HONG KONG

Hong Kong: The sound of moolah.

By Blaise Hopkinson.

There is one thing nobody ever disputes about Hong Kong, that island of legends and lifetimes. Like Daisy in The Great Gatsby, it smells of money.

And, still in the literary mode, British author Vita Sackville-West once said. “Travel is the most private of pleasures. There is no greater bore than the travel bore. We do not in the least want to hear what he has seen in Hong Kong.” Note the “he” … and too bad, Vita. Prepare to be bored.

Fighting the lunchtime crowds or the mainland package tourists on the Peak Tram, it seems you are never alone in Hong Kong. But you are never bored.

And the noise! Some say symphony, others cacophony, but the incessant din of the jackhammer is surely Hong Kong’s national anthem being played. It is the noise of money being minted, and lots of it!

After a few days in the former colony you don’t look twice at a Rolls-Royce or a Bugatti. They are public transport, just like the minibuses and trundling trams. Their passengers just happen to be some of the richest folk in the world, or even guests at the Peninsula Hotel across in Kowloon.

Victoria Harbour is such a grand name for the fetid waterway between the island and the mainland. Decades of landfill and construction have made it a bonsai of a body of water. One day, one fears, the shores will meet. Once called “the fragrant harbour” it now lives with the whiff of pollution.

Each time I visit Hong Kong I suspect the penny ride on the Star Ferry (which actually costs HK$2,50 on weekdays and $3,40 on weekends and public holidays) has become that much shorter. Land is property is money. Water is where junks and steamers belong, not the be-furred Tai Tais who need just one more penthouse for their portfolio or the former Tai Pans and modern day moguls who want the trophy waterfront façade as their legacy.

For all of us who have lived there over the years, Hong Kong has a special place in our travel bags. Even as every last ounce of spirit is being wrung out of the island there is a crevice for nostalgia, loads of it.

Even Shek O, former village home to generations of journalists, has seen its charm slowly eroded. When you go over the neck in the trusty Number 9 bus from Shau Kei Wan it is as if the great creature of the imposing Dragon’s Back mountain had squeezed the larynx of Hong Kong and rendered the isolated bay almost silent.

Silent, that is, except for the late night clacking of mahjong tiles and hawking and spitting of the old grannies and grandpas who still live cheek by wrinkled jowl in the old part of the village, my home for a couple of sojourns.

Weekends are a write-off as the hordes of beachgoers descend, each day-tripper brandishing a BBQ fork and a pack of food. I once saw a body wash up just after Christmas and the beach keepers blithely anchored it with discarded BBQ forks, such is the lack of sentiment on that “barren rock”. Life is cheap, and a dead body is just that, dead.

While Shanghai is determined to one day overtake Hong Kong as Asia’s financial capital, the lack of transparency on the mainland bourse and also the island’s 150-year head start mean Hong Kong is safe in its world number three spot for now, after London and New York.

While not for everyone, a visit to the stock exchange is a rare treat. Watching from the visitors’ gallery you can see the language of money being spoken by the traders in their red jackets as they squawk buy and sell instructions to each other or holler into myriad phones.

The term “barren rock” was incanted by British foreign secretary and, later, prime minister, Lord Palmerston when he first clapped eyes on the mountainous island in the mid-1800s.

What a difference a century or so can make. Today the spectacle of the Hong Kong island waterfront is dizzying. Glass and chrome monoliths to Mammon line the shore and climb the Peak and even the once-prominent Jardine building in central Hong Kong, with its distinctive round porthole-like windows looks tiny. Its nickname of “the building of a thousand arseholes” lives on among the old Hong Kong hands.

Chek Lap Kok Airport is one of the busiest in the world. The launch slogan for the airport train was “In 23 minutes we give you the world”. I know, I wrote it. I remember the chaos of its premature opening in 1998, this endured with a hangover from hell after celebrating the last flight from the breathtakingly scary Kai Tak Airport of old the night before.

Raised on my father’s tales of colonial Hong Kong and his 1945 post-World War 2 photos, I can conjure up a sense of history amid all the glitz and congestion.

The Noon Gun at Causeway Bay is still fired, like a shot across the bows to the denizens of the new order and a bold reminder of past glory to those who respect the past.

My most striking memory of Hong Kong is the surreal June 30/July 1 1997 handover ceremony, after which Prince Charles climbed aboard the royal yacht Britannia and sailed into a rain-swept night across Victoria Harbour, having just handed over the colonial keys to the “old waxworks”, as he privately referred to the Chinese politburo members on hand to receive the spoils. The elegant blue ship disappeared into the night, taking with it 150 years of history.

The recent pro-democracy protests that brought much of the Central district to a standstill were a reminder that Hong Kong, though officially a Special Administrative Region (SAR) with its own laws and customs, is very much a jewel in Beijing’s crown.

Many of the SAR’s citizens are foreign educated and also grew up under the fairly benign rule of the British governors. The protests of 2014 were the most violent yet and devastated the financial and tourism markets. Confidence was at an almost pre-1997 low.

But, like the jackhammer, Hong Kongers are relentless and determined to pursue their own, noisy and boisterous path, which largely involves making money. Lots and lots of money.

The seamier side of Hong Kong isn’t far from view and Kowloon, one of the most densely populated places on the planet, is a seething mass of humanity, crammed into packed streets in ghastly high-rise buildings just a few paces from the elegant Peninsula hotel where colonial high tea is still taken and gleaming green Rolls-Royces line the imposing drive.

Fabled historian and travel author Jan Morris, who started life as James Humphrey Morris, found Hong Kong fixating for decades. She described the 1997 handover as “sufficiently stylish” but in her many essays and 1988 book Hong Kong she was fascinated by the clash of cultures, East and West, and shocked by how poverty existed almost seamlessly with opulence. Travel authors Bruce Chatwin and Paul Theroux were equally entranced.

Hong Kong flag carrier Cathay Pacific, with its teal livery and calligrapher’s swoosh on the tails, has been my airline of choice for decades. I was at the 1994 unveiling of the new livery and was taken by the fact that the Union Flag had quietly disappeared from the aircraft markings.

When I asked a “Swire Boy”, a breed of its own which still runs the airline, why, he replied: “Saves us having to scratch the fucking thing off at midnight on June 30 in three years’ time!” Sackville-West would have had a word for such a creature.