Hype hits skids as rally revs up
IT'S 9.30 am at HMS Tamar, the Royal Navy's Hong Kong base on Stonecutter's Island, and the string of farces which will come to characterise the opening of this year's Hong Kong-Beijing Rally is about to begin.
The symbolism is strong, the message clear. Big cars, powerful cars, 43 of them all with fat tyres and gaping exhaust pipes, crowd the staff car park of a military base, gunboats in the background.
But the car-park could just as easily be a parade ground or a firing range.
The heady combination of cars and guns and boats and khakis and whites is overwhelming. This is as macho as things get.
Drivers stride around the fast-food stall - hamburgers and hot-dogs turned out by officers of the Royal Army Veterinary Corps - with their fire-resistant race-suits and dazzling suede plimsolls marking them as front-line troops in their own unique regiment.
The crowd - limited to 600 by space and security concerns - doesn't want to be left out and a swift trade is done in rally merchandise, from jackets to hats to posters.
And everyone has an official rally ID round their neck, with the event and sponsor names emblazoned across the top and their rank in the Hong Kong-Beijing platoon - Official, Staff, Sponsor, VIP, Guest or Press - at the bottom.
Others deemed worthy of admission to this high-profile, internationally-televised but strictly 'no-public' event were 200 military personnel and their guests, a busload or two of sponsors and about 100 media types, including a team of professional rally cling-ons who enthused about the exhaust pipes and photographed and interviewed anyone in a logo-speckled jumpsuit.
At a Mongkok-style mini market - manned again by those incredibly multi-skilled boys from the Veterinary Corps - particularly tasteless merchandise on sale included bullets on key-rings at $50, polyester military ties at $35, and even Veterinary Corps shields and caps at $200 and $40 respectively.
As this scene rolled on it was inevitable that something would liven things up. Anything would liven things up. And it did.
Like a breath of disapproval from whichever mythical figure looks down on rally events, a light breeze crossed the island and in two or three gusts brought to an end any hope the organisers might have had that the stage would run smoothly.
A giant billboard, loudly screeching the rally name and primary sponsor's logo, toppled noisily and dramatically to the ground, narrowly missing the milling military but right on target to block a crucial section of the rally circuit.
This simple though exciting collapse was not enough to stem the flow of muzak from the resident rally band who relentlessly churned out such upbeat contemporary hits as My Way and various medleys of supermarket aisle-style tunes.
But their tenuous tenure was finally brought to an end by an invisible master of ceremonies who announced the imminent appearance of the 'special entertainment'.
Enter the lads from the veterinary corps, hands still shining with hamburger juice and margarine, in a lion suit.
The crowd, already jittery from the billboard experience, watched with some apprehension as the the lion climbed a precarious frame. And they weren't to be disappointed. Only swift action from a colleague saved the lion from certain serious injury when its front half slipped and fell, stretching the animal to twice its normal length.
It was, at last, time for the racing to begin and the lion retired to making hot-dogs with at least more grace than it had danced.
The cars and drivers were introduced and started one by one, taking off at high speed down the revised circuit which took into account the detour caused by the mobile billboard.
But, in a quaintly inimitable Hong Kong style, the typically heart-stopping pace of the rally was reduced to a traffic-stopping log-jam as it became apparent officials had turned the narrow lanes of the base into two-way sections of the circuit.
Traffic jams developed at several points of the circuit with drivers angrily waiting for their turn on the next two hundred metres of track.
The competitors made better time late yesterday when they drove into China on the first leg of the 3800-kilometre six-day race which ends in Beijing's Tiananmen Square on Friday.