Michael Elliott

       Dinner tonight in Wanchai, the old waterfront red-light district of Hong Kong, famous to those of a certain age as the home of The World of Suzie Wong. That was back in 1960, when the city was notorious more for its cathouses and sailors’ bars than for its fund managers and property tycoons. There are still a few bars in Wanchai, but the area now, says my friend Steve Vines, is more notable for the quality of its food.
       We ate at a Shanghainese restaurant, where the meal included Lion’s Head, which was a sort of pork meatloaf with bok choy, and Ants Climbing up Trees, which I would describe as vermicelli with ground meat (pork? beef?). Both were delicious, as was the dish of tiny fava beans and one of those green Asian vegetables that you never see on the other side of the Pacific. The company was sparkling–Hong Kong has what the Irish call “great crack,” meaning that the conversation swirls around like candy wrappers on a windy New York day. Apart from Steve, there was Dorinda Elliott, Newsweek’s Hong Kong bureau chief; Steve Strasser, Asia editor of Newsweek International; Jim Rohwer, who is putting together an Asian business weekly for a Thai-based outfit; and Dominic Ziegler, of the Economist. Steve Vines, whom I have known for 20 years, which dates us both, combines journalism for the Independent with classic Hong Kong entrepreneurship. He owns a sandwich bar, a coffee shop, a kitchen-goods store and, today, opened his first restaurant. “What sort of food?” we asked him. “Western,” he said. Demands for further elaboration found him suspiciously vague.
       One interesting point in the conversation, which I’ve now heard people mention a number of times this week–Hong Kong isn’t as safe as it used to be. There have been a spate of robberies of houses of the rich, and the Asian Wall Street Journal reported this morning that some of Hong Kong’s gazillionaires, of which there are many, have started to surround themselves with Gurkha bodyguards. Sounds ominously like Moscow–and, if the chat I’ve heard this week is to be believed, will get worse when the “hand-over” of Hong Kong to Chinese administration takes place on July 1.
       Everyone wants to talk about the hand-over, of course, but everyone is terrified at the prospect of a media invasion to cover it. I did a Radio Hong Kong interview this morning at which I was grilled about the bad press that China is getting in the West. There’s a nervousness in Hong Kong that when the TV anchors do their stand-ups, they’ll do nothing but look for trouble. I try to explain that the hand-over is a great story–End of Empire, Rise of China, all played out against one of the most dramatic natural stages in the world–but this does little to soothe the locals. Whatever the stock market and property prices say, there’s a real worry in Hong Kong that bad coverage of the hand-over could wreck international confidence in the place.
       I’ll be grilled on all this at the American Chamber of Commerce tomorrow, where I’m giving a speech on Hong Kong’s prospects as seen from the United States. I stayed in the hotel this morning to work on the text, and then called on Francis Cornish, an old friend who is now the British trade commissioner and who will be the consul general after the hand-over. We met in the new British Consulate, which is probably the classiest building the British government has built anywhere in the last 50 years. Francis is one of those rare birds–a diplomat who knows how to handle the press. He was a great minister for information in the British Embassy in Washington in the late 1980s and early 1990s, forging a wonderful partnership, in those end-of-the-Cold War days, with Laurent Aublin, his opposite member at the French Embassy. Laurent himself has just left Hong Kong, where he was the French consul. He had a house at the very peak of the Peak, from whose roof you could look down both at Hong Kong’s harbor, on the north side of the island, and Repulse Bay, on the south side. I think I want to be a diplomat in Hong Kong when I grow up. Meanwhile, I fancy I might take a late-night stroll round Wanchai to see if it’s quite as cleaned up as it’s meant to be. I have a sneaking suspicion it ain’t.