Thirty Years

I arrived in the Crown Colony of Hong Kong on the First of July, 1987.

I’d first like to thank President Xi for coming to town to attend my trigintennial celebration. China promised that there would be fifty years of no change (五十年不變), and they have delivered in style: shame on anyone who says that the Chinese Communist Party can’t be trusted to keep their promises.

However, although Hong Kong’s political and economic system has remained unchanged since the handover, even the CCP is (gasp) not omnipotent, and a couple of changes have slipped through the cracks: cheese and trees.

When I first arrived, despite an expat community of several tens of thousands, cheese was almost unobtainable. The Chinese regarded milk as a drink for babies, and found it unimaginable that any rational person would put coagulated baby food in her mouth.

And that was just the start of the cultural divide. Although there were local adaptations of Western food available in Hong Kong (just as there are of Chinese food in the West), the thought of sitting down to gnaw through a lump of half-cooked flesh with semi-raw vegetables on the side was – well, pretty much what the idea of chicken’s feet was (and is) to most Westerners.

Now, walk into almost any supermarket, and there’s cheese a-plenty. A sign not only of changing tastes, but also of the fact that many of those who were attending university overseas when I first arrived are now parents whose children have acquired those same odd tastes. And a sign also that the divide between expat and local society, although still there, has narrowed.

And trees. I’ve hiked in Hong Kong since I arrived, but when I first arrived nearly what little forest there was, was planted, and with non-indigenous species. It wasn’t for want of indigenous species; it was because at Ching Ming and Chong Yeung in spring and autumn, families went to traditional sites to sweep graves, left incense burning, and, after they’d left, those smouldering joss-sticks set whole hillsides on fire. All hillside fires in Hong Kong are man-made – the only source of natural fire is lightening, which only happens in monsoons and typhoons so is always followed by rain. As a result, indigenous species, unlike those in, say, Australia, never evolved fire-resistance. Every hill fire – and they were beautiful ribbons of orange – killed whatever new growth had taken root.

During Chris Patten’s time, one of those fires killed and severely burnt a party of hiking children. Since then, the number of fires has dropped. The result is that the local species have prospered. And today, walking in the New Territories, the forest floors are in primary growth: clear of leaves, with most life thirty feet above me in the canopy.

So: though it’s none of my doing, Hong Kong has changed for the better in some ways. A fact that will be completely lost on Xi and his entourage, and their endless gabfests about Hong Kong people concentrating on the economy, blah blah blah, when it is their own mis-governance that has seen the economy stagnate. Fifty years of no change, delivered.


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