Thursday, 15 August 2019

Hong Kong: A Waking Dream

I had a dream, a waking dream. Back in March I booked a flight to Hong Kong. If all goes well I leave in October, but what if all does not go well?

I write the contents of this blog weeks in advance, because I need time to go over the text and insert mistakes and badly-written sentences. I don't want my writing to be too slick. That would be boring.

It's not even supposed to be Hong Kong, but it is

So back in April I wrote about Hong Kong and put the article to one side. My original plan was to go there, visit the islands, take photos, stand outside a massage parlour but not go in because I'm too scared, pop off to the airport to photograph some aeroplanes for another blog post, then come back, finish off the article, publish it, sit there looking at the screen wondering what the point of it all was. What a massive waste of money.

But events have transpired, and are currently transpiring. Hopefully I will still go, but just in case events transpire in a downwards direction I'll publish my thoughts on Hong Kong now, while the iron is still going to plan. In a few months these monolithic blocks of text will be broken up by new photographs. Or they won't. I begin.

When you delete something from a hard drive the data isn't really removed, or at least it's not deliberately scrubbed out. It's just dereferenced. The operating system strikes it from the file system's index, but the data remains on the disc. Over time it gets overwritten, but unless the entire disc is wiped little pieces of the original information remain.

The same is true of dreams of distant places and foreign lands. As I write these words Hong Kong exists only in my imagination. I've seen the city in films and explored it in computer games but I've never been there. For some people Hong Kong is their regular commute, and for other people it's their home; for them the idea of Hong Kong as an exotic city of mystery is ridiculous, because they've seen it with their own eyes. They've smelled it. They may well be sick of it. Who knows.

For some British people of a certain age Hong Kong is a place they visited a lot thirty years ago, but left before events transpired etc and have never gone back. You, dear reader, probably spent eighteen months in Hong Kong in between your degree and postgraduate studies. Maybe you are there right now, generating content for your YouTube channel. Perhaps you are one of those people who reviews business-class flights. I however have never been, in fact the farthest I have travelled from my native England is North Africa, which is just on the other side of Europe, no distance.

As I write these words Hong Kong is still a dream, but by the time you read them I will hopefully have experienced a little bit of the real thing, unless my flight is delayed, in which case the only thing I will have experienced is the smell of several hundred people trapped in an Airbus A380 for fifteen hours, which actually might be a bit like Hong Kong, I don't know.

Michael Palin visited Hong Kong in late 1988 while filming Around the World in Eighty Days, which was broadcast a year later. He's not as aggressively patronising as Alan Whicker, but the programme still treats the place like a curious novelty, and the Hong Kong / China episode has a tone that wouldn't be used nowadays.

I will never be as suave as Michael Palin or David Bowie, but I am not alone. I remember watching the programme when it was first broadcast. The Hong Kong - China episode was a victim of timing. Palin briefly mentions "the student uprising in China, and its bloody aftermath" - which happened while the programme was in post-production - and wonders if Happy Valley will remain happy.
The other reason I was going to post this article *after* visiting Hong Kong was because some topics are difficult to write about on the internet if you ever plan to visit China.

On the right, the Bank of China Tower, which was opened in 1989.
The general narrative in the late 1980s was that mainland China had a lot of potential but it would always be under construction and it would never be Hong Kong, and then seemingly overnight China had the world's biggest economy and everywhere in China was covered in skyscrapers.

This is Bloodsport (1988), shot a year earlier. The bottom-right of the frame has the same general location as above, but our viewpoint is a few degrees clockwise. The Bank of China tower hasn't been built yet. At the extreme right you can see the twin towers of the Lippo Centre, which have cranes on top of them. They were also opened in 1989.

What does Hong Kong mean in 2019? I've always been late to the party. Venice decayed into a beautiful skeleton centuries before I was born. By the time I visited Berlin the historical echoes of Kaiser Wilhelm's massive ego had been bulldozed into the earth, and most of the itinerant artists and electronic musicians who took advantage of cheap rents in the 1990s had been priced out. By late 2018 Chernobyl and Pripyat had been thoroughly squeezed dry by waves of photographers and writers, every one of them including myself trying to monetise the place. To my surprise there was a little bit of juice left, because in early 2019 a successful miniseries brought Chernobyl back to the public eye, but there are only so many ways to retell the story of the Chernobyl disaster before the public get tired of it.

A long time ago Hong Kong was China with capitalism and huge buildings, but China now has capitalism as well, and huge buildings, so in 2019 why is Hong Kong special? What separates it from a dozen other Chinese megacities, or from Dubai or Abu Dhabi?

It has its own legal system and currency, and you need a visa to travel from Hong Kong to China proper, although you can get a special visa if you just want to cross into neighbouring Shenzhen. When you order things online Hong Kong appears as a separate country in the drop-down box, sandwiched between Honduras and Hungary, but some websites list it as China (Hong Kong) and one day it will just be a district. Most of the street names date from the British period - there's a Prince Edward Road, a Queensway, a Shanghai Street that doesn't lead to Shanghai - but they are slowly being replaced with Chinese streets. The final vestiges of British rule are supposed to come to an end in 2047 but it remains to be seen if the Chinese authorities are willing to wait that long. China has historically had great reserves of patience and has been willing to play the long game, but the world has changed.

There's less money, for a start, or rather there's more money, but most of it is imaginary money, or rather it's real money but the economic activity that underpins the money is imaginary, except that the economic activity is real, it's just that there's no reason for it beyond justifying the money. I have to admit that I'm not an economist.

Hong Kong was for most of its life part of the British Empire. When I was young no-one spoke of the British Empire, because there wasn't much left. Hong Kong was essentially the last splash of glamour in what would otherwise be a bunch of windswept Atlantic islands with sheep, but even in the 1980s our Hong Kong had a finite lifespan and everybody knew that it would come to an end. People went there to get away from China, and a lot of them eventually got away from Hong Kong, although we did our best to stop them.

As was typical of the Empire we wanted the fruits of our subjects' labours far more than we wanted the subjects themselves, so after the Second World War the British government progressively made it more difficult for Hong Kong residents to become British citizens. Nowadays Britain loves foreigners and is eager to house as many as it can, but in the past that was not the case, with the result that residents of Hong Kong from before the handover in 1997 are not automatically allowed to move to the United Kingdom and stay here forever.

Some Hong Kongers have a special passport with "British" written on the front - the British National (Overseas) passport - but it's not especially useful. Holders of the passport can only stay in Britain for six months and aren't allowed to take up work or become students, and if they didn't register for a BN(O) passport before 1997 it's too late to do so now. Why was the British government so scared of Hong Kongers? I have no idea. Even if the entire population of Hong Kong had emigrated en masse to Britain in 1997, leaving the city completely empty, it would only have been the equivalent of an extra Scotland. Britain could have coped with that. Scotland has lots of empty space. I'm digressing.

