developed very successfully over the past 10 years. It has found a role as a financial centre as the New York of China. It is quasi-independent with different legal, taxation and education systems and by and large adheres to the rule of law.
"It is also still an amazing place to live. I live in a 200-year-old village, but within a few moments I can be back in the global financial mele."
As a businessman, Walker is slightly nostalgic for the clearer decision-making that was commonplace under British colonial rule but has now been replaced by a greater Chinese bureaucracy with "one eye on political masters in Beijing".
For that reason, he welcomes the flowering of a democracy movement.
"There is a great undercurrent of discontent among the people who live here and that involves the lack of democracy," he said. "Prior to 1997, people put up with British colonial administration because it was fair and correct in what it did. Everyone now says that what we need is a leader prepared to say 'Up Yours' to Beijing. Whether that will happen remains to be seen."
LIZ SEATON owner of Gingers, a private catering company
LIZ SEATON watched the events of the 1997 handover from a luxury apartment overlooking the harbour. She was working as a chef for a catering company. Now she runs her own private catering operation, which is much in demand this weekend. "Then it was handover parties, now people are having reunification parties," she said. "It's a celebration that a decade on, Hong Kong is thriving."
Her company is a prime example of the new economic boom that the former colony is enjoying. Far from bringing Hong Kong's capitalist past to an end, the Chinese communist government has allowed the former colony's money-making instincts to flourish.
"From a western point of view, my coming here in 1992 was a risk because we didn't really know what was going to happen five years later," said Seaton, from Edinburgh. "But the worries surrounding the handover came and went and life just simply went on."
The biggest change she remembers is the post-boxes. "They had always been typically British red, but then, very quickly, they were all painted green."
Seaton started her own business in 2002 as the economic meltdown which swept the whole south-east Asian economy at the turn of the century appeared to be easing. Within a year, the feared Sars influenza epidemic, which caused a worldwide panic, hit Hong Kong hard.
"It affected us hugely and we went one month without any business at all," she recalls.
"People were ringing up cancelling events because they didn't want to gather together with others. But after things calmed down it started to pick up. I would say that we have now had the busiest June since I opened the business."
With the British colonial heritage fading, Seaton detects a creeping cultural Americanisation of Hong Kong, with US citizens and Australians making up a bigger contingent of expats than the British.
The real problems, she adds, however, are coming from over the border in mainland China. "There is now a lot of pollution because of the industrialisation of southern China. Apart from that, we never really know what Beijing [the Chinese government] might do next."
ROD MASON Superintendent, Hong Kong Police
TEN years ago, Rod Mason, originally from Stirlingshire, was standing on Hong Kong waterfront in the pouring rain watching the Royal Yacht Britannia sail away from the British colony for the last time.
A career policeman, he was on crowd control duty in Kowloon, but the assembled multitude had conducted itself peaceably, cheering as a spectacular fireworks display closed the curtain on 156 years of British rule.
"The biggest change was at midnight when, in public, we took off our tunics bearing the Royal insignia and put on tunics with the Hong Kong insignia," he said. "What we didn't know is if we would have a job in the morning."
The force, then heavily populated with British officers, found that it did, but there were still anxieties. "Nobody really thought the People's Liberation Army would come rushing in, and, of course, that didn't happen. Our fears never materialised and a decade on, Hong Kong appears to be a very stable place."
Mason has now clocked up 25 years in the Hong Kong force and is among the last of his kind. At the handover in 1997, there were 756 overseas officers, mostly British, in the 27,000-strong force, accounting for about a third of the senior ranks. The number is now down to around 250 and recruitment policy is now skewed towards ethnic Chinese.
"There are still a lot of expat officers here, but recruitment is now aimed at the Chinese," Mason said. "That's okay with me; I consider myself a Hong Konger as opposed to British."
Despite the image of Triad gangs, Hong Kong in fact has a very low crime rate. In 2005, it recorded 1,137 overall cases of crime per 100,000 people, compared with 2,675 in New York and a staggering 13,400 in London.
Today, Mason will be out on the streets policing the traditional July 1 Hong Kong March for Democracy, aimed at loosening the political influence of the mainland Chinese government.
He doesn't expect trouble. "This is a great place to earn a living. Hong Kong's role was traditionally to make money, it does it very well and most people just want to get on with it."
KEVIN McBARRON owner of three bars
KEVIN McBARRON arrived in Hong Kong just a year before the handover. Like many expats before him, his expected stay of a few months turned into 11 years and still counting.
"There was a certain mad exuberance about the place at the time," he said. "There was a definite end-of-an era feeling, but also a general anxiety about what was going to happen when the Chinese took over.
"A lot of people, especially Brits, did leave, fearing the worst. But those that stayed just got on with it."
A typical backpacker, McBarron, from Houston, Renfrewshire, mutated from bar work to bar owner and sports his Scottish credentials in names such as The Canny Man (after the famous Edinburgh hostelry) Hong Kong's only whisky bar, and his now closed Caledonia restaurant.
He admits he benefited from Hong Kong's gung-ho entrepreneurial zeal. "An aspect of Hong Kong that remains is that new businesses don't necessarily go to a bank. They find individuals willing to invest in other individuals who like their business plan. That's how I got started."
The first eight years were "tough", he says, due to the economic downturn in the wider south-east region and the outbreak of Sars. A combination of the two was behind the closure of Caledonia, his restaurant venture, which also opened a week after the 9/11 attacks on the US.
But Hong Kong is on the rise, McBarron now believes, buoyed by a booming economy and a population that has grown from six to seven million in the past 10 years. "The last 18 months have felt like the late 1980s when everyone was cleaning up in an economic sense. People now are really spending their money. The doom-mongers of the 1990s were wrong."
He has watched with interest the burgeoning democracy movement, which is campaigning for one-man, one-vote elections so far denied by the Chinese government. "Most of the British colonial past has gone to be replaced by a Chinese elite. Hong Kong people are now much more politicised but they remain very wary of Beijing. Beijing looks on Hong Kong as an errant child which needs scolding. It just hasn't done the scolding bit yet. Perhaps it's waiting until after the 2008 Olympics."
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Sunday 19 May 2013
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