IMPERIAL Britain. Her beauteous batch of baubles were strewn across the globe: America, Australia, Burma, Canada, India, huge hunks of Africa, precious pockets of Latin America. Much of the empire's endgame was played out in revolutions, quiet or calamitous, and what was left behind were particular and peculiar bits of ossified England.
In Rangoon, grass grows in the cracks of mossy buildings that seem as though they were moved, wholesale, from the streets of London. The city has the look of a long-abandoned movie lot. Cabbies drive 35-year-old Nashes and even Bentleys and Rolls-Royces. Some of the older Burmese intelligencia take pride in their earnest British accents. The waiters at the Strand Hotel wear pre-liberation jackets, but when a brass button is lost it can never be replaced.
In Calcutta, at the used-to-be-elegant Fair Lawn Hotel, British tourists and residents keep up on cricket results in week-old editions of the London Times and eat a five-course lunch--complete with a glass of black-market Glenlivet--while not a block away a choleric woman begs for change in a street covered with garbage, excrement and the bodies of the living and, even, the dead. Ironies and contrasts in a place like this are easy, but no less true.
Hong Kong, however, is one of the Empire's last remaining colonies, a place where one can see a colony living out its latter stages.
After two Opium Wars with the Chinese in the late 19th century, Britain obtained a 99-year lease on Hong Kong. That lease expires in 1997, a charged date among the 5.2 million people who live in the region.
Of Hong Kong, one guide book perkily offers, "everyone seems quite happy with its status." To the contrary, Chinese Prime Minister Zhao Ziyang recently said, "Peking must recover sovereignty." He made his message clear--Hong Kong would not be another Falkland Islands.
This fall, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher arrived in Hong Kong hoping to convince Chinese leaders to allow Britain to continue its presence in the region, one way or another, after 1997. In a land of discounts, Thatcher found few bargains. She left without agreements or assurances.
Stock prices and land values plummeted as a result of Thatcher's fruitless voyage--the idea, much less the reality, that Britain and the international financial community would have to find an accommodation with the Chinese so soon was a source of apprehension. In the meantime, everyone awaits further news from London and Peking.
When the transition to a Chinese connection finally comes, it will probably be a peaceful but, in the meantime, one has at least 15 years to visit Hong Kong in its present colonial form.
There is, as yet, no grass growing in the cracks of the white skyscrapers.
The colony lives.
And it lives, above all, in the duck. If nothing else, Hong Kong is Chinese food heaven. Go for the duck.
You have to wonder about people who drop $1,000 on an air ticket to Hong Kong and come home raving about the $19.62 they saved on a Minolta SLR or the $8.47 they saved on a top-of-the-line Seiko.
What matters is the duck. Duck here is just not duck there. What follows is the story of a perfect 24 hours in Hong Kong. It ends, of course, with a duck.
On a cold January night one year ago, I left a teaching job in Tokyo and began a trip through Southeast Asia with a flight to Hong Kong. Because Hong Kong's Kai Tak Airport is so close to the center of town, the approach at night is dramatic. Scores of uniform white skyscrapers line one of the busiest ports in the world. A friend, who had left her teaching job in Taiwan, met me at Kai Tak. After a cab ride to the center of Kowloon, we waited for a connecting train to the New Territories where we would be staying with friends.
The train itself was dark, dusty and cold, a sharp contrast with the trains of Tokyo, and the modern image of the businessman's Hong Kong. A pair of old women carried cloth bags back from the Central Market filled with several battling, cackling chickens, and a tiny old man, dressed in an ancient tattered suit, sat patiently on one of the wooden benches, waiting for the train to move.
My friend is fluent in Mandarin, but the Cantonese spoken by the conductor on the train sounded as loopy to her as it did to me. Somehow our tickets were fine and the train made its way, pulling away from the almost hysterical lights and streets of downtown Kowloon, north toward the hilly countryside of the New Territories.
All the next day, we did what you are supposed to do in Hong Kong.
We re-boarded the train, took the ferry from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island via the Star Ferry and made for Victoria Peak. The trolley car that took, no, heaved, us heavenward toward the summit, appeared to be on a 70-degree incline. The tourists aboard turned unique shades of blue and red and yellow, but the little English schoolchildren who clambered aboard along the way, toting Etonian book bags, appeared to have inherited a colonists' savoir faire, as they chattered and giggled the whole climb through. They seemed not a bit worried by such things as leases running out in 1997.
From there it was back to Kowloon for a little shopping spree. I found my requisite $8.47 discount on a watch. Others found Calvin Klein jeans and Gloria Vanderbilt silk blouses for a song. We browsed further in gleaming stores stocked with goods of the People's Republic. These are wonderful places, proving that Marxism has not yet ruled out useless knick-knacks as a means for extracting running-dog dollars. In solidarity and celebration, I bought a lovely fake jade Buddha.
The strap of my day-bag had come undone, and we wandered into an arcade in search of a shoemaker to fix the thing. As we looked for the proper shop, the hallways grew progressively darker, the craftsmen older and the atmosphere more Chinese. Almost at the end of the labyrinth we discovered seven or eight men hunched over, working under 40-watt bulbs.
All the men in the shop were originally from Peking, so my friend was able to tell them what we needed done. (When I had attempted a similar communication in Tokyo--without the benefit of fluent Japanese--the proprietor cheerily sewed shut the zipper for $12.) My friend asked them about their lives, their work, and they told her of their scandalous salaries, of the boat people hungry and unable to go ashore in Stanley on the south, and all but invisible, side of Hong Kong Island.
We ended the day, or started ending it, with a few bottles of Chinese beer (it tastes almost as much like wine as beer) and plans for dinner. Joined by a third friend, our host in the New Territories, we found a restaurant reputed to be the best for Peking duck.
Peking duck is ordinarily one dish to avoid in the United States, even in the Chinatowns of San Francisco or New York. It takes too long, it costs too much, and it cuts down on the opportunity for variety. And the few times I have had the dish in the United States the duck was tough--it tasted like a sneaker.
In Hong Kong the duck was a deep chocolate color and incredibly tender. The dish, as a whole, was unlike anything by the same name in the United States. It is a simple recipe--a flat dough pancake with scallion, duck and a sweet brown sauce rolled into it--but a perfect one.
I have known friends who have traveled extensively in the People's Republic. With visions of eternal banquets, they have, to the last, come back disappointed in the food. The Szechaun prawns were afloat in pints of oily muck. The Peking duck (in Peking) was inferior to some tasted in south Jersey. Apparently, some of the Mainland's finest chefs have fled over the years to Hong Kong, where they could earn higher wages.
So it struck me during a dessert of blood oranges and vanilla ice cream: What would happen to Hong Kong's Peking duck in 1997?
Will the great chefs of Hong Kong disappear?
Is the most delicious duck on earth a remnant of imperialism that will--perhaps like limousines in Rangoon--mercifully persist?