Hong Kong Handover Ceremony (1998), a decent Doom level from Chris Lloyd, then of the University of Hong Kong. It has nothing to do with Hong Kong apart from the name, as far as I can tell. The author is now professor of statistics at the University of Melbourne!
Doomworld's user-generated level archive is fascinating, because it's one of the few relics of the very early internet; it has levels from 1994, 1995, where the designers were prepared to give out their home addresses and telephone numbers because what could go wrong? The internet was tiny back then.
I learn that Hong Kong has free domestic phone calls, which was fantastic if you were a fan of dial-up multiplayer internet games in the 1990s.

When I was young Hong Kong was ours forever, or at least until 1997, which seemed forever away if you were a kid in the early 1980s. Hong Kong was the kind of far-away place that had always belonged to Britain and everybody was happy, and perhaps one of your schoolfriends' dads was occasionally posted there. It was like Aden or Akrotiri, a serious place where men went to do business for the government.

Where was Aden? What was Akrotiri? I had no idea. I didn't even know what "posted" meant. You were sent somewhere by the government and it was all very serious. I had a mental image of a man wearing colonial uniform - shorts and a khaki shirt and a Sam Browne belt - sitting in an office stamping things with a big stamp. That was my childish idea of Hong Kong.

I learn from the internet that families who had long-term postings to Hong Kong often sent their kids to boarding school back home in the UK, which meant that BOAC had whole flights full of schoolkids at the beginning and end of term-time, complete with flying nannies. It sounds fun for the kids, a nightmare for the airline. There was even a BOAC Junior Jet Club for children who flew a lot, probably an exclusive club given the cost of flying back then. The Jet Club survived until 1984, when it was replaced by a simpler paid-for flying nanny service that ended in 2018.

The great thing about being posted to Hong Kong was that you could bring back things that weren't available in the UK, so when I was a kid Hong Kong was a land of rare Transformers and pocket televisions. It was also a land of illegal fighting tournaments, because it was the setting for the early Jean-Claude Van Damme action film Bloodsport (1988), produced by exploitation specialists The Cannon Group. Like almost everything by The Cannon Group the film had a limited cinema release but found its true home on videotape. It was shot on location in Hong Kong and has some of the only professionally-filmed footage of Kowloon's walled city.

Bloodsport (1988)

It's not a great film or even a good one. It's shot like a television movie and the action doesn't start until the half-way mark. The tone veers from slapstick to clunky pathos and in general the same idea was executed much better a year later with Kickboxer, but the glimpses of Hong Kong stuck with me as a kid. The blend of posh clubs in Happy Valley and crowded city markets on the landward side of the city, where people would skin a snake and cook it while you waited, seemed alien and strange. It was like a fantasy world.

You've probably read about Kowloon's walled city. It was originally a Chinese fort. When the landward part of Hong Kong was leased to the British in 1898 the Chinese were allowed to keep the fort, but it was a waste of money so they abandoned it. Until the 1940s it was wasteland, but after the Second World War a wave of mainland immigrants settled there, and in the blink of an eye it grew from a shanty town into a ramshackle cityblock, with flats piled on top of each other, where entire neighbourhoods were powered from a single multi-plug socket and even in the daytime people lived in semi-darkness, lit by the glow of neon lights, breathe in.

Kowloon's walled city became a byword for lawlessness, where the Triads were allowed to operate with impunity, and eventually it was hit by a plague of dentists who took advantage of the lack of regulation to set up cut-price dental salons. If the walled city still existed today it would be full of plastic surgeons offering fat transfers and Brazilian bum lifts.

By the 1980s organised crime had largely been driven off, but the walled city remained a blot on the landscape and so it was demolished in 1993. Are the former residents better off now than they were? I'll never know. The location is now a park, but the memory lives on in the minds of film-makers, writers, computer game level designers so on. Surprisingly few computer games are explicitly set in the walled city - Call of Duty: Black Ops is the most famous - but countless games and films have drawn inspiration from it.

The obvious example is Blade Runner (1982). It was set in Los Angeles and was shot mostly in the studio, but during pre-production director Ridley Scott scouted out Hong Kong and was prepared to shoot the film there. In the end it would have been too expensive and I suspect Ridley Scott preferred to shoot in a studio because it gave him more control. Some of the film's most famous scenes were shot on location in LA, but the set dressing and lighting were such that the film seemed to take place in a world of its own. It's often cited by cultural commentators as one of the quintessential Hong Kong films, and it's one of the first things I think of when I think of the city.

I'm going to digress a bit here. Ridley Scott developed Blade Runner during a period when it was widely believed that the economy of Japan would eclipse that of the United States. Hong Kong is of course not Japan, but there's a tendency for Westerners to treat the entire Far East as if it was a single homogeneous mass. As a kid I had to make a mental effort to remember that Hong Kong was part of the Chinese landmass and that China and Japan were different countries.

My vision of Hong Kong is pieced together from photographs in National Geographic magazine and television documentaries rather than direct experience, and also from films that weren't even shot there. Hong Kong isn't a common tourist destination for British people, and generally we don't interact because Hong Kong doesn't have a foreign policy or a navy or interests that overlap with ours. Furthermore the British perception of Hong Kong tends to overlap with that of China.

I'm not going to write an essay about the history of British stereotypes of foreigners. A long time ago the only mass media in Britain was the Bible, from which we presumably got the image of Romans as rigid authoritarians. There must have been memories of actual Romans from the time of their occupation of Britain, but they're lost to time. They left, and although traces of their engineering remain successive generations of British people forgot about their ways. The same is true of the Celts, the Danes, the Normans, the Imperial Spanish and so forth. They are lost to time. Perhaps a village somewhere in Cornwall still has people who are shunned because their great-great-great-etc-granddad worked closely with the Romans and was a turncoat. In the distant past Britain's mass media was generated by a tiny elite and consumed by a slightly less tiny sub-elite, and there was no shared national consciousness, because people belonged to a family and a village and the King was far away.

Our perception of China is different. Britain didn't interact with China until the 1800s, which is not very far away in the great sweep of history. As a consequence British stereotypes of China were formed in an age of mass media, initially penny dreadfuls and Victorian newspapers, later pulp paperbacks and film serials. Our stereotypes of China have been more intense and also more transient than the deep-seated stereotypes we have of the French or the Spanish. Our view of the French is a centuries-old thing that permeates our culture but our view of China is much more ephemeral.

To complicate matters China's economy has developed so quickly that within living memory the country has gone from being a predominantly rural nation recovering from decades of war to a nuclear space superpower that makes all the world's laptops. Before I was born the stereotype of China had been defined by Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu books, all mysterious potions and fierce warlords enslaving green-eyed white women, but by the post-war years Fu Manchu was dead as a doornail, not so much because Britain had become culturally progressive but because Sax Rohmer was a relic from the pre-war years, like W E Johns or Sapper.

Instead when I was young Britain's Chinese stereotype was of earnest young men and women wearing berets and Mao Suits, viz 1960s James Bond films and John Lennon's Mao period, but even that seemed dated in the early 1980s, because Mao was dead and China was gradually integrating with the global economy. In the 1980s China was like the Soviet Union, but smarter, and with a more hands-off government that held its cards close to its chest.

