The Cato Institute: Public Policy Analysis, Limited Government, Free Markets


How a peaceful, uncrowded place with ample wherewithal stays poor is hard to explain. How a conflict-ridden, grossly overpopulated place with no resources whatsoever gets rich is simple. The British colonial government turned Hong Kong into an economic miracle by doing nothing.

Hong Kong is the best contemporary example of laissez-faire. The economic theory of "allow to do" holds that all sorts of doings ought, indeed, to be allowed, and that government should interfere only to keep the peace, ensure legal rights, and protect property.

The people of Hong Kong have been free to do what they wanted, and what they wanted was, apparently, to create a stewing pandemonium: crowded, striving, ugly, and the most fabulous city on earth. It is a metropolis of amazing mess, an apparent stranger to zoning, a tumbling fuddle of streets too narrow and vendor chocked to walk along, slashed through with avenues too busy and broad to cross. It is a vertical city, rising 1,800 feet from Central District to Victoria Peak in less than a mile; so vertical that escalators run in place of sidewalks, and neighborhoods are named by altitude: Mid-Levels. Hong Kong is vertical in its buildings, too, and not just with glossy skyscrapers. Every tenement house and stack of commercial lofts sends an erection into the sky. Picture Wall Street on a Kilimanjaro slope, or, when it rains, picture a downhill Venice.

And rain it does for months. Hong Kong in monsoon season has a climate like boiled Ireland. Violent air-conditioning wars with humid heat in every home and place of business, producing a world with two temperatures: sauna and meat locker. The rainwater overwhelms the outgrown sewer system, which fumes and gurgles beneath streets ranged with limitless shopping. All the opulent goods of mankind are on display in an air of shit and Chanel.

It is a filled-in city, turgid with buildings. The Sham Shui Po district of Kowloon claims a population density of more than 425,000 people per square mile-eighteen times as crowded as New York. Landing at Kai Tak Airport, down one thin skid of Kowloon Bay landfill, you can watch women at bathroom mirrors putting on their makeup. You can tell them that their lipstick's crooked.

There is no space in Hong Kong for love or money, at least not for ordinary kinds of either. A three-bedroom apartment in Central rents for 1,000 $/month, but there isn't room in any of these bedrooms to even have sex with yourself. The whole home will be 700 square feet less than ten yards long by eight yards wide, with windows papered over because, outside those windows, a hand grab away, are the windows of the apartment next door. And anything you're going to fix in the kitchen had better be something that can be stood on end-like a banana. This is how middle-class people live. Poor people in public housing will have three generations in a fifteen-by-twenty-foot room.

But when they come out of that room, they'll be wearing Versace and Dior-some of it even real. Hong Kong is a styling city, up on the trends. Truly up, in the case of platform sneakers. You can spend an entertaining afternoon on Hollywood Road watching teens fall off their shoes. Over the grinding hills, in the blood-clot traffic, men nonetheless drive their Turbo 911s.The S-class Mercedes is the Honda Civic of Hong Kong, and for the soccer-mom set, a Rolls and a driver is a minivan.

Jesus, it's a rich city. Except where it's Christ-almighty poor. Hong Kong is full of that "poverty midst plenty" stuff beloved of foreign correspondents such as myself who, when doing a Hong Kong piece, rush from interviews with day-laboring "cage men" in barred flophouse partitions to dinners in the blandly exclusive confines of Happy Valley's Jockey Club, where I could sample the one true Hong Kong luxury-distance between tables. But, those poor are going to get rich. Just ask them. You can call the old lady selling dried fish on the street on her cell phone.

The bippity-beep of cell phones all but drowns the air-conditioner racket. And each time a cell phone rings, everyone within earshot goes into a self-administered frisk, patting himself down to find the wee gadget. You can go weeks without talking to an answering machine, because you're not really dialing a telephone, you're dialing an armpit, purse, shirt pocket, or bikini top.

The cell-phone has to be there, or somebody might miss a deal. Everything is a deal. In a store you ask: "What's your best price?" then "What 's your Chinese price?" and on from there. I was trying to buy a bottle of cognac in a restaurant. The owner produced a brand I'd never heard of for 100$ and a brand nobody's heard of for 80$. I got my friend Annie, who let fly in Cantonese, and we had a bottle of Remy for one dead U.S Grant. I didn't know you were going to bring my sister in here", said the owner. "Hwa-aaah!"

