Rowley Leigh: Letter from Hong Kong

26 Sep|Rowley Leigh

Students disrupt business in Hong Kong

Idler chef Rowley Leigh is in Hong Kong to open a new restaurant. We asked him to send us a frontline report on the student protests

THERE is a strange calm sitting over Pacific Place. Queen’s Road below has been closed off and is almost deserted. We have decided to close the restaurant tonight – not actually open anyway but ‘trialling’ – since the infrastructure has been brought to its knees. With a national holiday coming up, business is quiet anyway. The garage below the shopping mall, normally full of Porsches, Mercedes and four by fours is almost deserted. Burberry and Versace are even more empty than usual. There is an air of faint annoyance at this interruption to the business of Hong Kong which is the earnest pursuit of an honest buck.

Up until now the Occupy Central Movement had the good taste to turn out only on weekends, thus allowing that pursuit to continue relatively unhindered. This is a little different and the world has woken up to this outpouring of public feeling in favour of the idea of Western democracy. I always found it somewhat ironic that the last governor sought on handover to ensure democracy for its residents, despite the fact that they had never had it before and that he was negotiating with an empty deck.

Having been firmly advised to turn left on arriving at Admiralty station in order to avoid the demonstrations, I naturally turned right, spurred on not just by a contrary nature but by an appeal from the industrious Idler himself, pleading for a report from the front. The passages of the underground heading towards Government Square were indeed congested, partly with a large number of volunteers in yellow tee shirts with megaphones and walkie-talkies who were directing hordes of mostly young people armed with goggles, masks and boxes of food who were marching joyfully towards the sound of the drums.

The drums were remarkably muted when I emerged into the street beside the square. After the hubbub of the tube, there was a rather peaceful atmosphere at 5.30 in the afternoon. There were certainly an awful lot of people, some 40,000 according to reports but they made less noise than the home QPR crowd on a wet afternoon when 3-0 down to Burnley.

They weren’t all young. There were some middle aged characters who looked as though they might be teachers or might fill the cheaper seats for the Zurich Symphony Orchestra’s performance – under the baton of Sir Roger Norrington at the Hong Kong University concert hall. As for the younger crowd you could not hope to see a nicer lot. You would be very pleased if your cynical, lethargic and world weary children had the same air of fresh faced idealism and perhaps naïve belief in the virtues of democracy.

They are also a little bit brave. The authorities have not as yet demonstrated much ability to absorb and contain what is a remarkably peaceable crowd. There is no suggestion of an insurgent infiltration and yet the police think it a smart idea to dole out a fat dose of tear gas, thus strengthening the resolve of this protest movement. I happened to get a lung full of tear gas in Turkey last year. I was attending a gastronomic fair in a park which happened to be next door to a football stadium and the crowd were getting a little enthusiastic as it was a derby match on the last day of the season. But it was not nice. You weep, you retch, your throat burns and your sinuses ache for a day afterwards. Thinking of those kids facing this treatment, I am reminded of a Times leader, borrowed from Alexander Pope, headed “to break a butterfly upon a wheel”, albeit in a rather different context.

Larry, the young restaurant manager in my hotel, is not a sympathiser. He knows that the mainland government wants Hong Kong to remain a conduit for money between China and the West. One might argue that is the wish of the vast majority of the former colony’s residents, so what has Beijing worried about? There is no health service here, welfare depends on the family not the state and Hong Kong continues to pursue the same aggressive capitalist path as the rest of China.

So we have cancelled tonight’s service. One or two members of staff are joyful, not because they can join the crowds in the Square two hundred yards away but because they can have the night off. However most are disappointed. They are paid to work and they want to work. They have no interest, I fear, in the pursuit of democracy. I am tempted to hang around the square but my idling takes a more sybaritic form and I am invited for dinner on the Peak.