Don's Diary

July 4, 1997

Friday

Only four days left of British Hong Kong, but I decline bacon and eggs and opt for the congee breakfast. We are staying at Robert Black college, the old staff accommodation of the University of Hong Kong. It once boasted panoramic views over Victoria harbour. Now I can just see, between the new buildings of a fast-expanding Hong Kong University, the lights of the new Tsing Ma bridge joining Kowloon to the embryonic Chek Lap Kop airport on Lantau. I am here as an external examiner in law. This is home territory for me. I taught at HKU from 1979 to 1989 and HK is bound up in my daughters' childhoods.

Today is the last examiners' meeting and we are generous, in line with the spirit of celebration. Afterwards we go for a drink. I intended this to be quick but I am not the only old hand returning to witness a piece of history. This has turned out to be a HKU reunion and paradoxically - a time of farewells..

I rush to the bank before it closes. The next five days will be public holidays. In the evening we attend the last drinks at the attorney general's chambers mess. From Tuesday this will be the ministry of justice. Will there still be a mess? I meet up with old students who are now quite senior in the legal department. If they are the hands which will hold responsibility for the administration of law in HK then the future is hopeful.

Saturday

HK has always been a delight for academic lawyers. Newspapers report a fascinating legal problem. Provisional legislature has prepared amended public-order legislation prohibiting public protests. This is expected to be ratified by the new legislative council, LEGCO, as soon as members are sworn in, which will not be before 3am on July 1. This potentially leaves a lacuna in which protest by prodemocracy groups is not covered by law. I discuss possibilities with an old colleague. Could LEGCO pass retroactive criminal law to backdate to midnight? We recall past legal enigmas, for example that "typhoon days" did not count as days for the purpose of legal documents, which had implications for everything from contracts to the age of majority. But these issues are nothing to the handing over of a territory from one power to another. For once I am really envious of public lawyers.

A friend, Richard Hoare, is retiring after a distinguished career in the HK civil service. We dine at the palatial new premises of the Jockey Club in Happy Valley, luxury I never see in England.

Sunday

HK is lit up like Chinese New Year. Illuminated paper dragons, dolphins and flamingos line the streets. The shops are bustling and everyone has cameras. This is what the new millennium will be like in England. People seem unfazed by the enormity of the event; called the handover by the English press and the reunification by the Chinese. This is a holiday so let's enjoy it!

We spend the evening with Filipino friends at a celebration party. Many members of the Filipino business community have made HK their home. They are concerned about their residential status after July 1 but optimistic. It is a good party.

Monday

Today is the big day. In true HK style we spend it shopping. We get up early to get to Stanley market before the tourist rush. I have instructions from my daughters and daren't go home empty handed. Fortunately there is now a Delifrance cafe, I need a strong coffee. When I lived in HK one of the things I missed was decent coffee but now there is a coffee bar on every corner. We take a bus back to the Causeway Bay to attend a gweilo (expatriate) celebration, a curry lunch at the Royal Hong Kong yacht club. There are nearly as many Chinese faces there as European. Everyone is in party mood. The club is setting up for an all-night ball, with a full view of tonight's political events.

We go instead to the British withdrawal at Tamar through tipping tropical rain. Chris Patten's speech is emotional, and the military display all the more eerie in fading light and sheets of rain. Then, drenched, we join a friend on the 30th floor of a harbourside hotel to watch the fireworks. Our party of at least ten different nationalities feels a communal lump in the throat as we watch on CNN the lowering of flags.

The rain has stopped by the time Martin Lee begins his pro-democracy speech from the second floor of the LEGCO building. The crowds are quiet and there is no need to test the anti-protest laws. The police are more concerned with drunken tourists at Lam Kwai Fong than with protesters. We walk the streets of central HK at 2am and it is buzzing. Taxis are impossible to get and the only way home is on the ingenious escalator which reaches halfway up the mountain to Conduit Road.

Half of Hong Kong seems to be on the escalator with us.

Tuesday

I wake up late. Tonight, weather permitting, we will go out on a junk to watch the Chinese fireworks, which promise to be significantly more expensive than last night's English version.

Robyn Martin

Professor of law at the University of Hertfordshire.

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