It is a Cantonese exclamation halfway between oi vey and fuhgedaboutit. Which is Hong Kong in a nutshell-a completely foreign city that's utterly comprehensible. It's a modern place, deaf to charm, dumb in the language of aesthetics, caught up in a wild, romantic passion for the plain utilitarian. The only traditional touches are the catawampus walls and whichaway entrances dictated by feng shui, the art of placing things so as to ensure luck and not to disturb spirits. One building in Repulse Bay has an enormous square hole in its middle so that a certain invisible dragon can get from the mountain to the sea. Knowing Hong Kong, it was probably a scam with a paid-off fortune-teller helping architects and construction companies boost their fees. Some of Hong Kong may believe in geomancy, but it was my local bookstore in New Hamphire that had thirteen feng shui titles.

Everything else quaint within reach in Hong Kong has been torn down. Just a few poky colonial government buildings are left. Landfill has pushed the waterfront a thousand feet into Victoria Harbor. Ferry terminals block the water views, and tides are cramped into a raging flume between Central and Kowloon.

The statue in Statue Square is of a business manager, the nineteenth century chief executive of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank. Behind the square, the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank Building itself rises. Here the local taste for functionalism has been carried to an extreme that arrives at rococo: a massy, looming, steel Tinkertoy of a thing with its whole construction hanging, suspension-bridge fashion, from eight enormous towers. Very functional, indeed, whatever that function is. Maybe to be expensive. It cost a billion dollars to build.

To the west is Jardine House, an aluminium-skinned monolith covered with circular pothole windows-Thousand Assholes, as it's known. To the east is the I.M.Pei-designed Bank of China Tower-all big diagonals and tricky, skinny angles. Its purpose was to be the tallest building in Asia, which it was for about five minutes before being overtopped by Central Plaza a few miles away, and then by twin towers-the tallest enclosed structures in the world-being built at Kuala Lumpur.

A competitive place, Southeast Asia. And it attracts some types that can compete with anything I've seen. I sat at dinner one night between a tough-as-lug-nuts young woman from the mainland who lives in New York and deals in used motor oil-sparkling table talk-and a large and equally adamantine chick from the wrong side of somewhere's tracks in America. I turned to the suicide blond.

"I'm uh arht cunsultunt," she said.
"Come again?"

"Un arht cunsultant."

"That's interesting. Who do you art-consult for?"

She named a large Saudi prince.

"What kind of art does the prince like?" I asked.

"Nineteen-cenchury reuhlist-you know, Uhmerican"

"Any particular artist?"

"Andrew Wyeth"

I'd been under the impression that Andrew Wyeth was still alive-rare in a nineteenth-century artist. And you'd think Hong Kong would be a strange place to look for one of his paintings. But who knows? They shop hard in Hong Kong. Buy hard. Sell hard. They drink hard, too. On Friday nights, police are posted in the Lan Kwai Fong bar district because people have actually been crushed to death during happy hour. Nobody takes it easy in Hong Kong. The only idleness visible is on Sundays, when thousands of the city's overworked Filipino maids come to Central, spread cloths and plastic sheets up and down the sidewalks, and picnic in the least attractive and most heat-baked part of town.

The Filipino maids are Hong Kongese, too. They are in Central because it is practical to get there on the subways, trams, and buses. Hong Kong is a practical place, down to earth, or, rather, down to concrete. The complimentary city guide in my hotel room gave advice on pricing whores and noted, "Some of the conservative hotels don't allow a man to toddle in with a rent-in-bird in the middle of the night. But, as you can imagine there are plenty of 'cheap guest houses'."

In the window of an antique shop, I saw an ivory carving of the familiar row of monkeys:" see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil; but this one had a fourth monkey with his hands over his balls: fuck no evil.

City of hardheads. City of rough tongues. You are a gweilo right to your face, meaning a white goblin or foreign ghost or old devil or any number of other things, according to how it is said (none of the meanings being complimentary)You can give back as good as you get, however(or try to, since gweilos are famously dim).For instance, the Cantonese really cant distinguish ls from rs.

