Don's Diary

February 14, 1997

Saturday.

Graduation at Dartington. Platform party galumph out to African drumming portraying a tale of rain turning to beer. Quick change and hurl through gale force wind and rain to Heathrow to catch the late flight to Hong Kong. I am off to chair an accreditation, my last there before the colony reverts to Chinese sovereignty on July 1.

Sunday

Arrive to a forest of handwritten placards bearing names for every letter of the alphabet except mine. Signs and symbols of international trading links. For a cultural crossroads, Kai Tek airport remains surprisingly western. Of arriving transnationals, it is American companies that predominate. Apple to Zildjian. Sine and cymbal. Pass an idle moment recalling the scene where, in 1992, as the last governor stepped from a 747 and on to the tarmac, the lenses of the press corps refocused from the grey-suited man on to his photogenic 17-year-old daughter. By the time the party transferred to the Government yacht at Queen's Pier, her upstaging of the incoming governor was complete.

Monday

Get up early. Just time to renew some acquaintances before start of play. Make calls and talk to answerphones. Seemingly few early risers. Panel convenes. A quiet American introduces himself, another Brit, who taught me at university, is wonderfully gracious. Perhaps they have us wrong. Maybe he, with his characteristic gravitas, should be chairing. After all, he does keep being introduced as me. Feel less like a chair, more a chaise longue.

As the day passes there is more news of China's plans to repeal Hong Kong's civil liberties and basic freedoms, to curb its Bill of Rights. There were always going to be more than changes at the edges, but fundamental values? Talk to more answerphones.

Tuesday

Strains of the long-distance accreditor begin to show. This is the longest day I can remember. Grogginess sets in. As the morning wears on there is increasing fractiousness among the panel. Try to calm ruffled feathers. Sense frustration more over Hong Kong curbs than as a result of the academic process with which we are involved. Look to the break for a respite but luncheon is more talk about the 99-year lease no one envisaged would expire. Self-consciously watching my p's and q's. Really must get to grips with chopsticks. Musicians are supposed to be dexterous. Afternoon goes well. Clearly disarmed by my incompetence at lunch.

Wednesday

Asked with my former teacher to share in an impromptu seminar on a subject participants teach. Ride the Peak tram for evening rendezvous. As if catching its breath before continuing its precipitous ascent to ever higher levels, the tram pauses and swings precariously while passengers alight awkwardly. Look for Peak restaurant only to find the old one gone and several new ones. View of nightscapes hazy. IM Pei's Bank of China stands fiercely erect. Norman Foster's Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, lit by a thousand glass panes, glows like nesting nocturnal insects stacked one above another. In the middle distance, sandwiched between lofty towers is the floodlit tennis club, facade of a colonial past. Come handover will high-rise neon by replaced by 40-watt bulbs?

Thursday

Go and see ex-students, prospective students, faculty and a few remaining civil servants. Could not find many advocates for the new order. It is three months since my last visit. Three weeks is a long time in Asian tiger economies. There are new office blocks, yet more designer shopping malls and elaborate additions to old ones, buildings going up everywhere and progress quickening by the day on the new airport at Chek Lap Kok. Progress continues on Terry Farrell's new building for the British Council, imperiously staying on after handover and expanding its operations throughout the mainland. As defiant a statement as it is possible to make. Join an orderly queue for taxis. Share ride to Kai Tek with American naval officer and his wife, he returning to an aircraft carrier, she home to California. Deep in contemplation, their faces unwittingly express Hong Kong's Weltschmerz, its concerns of protecting civil liberties and democratic development. There is no turning back.

Friday

Arrive Heathrow 5am to fog and numbing temperatures after 14 hours of intense nocturnal activity with insomniac laptoppers and night-owl video viewers. Scurry on to Stratford-upon-Avon for Queen's visit marking the town's 800th anniversary. As HRH declares the commemorative fountain open, I cannot help thinking of the handover ceremony to come. Requisite dignity may be hard to invoke as Britain hands dominion over Hong Kong to China. The past five days have passed living entirely for the present without acknowledging the past, or even the future. Another day, another megadollar. Rain turning to beer. Looking to Hong Kong's long-term future was hardly thought about until the mid-1970s. Now what will count most is not looking back, but the capacity of people to mentally reside in and play a role in Hong Kong's future.

Kevin Thompson Principal of Dartington College of Arts.

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