A quick glance at the job scene in Hong Kong when I returned from Ottawa in February 2003 revealed there wasn't much hope. The sizzle of the dotcom boom had long congealed in the pan. The city seemed drained of that spirit I found so endearing in James Clavell's Taipan and Noble House. Now it was a mere chimera, like that vision of the stolen bicycle in Flann O'Brien's Third Policeman, when the victim returns to where he left his bike and exclaims: "And there it was—vanished!"
I retreated to Lamma Island and stayed with Sandra and my brother, Joel. He was then employed at some Silicon Valley magazine called Red Herring, a publication that was still hoping that the dotcom boom gone bust would boom again if they only had enough faith. Another chimera I had not quite accepted as reality, though I was happy to re-embrace the return of that bedrock belief in supply and demand temporarily abandoned in the dotcom craze that believed in a magical thing called the "New Economy."
Joel was in a cycle that lasted a year or two, commuting between the San Francisco Bay Area and Hong Kong on a quarterly basis, that is three months in, three months out. When he was in town, he was often on some assignment that his wife, Ginny, as deputy editor of Stanford University’s alumni magazine, put his way. There were a lot of high-flying graduates of international repute to interview in the Far East, from bigwig scientists in Inner Mongolia to the Prime Minister of Japan, many of whom welcomed the opportunity to shine before their old Stanford classmates.
In some respects, life was sweet. I made myself useful by taking care of their dog, Cosco, during their equally reliable absences every month as they trekked off together, Joel to do his freelance jobs and partly to drum up Sandra's trade for her PR firm, Pronto Communications. For every month Joel was in town, they were often away for two weeks, sometimes on the mainland, returning with plans to do business in the most recent place they had been.
Cosco was a big blundering beast that would have looked like a lion, with his tawny coat and massive mane, had he not looked so much like a goodhearted dog. Don't get me wrong; he wouldn't back down from a fight, and Lamma, Hong Kong's Isle of Dogs, presented frequent opportunities. But that massive mane of his gave him such a defensive advantage, as if he knew that if anything less than a pit bull or crocodile got him by the throat, all they would get was a mouthful of hair.
I reckoned Cosco was a Chow-Husky mix, who had, Joel said, a penchant of befriending burglars, blaming him for a long-ago incident in which Cosco did not raise the alarm when a real burglar entered the flat.
There was many a sweet scene on weekends when the island thronged with weekenders. A terrified pretty girl would leap into her boyfriend's arms at the sound of a bark—no, at the mere sight of a dog—on the footpath and show such pleasure in being there that she forgot the reason for her terror.
Joel was always resentful that Cosco showed delight when he saw me and would mournfully follow me down to the ferry if I were ever to depart for Hong Kong Island. It was not as though we had a lot to do with each other. He was pretty much a free-range dog, and I let him be that way.
So when Joel and Sandra left on their overseas jaunts, Cosco and I had the comfortable flat to ourselves and we had a ball. Gone were Joel's rules to always go out with the dog leashed, and sometimes muzzled, depending on the fashionable fear of the moment. Sometimes it was the risk of lawsuits if there was a dog fight or of poison when such stories were doing the rounds.
In the morning we would walk to Power Station Beach. Looking one way it was ugly because of the piles of coal and the three big smokestacks of the power station; but looking the other way it was as beautiful as any other beach in China. I reveled in my swim in the South China Sea as Cosco gamboled on the beach. Like my old dog Trooper, Cosco liked his water in bowls. The power station, which provides all the electricity to Hong Kong Island, acted as a breakwater to create a pleasant swimming area and anchorage for weekend pleasure craft.
For the most part, the locals, of whom I was one in those days, apart from rushing out in the morning before the weekenders arrived, usually stayed at a home or visited each other, the balcony barbeque being the classic Lamma social gathering.
After a time, Sandra and her long-time partner Carmen Yeung, who ran a conference-organising company called Together Expo, joined in a venture on the mainland. Sandra's Pronto Communications shared an office with Carmen’s outfit, and it looked quite impressive once fully staffed with a dozen or so young people.
I had been given odd jobs in this period, mostly writing press releases in which I learned more of the weird ways of commercial public relations. Absolut vodka was one client; another was the Dutch merchant bank ABN AMRO, which was promoting financial instruments.
