|Jan/Feb 2016 Fiction|
Artwork by Karen Fox Tarlton
The British fireworks exploding over Hong Kong harbor were colored smears in the dark. Rain fell in torrents. Mark huddled under umbrellas with Diana. The crowd was a snake of umbrellas, and his view between dark domes. At times he could see only wobbles of color down on the water.
Rockets by the score lit the sky, and there was a climatic burst of red and blue blooms in the night.
Still, while slowly walking away in the murmuring crowd, hundreds of thousands of Chinese, a feeling of disappointment came over the American. He had seen better.
"Controlled, celebratory, but mild overall," was his analysis. He and Diana, both business journalists, though for competing publications, always analyzed whatever they attended, movie, party, Chinese opera. "The equivalent of those gardens from the Age of Reason."
"What did you expect?" she, English to the core, defended her people. "We're giving the damn place away. This is the end of the British Empire."
Theirs was a flat walk to the restaurant in the downpour. Two hours to go before the Handover, when the British flag would be lowered. Along Connaught Road Central, past skyscrapers, banks mostly, with colorful drawings in neon, one a Chinese woman in traditional clothes twenty stories tall. For the most part, he and Diana trudged, silently, in line with the local hordes below their black umbrellas.
"You seem sad," he told her.
"I didn't think I would be, but the Handover is a loss. I guess I'm more British than I thought."
All of Hong Kong seemed in a quiet, satisfied mood that night, as the official ceremonies took place for the elite, dry and indoors at the modernist Convention and Exhibition Center they passed. The royal yacht where Prince Charles was staying docked nearby. HMS Britannia. Already officials, including the British prime minister and the Chinese president, were making speeches at the banquet, no doubt, the Chinese thanking the Brits they hated and the Brits congratulating the Chinese they disdained.
They came to the Water Margin, big and noisy, but for some reason it was Diana's favorite. They sat at a round table where the eight or so Chinese diners shared whatever was ordered. Waiters took their orders as if stopping during a marathon. Hong Kong service was fast fast fast, eat in a hurry. The speed made Mark nervous. The Chinese around the circle smiled at them uncomfortably, but not knowing Cantonese or English, neither side could say anything other than "Sheh Sheh," "thanks," or "Food good." The dishes though colorful were bland, he thought. Hunanese. He preferred the spicy Szechuan.
Diana was in a bad mood and didn't say much amongst the clanging of dishes and the murmuring—Cantonese with nine tones was a flow to Mark, whereas Mandarin, with only four, was choppy. Finally, she came out with it.
"The Handover has upset me," she said. "I didn't think it would, but today it finally did."
She put her hand on his hand, a rare display of public affection. A woman across the table sat back in disapproval. Diana seemed particularly insecure that day.
"Do you know why?" he said, because he had become almost neutral. The death of empire, even of British empire, seemed a good thing to an American, and Hong Kong had not exactly been a model of democracy under the old British rulers. But, the People's Republic of China was worse, and he didn't believe for a second the Two Systems, One Nation model the PRC proclaimed would hold. Hong Kong was trading masters from the British to the Han, their historical enemies from the North, that was all.
"I had a friend who told me 'I never feel so British as when I am playing cricket,'" she rambled. Clearly she had thought this out. Diana looked at him with that open expression that meant he must surely understand what she meant. He didn't have a clue. In spite of her efforts, cricket was as clear to him as subatomic physics. There, there was the cultural divide. Her British assumptions were mysteries. His American assumptions must have been equally mysterious to her. He had told a friend the Chinese were open and familiar; it was the British who were the inscrutable ones.
"So you are feeling quite British these days?" he saved the gloom.
"Quite," she said with deep sadness. And he loved her then. And he felt they would stay together, maybe even marry. Near 30, he was ready for marriage, and there she was. Hadn't Plato said the ideal age for marriage was 30 when, the fires of young damped, it was time to give up achievement, and raise a family.
"Why are you smiling?" she said, with her stifled laugh.
"You make me happy," he said.
Outside, the rain had stopped. Connaught was jammed with Chinese again, even more than the enormous crowds that filled the sidewalks and shops on a normal day. Trolleys rumbled down the middle. The feeling of something large and slightly scary was how Mark felt the historical evening. Moonlight from a tear in the clouds reflected off the glass skyscrapers. The neon figures glowed sharply. In about an hour all this would belong to the communists, those dreaded Han.
