(Author’s Note: This weekend marks the 15th anniversary of Hong Kong’s Handover from Britain to China. We lived here at the time. I wrote this story then and have never had it published. I hope you enjoy.)
Suzanne looked across a sea of colored umbrellas, looking eagerly for a familiar face. People jammed to either side of her, craning for a better view of the street below. Heavy rain pelted from above, bouncing off low-held umbrellas to soak Suzanne’s skin. Nowhere was her friend to be found, and the Governor’s car was due to leave the compound any minute.
Already bugles played accompaniment to the lowering of the Hong Kong flag. The crowds, gathering since early morning, strained for the best view of a now-empty road. People wanted to see the Governor leave his residence for the last time.
A rivulet of rain worked down Suzanne’s back, soaking through her black linen dress and bringing a thin film of dye down the back of each calf. Standing in the crowd, Suzanne wondered why she’d bothered to attend this small ceremony. CNN was easier to access -and provided a better view, she thought – yet since she was in Hong Kong and this was the last day of British rule, she might as well see the pomp.
A solo bugle ended its mournful taps and the flag disappeared, no longer visible from outside the Governor’s mansion. A Chinese family next to her pushed a little closer and conversed in Cantonese. Everyone seemed anxious, no one knew what to expect and they all shoved to be the first to see it. Suzanne was pushed closer to the edge.
She’d staked out her position on a promenade of the Botanical Garden some two hours earlier, braving typhoon rain and growing crowds to defend her piece of sidewalk. The four square tiles between the planter and the railing were hers and lest anyone forget it she was not past pushing to maintain her territory. Since the family arrived she was down to two tiles.
Hong Kong was special to her, following years of living there as a wealthy expatriate. She looked down Upper Albert Drive and remembered its every curve from the rides to the shops in the back of a chauffeur driven Mercedes. A simple ride to the store could be a stomach-churning event on the narrow labyrinth of streets. As a banker’s wife, Suzanne had belonged to an elite crowd of moneyed
women with time on their hands and little to do but lunch and shop. The locals called her a Tai-Tai which was Cantonese for wife but was meant in a more derisive way. The two syllables were spat as much as said. There were days on end spent sleeping
the morning away, lunching with the girls, shopping in the afternoon then a quick trip home to see the children off to bed, tucked in by her Filipino servant. Julien rarely came home from work before ten o ‘ clock. Suzanne would drink.
The buzz of the crowd brought her back to reality. There was movement in the compound. She could just glimpse what must be the Governor walking down a line of servants, wishing each one farewell. Even in the rain he refused the offer of an umbrella as he shook hands. Anticipation worked waves through the canopy of umbrellas, as each was raised or twisted to afford a better view.
She had meant to meet her friends here and arrived later than planned at the meeting spot. They were probably out there enjoying themselves in a small knot of camaraderie leaving her to joust umbrella points with the latecomers. She honed in on each Western face trying to locate these people. Anything was better than this. Being alone heightened her senses, slicing her with anxiety.
If the Handover had been a few years earlier, Suzanne was certain it wouldn’t have been seen from some wet, crowded footpath. Invitation cards came from all the right addresses. Good floated to the top. Bad were rejected. Exceptional – like dinner at the Mandarin with Margaret Thatcher’s aide de camp – were coveted. The night was thrown back at her friends in loving detail at a barely-eaten sumptuous lunch. What happened in the night didn’t matter -small talk was an art form in Hong Kong. What counted was being there.
In 1984 the city was convinced the Handover would mean the end of civilization as they knew it. The Joint Declaration signed that year promised autonomy for 50 years, but few trusted China. The exodus of expatriates and wealthy locals started then and would end tonight. After midnight, the last colonial soldier would leave. They’d even showed the man’s photo in the newspaper. Last British infantryman to board the last plane out. Odd, thought Suzanne. Two empires crumble at once. One British. One hers.
Coming back this first time was hard. She was surprised to realize it was only three years since she’d left. That was a shock. Their luxurious apartment building – new when they’d arrived -had been torn down to make way for another marble- coated Peak residence. So many of life’s luxuries abandoned. Now she was on a trip she could barely afford. Oh how the mighty. ..she thought of herself.
She turned around to look up the hill at the hundreds of people behind her . Still no one she recognized. Was it her imagination, or were more of the faces Chinese? Where were the expats?