Yet another was the Port of Shenzhen, a project in which I at last began to show genuine interest—until I discovered that I had got it all wrong: We should only appear to be promoting the one thing I was interested in, but in reality we were promoting something else.
I soon learned, reminiscent of my filmmaking experiences with TVOntario in the 1970s, that things did not have to make sense to be successful. In this case, there was little interest in having a press release actually interest the press. Of course, the pretense must be maintained. Indeed, one had to appear "excited" to be the one revealing the earthshaking news that a vodka brand was making yards in mainland China, supported by zero evidence that this was the case. It was good enough that our client was supported in his belief that his product was doing so, and our belief, expressed in the press release, was sufficient confirmation for him. And what was good enough for the client, was good enough for us.
More maddening still was that one suppressed the main event, or at least made it of secondary or tertiary importance, lest it eclipse the prominence of a truly unimportant person or thing the client wished to promote while appearing not to do so. In the Port of Shenzhen case, the client wanted us to stress the importance of the insignificant role played by an official who had little or nothing to do with the project, as if he were responsible for its success. What's more, it had to be written in such a way as to not interest the press, for which it was only nominally intended. Our mission in this case seemed to be to either encourage the young or placate the old.
While these jobs were few and far between, I mostly busied myself with keeping production levels up on my Legislative News Service, which I could manage from Hong Kong as well as anywhere, it being entirely internet-borne. What people don't understand elsewhere is that everything in Hong Kong works better than almost everything everywhere else. That is to say, better than the UK, better than the US, better than Canada. That's the phones, the post office, the hospitals, public transit—everything. So when people wonder how I can possibly manage here deprived of first-world efficiency, they simply have not been here. The only thing to complain about is the high cost of rents.
After weeks of an idyllic life on Lamma Island—the "international lifestyle centre that no one knows about," as I was fond of saying—things changed. I would now have to leave Lamma with its cozy bars, pleasant morning swims with Cosco, tapping away filling up LNS while hymn-singing schoolgirls' voices drifted in my window pleasantly absent of the sounds of motor traffic. The island had no cars or trucks except for a few VVs (village vehicles) and dinky toy fire engines and ambulances that infrequently navigated the narrow footpaths. The police, with their paramilitary berets and jump boots, sporting Smith & Wesson .38 revolvers, trooped about on foot or on bicycles with equal infrequency, not bothering a soul for the most part, as they would rather not see trouble if it were not blameworthy to not see it.
All this came to an end in when Sandra came home one night with a contract with the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade (Wuhan Sub Council). I was to go to a city called Wuhan, a place I had never heard of, which turned out to be one of the best spots I have ever been. My new task was to write sales letters in English to promote the Wuhan Financial Fair, to sell to merchant banks what we called "toxic assets" under our breaths, as it was mostly debris from the bust dotcom boom, in which China had invested heavily. The assets were buildings, and largely worthless computer hardware and software, though generously endowed with tracts of useless but serviced land that later proved useful as inland ports when overland trade picked up as Beijing's "Go West" economic drive gathered steam. It was later driven by China's Belt and Road Initiative when Xi Jinping took the Chinese presidency in 2012.
Of course, we had no such thoughts back then. But I could hardly avoid asking why Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Credit Suisse et al. would buy such things. Sandra was a little fuzzy about that too, but she would allow that it had something to do with establishing one's bona fides with Beijing, and setting up representatives offices and perhaps gaining access to Chinese retail banking. But that ought not be stressed and only mentioned in a most speculative and whimsical manner. I was to make it seem like a fun possibility and say how great it would be to come to the Wuhan Financial Fair in two years’ time and explore potential opportunities.
It would take too much space to detail hours spent selling the unsellable and even my thwarted attempt to enlist Alan Greenspan, America's Federal Reserve chairman, in the cause. Greenspan was making speeches about weaning investment away from the coastal areas of the China into the interior. As that was exactly what we were doing, I decided to approach him by snail mail in the hope of getting a letter of support, even offering him a chance to keynote our glorious Wuhan Financial Fair. When this got out, Sandra and her boss Wu Gang at the CCPIT freaked out. I thought the chances of him addressing our financial fair were infinitesimal to zero and even getting a letter of encouragement from him was not much more likely. But with a letter from him or even one of his deputies, something faxable, I thought there was a good chance of getting one or two merchant banks to come, and one coming might set off a stampede of bankers to Wuhan.
