IN the decade since I was last in Hong Kong, it has become a city-state unrecognizable.
Buildings that I once knew have been torn down and replaced with taller ones. The few familiar ones that remain have been refurbished and modernized. The little alleyway kiosks are out of business, replaced by fancy malls with chichi boutiques, and stores with nameplates from London, Paris, and New York.
The cricket field that used to occupy a central position downtown has been replaced with skyscrapers and skywalks, and four-lane highways that whoosh traffic along what used to be the waterfront. The old waterfront is retreating inland as Hong Kong reclaims land from the sea on which to build more skyscrapers.
The Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, that bastion of British financial dominance in Hong Kong, has demolished its handsome old building and replaced it with one that is bigger and higher, but looks like a transplanted North Sea oil rig.
Not to be outdone, the Communists' Bank of China, which is Beijing's outpost in Hong Kong, now occupies yet another monstrous skyscraper, the architect for which must have been instructed, no matter how ugly it looked, to make it taller than the nearby British bank building.
The Bank of China overshadows all other buildings in Hong Kong, just as the shadow of China itself is cast across the future of Hong Kong's 6 million people, most of them Chinese. Five years from now, the British end their rule of the colony and it comes under Beijing's authority.
The mood in Hong Kong as the five-year countdown begins is one of paradox.
On the one hand there is great uncertainty and outright fear. Many Hong Kong Chinese have already fled once from communism on the mainland, and now face living under communism again.
They have helped turn Hong Kong into a vibrant, bustling showpiece for the free-enterprise system. Beijing assures that it will permit Hong Kong to maintain its present character for 50 years after the takeover. "One country, two systems" is the way Beijing describes the prospect. Many Hong Kong Chinese doubt this.
Already, with five years to go, Beijing is trying to dictate the course of political development in Hong Kong. One outspoken Hong Kong Chinese politician was told by a high British official: "I'll send you food parcels in jail when the Communists take over." Some Hong Kong journalists admit they are already practicing self-censorship for fear of offending the approaching rulers. Churchmen worry about the persecution of Christians on the mainland.
Although there is no prospect of voiding the agreement to turn Hong Kong over to Beijing in 1997, many Hong Kong citizens are pushing for more democracy in the intervening years, specifically by increasing elected members to Hong Kong's Legislative Council. This, they think, may afford them a little more protection when the Communists take over.
Britain certainly owes them this.
Hong Kong citizens are looking for a different tone from the new governor of the colony, Christopher Patten, who has just arrived from London. Says one Hong Kong politician: "The previous governor (Lord David Wilson) wore out his knees crawling to the Chinese Communists. Maybe this one will exhibit more guts."
If the outlook is so uncertain, why is real estate booming in Hong Kong, and prices on the local stock market reaching new highs? It is because many Hong Kong financiers are actively participating in the astonishing economic growth that is taking place across the border in China's Guangdong province. Politically, Hong Kong may fear Beijing; economically, Hong Kong is allying itself with its enterprising blood-brothers in southern China who have virtually turned the area into a free-enterprise market what ever the jousting factions in Beijing may say.
The gamble is that Beijing will not jeopardize all this economic development by taking draconian political measures against Hong Kong. Those who gamble on this are, of course, the same well-connected businessmen who have quietly acquired non-Hong Kong passports and established safe havens in the United States, Australia, and the Bahamas if things go wrong.