As gobsmacking as my 1993 visit to China was, I knew at the time that it'd be a good few years before I'd be able to muster the resources for a return visit. (More on that soon.) But Hong Kong? Of course I'd be back. No special visa requirements, widespread use of English, and one of my favourite film cultures on the whole planet – it was just a question of when I could make the time to go there.
Four years later, 1997 gave the idea of returning to Hong Kong a little more urgency. After 150 years of British rule, the colony was to be handed back to the Chinese in a ceremony on June 30th. The frequent quoting of the late Deng Xiaoping's mantra 'one country, two systems' suggested China was aware of the advantages of giving HK a degree of autonomy from the mainland, but for all we knew they had a battalion of tanks ready to roll into the New Territories on midnight July 1st. With the clock ticking away, I went over to Hong Kong for a five day holiday at the tail end of May 1997. As with my previous visit, most of my documentary evidence of the trip is on video, and I've put up selected clips for you on a YouTube playlist. (Good news: access to digital editing tools meant that my 1997 holiday video only lasted 40 minutes, rather than the tedious 100 minutes of its predecessor. Bad news: access to digital editing tools mean that much of it is cut like a Nine Inch Nails video, especially the opening titles.)
In 1993 I went to China on a Jetsave package – there are too many complications involved in getting around mainland China to try and organise it all yourself, and that's still true to a degree even today. But for this Hong Kong trip, I felt that I wouldn't need anything like as much handholding. So I booked with Kuoni, who sorted out the flights and hotel but were happy to just offer suggestions for excursions and day trips if you fancied them. The flights were a little problematical – the normally hyper-reliable Cathay Pacific withdrew most of their Boeings from service for safety checks just before I was due to travel, and I ended up leaving Heathrow three hours late on a BA service that literally smelt of poo. But Kuoni's hotel was rather fine: the Newton Hotel on Fortress Hill. After the hell of the journey to HK, it took me a while to shake off the jetlag and realise just how good it was: two minutes walk away from an MTR station, with well-equipped rooms, a swimming pool on the 25th floor, and a quite lovely harbour view from the bedroom window.
The obvious impulse one month before the handover was to pound the streets looking for signs of impending doom. Was the shopping capital of Asia about to renounce capitalism for ever? Was it bollocks: a) because they like it too much, and b) because the malls are the coolest buildings in town, and it's impossible to walk the hot sweaty streets for more than two minutes before you're forced to leap into Pacific Place or Times Square and suck on the air conditioning blowers until you've got down to a sensible temperature again. You could still buy pretty much anything in those malls, from a hologram of a shark to a watch featuring Deng Xiaoping (although admittedly that isn't much of a range). And on the streets, there were souvenir opportunities based around the handover, notably a t-shirt stand with a shirt slogan for every possible political viewpoint on the event. The vast majority of my own shopping this visit was based around my discovery of Video CD as a movie distribution format, a couple of years before DVD really took off. It's still a cheap and popular alternative to this day, allowing you to buy films for around £7 apiece. I think I had twelve rattling around in my suitcase by the end of the week.
Maybe it was just a consequence of wandering freely around Hong Kong rather than being herded through as part of a tour group, but it struck me that if anything, things had got even more commercialised in the four years since I was last there. Take Victoria Peak, for example. All I remember of it in 1993 was taking the Peak Tram up there, gawping at the scenery and then bussing it back down. By 1997 they seemed to have sussed the commercial potential of the Peak a bit more, and it was now full of buildings each trying to offer you the best view. So you stand on the main observation platform, only to find there's another one two storeys up. You go to that, and then find that there's a cafe with a rooftop balcony. You go to the cafe, turn to your left, and then find there's a Movenpick restaurant which is definitely the highest point in the complex... for now, anyway. Actually, above a certain height, ascending another couple of stories doesn't really have any great effect on the view. Still, it all looks even better at night.
My 1993 visit was tied to that small tourist belt around the two Star Ferry terminals on Kowloon to the north and Hong Kong Island to the south. However, Hong Kong as a whole also includes a couple of hundred little islands scattered around. And some aren't that little - Lantau Island, for example, is twice the size of Hong Kong Island. It's about an hour on the Mui Wo ferry (and another hour by bus) to the main attraction on the island, the Po Lin monastery. Still, it's worth it, as this was the place that came closest to capturing the atmosphere I encountered on the mainland four years earlier. Its highlight is the Big Buddha: it's 34 metres high and made of solid bronze, as they never said about the World Cup. Most people make it up the 260 steps to the top, and the views from there are nearly as spectacular as the statue itself. It's certainly enough to reinforce your belief in some sort of supreme being, which is useful because belief in a supreme being may be the only thing that gets you through the terribly fast downhill bus ride back to the ferry. Last time I went there in 2005, they were in the process of building the Ngong Ping 360 theme village and cable car ride next door to Po Lin, so it may all look rather different now.
