Territory's sacred turf celebrates red-letter day

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 November, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 November, 1995, 12:00am

NEVER mind the Bill of Rights, the shadow government and the through-train. This was much more significant.

Five hundred and eighty-three days before the official handover, China had quietly reclaimed arguably the most important piece of the territory: the sacred turf of the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club's racecourse at Happy Valley.

Governor Chris Patten last night stepped gingerly onto the springy, imported grass and looked around at the beaming faces lined up to greet him. Here he was, on Chinese soil, yet he was getting an extremely warm welcome. It was a new sensation for him.

An old British expatriate peered suspiciously at the Chinese grass from the railing nearby. 'It's green,' he mumbled to himself. 'I kind of thought it would be red.' But if there was one political issue that did intrude into the first meeting at the relaunched track, it was Sir Sze-yuen Chung's idea of Beijing starting a shadow government in Hong Kong.

A socialite lady in a pink outfit put it succinctly: 'The territory already has a shadow government - and there they are.' She pointed to the club's board of stewards, standing in a ragged line on the racetrack.

At the ceremony on a red carpet laid onto the remodelled track, the infinitesimal former government member John Chan unfortunately stood next to stratospherically tall banker Paul Selway-Swift, the pair looking like an illustration from The Guinness Book of Records' human extremities page.

Next to them, politician and horse owner Ronald Arculli was plotting to be in two places at once. 'There's no chance of nipping over to Sha Tin during a Legco meeting - not even if I used a helicopter. But here, I can probably make a quick visit and then head back to Legco in a hurry when the bell goes for a vote,' he enthused.

Just on the corner of the site, a crane and a team from Dragages were building something even more surreal; a residential apartment block with individual bedrooms, round-the-clock air conditioning, and a private lift. For the horses. 'They are delicate animals and they need their comforts,' an official explained.

The club's paramount leader, Major-General Guy Watkins, controlled everything with the curious mixture of charm and toughness one finds in top military men.

It unnerved some reporters, one of whom confessed: 'I was saving up the really tough questions until the end. Then I realised this guy is a soldier. He's trained to kill.'