IMPERIAL LATHER

A good deal of what has constituted headline news over the past few days has been covered here before, and even if a story develops and takes on a different shape, a commentator can struggle to add something new to what has already been said. The nature of the Winegum – preferring to put most of what needs to be said on a subject into one post or perhaps a handful spread over several weeks – means there has to be a dramatic development in order for a fresh perspective. I suppose I could’ve written something about Prince Andrew; but I did that back in August.

Granted, HRH’s unprecedented act of television hara-kiri on Saturday night perhaps warranted a post; but social media spent most of the weekend doing what social media does best when it responds to a story by putting its most waspish hat on. I didn’t feel it was possible to top the endless spoof reviews of the Woking branch of Pizza Express. There were references to a surprising absence of sweat when enjoying an especially spicy pizza, a pizza that made such a deep impression it remained engrained on the memory whilst all around it utterly vanished, including meeting pretty young girls and having one’s photo taken with them. And at least we all now know what to do when ending a friendship – simply ceasing contact and ignoring their calls is not the way to do it; instead, you spend four days as their house-guest. Oh, and if you happen to be one of the world’s most recognisable public figures, with guaranteed Paparazzi snappers on your tail, you go for a stroll in Central Park. Stupid or arrogant? From everything I can gather it seems Prince Andrew is an unappealing blend of both.

Whether or not he enjoyed an intimate moment with a 17-year-old girl – an ‘action’ (as he would put it) that even US law (unlike the media) recognises as the action of a pederast rather than a paedophile – Andrew came across as a little boy who had done something naughty and would not take the George Washington route by owning up to it, instead digging himself a hole that grew deeper with each denial. Unlike Diana’s self-pitying confessional back in the 90s, Andrew didn’t come across as someone wanting the world to feel sorry for him – more someone who imagined the audience to be even stupider than him by believing him; and there’s nothing quite so funny as someone who thinks he’s smart and blatantly isn’t.

Just over 20 years ago, not long after Andrew’s equally nauseating ex had been exposed as a toe-sucker, brother Brian was present during the gift-wrapping of Britain’s final Far East imperial possession for its nearest neighbour. Despite Prince Charles’ scathing observations on 1997 events in Hong Kong, the transition itself was a smooth one; arranged well in advance, it had none of the spontaneous drama that had redrawn the map of Europe eight years earlier. Yes, there were bloody moments in Romania, though the brutal reprisals were mercifully brief; in East Germany, the armed enforcers of the system stood by and let it happen because they knew they were beaten. Just a few months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, however, there had been a reminder that people power can be ruthlessly crushed on the very streets it sprang from – a watershed that exacerbated nerves over the prospect of Hong Kong being absorbed into Mother China’s suffocating bosom.

A memorable episode of ‘The Simpsons’ in which the family accompany Marge’s ugly sisters to Beijing in order to adopt a baby sees Homer wander into Tiananmen Square and come across a plaque that reads ‘In 1989, nothing happened here’. That was probably not far from the official Chinese line for a long time, but the shadow of the student revolution that never was has no doubt lingered at the back of revolutionary Hong Kong minds ever since. Hong Kong youth born after the Handover, let alone the Tiananmen Square Massacre, know the potential risks involved in standing up to China, yet it would appear that many of them spearheading the current insurrection in Hong Kong now feel they have nothing to lose. There certainly appears to be a strain of nihilism governing the actions of some, and it’s difficult to see their brave stance ending in anything other than tears.

After months of disruptive protests, the siege of the Polytechnic University in Kowloon has taken events onto a scary new level. Watching scenes shot behind the campus barricades on TV, I was reminded not only of the improvised rebellion that marked the outbreak of the Northern Ireland Troubles fifty years ago – echoes of the DIY petrol bombs hurled from rooftops at the RUC; but the use of catapults recalled medieval sieges. So bizarre was the sight, I half-expected the protestors to launch a dead cow at the Hong Kong police from the battlements in the manner of ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’. It was both darkly comic and disturbingly frightening, for you can foresee the awful outcome – and I suspect the 100 or so still rumoured to be holding out can too. It’s all so horribly inevitable.