Movies were a big part of Hong Kong for me in 1997. As a fully paid-up fanboy, I was determined to catch as much of the local product as I could during my five day stay, and ended up hitting a one-movie-a-day average. It was tricker than you'd imagine on the Tuesday night, which was half price day – tickets that were already a measly five quid dropped to £2.50, and virtually every cinema was sold out. Which is probably why I ended up at an appalling piece of dreck made by people who'd heard the Fugees' recent cover of Killing Me Softly and thought that Killing Me Hardly would be a good title for a film. It's about a private investigator called Charlie, who has three girls who help him out. Inevitably, that reference is hammered to death, although they're not so much Charlie's Angels as a cut-down version of Quentin Tarantino's Fox Force Five: one does guns, one does knives, one does kung fu. Anyway, there's a guy that Charlie put in jail ages ago, who breaks out and tries to kill the Angels, and... doesn't. The End. There are multiple subplots thrown on top to try and pad this out to the full ninety minutes: so one of the girls is having problems with her family, another one's having problems with an ex-boyfriend who's married, and the other one's having problems with an ex-boyfriend who's dead and haunting her. There's a weak attempt at topical humour when a woman looking for names for her new-born baby considers going with Tung Chee-hwa: it turns out to be the most memorable moment in the entire script.
Killing Me Hardly's screenplay is credited, not to a human being, but to the Times Production Company: that's never a good sign. And by accident, I ended up at another film that they wrote later in the week, a goofy comedy called Top Borrower. (Believe me, if I'd realised they were involved, I'd have steered well clear.) It's about a taxi driver, wittily called Mr Moron, who gets involved in a bank raid by accident and ends up standing in the middle of a heap of dead bank robbers with a large suitcase full of money. I think that twelve years on, it's safe to spoil the curious conceit at the centre of the movie: for the next 40 minutes we watch the consequences of Moron taking all the money for himself, which climax with him being murdered by the gay hairdresser his wife has run off with. Only then is it revealed that this whole sequence has taken place in Moron's head - and we have to watch him go through a similar scenario as he imagines the consequences of only taking half the cash. I couldn't tell you now what he actually decides to do at the end, and I wouldn't want you to mistakenly think I care or anything.
The two Times Production films were worth seeing, though, because they were unmistakably home-grown cinema that would never be seen outside of Hong Kong. (Although you can still buy Killing Me Hardly and Top Borrower on DVD if you're really curious.) One of the consequences of the handover was that the quality of Hong Kong's cinema was dropping rapidly, as its best filmmakers left the country to work for the Yankee dollar. John Woo, Ringo Lam and Tsui Hark had all done this already, and mysteriously all had to go through the same initiation rite of making a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie before they were allowed onto proper films. Ronny Yu, director of lurid Technicolor fantasies like The Bride With White Hair and The Phantom Lover, managed to bypass this initiation, but unfortunately it meant that his English language debut (opening the week I was in Hong Kong) was Warriors Of Virtue. It's a very American-style fantasy, which happens to have lots of Hong Kong style special effects and stuntwork. Bits of it work, but lots of it doesn't: the point where it goes completely down the lav is when it's revealed that the Warriors Of Virtue of the title, who are protecting a fantasy land from bad guy Angus Macfadyen, are in fact five martial arts-trained kangaroos. The other problem is that Yu keeps using a really annoying strobing effect during all the action scenes, which are the best thing in it. It just makes them totally impossible to watch, as you can't tell what's going on half the time. Maybe it helps tone down the violence for the kids, but it takes away the only thing that made it worth watching the film in the first place. And weren't teenage mutant ninja animatronic creatures the previous decade's thing?
Don't worry, I saw a couple of good films as well, like The Soong Sisters. Stop me if you've heard this one, but there was this guy called Charlie, and he had these three girls that worked for him: but the Charlie in question was Charlie Soong, and the three girls were his daughters, and they certainly weren't Charlie's Angels. (Even though two of them were played by HK action heroines Maggie Cheung and Michelle Yeoh, with the third sister played by Vivian Wu, hot off The Pillow Book.) Of the three Soong sisters, May-ling (Wu) married Chiang Kai-shek, Ching-ling (Cheung) married Sun Yat-sen, and Ai-ling (Yeoh) spent most of her time trying to reconcile the other two. Mabel Cheung''s film is a beautifully shot, wonderfully acted epic, covering a huge range of twentieth century Chinese history but always keeping the drama on a human scale. Rarely seen outside Asia, I never understood why it didn't even make it onto the festival circuit in the UK. I particularly liked a scene towards the end where a reporter says to the three sisters, "you know, one of these days, they're going to make a movie about you, and they're going to have to get the best actresses in the world to play you." Which could have been one of those really horrible Hong Kong it's-only-a-movie type moments, if it wasn't for May-ling thinking about this for a second and saying, "they'd never get better actresses than us."
But one of the five films I saw did make it big across the world: Wong Kar-Wai's Happy Together, which I was lucky enough to catch on a short previews-in-selected-cinemas-this-weekend run prior to its official release. It was fun to see the nervousness that a gay love story could cause in Hong Kong, even a sensitively filmed one with huge stars like Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung as the leads. The censorship board slapped it with the Category III rating normally handed out to snuff films and hardcore porn, with a cardboard cutout policeman in the foyer warning under 18s not to pass this point. (Over in the UK, of course, we didn't care, and let anyone over 15 see it.) Aside from the pitch-perfect performances, there was also Wong's glorious visual style to enjoy, aided by Christopher Doyle's photography. In one memorable sequence, Tony Leung fantasises about his lover in Buenos Aires, on the opposite side of the planet to Hong Kong – a concept that's brilliantly depicted by a series of vertiginous upside-down shots of Hong Kong, because that's what Buenos Aires must feel like. I spent the next two hours after the film running round the streets of HK with my camcorder turned upside down, but the results were far too silly even for YouTube.
