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Will It Be Empire or Emporia for the Crown Colony?

The city fueled by money can remain the model of the new global city or revert to being an imperial possession.

June 02, 1997|PICO IYER | Pico Iyer's most recent book of essays, "Tropical Classical" is just out from Knopf

As the slow, ceremonial supplanting of symbols continues--the queen's face now vanished from postage stamps, Scotland's Black Watch regiment giving way to People's Liberation Army officers, the fancy high-rise buildings atop Victoria Peak being taken over by high-level Communist Party members in late-model BMWs--it is tempting to see in the imminent handover of Hong Kong a transfer of power from one old, canny empire to another. The British who ruled the waves in the 19th century will be handing the jewel of crown colonies over to the Chinese, who seem poised to reassert their power in the 21st, and a century that began with the first great triumph by an Asian power over a Western one (when the Japanese defeated the Russians in 1905) will end with an even more thunderous victory.

Yet in some ways the change that is about to shake the fastest-rising city in history may not be about the changing of empires at all but, rather, about the very future of empires in an age of dawning internationalism. Britain, after all, as it gets swept into the European community, has seemed more and more a member of a newly international, non-insular order, thinking in meters instead of in feet, serving as a magnet for the Continent's young and finding its literary voice in such traditionally un-British names as Rushdie and Okri and Ishiguro and Mo. China, on the other hand, snarling at Taiwan, filling its reluctant colonies in Tibet and Turkestan with Han Chinese and opening its markets to the world while still holding tenaciously to Marxism, lives as if the age-old notion of a celestial empire never died.

The story of Hong Kong in the coming years will be that of empire coming face to face with an up-to-the-minute commitment to globalism.

In recent years, Hong Kong has come to seem more and more like a model of the multicultural, post-national city of the future, less a "little England in the eastern seas" (as the future King George V once called it) than a pulsing world trade center. Passports have long been irrelevant there and the lingua franca is the dollar. The British, for years, have been outnumbered by Americans.

The recent worldwide hit movie from Hong Kong, "Chungking Express," claimed much of its success by catching the state-of-the-art texture of a city where dialogue is conducted in Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, English and Urdu (the soundtrack mixes "Canto-pop," Indian songs and "California Dreaming"). Indeed, one reason Hong Hong's cinematic stars (sporting classic Hong Kong names like Wayne Wang, Maggie Cheung, Jackie Chan and John Woo) seem to be colonizing parts of Hollywood is that Hong Kong is the very model of a Hollywood-made new world.

As the University of Hong Kong lecturer Ackbar Abbas writes, Hong Kong, for several decades, has been more an "inter-national" place than an "international" one: not just a Platonic version of the global marketplace, but also a home for those who have no homes and have no need for old affiliations. When I was last in the Crown Colony a few months ago, I stayed in the grand old British area of Admiralty. But the mall around me mixed a Seibu department store from Japan with a Marks and Spencer shop from England in a sea of golden arches. Every Sunday, in the Central area, Statue Square was taken over by some of the 150,000 Filipinos who mostly work as domestics there. Kowloon still had its Vietnamese boat people, who at one point had streamed in at a rate of 600 a day. And in Kai Tak Airport, I was denied entry to the colony for an hour on the reasonable suspicion of being one of the 8,000 South Asian residents of the colony, who at that time found themselves literally stateless, not claimed by China or Britain or their original homelands of India and Pakistan.

Hong Kong, then, mongrel, mobile, apolitical and ruled by the bottom line (direct elections were not even known there till 1991), has been the ideal testing ground for a new kind of placeless place that is, in less dramatic ways, taking shape in Toronto, Sydney, London and L.A. It suggests that the next millennium be a time of multinational companies and "one world" spaces--malls and fast-food joints and convenience stores--and that the old values of blood and faith and tribal loyalty will be dissolved on the borderless screens of the World Wide Web.

Yet, as the world's great free port gets sucked into the world's largest control economy and a proud power that still believes in Motherland and monoculture (all of China still resides in the same time zone), Hong Kong runs the risk of being yanked back into a world-view now elsewhere all but obsolete. The central question facing Hong Kong--and the modern world--on July 1 will not just be how Li Peng replaces Queen Elizabeth, but, rather, how much empire will supplant emporia, and how much a place that has seemed a vision of the new, post-imperial society of the next century will start looking like an imperial possession of the last one.

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