party like it's …1997 By Pepe
HONG KONG - It was 15 years ago
today. General China taught the Brits to play.
That was, of course, the Hong Kong handover - a
milestone in Little Helmsman Deng Xiaoping's
"crossing the river while feeling the stones"
strategy. First, command "to get rich is
glorious". Then develop the special economic
zones. Get Hong Kong back from the Brits. Then,
one day, annex Taiwan. And perhaps, by 2040,
evolve to some variant of Western parliamentary
Those were heady days. There
were only faint rumblings about a possible
financial crisis in Asia. Mainland China media
carped about the "humiliations" of the past -
including heavy promotion for a blockbuster
telling the real story of the Opium Wars. In Hong
Kong island, daily showers thundered with fear.
Will the People's Liberation Army (PLA) cross the
border at midnight in a blitzkrieg
and militarize all the
malls in Kowloon? Will we be duly indoctrinated as
For a foreign
correspondent, there was nowhere else to be. The
Foreign Correspondents Club buzzed like in a
perpetual rock concert. At the hip Shanghai Tang
store, a waving Deng wristwatch was all the rage.
The days went by with plenty of huffing and
puffing around to find interviews and gauge the
prospects of doom from residents and analysts.
Then the long, sweaty nights partying at the Club
1997 in Lan Kwai Fong - and having to beat the
hangover back at the hotel to write copy solid
enough to fill two newspaper pages a day.
In the end, the proceedings were as normal
as Deng would have thought. Chris Patten - the
last governor - left in an anti-climax. The
British Empire was over. There was no PLA
"invasion". The party at Club 1997 was monstrous.
The day after, massive hangover included, the real
celebration began. I boarded a plane to China.
Beyond the pale Little did I
know that the Asian financial crisis had just
exploded - with a monster devaluation of the Thai
baht. Well, on the first of July itself, some of
us may have suspected this could be a minor
problem - but no one was foreseeing the financial
My agenda was to plunge
into deep China - the entrails of that beast which
was now lording over Hong Kong. Robert Plant was
on my flight to Xian. Yes, the Robert Plant -
minus Jimmy Page. I resisted the temptation to
address him with the opening bars of Kashmir. It
turns out we were at the same hotel in Xian - and
kept meeting for breakfast. He was traveling with
his son and his manager. And yes - we were about
to do the same thing. Get our kicks not on Route
66 - but on the mother of all them routes.
I have always been a Silk Road fanatic.
The "Silk Road" is not only the great, open
highway of Eurasia - from lethal deserts such as
the Taklamakan to snowy mountain peaks - but also
waves and waves of cultural history connecting
Asia to Europe. It's about forgotten empires such
as the Sogdians, fabulous cities like Merv,
Bukhara and Samarkand, fabled oasis like Kashgar.
It's not "a" road but a maze of "roads" -
extensions branching out to Afghanistan and Tibet.
I had to start at the beginning, in Xian,
formerly Chang'an - though most of China's silk
came from further south. Xian was a former capital
of China during the Han dynasty, when Rome got a
hard-on for Chinese silk. And was a capital again
during the Tang dynasty - when the Buddhist
connection with India solidified the Silk Road.
Hong Kong galleries were filled with
copies of Tang terracotta figures such as Yang
Guifei, aka the "fat concubine", the most famous
femme fatale in Chinese history. Turks, Uyghurs,
Sogdians, Arabs and Persians all lived in this
Chinese Rome - and built their own temples (the
mosque is still the most beautiful in China; but
the three Zoroastrian temples are all gone).
It would take me a few more years - in
successive trips - to finally do most of the core
of the Silk Road, in separate stretches, an
obsession I carried since I was in high school.
This time though, I wanted to concentrate on the
Chinese Silk Road.
It started with a
painter/calligrapher rendering sublime copies in
Mandarin of the Buddha's heart sutra to monks
living for years in huts in the mountains north of
Chang'an. It was supremely hard to resist both
temptations; bye bye journalism, why not become a
calligrapher, or a monk? Then I started moving
west, through Lanzhou - with a deviation to the
immaculate Tibetan enclave of Xiahe and, on the
way, an enormous concentration of Hui - Chinese
Muslims. Everything by train, local bus, local
From Lanzhou I even went to
Chengdu, in Sichuan, by bus and then to Lhasa in
Tibet by plane, and all the way back. That was a
classic Silk Road branch-out. But what was really
driving me was to go "beyond the pale". To follow
the westernmost spur of the Great Wall and finally
reach Jiayuguan - the "First and Greatest Pass
It was everything I
expected it to be; sort of like the desolate
setting for the end of the empire. The (literal)
end of the Great Wall. To the west was "beyond the
pale"; Chinese who were banned to go west would
never return. Still in 1997 I was met with
incredulous stares when I said I wanted to keep
going further into Gansu towards the deserts of
Xinjiang. "Why? There's nothing there".
This was still two years before Beijing
launched its official "Go West" policy. The
turbocharged neo-colonization of "beyond the pale"
- a Xinjiang extremely rich in natural resources
but populated (till then) mostly by Muslim Uyghurs
- hadn't yet started.
Death, also known
as Taklamakan Through the Gansu corridor I
finally reached the caves of Dunhuang - one the
great Buddhist centers in China for over six
centuries; a feast of wall-paintings and stucco
images excavated in caves carved from a cliff on
the eastern edge of the Lop desert and the
southern edge of the Gobi desert. Dazzling doesn't
even began to describe it.
