Borrowed place, borrowed time
Walking down the length of Wing Lee Street, I couldn’t help but marvel at the degree of change around me. The ageing tenements running along one side had been renovated in bright pastel yellow, with balconies and windows refitted to accommodate new tenants. A cheery sign midway indicated the presence of an artists’ studio. Formerly earmarked for demolition, the entire row was saved after a public outcry following its appearance in Echoes of the Rainbow, winner of a Crystal Bear at the 2010 Berlin Film Festival.
In the simplicity of these low-rise tenements I glimpsed the city of my parents, when the harbour was much wider and the tallest building was the 26-storey Mandarin Oriental. My mother spoke of days when the cool ocean breezes drifted in through the window, and my father remembered the sound of seagulls, now conspicuously absent from the waterfront.
At the time Hong Kong was a colonial outpost perched on the edge of a fervently Red China, a sickly giant gripped in turmoil and closed to the outside world. Wave after wave of refugees flooded in, many seeing the city as a point of transit to a better future elsewhere. The government struggled to provide housing to counter the growing shantytowns that mushroomed on slopes across the territory. My parents talked of water shortages when the taps would only be turned on twice a week, several hours at a time. Those who chose to remain would attempt to make their fortunes on limited resources, propelling the colony to the cusp of an unprecedented boom.
In a 1959 article penned for Life magazine, titled ‘Hong Kong’s Ten-Year Miracle’, novelist Han Suyin described a city that was witnessing the waning decades of the British Empire.
Squeezed between giant antagonists crunching huge bones of contention, Hong Kong has achieved within its own narrow territories a co-existence which is baffling, infuriating, incomprehensible, and works splendidly – on borrowed time in a borrowed place.
Han Suyin herself was an extraordinary individual who bridged the gap between East and West. The daughter of a Chinese father and a Belgian mother, she grew up in China during an age when being Eurasian was not seen as an asset, but an affront to the views of racial purity that were dominant at the time. After studying medicine in Brussels and London, and losing her first husband in the Chinese Civil War, she returned to Hong Kong as a practicing physician.
It was her semi-autobiographical work, ‘A Many-Splendoured Thing’ (1952), which catapulted her to international fame. Three years later the bestselling novel was turned into a Hollywood blockbuster starring Jennifer Jones and William Holden. The hillside pavilion where Han met with her lover, Australian war correspondent Ian Morrison, still stands to this day.
Although Han considered the city’s metamorphosis unique for its time, she had not yet seen the miracle that was still to come. Over the next thirty years, Hong Kong would emerge as a global manufacturing centre before reinventing itself as a major financial hub. Alongside Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea, the territory would take its place as one of the Four Asian Tigers.
Half a century has brought many episodes of rapid change, but the Hong Kong of today is still a ‘baffling co-existence’ that Han would easily recognise. Bamboo scaffolding sheathes half-finished giants in steel and concrete, and the need for technology is tempered by a strong belief in feng shui practices and age-old superstitions.
Starting from Wing Lee Street, I spend an afternoon exploring Sheung Wan, the ‘upper ring’ beside the financial district, and Sai Ying Pun, the ‘western encampment’ whose steep streets were laid out on a simple, idealistic grid. The signs of development are everywhere: I pass the construction site of a new metro station, and the beginnings of monsters veiled in green canvas – the next big luxury apartment block with a ludicrous name and sweeping sea views. As far west as Sai Ying Pun, traditional neighbourhood stores have given way to artisanal cafés and organic shops, a spillover from the expat haven of SoHo.
Decades of continued prosperity have left their mark on the skyline, but beyond the corporate towers of Central, the older neighbourhoods remain dotted with potent reminders of an earlier age: green-painted hawker stalls, family-run businesses, red brick buildings and creeping banyans. Together, they whisper anecdotes from the borrowed time of Han Suyin.