How Britannia became cool in HK

Hongkongers are standing up to their new bosses in Beijing by embracing the fashions of their old colonial masters.

There is something about the branch of Boujis in Hong Kong that tugs at ex-pat sleeves – even sleeves like my own. As a point of reference, the other Boujis - in London’s wealthy Kensington district - is the private members’ club of choice for young royals and their chums. I would be as out of place there as, for example, Eric Joyce, the Scottish MP who keeps getting nicked for fighting with toffs. But in Hong Kong, things are a little different.

It’s not so much the overt Britishness of Boujis in HK, which opened at the tail end of last year: half the bars, pubs and clubs in Hong Kong go in for that. Rather, it’s the little touches of Cool Britannia: ‘cool’ as in ‘fashionable’ and hence the same thing as ‘hot’, of course; but also in the sense of not shouting about it all from the rooftops. Back home, you might well be sick to death of vibrant post-Jubilee, post-Olympics Blighty, but when you’ve been away for two years, bright turquoise velvet upholstering and cocktails with stupid names like The Faboujis Egg speak endearingly to an inner British daftness.

Its appeal to ex-pats is not the whole story with Boujis Hong Kong, though. Matt Hermer, the Welshman who started Boujis in London and now manages a host of high-end hotels, bars and restaurants around the world, tells me that local ‘Canto’ celebs and socialites were lining up to enquire about joining way before the club opened. Yes, the financial-services sector is well represented, but Hermer wanted local ‘elites’ coming through the door as well as the ex-pats, and he got them. ‘Without a doubt, the Britishness appeals, and the brand, and the knowledge of our royal associations in England’, he says.

The fact that British branding retains enormous cachet in Hong Kong a generation on from the 1997 handover of sovereignty to China is obvious to anyone who walks the city’s streets. For a start, there is no more ubiquitous emblem on bags and clothing than the Union Flag. And London property developers have latched on, too. Jones Lang LaSalle recently hosted an event here called ‘Legends of Battersea Power Station: A British Bonanza.’ Showcasing the new Circus West development on the Thames, it ‘recreated’ London with red phone booths and street signs pointing to Big Ben and Buckingham Palace. A band performed songs by The Beatles and Pink Floyd and guests played bingo and drank Scotch.

All of which tells us at least one thing we already know: that there are some jolly clever marketing professionals out there doing Britain’s bidding. But the affection for British culture and British institutions runs deeper. As John Simpson wrote in the Spectator last year, even elder statesmen at the heart of Hong Kong’s ‘pro-establishment’ (that is, supporters of the current ‘one country, two systems’ settlement with Beijing) government and civil service still feel emotionally bonded to the old colonial regime.

Many Hongkongers, especially the wealthy, take comfort, meanwhile, in cocking a snook at mainland China’s nouveau riche. Of course, the latter are now looking to prove their worldliness, too, and who better to emulate than the English nobility? At one newly opened finishing school in Beijing, society daughters are being taught to behave more like the Duchess of Cambridge and are promised talks from visiting aristocrats. But for growing numbers – particularly of young Hongkongers, it seems – opposition to a non-democratically elected executive, which owes its legitimacy to the central government in Beijing and therefore the Chinese Communist Party, is being expressed through open admiration for the city’s old colonial masters.

The most astonishing assertion of this came last month. The morning after 99.8 per cent of Falkland Islanders voted to remain a British territory, the South China Morning Post – a newspaper whose editorial policy cannot accurately be described as hostile towards Beijing – decided to run its own poll online. The question: would Hongkongers vote to return to being a British overseas territory, given the option? Thousands voted. By evening, the ayes had 91 per cent.

No doubt generalised anti-government grievance had more to do with it than any real desire for recolonisation, but the numbers reflect the times. Recent months in Hong Kong have seen the chief executive, CY Leung, forced into abandoning plans for mandatory ‘national education’ classes in schools following widespread revolt at the notion; controversy over anti-government protesters brandishing colonial flags; and officials removing poster adverts for a British Council education exhibition that bore the slogan ‘This is GREAT Britain’.

Labelled ‘sheer morons’ by one Beijing official, protesters rallied over these issues in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park, aptly enough, and online: one Facebook group declared the colonial flag carried ‘global recognition and legitimacy’; comments such as ‘Great Britain built Great Hong Kong’ were rife.

It is clear from these tensions that people under 35 or so in Hong Kong are not afraid to defend the liberties bequeathed in large part by a colonial government. In its final years, the British administration sped through reforms that made the city one of the freest societies in the world and one of the easiest in which to do business.

The truth is that, since then, Hong Kong’s future has been dependent on Beijing’s good will. You could argue that goes for the rest of us, too. Long before Matt Hermer opened Boujis Hong Kong, he says, he tried to open a club in Beijing but ‘came up against so many obstacles and so much bureaucracy… and eventually the development got shut down’. Britain, at least, is open for business, even if China isn’t interested. Whether or not Hong Kong remains so won’t involve choosing British rule again. Instead, HK needs to think about which it values most: ‘one country’ or ‘two systems’.

Kenny Hodgart is a journalist from Scotland who currently lives in Hong Kong, where he works for the South China Morning Post. He has previously written for the Herald (Glasgow), The Times, Tatler and others. You can visit his personal website here.

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