Hong Kong Turns Chinese

on the road reporting by Vance Ikezoye

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(catchy title is my own idea -jbs)

June 30, 1997
With so many years of buildup, perhaps the handover could never meet anyone's expectations. For me, Hong Kong's turnover wasn't one dramatic event, but rather a series of small everyday ones. The most surprising thing being that some of them were strangely business as usual.

My flight arrived in Hong Kong at 6:00PM. The airport wasn't particularly busy. In fact, for the first time in my many trips to Hong Kong, I didn't wait in line at Customs, I walked right up. Perhaps they didn't care who entered Hong Kong on this night. The officer hands back my passport. I furiously go through the pages, looking for that stamp. Where is it? Don't tell me they're not stamping the passports. Finally, I find it - 30 June, 1997. Visitor permitted to stay through 30 July, 1997. Little did I know that this will be the most important souvenir of the Handover.

Took the A3 bus to Causeway Bay to my hotel. It was about 7:00PM on a Monday, and the Harbor Tunnel was empty! Where was everyone? Did they all take their foreign passports and leave, with only the tourists remaining?

After wandering the streets, finally found the hotel and checked in. Threw everything in the room, grabbed my camera and film, and went wandering off to explore. Where should I go? Well the fireworks start in 15 minutes. Can't get to the Kowloon side to get a photo in time, so I better at least get to the water. I find as many police on the streets as there are people in areas. On the elevated walkways, they are constantly yelling at me in Cantonese to keep moving. Funny thing, I've never really noticed HK police before.

As I get closer to the water, I find as many tourists as local Chinese standing next to buildings facing the harbor, all waiting for the fireworks. Oh no, the fireworks are starting and I can't even see the harbor. A few minutes later I get somewhat close to the water, at least I can see the fireworks. It's been raining, but now most of the people put down their umbrellas to watch. The show goes on for almost 20 minutes, with oohs and aahs throughout. We are all soaked.

The show is over. It was the closest thing to an EVENT for me, and probably millions of others here. Well what do I do next? Have a drink of course! Where else to have a drink but Wanchai. So I head over to an 'expat' bar, which is not very full and find a big screen TV showing the events. Where is everyone? I have a beer. Almost all of the people in the bar are Brits. Many of the women are wearing the Chinese dresses - That's probably as close to the Chinese as many of them have ever gotten...

Head over to the Convention Center, where the handover ceremonies are being held. Lots of police. It looks like they have everyone out on the street. My guess is that even clerks and meter maids are out on the street. I wait in front of the Convention Center. I don't know exactly what I am waiting for. But since the press is here with their 3 cameras each around their necks and huge video cameras, maybe it's my chance to take THE PHOTO. Perhaps I'll get a picture of a lone protester standing alone, in front of a line of taxis. A few protest marches go by, with more photographers than protesters. Where is everyone?

I stay one hour, then two. It is approaching midnight, and the press is getting bored. I am starting to fall asleep. Midnight comes and goes. Some of the police change their badges to the new Hong Kong SAR ones. The press begin to take pictures of each other.

Head off back to hotel, and watch the rest of evening on TV. The new legislature gets sworn in at 2:00AM. They meet for the first time at 3:00AM. Boring, it's seems a little contrived.

I go to sleep. The transfer of power from Britain to China, being a little less than I expected.

July 1, 1997
The first day under Chinese rule. It continues to rain. It continues to be hot and miserable. Today is a holiday. Nothing is open until about 10:00.

I find out later that most of the locals stayed home on June 30th. They watched the ceremonies on TV.
They didn't even watch the fireworks. They say that fireworks are no big thing for Chinese...

In the afternoon, EVERYONE shows up. They are out shopping and they are everywhere. Western tourists, amahs, locals, mainland Chinese.

There is a big celebration in the evening. Laser lights, lighted boats, followed by a huge fireworks show. I decide it's a good photo opportunity. Where should I go? To the Peak? No, probably a bad idea, there do not have to be many people there to be crowded. I want the photo to have Hong Kong Island in the background. I call up the Hong Kong Tourist Hotline. They say forget the Peak, last night it was crowded and cloudy. You couldn't even see the fireworks clearly. I ask about Hung Hom. They say it's too far away. They suggest for the kind of picture I want, TST. I ask, 'Won't it be crowded?'. They say, yes but 'no problem, if you get there early'. Little do I know, but early really meant that morning.

I go to have dinner at Planet Hollywood. Nathan Road is blocked off. All of TST is decorated in lights. It is crowded, but I really don't understand crowded yet. I have dinner and with an hour before the festivities, I head off. The streets are as packed as I have ever seen, anywhere! Wall to wall people, pushing, shoving, like only Hong Kong people can do. I have found where everyone is!

People are running up the ramps of parking garages, only to find a ten yard space with the Harbor view blocked by buildings. The sad thing is, I was one of them. What was I thinking? I have become one of them. Think Vance. And it comes to me. In Hong Kong, throw money at the problem. I try to rent a room at the Sheraton. Nothing is available on the Harbor side. It is too late for even capitalist approach.

It's a half hour before the fireworks start. If it's this packed now, getting out after the show will be impossible. I must make it to the MTR and get out of this place. It is now survival. All of the close MTR entrances are blocked by the those damn police again. This time however with their new badges without the Royal in the Royal Hong Kong Police. I walk up Nathan Road and find the ONE entrance. Everyone else has got the same idea. I stand in that shoving, sweating line for 15 minutes. I finally get into the station and on a train. It's empty. Just above on the streets, there are hundreds of thousands of people taking up every single open space. I feel my normal self returning.

On the Hong Kong side, I get out at Wan Chai, to see if I can at least get back to yesterday's venue. There are those Hong Kong police again. There doesn't seem to be anyone around, but the police say it's too crowded. I don't see anyone. If those police had seen TST, they wouldn't even bother with crowd control. So defeated, I watch the fireworks show between some building and with the view obstructed by some elevated roads.

That's it? This is my memory of perhaps the most significant event in Hong Kong history. I was there but I didn't even see anything. This is like going to Berlin for the Wall coming down, and being stuck in the airport. Dan Rather I am not.

Oh well, over time perhaps the details won't matter. I doubt it. Perhaps it was enough that I was there. I doubt it. Perhaps that little stamp in my passport is enough. Maybe. Or perhaps, I will just make up my own version of the handover that will get better with time and old age. Yes, that is probably closer to the truth.