Treaty of Nanking

Chronicler Jan Morris laments end of love affair with city

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 March, 2007, 12:00am

Hong Kong does not work as well as it used to and its people are less buoyant, the city's best loved chronicler, Jan Morris, told a capacity audience at Olympic House last night.

Morris, 81, appearing alongside fellow titan of travel writing Simon Winchester as part of the Man Hong Kong International Literary Festival, said that when she first visited the city and was asked if she might write about it, she replied: 'Nothing would induce me to come to this awful place, let along write a book about it.'

She later relented, seduced by the city's vitality, and wrote Hong Kong (1988).

'During my love affair with Hong Kong I was always excited by the buoyancy and confidence, the excitement of it all, the bursting energy,' she said at the South China Morning Post-sponsored event. 'It's an impertinent thing to say when I've only been here for a couple of days but I don't feel that now.'

Winchester, who has lived in the city, did not agree. 'The lustre of Hong Kong remains,' he said, so long as it had its parks, walks and trails, which he described as one of 'the great legacies of empire'.

Both authors disagreed with Gore Vidal's assertion on Monday after visiting Shanghai last week that the baton of world leadership, which he likened to Confucius' Mandate of Heaven, had passed from the US back to China.

'As for the skyscrapers of Shanghai - which I've only seen in pictures, I must say - being superior to those in Manhattan, it seems perfect nonsence,' Morris said. 'I think they're the ugliest buildings I've ever seen pictured on the skyline.'

Winchester, a regular visitor to the mainland, agreed Shanghai was no match for Manhattan.

'I'm impressed by Shanghai, I'm in awe of Shanghai, I'm fascinated by it, but I don't think I like it. I live in Manhattan, I love Manhattan, that is truly the most remarkable city on Earth. It's a city that belongs to the world. I don't think Shanghai will ever be a city that belongs to the world.'

A geologist by training, Winchester said Shanghai was built on estuary mud.

'It's an unstable city architecturally' and 'those awful buildings will sooner or later fall down'. He recalled the aphorism: 'Mankind exists on this planet subject to geological consent, which may be withdrawn at any time.'