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Traveling In Style : IRRATIONAL HONG KONG : Racetracks, Fortunetellers and Fantastic Festivals Are as Much a Part of This Seductive Metropolis as Business Deals and Shopping Malls

March 01, 1992|ROSS TERRILL | Terrill, a visitor to China and Hong Kong over nearly three decades, is the author of "Mao," "The Australians," "Madame Mao" and the forthcoming "China in Our Time," to be published by Simon & Schuster. and

The British colony of Hong Kong has the reputation of being rational and money-minded--a Manhattan sprouting from the South China Sea. In the choked streets of Victoria, the business district on the most populous of the colony's 236 islands, and in Kowloon, a shoppers' nirvana across the water, it is easy to feel that you're going to be late or are in someone's way. Parsimonious with time and space, people in Hong Kong phone from cellular devices at bus stops, cut business deals on 10-minute ferry rides and hammer and drill through the night to construct new family shops. One result of all this energy and determination is that Hong Kong, with only 5.8 million people, is the world's 11th-largest exporter of goods.

Hong Kong may also be the only large city in the world where locals with spare time mostly do what the tourists do--go shopping. Money seems to be not only the colony's raison d'etre, but also its religion and mistress as well. Nothing seems to matter here except the business of the moment.

Yet there is another side to Hong Kong. Surprisingly, there are moments when its people, 98% of whom are Chinese--mostly Cantonese--turn superstitious and unscientific, and when everything that seems "true" of Hong Kong ceases to be so. The fortunetellers in Kowloon are well patronized by successful businessmen. The Department of Transport holds monthly auctions at which supposedly lucky automobile license plates (8 and 3 are auspicious numbers for the Cantonese) are snapped up for hundreds of thousands of dollars. (The currency in Hong Kong is also the dollar, but for purposes of clarity, the previous figure and all dollar figures that follow are in U.S. dollars.) One evening in Hong Kong, I ran into a real estate agent friend who had just come from a meeting of the UCLA Alumni Assn. of Hong Kong, and the program of the evening, for a packed audience of youngish business people, had been a talk on feng shui ("wind and water"), the ancient art of geomancy. By this supernatural yardstick, people choose the "propitious" location for a house or the "safe and lucky" date for a wedding.

Any visitor who wishes to know the real Hong Kong should experience its spiritual as well as its commercial side. The many traditional festivals celebrated here are one example of this aspect of the place. But so, surprisingly, is the local love for horse racing. One afternoon not long ago, I joined 30,000 race-goers for the Champions and Chater Cup at the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club in Shatin, the semirural New Territories section of the colony. The stands and boxes here swarm with the business and political elite of the colony, yet also with blue-collar workers and taxi drivers and shopkeepers--a classless fellowship held together by the mysterious lure of betting. (Jockey Club proceedings are easily accessible to the English-speaking outsider, since all official business is conducted in that language, and racetrack rules are similar to those in England and America; see Guidebook, page 55, for details).

Before 1 p.m. on this occasion, about $2.4 million had already been bet on the day's events--and on the day's last race alone, about $18 million would be wagered. I met Judge Raymond Sears of the Hong Kong High Court, a Shatin regular, in the Hong Kong Club Box, where he told me, over drinks, that "more money is bet on one race here than in a week's racing in Britain." In the 1990-91 racing season (which runs from September to May), total bets placed at the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club totaled more than $6 billion. About $77 million of that amount went to charities, including the Street Sleepers Shelter Society and the Yan Oi Tong Woo Chung Multiservice Center for the Elderly.

From the Hong Kong Club Box, I wandered to the public stand at ground level. Between the second and third races, old Chinese ladies in blue jackets and straw hats were shuffling along the track, smoothing out hoof marks with wooden blocks fixed to the end of orange poles. Here I found Peter Singh, originally from Sri Lanka, a former jeweler who had lost money in the stock-market crash of 1987, had heart problems and now owns a pest-control company. Singh mused on the Cantonese love for gambling. "The amazing thing about the Chinese is that people both make much money and gamble," he said. "They'll bet thousands and thousands, lose, and still be very happy. It can't be just the money."

At the far side of the track stands what is claimed to be the biggest TV screen in the world, on which races are displayed; between races, there is satellite transmission of track action from England or Australia. "We are too busy to go to the Melbourne Cup and the other big races abroad," one racing official told me, "because we are feverishly organizing the TV hookup and betting on them right here."

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