What is my mental stereotype of the Chinese today? Rows of middle-aged men with dyed black hair wearing black business suits, with a few women dressed in white. The National People's Congress. And also Chinese tourists, who have displaced Japanese and Russian tourists as the tourists that everybody likes to tell nasty stories about. There is a perception that they don't need us, that they don't want us, which is jarring because white Europeans are used to being star actors in the great film of human history. Our cities are novelties for them, just as theirs are novelties for us, which is again jarring because we are all taught that the world is ours, not theirs. What if we're wrong and it really is China's world? Does that mean that our heaven isn't real? Are the Chinese aware of Danger Mouse and The Beatles, or are they meaningless to them?

Naked Killer (1992), which is simultaneously terrible (it's boring) and excellent (as you can see). It was a Cat III film, with sex, violence, and sadism, although it was a relatively mild, mainstream Cat III film. For the record the Hong Kong film industry has no problem with pubic hair, unlike the film industry of Japan.

As for Hong Kong in particular I don't think there has ever been a British stereotype of Hong Kongers. Britain's Imperial infrastructure was ethnically segregated, so for the officers and men stationed in Hong Kong the local population was out of sight and out of mind. At most there is perhaps a general view of Hong Kongers as helpful servants, and latterly as young, umbrella-waving protestors who probably dislike us as much as they dislike the Chinese authorities.

A more prosaic reason for the lack of contemporary Hong Kong stereotypes is that Britain's sizeable Chinese and Hong Kong populations don't appear on television. I've always assumed it's because commercial television doesn't see any money in them, and the BBC hates them because people who have left China might not be fond of the Labour Party. It's the same in the United States, where the Korean, Chinese, Japanese-American communities are invisible to the media because there's a perception they vote Republican, or at least that they believe you have to work hard for your money and look after yourself.

That kind of can-do attitude is poison to lefties because left-wing ideology is fundamentally authoritarian. Left-wing ideology has to be imposed by the state because no-one likes it, and it therefore follows that lefties aren't keen on self-reliance, which again isn't likely to appeal to people who have chosen to leave China.

But enough about politics. I was talking about films. The set design and cinematography of Blade Runner was very influential, but it's not the only film that comes to mind when I think of Hong Kong. There's also Chungking Express (1994), which takes place predominantly in neon-lit bars and convenience stores, where hungover people try to find meaning in their lives. Most of the film takes place at night, presenting Hong Kong as a twenty-four-hour city where people only start to come alive when the sun goes down.

I learn from the internet that most of Hong Kong's neon signs have long since been replaced by LEDs, which are brighter and more power-efficient, but also colder and bluer. As a consequence the purple-red-yellow colour scheme beloved of the vapourwave aesthetic is yet another thing that I missed.

I also have fond memories of Deus Ex (2000), which technically isn't a film - it's a computer game, a cyberpunk adventure - but I need to come up with more than two examples, and I haven't seen In the Mood for Love (2000), and although I *have* seen John Woo's The Killer (1989) that film just doesn't feel particularly Hong-Kong-y.

See, most of the location footage in John Woo's films was shot in settings that could be anywhere. Hospitals, warehouses, police stations, a church and so on. My hunch is that filmmakers who grew up in Hong Kong didn't think of the place as an exotic wonderland; they were used to it, perhaps even bored by it. Furthermore they were trying to ape Miami Vice and Commando, which is why so many Hong Kong action films take place in McMansions and warehouses.

The irony is that my mental image of Hong Kong is pieced together from films that exaggerated only a small portion of the city, which means that the real Hong Kong of A Better Tomorrow and Hard Boiled and tonnes of Category III films that came out on VideoCD doesn't look like Hong Kong.

The Killer (1989). Every Hong Kong action film was required by law to have a shootout in a multi-storey car park.

But the same is true of the entire rest of the world. Only two relatively small parts of Barcelona were designed by Gaudi. Rome has an awful lot of dual carriageways and square office buildings and very few ruins. I lived in London for several years, but my memory isn't of Tower Bridge and the Houses of Parliament, it's of endless rows of houses of multiple occupation that just go on forever.

I believe that most people, including myself, live in a dream world, not the real world, because the real world is bowel cancer. The real world is a monkey wanking itself off with a frog that is suffocating to death. The real world is an old man with dementia who no longer knows how to eat food. The real world is bleak horror. We spend our lives trying not to think about the real world, trying to distract ourselves, so that death will take us by surprise.

Think of all the people in the 1970s who appeared on television game shows. For some of them it was the highlight of their lives. It was their brush with immortality, but in retrospect their dreams seem pathetically small.

We are small animals with small dreams. Like deep sea divers locked into a drysuit we are trapped in mortal shells from which we cannot escape, on a planet half-way through its life, orbiting a star that is doomed to die, in a finite universe of stars that are also doomed. None of the billions of living creatures that have died on our planet ever came back from the dead; in all the billions of years that the universe existed before I was born, I didn't have a single thought; not a single philosopher or mystic has come up with a convincing theory that will put my mind at ease. I cling to life, my mind filled with terror at my inevitable death, terror at the thought that I might never have been born. The only escape is obliteration of the self.

Deus Ex, back to Deus Ex. One of the most memorable levels took place in Hong Kong. Even in 2000 the graphics were blocky and the voice acting was borderline racist, and as you can see from the screenshots above an environment that seemed so rich and detailed in 2000 looks very spartan nowadays, but the Hong Kong level was still fascinating.

It had a bunch of nooks and crannies that rewarded exploration, set to a catchy techno soundtrack; there were several locations that you didn't need to visit, including a harbour and a sunken motorway. The whole game took place at night, which suited Hong Kong fine. Deus Ex was set a few years after the end of Hong Kong's post-British handover period; the game imagines that Hong Kong will continue as a commercial hub and that the Chinese government will take a mostly hands-off approach to law and order.

The irony of cyberpunk is that by the time the most successful attempts to translate the genre into a visual medium emerged - The Matrix in 1999, Deus Ex in 2000 - cyberpunk itself was dead. The likes of Freejack, Virtuosity and Johnny Mnemonic (set in Beijing but filmed in Montreal) had done cyberpunk no favours, but even without Hollywood's interference the genre had become obsolete.

Hong Kong cast a huge shadow over cyberpunk literature, although surprisingly few cyberpunk novels were actually set in the city. William Gibson's Sprawl Trilogy took place in a world that had been taken over by Japan; Akira actually took place in Japan; Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash and the Shadowrun role-playing game were set in a dystopian United States. My hunch is that because most cyberpunk novelists were American, Hong Kong didn't mean anything to them. They set their works in an exaggerated version of their homeland plus a version of Japan that resembled the United States but with katanas.

Nonetheless if you grew up reading sci-fi in the 1980s you probably have a vision of Hong Kong as a place where everyone is a shark, and the only thing separating street hustlers from corrupt businesspeople is the cut of their clothes. In a dive bar on Kowloon a shadowrunner trades military-grade ICEbreakers for the chance to speak with a simulation of his dead daughter, and high above the crowds, in an expensively furnished penthouse, shady businessmen exchange handshakes, and a week later a building inspector is found stuffed into a cement mixer, a model of a skyscraper shoved down his throat. The Chinese special police wear black boiler suits and have wrist-mounted computers, but they easily succumb to the lure of old-fashioned lucre. That is the Hong Kong of 1990s cyberpunk dreams.

