Don's Diary

February 6, 1998


Arrive in Hong Kong. It has been three years since I returned to the United Kingdom after 18 years in Hong Kong and a year since my last visit. Red flags proclaim China's ownership. Later this week there is to be an auction of the artefacts of British rule - Union Jacks, portraits of the Queen, police uniform lapels and a mountain of crockery - anything and everything with EIIR or with a crown on it. I am to carry out an annual assessment of a four-year project at Zhongshan University in China funded by the Overseas Development Agency. But it is also an opportunity to observe changes in Hong Kong and China since reunification.


It is a local custom to give coupons worth a dozen cakes at a specified bakery chain to guests at weddings, birthdays and other celebrations. The Japanese parent company of one particular chain of cake shops has just gone into liquidation. Fearful of losing out on a dozen cakes, the queue stretches down the street. The police have been deployed. The company has issued urgent statements proclaiming the solidity and solvency of its subsidiary business. The queue grows. Only in Hong Kong.

I buy maps from the Survey Office. Unlike most of Asia, maps are not restricted documents here. I have lunch with former colleagues at the Polytechnic University. There seems to be a rapid acceleration from a UK model of higher education to a United States one here. I give a seminar on spatial data analysis.


Meet our partners on part of the ODA project at the University of Hong Kong. Lunch at Hong Kong's latest development phenomenon. It is a prime site near the city centre. The planning was zoned for five floors of restaurants and shops. The land lease forgot to specify how many floors so the developer built 20 hoping for a change in designation to offices. The government is having none of it. The building is open to the tenth floor - mostly restaurants. We eat our dim sum on the seventh. I dine with some of my former postgraduate students. The restaurant is nearly empty. When the Chinese are not indulging their penchant for good food something is not quite right. Hong Kong residents no longer fear political change - they are worried instead about economic change as their Asian neighbours struggle with debt.


Train to Guangzhou. A year ago the view from the window presented numerous wastelands. In the early 1990s every small town in the Pearl Delta wanted to cash in on a development boom; low hills were being bulldozed over the fields to make level construction sites until Beijing reined the boom in. The sites became eroding eyesores. Now the boom seems to be back and many of the sites are being built on. The delta region is gradually coalescing into a megalopolis. The train stops at a new station in Guangzhou. Immigration is no longer interested in medical life histories. It is a lot more relaxed.


The Bauhenia trees are in full blossom and I walk over a carpet of purple petals. Meetings at the university campus run all day, interrupted only by a briefing to the education and culture section at the new British Consulate. My Chinese colleagues tell me that it is now more difficult to get permission to visit Hong Kong than it is to visit the UK. Dr Chen, once one of my students, invites me to tea with his family in a restaurant near the campus. At 10 pm it is packed.


Business finished, my hosts decide I should visit the first section of the Guangzhou underground to be opened. We head off into the inevitable traffic jam. This time the cause is a small lorry with a seriously mangled front. There is blood on the road. Traffic in Guangzhou is a macabre dance of constant near-misses. The underground is a haven of peace and safety. This section was opened as part of China-wide celebrations of the return of Hong Kong. It runs on German technology. It would have been French but they went and sold arms to Taiwan. Emerging from the station I notice something else that is new. There are new coin-operated public telephones and ATM machines. It appears these are now in every city. China has made enormous strides.


Back in Hong Kong I go in search of a decent croissant before my flight. The cake shop is closed. But I find a long queue outside a bank. Coins bearing the Queen's head are being hoarded as souvenirs or as possible investments. Newly minted coins have been rationed. Hong Kong is still developing at a frenetic pace. The target is 85,000 new housing units a year. This will probably be the last time I take off from Kai Tak airport - the new airport, a massive infrastructure project, will open in the spring. But is it still the Hong Kong I knew? I open my book and within a page I read "sentimentality will at any time be man's first revolt against development". I head for the departure gate.

Allan Brimicombe - Head of school of surveying at the University of East London.

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