The ‘Fragrant Harbour’ of ancient China, and the last British bastion in Asia, appears on the horizon like a tiara of twinkling towers upon the clouded green hills along the South China Sea. Landing at Kai Tak Airport in Kowloon in late January we greeted Chinese New Year; little Alparslan, my son,marvelling at the tinkling music and red-gold decorations everywhere. Our first Cantonese words were thus ‘Kung Hei Fa Choi!’ (‘Happy New Year!)
Simultaneously oriental and occidental, Hong Kong is a city of extremes, with The Taipans – Jardines, Swires, Kuoks and Bransons, and other wealthy families occupying exclusive Victoria Peak or serene Stanley Bay, while the poorer Cantonese and foreigners inhabit Wanchai, Aberdeen, and Kowloon.
Refreshingly different was our oasis-like suburb ‘Hoi Bundo’/South Horizons on Ap Lei Chau (Duck’s Tongue), an autonomous, affordable apartment complex nestling between slopes and sea.Our Chinese community was both Buddhist and Christian and from Canton, mainland China, Taiwan, Singapore, and Manchuria. The South Asians were mainly ‘shippies’ working for Jardine Matheson or the big Indian companies. RakaDewan edited a business magazine; our English neighbour Steve worked in a big legal firm downtown and my childhood friend Vijay Verghese – son of veteran Indian editor George Verghese – publishes the lively monthly ‘Holiday’.
After seeing our families off to work and school Dolly, Poonam, and I would stroll through the playground, through groups of ladies doing Tai-Chi, and along the landscaped waterfront. Next stop was our mini-mall Marina Square, where after coffee at McDonalds we did our daily shopping at the friendly ‘Park N Shop’. I enjoyed my ‘five-spice’ Chinese friends equally. Joanna and I lunched across HK, from vegetarian eateries in Causeway Bay to cafes on Mid-Level’s escalator. Brina plied us with dim-sum delicacies, Alp learning to use chopsticks at five. Anissa spirited me off to Kowloon for silk-brocade presents for home.
Antoine provided therapy if ever I felt homesick. Evelyn invited me to give her primary school pupils on the Peak a display of South Asian classical dance (Kathak). Friday evenings mothers, maids, and children gathered in the wonderful playground, or attended birthday parties in our Residents’ Club with its views of harbour and hills. The international ambience of the Territory/Special Administrative Region saw us often escorting our charges to celebrations of the Mid-Autumn Harvest Festival, Eid, Diwali, and the lovely Lantern Festival, each tiny tot clutching a luminous toy, faces shining likewise. Saturdays would see our group taking jolly junk trips for the freshest seafood to Lama Island or visiting my cousin Jamshed and family on Discovery Bay or driving between glorious green hills and brilliant blue sea to barbecues in the New Territories. Sundays were pure relaxation, the South China Morning Post – with the Orient’s wittiest gossip column – collected from the corner 711.
Hong Kong’s schooling is simply superb, with excellent Chinese and several international schools; but the expats’ mainstay still the fifteen English Schools’ Foundation campuses across the SAR. The system of ‘mother helpers’ has its own reward in the delighted countenances of the kids. On Costume Days the entire School becomes Romans in battledress, pixies from the Nutcracker Suite, or an enchanted audience watching dancing dragon-dogs. HK’s universities, like Singapore’s, are rapidly rising in worldwide acclaim. All educational institutions are equipped to accommodate pupils overnight during high-level rainstorms and typhoons. Extracurricular activity is of equal standard and scope. Alp obtained his Taekwondo red-black belt at eight; learnt still-life composition, dragon-boat decoration, and fabric painting; and with Rimsha and Shanzeh represented Pakistan on HK’s prime children’s TV programme.
Kowloon boasts Festival Walk and its famous Night Market, but my favourite remains panoramic Pacific Place. Sample Chinese cuisine from Cantonese to Szechuan, perfect pasta and ‘American portions’ at Dan Ryan’s or Hard Rock Cafe, or pub food at nearby ‘Bull and Bear’. Try cheongsams fit for the Forbidden City at Shanghai Tang or debutante dresses at Dior. Visit the Mandarin Oriental and the Furama, where Sotheby’s and Christie’s showcase tantalising treasures from the Soong, Tang, Ming, Kanxi, and Qing periods – like the jade Buddha with baguette diamonds halo.
And now for Hong Kong by night! On the Star Ferry between HK Island and Kowloon Mainland, the stunning skyline is reflected in the sea. Dolly took me to an all-night ‘Jagran’ in a five-star hotel owned by an old Sindhi business clan. Our family friend Mr. Saeeduddin, prominent Pakistani businessman and only expat member of the Minorities Commission, hosted his son’s wedding celebration in the prestigious Wanchai Convention Centre. Dinner at the 40th floor Mid-Levels apartment of Afia and her multinational executive husband Salman was illuminated by the spectacle of shimmering skyscrapers atop turquoise swimming pools. Next door were Pakistan’s Consul General and family. I could see why my mother had ‘gazed transfixed out the windows all night’ from the similarly situated abode of my parents’ old friends the Lendrums! Evenings at the apartment of Kiran and her international banker husband Nabeel were lit up by the sparkling slopes of Stanley Bay – like the view from a Club Med resort! Glittering jewel-like on the Aberdeen Marina is the famed ‘Jumbo’ Floating Restaurant, miseen scene for many a jump into the sea in myriad James Bond movies. After dinner one can proceed to LanKwai Fong in the heart of Hong Kong, where the city’s best bars are concentrated on the hilly, cobbled streets of colonial-structure Central. Thence you can progress to dazzling discotheques like JJ’s in the Grand Hyatt, Rick’s Cafeor my beloved Joe Bananas, resounding to the sounds of Kenny G and Michael Learns to Rock. Laughing in the rain one can dash into next-door Brett’s Seafood.
It seems yesterday we sped by silver train across the suspension bridge to Chek Lap Kok Airport on Lantau – its construction overseen by my Oxford class fellow Clinton Leeks. Gazing at the familiar vista of clouds lacing emerald peaks, shining towers, and azure sea, we bade a fond farewell – Joi Gin! – to the world’s most captivating city. As Alparslan exclaimed excitedly to his family in Pakistan in 1997, ‘China is part of Hong Kong now!’