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Social revolution transforms Hong Kong high society

April 23, 1997

HONG KONG (AP) _ For much of its 150-year colonial era, Hong Kong society was a whirl of black-tie balls, debutantes and elite private clubs _ all dominated by a pecking order based on money, class, and being British.

Then, in the 1980s, a social revolution swept the colony. Wealthy Hong Kong Chinese _ yuppies and tycoons _ became the big partygoers, charity donors and fodder for gossip columns and society pages.

Now, having thoroughly eclipsed the British and European establishment, these trendsetters and socialites wonder whether the scene will change yet again when China resumes control of Hong Kong on July 1.

China has promised that Hong Kong will keep its freedoms, legal system and capitalist economy. But some people fear Hong Kong will lose some of its colonial glamour under Chinese rule.

It isn’t solely a question of whether glittering social events will survive. The future of Hong Kong high society also will be an indicator of how much the territory will retain its character _ even if it’s measured in magnums of sparkling wine.

``Will it be politically correct for the Chinese to be seen partying, to be gracing the social pages of ... magazines, to keep guzzling champagne, nibbling on caviar?″ asked Ong Chin Huat, a British-educated barrister who five years ago became the first Chinese social editor of the Hong Kong Tatler, the colony’s social bible.

Already, cocktail parties, dinners and dances have become more traditionally Chinese _ less about society in the Old World sense and more about money and ``guanxi,″ the word connoting the connections that oil the wheels of Chinese business.

Jewelry designer Kai-Yin Lo, who has an international clientele, has noticed the change at dinner parties with Chinese guests. The easy sociability and chit-chat has become much more directed.

``I find with the Chinese influence, it’s dinner for a purpose,″ she said. ``I feel there is not so easy a spirit of communication. There is guanxi, guanxi, guanxi.

``Maybe it’s a sign of things to come,″ she says. ``Maybe we’ll settle back on the pattern as before, but I don’t think so.″

A decade ago, the British governor was the socialite’s most prized guest of honor. Today it’s Tung Chee-hwa, the Hong Kong Chinese shipping tycoon who will govern 6.3 million people when Hong Kong becomes a semiautonomous region of China.

Once China takes over, honorifics like ``Sir,″ ``Lady″ and ``Honorable″ are likely to give way to plain ``Mr.″ or ``Mrs.,″ plus the occasional ``comrade,″ Ong says.

David Tang, an international socialite who counts Princess Diana among his friends, also expects changes.

``Dinner will get more boring,″ he says, ``ironically because of capitalism and communism _ both monotonous!″

Rosemary Inglis, a businesswoman whose family has lived here for four generations, said established expatriate families dominated society when she was presented to the governor as a debutante in the early 1950s. No longer.

``It’s a real reversal,″ she said. ``If anything now, it’s the Chinese nouveaux riches who are taking over and a sprinkling of Europeans who are trying to keep up.″

Tang, whose China Club and Shanghai Tang emporium are ``in″ spots for the new socialites, complained that Hong Kong has become more ``bourgeois″ over the last 10 years.

``More women are more conscious of what Mrs. Wong next door is wearing for what dinner or ball,″ he said. ``And men are more conscious of their pecking order in terms of bank balances.″

Hong Kong today has more Rolls-Royce owners than Britain. The world’s most expensive sports cars can be seen on its crowded streets. All the international fashion houses _ from Chanel to Donna Karan _ have boutiques here.

The Hong Kong Tatler said the 500 names on its latest list of the colony’s most socially prominent people had an additional responsibility this year _ ``to ensure that Hong Kong does not lose its No. 1 glamour rating.″

Hong Kong’s social season runs from September to January, and during the past five years it has become even more crowded _ partly because of the growth of charities aiding causes in China.

Every night of the season offers at least one ball or dinner. One of this season’s biggest, for cancer research, raised a staggering $1 million.

And as the clock ticks down to July 1, Hong Kong socialites wonder aloud what will happen when the communists come to town.

The question doesn’t worry Jennifer Tose, a Hong Kong Chinese socialite who co-chaired the cancer research ball and runs one of many companies in the Peregrine group, owned by her millionaire British husband, Philip.

``If they do send people down here who would fit into the scene, why not? They’re from China, but as far as I can see it, they’re just another human being,″ she said.

Besides, she says new faces are needed to replenish the charity coffers.

``You’re asking the same people over and over again for money,″ she explained.

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