1996 January: Friday
It was the end of a 12-hour non-stop flight from London. The plane banked steeply to the left, then for two minutes dived down through a blanket of swirling mist. When we broke through the cloud cover, the whole panorama of Hong Kong lay beneath – an untidy scattering of promontories and islands and, even from this height, the cigarette-packet shapes of the high-rise blocks embedded in the dark green hills.
As the plane flew lower, details began to stand out. I saw that on the row after row of dingy concrete towers almost every balcony had laundry draped over the railings. We came amazingly close to the buildings; I had visions of landing with somebody’s washing dangling from the wing tip.
Again, the plane banked suddenly over Kowloon; there was a quick view of ships in the main harbour beneath the looming volcanic peaks above it. Then the pilot steadied the plane for the last run into Kai Tak Airport. This consisted of a long runway projecting out into a smaller harbour with water on both sides. I could see why pilots were paid extra money for arriving here. It felt like landing on a jetty.
The TV journalist Alan Whicker had a famous story about arriving at Kai Tak. When he told the pilot that he always had to close his eyes as the plane flew in here, the pilot replied:
“Frankly, old boy, so do I.”
It was ranked the sixth most dangerous airport in the world.
Despite this, I found there was something rather cheerfully domestic about it. Instead of the usual routine of landing miles away from a destination, at Kai Tak you already felt part of the city even when you were still 1000 feet above it. It was rather like flying to London and landing in Hyde Park.
Wheeling my case out of the terminal building, the soggy clamp of humidity enveloped me like a hot wet towel and the thick cloud cover gave the place an eerie yellow tinge. As the taxi drove out to Kowloon, I had one glimpse of old romantic China – an ornate single storey house with one of those distinctive roofs that curled up at the corners, rather like stale bread – before diving into the whirlpool of dual carriageways and skyscrapers of new China.
The taxi sped through Kowloon; tower block after tower block, each about 25 storeys high, light grey, dark grey, occasionally faded pink or mauve, but all of them festooned with the washing that I had noticed from the air. It was as if the whole of Kowloon had decided on a spontaneous spring clean.
We continued down into a long tunnel beneath the harbour and emerged on to Hong Kong Island. Immediately we were into a better class of tower block; the closer we approached the centre, the less laundry was visible and the higher they became – 60, 70, even 80 storeys up. Palm trees decorated the central reservations of the wide streets; covered walkways criss-crossed 30 feet above us; the enormous business towers reflected each other with dazzling effect. It made the City of London look like a council estate. Then on into the heart of Hong Kong Central – oblong neon signs projecting a riot of advertisements above the packed hordes of pedestrians.
As we circled around Central, I spotted the Hong Kong Fringe Club ahead. It was a small pink-brick and white-stucco building that looked like it was constructed out of marzipan. Squashed between the loop of a steep hairpin bend and utterly dwarfed by its gigantic neighbours, I presumed that its continued existence was dependent on the fact that not even the Chinese had found a way to squeeze in another tower block.
The trip had been pre-arranged for some months and the Wilde show was to figure as part of the Hong Kong Festival, a prestigious event in the Far East cultural calendar. So I was greeted with some respect as I announced my arrival in the busy Festival office. One of the officials, a polite Chinese woman called Catherine, led me off to look at the theatre. She had a rather odd way of walking – it was more of a shuffle than a stride. I remembered seeing something similar in old films about the Orient and had always assumed that this was a pre-feminist throwback to Mandarin times that must have been abandoned by now. It appeared not so. The theatre was the usual drama studio set up – black walls, raked seats, a large flat stage, good lighting, etc. It would not be a problem.
Catherine said that the place had been built in 1890 as an ice house for cold meat storage, and from whence emerged the ice cubes to chill a few billion colonial pink gins. Later on, it had a grimmer function. During the Japanese capture of Hong Kong in 1941, it had been used to stack the dead bodies from the fighting. Well, I’d played in a few places that felt like morgues; this was the first time I was going to play the real thing.
Back in the office, a neatly dressed secretary called Gigi, (it was a HK habit to have English forenames and Chinese surnames), asked me if I was available to do a radio interview in a couple of days, while Catherine gave me directions to the flat where I would be staying during the visit. It was in an area called Repulse Bay on the south side of the island.
