What is there to say about this oddity that has not already been said? Rely on the garrulous taxi driver to tell you! Mine said the difference between before 1997 and after is that under the British Governor, problems developed, you were kept in the dark about them but they were eventually fixed. Under the current chief executive, problems develop, you get told about them in great detail but no one fixes them. He said this was not surprising – at least under the Union Jack, you were run by civil servants who were servants of the civility. Under China, he said, those running the shop – which in a sense is a succinct definition of what Hong Kong has become – are businessmen who are only in office to advance themselves. This is rich irony if you consider the fact that it was Communist Party-led China that ultimately appointed these capitalists.
My taxi driver may have had a point but if only he knew how much better his ‘businessmen’ are than most leadership groups, even in a democracy. Hong Kong hums. It is efficient almost to the point of embarrassment. The airport is a dream. The hotels have service that defines the very idea of service; other hotels elsewhere in the world may be “better” in the oneupmanship sense of “your personal butler is even on hand to lick your shoes clean”. But in Hong Kong, it is simply as if superb service is second nature.It is never obsequious or over-familiar yet always still warm without being anything less that super-efficient. I could never live in Hong Kong for fear that before long I would never live anywhere else!
When it comes to business however, it is hard not to conclude that ever so slowly but ever so surely, the lifeblood that made Hong Kong the icon that it was is seeping out and going elsewhere. The two biggest beneficiaries is China’s City of Capital in-waiting, Shanghai, and the city which is stealing the Entrepot’s Emperors clothes, Singapore. Over time, I fear that the Fragrant Island and Kowloon will be reduced to being the world’s greatest emporium and entertainment centre (though without casinos as they will belong to Asia’s nearby Las Vegas, Macau.)
Hong Kong is putting a brave face on, even as this vice inexorably closes around it. The city is always trying to improve itself – new landfills, new sky-scrapers, new traffic systems. But ultimately that will not be enough to stop the business that can go onshore going mainly to Shanghai and that which must stay offshore migrating to Singapore.
But in the meantime, Hong Kong remains the most dazzling city on earth. As a rule, I do not like cities. But when it comes to Hong Kong, I make an exception. The Venice of the East may not have its namesake’s aging grace, but it does not need to. Hong Kong Island as viewed from Kowloonside is – night and day – the finest cityscape on the planet. Nowhere else comes even remotely close.