But no, I found the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade (CCPIT Wuhan Sub-Council) to be much like the National Harbours Board of Canada in Montreal, in that getting things done mattered far less than having them not done in the proper manner, while at the same time giving every appearance of having done one's best to get them done.
It so reminded me of that scene in the BBC's Yes Minister, when top civil servant Sir Humphrey Appleby receives an assessment from his junior, Bernard Wooley, who says a report was mostly "perfect nonsense but had some good ideas." This won Sir Humphrey's stern rebuke: "Good ideas are distracting and disruptive. If the report is mostly perfect nonsense, it must be made wholly perfect in this respect."
Our CCPIT operation was considered a crowning success if at the end of the day a voluminous report, largely unreadable and thus unread, was produced on time, rendering it immediately shelf-ready to be considered at a later date—and, with any luck, not at all. Much to everyone's relief, nothing came of my attempt to enlist Alan Greenspan. I wouldn't be surprised if China Post put my letter in the bag that was bound for Santa Claus at the North Pole.
As all our efforts came to nothing, except for secondary work supporting Carmen Yeung's Together Expo's attempt to contact potential exhibitors for the still distant China Coal Fair in Beijing, let us move on to the City of Wuhan, which I said, somewhat erroneously, I had never heard of. I arrived with Sandra on a China Southern flight to Wuhan airport. Even then, when the city was said to have a population of 7.3 million, which seems to have grown to 11.08 million according to the 2021 Wikipedia entry, it had an airport about the size of Ottawa's, which serves a population of less than one million.
Sandra and Carmen had a cold-water company flat in a six-storey walk-up. It was rent free, but I would have to accommodate three or four others from time to time, depending on the need for extra hands for either Pronto Communications or Together Expo. In the end, it only happened twice and then for less than two weeks.
Once two girls arrived from Hong Kong to join Sandra's sales force, but they became greatly dissatisfied with the accommodation, were moved elsewhere and soon departed. Then there was a juvenile delinquent, called Rocky, a relative of Carmen's, who had reason to lie low as he had aroused the interest of the Hong Kong Police. He arrived with one of his mates.
In their late teens, they were far more agreeable company than the constantly complaining girls, but they stayed less than a week when they were assured police interest in their whereabouts had subsided, after which they moved back to Hong Kong. But I felt they did so reluctantly, as they were finding Wuhan as intriguing as I was, and while their English was not good, it was far better than everyone else's.
As my brother said about mainland China: "Every day, you see things that you don't see every day." True enough. Sights of 30 prettily uniformed young hotel staffers doing physical training exercises in the parking lot, then doubling to their duties like soldiers to begin their shifts. Or an attractive tight-skirted thirtysomething woman togged out in formal office attire, reading a newspaper while sitting sidesaddle on the back of a police motorcycle driven by a uniformed cop. Or the sight of a young man, properly clad in a suit and tie, squatting by the curb spitting out toothpaste into the gutter while brushing his teeth, looking as if he were about to face a job interview. Or a woman cyclist with a papoose strapped to her back and a toddler clinging to the handlebars while two other tots squeezed themselves on the back carrier while traversing a maelstrom of motor traffic that seemed as dangerous as crossing Etoile on foot at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. It seemed that one could not turn one's head in Wuhan without spotting one weird scene after another.
As it turned out, Wuhan was not as unknown to me as I had thought. In fact, I was in that part of the city that was well known to wharf rats like me, as it was the old Treaty Port of Hankow. Sandra had told me there were three parts to the city, and Wuhan was a 1960s' contraction of their three older names: Wuchang, Hankou (pinyin spelling) and Hanyang. They shared the banks of the Yangtze River, a broad, muddy Mississippi-like stream that was crossed by two bridges in its middle reaches between Shanghai on the coast and Chongqing, or the old World War II capital of Chungking, deep inland.
One bridge, built a few years earlier, was known as the Second Bridge, which carried the bulk of the cross-river traffic. The other, downstream, known as the First Bridge, was built in 1957. This bridge also provided the rail link to Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen adjacent to Hong Kong. There was something almost magically convenient to Wuhan's location. It was nearly equidistant to Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing.
