Hong Kong: Memories of the Past and Realities of Today

(Part 3 of my Cold War Recollections)

Hong Kong is such a picturesque outpost on the face of Asia that having lived there, it is impossible to ever forget it. The memory of my first hair-raising approach to Kai Tak airport on a Cathay Pacific DC-3 which I experienced in 1951 was permanently engraved in my brain. Standing then on the deck of the Star Ferry as it crossed the harbor from Kowloon to Hong Kong island proper, the brisk wind was filling my lungs. The sampans being deployed to unload the cargo ships at anchor made for a complete picture as I disembarked and headed into the busy intersection in the pulsating heart of the city. It was always brisk, keeping pace with the thousands of people rushing to avoid bumping shoulders with a multitude of busy Chinese and avoiding collision with anyone racing for a taxi, hopping on a streetcar or heading to some other part of the bustling island, either to eat, shop, take advantage of the endless maize of camera shops, nearest department or clothing stores or, oh yes, get to work.

The energy level was and is always at a peak from morning until night. Typically, Hong Kong simply never seems to rest. People on the street can be pursuing a movie, slurping down a bowl of snake soup, wandering through a curio shop, wolfing down a spicy Szechuan-spiced duck at an elegant restaurant or looking for a fortune teller. Among the beeping of horns honked by double-decker buses, the scream of ambulances, the whistle of cops or any other noises in the alleys feeding into it -- there is never a shortage of money changers read to lure bewildered tourists into their clutches to search for the most promising rate of exchange.

Many of the British colonials casually lived out their quiet lives on top of the tallest hills of the island while we, meaning my wife, children and I lived in a spacious apartment with spectacular vistas and views of Hong Kong's harbor until I was wacked with an ailment and had to be evacuated back to the States. The last time we checked the current rent for our apartment, it was so astronomical that we could not possibly have afforded to live there anymore.

Still, remembering the Chinese neighbors we joined in outdoor exercises in early mornings was also a permanent memory The serene hillside setting was equalled only by the view from my CBS News office on the top of the now vanished Cable and Wireless building. That was when I wasn't racing off to Vietnam or Cambodia. Home life in Hong Kong then suddenly came to an abrupt halt when I awakened the morning after a return flight from Saigon and tried to climb out of bed but could not move. My children wheeled me around in a chair. After weeks of conferring with doctors, a chiropractor and hospitalization, I had a conversation with the internist I knew years ago when I lived in the United States. We reluctantly decided to return to the U.S., hopefully for just a short time. But it was not to be so. It took months to recover from a tropical illness.

After assignments in Saigon and Phnom Penh, covering the ultimate collapse of South Vietnam and Cambodia, it turned out to be my final occupancy in Hong Kong. Many, I'm afraid to say, including fellow journalists, American diplomats and resident academics had a misconception about China's intentions, once it succeeded historic British rule. Colored by our own Cold War mentality, many of us China watchers imagined that the government in Beijing would dispatch a rigid team of doctrinaire Communists to impose a different point of view on the territory. It turns out to be that most of us were wrong. At least that's what it seemed at a brief glance when visiting a month ago. How will the Communists govern in place of Her Majesty's 200 years of rule? I believe that none of us had an optimistic perception of the future to come. How surprised we were when my wife and I just now returned to Hong Kong and digested the energy, the prosperity and normalcy that had taken place in so many years, We were non-plussed. Instead of the so-called Commie rats, hordes of rich Chinese millionaires and billionaires seem to have poured out of the mainland and emptied their pockets or else invested their money in newly emerging businesses or housing construction in Hong Kong. If the Chinese were supposed to be agents of change, they apparently are not those of a repressive ideological machine being foisted on the Hong Kong population.

Instead, Hong Kong seemed after a brief visit as normal now as it was when we left in 1975. The trains still run on time.The double-decker buses continue to spin around every corner. The roads are paved to perfection. The number of high rises have multiplied to our astonishment, but are clearly necessary to accommodate the exponential expansion of new Chinese residents. The winding, twisting roads that normally curl around Hong Kong itself are at the mercy of the usual number of drivers maneuvering their cars or taxicabs around each curve as if they were qualifying for the Indianapolis 500. The Repulse Bay Hotel, once the mecca of Hong Kong residents, has been done over to accommodate tourists galore, and the stalls at the end of Stanley Beach Road look as busy as a farmer's market in Los Angeles.

See also: Part 1: A Retrospective, Part 2: A Grim, Yet Satisfying, Return Visit to Cambodia and Part 4: Hong Kong, China and the Mythology of The Cold War.