Off to China with my 24 year-old son and his two young friends. I call them the Three Musketeers. Too old to play d’Artagnan any more, I stumble along behind them, their ancient and clumsy manservant, Planchet. Honeybee is not sure who will be looking after whom. Quite simple really, I shall make sure the boys clean their teeth and ring home occasionally; they will make sure I don’t smoke too many opium pipes and am in bed before the sun rises.
First stop Hong Kong and we all squeeze into a small, battered saloon that is masquerading as a taxi. Our driver Ng (his friends call him N for short) sets off for our hotel in Kowloon, unfazed by the amount of luggage, which forces him to leave the trunk open. There’s a No Smoking sign on the dash but the cab reeks of stale tobacco. There are minus air-bags. This, for a frail septuagenarian, is what passes for adventure.
Why the ‘Celestials’? Because in the 19th century that’s what North Americans and Australians called the Chinese who came to help build their railroads and work their mines. The name arose from the contemporary translation of Tian Chao, the traditional name for China, as ‘The Heavenly Kingdom’. I find the term ‘Celestials’ quite charming, but I’m sure there will be some politically correct body out there anxious to take offense on behalf of the Chinese people.
Lunch of half a goose, chicken feet, pork buns, congee, shrimp dumplings, bok choy and tea. Aus$15 each and really good! Apparently the Chinese achieve the crispy skin on their ducks and geese while leaving the meat moist and tender by separating the skin from the flesh.
Dinner in Stanley Street. More goose. I’m eating so much geese and duck I’m afraid there won’t be many migrating North at the end of winter this year. I’m settling in to Chinese street food very nicely. Much more fun sucking the cartilage off a pig’s foot than cutting into a wagyu steak in some air-conditioned restaurant in Central. So far I haven’t encountered a pea or a potato. Not quite so keen on the so-called century eggs, which are preserved in a mixture of clay, ash, quicklime and rice husks for several months; I prefer mine soft-boiled at 4 minutes.
After paying a small fortune for a quartet of Hemmingway Daiquiris in the Quinary bar on Hollywood Road, we retreat, passing similar bars filled with braying European executives and their horsey English secretaries, and moving down, nearer the waterfront, where we settle into a likely looking bar. In no time adrenalin, unavailable in Mosman, is flowing as we order round after round of Caipirinhas while sharing a Shisha, or waterpipe (a sort of industrial sized e-cigarette), taking turns to inhale and exhale the banana-flavoured steam.
Sure enough, I rise late the next day, numb-headed with a palate like the roof of a pizza oven. It seemed a good time to recall Byron’s lament to the time when the restless energy of youth gives way to the weariness of old age.
So we’ll go no more a-roving
So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
And the moon be still as bright.
For the sword outwears its sheath,
And the soul outwears the breast,
And the heart must pause for breath,
And love itself have rest.
Though the night was made for loving
And the day returns too soon,
Yet we’ll go no more a-roving
By the light of the moon.
Funnily enough, Byron wrote this when he was only 29; but then he did party quite hard.
A man squats outside a calligraphy shop, fashioning pens out of lengths of bamboo. Much of Chinese art derives from the graphic interpretation of the 10,000 or so Chinese logograms, of which the epistolary literate would need to know 3 to 4 thousand. The world’s oldest, continuously used system of writing is no longer morphosyllabic; a character now corresponds to a single morpheme, the smallest meaningful unit of a language. Here in Hong Kong, the most important character is the letter S cut by two vertical lines.