Everyone stared at the gates, willing the Governor’s car to come out. The rain came down harder, obscuring the view. It was impossible to stay dry yet no one dared leave this close to culmination.
It had rained for a week before Suzanne arrived and still showed no signs of abating. Every day the sun barely dented the inky sky. It was twilight all day. The air conditioners, dehumidifiers and even heaters in the closets couldn’t hold back the mold. Most of her stay she’d spent sitting in a robe in her friend’s apartment smoking Marlboro Lights and waiting until noon to start on the red wine. Today she almost made it and by the time she left for the Governor’s mansion had already finished a bottle of something Australian.
Last night she’d been to dinner with Christine. One of the Tai-Tai gang. Most of the others had disappeared back to England or America. Suzanne’s friend and her husband were still ensconced in their Peak apartment and Christine still shuttled from bed to lunch to shops to bed in a Mercedes cocoon.
Suzanne still couldn’t get over the disappointment of the night. Conversation never lifted above simple decorating tactics and who was sleeping with whose husband. Was she ever that shallow? She tried to recall details of the late night blow- up, remembering only spilling her wine and calling Christine a selfish fucking self- centered bitch. Or something like that. She could cross that friendship off the list, that much was sure.
When she got back to the apartment she was staying at she’d finished another bottle of red on her own and slept until noon to celebrate. Or mourn. She seemed to be running through a number of friends as of late, leaving them gutted in her wake. Fuck ’em, she figured, She was probably better off alone.
These people she was staying with were prime examples. It had been a long time since she’d been to see them and soon after landing in Hong Kong she launched into a discourse about their inability to keep in touch with her. Didn’t they realize how much she had been through? She remembered most of that conversation – not all – and figured it couldn’t have ended well. They’d been avoiding her since. While she was glad to get it out of her system – unburden -the victory was hollow. One less friendship. Pare it down, she figured. Eliminate the unnecessary.
Suzanne shivered. Nearly 95 degrees and she was cold. Soaked to the skin. Water filled her now-ruined leather pumps. Her purse-sized umbrella managed to keep her head dry but that was all.
Standing alone didn’t bother her that much, she thought. Better to be alone than with false friends and phony people. No one understood the real her, she lamented. Everyone was self -absorbed and no one gave her the attention she deserved.
Julien’ s departure had been the first of the dominoes. Twelve years earlier they’d been married on a beach in The Seychelles. She wore pedal-pushers and a halter top, sun-yellow flowers twined in her hair. He was top to toe in white linen and the priest was in sandals. Witnesses were local hotel guests -Roberta and what was his name? That man from Switzerland. The impromptu approach to the wedding so bothered her mother that she had to hold a reception in Illinois the next time they were in the States. Pigs-in-blankets at the Elks Lodge were a sharp contrast to the seafood dinner at the pier on her wedding night. And then he’d left her.
She still couldn’t believe she hadn’t seen it coming. By then they were posted to Sydney. Yet he kept up the long hours at work. Not at all Australian she thought at the time. Without a full time maid she was reduced to shuttling the kids between school and soccer practice. Shopping for groceries not Gucci. Back to making the meals every night, leaving his to grow cold in the oven.
Ten days before last Christmas he didn’t come back from work at all. Called to say he wouldn’t be home. Something in the tone of his voice told her he wouldn’t be back at all. When she persisted, he broke into tears and confessed, ending that night sleeping at his girlfriend’s house. She saw in Christmas alone with the kids. He came by before New Year’s to clear out his clothes.
With him went the money and the lifestyle. Normally she’d be chasing the sun -back in the States with the children all summer. Now she was working as a fitness instructor to make food money between child support payments. The fine wardrobe would have to last for awhile as her budget could stretch to Hanes but never to Halston. And that was when Julien sent money on time, or didn’t try to reduce the payments with delaying tactics at Family Services. Her visit to them ensured she got some form of child support. Other than that she was on her own, thank you very much. So Hanes and Keds it was. With a scarf and the right make-up even that could look glamorous.
Suzanne rechecked her make-up with a travel mirror and primped her hair with wet fingers. It had to be approaching the end she thought. There was only so long the Governor could say goodbye to servants.
