Authors: Pico Iyer
THE NEXT NIGHT
, since it was Friday, we did what expats do on Friday nights. Georges invited two Chinese girls to join us for dinner at a soigné little café in Central, and we chatted about capital ventures and venture capitalists, futures and options, common friends from Harvard and London. Then, since it was Friday, we headed off to a party at the very top of the Peak. “Can I stop in at your flat for just a sec?” asked the girl from Morgan Guaranty. We did, and she put through a call to New York. “Oh. He’s trading? Okay, I’ll call again this afternoon, your time.”
Into another cab we hopped, whizzing around and around the darkened hills, higher and still higher, around Mulholland twists and Côte d’Azur turns until the lights stretched everywhere before us and we were left upon their jeweled diadem. When last I had seen our host, he too was cohabiting with roaches and mass murderers in Manhattan. Now, high riser in a city of high rises, he lived at the top of the whole carousel. The designer shelves in his bachelor pad were elegantly bare save for a book by Adam Smith, a copy of
and a pile of old copies of the
Far Eastern Economic Review.
The men at the party were expats, the girls, with one exception, Chinese.
A British banker approached a girl. “What do you think of the dollar?”
“As you know,” said an American investment banker, “work takes up a hundred and ten percent of one’s life here. There’s no demarcation between business and real life. It’s all business. That’s all people do, all they talk about.”
“Do you know Terry?” asked a local trader. “Sister’s a Cathay girl?”
“We’re definitely a golden company,” said a Brit in computers. “Five hundred million in fifteen years. Sorry—could you excuse me for a moment? I’ve got to call New York.”
And sometime after one o’clock, we wandered out into an evening gentler, more coaxing than any I could recall. The moon was so bright, and so bright the incandescence below, that the sky was the blue of faded denim. It felt like the last few minutes before daybreak, and I almost mistook the only diamond in the heavens for the morning star. Lulled by the sentimental muzziness of the faraway lights, buoyed by the sense of limitless possibility, I felt like wandering all night.
“It’s a seductive city.”
“It’s a degenerate city.”
FIRST AND FOREMOST
, Hong Kong is an expat city, the world’s great community of transients and refugees—less a community, perhaps, than a dervishing congregation of self-interests. In point of fact, forty out of every forty-one of the Colony’s people are Chinese, not expats but exiles driven to the non-Forbidden City more by circumstance than choice. Yet still the expat seems to preside over the place, symbolically at least, as surely as the salaryman in Tokyo or the party hack in Moscow. The official face of the Crown Colony is white, its official voice the Queen’s English. His Excellency the Governor administers the place, and its fortunes rest with the
One of the major seats of power in the city—represented in my guidebook by a full-color photo—is still the loo at the Foreign Correspondents Club.
By 1985, moreover, negotiations had made formal what circumstances had long made inevitable—in 1997, Hong Kong would be handed over from Whitehall to Beijing. And with the signing of that agreement, reality had converged with metaphor, and the Colony seemed truly to be left in no hands but its own, directed by nothing save the force of individual will. An unregulated free-for-all, Hong Kong in 1985 seemed more than ever a kind of special economic zone for the international businessman, a giant version of one of those anonymous, convenient intercontinental spaces—the convention center, the five-star lobby, the departure lounge—where people can meet between flights to cut deals, have drinks, talk options. Offering all the amenities of a city with none of the encumbrances of a state, the entrepôt provided a perfect movable feast for go-getters, over-achievers and rootless ex-patriots—driven, self-making men
with no allegiances except to the self. The Colony observed no ideology, after all, but laissez-faire, no law except that of the marketplace. It promised plenty of income and almost no tax. It honored no absolutes save profit and impermanence. And the only common denominator, the only
binding everyone together in Hong Kong—Chinese back-street tailor, British administrator and American investment banker—was money. “Business and shopping are the only things to do here,” announced my Chinese colleague the day I arrived—making money and spending it.