Thankfully the real Hong Kong isn't like that. In 2018 there were only 28 murders, versus 132 in London, a city with only a million more citizens. During the 1960s and 1970s Hong Kong had a wave of police corruption scandals, but the biggest problem was larceny rather than violence. It may be that some unfortunate victims of crime gangs are dumped in Hong Kong harbour with no questions asked and no investigations, but I suspect that if you don't get involved in Hong Kong's drug trade you're probably not likely to end up dead. It has a reputation as a safe city where people can walk around at night.

At this point in the essay I started thinking about William Fairbairn, one of those larger-than-life characters from the British Empire who worked as a colonial policeman in the pre-war years and trained commandos during the Second World War, but he plied his trade in Shanghai, which isn't Hong Kong.

Britain ran Shanghai for a period, but British rule was a very long time ago and came to an end when the Japanese invaded in the 1940s. Why did we run Shanghai? Because the Chinese refused to buy opium from the East India Tea Company, so we had the Royal Navy sink China's ships until they changed their minds. Just across the water the Japanese learned a lot from us. They learned that if you don't have a powerful navy, you will be used as a plaything by the Great Powers.

Eventually this came back to bite us. We couldn't have imagined that just a few decades after forcing China to sign the unequal treaties a Far Eastern power would drive us out of Shanghai and Hong Kong, but that's exactly what happened.

Bloodsport was an American film shot in Hong Kong, but when I was young Hong Kong had a thriving film industry of its own. People my age might remember Son of the Incredibly Strange Film Show, a documentary series from 1989 presented by Jonathan Ross. It had episodes on action icon Jackie Chan and director Tsui Hark, who produced the popular Hong Kong action-horror A Chinese Ghost Story (1987). I'm surprised to learn from the internet that the show didn't feature John Woo, although for some reason I was aware of him. Woo's The Killer (1989) and Hard-Boiled (1992) were action masterpieces that introduced a new kind of action choreography to Western audiences, assuming you could find them on VHS at the local Blockbuster. The following episode was the first I had heard of Jackie Chan.

It's worth pointing out that Chan and Woo and so forth are well-known now, but if you were a kid in the 1980s in Britain it was hard to find out about them. Their films weren't shown on television, and as a consequence when Woo's action choreography finally reached Britain it hit like a freight train; it was breathtaking, completely new. The 1980s was a golden period for Hollywood action films, but there was something old-fashioned and stiff about them.

Robocop (1987); an example of Hollywood action choreography.

Hollywood action films of the 1980s had neon lights and backlit smoke, but the choreography was just the same as 1950s Westerns. The editing was the same. The hero fired a gun at the screen, then the camera cut to a baddie with a blood squib going off, and perhaps he fell off a railing onto some boxes, then the camera cut back to the hero, cut to a different baddie, etc. The explosions and loud noises were exciting but on a visceral level it didn't feel real. The hero always stood still and the baddies ran into the frame one by one, as if they were on a production line.

Commando (1985); another example.

There were good practical reasons for this style of action choreography. Blank cartridges are lethal at close range, and synchronising an actor's gunfire with remotely-fired explosives and bullet squibs is difficult, so it made sense to film the shooting and the dying separately. Continuity becomes a problem if everybody is moving around. There were practical reasons for it, but by the 1980s it was visually monotonous.

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), yet another example.

Hong Kong action films moved things up a notch. The armourers used a mixture of reduced-power blanks and firecracker explosives, and although the guns didn't recoil or cycle properly the editing was so kinetic it didn't matter. Hong Kong's producers had access to a pool of stunt performers who could jump through the air on cue while pretending to fire a gun, and the low budgets and tight schedules forced the directors to shoot action sequences with continuous hand-held takes. It was often sloppy and people pretended to die even if they hadn't been shot, but no-one cared because it was exciting.

In contrast the stuntmen of Hard Boiled (1992) were peppered with shrapnel and shot at point-blank range with flash paper charges. The camera was always in motion; the camera operators were probably peppered with shrapnel as well, and deafened, and rendered impotent by the awesomeness.

Hollywood took note, and Hong Kong's top talent gradually moved to the United States. John Woo's Hollywood career started off bad, got better, then fizzled out, ditto Tsui Hark, but their influence persists to the current day. If anything it has become stronger over the last few years. In the wake of the Bourne and Taken films Hollywood adopted a fussy, cut-heavy style, but more recently Dredd and John Wick have moved back to the fluid single-take action of classic Hong Kong action films (although they were probably directly inspired by The Raid, a classic 2011 action film from Indonesia that owed a lot to Hong Kong films of fifteen years earlier).

Sadly Hong Kong's film industry has been in decline ever since the 1990s. Even if John Woo had stayed at home Hong Kong would have fallen prey to the same problems that affected the British film industry in the 1970s. As a location Hong Kong has a lot more to offer than London - you're never more than a ninety-minute ferry ride from skyscrapers, bustling streets, and islands that can stand in for Thailand or Vietnam - but economically Hong Kong has a big powerful neighbour that sucks up all the best talent. Ridley Scott went to America as quickly as he could, as did his brother, as did Christopher Nolan, Duncan Jones, Steve McQueen open brackets the director close brackets, Paul Greengrass, Sam Mendes, the list is long, and most of them never came back. Who did they leave behind? Ken Loach, parochial one-note lefty. Mike Leigh, ditto. Publicly-funded worthies making the same film for a publicly-funded audience.

As with Britain, Hong Kong's domestic market is large enough to support light comedies and the occasional breakout gangster / romance / period drama, but this just creates a negative feedback loop whereby domestic product feels low-rent. When I think of British films I should really think of Black Narcissus and Star Wars, but the former was a long time ago and the latter wasn't really British. Instead I think of Trainspotting, and then Four Weddings and a Funeral, and inevitably it all leads to Morons from Outer Space and Whoops Apocalypse and Sex Lives of the Potato Men and poor-quality imitations of Get Carter with TV actors. A narrow range of films with a small range of topics, made for a small people.

On a financial level Hong Kong punches above its weight, but it's easy to exaggerate the size of the city's economy. Hong Kong has a slightly smaller population than London and would neatly fit inside the M25, but its GDP is only half the size (US$341bn vs US$765bn in 2017). If it was a country it would be on a par with Malaysia or Ireland. Hong Kong has clout on the international financial scene because it developed much faster than the rest of the Far East in the post-war years - it was a vision of the Far East's future - but over the last two decades its growth has stalled and the rest of the Far East has caught up. The future has caught up with Hong Kong.

On a fiscal level Hong Kong has been consistently conservative. The city has very little debt, and perhaps because of this it didn't share the explosive growth of China during the 2000s, but at the same time the city's debt-free finances cushioned it from the shock of the Asian financial crisis of 1998 and the 2008 recession. After 1998 the economies of Thailand and Indonesia declined, whereas Hong Kong merely stalled, and the 2008 crisis didn't hit the Far East in the same way that it hit the United States.

