When I was at Glasgow University, academics took every opportunity to shove it down biddable undergraduate throats that Edward Said was right about everything. One, I remember, offered up Alfred Hitchcock’s 1931 film Rich and Strange as final proof that the sole purpose of western civilisation since about the time of the Crusades has been to peddle racialist and imperialist untruths about the Orient. This is the dogma outlined in Orientalism, Said’s most famous book, the influence of which over the last 30 years outweighs its merit by far.
The title of that early “talkie” derives from Ariel’s song in The Tempest: she makes it known to the shipwrecked Ferdinand that his father has perished and lies at the bottom of the sea, which misfortune has turned him “into something rich and strange,” bean curd perhaps. Fred and Emily, Hitchcock’s prim young English couple, off spending a wodge of inherited wealth on a cruise to Singapore, find everything they encounter east of, well, Dover, strange and exotic. Ultimately they are fleeced for their money and go back to London, where Fred gets his missus to put on a nice steak and kidney pie.
Unfortunately it escaped my humourless tutor – a Canadian, I seem to think – that the joke was never other than on the Brits themselves. It is as Noel Coward had it in the song: “Why do the wrong people travel when the right people stay back home?”
I come to recount all of this as, in the last couple of weeks, I have moved to Hong Kong. As its gleaming towers serve to declare, it is certainly rich; and insofar as everything at street level looks to my racialist and imperialist eye like a restaurant, it also feels strange. But strange, too, is a feeling of widespread confidence in its institutions. China, Francis Fukuyama has said, has the best modern bureaucratic state in the world, but having failed to sanction a commercial middle class until recently, has a weak society. Hong Kong, notwithstanding its own democratic deficit, appears to have it all: a market economy, a strong society and efficient government. Regarding this last, Hong Kong’s impressive Immigration Tower has an entire level devoted to welcoming “quality immigrants”. Suffice to say I collected my papers on another floor.