As the UK government signals a potential ‘path to citizenship’ to nearly 3 million potential Hong Kong BNOs, and Trump starts the process of revoking Hong Kong’s special treatment, journalist and cultural historian Stuart Walton reflects on public and private histories.
“The Long Goodbye – Hong Kong in Personal and Historical Memory”
It is possible to be nostalgic for somewhere you have not yet left, for something that has not yet expired, but nevertheless looks likely to do. In October 2003, I returned to Hong Kong for a second visit. The first, which predated the handover, was as a member of a British press delegation hosted by the Hong Kong Tourist Association, in conjunction with the Hyatt hotel group, during which we heard much about the anticipated transfer of political authority and what it might mean for the way day-to-day life was lived. This subsequent trip, nearly ten years later, was in the company of my then boyfriend K, a Chinese IT programmer born and raised in Hong Kong, making one of his annual visits home.
Nostalgia is often wrongly characterised as a sentimental feeling of warmth towards past times, which misses the pain written into its Greek etymology. The Chinese word, huaijiu (waijau in Cantonese), hints at the element of absence, of what is missing, in all reminiscence, but falls a little way short of the all but physiological pain in ‘nostalgia’. What has gone, or is in the process of going, chafes the heart with its mortality. When the British left Hong Kong in the middle of 1997, the outgoing limousine of the final western potentate, the affable Governor Patten whose day would repeatedly be blurred by tears, circulated round the front courtyard of the governor’s residence three times, a reprise of the performance, appropriated from Chinese ritual, by which all his predecessors had signalled their intention to return. As though to acclimatise him for his own journey home, the pattering drizzle had turned to pelting downpour by the time Patten gave his final address among the dazzling white uniforms and plumed helmets of the imperial farewell. The scene only lacked Deng Xiaoping, erstwhile supreme leader and arch reformer of the PRC, who had vowed to walk unaided across the vanishing foreign border on the day of Hong Kong’s liberation, but had finally surrendered to Parkinson’s disease four months earlier.
Nobody I spoke to on my first visit in 1994 was doing anything other than looking forward to the new era promised by the handover. Hong Kong, having been conjured into existence from a group of barely inhabited offshore islands for its potential as a strategically located trading entrepot, had fulfilled its blueprint to perfection. Having been a mosquito nibbling successively at the ankles of imperial, nationalist and communist China, it was about to become the droplet of yin in the vast yang of the People’s Republic, a Special Administrative Region no less, a sui generis political entity that would preserve both the singularity of the community’s self-image and its capacious hospitality as a bustling intersection of world trade and bullish finance. Even Mao’s victorious forces in 1949 forbore to overrun it, preferring to take the long view that, when the territory did eventually return to the motherland, it would bring with it a golden treasury of economic prosperity.
Jan Morris, in her valedictory history of Hong Kong, notes that nobody on the British side in the final years before its return to China, was comfortable calling it a ‘colony’. It had rather become a ‘territory’, half a world away, to be sure, but no more estranged from the soul of its tutelary power than the Isle of Wight. As the final refulgent jewel in empire’s crown, it found itself a repository for the nostalgic yearnings of the British historical imaginary. Morris herself, an unillusioned observer in both travel writing and fiction of the twilight days of the imperial project, confesses to being touched by the safety notice on the Star Ferry that plies the waters between the island and Kowloon, exhorting the passenger to take care when alighting, its warm discursive formality evidence that the British have passed this way. The robust cultural autonomy that Hong Kong’s population enjoyed, for all the absence of the western electoral procedures that the British nonetheless impressed on China, was given in evidence of the beneficence of colonial administration. It sat with the cut-price tailoring, the exhaustless work ethic and the single-minded dedication to commerce as an indelible, nostalgic composite image of a Britain itself long since dissolved in the acids of chain-store clothing, trade union militancy and sedate economic decline.
By pure happenstance, on my second visit, we arrived on October 1st, China’s national day, now officially celebrated in Hong Kong too. The streets were full of workers on furlough, the traffic was even more intense than usual, and perched on the open upper deck of one of the old wooden-floored trams rumbling fitfully through Central, it was impossible not to be caught up in the holiday mood. Crowds knotted and snagged along the walkways of the shopping malls, and flowed seamlessly down the street escalators and those of the MTR. In the evening, we met K’s family on the rooftop car-park of one of the malls for a tumultuous firework display that played out largely in monochromatic scarlet, a none too subliminal political colour-coding on which nobody commented. We were to remain aloft for much of the week, the leitmotif of which would be looking down vertiginously from elevated positions: tram-top, rooftop, a top-floor room in a high-rise Causeway Bay hotel, the penthouse apartment of a business colleague complete with open terrace and hammock, and – most memorably of all – the view from a window table at the restaurant on the Peak. Even the day-trip out of Hong Kong took us on a vertical ascent to the observation deck of the Macau Tower, 230 metres up, where, light-headed with vertigo, I ducked the challenge of the harnessed, wind-tossed skywalk around the open perimeter.