"Ah,you ordered flied lice," said Annie's gweilo husband, Hugh. "That's fried rice, you plick," said Annie.

I met two women who seemed barely into their twenties but were the publisher and the sales manager of a prominent Hong Kong business magazine.

Publisher: "You are really well-dressed."

Sales manager: "For a journalist. We understand you are a popular writer."

Publisher: "In Japan."

City of straight faces. I was looking at some animal figurines representing Chinese astrological signs. The ancient woman behind the shop counter asked, "What year you born?"


"Hwa-aaah. Year of pig! Good luck!"

"Oh, 'Good luck! Good luck!'" I said. "That's what Chinese always say to shopping gweilos. Stolen Ming dynasty grave offerings: 'Good luck!' Can of tuna fish: 'Good luck!' Lacoste shirt: Good luck!'"

"Not so!" she said. "Some years bad luck."

"Such as?"

"Year of buffalo."

"Which year is that?"

"This one."

"This one" being 1997.

I had come to Hong Kong to watch the best contemporary example of laissez-faire be surrendered to the biggest remaining example of socialist totalitarianism.

Hong Kong was (and to be fair to its new commie rulers, remains for the moment) socialism's perfect opposite. Hong Kong does not have import or export duties, or restrictions on investments coming in, or limits on profits going out. There is no capital-gains tax, no interest tax, no sales tax, and no tax breaks for muddle-butt companies that can't make it on their own.

The corporate tax in Hong Kong is 16.5 percent of profits. The individual tax rate is 15 percent of gross income. Hong Kong's government runs a permanent budget surplus and consumes only 6.9 percent of gross domestic product (compared with the 20.8 percent of GDP spent just by the federal government in the U.S) The people of Hong Kong have not been paylings of the state. They are owned their own. They have been able to blow it, Dow Jones it, start a sweater factory, hire, fire, sell, retire, or buy a farm (And there actually are some little-bitty farms in the New Territories).

Hong Kong has never had democracy, but its wallet-size liberties, its Rights-of-Man-in-a-purse, have been so important to individualism and self-governance that in 1995 an international group of libertarian think tanks was moved to perhaps overstate the case and claim, "Hong Kong is the freest nation in the world."

Free because there's been freedom to screw up, too. Hong Kong has no minimum wage, no unemployment benefits, no union-boosting legislation, no Social Security, no national health program, and hardly enough welfare to keep one U.S trailer park in satellite dishes and Marlboro Lights. Just 1.2 percent of GDP goes in transfers to the helplessly poor or subsidies to the hopelessly profitless.

Living without a safety net, people in Hong Kong have kept a grip on the trapeze. The unemployment rate is below 3 percent. In America, a shooting war is usually needed to get unemployment that low. The "natural rate" of unemployment is considered to be about 5 percent in the U.S., which rate would cause natural death from starvation in Hong Kong. But they are not dying. Although smoking is the city's principal indoor athletic activity, life expectancy in Hong Kong is about seventy-nine years, compared with seventy-six in the States. And the infant-mortality rate is comparable to our own. This from people who consider crushed pearls, dried sea horses, and horns from the dead rhinos of Tanzania to be efficacious medicine. Even the babies are too busy to die. Economic growth in Hong Kong has averaged 7.5 percent per year for the past twenty years, causing gross domestic product to quadruple since 1975.With barely one-tenth of 1 percent of the world's population, Hong Kong is the world's eighth-largest international trader and tenth-largest exporter of services.

I'm not exactly sure what "exporter of services" means, unless its fly-by dim sum, but, anyway, it's a fine statistic and helped make dinky, terrifying Kai Tai Airport the third-busiest passenger terminal in the world and the second-busiest air-cargo center. And Kai Tak's solitary runway sticks out into a container port that is the world's most busy of all. Hong Kong's per capita GDP is $26,000.Average individual wealth is greater than in Japan or Germany. It is $5,600 greater than what Hong Kong's ex-colonial masters back in Britain have, and is creeping up on the U.S per capita GDP of $28,600.

