Tuesday, 5 November 2013

One rock under a groove ... Hong Kong Handover hijinks

From the Vaults: my wrap up of The Big Hong Kong Story, the reason many of us upped stumps and decamped for Hong Kong, the big 'H' ... the Handover. Upon rereading this, I see right at the end the scatological infatuation that gave this blog its name was already rearing its head. 

THIS WAS supposed to be a story about how they botched the handover. A searing, fang-bared expose of greed, disaster and incompetence on a truly grand scale; a harsh spotlight trained upon Hong Kong's pratfall on the world stage. Oh, the scope for disaster was enormous. Looming typhoons. Feuding sovereigns. Last-minute decisions. Missed deadlines. Recalcitrant tradesmen. Profiteering fly-by-nighters. Goose-stepping soldiers swarming over the border. Hot-headed demonstrators itching to be the martyr du jour. Very Important Egos to be stroked and coddled. A diplomatic chamber of horrors and a terrorist's fun-fair, jam-packed into the big top of a genuine three-ring media circus.

The only problem is, it was all right on the night. Against incalculable odds, Britain managed to hand back the last glittering jewel in its tarnished colonial crown with nary a major mishap. Somehow - and who knows how? - Hong Kong pulled it off. Thousands of blood-hungry, battle-hardened scribes were left scratching their heads and wandering the cavernous press centre, glassy-eyed with boredom and bemusement. It all seemed to go so smoothly that it's hard to believe it happened at all.

But under the bonnet of the shiny, purring handover machine, there was no little grinding of gears. Somewhere beneath the seamless facade of pomp and circumstance, of stirring speeches, coruscating pyrotechnics and perfectly timed telegenic tears lurks a litany of glitches, hitches, bloopers and blunders. More 'Hong Kong's Funniest Handover Videos' than sombre Dan Rather fodder; not so much a dignified dissembling of the three-legged stool as the stuff of the Three Stooges. So let us take a trawl through the lighter side of the handover - the scenes you didn't see on CNN.

THE ONE factor out of anyone's control during Hong Kong's big week was the weather and, as the territory's sodden populace knows, there was the odd spot of precipitation during the handover period. The heavens opened to dump half the average yearly rainfall in just over a week - and most of that seemed to be during the British farewell ceremony at East Tamar.

It might have been a sign that even God is sick of the British Royal Family. The best thing about the rain was that no one could hear a word of what Prince Charles had to say. Between the pounding of the deluge on the canopy of umbrellas and the fact that water had shorted out the Prince's microphone, he might as well have been mute, or could have been holding forth on Camilla and his tampon fantasies for all the audience knew. Of course, no one at home watching on television would have noticed, because they probably would have killed the volume the minute His Royal Dampness stood up to speak. The other advantage of the downpour was that you couldn't tell if Chris Patten was still crying. After trotting around from one goodbye to the next, his tear-ducts were working overtime and he was beginning to look like a graduate from the Bob Hawke Academy of Public Weeping.

Maureen Earls, the gravel-voiced New Yorker who oversaw the mounting of this most British of good-byes, says the rain wreaked havoc with the ceremony but it was worth persevering. 'In the end, although it had been said the ceremony would be cancelled if it rained, we didn't cut a thing. But there were some hitches. The Prince of Wales' microphone filled up with water. The children's lanterns completely disintegrated. So did the souvenir programmes. And when everyone stood up for the lowering of the flag, they couldn't sit down again because the seats were sopping wet,' she says. 'We thought we would have to cancel the orchestras. It was the strangest thing I've ever seen - double basses with umbrellas strapped to them, drums covered in plastic.' As usual, the rain baffled the territory's meteorological boffins, who fell back on that tried and tested scapegoat for any extended patch of bad weather: they blamed El Nino, which (a) is at best an ephemeral, unproven phenomenon; and (b) probably had about as much to do with the downpour as El Greco.

The Federation of Women's Carnival of Unity was another victim of the deluge. More than 20,000 people gathered in Victoria Park to watch the handover ceremony on two giant video screens. Unfortunately, as history was being made, the sodden screens ceased to work. 'It was a bit disappointing,' said a Federation spokeswoman, in what might just have been the understatement of the handover.

The rain also saw the $8 million Parade in Celebration of the Return of Hong Kong cancelled, washing away more than a year's preparations. And it forced the postponement of the Celebrate Hong Kong 1997 concert at the Happy Valley racecourse, although - unfortunately, some might say - not its cancellation. It was an uninspired agglomeration of second-raters (with the possible exception of the Brand New Heavies and Lisa Stansfield), led by the execrable Wet Wet Wet, who delighted few but Hong Kong's pun-starved headline writers.

