On the night of June 30, 1997, as a valedictory drama of a once great empire was being played out and Hong Kong underwent a seismic moment in history, nothing much was happening in the home of the Fung family. "Where was I on the night of the handover? At home watching television, I think," says a momentarily befuddled Allan Fung, 58, as if recalling last Tuesday's dinner. "We were watching the fireworks," says his 81-year-old mother Lee Miu-kuk, in staccato, Shanghai-accented Cantonese. "I was at a rave where Boy George was DJing," says Jackie Fung, Allan's 35-year-old daughter. "I don't remember any countdown."
How could an epoch-defining transfer of sovereignty hold so casual a place in the memory of a family who had, by then, lived in Hong Kong for over 50 years? The answer is this: to outsiders, the assumption of Chinese power was and is a new and mesmerizing geopolitical phenomenon; to Hong Kong people, it is the oldest story in the book. Since its earliest days, Hong Kong has not existed because of some brittle old treaty or token British garrison, but because China, seething in the haze beyond the Kowloon hills, has allowed it to. At any stage, Beijing could have ended the fantasy, and swept the hotels, tea dances and bowling greens into the sea. So when the Fungs are insouciant about June 30, 1997, refusing to give the gushing sound bites that posterity expects, it is not because they were heedless of its implications, but because they had pondered those implications all their livesor not, as the case may be. "I didn't think I'd live to see the handover," guffaws Miu-kuk, "so I never worried."
Hers is a lively, cosmopolitan family. I know this because they are my relatives (Jackie is my sister-in-law, married to my youngest brother). I also know that their historythe flight from Shanghai, the hardships of the 1950s and 1960s, their emigration to Canada and subsequent return, and their hard-won affluencemakes them the quintessence of modern Hong Kong. They haven't always seen themselves that way. Kwan-wai, the 80-year-old patriarch, long considered Hong Kong an unspeakable backwater; as a teen, Allan's primary desire was to leave Hong Kong for good; Jackie was born in Ontario and once couldn't speak a word of Cantonese. But in the 10 years since that half-remembered handover night, the Fungswho also include Allan's wife Janet and son Davidhave all come to accept just how much they belong.
Like so many Hong Kong families, the Fungs settled in the city not by active choice, but because it was the only tolerable refuge in a country on the constant brink of calamity. Their origins are solidly haute bourgeoisie. "In China you have those who work the land and you have merchants. My family have always been merchantsmy father ran a silver dealership," says Kwan-wai, who was born near the port of Ningbo, 150 km south of Shanghai, and has the splendid distinction of being the eleventh of 11 generations of only sons. His wife, the daughter of a Shanghainese construction-company owner, is of similar provenance. "I spent my childhood at home because girls of my class were not allowed out," she says. The two were introduced by mutual relations (their families are distantly connected by marriage) and tied the knot at the end of World War IIbut setting up home in Shanghai, where Kwan-wai was studying accounting, was risky. Civil war was resuming between China's Nationalist and Communist parties. In 1946, with Shanghai rent by conflict between communist trade unions and the Nationalist authorities, the couple fled to Hong Kong to join Kwan-wai's father, who had gone ahead and established a business this time not in silver, but in steel, churning out the nails and screws demanded by the British colony's postwar rebuilding effort. Like many Shanghainese, they found Hong Kong terribly infra dig. "There was nobody here," snorts Kwan-wai. "When I left Shanghai, it was the fifth largest city in the world. Hong Kong was a farm."
"EIGHT OF US SHARING ONE ROOM"
It turned out that Hong Kong's provincialism was the least of their problems. Financial pressures mounted as four children were born in quick succession. Then, in the wake of the communist takeover of China in 1949, came the news from Shanghai that Miu-kuk's brother had been thrown into a labor camp and her father denounced as a capitalist. His building company was seized and he was forced to become an ordinary laborer alongside men he once employed. Her family was ruined. "I don't like China and I hate the communists for what they did to us," says Miu-kuk, who except for a brief visit in the 1980s has refused to set foot on the mainland.
Meanwhile, orders at the nail factory were hit by competition from innumerable similar enterprises set up by mainland refugeesnow pouring into Hong Kong in their tens of thousandsand by cheap imports from an economically resurgent Japan. Kwan-wai's father retired from the fray, leaving Kwan-wai to continue on his own, but the business ultimately failed. So it was that in just over 10 years since their arrival in Hong Kong, the Fungs, erstwhile burghers of Shanghai, found themselves living in an 18-sq-m public-housing flat in the impoverished, crime-ridden district of Ngau Tau Kok. Kwan-wai took a job in a garment factory and Miu-kuk took in sewing work. "There were eight of us sharing one room," she says. "My husband and I, my husband's parents and our four childrenand we were supporting my family in Shanghai as well."