Besides Americans, only the people of Luxembourg and Switzerland are richer than those of Hong Kong. And these are two other places where capital is allowed to move and earn freely.

True, there has been an "Asian crisis" since the above statistics were compiled. The Hong Kong stock market has flopped. Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, South Korea, and maybe Japan are experiencing depressions. The entire business world of Asia is supposed to be in ruins. But a mere continent wide financial collapse is unlikely to faze the people of Hong Kong.

Hong Kong's economy was destroyed by the Japanese occupation of World War 2, destroyed again by the UN embargo on trade with the Communists in 1951,and almost destroyed a third time by worry about the 1997 handover to China. The territory has been squeegeed by ty-phoons, squished by mudslides, toasted by enormous squatter-camp fires, and mashed by repeated refugee influxes. Hong Kong has no forests, mines, or oil wells, no large-scale agriculture, and definitely no places to park. Hong Kong even has to import water. So in Hong Kong they drink cognac instead, more per person than anywhere else in the world. They own more Rolls-Royces per person, too. So what if there is no space at the curb? They'll hire somebody fresh from the mainland to drive around the block all night.

Why did the British allow this marvel of free enterprise? Why did Britain do so little to interfere with Hong Kong's economic liberty? This is especially hard to answer because, back in London, an ultrainterfering socialist Parliament had taken charge after World War 2.This government would bring the U.K's own economy to a halt like a hippo dropped on a handcart.

Actually, the British did piss in the colonial soup when they could. The crown government held the title to almost all the land in the Hong Kong and the New Territories, and dealt it our slowly to keep sales revenues high. Thus the crowding in a place which, in fact, comprises some 402 square miles of dry ground-enough, in theory, to give everybody a bean-sprout garden. Instead, half the population is stuck in claustrophobic government housing. Then in the 70's,one of Hong Kong's thicker governors, Sir Murray Maclehose, set aside 40 percent of the colony as parkland - cramped comfort to the fellow living in 300 square feet with his wife. Mother, kids, and their Tamagotchi pets.

But the British never tried to install a European-style Pampers-to-June Allyson welfare system in Hong Kong. Maybe the Labour M.P.s were unwilling to invest vast quantities of groundnut scheme-type pinko planning geniuses across the border. Maybe the colonial administrators were overwhelmed by the number of refugees from pinko planning jamming into town. Maybe the mother country was too broke from ruining its own economy in the British Isles. Or maybe the Brits just did not care about pushing social justice down the throats of people who were, after all, only Chinese.

On the other hand, the British were not irresponsible. The "doing nothing" system mentioned at the beginning of this chapter is a relative term. Laissez-faire is not Tanzanian administrative sloth or Albanian popular anarchy.

Quite a bit of government effort is required to create a system in which government leaves people alone. Hong Kong's colonial administration provided courts, contract enforcement, laws that applied to everyone, some measure of national defense (although the Red Chinese People's Liberation Army probably could have lazed its way across the border anytime it wanted), an effective police force (Hong Kong's crime rate is lower than Tokyo's), and bureaucracy that was efficient and uncorrupt but not so hideously uncorrupt that it would not turn a blind eye on an occasional palm-greasing illegal refugee or unlicensed street vendor.

The Brits built schools and roads. And the kids went to school because they knew if they did not, they'd have to hit that road. And the U.K gave Hong Kong a stable currency, which it did totally by cheating-first pegging the Hong Kong currency to the British pound and then, when everyone got done laughing at that, pegging to the U.S dollar at a rate of 7.8:1.Now when there are any money-supply dirty work to be done, Hong Kong can blame everything on Alan Greenspan.

Hong Kong was also fortunate in having a colonial government which included some real British heroes, men who helped of these the place stay as good as it was for a s long as it did.

The most heroic of these was John Cowperthwaite, a young colonial officer sent to Hong Kong in 1945 to oversee the colony's economic recovery. "Upon arrival, however," said a Far Eastern Economic Review article about Cowperthwaite, "he found it recovering quite nicely without him."

Cowperthwaite took the lesson to heart, and while he was in charge, he strictly limited bureaucratic interference in the economy growth or the size of GDP.

