HK Escort There are plenty of unofficial British expatriates, though, many of them much easier to lampoon. I went to an institutional banquet the other night at which the whole gamut of overseas bourgeois Britishness was displayed, from the exquisitely elegant company chairman to the boozy and garrulous lawyer – every one his own archetype, changeless down the years, and though now greatly outnumbered by Americans, Australians and Japanese, still recognisably descended from imperialists.
And nothing is more redolent of the lost empire than the funicular, the Peak tram, which took me down to my toast and marmalade at the still anglophile Mandarin Hotel. Think of colonial Hong Kong and you think tram. The rolling stock is modern and Swiss, but the track, which runs straight as a die from the city to the Peak, figures proudly in 19th-century photographs of Hong Kong island – direct, uncompromising, confident, a green slash up the mountainside which was meant to last for ever.
The new tourists
Down by the waterfront on the Kowloon side of the harbour, I hear some strange music – tinny, wheezy, reedy music, performed by tinny, wheezy voices with reedy accompaniment. I walk around the corner to find a combo of a dozen elderly Chinese ladies and one elderly gent performing to a raptly appreciative Chinese audience.
They come, I learn, from the Yan Oi Tong Sophia Dan Continuing Education Centre for the Elderly, and they are like visitors from another era. In uniform flimsy red dresses they stand there, while a xylophonist twangs away and a flautist trills, emanating happy enthusiasm. I am entranced by them, and very soon find myself tapping my own feet to their esoteric melodies.
So, I notice, do most of their audience, who turn out to be not local people at all, but visitors from over the border, from what Hong Kong citizens still call mainland China. They can freely visit Hong Kong nowadays, and thousands of today’s tourists here have travelled from no further than Guangzhou (old Canton) or from the new industrial towns of the Pearl delta, where the pollution comes from. Hong Kong people do not invariably welcome them – they are seldom free-spending, even now – but their presence is a new and potent element of fusion. “Very good music, very old, very Chinese,” they say to me down by the waterfront, and when a later ensemble of the elderly perform a German square dance, to the melody of O Mein Lieber Augustin, one man assures me that it is traditional to Guangdong province.