Let the lion dance begin

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 June, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 27 June, 1997, 12:00am

A celebration of the end of empire; a celebration of a new beginning; a wake. Hong Kong's handover is being marked in many places in many ways by people connected with Hong Kong - and by those who have never been near the territory but are curious to see a dragon or two.

Some have decided to concentrate on June 30 farewells; others are waiting until July 1 greetings; others are using the whole event to reflect on some of the difficulties and opportunities that lie ahead.

For many, it is a chance to watch fireworks, dress up (in Chinese, Western or national dress), enjoy a banquet and clink a glass of champagne (for froth) or brandy (for deeper reflection).

It is all too easy to fall into the trap of seeing Hong Kong's handover as somehow similar to New Year, with events slowly circling the globe.

'This may, in terms of dateline, be the first celebration of this historic event in the world,' writes a former Hong Kong expatriate from her New Zealand home, where she and 200 others are preparing a weekend of activities including a lowering of the old Hong Kong flag at 5.15pm. But other datelines are irrelevant: it is only Hong Kong's midnight that matters, the moment a British colony returns to China's embrace. And it is Hong Kong's dusk on Monday that marks the moment when the sun sets on the British Empire.

BRITAIN The biggest festival to mark the handover in Britain will be held in London's Docklands, the site last century of Britain's first Chinatown but several kilometres away from the heartland of the Chinese community today.

The Yan Huang festival - sponsored by the Hong Kong Government Office in London, the Hong Kong Tourist Association and British and Chinese business interests - is being described as a 'dazzling three-day display of Chinese arts, culture, food and fashion' starting tomorrow and ending on the night of June 30.

It will feature Chinese opera, folk and popular song, traditional music, street theatre, acrobatics and classical dance. Lion dances and dragon-boat races will enliven the disused docks, culminating in a performance of the Yan Huang legend, a theatrical pageant on stilts.

The organisers' aim is to transform the Docklands into a hybrid of a night market like Temple Street and Aberdeen Harbour. Visitors will watch the handover ceremony live on a huge TV screen.

Elsewhere, events are looking decidedly low-key for most of Britain's estimated 160,000 citizens of Hong Kong origin.

On Monday at Sandown Park - a racecourse south of London - the handover will be marked by the Hong Kong Society, a group of about 2,500 former expatriates at a much more restrained festival than Docklands'. Some cynics are labelling it a 'wake'.

Entitled 'Special Place, Special Time', the event is being organised by the Hong Kong Society. Members and guests will fill the vast trackside dining room and spill on to the terrace to watch a video recording of the farewell and SAR inaugural ceremonies immediately before and after 5pm local time. Nostalgia is given short shrift in the organisers' blurb: 'There are certain to be strong personal and family feelings and thoughts but I hope they will soon be overtaken, in the true Hong Kong fashion, by our aspirations for the future of a special people in a special place.' There will be dim sum, music by the Band of the Brigade of Gurkhas, an ensemble from the London Chinese Orchestra, but not a whisper of that prized Hong Kong preoccupation, gambling.

The Foreign Office will hold what is expected to be a grand reception in a banqueting house at Whitehall, and the Chinese embassy will host one as well.

Small ceremonies are planned for Glasgow, Cambridge and Oxford, organised principally by student groups.

AUSTRALIA The keynote event will be a lavish black-tie ball at which 1,500 people from Australia and New Zealand will watch an exclusive live satellite telecast of the handover ceremony on four giant screens.

The A$98-a-ticket (HK$567) ball, organised by the Chinese Chamber of Commerce (Victoria), is to be held at Melbourne's newest venue, The Palladium, the grand ballroom of the Crown Tower Hotel.

One of the organisers, Dr Peter Au, said at midnight a 'more energetic' rock band would take the stage, to ensure guests were awake for the handover ceremony, which falls at 2am Australian Eastern Standard Time.

The following night China's Canberra embassy will hold a reception for guests, combined with a photographic exhibition about Hong Kong's past and future.

The territory's three Sydney-based government organisations - the Hong Kong Trade and Development Council, Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office and Hong Kong Tourist Association, all focusing on the theme of a new era rather than the end of the old - will combine to hold functions in Sydney and Melbourne on Tuesday.

