Hong Kong Diary: June 26, four days to handover

The glitterati pour into Hong Kong four days before handover

Published June 27, 1997 7:58PM (EDT)

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.

By Simon Winchester

Simon Winchester is a contributing editor for Salon Wanderlust. He has previously written about Hong Kong, the Kurile Islands and China.

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