This August All our Paths led to Hong Kong

In the strange combination of circumstances that at times conspire to rule, enliven or bedevil us, my wife and I found ourselves drawn back to Hong Kong, a city undergoing a long hot Summer and a protest movement turned violent that threatens to destroy it.

Both my wife, who is French, and myself, a Brit, have been permanent residents of Hong Kong since the early 1970s. We know the city better than we know London or Paris. We built a house here in Bali in the early 1990s and since 2000 are pretty much Bali-based.

A couple of months back my wife remarked we’d not been back to Hong Kong in a while and thought we could lose our right of abode there if we spent more that three years away from the city.

She was right. We found we’d lose our Hong Kong residency if we didn’t visit by 24th August, 2019. Same with our driving licences. Valid for 10 years they were up for renewal, as were our 1-year international licenses. We’re both past retirement age so there were medical hoops to be gone through. It was time also for my wife, who has more than her fair share of medical problems, to see her doctors. Adding to the stress, we had to be back in Bali before the end of the month or be forced to renew our Indonesian visas in Hong Kong. My days were consumed juggling dates for our flights and accommodation online in a very fluid situation.

All our plans seemed to unravel when my UK passport became an issue. It had 14 months to run and only one page left. Just enough to accommodate a full page Indonesian visa and squeeze in the exit/entry stamps someplace. To cap it all we discovered that the Indonesian immigration, who have an uncanny knack of passing new regulations to catch the unwary bulé with his trousers round his ankles, had just increased the visa requirement for passport validity from 12 months to 18, no exceptions.

If a way couldn’t be found out of this muddle we’d not be able to travel, we’d lose our Hong Kong residency and face swingeing overstay penalties of US$70 a day in Bali – while I waited for a new passport.

Not only that, both our hand phones packed it in. Things didn’t look great.

Welcome relief from this grind came when the Yak asked me for a piece for their September issue on Alain Robert, the French Spiderman, who has lived in Bali for the past six years. Alain was the world’s leading exponent of rock climbing free-solo until in 1994 he became famous for climbing the world’s tallest buildings. Climbing free solo means you do it without any aids at all. Just a bag of chalk to dry your hands, is all. Very scary, you get vertigo just looking at the photos.

Anyway, we hit it off and when later he heard I was planning a visit to Hong Kong, shared he too would be in Hong Kong at the same time for a Peace climb of the Cheung Kong Centre, the 1,000 ft headquarters of Hong Kong’s top oligarch, Li Ka Shing, whom in happier days Hong Kongites called Superman. He asked if I’d help out with the press side of things. Spiderman vs. Superman… how could I refuse.

All the while the situation in Hong Kong had become increasingly worrying and violent, with clashes taking place from Friday night through early Monday morning every weekend. Menacing pronouncements from China about “not standing idly by” with scary videos of the 12,000 People’s Armed Police in nearby Shenzen shown dispersing a crowd of rioters dressed up like Hong Kong demonstrators with baton charges, rubber bullets, tear gas and armed personnel carriers, filled the media. Coverage too of PLA units being rotated into Hong Kong.

Originally we planned to arrive in Hong Kong at 9.00pm at night on 24th August. Any delay and arriving just three hours later and we would lose our Hong Kong residency. All our efforts would have been in vain. We were cutting things fine. The demonstrators were just beginning to turn their attentions toward Hong Kong’s airport.

Then as sometimes happens, things started to resolve themselves. We advanced the date of our departure; a friend on leave lent us their apartment on Lantau and it all came together.

The South Side of Lantau is about as nice and unspoiled as Hong Kong gets but a short 30-minute drive takes you over the island’s mountain divide to Tung Chung and Chap Lek Kok airport and the 40-minute ride on the MTR downtown.

My time was spent doing the rounds of government offices, escorting my wife on her doctors visits and meetings with my French Spiderman, as we planned the arrangements for his climb.

If you didn’t watch the media you might not have known anything untoward was taking place in the city. But everyday, specially at night and at the weekends, it was all happening. There was a pall of unease hanging over the place and a worrying combination of fatalism and anger among the young, who feel they have nothing to lose and does not bode well for Hong Kong’s future.

Alain Robert’s climb of the Li Ka Shing’s tower went off like clockwork at 9.00 pm in the morning. Ten metres up he hung a banner urging China and Hong Kong to talk not fight. He then continued his climb to the top, where he was detained by the police, taken into custody, charged with public nuisance, and released that afternoon. All very civilised considering this was his third ascent of the building. The photo agncies were all there and the news went around the world and on the very same day Li Ka Shing posted full page newspaper advertisements exhorting us all to “Love China, Love Hong Kong, Love Yourselves” accompanied by an obscure quote from a T’ang Dynasty poem, serving to muddy where he stood on anything.

It remains hard to say how it will work out for Hong Kong. Things have not been this bad since 1966 in the worst days of the Cultural Revolution. Everyone knows China can crush Hong Kong if it wants to. Question is, do they need to and what price will they pay if they do? The extradition question was a stupid mistake, uniting all sectors of the Hong Kong community, but easily solved. The essential problem is the lack of hope among young people for the future. As things are, they will see the city burn.

The guilty men are Hong Kong’s own property oligarchs, who have robbed Hong Kong blind for the past 45 years and think they can keep right on doing it. If Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s luckless CEO, junks the extradition treaty law and embarks on an extensive crash program of low-cost housing Hong Kong can survive and prosper. If not, China will supress all dissent and Hong Kong will disappear as the city we know. Li Ka Shing and his cadre have all got their wealth outside China and won’t suffer anything, save an excess of crocodile tears and the odium of having destroyed one of the world’s great cities.

As for China and its inflated Emperor Xi – any hope of a peaceful reunification with Taiwan is laughable. The good news is that there are now signs that – having gone to the brink, cooler and wiser counsels will prevail.

This August was a hot one. How was yours?


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