Simon Winchester Reflects on Hong Kong

Beyond the traders and the money, Hong Kong is mostly countryside. Aaron Tam, AFP / Getty Images

Spectacle and money: that was the supposed essence of the Hong Kong that I first came to know when I moved to live there years ago. Back then, when your plane landed at Kai Tak airfield beside a foul and anoxically black canal that stretched the length of the single runway, and when the captain opened the equalizer valves and let the sulfurous aroma of its slaggy waters briefly fill the cabin, new arrivals would ask, Just what is that smell? Ah yes, the smiling young stewardesses were trained by their airline to say: that is the smell of money.

I was stony broke when I first arrived and was put up in a 10th-floor shoebox in Wanchai, on Lockhart Road, above a nightclub beside a shark-fin restaurant amid a sea of neon and pretty girls and sailors and a ceaseless noise that only stopped when dawn came up and the street sweepers and the old newspaper ladies and the fish-market suppliers came silently about their business. Then I made a little more cash and moved to an old building on MacDonnell Road; here was quieter, with a view of the harbor, and young traders and hotel night managers and not-quite-yet success stories. It was a halfway life, congenial enough, but with neither glitter nor grandeur.

But that came swiftly enough, as it so often does to those who work hard in Hong Kong. All of a sudden I was in a two-floor flat up on the very slopes of The Peak: vast chandeliers in the lobby, Rolls-Royces in the garage, a gigantic swimming pool, soft-footed manservants padding over jungle-thick peach-toned carpets. Breakfasts in the Mandarin Grill, cigars after lunch at the Hong Kong Club, fellow diners ordering bottles of Chateau Petrus. A brief shining moment—and then prudence, and restraint, the collapse of the company I had started and the return to the modest gimlet-eyed life of writing—and I left the neon and the noise and went to live in what one forgets Hong Kong mostly is: the countryside.

For the next eight years I lived, happily and productively, in a tiny clan village in the New Territories. (The clan elders all ran fish-and-chip shops in England, it seemed. I sent my rent checks to a bank in Huddersfield.) There were deer and wild pigs in the jungles, green parrots in the lychee tree that dropped its fruit onto my flat roof where I took breakfast each day. The place was suffused by an utter rural peace, disturbed charmingly by the Hakka women farmers and their cattle lowing as they were rounded up for the byre each night.

But here is what is remarkable: the village I lived in, and the few scores of square miles with similar villages nearby, turned out all to have been left by circumstance quite unchanged from the China that always was. Across the border, China had for decades been endlessly and horribly convulsed—first by the empire-ending Revolution of 1911, then by the tyrannies of the warlords, after that by the civil war between the Nationalists and the Reds, then by Mao’s 1949 Revolution, by the impoverishing disaster of his Great Leap Forward of the 1950s, next by the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, by the horrors of Tiananmen Square…the convulsive history of modern China seemed never to end, to wreck, to kill, to lay flat and bare.

And yet here, insulated by British rule, overlooked by its isolation, my village and all the other tiny old villages of the New Territories remained unscathed, untouched, unhurried, unknown. They remain as relics of China as it always was. They may be surrounded beyond the green hills by glow and gaudiness and glitter—by a showiness that is matched by the grand lights of the newly capitalist China of today—but they themselves remain quietly and perfectly preserved, as if in amber.

And that, to me, is just remarkable. That you can arrive in what is probably the most advanced city in the world, and with a little searching, you find hidden deep within it the only true preserve of the oldest civilization on earth. For we can easily forget, in a Hong Kong that is so modern, that the China to which she has lately returned after those years of British rule, is so very, very ancient.

And so for years, as I sat on my terrace under the lychee tree, and watched the scatterings of cattle being led quietly up the hillsides, I would think happily to myself: who could not love a place, unique in all the world, that manages to enfold within its jewel box of such brilliant and dramatic outward show an unknown treasure within that is of such perfect and yet utterly overlooked antiquity? How remarkable! What magic!