Hong Kong has an amusing way of living up to its high-imperial past. The southern end of the island – that which sets its gaze upon the cargoship-studded expanses of the South China Sea – is still littered with country clubs and golf courses that cater exclusively to Elderly White Gentlemen. A closer look from the bus and you can make out a scattered, sunbaked gaggle of half-pint, rice-hat-donning dwarves laboring to the unrelenting rhythm of Privilege – or lack thereof. The grounds, it shall be said, are immaculate.
A little further down the beautifully verdant and winding mountain road, one descends upon an expanse of spotless beaches. On most days, one cannot eat, drink, smoke, play football or toss Frisbee anywhere in the sand – but today is the annual rugby brouhaha. Goons the expat-side-of-town-over descend upon the seaboard to celebrate their fortune in true, perspiring form. Sweat and sand and blood and beer – the plaster of imperial supremacy – mingle with a vengeance. Altogether, it’s rather good people watching.
Hong Kong functions incredibly well because it fosters a ruthlessly polite, upbeat and conformist temperament amongst the ‘educated’ sectors of its native population whilst encouraging (Westernized) foreigners to indulge their every whim. Gomorra? Not exactly – for halfies and whole alike are encouraged to take part. So long as you’ve an Anglophone accent or a vague desire to obtain one, you’re eligible. If Singapore’s the Silicon Valley of Medium Security Prisons, Hong Kong’s the American Dream on Parole. Gone are the native Days of Being Wild.
Which brings us back to our first question, namely, the role of imperial culture in contemporary Hong Kong. If the Americans now give us (cultural) order, the Brits first gave us (social) law. To understand our maiden, we must first engage her legacy. Our subject? The horse races.
A ten-minute walk from work, the races are the incarnation of every lowbrow colonial administrator’s mid-week wet dream: a mélange of bright lights, cheap beer, low-cut skirts and fat-bodied ties. Bankers, their ostensible replacements, also abide. Never have I seen as many tactically dressed and tastelessly attractive Caucasians in all my life. There to out-bet the alcoholic, newspaper-clutching coolies, crackers at the tracks are deep. Doesn’t matter if you’re Swede, Frankish or fraudster – so long as you’re there to drink beer, clutch little pieces of paper and hip-hurrah into the air, feigning ebullience as the midget-led stallions clamber by.
Not that people don’t win on the races – more often than not they seem to. With names like ‘Jubilee’s Golden Shower’, ‘Merchant of Penance’ and ‘Taming Amy’, choosing a winning horse has never been easier. That is, of course, if you’re jockey hasn’t already tipped you off – a not uncommon occurrence amongst ‘local’ – if not native – attendees with various ways and means. As an old friend once responded when I asked how he’d spent the Christmas holiday at the campus bar: we just sit around, trading money.
I can no longer recall my first visit to the races, though a pleasant memory it must have been. Five minutes past the shopping district, where I work, you reach the southeastern edge of the Hong Kong Jockey Club – the subject of a future post, should I become a more responsible correspondent in 2013. Veering left, you hug the outside wall of the tracks, a cobbled-stoned embankment mounted by ivy and swept with (Chinese?) weeping willows. As you gradually round the track from the exterior, you can hear the distant buzz of the crowd. It’s been dark for several hours, but the stadium lights lend the sidewalk an evanescent glow. To the left, high-rise apartments jut from verdant hills. Amongst them, a crumbling neo-classical Catholic girls’ school emerges from a sea of mangroves. As you pause to light your cigarette, a double-decker tram breezes by. Packed with mid-week revelers, you look up, grin and pretend to avoid their gaze.
You’ve rounded the tracks and finally face the plebian entrance (of the other we’ve no information). Next to the tram depot across the street, a string of quasi-trendy bars called Rive Gauche or Guten Loving spill forth with professional 30-somethings. It’s already 9:30pm, so the less ardent of spectators (family men, teetotalers) are already trickling out. That said, it’s also free to enter at this hour – so if you’ve brought your own liquid pacifier, the evening costs you naught.
Upon entry, you’re thrust into a honkey potpourri of epic proportions. For those of you living in the Occident, this mightn’t appear strange. I ask you, however, to consider me this. Imagine central or northern Harlem on a hot summer’s day. It’s Sunday and you’ve a French family wandering in search of the Singing Gospel. Around the corner, a young Scandinavian smokes outside his over-priced, roach-infested hostel, while a gaunt, washed-up Hackney writer sips a coffee outside the barbershop-turned-café. Apart from that, not a cracker in sight; after all, why should there be? Only teachers, gays and grad students would be silly enough to do so.
Then you round the corner. Rucker Park has been converted into a suburban block party, a meeting of the Milwaukee Rotary Association, the Portland Boy Scouts Alumni Reunion, the Goebbels-und-Greta Garbo Appreciation Club. There are picnic tables and red and white-checkered table mats in plastic; a strange Volvo-cum-Dodge-minivan hybrid is blasting Creed from the parking lot; a man in a salmon-colored blazer is handing out Grover Norquist stickers. Such is (almost) the shock of entering the Happy Valley racecourse on a Wednesday evening, wherein you’re face to face with Christmastime at the Minneapolis Shopping Center, a Cubs game in early July. Self-indulgent, mid-to-late-20s white professionals burp, bop, giggle and boop as far as the eye can see. Never have I seen so many salmon colored blazers in all my life.
