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The Empire's new clothes

Will Hide spent his teenage years in Hong Kong. Ten years after the handover to China, he returns to see how things have changed

The doorway into the building didn't look obvious or welcoming. It was dirty and half-hidden by a newspaper stall, but this was the street number we had been given on a small scrap of paper. My sister Liz, my cousin Lucie and I hauled Lucie's one-year-old baby, Max, up the two flights of narrow stairs in his pushchair and squeezed into the lift, which rattled and lurched.

It ground to a halt a few floors up: we got out on to a corridor lined with cardboard boxes, and pushed the bell marked 'Nanjing Silk Shop'. We were buzzed into a small room lined with gaudily coloured pyjamas. A middle-aged man stuck his head through a door, frowning. 'Oh, sorry,' my sister piped up, rather bemused. 'We thought this was for handbags.'

The man looked crosser and furrowed his brow. 'Shhhhhhhhhhh! Not loud,' he implored, while shoving his hand up a pyjama leg to retrieve a key, with which he opened another door and beckoned us through. Inside was an Aladdin's cave of dodgy designer bags - Hermes, Prada, Louis Vuitton, Alexander McQueen. The women's eyes widened. I looked at Max and tried a world-weary 'here we go, mate' shrug-with-eyebrow-raise combo, a difficult thing to pull off with a one-year-old who has yet to fully appreciate the joys of shopping with the fairer sex. I sat in a corner, reading my guide book, bracing myself for the inevitable wait. Never mind, it was good to be back in Hong Kong.

It is 10 years this month since this little bit of empire was handed back to China. I was there when 30 June 1997 turned into 1 July. When, in heavy rain, Prince Charles sailed off on HMS Britannia. When People's Liberation Army troops appeared as if by magic outside the barracks on Hong Kong island at the stroke of midnight. And when, the next day, the local residents, realising the sky hadn't fallen on their heads, did what they always did in times of uncertainty. They went shopping.

I moved to Hong Kong, aged 15, with my parents in the early 1980s, and loved it from the start. It smelt. Touching down at Kai Tak airport the 'fragrant harbour' (the colony's name translated from Cantonese) was anything but, the pong seeping into the aircraft before we got to the terminal. But it was a heady, beguiling concoction, a mix of traffic fumes, unknown vegetables and spices and humidity, punctuated by a strange language that sounded like air being let out of a whoopee cushion mixed with a record playing backwards. And when the sun went down and the neon lights came on, it was even more magical, whether jostling with crowds outside the shops in Wan Chai, crossing towards Kowloon on the Star Ferry or in the back of one of the cheap, ubiquitous red-and-white taxis heading through Mong Kok.

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The food was unbelievably good for someone whose only taste of oriental fare had been the monosodium-glutamated Yorkshire interpretation. While my sister would eat only the decorative carrot centre pieces that the restaurants displayed, I tucked into anything and everything. 'Chew first, find out later,' was my motto. Crispy chicken feet was the only snack I never took to, but I'm sure there are plenty of Chinese who would have a hard time with pork scratchings, so all's fair in love and deep frying.

My family came back to England a few years later, but I decided I had to return for the handover. For one thing, I discovered an unexpected stash of airmiles, and having missed out on the Berlin Wall coming down (I watched events in Germany live from a sofa in Scotland, in my pyjamas, munching Corn Flakes), I wanted to be part of history.

Jet lag can be a blessing, and on the morning of 30 June 1997 I was up very early, wide awake, although hung over. The local expat community had decided that the best way to see out the end of empire was to develop cirrhosis of the liver, but the 'one last G&T on deck before the Titanic goes down' mentality was not shared by the Hong Kong Chinese, the ones who hadn't bolted to Vancouver or Sydney at any rate. General opinion, as voiced by the South China Morning Post, seemed to be gratitude to the British for the rule of law, for allowing the necessary conditions for prosperity to flourish, and for chocolate HobNobs, but now, thanks awfully old bean, it was time for us to go. The new rulers in Beijing may have been communists, but they were Chinese communists, and blood is thicker than party affiliation cards.

I jumped on one of the thin, rickety old trams (still my favourite way to get around) and reached the Commonwealth War Memorial near the Mandarin Oriental hotel, not far from the skyscraper with hundreds of round windows known locally as 'the building of a thousand arseholes' because of its bad feng-shui, just as kilted Black Watch soldiers raised the Union Jack for the last time. I felt a lump in my throat as a lone bugler played. After a silence, then applause from the mainly ****** (non-Chinese) crowd, a lone home-counties voice cried: 'Three cheers for Hong Kong!' to which only she seemed to reply. Perhaps everyone else was too embarrassed, or caught up in the moment, to respond. I imagined the owner of the voice in her tweed skirt and head scarf, accompanied by two Jack Russells, and realised that for this particular woman life was not going to be the same in 24 hours.