Diana wanted to kill time wandering around the docks, so that they did. The old Chinese rickshaw pullers waited almost angrily before the Star Ferry terminal. They were busy, taking British and American tourists for a slow jaunt around the district. Local attitude was that they were 'Uncle Toms'. When they started their careers, rickshaw pulling was an honorable profession for an uneducated poor man, like a cab driver. Now they were fossils of two centuries of colonialism, which the Chinese almost universally felt was a period of weakness and shame.
The streets filled more and more, like seepage, although there was no specific event for any but the powerful to attend. The couple soon tired of plowing through short people with black hair in the dark. Lots of stares at them, of course. Diana, short too, got her back up, and looked snootier and snootier. Nobody did arrogance like the British. The British culture, like all cultures, proved more powerful and longer lasting than their military and politics. Cricket was still played passionately in anti-colonial India, and likely would be in anti-colonial Hong Kong. America's culture, Elvis and democracy, was more powerful than its politicians and armies too.
They wandered, searching for something interesting, past side street after side street of small shops, the hanging carcasses of ducks and chickens in the windows, the piles of electrical devices. Past the Regroup Hair Salon. Desperately bored, after 11:30 they sought shelter in the Bull and Basket, a bar that was an island of the old Empire among the chaotic streets of Asia.
Immediately within the door he knew the difference. It was the noise. Outside the Chinese world murmured like a river, the noise flowing. Inside, the noise clashed, as if it had no direction. Or was he being too much a Western journalist, summing up vast data in a simpleminded way?
TV's were mounted at the ceiling corners, normally portals of a sports bar. Now the screens filled with the Sino-British Handover Ceremony, which had begun inside the Center. A cheer went up from the British yobs, the vast majority men, in the bar, drunk already, every time a royal appeared on the screen. Prince Charles, with his huge ears, was the official representative, but there was footage of former British princes, princesses, and a queen who had visited her colony. Boos rose when Chris Patten, the last English head of Hong Kong, who had negotiated the withdrawal, spoke to the crowd, and boos rose when a recognizable Chinese leader, like Prime Minister Lee Peng, was even alluded to.
20 minutes of Empire left.
Impossible to find a seat in the Bull and Basket, of course, so Diana and Mark stood, wedged and jostled by elbows and backs. It was his duty, as man, to fetch the alcohol. Standing two rows back at the bar, waving his Hong Kong dollars, the name a reflection of American economic might, he overheard some irritating British colonialism.
"They'll be sorry," one yob said, drunk. "Chinese can't organize worth shit."
"It's over for democracy," another said, drunk. "Reds will throw half the council in jail before the end of the year."
And a wan Englishwoman, who looked too diaphanous to be in the midst of all the beef and beer men, though drunk, "Why do they hate us so much? We civilized this place."
No wonder the British empire died, he thought, hefting a couple of pints above the heads back to Diana. The world had vastly changed: Asia was on the rise, England was a small island again, and these blokes still thought they ran the globe. Like characters in A Dance to the Music of Time, or P.G. Wodehouse for that matter, these Brits were raised for empire but had no empire to administer. Instead, they spent their lives being silly. The Chinese were much too hungry, physically, historically, and politically, to be other than serious. So, good-by British Hong Kong, hello PRC.
Not silly was Diana. She actually sat on a stool at a high table with three strangers, looking down at the floor. One man had given up his stool to a woman. Mark still didn't know what to make of her. When they started seeing each other, she had, after all, given him a book titled How to Deal with a British Woman. Inside she had inscribed: "Something to help you cope with our differences".
Tears rolled down her cheeks.
"What's wrong?" he said, genuinely dumbfounded.
"What's wrong! Isn't it obvious!?"
In fact, the atmosphere in the bar had turned a bit somber. With five minutes to go, the Brit per square foot ratio had increased even more. It was like the world was there at that dock and inside that Convention Center, happy and expectant, while hunkered inside the Bull and Basket the ex-patriots huddled in defense of time.
He put his hand on Diana's shoulder, to encourage her, and she stiffened. Frankly, being American, Mark's feelings were on the side of the Chinese. America, after all, had rebelled against these same British, in what, as he once read in a book by a British author titled The American Rebellion, was rank ingratitude. Americans threw off the British yoke by force, while the revolution outside the bar's walls was through diplomacy. The Communist Chinese, however, were a surly lot, destroying the old emperor and such being a good thing, but substituting a new dictatorship even more destructive of the individualism Mark savored. He hated dictatorship, whether by his parents or the government. The British were dictators of Hong Kong for 200 years. Chinese, however, seemed happy that dictators of their own had arrived, even if they were Han. The British had become too weak to protect them anyway, and Asians had no respect for weakness.
"Well, it's time," Diana shouted as he bent down to her. She dramatically sighed, and held onto his hand until it hurt.
