Hong Kong's modern history has been scarred with natural and human-made tragedies of which few of us have an inkling. There was a typhoon in 1937 in which 11,000 people perished and another in 1962 that took the lives of 183 and left 72,000 homeless. A fire at the Happy Valley racecourse in 1918 remains the worst at a sporting event anywhere since Roman times, leaving some 600 dead, while a landslide at Po Shan Road in Mid-Levels in 1972 claimed 67. Yet, in a city surrounded by storm-prone waters, ask about an iconic disaster and there is a likelihood that what gets mentioned is not what has been experienced locally, but the Titanic.
It would have been interesting to pose this question before James Cameron's blockbuster movie about the British ocean liner, the RMS Titanic, which sank with the loss of more than 1,500 passengers in the north Atlantic a century ago. I have never seen it, which means I have missed the love story, the moment where Jack holds Rose by the waist with her arms outstretched and yet another Kate Winslet nude scene. That cannot be said of the average Hongkonger, though, with the Hollywood rendering of the disaster a record-breaker when it opened in cinemas here in 1997 and the highest-grossing at the box office until Avatar in 2009. With the 3D release having just opened, it is certain to regain the top spot.
We are not short of shipping tragedies of our own. About 1,550 people died when a Chinese steamer on its way from Guangzhou to Hong Kong struck a mine near the mouth of the Pearl River in 1945. A ferry fire in 1947 took more than 130 lives while 80 were drowned when another ferry was deluged during Typhoon Rose in 1971. The storm that struck Hong Kong in 1937 destroyed 2,000 boats and slammed ashore 24 ocean liners and other large vessels.
Heroic, tragic and romantic stories involving the disasters surely abound, but I am aware of none. Hong Kong's home-grown movie industry does not appear to have capitalised, either, although a 3D movie about firefighters, with the working title Inferno, is in the pipeline. Hong Kong has a habit of obliterating the past and replacing it with that which is sleek and modern, so picking up the pieces after tragedies, learning lessons and quickly moving on is in character. It seems difficult, though, to comprehend why an event that happened so far away and long ago has captured such popular imagination.
The largely fictionalised love stories that have appeared in movie after movie about the Titanic are a big part of the reason. To a degree, there is fascination in chivalry, the mistakes, cowardice, the times gone by, the vulgarity of wealth and the privilege of class. They are all part of the legend, the reason my grandmother kept a gramophone record from 1927 titled The Wreck of the Titanic and why, at the age of 14, I ravenously read Walter Lord's riveting historic account published in 1955, A Night to Remember, which graphically details the ship's last hours.
But I suspect that what draws us to the story, no matter where we are from, is its truth about human fallibility. Each generation thinks it is superior to the one before and aims for bigger, faster and better. The Titanic was billed as being all of those, but just four days into its maiden voyage, it hit an iceberg and sank. Sometimes, we needlessly aim too high.
Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post