The Cubans wont let anyone get those figures, either. But Cowperthwaite forbade it for an opposite reason. He felt that these numbers were nobody's business and would only be misused by policy fools.

Cowperthwaite has said of his role in Hong Kong's astounding growth: "I did very little. All I did was to try to prevent some of the things that might undo it."

He served as the colony's financial secretary from 1961 to 1971.In the debate over the 1961 budget, he spoke words that should be engraved over the portals of every legislature worldwide; no, tattooed on the legislators' faces:
¡­.in the long run the aggregate of decisions of individual businessmen, exercising individual judgment in a free economy, even if often mistaken, is less likely to do harm than the centralized decisions of a government; and, certainly the harm is likely to be counteracted faster.

Even Newsweek has been forced into admiration: "While Britain continued to build a welfare state, Cowperthwaite was saying 'no': no export subsidies, no tariffs. No personal taxes higher than 15 percent, red tape so thin a one-page form can launch a company."

During Cowperthwaite's "nothing doing" tenure, Hong Kong's exports grew by an average of 13.8 percent a year, industrial wages doubled, and the number of households in extreme poverty shrank from more than half to 16 percent.

"It would be hard to overestimate the debt Hong Kong owes to Cowperthwaite," said economist Milton Friedman. And it would be hard to overestimate the debt Hong Kong owes to the Chinese people who sanctioned and supported what Cowperthwaite was doing or, rather, doing not.

Because Hong Kong did not get rich simply as a result of freedom and law. Economics is easier than economists claim, but its not as easy as that. Chinese culture was a factor in Hong Kong;s success. And yet, almost by definition, Chinese culture must have been a factor in mainland China's failure. Culture is complex. Complexities are fun to talk about, but, when it comes to action, simplicities are often more effective. John Cowperthwaite was a master of simplicities.

Yeung Way Hong, publisher of Hong Kong's most popular Chinese language magazine, Next, has suggested erecting an heroic-scale statue of John Cowperthwaite (To be paid for by private subscription, thank you).

In less than one lifetime, Hong Kong created the environment of comfort and hope that every place on earth has been trying to achieve since the days of homo erectus in the Olduvai Gorge. And Hong Kong's reward? It has been made a "Special administrative Region" of the People's Republic of China.

At midnight on June 30,1997,the British sold six million five hundred thousand souls. No,gave them away. Nearly a Londonful of individuals, supposed citizens of the realm that invented rights, equity, and the rule of law, got Christmas-goosed in July. Hong Kong was on the cuffo, a gimme, an Annie Oakley for the mainland Communists. At the stroke of 12, I was watching TV in my Hong Kong hotel room. The handover ceremony was being broadcast from the hideous new convention center three-quarters of a mile away.

A British military band wearing hats made from Yogi and Smokey and Poo played: "God save the Queen." The Union Jack went south. Prince Charles had just given a little speech. "We shall not forget you, and we shall watch with closest interest as you embark on this new era of your remarkable history." In other words, "Goodbye and bolt the door, bugger you."

Outside, on my hotel-room balcony, the floodlit convention center was all too visible on the harbor front, looking like somebody sat on the Sydney Opera House. Directly below the balcony, a couple thousand not very noisy protesters stood in the rain in Statue Square, looking like somebody was about to sit on them. They were listening to democracy advocate Martin Lee. Mr. Lee was a member of the first freely elected legislature in the history of Hong Kong. And the last. It was unelected at midnight. Mr. Lee was speaking without a police permit. And speaking. And speaking. Every now and then a disconsolate chant of agreement rose from the crowd. Mr. Lee kept speaking. No one bothered to stop him.

Back inside, on the TV, president of China Jiang Zemin was speaking, too-introducing himself to his instant, involuntary fellow countrymen with a poker-faced hollering of banalities in Mandarin.

"We owe all our achievements most fundamentally! To the road of building socialism! With Chinese characteristics! Which we have taken!!!" he said, interrupting his speech with episodes of self-applause, done in the official politburo manner by holding the hands sideways and moving the fingers and palms as if to make quacky-quacky shadow puppets.