Having negotiated the rush hour traffic of Central HK, the taxi took me through the Aberdeen Tunnel under the main hill of the island, the 2000ft Peak. Then we drove out along the pretty southern coast road that skirted the bays and inlets under the steep southern slopes. More tower blocks stood wedged into the most precarious sites, but they were not so crammed as on the north coast.
The driver pointed out the Repulse Bay main tower ahead. In a sign of unusual individuality, halfway up the building there was a very odd square hole about the size of six large apartments. In front of the tower, an immaculate beach stretched down to the island-studded bay. It all looked like remarkably chic. I paid off the driver and trundled my case up the main door.
Twenty-seven storeys up I stepped out of the lift and was greeted by my hostess, a reserved but shyly sweet Swedish lady named Pia. She showed me around their luxurious flat, then led me out on to a small balcony. The view was splendid – the circular bay, then the distant islands, then the South China Sea far beyond. On the other hand, the balcony was protected only by a four-foot wall and we were about 200 feet up in the air. I have a severe aversion to heights – my idea of a horror film is a documentary about rock climbing, and even ascending a step-ladder gives me pause for thought. This was a nightmare, and what struck me even further was that nearly all activity in Hong Kong must inevitably be carried out while being stuck hundreds of feet off the ground.
Pia leaned over the wall and pointed below: “There is a restaurant just down there. If you lean over, you can see it”. Holding on to the door-jamb and spinning with acrophobia, I cast an anguished glance in the direction of China – or the Philippines or – anywhere. Looking ‘down there’ was simply was not an option. As we returned to the safety of the living room, I explained the problem. Pia nodded:
“I don’t think that my husband really likes living here himself. He says it’s like living in a gap in the air. The English like having their own front door and a garden”.
Over a cup of tea, she told me that Repulse Bay was a particularly exclusive place to live and that the rental on this flat cost twice as much as its equivalent in Manhattan. She also explained why the building had the distinctive hole in its centre. It turned out that, according to local legend, a dragon lived in the hill behind the tower, and that it needed to reach the bay in order to drink. Therefore, despite the huge loss of income from the missing six apartments, the architects had left a hole large enough to facilitate access for the dragon’s daily trips to the water.
A little later, Pia’s husband, a neat, good-looking Englishman named Paul, invited me to join them for dinner. After an excellent Chinese soup, Pia served up a Norwegian salmon.
“We have to buy foreign fish because the sea here is too badly polluted. A local restaurateur tried to introduce the idea of having live fish in tanks so that customers could choose which one they wanted to eat. The trouble was that he used local water and the fish died of pollution before they could be killed”.
The conversation turned to politics. Pia:
“Hong Kong is only the size of the Orkneys, yet we’ve got a population of six million.”
Paul said that the main topic of the moment was the impending takeover by the Chinese Communist government in 1997.
“It will not be dramatic, though. It’s in the Chinese interest to keep Hong Kong as it is. The British influence has virtually gone already. In business, Mandarin is now used more than English. There’ll be some suppression of free speech, but businessmen are pragmatic people”.
“Of course, Hong Kong has never been a democracy, only a colonial possession. Inequality is natural. It’s only in the last few years that there’s been any attempt at democracy. It’s called the Legislative Council – or LegCo for short”.
It struck me that even the attempt at a democratic assembly sounded more like a supermarket conglomerate.
“The Hong Kong attitude has been to let the British make the laws and we’ll make the money. Everybody wants more money and to go faster than the next person. Money is so important because it’s all so insecure here. Life really is about conspicuous consumption. If you’ve got it, flaunt it. It’s a very stressed out place.”
As he explained more, it crossed my mind that Hong Kong could be the blueprint for the future. Prosperity for the few – dependent on which workforce will accept the lowest wages and the worst working conditions – and the world dominated by a tiny business oligarchy who accumulate all the real power while at the same time shedding all real responsibility. Society reduced to a financial steeplechase – a Grand National of greed, and the devil take the hindmost.
Meanwhile I had more practical problems. The household had a strict non-smoking policy and I was a dedicated smoker. The only possible place to have a cigarette was out on was that damn balcony. It was a true battle between terror of heights and necessity of nicotine. Bolstered by a few glasses of wine and in the illusory safety of darkness, I stepped gingerly outside. I found that if I crouched down, the wall cut out most of the view, thank God. I was still able to see the lights all around the perimeter of the bay and it reminded me slightly of a Cornish fishing village. That is, if every fisherman’s cottage had been replaced with a thirty-storey skyscraper.