Updated: Aug 24
I remember watching television with my then-wife Trina on the day of The Handover. This was on June 30, 1997 when the official transfer of sovereignty of Hong Kong from the United Kingdom was made to the People’s Republic Of China. The Handover was televised internationally and all the pomp and ceremony shown ended in Hong Kong early the next morning.
We watched in silence as Governor Chris Patten accepted the folded Union Jack from Aide-de-camp Lance Brown. This was eventually followed by him, his wife Lavender and their daughters leaving Government House for the last time and then an emotional farewell to Hong Kong.
It was raining that afternoon into night and I remember saying to Trina how even the sky was crying. There was an eerie feeling around Hong Kong that day. It was a sad goodbye to a very long and always interesting chapter full of twists and turns, and here we now were watching the end of it. A new chapter would be opening the next day, but who knew what to expect?
Hong Kong under colonial rule might not have been perfect, but there was always a sense of optimism to the city- a sense of security despite being battered by typhoons, dealing with pockets of social unrest, water rationing... All this somehow toughened us up. It gave Hong Kong all the freedom for that entrepreneurial “Can Do” spirit to grow.
It was against this backdrop that everything else succeeded- the tourism, the five star lifestyle, the advertising, the international horse racing and everything else that made Hong Kong the envy of the world.
As for 1997, as we watched the tanks from China roll into Hong Kong, Trina and I didn’t say anything to each other. We didn’t have to. Our silence said it all.
We were young parents. Though Trina and our daughter had American passports, having been born in Ceylon, I was stateless.
I worked with my writers Don Ellis and David Barlow when at DDB to produce a series of Right Of Abode ads to campaign Britain to help the plight of minority groups stuck in Hong Kong, myself included.
The campaign succeeded. I was eventually eligible for a British passport and our work received good international exposure as it coincided with the visit to Hong Kong of Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe.
None of us were thinking of leaving what had been home to us for almost forever.
Hong Kong is where we went to school, this was where Trina and I met, dated, fell in love, married at the Church Of All Nations in Repulse Bay and where our daughter was born at Canossa Hospital on April 11. We couldn’t leave all those memories behind.
The day after The Handover, we had lunch at Spices in Repulse Bay. Richard Li, youngest son of Li Ka-shing, was also there with a friend. We nodded to each other though Trina and I were still lost in our thoughts.
I guess we were wondering about where we would go from here and what the future held for our daughter. She was our priority along with our cat and dog. Us? We just needed each other.
Fast forward to Hong Kong today and there’s that same feeling of uncertainty- and we’ve been living with this uncertainty for the last few years. This uncertainty has morphed into a citywide panic never seen before, not even at the height of the SARS crisis in Hong Kong in 2003.
At least then, even with its dodgy warts and all and a scapegoat for the government-created mess that was Harbourfest, this event brought together- wait for it- The Rolling Stones, Santana, Neil Young, Prince and others to Hong Kong to tell the world that we were okay and that it was safe for tourism to return.
Unlike today, there was at least some semblance of a strategy for hope and getting back to the business of living in place.
Trina and I are no longer together, but we’re both still living in Hong Kong. I can’t speak for her nor our daughter, but this is a very different Hong Kong to the city where I grew up.
Of course, the world has changed and nothing and no one is the same.
What’s next? That comes down to personal choices and decisions, but for me, it’s continuing to fight- fight to keep being motivated and better one’s self, fight to improve life with whatever talents one might have, and fight to be the best person one can be.
It’s also about fighting for those who made Hong Kong what it became- each one a fiercely charismatic game changer and never scared to take chances and swim against the tide. They were great men- dangerous men-with great balls of fire.
For me, it’s not about giving up on a city that’s given me so much- even mistakes and with batteries included.
It’s remembering that despite having to deal with everything not happening other than a city gripped in paranoia and a dumbed down government, something like laughter is still the best medicine. It’s never been more true. And it’s free.
Crying also helps. I never watched “Jerry Maguire” when it first came out. In the last couple of months I must have watched it at least five times and cried at the same places.
What am I crying about? Many different things. Like laughter, crying is therapeutic. It puts you in touch with feelings you never knew you had. It makes you see things differently.
You see weaknesses in people that weren’t there when it was summertime and the living was easy.
You see bucketloads of selfish thinking mixed with nouveau riche pretentiousness. And now that you do, it’s something extra to tap into- and keep well away from.
It also provides a resilience and third eye that wasn’t there before, and how, instead of having yum cha from that half empty cup, it’s about knowing that things can only get better. And how there’s still more work to do- not because you have to, but because you enjoy the challenge, especially challenging one’s self.