Corpus Christi Caller Times

"An Uncertain Future Awaits Hong Kong"

Even as a child in Hong Kong during the 1950's, I can remember fearing the eventual end of the British rule. I could not imagine what would be in store for the colony. After years away, my interest and concern for the place of my youth is rekindled as the handover draws near. In the last 10 years, I have traveled back often, and most recently in April for one more view of Hong Kong as a British colony. On July 1, 1997, Hong Kong will belong to China again.

What will happen to this great and cosmopolitan city? Well-known for its visitor amenities and multilingual citizens, Hong Kong requires virtually no coping skills from its global visitors. Will it continued to be the free-wheeling and dealing business crossroads? Will it retain its fame for having more millionaires per capita than anywhere in the world? And will it continue to attract the young and the ambitious who dream of overnight successes and fabulous riches?

After the handover, Hong Kong, as China's Special Administrative Region, will operate under the "one country, two systems" agreement in the hope of conducting business as usual. On the surface, this agreement purports to maintain stability, thus allowing Hong Kong's economy to flourish and assuaging the uneasiness of its residents. Presumably, not only will business be able to continue their normal capitalist operations for the next 50 years, but they also will gain easy access to the exploding China market.

But as is often the case in Asia, reality is somewhere beneath the surface. China is emotionally and mentally committed to catch up with the rest of the world, but it has 1.2 billion people to steer in the right direction. This poses an ideological and logistical challenge. There are already emerging entrepreneurs amassing sizable fortunes within this communist/capitalist world. Where can they multiply their wealth shielded from the close scrutiny of their Maoist neighbors? And, more personally, how can they enjoy their new wealth in a China where one's duty is to the social state and the majority of the country is still very poor?

It seems that the new Hong Kong is being made to fit the bill. It already has become a favorite vacation destination for many mainland Chinese. At once modern and traditional, it can comfortably help its country cousin to bridge the gap to the 21st century. This mix of the old and new can be seen in the construction of the addition to the Hong Kong Convention Center where the handover ceremony is to take place. Like other modern Hong Kong structures, this soon-to-be landmark building of glass, steel and concrete was dressed in traditional bamboo scaffolding during its construction.

Besides being thoroughly modern and Chinese, this city built on trade is accustomed to lavish spending. In Cantonese, to "receive loudly" is a rough translation for the word "enjoy". A house, comparable to some on our scenic Ocean Drive but sited on a hill on Hong Kong Island, was purchased recently for $70 million. Fleets of Rolls Royces and Mercedes can be easily spotted, and hefty sums of money are spent on obtaining lucky numbers for the license plates. In the central business district, gold jewelry shops appear to be doing a brisk business with mainland Chinese shoppers who rarely bargain as they look to trade new cash for old symbols of wealth.

For the moment, the new Hong Kong will still be the place to go for fast fortunes. Bringing know-how and money, business men and women from all major countries in the world converge there eager to step into the vast Chinese market. Noticeably, the cityscape is changing to serve its predestined role as the economic turnstile at the gateway to China. Visually impenetrable glass high-rise office towers are replacing low-rise flats with balconies, flower pots and waving laundry; elevated pedestrian ways are bridging the new skyscrapers; and freeways with overpasses are swishing through old neighborhoods. Inconceivable as it may seem, even the quintessential colorful open-air markets and cluttered storefronts with cantilevered neon signs are being replaced by pristine air conditioned indoor malls where one can shop comfortably in business suits.

Everything happens fast in Hong Kong, and Hong Kong is fast becoming a place where one conducts business while home is somewhere else. Even if the colorful neighborhoods of my childhood are soon to be replaced by commercial monoliths with inscrutable facades, there is no time, sadly, for sentiment at this frantic and pivotal time. As the Hong Kong Chinese often credit fate for their successes or failures, the handover is, perhaps to them, just one moment in time. Hong Kong is going home to China and as long as their fortune is good, they will stay and roll the dice.