The Hong Kong goodbye party

And will I ever go back?


Tiananmen was not my battle to fight, and as I have said, I did not perform in a particularly noble fashion.

The days directly after the army attack were frightening. There were rumours about clashing army divisions, one of whom wanted to spark an international incident by killing foreigners, and reportedly controlled the road out to the airport. International flights had been cancelled.

People stopped me on the street and cried "Tell the world what is going on in China!" I did call in some reports to my newspaper in Hong Kong, most of which were not used.

I eventually got back to Hong Kong with the help of a Hong Kong entrepreneur who had heard there were flights out of Xiamen, a seaside port in the south. We took a train there, and after an uncomfortable experience at the airport - hundreds of people crowding the ticket window, planes taking off half-empty because no one could buy a seat - I was able to get out of China.


Beijing, June 4, daytime.

Hong Kong, Victoria Park, June 1989.


Hong Kong was best place to be after June 4. Nowhere else did people feel as sad as I did. There was a huge demonstration in Victoria Park, with a replica of the Goddess of Democracy that had stood in Tiananmen Square.

Nobody could talk of anything else, and for people who were already afraid of what would happen after the Chinese takeover of Hong Kong in 1997, Tiananmen made them even more eager to get a foreign passport.

It was getting to be time for me to leave, as well. Without making the commitment to learn Cantonese - a five to ten year commitment for a Westerner - I was never going to become a top-class newspaper reporter. It wasn't a commitment I wanted to make.

I had achieved what I'd come to Hong Kong for: to meet the people there and learn to see them as people, not ravenous conquering monsters.

I did, and I'm still pretty skeptical when people tell me, in 2007, the People's Republic of China is going to take over the world. It seems more concerned with papering-over problems to avoid any loss of face.


I spent the rest of 1989 exploring Hong Kong. I took ferry boat trips to the outlying islands, which were then a little more than grass and sand and a few run-down fishing villages. One of them, Lantau, has since become Hong Kong's international airport and Hong Kong Disneyland.

I visited the Man Mo temple downtown, with its candles and incense and shrines to both traditional Chinese gods and Buddha. Buddha traditionally likes oranges, but some of the more modern Hong Kong worshipppers had left him orange-flavoured Starburst.

I went to the Western district, full of crumbling old traditional Chinese apartment blocks, complete with "nightsoil ladies" instead of indoor plumbing. Westerners found them charming and worthy of preservation: the Chinese hated them and wanted them torn down as quickly as possible.

In general, I found my Chinese friends and colleagues had a bias towards things new. For example, I carried a well-worn, well-loved leather school bag that Europeans thought was incredibly hip. Chinese people used to ask me why I didn't throw it away and get a new bag.

I went to Cantopop concerts, including one of the 33 retirement concerts held by local superstar Leslie Cheung, a series titled "A Final Encounter of the Legend." Leslie was talented singer. He also starred in a number of reasonably good movies, including "Farewell my Concubine," before throwing himself off a building in 2003.



At the going-away party

My going-away party was held at the Helena May. It was covered by the local edition of the Tatler, the social diary of the British elite. Some of the male guests amused themselves by posing for photographs with their eyes closed and their mouths open, as they said all Tatler photos appeared.

I wore a long blue silk chong-sam I had purchased from some other Westerner. Somebody gave me a set of Chinese fortune-telling sticks, which I kept for years before throwing them out the window in a fit of pique when they didn't say what I wanted them to say.

I don't miss Hong Kong. I visit Berlin at least once a year, but I haven't been back to Hong Kong since I left it almost two decades ago.

I do miss the food, all those wonderful fresh Chinese vegetables and dum sum, and often make the best replicas I can manage in my own kitchen. I miss the shopping, those tiny, perfectly-made Japanese skirt suits in which I was always a size XXL, despite being a size 6 in Western clothing.


I do have a bit of a bad conscience when I look back on my Chinese friends. They let me into their lives as friends, and but what I offered them was only a temporary friendship. Twenty years later, I'm not in touch with any of them.

Will I ever go back to Hong Kong? The Hong Kong I knew isn't really there any more. The Bank of China skyscraper that I watched under construction can now hardly be seen in the skyline of much higher buildings.

Maybe, if I someday take Georgia to Tokyo or Shanghai or Sydney, we'll go through Hong Kong. But maybe not.


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