Stalwarts grin and bear the HK coup

IT was almost possible to hear the chandeliers twinkle in the silence that greeted the election results - the anticipated, even feared, addition of pro-China elements to Hongkong's oldest trade association.

The Western chamber seemed a thing of the past, although the bulk of members attending yesterday's meeting had disappeared by the time the final results came through.

Only about 100 businessmen and women remained in the red-carpeted ballroom, nervously clutching glasses of orange and tomato juice and wearing the strained smiles of patients in a dentist's waiting room.

If it was a coup, it was Hongkong-style. No blood, no banshee wails and no overturning of the buffet. But people did stop eating.

Chairman Mr Paul Cheng Ming-fun read out the names of his new team without a trace of emotion.

At a press conference interestingly convened before the election, Mr Cheng pooh-poohed the notion of pro-China.

''What does it mean? We are going to be part of China in a few years,'' he scoffed.

He was equally adamant that, while containing an unavoidable political element - the seat on Legco - the chamber was in no way a political animal, but a cosy trade body representing the interests of 3,600 members.

For the losers, fixed smiles were the order of the day. The long-suffering Mr Martin Barrow, of the alphabetically compromising name and historically embarrassing Jardines company, was forced to keep it up the longest.

Reading out the victors' votes in alphabetical order, Mr Cheng kicked off with Chan Wing-kee. On his immediate right, Mr Barrow assumed a sickly smile and even supplemented it with a cheery banter for the barrage of press questions afterwards.

Saying he was disappointed, but would continue to serve as a member, Mr Barrow drew the line at responding to questions on the link between Beijing's attack on Jardines and his own removal from the chamber's board.

For the victors, it was altogether a more cloak-and-dagger exercise.

After selecting the chamber's chiefs in camera, the three pro-China committee members slipped out of sight, leading the press contingent a merry dance through the plush interiors of the Hilton.

But the serious demeanors and eagerness to escape the limelight were perhaps only skin-deep.

They were off to celebratory suppers - or at any rate dining out - with the happy news in each case being relayed down the mobile phone.