I am a moron. I somehow had it in my head that Hong Kong was behind European time, not ahead, and that I would have a whole day to calm my nerves before giving a fairly terrifying speech to the Hong Kong Commonwealth Association, at the flattering but daunting invitation of Sir David Tang, the Hong Kong entrepreneur. Now it's 7pm, I've got on the wrong train and I've just realised I'm going to arrive on Saturday afternoon. The speech is on Sunday. I lurch on to the platform at Hayes and rashly offer all my worldly goods to anyone in the minicab office who can get me to Terminal Five in 15 minutes. Mr Kumar from Chennai, the new love of my life, drives like Steve McQueen. I make the plane. 1A are the nicest words in the English language.
"I just want you to relax," booms Sir David in my ear as we touch down. "So dinner in two hours?" I don't go back sensibly to my room to rehearse my speech; instead I end up drinking whisky on a 25th-floor terrace with a pearlescent view over the harbour. Hong Kong is everything Manhattan thinks it is but isn't.
There's something intriguingly jaunty and defiant about the continued existence of the Hong Kong Commonwealth Association, though Joan, the 82-year-old director of the Hong Kong Ballet Academy, who arrived off the boat in 1954, explains that membership has halved since the handover to China. And last year there was An Incident when the Commonwealth flag displayed on what used to be called Empire Day was larger than the Chinese one. I'm dying to ask Joan about how the city has changed in half a century, but I can't speak in case I throw up with nerves, and besides, everyone keeps talking about powdered milk. Apparently the "mainlanders" are so desperate to smuggle the stuff out for resale that a cap has been imposed on how many tins can be exported, with severe fines and even imprisonment for transgression.
My speech is called "Commonwealth: Idea or Entity?", with an epigraph from Henry IV: "What, the commonwealth, their boots? Will it keep out water in a foul way?" I discuss the 13th-century origins of the term and speculate that a return to its older meaning as a locus for political dissent has the potential to revitalise the Commonwealth and dissociate it from its unpalatable imperial image. The Commonwealth historian David Dilks observed that the Commonwealth plays no part in our general elections and little part in our general consciousness — perhaps because it's the first hot day of the year, but consciousness isn't a big feature among my audience, either. Still, I get through.
Sir David moderates the questions, which remain anodyne and polite until someone asks what I think the role of HKCS could be in the future. I suggest that Hong Kong's unique position in Asia might serve as a powerful platform to debate the appalling human rights abuses perpetrated by the Chinese government. Suddenly, it is as though all the air has been vacuumed out of the room. It's too easy to forget that this intensely sophisticated modern city, with its reassuring veneer of European culture, is nonetheless part of a repressive Communist system, and alarming that what I had tactlessly considered a mildly provocative remark has produced expressions of actual fear.