Rolling Stones

Twenty years ago this month, the entertainment spectacle known as HarbourFest ended at the Central waterfront. Thus began a series of life-changing events which led to me suing the chief executive in court and mortgaging the family home to cover legal fees.

For the benefit of those not in Hong Kong at the time, or who have forgotten some of the key aspects, a brief reminder. Our city was very hard hit by the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome in early 2003 and the economy tanked. Once the disease had been brought under control and various travel advisories withdrawn, a campaign was launched to revive the economy. Some $700 million was spent (out of a total allocation of $1 billion) on various projects, the lion’s share going to tourism publicity around the world to assure foreigners it was safe to visit Hong Kong again.

What turned out to be the most controversial item was an idea from the American Chamber of Commerce. It would organise a series of concerts featuring famous artists performing on a purpose-built stage at the harbourfront. Ministers in charge of the relaunch enthusiastically supported the idea and readily agreed to the requested subsidy of $100 million to allow ticket prices to be kept low.

The event went ahead and but for some minor hiccups was a great success, with sell-out concerts by the Rolling Stones (twice) and Santana, and other well-attended ones by Prince, Neil Young, Westlife and Jose Carreras etc.

For a variety of reasons the event became a political hot potato. It is not easy looking back to zero in on the precise cause, possibly because the economy recovered so quickly before the first concert. Anyway as an involved party I am not neutral enough to comment. The end result was that the then Amcham chairman Jim Thompson and I were both subjected to severe public criticism. I was even found guilty in an internal disciplinary process and suffered a small penalty.

Because the proceedings had been so manifestly unfair and the outcome ridiculous I sought a judicial review of decisions made against me by the chief executive and two other senior officials. The judge found in my favour against all three and awarded costs. Shortly afterwards the judge was promoted to the Court of Appeal and subsequently to the Court of Final Appeal, but that’s another story. The whole saga is covered in a book I wrote entitled “No Minister and No, Minister – the true story of HarbourFest”.

To celebrate the outcome, which also had the effect of clearing his name too, Thompson organised a party for the legal team and others who had helped. He distributed a t-shirt to all attendees, across the front of which was emblazoned the slogan “I fought the government. And the law won.” And on the back the case number “HCAL 41/2007”. I still have mine.

By chance one day last week I put on that shirt after a workout in the gym. Another person in the changing room pointed to the slogan on the front and asked with a smile “Is that still allowed?” Well of course despite the National Security Law and the impending Article 23 legislation, it will always be open under the common law system for a citizen who has been wronged to seek redress in the courts. But his question is a reminder, if such were needed, of the sensitivity of the subject.

Given the way my scrambled mind works, reminiscing about pop artists led me on to the subject of Taylor Swift who according to my children and grandchildren is the latest hot property. She will tour Asia and Australasia next year and perform concerts in Tokyo (4 nights, venue capacity 55,000) Melbourne (3 nights, 100,000) Sydney (4 nights, 83,500) and Singapore (6 nights, 55,000). She will not be coming to Hong Kong.

There are several possible explanations for this omission: at the time the tour was being planned we were still in Covid lockdown and emerging more slowly than other places. There is also the US State Department negative travel advisory which makes commercial insurance for such ventures more difficult and expensive.

But the key issue is surely lack of an appropriate venue. The capacity of the temporary facility constructed for HarbourFest was 12,500, by coincidence the same size as the Hong Kong Coliseum in Hung Hom. The existing government stadium in Sokonpo seats 40,000 but holding major concerts there is challenging. The entertainment industry globally will never forget the condition imposed on promoters of the proposed Michael Jackson tour many years ago that fans wear white gloves to reduce noise disturbance to nearby residents. Not surprisingly that concert did not proceed.

The new sports park now under construction at Kai Tak will be large enough (50,000) and will not be subject to such a restriction but will not be ready until later next year. By that time the Swift tour will have moved on to Europe.

Hong Kong’s “Swifties” as her fans are reportedly known will not suffer unduly as they are used to travelling outside the SAR to attend major events. For years we have become inured to going to Macau for headline artists as the casinos have the clout to pay the fees and usually include a “No Hong Kong concert for X months” in the contract. Singapore is readily accessible, and for the really determined Japan and Australia are not out of the question. Stand by for much gnashing of teeth by the local hospitality sector.

When the dust has settled, perhaps someone could find out why, 20 years after the last notes of HarbourFest faded, we are still waiting for a proper venue.