‘It’s easy to forget that this sophisticated modern city is nonetheless part of a repressive Communist system’
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.
Whizzed off in Sir David’s vintage Riva speedboat for lunch on his yacht — exquisite fresh lobster and abalone before my speech on General de Gaulle. On the way up to change, I share the lift with a tall man with a suspicious deep magenta toupee.
“Kinky goings-on at the White House today,” he remarks. “Revelations about Hillary Clinton and lesbians.”
“Why would anyone care if Hillary Clinton was a lesbian?” I ask.
“They’re worse than Nazis.”
We reach my floor before we can continue this fascinating discussion. Suddenly I wonder if he is a spy. I have been transported into a Graham Greene novel styled by Alexander McQueen.
The Hong Kong Royal Geographical Society are ever so interested in de Gaulle, which is a great relief. We dine afterwards with the director, Rupert McCowan, at Cipriani. Talk is of the “cage houses”, lock-up bunk bed dormitories where many of Hong Kong’s elderly people are now forced to live. Raw capitalism has eroded the ethos of respect and care for parents formerly so strong in Chinese culture. The consensus is that for a city which has enjoyed a decade of uninterrupted growth the lack of social provision for the vulnerable is a disgrace. But any attempt to agitate politically for improvement is dismissed as “Commie liberalism”.
Bliss, no speeches. We are driven to Sir David’s country house for lunch on the terrace with a view of the unspoilt islands that could have been painted by George Chinnery. Another reason to love Hong Kong — unlike Manhattan, it’s actually possible to drive out of it in under four hours.
Just time for a ride across the harbour on the Star Ferry before leaving for the airport. My brief experience of Hong Kong has been a luxuriously harmonious bubble, but I’m aware that I haven’t begun to apprehend this extraordinary city’s potential for discord.