Ideas·Ideas Afternoon

When Hong Kong felt like the middle of the world: Paul Kennedy

In the decade before he became host — between 1990 and 1999 — Paul Kennedy spent a lot of time in Hong Kong. With special guest Lady Lavender Patten, wife of Hong Kong's final British governor, Paul revisits several of the documentaries that he prepared for IDEAS during that time.

Paul revisits documentaries he prepared for IDEAS during his time in Asia

Opened in 1930, Kai Tak is said to be the only airport in the world where you don't see the runway until moments before you land. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)
Listen to the full episode53:59

** This episode was originally published June 26, 2019.

By Paul Kennedy

Nobody will ever be able to make any sort of definitive statement about Hong Kong, because the place is always changing. It would be a serious concern if anything ultimately stopped changing, because perpetual motion seems to be what that place is ultimately about. Nothing is ever as you expect it to be, which is what makes it one of the most exciting cities in the world.

My first 'taste' of the place was in the fall of 1988. It was an overnight stop-over, with my wife and not quite two-year-old daughter. We were on our way to Beijing, and the "real" China, to collect material for 13 radio documentaries that were eventually broadcast as part of a CBC special series called Pacific Encounters.

My wife dispatched me, just before midnight, from our hotel on Nathan Road, to find fresh milk for our daughter's bottle. I wandered the busy streets of Kowloon for what seemed like hours, but I was surprised and disappointed to report that there was no milk to be found.

People walk through a market crowded with shoppers in the Kowloon district of Hong Kong. (Isaac Lawrence/AFP/Getty Images)

We often learn the most basic but truly crucial information by confronting the unexpected. Back then, dairy products of any kind were more rare than sixth floors in Chinese culture.  

'I grew to (sort of) love Hong Kong'

Several years later, we returned to Hong Kong for what was also supposed to be another brief stay. This time, I was on a generous fellowship from the Asia-Pacific Society of Canada, and we expected to spend something like six to eight months wandering around the Peoples Republic of China. At the end, I expected to be something of a "New China Hand." Officials at the Chinese Consulate in Toronto had instructed me to fly to Hong Kong, where my visa would be waiting for me.

That visa never came. 

We spent the better part of a year in Hong Kong. My daughter attended Grade One on Boundary Road, near the edge of what was then known as the "New Territories." I delivered her to Seeker Chan Canadian School every morning at 8:45 a.m. and then I would wander around the city, until it was time to pick her up at 3:30 p.m.

During these walks, I absorbed the constant turbulence and perpetual uncertainty of a vibrant city where things are never what you expect them to be. Hong Kong residents used to warn tourists to keep moving. If you stand still for more than 10 seconds, a construction crew will arrive to erect scaffolding around you. Moments later, demolition crews would make preparations for a new building.

I grew to (sort of) love Hong Kong. There was never a dull moment.

Paul Kennedy speaks with Lew Yeung, manager of the Mai Po Marsh, a bird sanctuary. 1:26

A memorable 3 a.m. speech

On New Years' Day of 1992, after a Christmas vacation in Thailand, we were flying from Bangkok back to Hong Kong, when I was shocked by a banner headline on the front page of the South China Morning Post: Christopher Patten Appointed as Final British Governor of Hong Kong!

Ironically, Patten was actually the friend of a good friend of mine. We had been undergraduates together at the University of St. Andrews. After earning his degree, my friend entered the British civil service. For several years, he served as Patten's parliamentary assistant, as he moved from one ministry to another at Westminster. 

I recall one memorable occasion when my friend insisted that I show up in the House of Commons at 3:00 a.m, because Minister Patten was scheduled to give a speech about something like environmental issues in South America.

At that ungodly hour, there were only four people in the House of Commons to hear the speech. Christopher Patten spoke from the Government benches. Some unknown member of the 'shadow cabinet' sat opposite, and listened. Apparently that comprised a quorum.

Former Hong Kong Governor Chris Patten, who left Hong Kong when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997, poses with his wife Lady Lavender Patten. She joined Paul Kennedy to revisit the documentaries he made during his time in Hong Kong. (Kin Cheung/AP)

I was the sad and lonely guest in the Spectator's Gallery, while my friend sat at the opposite end of the chamber, in a place set aside for unelected support staff. Despite the pitiful audience and obscene hour, I remember it being a pretty good speech. I made a point of saying so, when we met in the Minister's office, before heading out for an extremely early breakfast.

This has been a very long preamble for a rather disappointing punch line. My friend asked me to be best man at his first wedding. Unfortunately, that marriage failed, and before long he met somebody else and got married again. Christopher Patten was the best man at that second wedding.

For quite a while, it was silly fun to say that no matter where we went in the world, or whatever we did in life, I would always be the "best man." Governor — now Lord Patten — would simply need to settle with being "second best man." Maybe it's not as funny as it once seemed, but it does explain how I got Lavender Patten to be my guest for my final show about Hong Kong.