One of my
all-time heroes, the great Buddhist pilgrim
Xuanzang (602-664), had a stop over in Dunhuang on
his way to India - where he collected holy texts
for translation into Chinese (that explains that
calligrapher back in Xian).
account of his absolutely epic travels,
Xiyuji ("Record of the Western Regions")
remains matchless. He started - where else - in
Chang'an. Everything happened, including being
"tortured by hallucinations" and driving away "all
sorts of demon shapes and strange goblins". But he
did manage to get back to China 16 years later,
carrying a wealth of Buddha statues and books.
Around Dunhuang, the Silk Road split. I
had to make up my mind. The northern route follows
the southern edge of the spectacular Tian Shan
mountains - running along the north of the
terrifying Taklamakan desert (whose name, in
Uyghur, means "you may get in but you never get
out"). Along the way, there are plenty of oasis
towns - Hami, Turfan, Aksu - before reaching
That's the route I took, under
temperatures hovering around 50 degrees Celsius,
riding a battered Land Rover with a monosyllabic
Hui who negotiated the desert track like Ayrton
Senna. And this was the "easier" route - compared
to the southern one. I had in mind the Buddhist
monks doing it by camel, branching out to head
through the Karakoram mountains to Leh (in Ladakh)
and Srinagar (in Kashmir) and then down into
It's absolutely impossible to even
try to battle the horrifying sand-storms of the
Taklamakan. The best one can do is to circumvent
it. Certainly not the option chosen by the coolest
cat among the Silk Road modern giants, Sven Hedin
(1865-1952), the author of My Life as an
Explorer (1926) and a man of huge brass balls
who faced certain death countless times and left
behind him a long trail of ponies, camels and yes,
In one of his adventures, when
Hedin was hoping to cross the southwestern corner
of the Taklamakan in less than a month, the camels
died one after another; the caravan was hit by a
sand-storm; his last servant died; yet he was the
only one who made it, "as though led by an
Guided by my very visible
Hui, I finally made it to Kashgar - a
hallucinating throwback to medieval Eurasia; once
again, at the time the forced Han neo-colonization
was just beginning, around the Mao statue at
People's Square. The Sunday market sprang up
straight from the 10th century. There was not a
single Han Chinese even around the pale green Id
Kah mosque at early morning prayers.
Kashgar the Silk Road did another major branching
out. Buddhist monks would travel through the Hindu
Kush past Tashkurgan to the Buddhist kingdoms of
Gandhara and Taxila in contemporary Pakistan. I
did it the China-Pakistan motorized friendship way
- that is, taking the fabulous Karakoram highway
from Kashgar through the Khunjerab pass, by jeep
and local bus, all the way to Islamabad, stopping
on the way in the idyllic Hunza valley. Northern
Pakistan was all quiet in those pre-war on terror
days; although the Taliban were in power in
Afghanistan, there was virtually no hardcore
Islamist in sight.
Silk road traders would
have done it differently. They would go north of
the Pamir mountains to Samarkand and Bukhara, or
south of the Pamirs to Balkh (in contemporary
Afghanistan) and then to Merv (in Iran). From
Merv, a maze of Silk Roads would go all the way to
the Mediterranean via Baghdad to Damascus, Antioch
or Constantinople (Istanbul). It would still take
me a few more years to follow stretches of most of
So suddenly I was in an
Islamabad duly doing business with the Taliban
while all financial hell was breaking loose all
across Asia. I made it back to Singapore and then
Hong Kong. Thailand, Indonesia, South Korea were
braking up. But Hong Kong, once again was
surviving - now under close inspection by Beijing.
Motherland knows best Fifteen
years later, none of those Western bogeymen
predictions about Chinese heavy-handedness in Hong
Kong came true. The third smooth transition of
power in Hong Kong under China is already on.
Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping - the next
Dragon Emperor - has given it his full blessing.
Here's the key Xi quote; "Fifteen years
after the handover, Hong Kong has gone through
storms. Overall, the principle of 'one country,
two systems' has made enormous strides… Hong
Kong's economy has developed well and citizens'
livelihoods have improved. Progress has been made
in democratic development, and society has become
Well, not that harmonious.
True, Hong Kong is the IPO capital of the world.
It's the top offshore center in the world for yuan
trading. It's a matchless world city - in many
aspects putting even New York to shame; the best
the world has to offer in an ultra-compact
environment. The city's economy grew every year
except in 2009 - during the world economy abyss.
Annual GDP growth has been 4.5% on average.
Unemployment is never higher than 6%.
Hong Kong still has not made the transition
towards a high-value-added, knowledge-based
economy. The outgoing administration by Donald
Tsang bet on "six new pillar industries" which
should have "clear advantages" for growth;
cultural and creative industries, medical
services, education, innovation and technology,
testing and certification services, and
development, so far, has been negligible. Hong
Kong still relies basically on its four core
industries; financial services, tourism,
professional services, and trading. Over 36
million tourists a year won't turn Hong Kong into
a knowledge-based society. Most of them are from -
where else - the mainland. The backlash is
immense; most Hong Kongers deride them as
"locusts" - country bumpkins with suitcases
overflowing with yuan buying everything cash. And
this while inside Hong Kong itself the wealth gap
is widening dramatically.
As far as
Beijing is concerned, it all comes down to
"crossing the river while feeling the stones".
Here's Xi, once again; "The SAR [Special
Administrative Region] government has united
various social sectors under the strong support of
the central government and the motherland." The
motherland has its own ideas on reviving the Silk
Road - and perhaps Hong Kong could be part of it,
a least on the financial services side. Maybe it's
time to party like it's 1997 and hit the
Taklamakan again. Well, you can take the boy our
of the Silk Road, but you can't take the Silk Road
out of the boy.