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HONG KONG: One Country, Two Systems, but Will It Be
Free? | PRESENT

'We All Mingle Between West and East'

Worlds and cultures collide to form the unexpected in Hong Kong. The mix sometimes yields confusion, but it also holds the secret to success.

June 15, 1997|MAGGIE FARLEY | Times Staff Writer

HONG KONG — As the sun rose over Hong Kong Park, a verdant oasis tucked amid this city's mirrored skyscrapers, tai chi master Ha Kwok-cheung fended off an invisible enemy. His stance melted from "Striking the Tiger" to "Hands of the Cloud," and the motions looked less like an exercise in self-defense than a ghostly dance.

The essence of this practice, he says, is to learn to absorb an adversary's energy and redirect it to your advantage. "It's about being hard while being soft, about finding a balance and creating energy from within," Ha said.

From this spot halfway up Victoria Peak, he has greeted thousands of sunrises and witnessed Hong Kong's alchemy. He has seen his city absorb waves of Chinese refugees and put their energies to work. He has watched the skyline soar as commerce here shifted from shipping to factories to skyscrapers. He has observed Communist Red Guards wave Mao's little red books and Hong Kong capitalists respond with quiet fists full of cash.

Like this tai chi master, Hong Kong itself--which relies on the energy of its people and its ability to shadowbox, adapt and deflect--has not just survived but thrived.

Indeed, on this morning, as the daylight illuminated Hong Kong's harbor, the screech of cockatoos in the park broke the low drone of traffic and blaring ship horns. The fishmongers had already sorted their morning catch, and futures traders had made or lost a million dollars. Old men strolled with their caged songbirds, sailor-suited children frolicked from their buses, and white-shirted clerks with beepers on their belts slurped their congee (rice gruel) before work.

This is the Hong Kong that China will take over July 1, a prodigal enclave awaiting a celebrated return. After the sun sets on this corner of the British Empire on June 30, it will rise again on Hong Kong, and like millions of others continuing their daily routines, Ha will be here. "Everything will change," he said, smiling. "And nothing will change."

Like nearly half of the 6.3 million people who live in Hong Kong, Ha is a refugee from China. He came along with about 1 million others in 1949, fleeing the Communist army. More people arrived after China's famines in the 1950s and the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution in the '60s.

Ha left his mother and sisters behind and with his father worked his way up from poverty as a kung fu master and herbalist. But then, he shrugged, everyone here has a tale to tell: Kung fu movie star Jackie Chan was nearly sold by his father; billionaire Li Ka-shing was an orphan who got his start selling plastic flowers; newspaper tycoon Jimmy Lai swam to Hong Kong from Guangdong province.

"Life used to be very difficult, so we worked hard and it got easier," Ha said. "But we still work hard."

Ha, 69, owns his own Chinese medicine shop, teaches kung fu and tai chi, and heads a school that teaches the traditional lion dance. His card says he belongs to 15 professional herbalist and sports organizations.

It is energy like Ha's that makes Hong Kong hum. It is palpable to visitors the moment they arrive: Locals hustle to the customs line at the airport as if they will be shut out of the city gates. Businesspeople punch elevator buttons as if that could save them a precious few seconds. Cellular telephones are ubiquitous here, allowing for deal-making on the run. The world's longest outdoor escalator whisks commuters up and down Hong Kong's steep-sloped peak; the only ones who stand still during its trips, though, are tourists.

This obstinate drive is what has made tiny Hong Kong a global trade center, a territory roughly half the size of Orange County that is the world's seventh-largest trading economy. The gross domestic product here--nearly $25,000 per capita--exceeds that of Britain and is 10 times higher than the most generous estimate of China's.

But for all its sparkling attributes, Hong Kong is for many a rootless place. It is a second home or a way station; 500,000 people here hold passports of other countries. Only now, as the moment nears when Hong Kong will return to the land that millions of its citizens once fled, are there as many people who were born on this soil as there are people who sought refuge on it.

"Hong Kong will be part of China, but we all mingle between the West and East," said Housing Authority Chairwoman Rosanna Wong, who was born here and educated, in part, overseas.

The combination can be seen in people's names: a Western-style first name (Rosanna) attached to the Chinese family name (Wong), then the Chinese name (Yick-ming).

Some monikers were bestowed by British teachers or English tutors; others are self-chosen, resulting in delicious juxtapositions like politician Mozart Hui, travel agent Shadow Mak, waitresses named Cinderella or Ice, or a college student named Hitler Yang who changed his name to Winston at the end of his history course on World War II.

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