Chinese leaders Jiang Zemin and Li Peng jetted into town as the heavens started to open. The premier seemed to look like a cross between James Bond's arch rival, minus fluffy white cat, and Benny Hill's stereotyped Chinaman. ('Waiter, this chicken is rubbery.' 'Ah, fank you velly much, sir.') As the Brits departed with brass bands and pomp and circumstance, Mr Jiang arrived to school children in pacamacs waving little red flags.

In the evening the festivities and fireworks began - and the rain still came down. Midnight approached and all of a sudden the crowd was counting down the last moments of colonial rule - sap, gau, baat, chat, luk, ng, sei, saam, yi, yat, ling! It was all over. I can't remember if people cheered; most seemed a bit numb. The police lined up and, together, removed their 'royal' Hong Kong police badges and replaced them with the emblems of their new masters. I waved Prince Charles off, Union Jack in one hand, bottle of champagne in the other, and headed to Lan Kwai Fong, the party district, where the streets were bursting with 'Filth' ('Failed In London Try Hong Kong' - always a bit harsh, I felt).

Ten years on, I'm back (with my sister, visiting Lucie and her family, who are living out here now) and the streets around Lan Kwai Fong seem busier than ever, and there is still the heady mix of fumes and spices and humidity. The Hong Kong Jockey Club is no longer 'Royal', although, somewhat oddly, the Yacht Club still is, and you can even find the Queen's head on some pre-1997 coins. The red postboxes have been painted green.

I ask a local what has altered over the past decade and, after some head scratching, she replies that there is more of an emphasis on learning Mandarin as a second language rather than English, and that taxi drivers hardly speak the latter any more, although I don't recall that they ever did very well. Afternoon tea is still being served at the Peninsula Hotel, and across the still-not-very-fragrant harbour, the Mandarin Oriental is doing the same. The latter has just had a multi-million pound refurbishment, although it all seems dour to me, and I much prefer the recently built Four Seasons nearby, which is lighter, airier and altogether less stuffy.

I ask the tourist board what is new in Hong Kong. There seems to be a bit of an embarrassed pause, which I take to mean 'not a lot'. There is a new cable car called Ngong Ping 360, which whisks people across Tung Chung Bay up to the Big Buddha statue on Lantau Island, but it is rather disappointing, not least because Starbucks is one of the first things you see when you get off. There is, however, a new son et lumiere show on Hong Kong Island every evening at 8pm. This is spectacular, a combination of lasers, music and lights within the skyscrapers, flashing on and off. It makes up for the fact that during the day the pollution is now so bad that there is no point taking pictures from the harbour as the buildings appear as vague ghost figures.

That aside, I'm rather satisfied when I get on the plane to come home. All the things I used to love are still there. Of course, you could spout on about the erosion of political rights in Hong Kong over the past 10 years, but I'm not a politician. The horse racing at Happy Valley is just as boisterous and fun. The trams on Hong Kong Island still seem like they are going to topple over, restaurants are still raucous, and the Star Ferry crossing is still absolutely the greatest journey in the world. People in the shops can still be curt, the night markets still sell tat, and you can still find fake handbags. Best of all, Hong Kong still smells - and I wouldn't have it any other way.
 

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There is a new cable car called Ngong Ping 360, which whisks people across Tung Chung Bay up to the Big Buddha statue on Lantau Island, but it is rather disappointing, not least because Starbucks is one of the first things you see when you get off.
I like this one. Sounds like Starbucks shouldn't be in any Chinese cultural builing; and the "new" cable car isn't working probably anymore.
 

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Discussion Starter · #7 ·
Hong Kong movies refocus to mainland

POSTED: 0311 GMT (1111 HKT), June 25, 2007


HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- In the decade since the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China, local movie-makers have faced daunting changes in the industry. A trend of fewer films being produced each year in Hong Kong at the time of the handover has continued into the 21st century.

People in Hong Kong's industry point to several causes for the comparatively leaner times: a lack of opportunities for new acting talent, inadequate training and schooling for people who produce movies and changing tastes within the Hong Kong public.

At the same time, local film-makers have had to refocus their cameras for a new audience: mainland China.

"The Hong Kong film industry came to a rude awakening [in the late 1990s] that the world was changing faster than it was in the age of new delivery systems for home entertainment and the Internet," says Bede Cheng, a local film archivist and curator. "Unfortunately, it seemed to be blinded by the 'golden age' of the '80s, where any film could easily rack in over $1.3 million."