Organiser and veteran pop-meister Anders Nelsson put a brave spin on things as nervous insurance types wrung their hands. The show went on, but some observers at the gig say the official crowd estimate of 20,000 was wildly optimistic. Earlier, fur had flown between Nelsson and the organisers of the Reunification Spectacular at Happy Valley, a June 30 Canto-pop fest staged jointly by ATV and the Association for Celebration of Reunification of Hong Kong with China (ACRHKC - an acronym which sounds strangely like a large glob of phlegm being summoned and expelled). Insiders say Nelsson was none too happy at the state of the grounds, which had been left covered with rotting rubbish from the earlier gig.

It could have all been so different. At one point, it seemed we might have had no lesser personages than Elton John, Luciano Pavarotti and David Copperfield to usher in the birth of the SAR. But the latter two performers' demands were too rich for even the stuffed coffers of the ACRHKC, and the Urban Council - scared of shattering the oasis of tranquility that is So Kon Po - has passed into legend for its mind-warpingly idiotic suggestion that punters at the Hong Kong Stadium could wear headphones and don gloves to muffle their applause.

Antipodean rocker and (short-lived) member of Crowded House, Tim Finn, put in an appearance in what was dubbed the Great Viceroy Handover Concert, although forking out $450 for a gig that barely lasted an hour had an unamused audience feeling they had been left stranded in a leaky boat. Says one irate (and erstwhile) fan: 'He clearly hadn't even bothered to do a sound check. He had to start the first song three times. He cracked some joke about wanting to shag Patten's daughters, and then just bolted at the end.' The entertainment community is also buzzing with rumours of disunity at Unity, Andrew Bull's mega-handover rave, after a wire service photographer captured what appeared to be a furious row between headliners Grace Jones and Boy George backstage at Kowloon Bay's HITEC centre. Two nights later, the Boy - who these days looks decidedly middle-aged, even with a face on - suffered the ignominy of being kept waiting with other non-ticket holders outside Bar City, venue of the One Nation Under A Groove rave, until the right ears were whispered in.

THE MAIN event - the actual handover ceremony in the Convention and Exhibition Centre's Grand Hall, and the preceding Extremely-Super-Duper-Very-Important-Person-only banquet were largely glitch-free, although ulcer-riddled organisers reveal some close calls.

Despite the 11th-hour construction frenzy which had the centre's managing director, Cliff Wallace, crowing about the lack of leaks, some guests ended up getting wet anyway courtesy of what was probably condensation. District Court Judge Fergal Sweeney, obviously overcome by the emotion and sense of occasion, waxed poetic with his summary of the proceedings. 'It was a moving ceremony. But what I have got now is stinking, smelly socks,' he opined, after falling victim to the mystery drip. Former legislator Christine Loh was also unamused: 'Everybody is completely soaked. We sat half of the night in water.' And Stanley Ho complained of being 'wet all over'.

Wallace was adamant things went amazingly well considering the rush to finish the building, which was variously hailed as an architectural triumph and a close approximation of a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. 'We didn't have any actual leaks,' he said. 'Of course there will be some condensation as we work the air-conditioning system out. It's a new building.' He says the most embarrassing cock-up was when a plastic lunchbox caught fire in a heating cabinet on the morning of June 30. As luck would have it, the fire was on the sixth floor of the old Convention Centre, just a floor below the press centre, where thousands of restless, story-starved journalists prowled. 'We put the fire out quickly with an extinguisher, but that seemed to be the incident that raised the most interest from the press.' Roger Bushby-Sansom, whose company did the decoration and design for the handover ceremony and banquet - as well as the reception for the SAR Government, the Better Hong Kong Foundation dinner and parties at the Regent and the Furama - was looking a little shell-shocked after the stress of the handover week.