With limited land area and fussy geography Hong Kong should in theory have been subject to massive real estate price inflation, but in practice land and building prices in Hong Kong were always high and reached the upper limit of what the market was willing to pay a long time ago. The islands and nature reserves have a lot of relatively unused land but very limited infrastructure; put simply they don't have electricity and running water. People lived there in the past, but there were no jobs, and the Visa requirements were such that it was relatively easy to emigrate, and in any case they were already immigrants so moving somewhere else wasn't a major leap, so in the 1970s and 1980s there was a mass exodus from the islands to the New Territories on the mainland, or Britain, or even - I learn from the internet - to Vancouver. I have to assume they felt Britain was too close to China for their liking.

The Pigeon Detectives summarised in one shocking graph. Their 2017 album Broken Glances spent two whole weeks on the iTunes chart, peaking at number 53. It didn't sell enough to reach the actual UK album chart.

Hong Kong-Chinese immigration to Canada (and to a lesser extent Australia) is apparently a touchy subject, because after selling their homes in Hong Kong the newly-minted arrivals snapped up bargain houses in Vancouver and Sydney, which caused a house price boom in what were historically relatively affordable places. This raises the question of why Vancouver and Sydney don't simply build more houses. Canada and Australia aren't short of space. Still, I'm digressing; the fact is that the construction boom that overtook China in the 2000s passed Hong Kong by, because every inch of suitable land had already been built on.

In the 1980s Hong Kong's GDP was a substantial fraction of neighbouring China. Plugging the two countries into the IMF's website reveals that in 1985 Hong Kong's GDP, using current prices, measured with the purchasing power parity of international dollars, was just over 8% that of China; in 1990 it was 9%, but it has declined ever since. In 2005 it was just 3% and in 2017 it was just under 2%, because China had learned some new tricks.

In 2018, for the first time ever, Hong Kong's GDP was beaten by Shenzhen, a Chinese special economic zone on the other side of the border. I imagine the National People's Congress collectively gave themselves a pat on the back at that point, and lit up a bunch of big cigars, because they had demonstrated that they didn't need Hong Kong any more.

Is China's economic boom a debt-fuelled mirage? Is its GDP boosted by pointless, empty, unsellable construction works? Is the GDP accurate, and is it an accurate reflection of China's economy? I'm not an economist and I don't want to pretend to be an economist. The internet has plenty of pretend economists. Objectively Hong Kong has a strong economy with modest growth and low debt but it seems worse than it is because China has rocketed ahead. Hong Kong has McDonalds and Starbucks and Disneyland. The McDonalds restaurants even have self-service panels, so obviously Hong Kong is doing alright.

All of this raises the question of whether Hong Kong is now just another Chinese city, albeit one with a rich past. But isn't the same true of Rome? Two thousand years have gone by since Rome was the capital city of its world, but people are still drawn there. Not just for the expensive handbags and the ruins but also dreams of the past. The actual past was a brutal nightmare of violence and murder, but our collective dreams are a fantasy paradise, a refuge from the real world, and that is why we travel. We're guided by fantasies that exist inside our heads. Even if Hong Kong becomes just another Chinese postcode it will still exist as a dream, until the dreamers have all died, and the books and films that fed their imaginations have been filed away in the great torrent archive in the sky.

Bye Bye, Empire, Bye Bye
It's hard to think of Chris Patten as a major world figure. When I was young he was one of the people responsible for the Poll Tax, a political miscalculation that ended up costing Margaret Thatcher her job. He looked like an overgrown schoolboy, but he had a knack for surviving and in 1992 John Major made him governor of Hong Kong.

Thus in 1997 he had the honour of handing the place over to China and formally bringing the curtain down on what remained of the British Empire. We still had the Falkland Islands and Gibraltar, but they weren't major financial hubs. I learn that the Hong Kong media nicknamed Chris Patton Fei Pang - Fatty Patten - because he had a thing for custard tarts, although I have to say that by Western standards he wasn't actually fat, he just had a chubby chin.

The handover was one of those fin-de-si├Ęcle things that seemed to usher in a new era, although it was complicated by the fact that China had not, unlike the former Eastern Bloc, abandoned Communism in favour of Liberal Democracy. It was widely expected back then that Chinese Communism would slowly evaporate, and also that religion would die off, two things that have not yet happened.

In theory we might have tried to keep Hong Kong and neighbouring Kowloon. Our 99-year lease only applied to the New Territories on the mainland. However Hong Kong island is dependent on the mainland for water, and we had nothing to gain by keeping Hong Kong and plenty to lose. By handing it over we avoided any fuss and could at least pretend to be in control of the handover process. We might have put up a fight, but we would have lost, and it would have been a waste.

In 1941 Britain's navy was the largest in the world, but it wasn't enough to defend Hong Kong. In December of that year Hong Kong was invaded by Japan. It was one of the opening moves of the Pacific War. I suspect that even if we had not been at war with Germany the expense and difficulty of maintaining naval combat operations in the Far East against a First World opponent would have bankrupted us.

In the distant past Hong Kong was a small fishing village, but it was snapped up by Britain in 1841 so that we had somewhere to base our ships. Our overriding goal was to dominate international trade with China, whether the Chinese liked it or not. The French had Vietnam and the Dutch had the East Indies, but we had Malaya, Burma, Singapore, and of course India and Australia to the West and East, and Hong Kong's location made it a perfect place to berth the Royal Navy. In 1860 we took over Kowloon on the mainland, and in 1898 we made the Chinese authorities sign a 99-year-lease on the surrounding New Territories, essentially as a buffer zone in case of Chinese attack. The people of China had no say in any of this, but that was typical of the Colonial period.

In the end it wasn't China we had to worry about. In the 1930s Japan launched a brutal, drawn-out invasion of China, and in 1938 Japanese forces occupied the Chinese countryside surrounding Hong Kong, cutting the colony off from the mainland. At the time we were not at war with Japan, but the danger was obvious. Winston Churchill was of the opinion that defending Hong Kong was impossible, and that reinforcing the garrison would be a waste of resources, but at the same time we couldn't simply evacuate because the Japanese would laugh at us and Chiang Kai-shek would be very disappointed.

In early December 1941 we sent a small naval task force to Singapore in an attempt to make it clear to the Japanese that we would not put up with any nonsense. It was called Force Z, and it consisted of the battleship HMS Prince of Wales, the battlecruiser HMS Repulse, plus a screen of destroyers. Force Z was originally going to have an aircraft carrier to provide organic air cover, but it ran aground during deployment and was sent home for repairs. Force Z was ordered to proceed without it.

This turned out to be a bad idea. Singapore and Hong Kong both had airports, but facilities were poor and the RAF only had a dozen or so obsolete aircraft stationed there. The Japanese meanwhile had hundreds of state-of-the-art fighter planes and torpedo bombers. If the carrier had accompanied Force Z its fighters would probably have been overwhelmed by Japan's Zeroes, but its reconnaissance aircraft might have given the Force advance warning of attack. In our defence the vulnerability of naval units to air attack was not fully appreciated during the first years of the war, and of course if we had lost the Battle of the Atlantic we would have had other things to worry about than Hong Kong.