Though they couldn't hear a thing on the TV above the drunken din, a countdown clock with five minutes to go appeared in one corner of the picture, officials still speaking at the podium.
"I am happy to be here," the prince said. Yeah right.
Diana smiled at Mark wanly. He didn't know what that meant, but she seemed happy he was there. Women, Mark totaled a lot of bad experience, often craved security, and somehow he seemed a granite block of security to Diana. American? Maybe there was strength in his being from the Earth's one superpower, cowboy country. He also was happy to be with her. Life could be worse than to be holding hands with an attractive, intelligent, competent British financial journalist, with her Northern accent. She really wasn't a happy person overall, brooding, moody, hormonal at times in fact. But she burst into jokes, and odd stretches of sentimentality and romantic flights around him. He was an occasional knight to her. He had to admit that below his rigid exterior, the product of a father with an Irish temper, he was equally sappy. In fact, and this struck him then, as the drunks began shouting the countdown to the clock, his fingernails had grown from nothing, where he constantly bit them from nerves, to long since he and Diana had become an item. Together, they weren't anything at the political, historical, Big Bang level of things like the Handover, but in human terms, given that they had to live among other powerless humans, he guessed that he really did love her.
I Love You, he mouthed, mimed as in a silent movie, through the screaming.
I—he pointed at himself—Love—he made a heart in the air with his finger—You—he pointed at her.
She sat up. She looked shocked. She looked angry.
Sigh. What he got for loving a British woman.
"Not now, for God's sake!"
The men around noticed and started laughing. Awful timing. Maybe personal matters weren't as important as historical, though, being American, he had thought for an instance otherwise. He had thought this had been a romantic moment, love more important than politics. Now he just felt stupid. Once the word "love" had escaped his lips, it now threatened to gush. He wanted to tell her how he felt every minute of every day. Maybe she would be repulsed. Life was uncertain indeed. He couldn't look at her, and the result.
The drunks seemed drunker as one minute remained. The noise rose to a pain; he was deafened. Outside, the sidewalk and street were packed with actual Chinese people. Mark wished he was out there instead of indoors with the losers of history. Brits had the World Empire, centuries old, and blew it in an amazingly short number of years.
Ten, nine, eight . . . the TV screens coordinated the countdown. Few in the bar counted out loud with the screen: five, four, three, two, ONE. Outside cheers seeped through the walls; inside the English mass erupted into boos. They died quickly, however, and drinking beer continued. The British flag came down; the Chinese flag went up. Hong Kong was now part of China. Drinking alcohol was eternal.
"Let's go to the freedom rally," Diana said sharply into Mark's ear, and headed for the door. He followed, plowing through the now useless foreigners.
Outside, on the crowded sidewalk, a new noise. The downtown was indeed more crowded than a normal night. Hong Kong, one of the most crowded cities on Earth, was the benchmark of the future, when world population reached billions more humans. Maybe he had a bit of training on how Kansas City or Denver might be in a hundred years. Chinese people stared at them, smugly, but kept walking. He and Diana hurried in a straight line down Connaught toward the Legislative Council Building. She was serious, discussing this and that. No mention of love of course, no hand holding. Amazing and insulting. Americans had a way of caring more about individual matters than great moves of history. Individualism was the great divide, West and East. But here walked a short, exuberant member of that West, his love. He felt defeated.
Near the Council Building, as British a design of marble and columns as any in Hong Kong, the crowd grew thicker. On Macao, the infamous gambling and gangster island an hour's hovercraft ride away, the buildings were Portuguese. Macao also was scheduled for a Handover in the near future, and in the meantime, the Portuguese having abandoned their colony, the Hong Kong Triad mobs ruled the casinos and the dangerous streets.
They joined a couple of thousand standing in a plaza at the side of a platform where speakers were addressing issues of freedom and independence for Hong Kong. The speakers used English, and Mark noticed that the majority of the listeners seemed to be British or American. That was not a good sign.
"Two Systems, One Nation is a lie!" a rebel Council member berated the audience. "The dictators of the Communist regime will soon end our hard-won freedoms."
One Australian—his accent was clear even though he screamed—right in front of them raised his fist and shouted obscenities. He was shirtless and wore ripped beige shorts. Most, like Diana, stood silently in the post-midnight heat.
A noise behind him made Mark turn. In the street where the couple had just walked, hurried yellow busses. Police faces jammed the bus windows. Just when he was about to point out this threat to Diana, a white van pulled to the front. Loudspeakers covered every inch of its top, and an amazingly loud sound began pounding the earth. His ears hurt; he covered them with his hands. Anything the rebel speaker or the few thousands in the crowd became a silent movie. Beethoven's Fifth thundered.
