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Nonfiction in Brief

HONG KONG by Jan Morris (Random House: $19.95)

January 15, 1989|ALEX RAKSIN

Now that the far corners of the globe have become accessible even to middle-class Americans, travel writing, once concerned with evoking the color, character and spirit of places few would ever see, has often come to do little more than list hotels and restaurants. Jan Morris is one travel writer, however, whose work maintains the vividness and evocativeness of the old tradition. In this ambitious, detailed portrait, she sees in the British territory, scheduled to be returned to China in 1997, "an astounding epilogue to the (British) Empire."

Morris is acutely sensitive to the poetry of place, and her particular strength here lies in capturing the city's aesthetic balances, its cultural yins and yangs. She visits "louche and lascivious" night spots, for instance, where neon ads cast streets "into a gaudy glow, like a nightmare disco," but notes that these are also "festive places (where) a general sense of having a good time is shared by all races, at all levels of wealth and poverty."

The city's most significant dualism, however, is between capitalism and communism. While Chinese industrialists fled into Hong Kong after the 1949 Communist Revolution, today something of the reverse is true. Morris reports that many Hong Kong industrialists are now returning to China at the invitation of the Communists, who have organized semi-capitalist "Special Economic Zones," such as Shenzhen. Shenzhen is "like an extension of Hong Kong," Morris writes, "very nearly a suburb, as though it is the colony that is taking over the republic, rather than the other way round."

This, of course, is the key question: Will the Communists grant Hong Kong some autonomy of its own in 1997? Morris hopes so, for she is saddened by the possibility that Hong Kong, which has just produced its first well-educated middle class, might be deadened of purpose and dissipated of identity when Britain leaves. Morris' regret stems partly from her idealization of the city; she largely glosses over the city's persistent problems, from police corruption to gang warfare, not mentioning, for instance, the serious problems caused by mass arrivals of boat people early last year. But Morris' regret also reveals her sincere devotion to the place, an intimate attachment that makes this book all the more compelling.

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