The big men on the convention-center podium-Jiang, Prime Minister Li Peng, and Foreign Minister Qian Qichen-seemed to have made their own suit jackets at home. Tung Chee-hwa, the Beijing-appointed chief executive of the new Hong Kong Special Administration Region, came to the microphone next, making pronouncements that combined a political-reeducation-camp lecture ("Our thoughts and remembrance go, with great reverence, to the late Deng Xiaoping)"with a Dick Gephardt speech ("We respect minority views but also shoulder collective responsibility. We value plurality but discourage open confrontation. We strive for liberty but not at the expense of blah,blah,blah.").

This also was said in Mandarin, which is not the native tongue in Hong Kong. In fact, no one uses it there, and having the HK chief executive lipping away in an alien lingo was like hearing an American politician speaking meaningless, was like hearing an American politician speak.

Outside on the balcony again (covering the Hong Kong handover required a journalist to give his utmost-what with AC-chilled binocs fogging in the tropical heat and a minibar running low on ice)? I watched the HMS Britannia pull away from the convention-center dock. A non-descript, freighter-shaped vessel painted white, Brittania looked to be more an unfortunate cruise-ship choice than a royal yacht. It steamed through Victoria Harbour, hauling butt from now foreign waters. On board were the last British governor of Hong Kong, the aristocrat currently known as Prince of Wales, any number of other dignitaries, and, I hope, a large cargo of guilt.

Would the limeys have skipped town if Hong Kong was full of 6.5 million big, pink, freckled, hay-haired, kipper-tucking, pint-sloshing, work-shy, layabout, Labour-voting¡­Well, in that case¡­

Maybe Hong Kong just was not one of those vital, strategic places worth fighting for-like the Falklands. Maybe the Poms only intervene militarily where there's enough sheep to keep the troops entertained.

Why did not the British give back some other island to China. Britain, for example. This would get the U.K. back on a capitalist course-Beijing being more interested in moneymaking than Tony Blair. Plus, the Chinese have extensive experience settling royal-family problems.

Or why did not Britain sell England to Hong Kong? Hong Kong can afford it, and that way anyone who was worried about the fate of democracy in the Special Administrative Region could go live in Sloane Square, and the rest of England could be turned into a theme park.

There's quaint scenery, lots of amusements for the kiddies ("Changing of the Wives") at Buckingham Palace is good), and plenty of souvenirs, such as, if you donate enough money to the right political party, a knighthood.

But, this didn't happen. And the people of Hong Kong (unless they were very rich) were stuck in Hong Kong. Sure, they had British passports. But, these were "starter passports"-good for travel to...Macao.

Of course, they could have gotten passport upgrades. For a million Hong Kong dollars, they could have gone to Toronto. Very fun.

Oh, lets give the limeys a break. It's not as if we Americans gave a damn, either. We could have threatened to stealth-bomber the Red Chinese or, for that matter, Margaret Thatcher when she started gift-wrapping Hong Kong for Deng Xiaoping. We could have told China to go kiss Boris Yeltsin's ass if it wanted to be a most-favoured nation. And we could have handed out 6.5 million green cards.

Imagine 6.5 million savvy, hardworking citizens-to-be with a great cuisine. What a blessing for America. And how we would hate them. Pat Buchanan would hate their race. The AFL-CIO would hate their wage rate. The NAACP would hate their failure to fail as a minority. And, Al Gore would hate 6.5 million campaign contributors who didn't have to sneak pro-free-trade money to the Democratic National Committee anymore but could go right into polling booths and vote Republican.

The surrender of Hong Kong was a shameful moment. But if you missed Martin Lee's soggy peroratition in Statue Square, you might never have known it.

The stock market was still on a swell, up 30 percent from a year before, with bulging, steroidal gains in the so-called red chips, the mainland holding companies promoted by the ChiComs. Trade and foreign investment were at unexampled heights. No one was running from the real-estate market. Tiny condominiums in unglamorous districts were going for $500,000.

A five-day weekend was declared, though no one closed shop. Retail sales were 30 percent to 40 percent above the usual. Important people had flown in from all over the globe. I saw the back of Margaret Thatcher's head in my hotel lobby.

