Rancour and division inevitable in Hong Kong, a city not at peace with itself
Is it any wonder that the correction of an absurd geographical anomaly has led to disturbance?
Today’s Hong Kong is a very different place from the Hong Kong which welcomed me with open arms almost a quarter of a century ago as a wide-eyed, jobless, economic migrant from Scotland.
Not worse, not better, just different, but in its own inimitable way, still the same.
As this conundrum of a conurbation masquerading as a normal city marks the 20th anniversary of its return to Chinese sovereignty, the time has come for everyone to recognise that the political rancour and division of the post-handover period has been not only inevitable, but necessary.
For 150 years up until midnight on July 1, 1997, our Fragrant Harbour on the edge of China was governed by an alien culture from a foreign capital 13,000 miles away. In equivalent terms (check your maps folks) London lording it over Hong Kong was a bit like the Isle of Skye off the north-west coast of Scotland being controlled by Beijing.
Is it any wonder that when such an absurd geographical anomaly was wrenched back into its proper place, a degree of disturbance would ensue?
All of the above, plus the questionable soothing effects of a diplomatic sleight of hand we’ve come to know as “one country, two systems’’ and the not so clever constitutional construct of a “Basic Law’’ that delivered exactly what it says on the tin, leads me to the conclusion that Hong Kong needs to open its eyes, broaden its vista, shape its own politics, and crucially, learn to laugh at itself.
Allow me to elaborate with a tortured metaphor rooted in a true story from pre-handover Hong Kong.
To win any war, a few battles must be lost. Moping around in a post-defeat daze of navel-gazing introspection has one and only one conclusion, and it ain’t pretty. Its grim nature was revealed to me in full, gory technicolour in a long-gone British-styled bar in Central just before July 1, 1997.
Sat at a table adjacent to mine in the Bull and Bear – what else? – were a well-behaved detachment of off-duty squaddies from Britain’s famous Black Watch Regiment whose job it was to call time on a century and a half of colonial rule in Hong Kong. They were the last British army unit to do a tour of duty in the city.
At this point, I must confess an emotional attachment to the Black Watch, not only did both my grandfathers fight – and incredibly survive – the hellish slaughter of the first world war as members of the regiment, my home town of Dundee in Scotland is its recruitment heartland.
But back to the Bull and Bear. As I sat swathed in the accents from home and the bar-room banter I grew up with, something wasn’t quite right. One of the boisterous but impeccably behaved band of Black Watch brothers spent the evening detached and downcast, it seemed with every pint he was slipping deeper into a pit of introspection and despair.
And then it happened – very fast but at the same time in a weird and unreal slow motion – the morose squaddie drained the dregs of his last pint and slammed the empty glass into his own face. You can imagine the sickening outcome.
Fortunately, his well-trained mates had him out of there and back to the then Prince of Wales Barracks at Tamar for treatment – and cleaned up the bloody mess – before me and my drinking buddies had time to fully take in what had just happened.
In the more than 24 years I’ve lived and worked in this city which has treated me better than I ever deserved, it is less at peace with itself than I’ve ever known.
A bit like that clearly depressed young Black Watch soldier, I worry that unless Hong Kong straightens up, finds a sense of humour, recognises the reality of where it is now and charts its own future as part of the land it is historically, physically and culturally attached to, it might do itself a serious injury.
And unlike our Black Watch squaddie, I don’t see a long line of mates from around the world lining up to offer first aid and clean up the mess.
Aside from the undoubtedly important – and more often than not impressively well disciplined demonstrations of political frustration – over the past two decades , I have seen more bad tempered and petty street flare-ups in the last three years than in my preceding 21 years in the city.
In many ways this is understandable, of course, Hong Kong is a complex and frustrating place with an even more complex and messy political heritage.
The city in which I have spent the bulk of my adult life and which has allowed me to carve out a journalistic career of moderate proportions, needs new thinking, not old, reheated ideas, whatever their origin.
Add oil Hong Kong, I know you have it in you.