The box office numbers are sobering. In the early 1990s, Hong Kong released around 200 local features a year. By 1997, that number dropped to 85 films grossing $69 million, according to the Hong Kong, Kowloon and New Territories Motion Picture Industry Association (MPIA).

By 2006, those figures slumped to 51 films grossing $37 million. Ten years ago, the top 10 grossing films accounted for 47 percent of the total box-office return; today, the portion is 58 percent.

"1997, unfortunately, coincides with the beginning of the collapse of the local film industry -- a well-documented fact," says screenwriter Jimmy Ngai. "On the other hand, it also commenced the opening up of the mainland market.

"The result is that the industry has grown more and more accustomed to looking north for both investment and box return -- nothing political, but more of a survival instinct. What needs not to be spelt out for film-makers venturing north is that one plays according to what goes with the territory."

Downtime
The new Chinese market has translated into an emphasis in contrasts of Hong Kong-made films, says film archivist Cheng.

"Today production is down, with many majors like Chinastar and Golden Harvest scaling back," he says. "Most films are high-end productions with big stars, or low-end made with a shoestring budget for an easier return.

"The number of screens is also down, with the consolidation of more multiplexes, usually owned or partly owned by distributors, which already have a steady supply of foreign films to fill the screens. Some once video distributors like Mei Ah and Universe have gone into production as a way to keep the pipeline flowing."

In 2006, Hong Kong closed five small cinemas and re-opened one multiplex. Gary Mak, director of Broadway Cinematheque -- Hong Kong's last-remaining alternative-screening venue -- remains optimistic about more adventurous programming and distribution. But Mak points to a shortage of creativity in the local industry.

"No talents, no formal training, in most areas such as script-writing, directing, acting, etc," he says. "Even the independent scene still needs more real talents -- or at least, real producers to pull together a really good project."

Internal affairs
Tim Youngs, Hong Kong consultant for Italy's Far East Film Festival, says changing tastes among Hong Kong movie-goers has also affected the industry.

"Audiences have become increasingly dismissive of local movies, often referring to them as poor quality, and there are much fewer paying cinemagoers these days.

"So the hometown audience shows less support for local movies, whether by not seeing local films or opting for piracy, while the declining number of films means less opportunities for film-makers, fewer chances to try out new things, and damage to confidence."

Elizabeth Kerr, film critic and curator formerly based in Seoul, South Korea, agrees with Youngs' assessment.

"For all the risk-taking businessmen out there [in Hong Kong], no one is willing to put their money where their mouth is and throw in some support.

"The industry for the most part suffers from the cleave between that fluff -- which makes money -- and the more adult film-making of the smaller studios, distributors and indies."

How is South Korea's film industry different from its Hong Kong counterpart? "The drive to attain world adoration," Kerr says. "Koreans truly believe they're making great art all the time. South Korea launched an active campaign on all levels -- corporate, government, education -- to train and cultivate a modern film industry."

Still, Kerr sees reason for optimism. Films that best retain a Hong Kong style, Kerr maintains, likely carry "Category III" (under 18 not allowed) ratings: Movies that are "grown up and smart," she says.

"Even if the films don't work, someone tried."

Common language?
In the end, it may be culture that poses one of the greatest challenges for Hong Kong's movie industry.

"Around 1997, like lots of Hong Kong people, I kind of lost myself," says independent film-maker Chan Wing-chiu. "The film industry was already almost dead in the '90s. Why work for a sunset industry?"

Chan's own first feature in 2005, "A Side, B Side, Sea Side," includes a scene with a gaggle of girls on Hong Kong's Cheung Chau island who are unable to communicate in Chinese with an Australian man speaking fluent Mandarin. The two parties end up conversing in English.

"That's me," says Chan, referring to the girls. "I speak English better than Putonghua [China's official common language, also known as Mandarin]. Many Chinese say that now that Hong Kong is part of China, Hong Kong people must learn Putonghua. I disagree. In Hong Kong we all speak Cantonese. Hong Kong already has a bad reputation for Putonghua, but I don't feel ashamed. I'm proud to have grown up during the transition between 1997 and SAR.

"Why do we have so many problems with China? Because our language, our culture, our values, our way of thinking are different. So we are not good at speaking Putonghua. Even in the cinema, we see Western movies, Japanese movies, Korean movies... but not many Chinese movies."

Adds independent director Yan-yan Mak: "We are monsters. China says: 'You are not Chinese.' ******* [Hong Kong slang for Caucasians] say: 'You are Chinese.' After 1997, we lost the confidence to be Hong Kong people."
 
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