The Salesian House of Studies has not changed much since it was built on a Hong Kong hillside in the 1930s. But the city around it has altered beyond recognition. Tower blocks, main roads and schools have sprung up and engulfed the mission house. The soundtrack of the presumably once tranquil retreat is now a symphony of constant drilling, rushing traffic and workmen shouting.

Cardinal Joseph Zen himself greets me at the door of the mission house. The humble building is where he began his studies in 1948, when he travelled to the island from his home in Shanghai just a year before Mao Zedong seized control of the mainland. After standing down as Bishop of Hong Kong in 2009, he has returned to the place where it all began for his retirement.

It is not just the landscape around the mission house that has been transformed during Zen’s ecclesiastical career. On July 1, 1997, the handover of the British territory to the Chinese government took place in accordance with the “one country, two systems” principle, granting Hong Kong the right to retain its capitalist economy and political structure.

“I think at the time of the handover there were many different expectations,” says Zen. “Some were very optimistic, some pessimistic. There was a promise of ‘one country, two systems’. But I never believed that it could really work because the communists simply cannot understand our system. The fact is that the 20 years of Chinese control are 20 years of fighting.”

And Cardinal Zen, who only seems to be his 85 years when he cups a hand round his ear to hear what you are saying more clearly, has been a constant figure at the frontline of that fight.

His outspoken personality contrasts with that of his favourite biblical character, St Joseph, whom the cardinal describes as quiet and humble. “He says no word in the Holy Scripture, but I’m not like him. I envy him: I talk the whole time.”

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