Change is the only thing that stays the same here. I come to Hong Kong every year, if possible. And the first thing that has to be done each time is to see what is different. This time, it’s the hotel where I wanted to stay: the Ritz-Carlton. I should have guessed, when I couldn’t find anything recent about it on the internet, yet it didn’t occur to me that a five-star hotel which I have known for 20 years might just be a space on the skyline.
The Ritz-Carlton has been knocked down. That, and the place next door, and the excellent bookshop, and various other buildings which I never took much notice of, because I didn’t think I’d need to: all gone, and in their place building workers are swarming over the grey bamboo scaffolding which is the start of every new building in this restless, noisy, deeply attractive place.
Come to think of it, the hotel I used to stay at was also pulled down some years ago. The Furama was a small, well-appointed place with lovely views over the harbour. Some big faceless international outfit built a headquarters in its place. The parade ground which the British inexplicably called HMS Tamar, as though it were a ship, where the last dignified, emotional ceremony of British rule was held on the evening of the handover to China, is now being built on: it will be some hideous government office.
When this kind of thing happens in London, I get really upset. The new buildings are rarely as good as the ones they replace, and they seem to be designed with no thought of the context. But here in Hong Kong there is no context: just constant change and conspicuous expenditure. And although it is a delight to come across the occasional grand, well-preserved older building – the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, for instance, or David Tang’s store in Art Deco granite – these are not the main things you come here to look at.
You want to wander round the night markets in Wan Chai, with the ceaseless life swirling round you. You want to duck down the little side alleys, which look unspeakably evil and are in fact as safe as everywhere else in this largely crime-free place. You want to sit in some unthinkably expensive restaurant at the expense of a wealthy multinational and watch the out-of-towners from backwoods China pour Diet Coke into their peerless glasses of Château Pétrus 1979 – because they can.
When Hong Kong residents tell you the harbour itself will be reclaimed and filled in soon, you do not automatically dismiss it as nostalgic nervousness. This time, when I crossed from the island to Kowloon on the mainland, a mile or so away, the incomparable journey took noticeably less time. The ferry port has been rebuilt a good couple of hundred yards further out into the harbour than it was a couple of years ago.
But nothing has changed as far as the Star Ferries themselves are concerned. Frequent, wonderfully efficient and wonderfully cheap, each boat built in the early 1960s when Hong Kong was an altogether different place, they scuttle backwards and forwards across the harbour like active water beetles, or the vaporetti of Venice. I think, if I were allowed one last wish, I would ask to take a final trip on a Star Ferry. I would put my token, worth 15p, into the slot in the turnstile, walk down the steep gradient, watch the boatmen in their light-blue sailors’ uniforms catch the ropes effortlessly and make them fast. Then I would edge across the swaying gangway, head for the seats in the bows and, one last time, sit down, ready for the final journey of my imaginings, to Tsimshatsui.
I wear my affection for Hong Kong, since whenever I go there I make my way to Nathan Road in Kowloon to WW Chan & Sons, and order some more shirts. Once upon a time they were cheap by London standards. Not now but they are excellently made, and they form my daily link with this noisy, hot, seething mix of races and languages.
A few years ago, coming away from Mr Chan’s, my wife and I spotted a sign for a fortune-teller, just across Nathan Road. Normally I dislike this empty, rather sad superstition but the desire for an archetypically Hong Kong experience made us climb the five floors in the immense heat to a cool room where a blind man and his assistant sat. He held Dee’s wrists, told her she had experienced great difficulties trying to have a baby. There would be more difficulties, he said, but finally she would have the child of her dreams: a son. Empty sentiment, I snorted to myself, though I longed for it to be true.
In my case the blind man told me some home truths about myself, not all of them comfortable. But when I asked if I would come back to Hong Kong he said I would, many, many times.
And now we’re here again. Only this time, as we travel back on the Star Ferry to Hong Kong Island, our three-year-old son is sitting between us, captivated by the movement of the boat and the ever-changing beauty of the harbour. He calls it ‘Hong Tong’ and we haven’t the heart to correct him.
John Simpson is the BBC’s world affairs editor and can be seen around the globe on BBC World News, available in 200 countries and territories worldwide, and on selected British Airways flights.