That Hong Kong is a transient place for most of its residents has been a truism since the colony’s mid-19th-century beginnings. People arrive in the city, know (and feel) themselves to be less permanent than in almost any other place in the world and, eventually, leave.
Poet W.H. Auden’s Nocturne brings to mind those who, having spent some (or most) of their lives in Hong Kong, eventually depart for a new chapter in other parts of the world.
“Now through night’s caressing grip /
Earth and all her oceans slip; /
Capes of China slide away /
From her fingers into day…”
But how was the actual point of sliding away from this particular “cape of China” marked by departing former residents? And how has this changed over time?
“Leaving parties” have always been a staple of Hong Kong life, with friends and acquaintances foregathered to wish the repatriates well in the future or, in some cases, quietly reassure themselves that the departees really were going for good this time. On these occasions, hugs, handshakes and floods of heartfelt tears mingled with discreet sighs of relief. Promises were made to write, to keep in touch. Mail took several weeks each way, international telephone calls were so exorbitantly expensive that – except for emergencies, and even then telegrams usually sufficed, or to hear the sound of a loved one’s voice on a special occasion – they were almost never made.
More than a few “close friendships” that had been cold-bloodedly maintained for years for reasons of business expedience, community solidarity, form’s sake, politeness and self-preservation within Hong Kong’s interconnected small-pond world, were gently sloughed off and abandoned without further thought, like a reptile shedding its skin.
Until the 1960s, most departures were by sea, which gave a more permanent air to the proceedings. Local residents were conscious of ships in port flying the distinctive Blue Peter pennant, with a blue outer rectangle and white inner rectangle; hoisted on a ship’s foremast, it meant “sailing today”. Newspapers – including the South China Morning Post – contained the “Blue Section”, which listed ships departures in considerable detail. Back in the days of “long leaves” of six months or so, sailing information included brief accounts of who was sailing, where they were going, and – if the passengers were ordinarily domiciled in Hong Kong – when they were coming back. And it was not only the socially prominent who were listed – quite ordinary people rated a mention.
When the final day arrived, passengers would be seen off on board, and the scenes varied little over time. Somewhere on the quayside, a band would be playing, especially if there were military personnel on board. Loudspeaker announcements would call for all non-passengers to go ashore, whistles blasted out, cables were cast off, the engines throbbed, and the departing vessel would slowly warp away from the pier in Kowloon. Paper streamers were thrown, and as the distance widened between ship and pier, each snapped, one by one, and they were blown away by the winds. And that was that.
In the days when emigration to Canada, Australia or elsewhere really meant a permanent departure from Hong Kong, and expensive airfares ensured that – for most people – a return visit was unlikely for some years (if at all), Kai Tak Airport’s departure hall was thronged with emotional friends and weeping relatives. Students who were fortunate enough to go overseas to study usually did not return until their graduation several years later. And when they did come home, the arrivals hall was again host to a crowd of ecstatic well-wishers.
These days, instant communications via social media mean that – in an unsettling virtual sense – permanent departures never really happen. A “Hotel California” effect ensues for ex-Hongkongers; people may check out, but somehow, they never really leave.