They cheered, they wept, and they left

Allan Fotheringham July 14 1997

They cheered, they wept, and they left

Allan Fotheringham July 14 1997

They cheered, they wept, and they left

Allan Fotheringham

At the magical midnight hour when the Empire expired, “Miss Britannia” in a ball gown made of the Union Jack descended the stately hotel steps—accompanied by an RAFmoustachioed Col. Blimp. Ascending past them went “Miss China” in a brilliant red sequinned slinky dress topped by a gold crown over her jetblack hair. Everyone cheered, or wept.

That was the British farewell to Hong Kong at the most expensive party in town, and the next night—Independence Day on July 1—in the same hotel there was the Miss Britannia model again. Only this time she was served up on a platform of ice as a mermaid, topless with a sprinkle of sparkles decorating her upper regions for all the eager male photographers who supposedly had never seen such appendages before.

This is a city of characters, all drawn to it by its mystique, its money

and its cross-road status between East and West. Kipling said the twain would never meet—but they do here.

The crew-cut new boss of Hong Kong, C. H. Tung, appointed by Beijing, epitomizes that. He was educated in England: he cheers to this day for the storied Liverpool soccer club. He worked a decade in the United States: he cheers to this day for the San Francisco 49ers.

As firstborn son of a Shanghai shipping tycoon, Tung Chee-hwa’s given names meant “Building China.” Father C. Y. Tung loved the sea and revered China’s 15th-century eunuch admiral, Zheng He, who had sailed to Zanzibar. Father’s seagirt empire foundered, leaving son with a $3.8-billion debt in the mid-1980s. But the crew cut survived. Will he prove—replacing Hong Kong’s elected legislature—a mere Beijing puppet? We will know in a year.

Maggie Thatcher, who has never met a headline she did not love, was of course here, trying to outshine two other prime ministers: new Labour boy Tony Blair and the man she hates, the 80-year-old bloated Ted Heath, the Tory PM she deposed. At the fanciest tailor in town, she ordered 18 suits, surpassed only by the prince of Denmark who clocked in at 37.

Canada confirmed its reputation as the Waffler of the Western World when Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy, after two

weeks of dancing while Jean Chrétien’s relatives run the portfolio, announced that he would after all attend the new swearings-in that the Brits and the Excited States of America were boycotting.

A major regret for the visitors who flocked here was that the famous Happy Valley racetrack (no longer the “Royal” Hong Kong Jockey Club) atop Hong Kong Island—where the daily betting handle from 6.5 million Chinese surpasses that wagered by 60 million gamblers in Britain—was as usual shut down in July and August because of the heat. It is not clear whether this affects the horses, the jockeys or the punters. It wouldn’t be the last named.

They still tell the story of the visit of the notoriously cheap Lord Thomson of Fleet in the 1960s, then-proprietor of the Sunday Times, who was taken out for the evening by his paper’s legendary Far East correspondent. Richard Hughes wore a monocle, appeared in disguise in John le Carré and Ian Fleming books and took the portly old skinflint to the famous Wanchai bar at the Luk Kwok Hotel where the legend of Suzie Wong was born.

Hughes was somewhat surprised when the aging press baron asked a bar girl how much it cost to go upstairs. When told, he scrawled the price on the back of an envelope and dashed her hopes by enquiring how much a room cost “unaccompanied.”

Pierre Trudeau arrived, on the way to Expo 70 in Osaka, and after attending Sunday morning mass and laying a wreath at the Sai Wan War Cemetery in honor of the Winnipeg Grenadiers and Royal Rifles of Canada who died during the defence of Hong Kong in 1941, he was turned

away from the Scene Discotheque for not wearing a jacket. He moved on to a Playboy Club in his white slacks and blue T-shirt.

According to a local paper, Trudeau’s date—“a diminutive fivefoot-three girl in a red cotton flowered dress, was possibly a little overawed by the whole thing. She seemed to be very shy and when they were on the floor she seemed to be waiting for Mr. Trudeau to make the first move.”

The taxi driver on the way to the airport—as always representative of the common man to every journalist who has ever travelled— admits he was rather choked up at midnight on Handover Night, as he watched the gazillion-dollar fireworks bursting over the world’s most spectacular harbor. It was, he confessed, somewhat like “when your nanny is leaving and you know your parents are coming home.” The Hong Kong locals, on the midnight hour, realizing the rule of law and an independent judiciary ain’t such a bad legacy after all.

As the lights went down on the Pearl of the Orient, Kipling’s heirs are left with just 180,000 bodies in British “Dependent Territories” around the globe. The smallest is Pitcairn Island, deep in the Pacific Ocean, where Capt. Bligh and all dispatched Fletcher Christian.

It has just 55 souls. And almost every one has the surname of Christian. That is the way an Empire dies.