One week they’ve erected a stage for Canto pop stars, a rare opportunity in which the doyens of local mass culture croon in English to the foreign element, their drowning ditties overcome only by the incessant banter of Being Young and Living in the Orient. In October, the German-themed lagers (but brewed in the Philippines) hire a gaggle of cutesy thin-legged locals to prance about in lederhosen, pointing potential patrons with a wink toward their respective tents. A faux Bavarian band plays Springsteen in the background.
Not that I’m complaining: I do no such thing. On one Wednesday in November I stumbled into an old friend from college, a native of Hong Kong, who invited me to join his crew of dapper Yanky, Swiss and South Asian dons. After several pitchers amongst a slew of 19-year old anorexic, 6’2, aspiring Russian models, we made for grassy knoll before the finish line, where the descendants of horse-owning, latter-day Mafiosi admire their winning mare across the line. Afterwards, we make for the underground lair where the city’s first and finest store their means of transportation. Our host’s friend has kindly offered us a ride back into town.
We pile into his two-door, supped up Mercedes ricer-coupe, a beautifully tacky but powerful piece of work. He’s slightly tipsy, but it’s only ten minutes into town. Twenty years younger than the rest of the parking lots patrons, we garner more than a few looks as he roars his engine à la unemployed Vin Diesel, blasting the Black Eyed Peas (or something of that nature) as we creep up the ramp at 5mph. A moment later we’re on the highway, darting through cabbies at 100mph. His female companion in the front – a tawdry but well-meaning American girl – takes pains to reassure him: “I mean, it’s like, everyone says don’t drink and drive but, like, you’re still alive! Oh my God this is so much fun!” I could have died a happy man. Well, bittersweetly bemused at the least.
If Wednesdays in Happy Valley offer a most fascinating insight into Westerners in Hong Kong Gone Imperially Wild, then Sunday afternoons in Sha Tin are a most telling alternative. Far north in the New Territories, some 5 miles south of the Chinese border and home to the sprawling, jungle-laced high-rise towers that house the city’s services-and-manufacturing proletariat, the Sha Tin races cater to the Common Man and his kin. Hosting 60,000+ people, Sha Tin is where you can still buy hard-boiled eggs and Horses-R-us hats at the entrance, the later of which was worn by fully 40% of the afternoon’s attendees, usually creased and tilted to the side.
An afternoon of Tsingtaos was happily interrupted by the sponsored appearance of Kate Winslet and Hong Kong’s ‘Chief Executive’, CY Leung, the city-state’s most powerful politician and a devout adherent to whatever pill Beijing is currently pushing. Following the celebrity appearances was a most spectacular fireworks show – but the best of the evening was yet to come.
We sauntered out of the darkened stands with a stream of gaming-weary drunkards, ourselves hardly an exception. The lines for the bus and train entirely too long, we resolved to hail a cab from the other, purportedly quiet, end of the stadium – so around the bend we’d go to seek our transportational fortune. Little did we know what lied ahead.
Around a corner or two emerged the course’s most illustrious exit, out of which flowed a most distinguished retinue of spring-colored, ten-gallon hat donning English matriarchs by the hundred. Ostensibly nestled atop the stadium’s box seats, they still had to momentarily emerge at street level to catch a ride back to the city. A site as aesthetically absurd as the Royal Wedding – but much more so given the nature of the venue, an outdoor gambling den with tens of thousands of delightfully plebian Chinese men sporting sideways baseball caps, the contrast was more than I could bear. Five hundred of the most pompously tacky creatures this town has ever known were boisterously spilling into the street, in diamond-studded heels, five-inch flowers and plastic terrier-bows atop their head. The most perplexing sight I’ve ever seen. All the same, we still needed a ride. And after all, we were still white.
Each 5-star hotel had hired a bus to take its respective patrons back to town – so nudge into the most inconspicuous line we did. Within moments, we were seated and surrounded by chattering, post-aristo Susies the entirety of the swashbuckling trip back to town. Through twisting, towering highways we blazed through endless neon lights, Mandarin billboards and daunting, darkened high-rises, the exploding skyline a reminder we were still on Mars. I pinched myself and hazily tried to read the LRB.
We arrived at the Park Hyatt a giggling troupe. Biting our respective tongues (we’d boarded the bus in shorts and flip-flops), we thanked the gracious driver and descended into the hotel lobby. In a different light, the younger matriarchs weren’t as charming as I’d originally thought; nay, the artificial luster now revealed the crease of time, the facial sorrows of social anxiety. Could it be? Were they not of royal stock? Were we not the only imposters that surreal Sunday evening in December?
What we witnessed that day were the remnants of bygone era, an age in which attitude, style and racial prerogative reigned supreme: the visceral gut of imperial order. Granted, we all love beer and horses, but some of us love them more. And in a completely different manner. Perhaps. But what if the opposite were true? What if our friends on the bus were not the August Inheritors of an Ancient Imperial Order, the incarnation of Her Majesty’s human scepter? Suppose they were the same hen-bound women smoking ciggs on that Easyjet flight to Lisbon? The more I pondered the matter, the less I could tell.
In the end, we went for Thai and a tallboy down the road in Wan Chai, the city’s charmingly grotesque red-light district (partially) awash in balding, blustering, bulging, horny middle-aged men from Aus and the British Isles. A hundred years ago they’d be sailing into port to burn down the Summer Palace and scheme on listless Chinese girls. Today, they pry on off-duty Filipino domestic workers and throw popcorn at the television screen. Outside of 711 strut the corpulent West African sidewalksters, perennial fixtures of the night. A gutted Belgian strolled by; he seemed to know them all by name.