Nowadays, of course, my long-haul travelling is done in the company of The Belated Birthday Girl: and as you may have noticed, she likes her food, so I tend to eat better on holidays than I used to. Back in 1997, my preference was more for gimmicky restaurants than good ones. So, I visited the Wan Chai branch of Harry Ramsden's to see how their fish and chips held up (pretty well, though their menu description of mushy peas as 'the caviar of the north of England' is pushing it): checked out Jim's EuroDiner for traditional European cuisine (English menu: sardines on toast followed by bangers and mash): and took a sampan across Aberdeen harbour for the traditional tourist-fleecing experience of the Jumbo Floating Restaurant. Most interesting for me was a visit to the Kowloon branch of Planet Hollywood, still constructed to the global template but with a few bits of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan memorabilia thrown in amongst the usual Hollywood tat. It's a shame they couldn't have dedicated more space to the local stars, a similar complaint to the one I had when I visited the HK Hard Rock Cafe in 2001. Don't look out for it when you're over there: despite attractions like a three-course lunch special for eight pounds, the Hong Kong Planet Hollywood went bust along with nearly all the other branches a few years ago (although the London one has just reopened in smaller premises).
When I wasn't eating, sightseeing or watching films, I was in my hotel room with the telly tuned to Channel V, the Asian version of MTV. I was listening out for any records that might be worth buying – and inevitably, the two I left the country with weren't representative of the local Cantopop at all. From Taiwan, Mavis Fan's video with her cutesy cartoon chums Dama's Family had me utterly intrigued, because I had no idea what was going on. Twelve years later, I finally found out that the song that had drilled its way into my head was called I Enjoy Taking A Bath, and was specifically designed to sell the idea of bathtime to kids. A whole Dama's Family album turns out to be more than any sane adult can take, unfortunately: if Dama does have a family, her dad must be Jeffrey. Globe (from Japan) were a much better proposition with their self-titled debut album: the anthemic Feel Like Dance sounded like East 17 would if their rapper was French and their singer was a Japanese girl who didn't take quite so many drugs.
This was the year I discovered that Hong Kong had its very own arts centre, the Fringe Club. Its atmosphere is somewhere in between that of the ICA and a village hall – very trendy and cutting edge, but with a friendly feel that comes from having a bunch of regular punters who turn up for everything that's on. There was a lovely exhibition in the bar of Christopher Doyle's photos from the set of Happy Together, but the main attraction on the night I visited was Comic Cuts, a night of improvised cabaret. It turned out to be a bunch of caucasian ex-pats ripping off the Comedy Store Players badly, taking two random concepts and banging them together in the hope a joke would fall out. As an example, two such concepts were the training of dolphins and the films of Quentin Tarantino. "Fuckin' dolphins. You know what they call 'em in France? Le Dolphin." You get the idea. But the Fringe Club itself is a terrific venue: I was back in 2001 and 2005, and I'll probably at least pop my head round the door later this year to see what's on.
You'll notice that Kuoni haven't been mentioned again since the opening paragraphs. They had a rep on site at the Newton Hotel, who could book various day trips and excursions for you. Of the list she had on offer, the one that appealed the most was a visit to Happy Valley Racecourse, where for HK$100 they could get you into a special tourist area in the Winners' Enclosure. Unfortunately, I'd left it too late to book for that Wednesday evening's race meeting. “Well, you could just try to get in on the door, but it probably won't be as good,” she sighed. I'm here to tell you now that's rubbish. A HK$100 tourist ticket keeps you in the Winners' Enclosure all evening: whereas a HK$10 pleb ticket gives you the run of everywhere else in the complex, allowing you the fun of watching the races from various different angles. Emboldened by my huge saving on the door, I put aside a HK$20 bet for each of the seven races: you'll have to watch the ludicrously over-annotated video to see how I got on.
Within a month of returning from Hong Kong, I had a rough cut of the holiday video ready for screening at my house, on the weekend before the handover. (It then took me another year to finish it off, which is another story.) By then, everyone from Jan Morris to Les Patterson had flown out to Hong Kong during its last month and spouted off about how things would change after the handover. What did I think? Well, the overriding impression I got out there were that the English were nervous about the whole deal, while the Chinese seemed pretty calm. And Martin Jacques in The Guardian eventually hit on the thing I'd missed. All those t-shirts I'd seen on sale were commemorating July 1st, not June 30th. We saw it as something ending in June: they saw it as something starting in July. Twelve years on, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic Of China have proved themselves perfectly adaptable to their new situation, just as they've adapted before. As Soong May-ling said, "they won't find better actresses than these." And I'm looking forward to a repeat performance later this year. Being a monkey, and all.