HMS Prince of Wales was under construction when the war broke out. In August 1940 the Luftwaffe bombed the ship in dry dock, but the damage was quickly repaired. The Royal Navy needed all the vessels it could get, and after a hasty workup the battleship was commissioned into service in January 1941.
In May 1940, under the command of Captain John Leach, the ship was part of a small force sent to sink the Bismarck. Despite extensive technical problems Prince of Wales' gunners managed to score a crucial hit on Bismarck's fuel tanks, but the destruction of HMS Hood forced Captain Leach to break off pursuit.
In December 1941 Leach sailed into battle once more, this time against the Japanese. He died with his ship. © IWM (A 29068)

On 07 December 1941 Japan attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbour, bringing the United States into the war. Early the next day, just a few hours later, Japanese forces crossed the border into Hong Kong. The RAF's aircraft were destroyed in the opening bombardment but at least initially Japanese progress was slow.

Prince of Wales (top) was hit first. The torpedoes wrecked the steering gear and knocked out most of the ship's electrical power. The ship took on water and quickly developed a list, which made it impossible for the gunners to aim their antiaircraft batteries effectively. In this photo, taken from a Japanese bomber, the attack has switched to HMS Repulse (bottom). © IWM (HU 2763)

Late in the afternoon of 08 December Force Z was ordered to intercept a Japanese invasion force approaching Malaya. It failed to find any landing craft - the aircraft carrier would have been invaluable - but on the way back to base it was spotted by Japanese submarines. Bombers of the Imperial Japanese Air Force attacked just before midday on 10 December and within three hours Prince of Wales and Repulse were sunk with the loss of eight hundred lives. The destruction of Force Z dealt a crippling blow to the Royal Navy's forces in the Far East and left the garrisons at Singapore and Hong Kong with no hope of relief and very little chance of rescue.

Most of the surviving destroyers of Force Z met their doom at the Battle of the Java Sea two months later. One of the few destroyers that survived those two catastrophes, HMS Vampire, was sunk alongside the aircraft carrier HMS Hermes and the cruisers HMS Cornwall and HMS Dorsetshire by Japanese bombers in April 1942. Our record against the Imperial Japanese Navy was not an impressive one, although again in our defence the Royal Navy was continually forced to do battle with inadequate forces against an enemy that held the initiative. The Royal Navy spent the rest of the war rebuilding its Far Eastern forces, and when it returned to action it was as a junior partner of the United States, in a world where battleships were obsolete and air power was king.

The 1997 handover of Hong Kong is sometimes cited as the end of the British Empire, but I think that our defeat at the hands of Japan in the Second World War was the real end. The British Empire's unique selling point was that we were bastards, but we were tough, and our laws were written down and had a pretence of rationality. Our defeat demonstrated that we weren't tough at all, or at the very least that we would always put our European interests first, and if we couldn't enforce our laws and customs, what did we have? By the end of the war we relied on the United States for war material and food, and when we tried to invade Egypt a decade later the Americans slapped us down and we looked like fools.

In 1941 Hong Kong's garrison was poorly-equipped, although just before the battle almost two thousand freshly-trained soldiers were shipped from Canada. The garrison was also supported by a destroyer, HMS Thracian, that managed to sink some Japanese landing craft before being hit by Japanese bombs. Hong Kong was essentially lost quite early on, when the Japanese took a series of key hills in the New Territories, but Japanese forces didn't manage to cross to Hong Kong island until 18 December.

Writing about the fall of Hong Kong is difficult because some of the key battles involved only a few dozen defenders, most of whom didn't survive to pass on their stories. On 19 December Brigadier John Lawson, the senior Canadian officer, was killed along with his staff when the Japanese reached his headquarters bunker. In his last radio transmission to Major-General Maltby, the British commander, Lawson announced that the Japanese were at point-blank range, and he was going outside to fight it out. Legend has it that he was hit by machine-gun fire while engaging the Japanese with a pair of pistols, but no-one knows for sure because only a few people were there to witness it. Most of the Japanese soldiers involved in the battle were eventually shipped off to die at New Guinea and Guadalcanal.

Hong Kong's mountainous terrain is well-suited to defence, but only on a small-scale, tactical level. Without supplies even the strongest fortifications can only hold out for so long, and Hong Kong was vulnerable to shelling from all sides. Several hundred Canadian defenders spent most of the battle guarding the southern half of the island against a Japanese beach assault that never came. By the time they were redeployed it was too late. The Allies surrendered on Christmas Day, 1941, after fighting for just over a fortnight. The surviving defenders were marched off into captivity. Several hundred were worked to death over the next four years, and although my generation doesn't have a problem with Japan a few British pensioners still aren't keen on the country because of this.

Two months later Japanese forces attacked Singapore. We knew they were on the way, but this time it only took them a week to drive us out. The fall of Hong Kong was overshadowed by the opening phases of the Pacific War, but we couldn't brush Singapore under the carpet. The fall of Singapore made Winston Churchill wince, and I can't imagine how weak Britain must have looked.

There wasn't a second battle of Hong Kong. The city remained in Japanese hands right up until the Japanese surrender on 15 August 1945, and Hong Kong was handed over peacefully to the Royal Navy on 30 August. I wonder what happened in the intervening fortnight. Did the Japanese soldiers dump their weapons in the sea, or hand them over to the police, or did they pretend that they were still in charge? It must have been a nervous time. The Imperial War Museum has several photographs of Japanese prisoners being used to do menial duties by the British, so presumably they remained until the British returned.

The European colonies in the Far East were all restored to their former imperial masters, with wildly divergent histories from that point onwards, but that's a different story. During the Korean War Hong Kong was an important military staging base for Britain and the United Nations, and although Britain didn't participate in the Vietnam War, Hong Kong was still a popular waystation for American soldiers. That must have irritated the Chinese authorities, but they were prepared to wait.

Hong Kong's economy recovered quickly after the war. This photograph was taken in 1946. In the days before containerisation ships had to be unloaded by hand. Hong Kong was relatively late to adopt containerisation - new facilities had to be built on reclaimed land, because there wasn't enough space - but from the early 1970s onwards it became a leading container port, and it's still in the top ten. © IWM (A 31130)

Why didn't China try to take over Hong Kong before 1997? I assume the Communist authorities felt that access to hard currency and international markets was more important than a little bit of national embarrassment, besides which all they had to do was wait a few years and it would be theirs, as indeed it was.

Beyond the word of waking dreams Hong Kong is also a practical holiday destination. From a Western perspective the most difficult thing is getting there, but that's just an endurance test. If you can put up with twelve or fifteen hours on an airliner - depending on whether you fly from the UK or the US respectively - travelling to Hong Kong is nowhere near as difficult as arranging passage across the Caspian sea by ferry, for example.

I learn from the internet that in the 1960s it took twenty-four hours to fly from London to Hong Kong. It must have been an adventure. BOAC's Boeing 707s had much less range than modern airliners and the flight had to divert around the Soviet Union, so there were stops in the Middle East and India before going on to Hong Kong's Kai Tak airport.