The whole of Hong Kong, from the cut-throat executives in Central to the cut-price tailors in Kowloon, seethes with feverish commercial activity. Even a Big Mac has been renamed Prosperity Burger. The rampant consumerism, the obsession with profit, has its roots in the late 18thcentury when Hong Kong Island contained nothing but a small fishing village. At that time the British were concerned about the substantial trade imbalance with China. While the British were importing porcelain, brocades, silk and tea, Quangzhou (Canton) was the only port open to the West and silver the only commodity the Chinese would accept in return for their goods. The only item the Chinese wanted and did not produce was opium and so the British ‘Hong’ (companies licensed to trade in Canton), decided to even the playing field by flooding the market with cheaply produced opium from Bengal, spreading the habit of opium smoking from the rich to nearly all of the younger men in the coastal regions. In 1839, concerned by the resulting net outflow of silver, the Emperor’s emissary Lin Ze-xu (no relative) reacted, confiscating quantities of opium and closing Canton to commerce. The British sent in the Navy, their iron-clad gunboats sweeping aside the Chinese wooden junks. It was a grossly unfair fight; the Chinese, having invented gunpowder, used it for firework displays; the British with more deadly intent. In 1842, aboard a gun-boat in the mouth of the Yangtse, the British forced the Chinese to sign a series of treaties in which they ceded Hong Kong island, opened 5 ‘Treaty’ ports and paid substantial compensation for the confiscated opium. By 1900 China was producing 22,000 tons herself.
A natural reluctance on the part of the Chinese customs officials to enact the treaties made a second round of hostilities inevitable. The arrest of the Arrow, a Hong Kong based ship and her crew, in 1856 provided the excuse for the British to send an expeditionary force, while the French, eager for a share of the pie, joined in the fray when one of their missionaries was murdered. In 1860, after the coalition had sacked and looted Peking, the Chinese signed a Convention ceding Kowloon to the British, establishing foreign embassies in Peking and agreeing to the export of indentured workers to America and Australia. Naturally enough the Chinese labourers took the opium habit with them and introduced it to their hosts. Those watching the TV series ‘The Knick’ (about a hospital in 19th century New York) will have noticed that Doctor Thackeray relieves the daily stress of the operating theatre with a comforting pipe in a Chinese opium den.
Three of the very early members of the British Hong, William Jardine, James Matheson and John Swire, were quick to establish themselves in Hong Kong, creating substantial trading empires. They and their succeeding family members took it in turns to be tai pan (literally ‘top dog’), the unofficial ruler of the colony. The companies, Jardine Matheson and Swire Group, now among the top 200 trading companies in the world, are still owned by descendants of William, James and John. Assets you will recognize – the Mandarin Hotel (Jardine Matheson) and Cathay Pacific (Swire).
A heavily made-up lady of indeterminate age has attached herself to me, imploring me to visit her massage parlour while thrusting a card exhibiting a pair of poorly drawn breasts in my face, evidently unaware of my feeble resources, both financial and physical. The boys eventually prise her loose; but along with the sense of freedom, along with the knowledge that I had no intention of being ‘laid in China’, remains the faint regret that I would not have experienced that bizarre pleasure of sitting in some cavern of lost hope, among the fading velvet and Chinese lanterns, paying $500 for a bottle of poor quality sparkling wine. Only the French can understand such sentiment, which they charmingly refer to as Nostalgie de la boue.
There is little of expressly Hong Kong literary culture and I take this as further proof of the determinably commercial mindset of the people. If you are interested in the history of Hong Kong I recommend Timothy Mo’s 1986 novel ‘An Insular Possession’, shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
We take the ferry to Lantau Island, able to see the Hong Kong shoreline bristling with cranes unloading container after container of Chanel handbags and Rolex watches. We ride the cable car to a mountain top and climb 290 steps to an immense Buddha. I was a little disappointed to learn that the statue was early 20thcentury and constructed of concrete. There are crowds of visitors; if a toe or finger fell off there would be serious injuries. Standing on the underground light rail journey back to Kowloon I am twice offered a seat by young women. I shall be looking for powdered rhino horn and a wig tomorrow.
Into a tailor and the four of us are fitted up for suits, which we are assured will be ready in 2 days. All happy with the finished products we spend Saturday shopping, surprised to see long queues of Chinese with suitcases outside Chanel, Louis Vuitton and other luxury brand shops. The shoppers, it turns out, are parallel traders from the mainland, taking advantage of the multiple entry visa policy to import luxury and other goods into the mainland. The practice has caused shortages in Hong Kong’s Northern districts and intensified conflicts between Hong Kong and the mainland. Time now for us to see what is going on in China proper.