Nelson Mandela: A life in pictures
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
the planes are coming in half-empty, most of the hotels are lying half-full. Everyone is saying of Hong Kong today that it is much like Los Angeles was during the 1984 Olympics; unnaturally empty, because all the ordinary would-be travelers were scared off by the gloomy talk of last spring, when the received wisdom was that everything over the handover period would be full, totally full.
The great and the good are pouring in nonetheless, preparing for what they expect will be the party of a lifetime. Actresses and models and society grand dames are here in abundance. Lauren Hutton is here, for some undefined reason. So is Yo-Yo Ma, who has come to play at the reunification concert. Margaret Thatcher is expected, taking a suite at the Mandarin for $10,000 a day. The trio of Jennings, Rather and Brokaw are all here, standing on street corners and making serious faces into expensive cameras, mouthing their customary platitudes, live from the exotic Orient.
The king of Tonga, a man so massively heavy that his hotel has to give him a bed reinforced with iron, has arrived. Tony Blair is going to look in briefly, as is, from Washington, Madeleine Albright and a junior bureaucrat named Richard Boucher, who will attend the Communists’ swearing-in that the White House had earlier said it would rather boycott.
But all the photographers — and there are thousands here already — are busy looking out for a glamorous British society woman and professional party animal named Tara Palmer-Tompkinson, whose only declared interest in finding a marriageable partner is to ensure, as she puts it, “that she never has to turn right when entering a plane.” And David Tang, a tycoon and playboy who is set to open a Chinese clothing store in New York next November, is being interviewed by everyone — Brokaw included — trying to make the case for the new China being now seriously chic.
The Hong Kong handover, in short, seems in sudden danger of becoming a frivolous and bubbly affair, attracting mainly the international society set, and of being commercialized to the hilt. Never before has a moment of international history seemed so tinted by the spirit of Disneyland. It is rather like the Treaty of Paris being sponsored by Gucci, or having Metternich perform synchronized swimming while carving up the Hapsburg empire, or giving up V-E day to the sale of Kodak film.
The whole business is rapidly shifting from being a grave affair of state, a truly historic, end-of-era moment, and becoming instead as tawdry as the Atlanta Olympics. The simile is apt: Next Tuesday’s celebratory fireworks, supposedly the biggest and gaudiest in world history, are being organized by one of last year’s Atlanta team, prompting one to wonder, among other considerations, just how tasteful an event we are in for.
(One’s curiosity on this score may well be satisfied by yesterday’s announcement that the handover is going to be followed by an hour of something called “mass karaoke,” doubtless every bit as dire as it sounds, and which probably hints at the general tone of the evening.)
For the moment, though, everything looks and feels more or less as usual. The Star ferries chuckle back and forth across the harbor, dodging the frequent squalls. The Peak Tram hitches itself up the alarming slope, taking commuting lawyers and bankers from home to office. The jets bank steeply on their approach into Kai Tak airport.
The courts preside, the legislators argue, the police patrol — and supreme above it all, the governor sits calmly in Government House, saying his farewells to his retinue. He is getting a year’s paycheck by way of golden parachute: half a million dollars, tax-free. The soldiers of the Black Watch are sitting around in their barracks, waiting to skirl their way into the history books with bagpipe laments composed by their own pipe-major, in a ceremony due in what is now just a few dozen hours.
The contrast between the rank vulgarity of what seems about to happen next week and the serenely old-fashioned realities of the end of British rule is going to be quite stunning. One sign on Connaught Road, suspended from an awning, seemed to catch the spirit: “Handover Sale, all goods off 40%, this day only.” The Chinese, who have a formidable aptitude for making money out of any given situation, are cashing in on this one too: reunification with the motherland, hotel rooms going cheap, ticket touts on hand and mass karaoke, 50 bucks a song.
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
Mandela is accompanied by his former wife Winnie, moments after his release from prison February 11, 1990 after serving 27 years in jail. (Reuters)
In this February, 1990 photo, shortly after his release from 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela, gives the black power salute to the 120,000 supporters packing Soccer City stadium in Soweto, near Johannesburg. (AP Photo)
Nelson Mandela showed his passport in February 19, 1990, shortly after his release from prison. The South African government authorized an application for himself and his wife Winnie - (Juda Ngwenya / Reuters)
In this July 27, 1991 photo, Cuban President Fidel Castro, and Nelson Mandela gesture during the celebration of the "Day of the Revolution" in Matanzas, Cuba. (AP Photo)
In this July 4, 1993 photo, President Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela listen during Fourth of July ceremonies in Philadelphia during which Clinton presented the Philadelphia Liberty Medal to the African National Congress president and South African President F.W. de Klerk. (AP Photo/Greg Gibson)
President of the African National Congress Nelson Mandela acknowledges cheers from the crowd as he prepares to unveil the ANC's official election platform in 1994. (AP Photo/David Brauchli)
African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela greeted residents of Mmabatho in March 1994, during a visit after the nominal homeland came under South African control following the ousting of the former President Lucas Mangope. (Reuters/Howard Burditt)
South African President Nelson Mandela smiles with actor Sidney Poitier at a press conference in Cape Town in 1996. Poitier played Mandela in the film "One Man, One Vote" (AP Photo / Sasa Kralj)
South African President Nelson Mandela waves to crowds as he sits next to Queen Elizabeth II in a an open carriage on the way to Buckingham Palace.(AP/Louisa Buller)
Chairman of the Constitutional Assembly Cyril Ramaphosa, left, holds up a copy of the country's constitution which was signed by President Nelson Mandela, in December 1996. (AP Photo / Adil Bradlow / POOL)
Nelson Mandela at a news conference in Johannesburg in February 2000. (AP Photo / Denis Farrell)
South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar, right, received the Rugby World Cup trophy from President Nelson Mandela also wearing a South African rugby shirt, after South Africa defeated New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup , in 1995. (AP Photo / Ross Setford)