definitely an excitement in the air as the clock wound down on the colonial era, with the handover set for midnight on July 1st. Many of the newspapers ran countdown calendars on the front page, showing how many days were left as a colony, and inside the papers, the big banks had taken out full-page ads promoting their competing fireworks spectaculars. (Some people joked at the time about the irony of banks falling over each other to celebrate the city’s handover to a Communist government.) There were flyers posted all around town advertising raves and club parties and bar parties for the big event. And there were other, cheesier attempts to capitalize, with one group of guys meriting a story in the South China Morning Post for selling empty, sealed aluminum cans of “colonial air.” The goings on had attracted a swarm of visitors from around the region and the wider world, wanting to see a piece of history. There were also pro-democracy demonstrations being held around town, with the occasional political banners strung up along some of the busy intersections, or stickers with slogans slapped onto bus-stop benches. The food was good we ate some dim sum, but also admittedly a lot of baguette sandwiches at DeliFrance, an East Asian fast-food chain that serves French food, and we had some great paneer and curry at an Indian restaurant that was surprisingly clean and homey considering that it was located on an upper floor of the Chungking Mansions. We took the ferry over to the Hong Kong side each day to sightsee, taking the tram up to Victoria Peak and so on. We visited some friends living in a typically tiny one-bedroom flat some 30 stories off the ground. I also spent time in the downtown “Central” district getting a new Taiwan visa. Since China and Britain don’t recognize Taiwan as a separate country from China, the de-facto Taiwan consulate had to call itself "Chung Hwa Travel Service."
find a hostel over in Tsim Sha Tsui (pronounced something like "Jim Sa Joy"), the busy commercial area of Kowloon running along the harbor-front where the Star Ferry to Hong Kong Island docks. It was and still is a popular shopping area for locals, but it also had a mix of sketchy enterprises and hole-in-the-wall offices. Also, all the cheap travel hostels were there, and so as a tourist walking down the main street, Nathan Road, you would be constantly accosted by dudes from Bangladesh trying to sell you a three-piece suit, or older Chinese guys selling fake Rolexes and half-whispering "copy watch?" at you. (Tsim Sha Tsui was apparently the capital of the copy watch.) There was a popular Hong Kong movie that had come out the previous year called “Chungking Express” (重庆森林) which consisted of a pair of interconnected love stories involving philosophical policemen. The title took its name from the Chungking Mansions, a large, run-down, semi- notorious 17-story building in Tsim Sha Tsui which served as the site, in the movie at least, of an international heroin-smuggling operation. Actually, the real Chungking Mansions was a towering jumble of noodle-shops, money changers, Indian tailors, and some super-cheap guesthouses. The building smelled a little funky, and once inside the maze of passageways, it had a dirty and dank “Blade Runner” industrial look to it. Anyway, it all seemed very exotic to me, and so we found a hostel in the Chungking Mansions where they had windowless rooms large enough only for the bed that filled it, and leaving just enough space for the door to open and close. In fact it was a little gloomy, and after my friend was bitten by bedbugs the first night, she insisted we move to a different hostel in the almost identical Mirador Mansions building next door. The new place was much nicer, and had windows with a great view of some Tsim Sha Tsui sidestreets.
The End of British Hong Kong, 1997 
was still using Kaitak Airport, famous for the view during take- offs and landings. It was located right off the edge of the harbor in Kowloon, situated between the clusters of ultra-high-rise apartment buildings that Hong Kong is well known for.  When your plane landed, it would swoop in over the water and then over a runway cut between the housing complexes so that you could see into people’s living rooms as you landed.  (They have long since built a
giant international airport on an uninhabited stretch of outlying Lantau Island, though it requires a 25-minute train ride to get into the city.) I had been working at an English-language newspaper in Taipei for the past year, but I had really wanted to see Hong Kong and especially the handover from British to Chinese rule, which was being billed as East Asia’s super party of the decade. This was my first trip there, and so everything was new to me:  the bright red taxis and the double-decker buses, the closely-packed skyscrapers and 40-story-tall residential towers, the ferries and trams going everywhere, the tiny-smallness of the stores and apartments.
(I spent the last week of June 1997 in Hong Kong to see the handover of the territory from Britain to China.)
At that time, Hong Kong
One of the things I found interesting was that while Hong Kong had (and still has) its own currency, the government doesn’t print it — instead, the three biggest banks split the job, literally making their own money, with their own branding and logos on it. HSBC’s Hong Kong dollars all feature a lion, which is the bank’s symbol, while Bank of China’s dollars all have a picture of the iconic Bank of China building, and Standard Chartered goes a classier route by putting artsy drawings of different mythical Chinese animals on their banknotes. (Actually, the government does print the less-used HK$10 note, but really its main focus is minting the inventively shaped coins.)