Where would he go? Media reports said a month in Provence was first on the cards, after a debriefing at Whitehall in London. He was to leave the house and head straight to Tamar for a farewell to troops. At midnight he’d be seeing the Union Jack lowered for the last time before boarding Britannia for a sail out of Victoria Harbour . His future seemed slightly clearer than hers, Suzanne mused.
People on the footpath below her let out a cheer. Suzanne dropped her mirror in the commotion and was rattled to hear it crack as it bounced off the rail and shattered into slivers on the ground below. Her superstitious hairs stood on end as she saw a dozen different reflections in the pieces splattered with rain at her feet. The motorcade pulled out of the gates ahead.
A cheer traveled down the crowd as the procession of cars drove onto the road. A lone police motorcycle and two black jeeps proceeded the Governor’s Bentley. A gloved hand waved from the back and a flash of silver hair sped by. The crowd waved and cheered and in a minute it was done. The Governor was gone.
Suzanne looked back to the wet, ground-up mirror and saw fragments of sky, herself, Chinese faces, umbrellas. Pieces of a collage colored by gray and rain. The Chinese family retreated. She stood looking at the empty mansion. An hour later she was till there, transfixed and alone. Wondering what would they do with the house. Who was going to live there now? Tears streamed with the rain down her face.
* * *
Red-yellow-green fireworks had been filling the sky for ten minutes already. Chrysanthemum followed chrysanthemum followed by volleys of rockets. From the rooftop apartment overlooking Causeway Bay, Suzanne and everyone at the party had a perfect view of the Handover celebration. In two hours it would be midnight. Goodbye Britain, hello China was Suzanne’s clarion call of the night.
Given the apartment’s location overlooking the Harbor, it was natural for the owner to host a celebration. “Farewell My Colony” was the theme. Many of the guests were in Shanghai Tang attire -the newest in retro-Chinese clothing. It was an occasion where people weren’t sure whether to mourn or celebrate. Drinking masked their indecision.
China’s President Jiang Zemin had touched down at Kai Tak Airport two hours earlier and was ensconced with the British in the Convention Center awaiting midnight. The world’s largest Chinese take-away was on someone’s T -shirt. Handover or takeover, it really didn’t seem to matter. Out with the old, Suzanne thought. In with the new.
A radio blared classical music in synch with the fireworks, courtesy of RTHK. By the time the sky show had started the apartment was full -mainly with co-workers of the people she was staying with. With enough wine under her belt Suzanne could small talk anyone and this crowd was no major challenge. Sydney in winter, blah blah blah. Hong Kong in my days, blah blah blah. That and conspiratorial nods as if she was listening when they spoke and you had quite a nice evening indeed.
The fireworks reached crescendo as the doorbell rang and a young couple walked in. Suzanne froze, captured by the scene. He carried himself as if nobility. The girl looked freer, very relaxed in a Chum Sam dress and an onyx necklace ringing her throat in black. Suzanne was watching a walking photograph. It was a young duplicate of Julien with a Chinese woman on his arm. The ghost of Christmas past.
It wasn’t until she saw the crowd staring at her that Suzanne realized she was crying out. “Oh God no!” she whimpered and tripped on the edge of an oriental carpet as she raced from the sight. The balcony was deserted and wet. The rain refused to stop. Suzanne raced to the edge and heaved over the side, throwing up rivulets of wine colored phlegm. “No,” she sobbed. “Not him. Not now.”
Suzanne had seen Julien as an escape from small town Illinois. His career and British school upbringing elevated her to the heights of society. Now that was gone. Suzanne had no one to take care of her. She no longer mattered to anyone.
The classical music stopped from inside and an announcer broke in with crisp British tones. “We interrupt this broadcast to bring you a live report from Shenzen, on the border of China. Advance troops of the People’s Liberation Army are now entering Hong Kong. The first truckloads of soldiers drove onto Hong Kong soil just minutes ago, greeted by crowds of cheering local residents. Two hours before midnight, the troops are being deployed to take over control as the British command departs. Twelve truckloads of soldiers are now in Hong Kong and more are expected later tonight. This is Peter Kelly with RTHK continuing with live coverage from the border of China.”
Orange rocket volleys and silver chrysanthemums continued to explode impervious to political developments. Classical music resumed and the crowd started a nervous chatter. Suzanne lifted her reddened eyes to the horizon, seeing behind gray smoke the muted colors of fireworks over the harbor of Hong Kong.