HAVRE DE GRACE -- So Hong Kong the bustling old colonial relic is gone now, and as the smoke from the fireworks drifts away a new regime begins with uncertain prospects. Prince Charles departs by sea, Chinese troops arrive by land, and optimists and pessimists alike look on and hope for the best.
There was a time in the early 1970s when I was a regular visitor to Hong Kong, and because I spent some of the most memorable days of my life there while on leave from reporting the unpleasantness in Vietnam I still think of it with affection. And so now, as it moves toward an uncertain future, here's a nostalgic personal memoir from its irretrievable past.
What struck me from the beginning about Hong Kong, impressions which were always heightened when I arrived directly from depressing Saigon, were its energy, its confidence, and its sheer physical beauty. In many respects it seemed everything a great city ought to be.
It was certainly luxurious for those who could afford luxury -- and my employer at the time, the Washington Post, was both rich and generous. The paper expected its correspondents in Vietnam to work seven days a week, and in return provided them, every 10 weeks or so, with a 10-day leave in Hong Kong, all expenses paid. I've never lived so well before or since.
I usually stayed at the old Peninsula Hotel in Kowloon, across the busy harbor from the downtown center on the island of Hong Kong. This meant that I had to ride the cross-harbor ferries a lot, and I never tired of that trip. I also liked being picked up at the
airport by one of the Peninsula's Rolls-Royces, just as if I were a great eminence.
When I was in Hong Kong I usually spent time socially with some of the many correspondents assigned there as "China watchers."
Three friends -- Peter Kann of the Wall Street Journal, Maynard Parker of Newsweek, and Lee Lescaze of the Post -- were the proud owners of a large Chinese junk, which they used for picnics and overnight excursions in the island-dotted waters around Hong Kong. This rather ungainly craft was powered by a diesel engine which had once driven a bus. It came with its own driver, known as the boat boy, who lived aboard.
It was vaguely surreal to find oneself on this vessel, perhaps anchored in a beautiful cove drinking cold Chinese beer and wondering where to go for dinner, within hours of leaving the sweaty chaos of Vietnam.
Hong Kong was wonderful for walking as well as boating. I liked to take the cable car from downtown to the peak of the mountainous island and then walk down through the more rural back side to Repulse Bay. One day several of us took a long hike on Lan Tao Island, visiting a Buddhist monastery in the hills and making our way through quiet farm country back to the coast again, where we caught a ferry for downtown.
You could also take a fast hydrofoil to Macau, where colonialism had an even more tenuous foothold on the Chinese mainland, and the diminished Portuguese presence hung faintly but entrancingly in the air much the way the scent of spices used to pervade downtown Baltimore.
But above all, beyond the scenery and the creature comforts, Hong Kong was about commerce. New office buildings were going up at a great rate, even though investors knew perfectly well that China would take over the city when the British lease ran out. That was more than 25 years in the future, after all, and they expected to have their money back with interest long
In Hong Kong it was an article of faith that anything could be bought; sometimes it seemed as if everyone was trying to sell it, occasionally with a persistence which approached the ludicrous.
Various visitors to Hong Kong encountered the determined downtown salesman who, late at night, would mysteriously appear at their side asking if they might want a young girl. No, they would respond. Young boy, then? No thank you. Dirty postcards? No, you're very kind, but no thanks.
And then, from beneath his raincoat, the businessman would pull out the ultimate attraction and brandish it in the retreating visitor's face. "Perhaps you would like," he would desperately suggest, "a stuffed fox?"
Hong Kong was then and probably still is famed for its tailors. I remember ordering custom-made airtex shirts, good for the tropics, and a couple of suits from A-Man Hing Cheong in the Mandarin Hotel. Becky Lescaze, Lee's wife, turned up her nose at the conservative three-button suits and told me I should have bought something more trendy.
No, he keeps things forever, my wife said to Becky. He'll still have those suits 20 years from now, and they'll still be in style. We were divorced a year or two later and I haven't seen her since, but she was right about the suits. The lightweight airtex shirts, though, are history -- just like colonial Hong Kong.
Peter A. Jay is a farmer and writer.
Pub Date: 7/03/97