And if the most concrete and convenient symbol of the city of concrete and convenience was Kai Tak—a hectic and duty-free and perennially overcrowded waiting room for the future—the most unvarnished was surely the Walled City, the six-acre section of Kowloon which had ended up, through one of the pieces of small print that are the Colony’s history and destiny, policed by neither the Chinese nor the British. Now a kind of no-man’s-land occupied by a neo-Elizabethan hugger-mugger of racketeers, drug dealers, gangsters and abortionists, the shark-toothed area seemed only a rawer version of the city all around—a freewheeling, free-spending center of free enterprise.
Where freedom meets money—that was the location of Hong Kong. And by 1985, the city had become the last wide-open settlement in the Wild East, the final El Dorado. This was where corporate cowboys came to lasso their futures, where fortune hunters flocked to pan for gold. “This is the second frontier,” an advertising executive told me, excitement in his eyes. “Shoot from the hip,” said his boss, stopping by for a brief strategic chat. “In Hong Kong,” said a cabbie, “there’s lots of freedom. You have money, you can do anything.” And where anything goes, everyone goes, to be somebody.
THE MORNING AFTER
the party on the Peak, I got up very early and walked into Georges’ living room to find him doing what most expats do on Saturday mornings—calling his office in New York. On the other end of the line was another Old Etonian who was busy complaining that he could find no Old Etonians in New York, in part perhaps because nearly all of them were out East. “What we need here,” this fellow bulled, “are more people like you—capable, confident, knows what he likes.”
For British public school boys, of course, the Crown Colony had long been a first-class finishing school, or at least a tolerable halfway house fairly close to the tropics. Indeed, the expat life had first acquired its air of raffish glamour when I was at school, and nothing could seem more glamorous than raffishness. For though the best of our brightest might be expected to follow their paters into the Foreign Office or the City, the rest—the adventurers and apprentice ne’er-do-wells, the black sheep and white mischief-makers—were much better advised to respond to the ancestral call of “Go East, young man.” In the East they could put to good use all the noble savagery they had mastered through flogging and fagging and firking at school; in the East, they could be rulers of empires. The East was opportunity, the East was escape. “The East,” as Disraeli wrote in another context, “is a career.”
At the only school reunion I ever attended, my daydreams of the expat life had come even more sharply into focus, in the shape of Charles, who had just flown in from Hong Kong, outfitted with a new air of knowingness, a matter-of-fact ease with the mysterious. As we gathered for drinks in the warm Berkshire evening, he entranced us all with schoolboy fantasies of the Orient. Working for Swire’s, he began with practiced casualness, he received a free flat, free holidays, free flights on Cathay Pacific. How did he spend his weekends? Oh, usually, he flew off with a few expats to Bangkok for the night life and sometimes, that same night, they went on to Manila; on long weekends, they went to Bali. In the winter, expats went skiing in Japan; in the summer, they took over some forgotten fantasy island in the Philippines. And the food in Asia was terrific, and the weather was amazing. As for the girls, they were ravishing, and compliant, and dreamed of nothing but a British boyfriend! Even the miseries Charles described—dysentery in Kashmir, con men in Phuket, social diseases in Manila—sounded impossibly exotic.
In the years that followed, I often caught updates on the latter-day nabobs, supported by their Old Etonian ties and sustained by their imperial authority. Giles was a stockbroker in Hongers, Michael was a solicitor. Dominic from Tokyo and David from the Colony had just been on holiday together in Thailand. Mike had actually gone native and married a Chinese
woman. Jamie was swanning around China playing free-lance writer. Jock was living it up in Bangkok, and Paul was starting his own company in Jakarta. Tim was in Seoul, which he loved—he kept one girl for official functions, one for more private occasions and a third for his visiting friends.
By 1985, moreover, as every other country in Asia had shaken off the fetters of colonialism, Hong Kong, the “Pearl of the Orient,” seemed the last treasure left in the oyster that was the Old Boys’ world. Etonians still crowded into the FCC, an American journalist complained, chattering away in their incomprehensible code of housemasters’ initials and Latin tags; cocktail parties still buzzed with pukka talk of “bashes” and “punters.” And one day, as I drove into town, I saw the Eton E. T. Language School hardly more than a scone’s throw from the Anglican church, standing upright in the afternoon sun.
