Many parents brought their children along, wearing backpacks, and everyone looked happy, as if entering an amusement park.
Instead, we were heading into a modest-size military base perched on one corner of Stonecutter's Island, known as Ngong Shuen Chau in Cantonese. It's just across the strait from the high-rises of Hong Kong Island, which boast million-dollar views at night.
On April 28, the Ngong Shuen Chau Naval Base of the People's Liberation Army of China held an open barracks day. The media, including myself, were also allowed in. The barracks opened to the public at 10 a.m.
Following a baggage check at the entrance, I was handed a small tote bag that declared on its front, "open barracks day." It contained a hat to shade the wearer from the sun, a lunch consisting of buns and cookies, and mineral water.
The generous tote bag also included a plastic rain jacket, because it had been raining earlier in the day.
Barracks, a dining hall and a sports field are crowded onto a slender strip of land that extends only about 800 meters from east to west. Four small warships, including a 64-meter-long Houjian-class missile corvette, were berthed on a pier to the south that faces Victoria Bay. Western-style housing for commanders stood in the shade of trees on a hill to the north. I was told that they once housed senior British military officials.
Fifteen years have passed since Britain returned Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty on July 1, 1997. Beijing and London agreed that the people of Hong Kong will have autonomy over their city for 50 years, but their diplomatic and military responsibilities were handed over to Beijing on that day. And the stationing of the PLA epitomized that transfer.
Reports say both Britain and China had a disagreement at the time. London said the PLA could be garrisoned only starting from midnight on July 1, but Beijing argued the PLA needed to enter the base the night before to guard President Jiang Zemin, who was to attend the handover ceremony.
Beijing won out in the end. Vehicles, vessels and helicopters of the PLA entered Hong Kong one after another on the evening of June 30 by way of land, sea and air.
The 1989 Tiananmen incident was still fresh in the memory of Hong Kongers, who had seen on TV how the PLA had shot many students and workers to death at the time. Their view of and reception to the Chinese military was anything but welcoming.
The open barracks days were conceived as a measure to ease the civil wariness. The latest, the 23rd in a series of open barracks events, revolved around three military bases in Hong Kong around the time of the May 1 Workers' Day, with a total of 35,000 complimentary tickets distributed. Tickets were in so much demand that people had to line up to get one, sources said.
The day I visited the Ngong Shuen Chau base, all visitors made their way toward an athletic field in the center of the grounds, where they watched performances. The program included marches by military bands of the three services, martial arts demonstrations by female soldiers and stunt-riding on military motorbikes. The last act was the infantry's demonstration of a hurdle drill.
Soldiers fired incessant blanks from their rifles, and the smell of gunpowder filled the air. Three soldiers came sliding down ropes that had been pitched from a building on the far side of the athletic field.
The soldiers crawled under vehicles, jumped over barbed-wire entanglements and leaped through rings of fire. When the trio finally hoisted a big log, the spectators applauded wildly as if they were at a circus.
Once the performances were over, the crowd thronged the pier where weapons of all sizes were on display. Visitors were allowed to touch armored military vehicles, helicopters, portable missiles and other military equipment under the supervision of soldiers.
One father had his child climb on a four-wheel drive vehicle that had a machine gun. One mother was photographing her child astride a motorbike. Many of the visitors were chatting merrily with soldiers and officers, some of whom agreed to be photographed together.
Mak Chi Kin, a 40-year-old apparel retailer, was visiting the site with his wife and daughter. He said it was the first time he had ever seen PLA officers.
"They were very friendly. I took a liking to them," Mak said of the officers. His wife nodded in agreement.
Mak also talked approvingly of the weapons on display. "They made me realize how China is building up its power," he said.
The open barracks day had apparently fulfilled China's mission, as far as the Mak family was concerned.
I also looked at soldiers' barracks. One apartment could accommodate one company commander, two deputy company commanders or four seamen of lower ranks.
All the apartments were studios, about 25 square meters each, and were equipped with beds, desks, bookshelves and closets.
One company commander's bookshelf contained, in addition to military magazines, a Chinese-language biography of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (1884-1943), the commander in chief of the Imperial Japanese Combined Fleet.
Many of the officers and soldiers had been selected from the Guangzhou Military Area Command that abuts Hong Kong.
"Which do you like better, life on the mainland or life in Hong Kong?" I asked a sergeant who escorted me around the soldiers' barracks.
He hesitated for a moment and said, "I can't answer that question."
That came as no surprise. The soldiers seldom leave their base during the two or three years of service in Hong Kong, although a gorgeous night view of the metropolitan area is available only a stone's throw away.
Lt. Lu Yulong, a crew member of the missile corvette, said soldiers can take two days off a week but are not allowed to leave the base. That strict measure is intended to stave off unwanted friction with Hong Kongers. Even high-ranking officials remove their military uniforms when they go into town on official business.
Before being assigned on the base, the soldiers are instructed to abide by the Hong Kong Basic Law and the Hong Kong Garrison Law and to respect the lives of the people of Hong Kong. They even refrain from blowing bugles, a fixture of the military, for fear of upsetting the locals.
The base procures half its food and other supplies from Hong Kong, Lu said. Extreme care is taken so as not to antagonize local citizens.
The open barracks event ended at 2 p.m.
"Thank you for your visit," said a banner posted along a road to the exit. "Hong Kong's tomorrow will be better."
Families with children were leaving the grounds with smiles on their faces.
Little by little, Hong Kongers will embrace the presence of the PLA through events such as the open barracks, I said to myself.
A total of 470,000 Hong Kongers have visited open barracks events during the past 15 years. I felt overwhelmed by the low-key, but prudent and steadfast efforts of the PLA.
But I had a smattering of familiar experiences, too.
Before I left, I visited an outdoor exhibition section that presented the "achievements of the 15 years of garrisoning in Hong Kong."
As I was photographing, by way of notes, material on history that emerged on a touch screen, an officer rushed up to me and said: "You are not allowed to take photographs. Please delete the pictures you have taken."
I protested that much of the same things were printed on the papers that I had been given, but the officer was unrelenting.
"That's an order from my superior," he insisted.
It was so preposterous to not allow their propaganda material to be photographed.
I couldn't help but smile wryly at the situation, because I had just been barraged by a steady stream of their propaganda.
Editor's note: Being a foreign correspondent is not all it's cracked up to be. As Asahi Shimbun journalists--assigned to 34 offices around the world--can attest to, the challenges of getting the story in a foreign land are much greater than on the homefront. In the Correspondent's Notebook series, Asahi Shimbun journalists will write about their experiences on the road, including the difficulties, the frustrations, the long hours, the roadblocks, etc. They will take readers along with them and give them a glimpse into their lives.
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