Kai Tak was built in the 1920s. It was originally a small field on the mainland. The Japanese greatly expanded it during the war but by the 1950s it was too small for a new generation of jet airliners, so in 1958 a new runway was built on reclaimed land that extended into Hong Kong harbour. The runway was infamous because the flight path was unusually complicated. Long-haul airliners were directed to come in from the landward side, but the terrain was too hilly for a straight-in approach, so pilots had to float over Kowloon's apartments before making a sharp right turn onto the runway. If they were going too fast and didn't abort the landing quickly enough the only run-off area was Kowloon Bay.

The approach was dramatic, but there were only a handful of accidents involving passenger airliners during the jet age. Pilots had to be specially certified to land at Kai Tak, and ultimately only one jetliner ended up in the water, and even then no-one was killed. Sadly for planespotters Kai Tak was closed in 1998 in favour of a new airport built on reclaimed land on an island to the west. The closure coincided with the Asian financial crisis, which might explain why the airport location still hasn't been redeveloped. It's now a park and a big wasteland. Why didn't planes land from the seaward side? Hills and nasty crosswinds, apparently. I'm not a pilot.

Passenger air service between London and Hong Kong began in March 1936. It was flown by Imperial Airways, a distant ancestor of BA. The route took ten days and passed through Iraq, India, and Saigon before heading off on its final leg to Hong Kong. Passengers had to change aircraft six times and the one-way fare was £175, which is roughly £11,000 in modern money. A first-class flight from London to Hong Kong with British Airways costs roughly the same nowadays, £12,000 or so, although it only takes twelve hours, not ten days, and it's a lot more comfortable. If you don't want to spend that kind of money British Airways and Cathay Pacific will fly you there for around £500, give or take a hundred pounds, depending on the date. I booked way in advance.

Once on the ground Hong Kong is more English-friendly than Japan. The signposts have English translations and a lot of people speak English. Furthermore they drive on the correct side of the road, although this can be awkward at the border because China drives on the right side, which is the wrong side. How can you defend yourself from oncoming cars if your sword arm is on the wrong side of the road? I rest my case. AirBnB operates in Hong Kong but I found that was cheaper nb I am not being paid to advertise

Most everything is paid for with a cashless charge card, the Octopus card, so you don't have to speak to anyone. In one day you can take a short trip to one of the islands, pop back to Kowloon to do some shopping, and then go over to Hong Kong island to watch the sunset and have tea. Public transport is cheap and plentiful, crime is very low, and there are no special risks for foreigners. The Hong Kong police are apparently no more corrupt than police here in the UK and sentences for criminal behaviour are similar on account of our shared history. The death penalty was formally abolished in 1993 but, as with Britain, it had been defunct since the 1960s. Is Hong Kong fun if you're black? That's a good question and I can't answer it; my hunch is that it's more cosmopolitan than Japan.

Drugs? You can find that out for yourself. Prostitution? Legal, but again that's up to you. Gambling? Also legal albeit tightly-restricted, but Hong Kong is overshadowed by Macau, a former Portuguese possession which was handed back to China in 1999. It has more casinos than Las Vegas and is a brief ferry ride from Hong Kong.

Portugal had a empire, did you know that? Portugal used to own Goa, but in December 1961 India invaded and took it back. Say what you like about the British Empire, we knew when to fold 'em, as do I, the end.

Friday, 2 August 2019

Canon EF 300mm f/4L IS

Let's have a look at the Canon 300mm f/4L IS, a moderately long, moderately fast telephoto lens for the Canon EOS system. It was released in 1997 and remains on sale today, over twenty years later, but like the 100mm f/2 I wrote about a while ago it has spent most of its life in the shadow of other, more popular lenses. Nonetheless it fills a niche, and I decided to try it out because 300mm is apparently just right if you're planespotting at Hong Kong airport.

Here's what the lens looks like:

The tripod foot is just slightly too small to use as a comfortable handhold, but you could always add a large quick release plate.

And here's Brad Pitt:

About a month after writing the rest of this post I took the lens off to Venice, where by coincidence there was a film festival.

It's interesting to see the diversity of equipment used by the press pack - SLRs, mirrorless cameras, Sony, Canon, Nikon, third-party lenses, even a mobile phone.

I have no idea who they are.

300mm is a classic focal length, good for a wide range of sporty-wildlify-portraity applications, often paired with a teleconverter. It's just at the cusp of the super-telephoto range, and I like to think that the advent of crop-sensor digital SLRs at the turn of the millennium breathed new life into 300mm, because suddenly it was 450mm. It's still very much a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none, but a combination of cropping and standing further away can work wonders.

Canon sells the lens with a box and a case, but not a hood, because the hood is built-in. Built-in lens hoods were a Canon thing in the 1990s. The 300mm f/4's hood pulls out and twist-locks into place:

I wish more lenses had built-in lens hoods. Some lens hoods have an aggressive look, but the 300mm's hood is just a tube, and perhaps because of this the lens doesn't feel as conspicuous as other L-class lenses. As with Canon's other L-class primes the 300mm doesn't extend or rotate when it focuses. It has a 77mm filter thread.

With the hood retracted the 300mm f/4 is relatively compact. It's slightly heavier than an f/2.8 standard zoom, but it feels lighter because the body is less dense. It doesn't have weather sealing, but even after standing downwind of a bunch of dusty tanks at Tankfest I didn't notice any more dust inside the lens. I have no idea how it would stand up to rain. When you clean the lens afterwards I suggest you blow off the dust, then extend and lock the hood, then blow off the dust, then unlock the hood and blow off the dust again. Dust seems to collect in the hood mechanism.

Bit of history. The EOS system was launched in 1987. In the first year there was a limited selection of lenses, mostly cheap zooms, but at the top of the tree was the Canon 300mm f/2.8L USM, a big, heavy professional lens that showcased Canon's new ultrasonic focusing technology.

In the 1990s Canon fleshed out the EOS system, but for a while the range of lenses was very binary, split between halo designs such as the 200mm f/1.8L and 50mm f/1.0L at the top end and cheap plastic-bodied zooms and primes at the low end, with very little in the middle.

In particular there were no mid-range primes, so in 1991 Canon launched the 300mm f/4L, which was aimed at people who wanted 300mm but didn't want or couldn't afford the f/2.8. The 300mm f/4 looked very similar to the 300mm f/4 IS featured in this post - it was a metal-bodied, white-painted lens with a built-in lens hood and a 77mm filter thread - but unlike the IS version the minimum focus distance was three metres instead of one and a half metres. The IS' focus window labels the close focus distance as a macro range, although the maximum enlargement ratio is a relatively ordinary 1:4.

I'm going to stop highlighting the letter L. It's really awkward and I don't want to do it any more.

The non-IS 300mm f/4 existed long before the modern internet came into being and there's very little about it online. The few reviews I can find suggest that it's slightly sharper at f/4 than the f/4L IS but much the same stopped down. It's an interesting choice on the used market, but against it the youngest examples are now over twenty years old and Canon doesn't service it any more. The three metre minimum focus distance strikes me as awkward.

Optically the 300mm f/4 IS' only real deficit is purple fringing in some situations at f/4.

The controls are simple. Stabilisation mode two is single-axis only. The focus limiter prevents the lens from hunting below 3m. The tripod foot is removable although underneath it there are exposed screws.