There were two reasons I knew of Hankow, as it was spelt in Treaty Port days. When covering the Montreal waterfront in the 1960s and '70s, I had heard of some bitter dispute between two local families who would not join each other in some supposedly wonderful port development because one betrayed the other in Hankow back in the day. It all sounded romantic when I first heard the tale, so I was thrilled to be in the place where the great betrayal occurred, even if I had no idea what it was.
The other reason I was thrilled to be there was that Hankow harkened back to the days of empire, to the Opium Wars, when it was the base of the gunboats guarding against attacks from warlords and pirates ready to plunder the river trade.
Because the Chinese lost the Opium Wars of 1842 and 1860, they had to permit the development of micro-colonies called Bunds, a Persian word meaning an urbanised embankment. There were 80 such ports in China, the biggest of which was the Shanghai Settlement, which became a city that rivalled New York, London and Paris in wealth and modernity, as Hong Kong did 100 years later. Typically, they were less than a mile long and a quarter mile wide. While obliged to allow such micro-colonies, the emperor was not obliged to do much else. Nor did he discourage river pirates or local warlords from attacking foreign shipping as it made its way from Chongqing 1,000 miles to Shanghai. This lack of Chinese police protection resulted in the arrival of substantial foreign military and naval forces along the river and between the Treaty Ports.
There's a good Steve McQueen movie, "Sand Pebbles," that tells the relatively true story of a gunboat battling warlord forces in the early 1920s. This was the true story not of the USS San Pablo, as depicted in the film, but of the HMS Wren. Of course, if you want Steve McQueen in the movie, the story must be all-American whether it is or not.
I thought they might run gunboat tours from Wuhan to the Three Gorges Dam. The gunboats looked very much like houseboats, and replicas could be cheaply built and fitted out as passenger craft, as they were no bigger than the cargo carriers that to-ed and fro-ed on the Yangtze and the Pearl estuary at Hong Kong. The gunboats did not look threatening, though they did have two six-pounders and six Lewis machine guns, for which replicas could be found.
It was a time when there was great optimism in the air, in those years before Xi Jinping took over the country. But whom was I to talk to? Those with any memory of this period in history took a very partisan negative view and had no interest in exploiting it commercially. While my dreams of reviving gunboats on the Yangtze got nowhere, I was happy to see the bunds were in pretty good shape. At the downstream end was the narrow Hanshui River, a Thames-sized stream feeding into the Yangtze that was also crowded with river trade craft.
There were construction cranes everywhere across the wide expanse of the city, and huge buildings going up here and there. I found that people in the office did not know much about anything, even how to get to the Bund, where Sandra had taken me when we first arrived. At least it did not seem to be known by that name, which to their minds was a bad memory of a colonial past.
Yet when I eventually got there, it possessed the most attractive real estate in town, certainly the most charming. Chinese-designed buildings in town were the usual Soviet packing-case Gothic of the '50s and ‘60s. The newer buildings were bigger and taller but still had the designed-by-committee look that was best viewed as a schematic in an artist's conception or seen from a passing aircraft. I could not get much in the way of information about the Bund from the locals. They knew it was first settled by foreigners, and that was about it. What little I knew seemed to surpass the locals’ knowledge. Much of what information I eventually found came from my old mates at the Professors' Table in Montreal, who emailed me maps dredged out of the McGill Library.
These maps delineated the five zones, the largest being British, followed by a smaller French zone, and a much smaller Russian zone, with only a narrow street dividing one from the other. There was German zone. There was also a large Japanese zone, though it looked undeveloped. While earmarked for the Japanese, latecomers to the colonial game, there was no evidence that they had built anything on the land they were assigned.
Once the Germans were deprived of their concession after World War I, the Japanese swiftly moved in, defying Chinese demands that the German zone be returned to China. The Americans, parading their anticolonial posture, did not have a concession of their own but rented space and built substantial financial institutions in the French zone. They also had warships in the river, as other powers did.
At times military and diplomatic tensions would rise between the Western powers—during the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War and the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War, for example—but for the most part, the warring parties stayed out of each other's way and kept to their duties policing the river trade.