Dah dah dah dah. Dah dah dah dah.
The musician's representation of death in sound took over the world.
The situation was tense. The police exited and formed rows. Dressed in black, with crowd-control shields, they made a wall that could soon be marching toward them. Diana's hand went to her mouth. The idiot Australian looked happy. He raised his fist, and shouted, strangely, "Fucking fascists!"
Water trucks pulled in front of the police wall as well. Beethoven's Fifth vibrated existence, as if musical accompaniment to a massacre.
The world stopped. The crowd didn't move.
Then Beethoven dropped—someone had hit the off button. In the buzz of the silence that followed, the troops began re-entering the busses, more slowly, and the water trucks drove off.
"Power to the people!" the idiot Australian shouted.
The crowd cheered, a little, mumbled a little, like a hum, then turned dutifully in the direction of the speaker. Diana grabbed his hand, and looked up at him. "Good Lord!" she said. "I love you too." The sentence was spoken rapidly, dryly, then she released his hand, and turned toward the speaker. He smiled. And that was all. British love. The rest of their years together: Children. A satisfied old age. A moderate level. Continuous arguments and mystery. Overall fondness.
The main speaker, another Hong Kong Council member famous as a democracy advocate during the British years, and a foe of the foreigners as well as the PRC, spoke, and though he was unemotional, even careful, Mark thought he was the most specific.
"We will not lose our democratic rights because we will fight for them," he said, in a level voice. "The agreements are in place and we will insist that they be followed. Hong Kong is not Beijing. Now that the British are gone Hong Kong must be a free territory, with our own laws and our own values."
Maybe. Diana and Mark listened a bit more, as other speakers, far duller though louder, followed, then they ambled away. By then the HMS Britannia was churning Prince Charles away from Hong Kong and back to the Sceptred Isle on the other side of the planet. At 1:30 a.m. the new government would be sworn in at the Convention and Exhibition Center, with some foreign diplomats due to leave the meeting in protest, and at 2 a.m. the first meeting of the new Legislative Council was to start.
Thank goodness, the municipal escalator up the mountain to Mid-Levels, where Mark lived, was still on past midnight, special hours extra for the celebration. The covered up-tread glided the couple skyward, while the down-tread carried a line of Chinese earthward. One young man bowed at him, as if in forgiveness. Buildings that lined both sides were on the horizontal, so that Mark couldn't look at them without growing dizzy.
His one-bedroom apartment, hugging the side of the mountain, occupied half the 31st floor of a skinny 58 floor building, with a small balcony that should have had a magnificent view of the ships in Hong Kong harbor, but which was blocked by other high rise apartment buildings. Only a sliver between beige shafts showed the moving lights of the ferries and the vessels. They held each other in the heat of the balcony. Diana was short and chunky, and he tall and thin, but somehow they fit. Warm and solid against his body, she waited for him to pull her to him, to kiss her romantically.
Diana had a headache.
"Well I don't know about that music," she said. "It could have been really bad."
"And the police. Just a warning, I suppose. Feel free, but don't be free—maybe that's the new Hong Kong slogan."
They snuggled together in bed.
The alarm rang a few hours later, and it was still dark outside. Diana stirred.
"I'm going to watch the troops arrive," Mark said.
She said nothing, looked angry, then turned over. Two people among five billion then on Earth. That was all they were. He got up to witness something much larger, history.
Mark pulled on his pajamas, then lost the push to be relevant he had felt the night before. To see the Chinese troops actually enter Hong Kong, a symbolic contingent of 500 only, he would have to get dressed, drink coffee, walk to the escalator, ride down the escalator, then join new throngs of Chinese on the sidewalk along Connaught Road Central by the waterfront. Actually, he assured himself, he would have a better view on the television, rather than rows back at street level where he was liable to see only Chinese backs and waving arms.
His Cantonese being nothing, he did not understand what the announcer was saying in excited tones. His TV viewing of soap operas and children's cartoons was the same, all graphics. The camera shot of the boulevard was clear, however. At first the street was empty, rather than filled with cars and trucks as would be usual at dawn. Black hair indeed lined both sides. In time, his third cup of coffee, the PRC troops arrived. Their trucks made a parade two across, but faster than a Western parade. The uniformed soldiers stood in the back of the trucks in rows, rifles on their shoulders. In the close ups each held a serious expression. Truck after truck, in rows with stacks of stiff, khaki troops, like an army should be. When the politicians, all Chinese, began making speeches at a podium on the waterfront, he went back to bed.