The original 300mm f/4L was replaced in 1997 by the 300mm f/4L IS, which added generation one image stabilisation. I have one! You're reading about it right now. The IS unit is rated for two stops of stabilisation, and on a personal level I can get generally sharp images at 1/100th and decent usable images at 1/40th if I hold myself really still. Image stabilisation goes wrong if you activate it while the lens is on a tripod - I tried it to see what happened, and the viewfinder image jumped to one side and wobbled a bit. My hunch is that this does nothing for corner sharpness.

Bokeh is just fine. This image illustrations one of the problems with the 5D MkII, a camera which is now, frighteningly, just over ten years old - it doesn't cope well with highlights.

I have no way of formally testing the 300mm f/4L IS, and even if I did I wouldn't, because I don't have the expertise to do so. The reviews I can find are generally eight-out-of-ten, e.g. it's of a high standard but not exceptionally sharp, and over the last few years it has faced very stiff competition from a new generation of zoom lenses.

St Mark's Square shot at f/4, 1/180th, ISO 100, with IS.

Straight from the camera central sharpness is okay, but not bitingly sharp.

However a bit of sharpening can help that. There's a subtle red glow around highlight edges.

Similarly the extreme top-right corner is good but not great...

...but again it can be improved with a bit of sharpening and mild CA correction. My impression is that at f/5.6 the lens becomes fractionally sharper, but I couldn't see a convincing improvement.

Just for fun here's the same location shot at 200mm with a Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 IS.

For my purposes I have no issue with central sharpness wide open. Lensrentals' MTF testing suggests that the 300mm f/4 IS isn't on a par with the best 300mm f/2.8 or even 100-400mm zoom lenses in the centre of the image, but that it's more consistent across the frame, with solid corners and less distortion than a zoom lens.

Almost all of the images in this post were moving objects shot through a mass of air at relatively slow shutter speeds with a hand-held lens using image stabilisation. I suspect that although a 300mm f/2.8 might be theoretically sharper I would need a monopod (and permanent burst mode) to notice any significant improvement in image quality.

There's essentially no geometric distortion. There's a little bit of vignetting at f/4, but I didn't bother to correct it and you probably can't see it in any of these images. The sharpness is good enough that you can do quite aggressive cropping. Contemplate the following image of an IFV commander:

It's actually a close crop from this image, with the contrast boosted:

For the sake of comparison, the following image shows how 300mm stacks up against other focal lengths:

The red box is 400mm, the yellow box is 600mm. Cropped down to 600mm a 21mp image is roughly five megapixels, which is more than enough for the internet.

One thing. Most people on the internet love their 300mm f/4 IS, but there are some outliers. Some people seem to hate it, and I have no reason to doubt their sincerity. I have a theory; it's not great at close focusing distances, and if you shoot tame birds (for example) at the closest extreme you might be disappointed with the images. Here's a shot of a tree at fifteen metres or so, followed by a 100% crop of the extreme top-right corner, taken at f/8:

It's not razor-sharp and the last fifty pixels or so have some CA, but it's pretty sharp. Here's another target, also at f/8, but shot at the closest focusing distance:

As you can see the corner at close range isn't very good. Whether it's field curvature or just an ordinary lack of sharpness I know not. At f/8 central sharpness is fine at close distance (I can see the texture of the paper) but at f/4 it's not as good either, so perhaps the people who disliked the 300mm f/4 IS shot mostly at close range. Who knows. This section of the review strikes me as one of those things that I will take down and try to forget about in the future because a massive flaw in my methodology will become apparent, but I tried hard to make sure that the album jacket was perpendular to the camera, and the other corners were just as bad, although frustratingly they don't have detail in them.

Incidentally the Canon 5D MkII's autofocus system is mediocre, but the 300mm f/4 is fast and accurate and worked well enough at Goodwood.

f/4 isn't quite as background-melting as f/2.8, but it's not bad if the target is relatively close. It's a stop more background-melting than most zoom lenses, two stops if you don't like shooting your zoom lens wide open at 300mm.

I mention up the page that the 300mm f/4L IS tends to be overshadowed. That's because Canon makes a wide range of telephoto lenses, both primes and zooms.

The most obvious alternative is a second-hand Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS Mk1, by all accounts a very good lens. It's a push-pull zoom that tends to suck up dust, and the typical second-hand example is now over a decade old, but it has a powerfully appealing combination of range and general competence. I might have bought one, but it's heavier than the 300mm f/4 and I already have a very good 70-200mm zoom lens, so I would probably only ever use it at 400mm.

Furthermore the Mk2 version of the lens is a major upgrade, and I suspect that the Mk1 version of the lens still has some depreciation left. I can remember when they sold for £800; they're now roughly £600. The Mk2 version will eventually hit the used market, at which point the Mk1 will depreciate even more.

For these and other reasons I decided against the 100-400mm. The next obvious choice is the 400mm f/5.6L, a venerable super-telephoto from 1991 that's still on sale today. It occasionally pops up on the used market. On a technical level it's a bit like the original non-IS 300mm f/4. There's no weather sealing or image stabilisation and the minimum focus distance is 3.5m. Optically it's apparently good but not great. I've always assumed that Canon doesn't sell many of them, and that most people go for the 100-400mm instead. I wonder if Canon assembles new copies of the lens from a bin of parts that were made twenty years ago. Who knows.

I opted against the 400mm f/5.6L partially because of the minimum focus distance, partially because good examples don't come up very often on the used market, mainly because 400mm is less versatile than 300mm. Furthermore handholding a lens at 400mm without image stabilisation is difficult. Will Canon replace it, or drop it from their line-up, or keep it? I don't know.

The aforementioned purple fringing is generally a non-issue, but it can occasionally be problematic. Photoshop can fix it. This is also another example of the lens being not great at closer focus distances.

Anything else? The modern 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS II - a black, consumer-level lens - is apparently very good, but I wanted something more robust. The ancient 100-300mm f/5.6L is apparently decent at 300mm, but it's made of plastic and used examples are very old. I would be nervous about its little plastic gears. I could buy a teleconverter for my 70-200mm f/2.8 IS, but I'm not keen on teleconverters. I would end up with a long, unbalanced lens that focuses slowly and doesn't perform very well wide open.

The 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS (the white, odd-shaped L lens, not the consumer model) is apparently very good, but it feels redundant. Why not buy a 100-400mm instead? Canon has been selling 300mm f/2.8 and 400mm f/2.8 lenses since the dawn of the EOS system, but even the earliest examples are still very expensive on the used market. They're excellent lenses but I can't justify the expense.

At the highest end of the range Canon's 600mm and 800mm lenses are rare and exotic. They're not so much standalone lenses as the central element of an image production system. They require an infrastructure of monopods, assistants, a van, padded lens boxes, a relationship with a Canon specialist etc.

My impression is that when faced with the need for a telephoto Canon lens most people opt for the 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L, for good reason - it's versatile, and I could probably have taken any of these photographs with one, albeit that I would have been shooting a stop down and the background would be more distracting. Nonetheless the 300mm f/4 IS more than justifies its existence. At the very least it gives me an excuse to get out of bed on a weekend.