An aerial view of any topography is too often constructed as an imperious vantage, the ‘commanding view’ that estate agents dream into every upper-storey apartment, but it can also be an effective way of putting an objective distance between yourself and the city or landscape in which you are otherwise embroiled. It confers fresh strangeness on the streets below when you return to them, a renewed sense that you are not in your home element, not even licensed to invoke a temporary home out of the transience of the present visit, no matter how familiar the immediate grid of streets and subway stations in the vicinity of the hotel becomes, no matter the fact that your companion, in whose life you have become closely woven, grew up here. The historical contingency that your people more or less invented Hong Kong, extorting the land from imperial China, having crushed opposition to their jealously protected role as colonial drug-dealers, ought to cast a gigantic shadow on the scene, but can be made, through the impress of recent history, to matter least of all.
The presiding genius of Hong Kong’s people was traditionally their willingness to rub along with political reality. If the western visitor prior to the handover expected to be patiently tolerated, he was less prepared to be more or less courteously ignored. On my earlier visit, I had joined the press group as a food and drink writer, and still have the Polaroids of myself eating a preserved egg from a stall at a market in Wan Chai and taking a connoisseurial sip of snake wine. When I asked to go behind the scenes at a poulterer’s business, where chickens were being slaughtered, nobody answered me but nobody stopped me either. The chickens were being killed by hand in more humane fashion than one might see at a western battery abattoir, although the lady at her block busily de-legging live frogs took a little more swallowing. In contrast, the occasional note of awkward deference, sounded on my return visit to the Hong Kong SAR, when, lunching with K’s extended family, I asked for some water, and a young waiter appeared with a small bottle of Evian, which he proceeded to unscrew and pour with all the dignified gravity of a sommelier – to the considerable amusement of the family. ‘Mother says she has never seen anything so ridiculous,’ K translated. Perhaps the flummery was allowable just because it took place in a context where no further obeisance was constitutionally due, but then it hadn’t been due when the plumed hats ran things either.
In the present time, when the antithesis of deference to what is still known as ‘mainland China’ has convulsed Hong Kong’s society, there are sporadic sightings of the Union flag. These could be performative provocations by those elements of the protest movement committed to fully independent status, in which case they seem particularly gratuitous and near-sighted, but I suspect that in many cases they recall an era when extraneous rule, despite its historical absurdity, pressed less closely on everyday life. Even those parties not officially demanding a severance from China are deploying social media messages that potently recall the erstwhile mutual tolerance, common solidarity, policing by consent, and independent educational principles that the region is in danger of losing, as much as they are devising roadmaps for uncharted political ground that might be gained.
Leaving the hotel room at around midnight on an errand for snacks, I emerged on to the bustling high street two dozen storeys below into a swirl of sopping humidity, blaring traffic horns and excitable voices. Every shop was open, each with its rudimentary air-conditioner coughing along, packed with people buying phone top-ups, snacks and requisites as though they were on their lunch breaks. Construction workers scrambled with vertiginous agility over creaking towers of bamboo scaffolding. Above one shop was a hairdresser’s salon, its dazzlingly lit window framing a tableau vivant of volubly chattering heads being shorn. The sense of undiluted, unconstrained life going on all around was in galvanising contrast to what we think of as the late-night western street scene, which tends to be consecrated exclusively to eating and drinking. Best of all is the view that rewards the climb by unfeasibly steep funicular to the Victoria Peak, where the greatest urban diorama in the world spreads circumambiently below, the skyscrapers seen from on high descending in foreshortened sparkling tiers to the distant earth – a postmodern metropolitan version of the Romantic sublime.
I didn’t have a suit made on that first trip, though I did learn to bargain in the local manner. Nor did I, soon to be a cultural historian of intoxicants, smoke opium, although I had been semi-officially pointed in the direction of a narrow doorway in Wan Chai. On the final night of the return trip a decade later, however, I did cause a ripple by suggesting that the extended family, seated about a large round restaurant table in the New Territories, on the evening of our flight back, might like to join me in a drink. Somebody asked the waiter if they had a bottle of red wine, eliciting a wordless ready nod. A minute later, the same waiter went past the window at full clip, on an errand to the corner shop, returning a minute later with a single bottle. It was judiciously apportioned among nearly twenty of us for a gon bui moment. K’s mother, who had never tasted grape alcohol in her life, reacted to her first incautious gulp of it, not with the expected horror, but with a triumphant flash of excitement. I raised my own glass to her from across the table. It seemed to connote at last a genuine moment of empathy between us across the stubborn linguistic – and moral – divide.
Governor Patten probably felt pre-emptive nostalgia in 1997. I had learned it earlier that year when K and I went to Venice in the bleak chill of pre-Carnival February. We had the entire Piazza San Marco to ourselves on a Sunday midnight, for a kiss that could have been the first. If Hong Kong now evokes in me the most astringent kind of nostalgia, it remains a volatile amalgam of past travels, lost love, and the long-range perception of a lustrous culture on the brink of a transformation that could be the most seismic in its history. The salient note in nostalgia’s ache is that there is no going back. It is always already tomorrow.
Stuart Walton is the author of many books including Intoxicology: A Cultural History of Drink and Drugs, In The Realm of the Senses: A Materialist Theory of Seeing and Feeling, Introducing Theodor Adorno, a monograph on the chilli pepper, The Devil’s Dinner, and a novel, The First Day in Paradise. He lives in southwest England.