There are two big, densely populated parts of Hong Kong. First, there’s Hong Kong Island — it has the financial center and is sort of like a large Manhattan, but with a gigantic mountain in the middle of it. They even build skyscrapers up the slope of the mountain, Mt. Victoria, at least part way, and in the steep Mid-Levels district they have the world’s largest outdoor escalator, so you can travel twelve blocks up the mountain without having to climb the inclined streets. Hong Kong Island has all the landmark buildings, the famous sites, and seemingly all the rich people. Across the busy harbor from Hong Kong Island is Kowloon, which is kind of like the “Brooklyn” of the territory. Back then at least, it seemed to be the slightly more gritty and downscale part, and its contingent of immigrants from India, Africa, and Southeast Asia gave the Kowloon side more of a major port city vibe, compared to the “world financial center” atmosphere over on the Hong Kong side.
I was traveling with a friend from Taipei, and we made our way to
The Union Jack flies over the British Garrison HQ which, a week after this photo was taken, became the Hong Kong headquarters of the People’s Liberation Army. The yellow banner on the buildng behind it says “Celebrate the Handover.” (Mouse over photos for detailed view)
These notices were posted all around town, warning the British they would now need residency cards.
The Hong Kong handover was merchandised in every way possible. This shirt was one popular option, and it was on sale years before the handover. (Britain first agreed to return Hong Kong in 1984.)
The view of a Kowloon street, as seen from the guesthouse room in Mirador Mansions.
A day or two before the handover, my friend came down with the
flu and was still feeling a little out of it by the night of June 30th, so instead of going to a rave on the Hong Kong side, we decided to stay in Kowloon and hit a bar instead. In the evening, we walked down Nathan Road to the harbor to watch one of the many bank- sponsored fireworks shows, and then ended up at a seriously touristy Australian pub called Ned Kelly's Last Stand, just a couple blocks from our guesthouse. It was crowded, and as far as I could tell all the customers were other tourists, but it was cozy enough. They had a nine- piece jazz band playing, all of them dressed in tuxedos and all looking like they were locals, except for the band leader who was an older Australian guy and presumably the bar’s owner. We had some beers, and then just before midnight the music stopped and they turned up the sound on the large projection TV so we could all watch the handover ceremony. As Prince Charles and President Jiang Zemin gave their respective speeches, the band leader burst in with occasional commentary: PRINCE CHARLES: Over the years, Hong Kong has developed its own vibrant economy. BAND LEADER: Copy watch? When the ceremony finally ended, the band leader announced that everyone was now in China. "Any British citizens here, I am required to ask you to proceed outside, where there is a truck waiting to take you away," he said. The musicians had somehow managed to change costume into old- style Chinese silk gowns and hats, and they started playing "Slow Boat to China." Back outside, the streets were packed, a festival of Chinese, British, Filipino and other assorted revelers, with maybe only half of them truly drunk. We wandered around for a while, watching tourists get their photos taken with policemen, or wasted young kids vomit on the sidewalk, and then eventually returned to the hostel. The next day was anti-climactic. It had begun raining, and while it was a public holiday, most people seemed to be staying inside and recuperating from the previous night’s party, or else just taking it as any other day off work. We made one last trip over to the Hong Kong side to eat some breakfast and then headed to the airport and back to Taipei.
Protesters, onlookers, and the media converge at a demonstration at the Star Ferry terminal in Tsim Sha Tsui. The banner on the left reads “Democracy Square.”
A double-decker city bus tries to make its way through a crowd of revelers on Nathan Road in Kowloon on the night of handover. You can see one of the infinity of news crews shooting off to the right.
All through the night, tourists got their photos taken with the police keeping order for the celebrations. Here, a young English guy photo-bombs someone’s keepsake picture by holding up a British flag behind the policemen’s backs. When this prompted passersby (myself included) to also take photos, the police realized something was up, and they noticed the guy seconds after this picture was taken. They were very upset.
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Above, the flags of the United Kingdom and the colony of Hong Kong flutter from a flagpole in Hong Kong’s Central District a few days before the end of British rule. Below, the Chinese flag hangs down on the same flagpole on the first day of Chinese rule, amid a sudden outburst of rain. The building with the round windows off to the right is called Jardine House, and it’s the headquarters of the massive global trading company Jardine Matheson. (“They’re the ones who brought opium to China,” a British woman once told me.) The round windows are supposed to look like portholes on a ship, but some Hong Kong people refer to the building in Cantonese as the House of Ten Thousand Assholes.
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