Naturally everyone was dying to get a glimpse of the secrecy-shrouded interior of the Grand Hall. But for guests at the State Banquet, it was almost a case of I Am Curious - Yellow. Bushby-Sansom says thousands of chair covers, tablecloths and napkins were made and then sent to Shenzhen to be dyed various shades of yellow and orange. 'The chair covers were a 50 per cent cotton and polyester mix, and when we were sewing them together there was an absolutely terrifying moment when we realised the dye was rubbing off.' Frantic at the prospect of the likes of Jiang Zemin and Prince Charles leaving the feast with their suits a delicate shade of saffron, Bushby-Sansom found a relatively simple solution. 'One cold-wash launder solved the problem. I was certainly in panic mode for a little while there.' He says the last-minute chopping and changing of the guest list also presented problems. 'We had allowed for enough fabric for a certain number of guests and the Government was still adding and deducting people right up until days before the event. In the end we didn't have enough fabric, and I had to get someone to scour Hong Kong for fabric as close as possible to what we had fabricated for the extra napkins and chair covers.' Plans for stunning floral arrangements on each table at the banquet nearly went awry when the centrepieces of the arrangements - 20 boxes of sunflowers - turned up mostly dead or wilting. 'Let's just say it was a very emotional moment for our florist,' he says. 'Fortunately we were able to salvage about a quarter of the flowers, and thanks to his skill, he managed to pull off magnificent arrangements.' While the nobs hobbed at the official bash, Martin Lee Chu-ming and his fellow Democrats had taken the balcony of the Legislative Council by storm (well, somebody left it unlocked) and staged a well-behaved protest.

An exhausted Lee, who is probably locked in mortal combat with David Tang over the world record number of interviews in the shortest time, said there weren't any real glitches on the protest front. 'Oh, except for one,' he remembered. 'I was being interviewed by a Japanese television crew and I drifted off to sleep. They were too polite to wake me up.' He slumbered on blissfully until his long-suffering sidekick, Minky Worden, bustled into the room, aghast.

Stephen Lam, the slick director of the Handover Ceremony Co-ordination Office, says he is delighted with how smoothly the ceremony ran. Well, he would say that, of course. If there were any blunders or bungles, Lam certainly wasn't going to be the man to reveal them.

Lam refused to countenance any snubs on the diplomatic front, despite Jiang Zemin's obvious brush-off after Patten grabbed his hand in what was the pair's first physical contact in five years, and Prince Charles turning his back on Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen at the end of the British banquet minutes earlier.

And then there was Frockgate, the talk of the social set. Apparently a prominent local designer told a nosy British hack that Lavender Patten wanted a dress that was 'red, but not too red, and a bit like a cheongsam but not totally Chinese'. Next thing, a story appeared saying Lavender didn't want to look Chinese. After a brief furore at Government House, a new frock was commissioned and kept strictly under wraps until the big night.

Lam, however, stands firm: 'There were no diplomatic snubs or incidents.' He also played down suggestions from sources at the Convention Centre that one of the Thai Royals, Princess Sirindhorn, was none too amused at entering the Grand Hall only to find there was no chair for her. Says Lam: 'The problem was that her seat was not clearly marked on her badge, and she accepted that explanation very graciously.' IF THE Princess was a tad irate, hers certainly were not the only fireworks of the handover. Hong Kong's skies were alight with bangs and whines and flashes - from the outgoing administration on the 30th (sponsored exclusively by Barings ING, no strangers to seeing money go up in smoke), and then a $100 million conflagration staged by the Better Hong Kong Foundation on July 1.

The foundation did not get as big a bang for its buck as it had hoped, after authorities decided two 60-centimetre shells planned as a noisy finale for the show were too dangerous to use. As it was, there were some unscheduled fireworks when one of the eight barges unleashing 20 tonnes of pyrotechnics caught fire after a salvo misfired and plunged back into the vessel. None of the five crew members were injured.

After a day of heavy rain threatened to see the display postponed, the heavens cleared just in time for everyone to get a stunning view of the fireworks and the flotilla of 31 illuminated barges, sponsored by a who's who of the territory's mega-rich. Everyone, that is, except the thousands of idiots like me who decided to try and watch the show from Tsim Sha Tsui, and ended up miles from the waterfront with a view of little but the back of the Peninsula and the occasional random starburst.

The foundation's chief executive, Leonie Ki, has discovered a religious zeal since the handover. Sitting in her Wan Chai office this week after the smoke has cleared, she attributes the lack of rain during the show to nothing less than divine intervention. 'God has been very kind to us. We got three miracles: the good weather, the success and the safety of the fireworks.' I am tempted to ask if it was wise to leave the latter in the hands of divine providence, but bite my tongue. After all, we're talking about Hong Kong's very own tycoon club and they probably do have a hotline to God.