The trade itself, which was pretty much the same China-wide, consisted of exports of porcelain, which became widely known as china, tea, silk and furniture. Legal imports included silver bullion, furs from North American and north European trappers, and, of all things, ginseng, which was harvested along an east-west axis from Pennsylvania to Kentucky. Cuckoo clocks were also a hot import item for a time.
There was of course, opium, with a dollar volume that far exceeded all but bullion's, which was the only medium of exchange acceptable to the Chinese before the 1842 Opium War. But this trade, while flourishing just as the South American-North American cocaine trade flourishes in the 21st century, formed no part of customs duties to be remitted to the emperor. Nor did the foreign concessionaires have any reason to police it. Thus, Chinese haughty indifference to policing the river meant that it flourished all the more and continued to perform its useful role as a means of having the Chinese part with their silver. Their accumulation of it threatened a severe global bullion imbalance, undermining Britain's ability to make payments without difficulty elsewhere in the world.
In Wuhan's, or shall I say Hankow's, former British zone, there was one monumental structure, the Chinese Maritime Customs House, with its clock-topped cupola, but otherwise looking like a British Customs house anywhere in the empire. The difference was that it was not a British Customs House but a Chinese government department, though entirely run by British personnel.
What began as the Shanghai Customs Service started because of the 1850-64 Taiping Rebellion, a 14-year conflict that Wikipedia rates as possibly the highest casualty war in history—including World War II with 20 million to 30 million dead—and definitely the highest casualty civil war in China or anywhere else. The conflict saw the Treaty Ports cut off from the Chinese imperial forces yet left largely unmolested by the Taiping rebels, partly because they too benefited from continuance of trade.
What happened was that under the 1842 Unequal Treaty that authorised the first Treaty Ports, the British were obliged to remit customs duties to the emperor. But the merchants remonstrated with the authorities against this, arguing that the Taiping rebels had cut off the imperial forces from the ports so there was no need to pay the duties because there was no one to pay. But the British authorities, who were the first among equals in the Treaty Ports and the designated collector of Chinese customs, said that when the Taiping Rebellion ended, as it would one day, there would be a new emperor or an old one—and they would still owe the money.
Before the onset of the rebellion, while the British had overall responsibility for the payment of duties, Chinese officialdom did the hands-on work of running the customs operation itself. The British merely permitted activity. But once the rebellion started, the Chinese customs officers fled the foreign concessions and joined one side or the other.
And when China's imperial forces beat the Taiping rebels, albeit with staggering losses, they were quite surprised that the British had continued to collect customs duties on their behalf. But what surprised them more was the huge amount the British had collected, far more than what the Chinese officials had remitted to the central treasury.
This so impressed the Dowager Empress Cixi that she asked whether the British would continue to collect maritime customs throughout the country, which they did thereafter until World War II brought the Japanese occupation, putting an end to the system for the duration. The Communist takeover in 1949 ended it once and for all.
Yet the handsome building remains as evidence of the glorious history of what was first known as the Shanghai Customs Service, later codified as the Chinese Maritime Customs. It soon spread itself throughout the 80-odd Treaty Ports and became the principal source of revenue for the Chinese imperial administration, as the government taxed little else.
Wuhan is also famous for its heroic revolutionary standing. There was a genuine air of awe when my colleagues at the office spoke of Mao's swim across the Yangtze at Wuhan in 1966, several of them saying their parents had witnessed this great feat of the 73-year-old Chinese leader joining the multitude on their annual trans-river swim from Hankow to Wuchang.
They were also most impressed when I told them that my mother was once the lover of Hazen Sise, Doctor Norman Bethune's assistant and driver in the Spanish Civil War, when they went to the front as the Canadian mobile blood transfusion unit (Servicio canadiense de transfusión de sangre). Of course, he played no part in accompanying Mao on his fabled long march with the 8th Route Army that eventually knocked Chiang Kai Shek nationalists across the Taiwan Strait to hole up in Formosa.
Still, I ranked high among my colleagues as having a family member who knew the one-time assistant of the revered doctor—whose statue stands at the entrance to Wuhan Tianhe International Airport, identical to the one in white marble in the triangle park at Guy and de Maisonneuve in Montreal, within the precincts of Concordia University.
