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After Handover, Hardship

By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, Jan. 12, 1998; Page A12

HONG KONG, Jan. 11—You could call 80-year-old Chan Mok an unfortunate casualty of free market forces.

Rickshaw
The Washington Post
Chan Mok finds earning a living increasingly difficult.

For 20 years, Chan has stood outside the Star Ferry terminal with his red rickshaw, an anachronism from Hong Kong's Suzie Wong days that is now totally out of place in a super-modern city with skyscrapers, luxury cars and a sleek subway system.

He started at 60, sometimes pulling tourists on a short circular route past the stock-exchange towers, but mostly just posing for the kind of "happy snap" photographs that travelers take home as mementos.

It was a good living, and when tourists were plentiful, he could supplement his meager monthly government pension check with about $100 each day.

But then the tourism industry went into a tailspin, the victim of the declining regional economy, the "bird flu" virus scare, a wave of currency devaluations across Southeast Asia that have made this the most expensive city in the region, and -- perhaps most importantly -- what some here call a general burnout on Hong Kong after months of hype over its handover last summer to Chinese rule.

Some 792,892 tourists visited in November last year, a drop of 22 percent from November of 1996, continuing a downward monthly trend that began after the July 1 handover.

Tourism in 1996 was Hong Kong's largest foreign exchange earner, bringing in some $13.4 billion U.S. dollars.

With fewer tourists, Chan now is thinking what was once for him the unthinkable -- giving up his rickshaw and retiring to his native Guangdong Province in southern China.

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"No tourists are coming to Hong Kong," he said. "And Hong Kong people don't want to use our service, or have a photo taken."

And then he reaches into the rickshaw, pulls out a dirty towel and gently dabs tears from his eyes. "I will leave Hong Kong next year because it's very difficult to make a living. I think maybe in the next one or two years, there will be no rickshaws in Hong Kong. Life is very difficult."

The rickshaw drivers -- now numbering only about eight, down from 40 when Chan started -- are not the only victims of sluggish tourism.

On tiny Li Yuen Street East, tucked behind the banks and department stores of Queen's Road, the vendors selling Chinese silk and leather handbags also are feeling the pinch. Tourists used to be their best customers, they said.

And since the handover to China, tourism has dried up, and the vendors are wondering if their business will ever again be as good.

"Most of us are suffering," said Yeung Yu-liu, 71, who has been in the same spot for 40 years, selling inexpensive silk neckties with the likenesses of Bart Simpson, Winnie the Pooh, Sylvester the Cat and other cartoon characters.

"This is the worst in 40 years," she said. She herself has had to move out of an expensive shop and into a smaller street stall, where the rent for her tiny cubicle is about $770 in U.S. currency.

"We'll still carry on the business," she said. "I need to feed myself. I need to carry on."

Government officials and spokesmen for Hong Kong's tourism association predict that tourists eventually will return. The association is promoting Hong Kong aggressively overseas, urging residents to talk up the benefits of their city and pushing ideas like a theme park to give visitors something to do besides shop.

But not everyone is confident that the turnaround will be quick.

"The main time the tourists will come back is in the year 2000," said Yeung Ki Yue. And he should know. Yeung is a Shanghai-trained fortuneteller and astrologer who predicts the future based on the age-old Chinese theory of yin and yang.

When he studies the yin and yang of Hong Kong and the five elements that divide it -- fire, earth, metal, water and wood -- what he sees is that since July 1, the territory has suffered from an awful imbalance.

There is too much fire, not enough water -- and lots of instability and uncertainty to come.

"It's not balanced," he said. "This means that after the handover, bad things will come for several years -- not big trouble. Just small trouble."

At the end of the month, the Chinese will celebrate the changing of the lunar year and the advent of the Year of the Tiger.

The Year of the Ox that is coming to a close brought with it not only the handover but unseasonably long rains, the October stock market crash, a subsequent drop in the real estate market, and the bird-flu calamity that forced the government to slaughter all of Hong Kong's 1.3 million chickens.

After all that, can the tiger bring worse tidings?

Apparently so, Yeung said. The tiger comes roaring in with an excess of earth and wood -- more earth to conquer water, more wood to generate fire.

What that means to Yeung is that "1998 for Hong Kong is not too good."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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