Home, Sweet Home

November 6, 2009 — On July 1, 1997 at midnight, Hong Kong was handed over by Great Britain to the People’s Republic of China. After 155 years of British colonial rule, the Fragrant Harbor was once again formally part of China. The handover ceremony was presided over by the Prince of Wales and Chris Patten, the last governor of the territory, and attended by Jiang Zemin, the Premier of China, and Tony Blair, the newly elected British prime minister. Amid a monsoon downpour a British military band played “Last Post” (complete with bagpipe solo) as the Union Jack and Hong Kong colonial flag were slowly lowered. Moments later, a Chinese regimental band struck an especially spirited version of the PRC anthem as their national flag was hoisted. Alongside it was the new flag of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, an attractive design with a white bauhinia (Hong Kong orchid) set in the center of a field of bright red. The rain could not dampen the spectacular fireworks display over Victoria Harbor that began shortly after midnight, yet it was hard to describe this occasion entirely as a celebration. The handover, or “reunification” as the Chinese insisted, was met with mixed feelings by Hong Kong’s residents. While few of them embraced the elegies and nostalgia of the misty-eyed British community (many of whom had spent their entire lives in Hong Kong), they also viewed the territory’s incorporation into communist China with tremendous anxiety. It was a mere eight years after the Tiananmen Square uprising and at the height of Beijing’s hostility toward Taiwan, its “renegade” province. While Deng Xiaoping had earlier promised that Hong Kong’s autonomy and special role as a gateway to the West and capitalist powerhouse would be respected, nobody knew for certain what would happen when the British departed. Once the handover ceremony was done, the British delegation boarded the royal yacht HMS Britannia and sailed away at the same time that trucks and buses filled with soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) crossed into the territory from the now unguarded border post at Shenzhen. When the sun rose the next morning, Hong Kong appeared no different than the day before, but it was the dawn of a new era.

I have arrived in Hong Kong over twelve years after the handover and so I can offer no personal “before and after” observations about the territory. As an historian of the British Empire, I must say that I regret I never had the chance to visit Hong Kong in its former incarnation as a remnant of empire. Hong Kong has always been a puzzle both to those who ruled it and those who made it work. When the British took over in 1842, there were only a few thousand residents in the territory. Most of the seven million people who live here today are Cantonese-speaking Chinese whose ancestors migrated here from Guangdong and other regions of China once Hong Kong was already under British rule. They made a conscious choice to come to a part of China ruled by the gweilo. For their part, the British in Hong Kong administered (rather than ruled) a chaotic and prosperous mix of British, Chinese, and Indian entrepreneurs. The British—at first, more often Scots than English—governed with the usual mix of social insularity, military heavy-handedness, and attitudes of racial and cultural superiority. Yet they also eradicated piracy in the region, initiated an ambitious series of public works projects, and established a legal system based on English common law in which contracts were enforceable. All of this was good for business and Hong Kong soon became a regional commercial center to rival the Straits Settlement (now Singapore) and the great treaty ports of Shanghai, Tsingtao, Tientsin, and the other British outpost at Wei Hai Wei. Hong Kong thrived and its freedom (economic, if not political) attracted thousands of Chinese immigrants as well as the Sikhs, Gurkhas, and Irishmen who guarded the territory and the Parsis and Iraqi Jews who helped found its financial system. It is hard to believe that such titans of international finance as HSBC (the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation) and Hang Seng started out as small mom-and-pop operations in a tropical backwater, but that is how it happened.

To their credit, the British had the good sense not to try to fix something that wasn’t broken. The mystery of Hong Kong’s success continues to be debated, but as far back as the nineteenth century the British adopted a colonial policy of economic non-interference—perhaps a more successful version of the “benign neglect” shown toward the American colonies in the eighteenth century. The Chinese in Hong Kong chafed at their racial exclusion from high office but enjoyed the protection of a relatively honest and impartial legal system. By the late twentieth century, most of the racial prohibitions were gone and Chinese civil servants served at the highest levels of the Hong Kong government. On average, its residents enjoyed a higher standard of living and fewer economic regulations than people in Britain, so Hong Kong could not be considered a colony in any real sense. More importantly, throughout its history Hong Kong’s British keepers had mercifully shielded the territory from the worst horrors of modern China’s tumultuous and tragic history: among these the Taiping Rebellion, the warlordism of the 1920s and 30s, the civil war between the Kuomintang and the communists, the famines of the Great Leap Forward, and the insanity of the Cultural Revolution. The exception, of course, was Japanese occupation during the Second World War (more about that later). Yet toward the end of the twentieth century things in China were improving—somewhat. While the Beijing leadership in the 1980s and 90s seemed to be shedding its atavistic hatred for capitalism, it showed no signs of tempering its centralizing and authoritarian style of government anytime soon. The certainty and stability of British non-interference, such as it was, now functioned on borrowed time (perhaps it always had). Even as the countdown toward 1997 was well underway, nobody could say for certain what would come after.