Something else was more interesting to me, the facts of which I again had to track down via my mates at the Professors' Table in Montreal, who by now had developed an interest in my wanderings as Friday night table talk.
This is because Communists had mixed feeling about these history-shaping events, which I hailed as the world's first cyber revolution to anyone who would listen. It all began one October evening in 1911, when life in Hankow's Bund was going along swimmingly. To the surprise of all, a terrorist bomb factory blew up accidently. It was lodged next to La Banque Indo-Chine in the French concession, not far from the grand National Bank of New York building. No one was hurt, it seems, and the principal losses were suffered by the Sun Yat-sen terrorists themselves.
It was clear from the start that the source of the bomb was Sun Yat-sen's men, who had been staging uprisings and rebellions all over China for years. So while it caused much consternation, it was not unexpected and was thought to be of less importance because it seemed entirely accidental.
But what caused the real explosion was the discovery of the group's membership lists, which were blown up too, fluttering down from the sky and now lying round about. The police soon found that many of the army officers across the river in Wuchang at the Red Chamber barracks were ready to serve in Sun Yat-sen's army. But that wasn't the end of the surprises.
As it happened, the first telephone lines had been laid that year across the river as the start of a national telephone network first linking security bases throughout China—an act that proved the ruin of the Qing dynasty and Emperor Puyi, then aged 2, as these events unfolded.
The Red Chamber army officer who took the police call from Hankow was—you guessed it!—a pro-Sun Yat-sen conspirator. He alerted his mates, and they quickly organised themselves into a fighting cabal, arrested the military governor and his loyal subordinates, roused the soldiers from their slumbers, kitted them out for a three-day pack drill in full battle array. And having paraded them, marched up to the top of the hill and marched down again, Grand Old Duke of York style, for no other purpose than to keep them under their orders and no one else's.
Meanwhile, the pro-Sun Yat-sen officers used the very same telephone lines to get the word out to their co-conspirators at the other military bases across China, warning if they did not act that night, their heads would be chopped tomorrow—quite literally, because they were on the list already in the hands of the Hankow police.
And so it came to pass to the surprise of all—Sun Yat-sen and Emperor Puyi's regents included—that it was game over for the longest reigning monarchial government the world had ever known, spanning 2,000 years. Of course, the imperial forces were just as surprised as Sun Yat-sen, who was on a fund-raising drive in the US at the time. He got the good news from press reports of a truly gargantuan event that was an entirely accidental revolution, which shortly made Sun Yat-sen the first president of the Republic of China when he returned to China after a pit stop in London.
While this would make a great movie—even a comedy as there were so few casualties—Communists are seldom intentionally comedic. Thus, such a comedy of errors, however historically accurate, is insufficiently heroic to find a place in the Communist revolutionary narrative.
So it was not surprising to find a crude jerry-built museum beside the Red Chamber Barracks, also turned into a museum, that was fitted out with dramatic floor-to-ceiling murals of the usual larger-than-life heroic peasants with pitchforks in hand rising against their oppressors.
Apart from these clumsy efforts by the Communist murality squad, there were largely irrelevant exhibits whose connections to the great events of 1911 ranged from slim to none. It was as if official historians refused to recognize that the birth of the Republic of China could not possibly have been the result of a desperate military mutiny whose principal actors were seized by a do-or-die moment. And with the aid of a newly installed cyber technology, they effected a profound revolution in the most populous nation on earth.
But to give the Reds their due, they had restored the Red Chamber Barracks as a museum, acknowledging that this was the place where it all began. They showed the military governor's quarters where he was clamped into irons, and more importantly, they also made an exhibit of a great hall adjacent to the governor's quarters, across which was arrayed a couple of dozen period telephones, each with its own little desk. It was also the most exalted of all the exhibits, even if there was no reference to its role in the affair. It showed me that someone had some care of the real story, however mutely it was told.
Thus, an accidental blast of a Hankow Sun Yat-sen bomb factory, causing the partisans' membership lists to fall into the hands of Hankow's Keystone Cops, sent desperate men on a desperate mission to save their own skins by deploying a new technology—the humble telephone—that had just become available to them, and with that they changed world history. But then, Wuhan's like that, as it proved to be more than a century later, when the city's big-time high-tech blundering, this time with the coronavirus, changed the history of the world.