Fred Schneiter, author of The Taste of Old Hong Kong, has many food-related tales to tell from his 30 years on the China coast…


One of the most momentous events in the history of Hong Kong occurred in 1984 when British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher called on Beijing to discuss the 1997 expiration of Britain’s 99-year lease on the New Territories, a buffer area which lay between China and Hong Kong.

Hong Kong business interests–largely the ones with ties to Britain–had actively encouraged the dialogue, hoping an extension of the lease could be negotiated. Without it, the little enclave’s boundaries would be pushed back, deep into the city, reducing British Hong Kong to little more than a hangnail on the long arm of China.

To the surprise of those who didn’t fully grasp how the Chinese had always felt about what they called “the three unequal treaties” on which British Hong Kong was based, Beijing cordially advised Mrs. Thatcher that China was taking back the New Territories.

The-taste-of-old-Hong-KongOh, and by the way, the rest of Hong Kong as well.

Faced with the geopolitical realities, Britannia waived the rules and went along with the Chinese position, in spite of the fact it ran contrary to the British view that Hong Kong had been granted to Britain “in perpetuity.”

The Queen’s best diplomatic and political minds and her capable cadre of Old China Hands had anguished and reflected long and hard for an answer as to how Britain might get a better deal. But it proved a Chinese question for which there was no British answer. Sometimes the dragon wins. And rather like Humpty Dumpty, all the queen’s horses and all the queen’s men couldn’t put British Hong Kong back together again.

Allowing even for the Chinese propensity for patience, many found it curious that the People’s Republic didnt simply send out engraved invitations announcing they would hold a reception in Hong Kong’s Peninsula Hotel at noon Tuesday to take back the whole of Hong Kong. Over a span of nearly 50 years, since the establishment of the People’s Republic, China had never recognized the old post-Opium Wars treaties anyway. To them, these Hong Kong treaties simply didn’t exist.

With the curtain slowly descending on British Hong Kong, despite the uncertainties and apprehensions in the years leading up to the 1997 deadline, resilient Hong Kong held its position as one of most dynamic and envied economies in the world. There were changes taking place, of course, and one of the most subtle was a quiet demographic one, with young scrubbed well-educated people, mainly in their twenties, moving in from America, the United Kingdom and elsewhere to fill a void created by the departure of young Hong Kong Chinese who had taken leave, to return later with a passport which afforded the family an emergency “parachute.” Hong Kong had traditionally been a senior posting for International Old Boys. Any Western young adults were almost sure to be kids home from college for the holidays. Now, young Westerners were coming on their own, in pursuit of Hong Kong’s golden dragon of opportunity.

A couple members of this new breed would typically start out sharing one of Hong Kong’s US$1,000-a-month, old, modest and cramped walk-up flats next to a noisy freeway on a little side street with a kitchen not much larger than a bathtub. Dinner typically was taken standing in front of a wheezy little old refrigerator, beneath a dim bulb which dangled from a cord from the ceiling. But they had caught the scent of the dragon and it was not unusual for those who held to it a few years–and caught its tail–to do very well indeed.