Hong Kong: Where worlds collide
Dickie offers good food at a price recession-hit Hong Kongers can afford. Like many of his customers, he grew up on stories of hard times. His parents fled the Communist takeover of China in the 1940s. When 1997 and the handover to China came around, he was one of those who felt trepidation about the future. Would the Communists kill the city's enterprise and his own dreams of prosperity with it? It didn't happen and these days he is a happier man. "Business is good. Booming, yes," he says. There was bungling by the new administration in the early days but massive demonstrations saw off an attempt to bring in draconian security laws. This success boosted local confidence. "Now we feel there is a good future," Dickie tells me. "I don't worry for this recession. Hong Kong always comes back."
One of the best places to reflect on the city's changing fortunes is just across the road from the race course at the Happy Valley cemetery. Here, the colonial graves testify to the endurance that has sustained Hong Kong. The roots of ageing West Indies mahogany trees circle the graves of sailors, soldiers and missionaries. All died in the service of the most improbable of all imperial adventures: the making of a great city on a barren rock in the South China Sea.
Walking across the graveyard I hear the city's traffic dwindle to a low hum. A local woman is cleaning the graves with all their carved pieties and lingering whispers of empire. I come across the grave of Henrietta Hall Shuck, the first American woman missionary to China, who died in Hong Kong in 1844, aged 27, broken by overwork and the climate. A nearby monument recalls the British and American sailors of the ships USS Powhatan and HMS Rattler who died fighting pirates off the coast of Hong Kong in the 1850s; another marks the graves of the 95th regiment, swept by fever in 1848: Nine Sergeants, Eight corporals, Four drummers, 67 privates, Four women, Four children.
So much of British and Chinese history is recorded here. For this is not only the resting place of dead colonials - on many of the stones are traced the details of China's tormented relationship with the West. It is all here: opium and exploitation, bravery, brutality and sacrifice.
Temples, and fortunes told
It puts the traveller into a properly reflective state of mind for a visit to Man Mo temple above Central business district. To reach Man Mo you first pass through the world of Gucci, Rolex and Starbucks, where wealth shimmers on the glass walls of the skyscrapers. I used to be repelled by the relentless materialism of this area until I started to see it as the extraordinary result of colliding historical impulses: the imperial urge to trade, the native river people's culture of barter, and the powerful desire to succeed of the refugee Chinese who fled here from the trials of civil war.
There is an escalator which climbs towards the temple from just above Central, gliding through the streets of Mid Levels past numerous new restaurants and bars where expatriate businessman, shirt-sleeved and tie-less in the afternoon heat, brag of deals and speculations.
At the corner of Ladder Street a small crowd has gathered at the entrance to Man Mo. Some are offering imitation money to be burned in the temple furnace in supplication to their ancestors; others place offerings of fruit, fast food, drinks and flowers inside the door. Coils of incense hung from the roof fill the crimson and gold rooms with a cloying smoke.
There is a small shop attached to the temple and in the corner a lugubrious figure sits reading his newspaper. Mr Ng is the temple fortune-teller. He seems very bored but not so pressed by tedium that he finds the prospect of my company a joy. He is polite but there is a discernible hum of irritation. Perhaps he has had to deal with too many lumbering westerners.
"What do you want to know?" he asks.
I am momentarily flummoxed. I had thought he would simply read my palms and recite a glorious future.
"You must have some thought!" he snaps.