There will be lunch for 400 at Sydney's ANA Hotel, with Australia's Immigration Minister, Philip Ruddock, one of two guest speakers. That evening there will be a black-tie dinner for 600 at Melbourne's Grand Hyatt hotel at which the Deputy Prime Minister, Tim Fischer, will speak. For Australians not at these functions or in Hong Kong itself, ABC radio will cover the handover ceremony live and ABC-TV plans to cross over to the BBC's live coverage.

The Chinese Chamber of Commerce will host a handover ball with a live telecast from Hong Kong.

UNITED STATES Hundreds of handover celebrations are being planned in the United States. And two entities are vying for top billing in a series of competing events: the Chinese government and the Hong Kong Government.

The Hong Kong Government's three US offices are sparing no expense at shindigs to be thrown in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and Washington.

Each party will start around 11am (US eastern time) on June 30, one hour before the handover in Hong Kong, and feature a live satellite feed of the official ceremony. The centrepiece is in Washington, where Economic and Trade Commissioner Kenneth Pang will play master of ceremonies to more than 1,000 diplomats, congressional officials, academics and US administration officials at the plush Mayflower Hotel. In New York, about 800 guests will watch the action at the Pierre Hotel on Central Park.

The Chinese embassy has planned its own programme and called on hundreds of overseas Chinese to help by organising street parades, concerts and parties.

The embassy in Washington is throwing a party on Monday evening, followed by a celebratory concert of Chinese music. Tomorrow it is organising a street parade down Washington's Constitution Avenue, followed by dinner on a nearby university campus.

Events are being staged in parallel by China's consulates in New York - there will be a large parade down Fifth Avenue - and Los Angeles.

Some of the privately organised events across the country will be marked by a pro-democracy slant, others will be unashamedly pro-Beijing.

At LA's Hollywood Park racetrack, local businessmen and community figures are throwing a bash called 'Hong Kong '97', where for US$75 (HK$580) guests can enjoy an early lunch followed by a televisual feast from the Hong Kong ceremonies.

CANADA Hughes Eng is hoping to prevent politics from intruding on the party spirit he has in mind for Canada's formal recognition of the change in Hong Kong sovereignty.

Mr Eng belongs to an ad hoc group - comprising 120 Chinese businesses, arts groups, student clubs and community groups - that is organising a parade, photo exhibition and celebration rally.

These observances would give people a chance to express their joy at reunification, Mr Eng said, but he insisted they were non-political: 'It's just to express our feelings. We are happy for the folks in Hong Kong and China.' The committee has planned three set-pieces, culminating in a rally at Toronto City Hall on the evening of June 30 (7am on July 1 in Hong Kong). The three hours of entertainment that follow are expected to attract at least 10,000 people. 'There will be singing, dancing, musical instruments and all kinds of Cantonese opera,' said Mr Eng.

Owing to the time difference, Canadians will be regaled with some pre-taped footage of the handover events, interspersed with some live visions of 'the morning after'. The night's high point will be a choir singing Pearl of the Orient and Tomorrow Will Turn Out Better, both in Putonghua. A pair of photographic exhibitions will be set up in the city centre. A grand reunification parade involving 300 organisations and 1,200 people is to wind its way downtown late tomorrow, from the Ontario provincial legislature buildings to Toronto's old Chinatown.

Fifty thousand spectators are tipped to see dragon dances, martial-arts displays and actors in traditional costumes enacting historic Chinese events.

Events on handover eve will include live viewing of the celebrations from Hong Kong at the territory's trade office in Toronto.

The flashiest event in Canada's biggest Chinese population centre, Vancouver, will be a gala dinner put on by the Hong Kong Government. More than 700 people will dine inside a privately owned sports stadium built for big-time international ice hockey and professional basketball. The Chinese consulate and Vancouver Chinese Benevolent Association will also organise celebrations.

Mr Eng did not appear racked by doubts that, with July 1 being Canada's 130th birthday as a nation, this might take some of the shine off Hong Kong's big occasion. 'The show will be over at midnight,' he said. 'Canada's birthday is around the corner so we'll probably wind up singing 'Happy birthday' to Canada to warm up the party.' For those who themselves came from Hong Kong or China - or whose parents or grandparents came from Hong Kong or China - there may be no telling where one celebration ends and the other kicks off.