Still dazzling after all these years
It was supposed to be for a year. That’s such a Hong Kong cliché, I hesitate to write it: when I arrived in 1993, the colony (the word had fallen out of favour by then but the Union Jack still flew in its most remote corners) was full of people who’d never intended to stay. I don’t just mean the backpacking expats who came for a week and lingered. Most of the Hong Kong Chinese population had fled across the border from the mainland after Mao came to power in 1949. They thought they’d be going home soon, but they never did.
It was the most transient place I’d ever encountered. For anyone who loves exploring different vistas, 1990s Hong Kong was perfect. You didn’t actually have to travel anywhere: it simply recreated itself around you. Land reclamation meant the shoreline shifted all the time, old (that is, more than about 30 years) buildings came down overnight and fresh ones were suddenly revealed as their bamboo scaffolding was dismantled. Meanwhile, as the handover to China approached two decades ago, new stamps and coins were issued without the Queen’s head, the red postboxes were painted green, the flag for what would become the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region was designed with a bauhinia flower blooming on it. (An ordinance sternly stated it must always be smaller and less prominent when
Two decades after the Hong Kong handover, long-term resident Fionnuala McHugh picks sights that capture the city’s spirit, from tiny Yim Tin Tsai island to the shoppers’ paradise of Stanley
flown next to the national flag of China.) The official emblems worn by those who patrol frontiers – police, customs, immigrations, army – changed at the stroke of midnight on June 30, 1997 – exactly 20 years ago on Friday – and none of us had had to move a step.
Tourists flocked to witness these dying tweaks of empire. I got used to providing Hong Kong tours for friends (or friends of friends). They were astonished at how little English was spoken. They were amazed at how green and isolated parts of the New Territories or Outlying Islands can be – the antithesis of that spangled, skyscrapered waterfront you see in all the postcards.
There weren’t heritage trails and helpful street signs back then, soo I’d arrange to meet these visitors s in the generous lobbies of the Mandarin or the Grand Hyatt. If we were feeling flush we might go to the Captain’s Bar or to Grissinini for its buffet. (Plates piled stupendously high by slender people is an enduring Hong Kong gastronomic sight.) Much of Hong Kong’s social life took place in hotel restaurants and bars, a situation which was beginning to change.
Otherwise, we’d head up towards Lan Kwai Fong – the main ain entertainment area for expats – via the recently-finished world’s s longest outdoor covered escalator. The city’s first coffee chain had opened the previous year to some head-shaking; those in the know told me that the Chinese wouldn’t drink coffee. Nor, apparently, would they consume wine or cheese.
You hear a lot of expert predictions when you perch in a different land. Then you make them yourself. (Travel’s lessons include the retrospective cringe.) Millions of words were written about what would happen after the handover. But no one forecast this: that 30 hours after midnight, at 6am on July 2, Thailand would devalue its currency and trigger the Asian financial crisis.
Hong Kong’s dollar, pegged to the US dollar, made it so expensive that, despite the huge airport that opened in 1998, tourists stayed away. The new government was obliged to run a campaign encouraging locals to be more welcoming. Returning Western expats still comment on the increased friendliness of the city since the headlong, shove-aside, moneymaking pre-1997 era. The other thing they notice is how much cleaner it is – a legacy of Sars.
Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome seized the Special Administrative Region in 2003, and it changed Hong Kong utterly. That’s when the real handover took place, when Hong Kong realised it was placed firmly within China. International tourism almost ceased so China loosened restrictions on visits by its own citizens; and they have flocked across the border ever since.
Almost every aspect of Hong Kong you’ll notice today – the proliferation of hotels and serviced apartments, the restaurants that come and go because
Sunrise over the ever-changing Hong Kong skyline
With space at a premium, Hong Kong residents cram into dense apartment buildings, top; lively Lan Kwai Fong, above; Chris Patten at the handover ceremony 20 years ago, left