Bulldozing The World Of Suzie Wong

Since they were built in the 1920s, the giant picture windows of my cliffside apartment atop Victoria Peak have witnessed a lot of history. The first tenants, British managers of the funicular that zips 1,200 feet up and down the peak, had a panormic view of downtown Hong Kong, bustling Victoria Harbor, and the misty mountains of the New Territories in the distance. They watched the Japanese invade on the day after Pearl Harbor and saw the flood of immigrants following the communist conquest of China in 1949.

Even though many of the graceful, white colonial buildings have been replaced by skyscrapers, and the junks and steamboats by monster barges, the view--especially at night--remains one of the best in the world. These days, though, I gaze out over this metropolis and brood. A few weeks ago, the Peninsula Group, owner of my building, notified me that it would be razed to make way for yet another retail complex. I have to be out by May 31.

LOST SOUL. With 1997 just around the corner, I'm in the company of many other brooders in Hong Kong. We don't know what life will be like under Bei-jing--only that Hong Kong never will be the same. But what's really disturbing is that in the race to squeeze more profits out of the colony, developers are already burying Hong Kong's old charm. I'm not talking just about architecture: Frankly, the ugly Peak Tower (except for my apartment) should have been knocked down long ago. More valuable are the vibrant, bewildering neighborhoods that give the city its soul.

From the quaint to the notorious, the places that have been favorites with both tourists and locals for generations are vanishing. Bird Street, a colorful alley in the Mong Kok district, is lined with elderly Chinese vendors selling singing birds and elaborate bamboo cages. It's to be cleared this year. And if you want to visit the "poor man's nightclub," it's too late. For 34 years, the open-air bazaar on the harbor offered cheap clothes, fresh seafood and, in the old days, comedians, acrobats, and Chinese opera singers. Last April, it was closed for redevelopment.

Highest on the endangered list are the seedy areas, which for years have furnished grist for cheap novels and kung-fu movies. I regret waiting too long to see the famed Kowloon Walled City, an area of a dozen blocks near Kai Tak Airport. Starting in the 1890s, it grew into a maze of dark passageways and tiny rooms housing more than 30,000 squatters.

Under the jurisidiction of neither Beijing nor London, the Walled City was essentially lawless. In the 1940s, Governor Alexander Grantham called it "a cesspool of iniquity, with heroin divans, everything unsavory." I first read about it in Warlords of Crime: Chinese Secret Societies, the New Mafia, a sensationalized account of the Asian drug trade by Gerald L. Posner. As Posner told it, the place was so infested with hoods and dope fiends that he needed an escort of five policeman just to enter. "If you go in alone, the chances are you won't be coming back out," one cop cautioned melodramatically. This place I've got to see, I vowed, upon arriving here 21 2 years ago. But when I went there this January, all the tenants had been evicted. The site is being converted into a park.

COCKROACHES. This makes me fear for another of my favorite eyesores: the Chungking Mansion on Nathan Road in the Kowloon district. Like hundreds of other Western kids, I had stayed in one of the cheap hostels in this sooty 17-story structure when I backpacked through Asia on a shoestring. Granted, you slept with your wallet under the pillow, cockroaches and unsavory-looking characters were everywhere, and the building was a firetrap.

Still, the Chungking building functions as a self-contained community, housing mostly Indian families. I still enjoy dropping in to browse through the Indian food shops or simply to watch the array of transients lined up at the creaky elevator--Sri Lankan Tamils, Nigerians, Malaysian Muslims, and young Chinese. The only thing keeping the Chungking and its valuable land from being turned into a luxury hotel is that ownership is dispersed among many shopkeepers, who can't agree on a price.

Wrecking balls are swinging much more freely in my favorite neighborhood: Wanchai. Most people know Wan Chai as the setting for Richard Mason's 1957 novel The World of Suzie Wong, the tale of a Western artist who falls in love with a Chinese prostitute and marries her. The red-light district hit its peak during the Vietnam War, when shiploads of sailors spilled into more than 100 clubs. The routine was for bar girls, working on commission, to get patrons to buy them expensive drinks. "The main trick was getting as many drinks as possible out of an American sailor without having to go to bed with him," recalls popular historian Arthur Hacker, a 25-year Hong Kong resident.

Peacetime has been hard on Wan- chai nightlife, but several bars survive. At the dingy Suzie Wong Club, there are few patrons for Bobo and the other aging, overweight hostesses.

But Wanchai is also a showcase of Cantonese entrepreneurialism and social life. And, it's home to the BUSINESS WEEK bureau. Within a few blocks, we have a vegetable market, butchers selling smoked ducks hanging by their necks, family-owned restaurants serving the gamut of Asian gastronomic delights and horrors, and myriad shops and stalls selling rosewood furniture, used TVs, seconds of designer clothes, and fresh carrot juice. I can get my shoes repaired, my clothes dry-cleaned, my fortune told, and my body tattooed.

SEALED FATE. "The trouble is, what you see as picturesque is actually squalor," says Peter J. Mann, the district officer for Wanchai. He has a point. Given the horror of AIDS in Asia, it's difficult to argue for the preservation of a red-light district. Also, he notes, all those quaint alleys and tiny shops create other health and environmental problems.

The issue of preservation is largely moot. Although Mann encourages developers to maintain some of the local color, Wan Chai's fate is sealed by its location, abutting the central business district. Towering office complexes are in the works, and every other week another chunk of old Wan Chai disappears.

Many fear Hong Kong will become like Singapore. It, too, was once loaded with beautiful colonial buildings and thousands of picturesque shops. Almost all have been replaced by gleaming towers. Now, Singapore realizes that in obliterating its past, it became incredibly dull. The recent effort to spruce up surviving old facades to revive a Chinatown feel is too late and too obviously artificial. Singapore has lost its soul.

Officials vow not to allow the "Singaporization of Hong Kong." Personally, I don't think they need to worry. I can't imagine a city under the control of Beijing ever being that efficient. Until May, though, I'll continue to brood about it all from my perch on Victoria Peak.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.