HONG KONG, By Jan Morris. New York: Random House. 359 pp. $19.95. `HONG KONG,'' Jan Morris's book, comes at a propitious time. Written from a modified British perspective, it tells of an economic engine unparalleled in modern times, of a place living on a deadline with uncertainty, of a confluence of Asian and European commercial rapacity and of the people whose lives are squeezed, sometimes happily, sometimes miserably, in a crowded, cacophonous urban jungle.
In 1997 British operation of the place reverts to the People's Republic of China. Up until the Deng reforms, it was assumed that this transition, from the unbridled capitalism of Hong Kong's almost unregulated commerce to China's gray communism would be wrenching and disastrous.
But mainland China is, today, in a transition of its own. In some ways, Hong Kong is right now doing more to change China than the reverse.
The colony of Hong Kong was the spawn of opium, an imperialist island founded to exploit a feudal mainland. And in these days of ardent drug interdiction by all the major governments, it is a little amazing to read of the extraordinary measures that the British traders took to first introduce opium to the Chinese (bringing it from their colonies in India and Burma) and then to maintain their monopoly on the drug trade through war. The Chinese mandarins tried to throw them out several times, but, lacking military sophistication, failed.
The British demanded and got the island of Hong Kong in 1841, and the Chinese even had to pay for opium destroyed in the war. There were other European powers in the South China seas to be sure, but the British were preeminent. In 1860, following another war with the Chinese, the British secured a section of the mainland, the city of Kowloon and an area of some 300 square miles known as the New Territories. Beyond these areas all control comes from Beijing.
The Chinese have often been cited as the least likely communists. There's a capitalist strain in the Chinese mind that no amount of theoretical Marxism or cultural revolution has been able to sublimate.
And as the Deng reforms progress, sometimes racing blindly into commercial ventures, sometimes pulling back when inflation rears its ugly head, Hong Kong seems to be both a model and a warning.
This city has experienced the best and the worst of capitalism, its most glorious riches and its most squalid exploitation.
Today it is a city of enormous energy, towering skyscrapers, luxurious hotels, set at the end of crowded side streets filled with tiny workshop businesses where everything is produced. The Hong Kongese work harder and longer than the people of any other city, and after a time in this milieu you can see why.
It is a place frenetically dedicated to the making of money, and the urge to make some for yourself is in the air.
As in New York, Morris's other favorite city, nearly everything is under construction. Buildings are being torn down to make room for bigger buildings, while the traffic swirls and flows around them.
Morris's book is written with the affection of a lover of cities and peoples, and with a cleareyed appreciation of the triumphs and horrors of the British Empire. She goes a little easy on some of the worst excesses, but that's not important because she is a good deal more interested in what is going to happen in the future.
She is certainly an experienced writer and can put her story in the graceful, bemused prose of the practiced travel writer. She makes you see the place - the new generation of Chinese yuppies racing around the city doing deals over their ubiquitous hand-held portable telephones, and the elderly Chinese, highly superstitious, who believe that if they stand close to a passing car it may run over the evil spirits following them. (When I was in Hong Kong recently, several evil spirits following me were flattened in just this way, and by a hair, let me tell you.)
The book may be one of the most useful studies of the place before the great change of governmental control takes place in 1997. Morris is guardedly hopeful that the arrival of Marxism will be tempered with realism, but she shares the Hong Kong disappointment with the sniffy and ineffectual policies of the British government, whom it is felt could have cut a better deal for their subjects.
There will be no more taipans in Hong Kong after 1997, unless something utterly unexpected intervenes, but after reading this book, you can almost believe something will.