Apart from the barge fire, the closest the show came to a glitch was trying to persuade a band of drummers from landlocked Shanxi province to set foot on one of the floats. 'Most of them had never seen the sea, so we had to test them to see who would get
 seasick,' she says. 'They are mountain people and they were freaking out.' And then there was the great karaoke debacle, always one of the sillier ideas of the handover. Despite weeks of pleas for people to learn the lyrics to a syrupy medley of patriotic songs, those on the streets seemed more interested in saying 'WAH!' at each explosion than in singing along. A survey by market researchers the next day revealed that plenty of people sang along at home, but it was hardly a wall of sound echoing off the harbour. And anyway, the Guinness Book Of Records pooped the party by announcing sniffily that it didn't have a karaoke section, ruining plans to win Hong Kong a Guinness guernsey.

There was certainly one tycoon who wouldn't have felt like singing: Jardine Matheson chairman Henry Keswick spent his first week in the SAR in the Adventist Hospital after a nasty fall on his way back to the Mandarin Oriental hotel midway through the handover ceremony. He was returning to change his sodden suit when he slipped in the deluge, breaking a shoulder bone. Bad joss, taipan.

APART from the strange case of the flaming lunchbox, it was the arrival of the People's Liberation Army that sparked most media interest. Bemused locals at the border checkpoints probably found the sight of wild-eyed, sleep-deprived journalists and camera crews chasing their tails a good deal more alarming than the smart, scrubbed and impeccably behaved soldiers. Fortunately, worried villagers with access to the Internet would have had no trouble checking up on those pesky reporters - Government staffers accidentally posted on the Net the ID card and passport numbers of all journalists wanting to be at the border when the PLA entered.

The sturm und drang of the black rain signal that went up as the main body of troops arrived at around 6 am was a tad ominous. In the event, however, the PLA soldiers were quickly ensconced in their various barracks, with the only real mishap a fender bender involving three of their trucks near Sha Tau Kok. There was also an element of military one-upmanship, with 21 brand spanking new WZ523 armoured personnel carriers whizzing across the border. Jane's Defence Weekly expert Paul Beaver provided an incisive analysis on the deeper tactical meaning behind the deployment of the new hardware. 'They are showing off,' he said.

HONG KONG's hotels, sniffing a handover bonanza, jacked up their prices and some insisted on packages where guests had to book for a week or longer. The result was a mad panic when, with weeks to go, many of the lesser establishments realised they were only going to be half full. However, Hotels Association chairman Thomas Axmacher, general manager of the Regent, said bookings ended up passing 90 per cent capacity thanks to a last-minute influx of roomless visitors.

One hotel industry figure says negative publicity about the handover and the safety of tourists in Hong Kong frightened off a large slab of the sizeable and lucrative Japanese market. 'People were just greedy, and we didn't get the message across well enough that there weren't going to be riots in the streets,' she says. The dearth of Japanese tourists also made the handover a lean time for high-end retailers.

Axmacher himself had nothing to worry about. The Regent was chock-a-block, and hosted one of the swankiest parties of the handover, with a colonial theme on June 30 ceding to chinoiserie chic on July 1. But his bash was not without one or two hiccups. According to some guests, the hotel's countdown clock was slow by a minute or so. And the crowds watching the big moment on television screens got in the way of a set piece where more than 40 staff were to tear off their Union Jack-inspired garb to reveal Chinese flags on the stroke of midnight.

And then there were the fearless photographers who scrambled up on to a table to get a better vantage point for the revels, only to come rudely down to earth when its legs collapsed. If they had recovered from their fall in time, they could have snapped hotel security staff restraining one reveller determined to usher in the new era with a dip in the harbour.

Meanwhile, at Li Ka-shing's Harbour Plaza hotel in Hung Hom, guests who had paid to watch the revels from the roof were thrilled to learn that their tickets were cancelled and their money would be refunded for 'security reasons' - which is a strange way of saying Jiang Zemin and Li Peng.

And then there was the ITN crew from Britain dug in on the roof of the Mandarin Oriental. Fearless anchor Trevor Macdonald by all accounts was nearly blown away while trying to broadcast outside during Tuesday morning's black rain warning.

Things were remarkably calm back at the press centre, where this writer decided to see in the new era. Or at least, they were until shortly after the stroke of midnight, when, overcome by the occasion (and perhaps a dodgy Thai lunch), I found myself dashing for the toilets, only to encounter my own personal handover hitch. One cubicle had its door ripped clean off, the other was boarded up and sternly stamped 'out of order'. As I limped off in search of alternative arrangements, I pondered the symbolism. One centre, two cisterns. Both broken.


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