On July 1("Dependence Day," I guess) people who should have known better sent messages of cheer, fulsomely printed in the South China Morning Post:

"China has made important commitments to maintain Hong Kong's freedom and autonomy".

-- Bill Clinton

"Hong Kong can be an ever better place in which to live and work."

-- Madeleine Albright

"I feel pretty relaxed about it."
-- George Bush

Skyrockets splattered in the evening skies. The British Farewell Ceremony for 10,000 invited guests had featured not only bands from the Scots Guards, Black Watch, and various other men without pants, but also from Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra and (I saw this) a dance troupe with performers dressed as giant deutsche marks, enormous circuit boards, and huge powdered wigs. At the other end of the lifestyle continuum, there was a One Nation Under a Groove 11 p.m to 9 a.m rave.

In between were thousands of parties, from impromptu expat booze-ups in the Wan Chai lap-dancing district to dinners with courses incalculable by abacus at Hong Kong mogul David Tang's China Club.

Here the whole food chain was ravaged, from depth of sea slug to bird's nest height. The China Club is decorated colonial style in big-wallah mahogany, except the walls are covered with Mao-era socialist-realism art, and the waiters and waitresses are dressed as Red Guards. Meaning? I have no idea.

I also have no idea why my hotel kept giving me handover gifts: a bottle of champagne, a coffee-table book about Hong Kong titled Return to the heart of the Dragon (less ominous-sounding in Chinese, I gather), and a silver mug bearing crossed British and Chinese flags, and inscribed:
Resumption of Sovereignty
To China
1 July 1977
Hong Kong

To which I intend to have added:
Bowling Tournament
2nd place

Whimsical handover T-shirts, many making hangover puns, were for sale around the city, as such humorous novelties as "Canned Colonial Air-Sealed before June 30th." I suppose the same sort of things were being marketed in Vienna in 1938: "Last Yarmulke before Anschluss," and so on. Maybe in occupied France, too: "Vichy Water," ha-ha.

There were grumbles in Hong Kong, of course, such as dissidentish shows by artists objecting to censorship, in case there was going to be any.

Martin Lee and his fellow Democratic Party members gave a glum press conference, at which they promised to keep representing their electoral districts, even if they didn't anymore. And a certain amount of fretting in the press was seen, but mostly of the affectless editorial page kind that mixes After Genocide-Wither Rwanda? With After Gretzky-Wither Hockey? Hong Kong on the whole, was awfully darn cheerful.

Why weren't 6.5 million people more upset about being palmed off to an ideology-impaired dictatorship that has the H-bomb? Even one of Taiwan's top representatives in Hong Kong was quoted saying, "As a Chinese person, I think it is a good thing that Hong Kong is coming back to China." Chiang-Kai-shek, please.

There is the colonialism issue.

How did the Chinese of Hong Kong really feel about being ruled by England? It's a complex question. Or, as a number of Chinese people said to me, "no, it isn't." Being an American, an Irish-American to boot, I was maybe, told certain things that the English did not hear. "We hate the English," for instance.

When a Chinese friend said that, I said, "wait a minute was in Vietnam not long ago, and nobody seemed to hate Americans. If the Vietnamese can forgive the Americans for napalm, carpet bombing, agent orange, and what-all, surely you can forgive the English for the odd opium war and some 'Land of Hope and Glory' karaoke"

"It's a different thing," said my friend. "You just killed the Vietnamese; you never snubbed them."

Hong Kong's people are also realists. Calling in to complain on the Larry King Show wasn't going to do much. Thus the tepid response to the handover's endless television and newspaper "streeters", the interviews with random locals: "Excuse me, I understand you're about to get secret police in your neighbourhood. Would you care to tell the world how much you hate Jiang Zemin?"

There are real reasons for Hong Kong's realism. In 1945 the population of the territory was only 1.2 million. Today, the whole city is filled with refugees and children of refugees. Until 1981,Hong Kong had a "touch base" asylum policy where, basically, anyone from the mainland who made it to downtown could stay.

The Chinese who fled the civil war, the communist takeover on the mainland, and the lunatic deprivations and slaughters that followed know that there's only one real safe haven: money.

And they are serious about making it.