Social realism

'SO HERE I am, Mr Hughes, on the social battlefield again!' said a disembodied but husky voice that had materialised near my left ear. Halfway through the act of leaning down to look with fake interest at a ferociously-overpriced handbag at the launch of yet another French boutique, I stood up with some alarm to find my face inches from that of La Grande Vestale herself, Cristal Li.

'I'm sorry,' I stammered like the gibbering loon who had missed out on his regular dose of beta-blockers, 'I don't know what you are talking about.' Cristal started speaking again but I have to confess I wasn't listening to her. Instead I was gazing in open-mouthed amazement upon this extraordinary manifestation of humanity. Her eyes were lined with kohl and there was a thin edging of paint to highlight the vermilion slash of lipstick. But it was her high forehead that struck me the most; Cristal stood directly under a harsh light and her face appeared to be covered in a tightly-stretched luminous parchment.

Even so, it was less her appearance than her presence that I found vaguely unsettling. For after negotiating the foothills of the Hong Kong social scene for a couple of years, I was now striding through the sunlit uplands and joining the woman most of us regard as the brightest of the territory's glitterati for a glass of champagne.

Cristal, for we were on first-name terms by now, had been piqued by a item I had written about how she had fallen out with a French compatriot also living in the territory after a long friendship. She wanted to put the record straight, she said. There had been no split, she insisted. In fact they were still good friends, Cristal declared, before filleting the woman's character and standing in society with a few rapier strokes of her tongue. Later Cristal and I were driven in a Rolls-Royce into Central, all the way from Pacific Place, with Nancy (that's Ms Jong Miller to those of you on Lamma).

Nancy dropped us off at the entrance to the Furama Kempinski hotel and went off in search of dinner while my date and I made our way upstairs to the ballroom where an anniversary thrash was in noisy progress. As Cristal imperiously sashayed her way into the throng, onlookers stared - so that's Cristal Li, they lip-synched to one another.

Cristal and I shared another glass or two of bubbly before she said she was leaving for dinner elsewhere, which was a relief as I was gasping for a beer by this point.

The reason behind this seemingly aimless anecdote is that it illustrates a number of points that should be made about that strange and extraordinary collection of people that pass for Hong Kong high society. Practically every time I have admitted to writing society gossip, someone within earshot has made the same observation British republicans make about the royal family - namely that they are a bunch of grasping parasites who attract too much publicity and they should be taken outside and shot.

Naturally you can't please everyone but these bores have missed the main plot of soi-disant society - that they are here to provide most of us with a source of amusement.

If the Cristals, Erikos, Dianes, Alices and Beckys of this world did not exist, they would have to be invented in order to satisfy the universal hunger for gossip, invective and good old-fashioned dirt. For everyone who favours summary execution for those in possession of a champagne flute, there are rather more who hunger for the filthy tales of the rich and famous.

When a member of the latter group says, 'Oh I just loved that piece you wrote last week!' they don't mean the lengthy feature about schizophrenia that took a month to research and write. What they are referring to is usually a three-paragraph titbit about the Governor's ADC. If monoglot expatriates are still unconvinced of Hong Kong's fascination with gossip, then they should get a Chinese friend to point out the salacious titles which are sold in vast quantities by every local news-stand.

Who cannot fail to be intrigued by a cast of characters who use Hong Kong as a background for their sexual buccaneering, social mountaineering, flagrant exhibitionism and love of grandeur? Take the society stud, who probably has 'by appointment' tattooed across his loins, who recalled making love to a woman while her husband looked on encouragingly from a corner of the bedroom; or the bisexual socialite who was discovered having oral sex with another man in the toilets of a Lan Kwai Fong nightclub; or the two women who stand near the summit of society's Everest who have pursued a passionate lesbian relationship for several years; or the improbably married couple who regularly vent their frustrations on each other through physical violence; or the woman who burst into hysterical tears when she was not put on the table she favoured at a lunchtime fashion show. How very much unlike the home life of the Queen, you might say.

Having spent more than my fair share of time covering the glitterati, I can attest to another endearing quality: they really read everything that is written about them and will quote it back to you later.

In a town where many government officials and taipans would rather boil their heads than agree to an interview, to have a highly visible set of people almost fighting among themselves for a few column inches is a pleasant change.

I would love to tell you more but night draws in and I have to sharpen my pen because Buffy Wong and her good 'chums' the Hon Arabella Puff-Buttock, Sandi Morgenstern and Alicia 'Baby' Cardones are having early-evening drinkies at that new place in Lan Kwai Fong where they are sponsoring an exhibition of Rwandan bronzes - Buffy's neighbour in Cap Ferrat has a garden-full apparently.

Le tout Hong Kong will be there and maybe someone will invite me to supper afterwards so I can bite the hands that feed me in print. Pip! Pip! Owen Hughes used to pen Keeping Posted, PS, Back Chat and Snaparazzi.