Many have attempted to escape the fortress since the siege began on Sunday, but few have managed it; the police have completely encircled the campus and claim that over 600 of the protestors have surrendered. This was after police retaliated to the catapults and petrol bombs with tear gas. Around 20 years ago, I remember a resident of the shared house I lived in charging indoors in the middle of the night having evaded arrest (for what, I cannot recall); unfortunately for him, before he slipped their grip the boys-in-blue had sprayed some mace-like substance to disable him. He’d still managed to get away, but his face was on fire; as I watched him furiously splashing water on his pained countenance, I moved a little too close and was smacked in the kisser by a stinging force-field that caused me to immediately pull back. If that’s just a miniscule taste of what tear gas can do, its employment in Hong Kong shouldn’t be seen as the police treating the protestors lightly.

Of course, the constant fear throughout all of this has been the anticipation of reprisals from mainland China, though so far China – probably mindful of international opinion – has shown remarkable restraint, leaving the Hong Kong police to handle things. It’s possible the ending of the siege at the Polytechnic University could be the beginning of the end of this current wave of protests, though if it isn’t one wonders how much longer China will allow the situation to go on. And when one looks at the Kowloon campus and the fate awaiting those still there, it does tend to put the pathetic, privileged complaints of western students into perspective; this is real life or death stuff, not quibbling over the offensiveness of bloody pronouns.

Probably having one eye on post-Brexit trade deals, the response from the British Government over the chaos in the old colony has been somewhat muted; however, despite our intentions to uphold the ‘one country, two systems’ promise of the Sino-British Joint Declaration we were party to, there’s very little Britain can do. Besides, there are other political distractions over here at the moment. We have the first televised head-to-head of the General Election to look forward to on ITV this evening, restricted to a strict Boris Vs Jezza clash, with the High Court having rather amusingly denied Swinson and Sturgeon the chance to add some anti-democratic Scottish spice to proceedings. So, once again, it’s dumb and dumber. And if that prospect is as depressing to you as everything else hogging the headlines, let’s lighten the mood with two pictures of a kitten that sleeps like a human. Spread the love…

 

 

 

 

 

 

© The Editor

THE CHINESE WAY

Long after most gave up the ghost, my VCR finally collected its retirement clock a year or so ago. It probably won’t be replaced, yet I still have hundreds of tapes crammed with off-air recordings, many of which will never see the light of day as commercial releases. Probably due to this fact, I held onto most of them when the pre-recorded VHS movies were bagged and binned – ones I could always purchase again on DVD if need be. The majority of these tapes contain content reflecting my eclectic viewing habits at the time they were recorded; reluctant to waste tape, it’s a dead cert any videocassette from the early 90s, for example, will see its last ten or twelve minutes used-up with a TOTP performance, a promo video from ‘The Chart Show’, and a few clips from ‘Prisoner: Cell Block H’.

One tape from 1997 I recall has a characteristically idiosyncratic mix – featuring Radiohead’s iconic ‘OK Computer’ Glastonbury set as broadcast on BBC2, the erotically-charged neo-Noir movie ‘The Last Seduction’, and highlights of the Hong Kong Handover Ceremony of June 30/July 1 that year. It’s only through writing this that I’ve looked-up the dates and rearranged my somewhat sketchy memory of summer ’97 – one in which several substances were consumed and have therefore buggered-up my memory’s timeline in the process. I’d thought the Handover Ceremony was closer to something else that happened that summer, something that happened on August 31.

Yes, of course, that summer crashed to its climax with the death of Diana and the month of mourning that plunged the nation into paroxysms of public grief on a scale I was able to view with detachment only because I had always been ambivalent about ‘The People’s Princess’. Was I alone in finding the final act of the British Empire more moving than the floral display outside Kensington Palace? It certainly felt like it at the time. Odd snippets come back to me now, like wondering how old ‘fatty’ Chris Patten could have sired two such gorgeous daughters; they were seen on the day China took back control due to the former Tory MP being the last colony’s last governor, the consolation prize awarded to him by John Major upon losing his seat at the 1992 General Election. I know it sounds positively 19th century – a man from Westminster dispatched to govern an imperial possession; yet, it was less than 30 years ago.