A couple of mornings later, I turned on the radio, and got another whiff of Empire in the commanding colonel tones of a well-educated Brit, calling up some chatty chappie on a talk show. Had the host happened to see the beauty contest on the television three days ago? he began with authoritative politeness. Well, not exactly. “I see,” said the man, meaningfully. “Well! They gave the winner fully four seconds more than the others to do her toe touches!” The professionally euphoric host was not sure quite what to make of this. “So naturally,” went on the caller, as if preparing his letter to
, “the girl won the aerobics section. Then they refused to release the score of the runners-up!” Half baked in the tropics, he warmed swiftly to his topic. “I was wondering whether you could perhaps use your good offices to look into this.” Stunned, the host laughed nervously, and played for time. But the loony was unstoppable. “And do you know what the hostess was called?” The host did not know what the hostess was called. “Doh-doh!” said the voice triumphantly. The host rallied gamely. “Do-do.” “Well, she said it Doh-doh, and, you know, that makes me think of …”
By 1985, however, the British presence in the city seemed all too easily represented by that voice of elegant irrelevance—a sort of polished character actor consigned to the margins of life and talking to himself unintelligibly in an enormous, echoing chamber. Hong Kong was still officially the Crown Colony, but the crown was slipping off and the Colony was slipping away.
The greatest hong in the city, Jardine-Matheson, had already moved its headquarters to Bermuda. The storied Repulse Bay Hotel, great bastion of old fogies and Old Hands, had been replaced by an eighteen-story megablock. The Peninsula, which still collected guests from the airport in a Rolls, was about to undergo a radical refurbishing. In 1985, for the first time in history, there were more Americans in Hong Kong than Brits.
Change, of course, was nothing new here; it had always been the only constant in the hyperactive Colony. Every seven minutes, the government erected a brand-new building, quite literally moving mountains and pushing back the sea and digging up new earth in its determination to keep up with the times. Nowadays, however, something else was changing, something deeper than the buildings. “In Hong Kong today,” explained a Chinese banker from Harvard Business School, “to be rich is to be powerful. The two are the same.” And as affluence had become the measure of authority, matter was superseding manner, and the great intangibles in which the British had long excelled—irony and wit, discretion and diplomacy, a sense of the mot juste and the
—were fast being made redundant by the hard facts of money and technology. The ever-so-civil servant was being usurped by the stateless entrepreneur; the Empire was being eclipsed by the International Style.
The age of the Impersonal Computer was bringing with it, of course, an entirely new set of values. Quantities counted more than qualities now, function overruled form. Suburbs were beginning to swallow up cities. And as fast as the sun was setting on the Empire, it was being replaced by fluorescent lights. The Empire had always stressed character and distinctions; in the new technoglobal village, however, convenience and communications were everything, and the world was being made generic. Everywhere could be home if everywhere was homogeneous.
In 1985, therefore, Hong Kong, always one of the fastest places to adapt to the latest trend, was busy creating a new and serviceable identity for itself, sloughing off the superfluous niceties of Empire as it spun into a digital future. Already, the Colony boasted numbers as showy as the test scores of a teenage science whiz. There were more Rolls-Royces per capita here than in any other city in the world, more Mercedes-Benzes than in Berlin.
The new sixty-two-escalator Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank was reported to be the most expensive building in the world. And there were 1,500 men in Hong Kong worth more than $100 million, even though there were only 400 houses in the entire Colony.
The greatest numbers of all, of course, were always financial; in the Multinational Age, the top priority was always the bottom line. And here too, Hong Kong seemed eminently well endowed. For money infected the language of Hong Kong: the best place to eat, I was told, was “the poor man’s nightclub” and the best thing to see was the “rich men’s ghetto.” Money colored the customs of Hong Kong:
kung hei fa choy
(“rejoice and grow rich”) was the greeting exchanged by the Chinese, together with bank notes, during their New Year. Money informed the very sound of the city: the song of the moment while I was there all too fittingly, was “Material Girl,” which I heard again and again and again, pumped out by the sound system in McDonald’s, blasting out at a party in Central, crooned by an entertainer in a Malaysian restaurant. Money, above all, was the opium of the masses: more than once in Hong Kong, I heard people acknowledge, “I like money.” A little later, I read that up to 50 percent of all the Colony’s psychiatric patients, most of them expats, suffered from “affluence depression.” In Hong Kong, even the ironies were rich.