The flow of capital and people out of Hong Kong in the run-up to 1997 never approached anything like a panic, but it was not insubstantial either. Hundreds of millions of dollars were transferred into banks in Europe, North America, Taiwan, and Singapore while thousands of Hong Kong’s wealthier residents bought property in New York, San Francisco, London, Vancouver, Sydney and Taipei. Some of them hedged their bets even further by taking advantage of their status as British subjects (while it lasted) to attain British citizenship. Ultimately, however, their worst fears did not come to pass. Hong Kong today is more vibrant, prosperous and stable than at any point in its history and its people continue to enjoy a substantial (though incomplete) degree of political and economic freedom. Officials in Beijing, like their British predecessors, seem eager to avoid killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. In fact, as far back as the establishment of the PRC in 1949, the communists saw the benefit of Hong Kong as a link to the West, especially during the days when Red China was otherwise virtually cut off from the western world. Perhaps more importantly, they want to reassure Taiwan that reunification with China can occur peacefully, amicably, and with the retention of substantial political and economic autonomy and historical distinctiveness. Taiwan has always meant more to Beijing than Hong Kong and thus a deft handling of Britain’s former colony may set the stage for a more important reunification sometime in the not-to-distant future. “One country, two systems” might perhaps become “one country, three systems.”

And so Hong Kong continues to thrive. Mainlanders, western expats, and immigrants from other parts of Asia are arriving in record numbers. Some, like me, are transients, but many are here to stay and all of us need a place to live in a city where the population density is greater than almost anywhere else in the world. In overall terms of people per square mile, Hong Kong would seem to be less dense than cities like Calcutta, New York, or Sao Paolo, but one must keep in mind that almost ninety percent of Hong Kong’s dry surface is unoccupied. Hong Kong is no Gotham, nor is it an endless grid of urban and suburban sprawl stretching to the horizon. A satellite image of the territory reveals that most of the land is mountainous green and a scattering of islands; amid this green, patches of gray show the dense urbanized clusters. A similar image of New York City, by contrast, shows mostly the gray of concrete, buildings, and asphalt dotted with a few green squares and strips where the city parks are located. Likewise the tremendous sprawl that is characteristic of Los Angeles, Delhi, or Mexico City is a geographic impossibility in Hong Kong. To expand, Hong Kong has no choice but to grow upward rather than out, yet even this can only partially offset the intense demand for affordable housing. The key term is “affordable.” Not everyone here is wealthy and the legions of cleaners, maintenance workers, restaurant staff, taxi drivers, municipal employees, nurses, shopkeepers, and their families also need places to live. While this situation is similar to other notoriously expensive cities like London and New York, in Hong Kong it is even worse. The working and middle classes are left scrambling while the super-rich pay exorbitant sums for the best accommodations. Last week an anonymous purchaser paid the equivalent of US $56 million for an apartment in a new ultra luxury tower on Conduit Road in HK Island (I’m guessing it comes with a parking space, but you never know). Real estate speculation here is especially reckless and the oscillating waves of boom and bust are a well-established pattern. The plummeting value of property in Hong Kong over the last two years would make overheated markets in the US like San Diego and South Florida pale by comparison. Many property owners here are heavily mortgaged and are hoping just to recoup their lost value. Lately the government and private sector are both warning that Hong Kong’s emergence from the worldwide recession has already started to inflate the next real estate bubble.

For decades the government has taken an active role in ensuring adequate housing for a growing population on the territory’s limited space. At the end of the Second World War thousands of Chinese from the mainland crossed over into Hong Kong and these numbers increased even further with the communist victory in the civil war in 1949. The impoverished newcomers settled in large, overcrowded slums in Kowloon and the New Territories—many of these were built precariously on the slopes of mountains. A catastrophic fire in 1953 in Shek Kip Mei killed hundreds and led to the clearance of the slums and a massive project to build high-rise flats in their place. Even now the demand for low-rent housing continues. This problem was the focus of the recent policy speech by the chief executive Donald Tsang (that is his actual title; there is no “mayor” of Hong Kong). Mr. Tsang tried to assure the city’s residents that subsidized housing would continue, but everyone knows it will be hard to fill such a pressing need. Indeed, the law of supply and demand is not something that needs to be explained to people in Hong Kong.

In the end, the only solution seems to be designing residential buildings that squeeze the most possible cubic space out of the least amount of square footage of ground. The result, not surprisingly, is row upon row of very thin and very tall apartment blocks (see below). Despite their impressive stature, however, many of these buildings are not much to look at. They tend to be squalid and functional structures with little or no artistic flair. Their faded, rust-streaked and crumbling concrete or tile exteriors are pock-marked with ugly window unit air conditioners and fans while makeshift clothes racks hang from the balconies. In a way, though, I find these buildings and neighborhoods strangely appealing. Despite their ugliness they have character and a kind of humanity; this despite their being built on anything but a human scale. The ground floors are often rented as commercial properties and are occupied by rows of shops and small businesses. The dozens of stories above them are teeming with people and echo with babies crying and dogs barking while the streets below are crowded with shoppers and merchants. Parks are always filled with children playing games and middle-aged and elderly residents doing their daily tai chi. Yet these many details, both good and bad, are not noticeable from afar. In fact, on a grand scale the combined effect of dozens of these tall, thin, gleaming white (again, from afar) structures set against a backdrop of pristine green mountains makes for one of the most stunning cityscapes anywhere in the world. I am lucky enough to have such a view from my flat. Though I may be starting to feel like a “Hong Kongese,” the truth is that I have been spared one of the more onerous rites of passage for new arrivals: namely the search for an affordable place to live. My flat is provided by my university and it was empty and ready for me on the day I arrived. It is spacious and fully furnished with three bedrooms, three baths, a balcony, a laundry room, and access to a pool and gym. I have never lived alone in such spacious accommodations and that I have a flat like this all to myself, in Hong Kong of all places, is really amazing. It will be a sad day indeed when I have to pack up and leave it behind.
Hong Kong high-rise apartment blocks (look closely)