As a child, I became aware this country had numerous cultural and sentimental tentacles stretching across the globe and that we retained little pockets of British soil a long way from home. There was Gibraltar, and there still is Gibraltar; but there was also Hong Kong, which was the one remaining genuinely exotic leftover from Empire – one of the spoils of the Opium Wars that went on to become the Far East’s premier economic powerhouse. I remember that early 70s ‘mum hunk’, the suave Gerald Harper visiting Hong Kong in a couple of episodes of ‘Hadleigh’; there was also a BBC documentary series called ‘Hong Kong Beat’, focusing on the Royal Hong Kong Police Force, with its catchy theme tune even making the charts; and, lest we forget, Bruce Lee made most of his movies there, movies that went on to become staple diets of video rental shops. Yet, as we moved into the 1980s, anything to do with Hong Kong started to centre around Britain’s 99-year lease, as if the island was a holiday home owned by the UK that would be inherited by Hong Kong’s nearest neighbour once its owner died. Actually, maybe that’s how it really was.

For decades, Hong Kong had provided refuge for political dissidents fleeing China, and the prospect of the colony falling under Chinese jurisdiction was understandably worrying for them; their concerns naturally intensified following the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. Even though the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984 laid out the ‘one country, two systems’ concept to allay fears Hong Kong would end up as a suburb of mainland China and be subject to the same repressive rules and regulations governing the People’s Republic, it was accompanied by gradual goalpost-moving on the part of the British Government to deliberately limit the potential numbers of Hong Kong natives claiming British citizenship and the right to settle in the mother country. After Tiananmen Square, with the Handover only eight years away, an estimated 10,000 rushed to apply for residency in the UK. Singapore, Canada, Australia and the US proved to be popular alternative destinations, and during its last decade as a Crown Colony, Hong Kong lost almost a million of its citizens who chose to emigrate rather than remain.

Tony Blair had been PM less than two months when he joined his Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, Governor Patten and Prince Charles on the podium to officially cede ownership of the island to China. Brian’s unflattering account of the occasion surfaced in the Mail on Sunday a few years later, wherein he compared the Handover Ceremony to a cynically choreographed Soviet-style performance and referred to the event as ‘The Great Chinese Takeaway’; the Prince of Wales was of course representing Brenda, as he had 17 years earlier when the Union Jack was lowered in Rhodesia. With Africa long gone by 1997, it was time for the Far East to finally follow suit, and I have to say my memory of watching the Ceremony live on TV isn’t one that evokes the heir’s cynicism. I was conscious this was something of genuine historical significance, like Churchill’s funeral – the belated end of one kind of Britain and (with Blair fittingly present) the beginning of another.

For the people of Hong Kong, there was no sailing off into the sunset on the Royal Yacht Britannia, however; they were left to deal with the realities of the new regime. Their predicament couldn’t be compared to the difficulties facing the UK’s other ex-colonies following the cutting of imperial apron springs, i.e. being at the mercy of hard-line religious despots or military coups; Hong Kong had not achieved independence, but had merely changed hands. Having a totalitarian super-state on the doorstep is no more a pacifier of anxiety for Hong Kong’s citizens than it is for those residing in the former Soviet satellites; the perennial fear that Beijing will slowly implement its own authoritarian agenda on the island by stealth is something that has continued to creep up on the people; and cracking down on public demonstrations of dissatisfaction such as the ‘umbrella protests’ of five years ago with tough sentencing appeared to suggest their fears were well-founded.

Attempts to introduce a new extradition law, whereby anyone from Hong Kong who invokes the ire of Beijing can be removed to mainland China for trial, has now provoked a fresh outburst of protest. This time, however, it hasn’t emanated wholly from the Hong Kong youth born after the Handover, whose view of themselves as international citizens has supplanted the traditional affinity with Britain of previous generations; it has spawned an unlikely alliance of different demographics ordinarily divided by faith, politics and age – united in their opposition at Beijing reneging on aspects of the Sino-British Joint Declaration; this week it has crossed the line from peaceful protest to civil disorder. The island’s former colonial overlord, however, can do nothing but issue meek condemnations of China’s actions; we absolved ourselves of all responsibility in 1997 – and, besides, China today equates with trade and money. We wouldn’t want to upset our friends in Beijing – making one wonder if it was just Hong Kong that was handed over 22 years ago.

© The Editor