End of Empire: Hong Kong - Signed, Sealed and Delivered
by Peter Moss
To many Hongkongers, the handover seems long ago, buried under memories of two financial crises, a botched election, and Sars. So Peter Moss' 248-page picture book, End of Empire, is a timely reminder of that distant Monday night, 15 years ago, when the colonising British left in the rain.
Moss has an intimate knowledge of Hong Kong and its pre-handover administration. In 1978 the author became the colonial Government Information Services department's head of publicity, until he retired in 1993 with an MBE. He has also written three acclaimed novels set during British colonial pull-outs: Bye-Bye Blackbird, set in India of 1947; Distant Archipelagos, set in Malaya in 1957; and No Babylon, in Hong Kong in 1997.
In End of Empire, Moss again proves he can sketch a historic scenario in short, simple sentences, first with a well-researched potted history of the colony, and then in a similarly digestible pictorial timeline of events, from the arrival of the British in 1842, to the Joint Declaration in 1984, and their final departure.
Moss' text seems intended to highlight publisher FormAsia's photographs, but his brevity is sufficiently informative to generate debate about how Hong Kong might have looked if the British didn't lease the New Territories in 1898, or if Zhou Enlai hadn't, as Moss writes, 'saved Hong Kong from a Communist takeover in 1967'.
In Countdown, the first of four sections in End of Empire, Moss recalls how Hong Kong braced for 1997 after the Joint Declaration. He quotes Lu Ping, secretary-general of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, as saying, 'Do the British really believe that we are going to allow them to stay on in Hong Kong after 1997?', but readers might wish he had said more about Deng Xiaoping and Margaret Thatcher's tough talks.
Instead, End of Empire reveals an unremarkable jumble of colonial-era stock shots, of the ruined gun emplacements on Stonecutters' Island; Victorian and pre-war Central, and the garrison facilities in Admiralty. A portrait of the robed chief justice Yang Ti-liang and other bigwigs highlight the ceremony of the British legal system, while colonial garrison regimental silver is shown to be sold off as June 30, 1997, neared. On page 86 readers are told the initials 'ER' stand for 'Elizabeth Rex'. How quickly Hong Kong forgets the old order. It should be 'Elizabeth Regina'.
The In Memoriam section flits between 'the trials' of Hong Kong's past, and leaves readers to debate their relevance to the handover. Much space is devoted to allied war dead, with pictures of crowds of tycoons alongside wigs and uniforms at the 1986 funeral of governor Sir Edward Youde.
Readers are then ushered 13 years forward, to the 150th anniversary service of St John's Cathedral in 1997, and then eight years back to Hong Kong's reaction to the 'events that took place' in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in June 1989. Moss then switches to the Cenotaph and images of Black Watch soldiers performing their ceremonial duties there - but End of Empire doesn't show the famous April 1997 picture of Corporal Lee Wotherspoon's kilt-swirled bare rump, or reflect on the rarity of flags on the monument in post-colonial Hong Kong.
In the Farewell section, Moss directs the reader to the background and lyrics of Land of Hope and Glory, accompanied by a couple of shots of Barry Knight conducting the 'Last Night of the Proms' at the Academy for Performing Arts.
There are pictures of handover dignitaries at Government House, and, as expected, the one of the last governor, Chris Patten, head bowed, clutching the lowered colonial flag.
End of Empire's main flaw, however, is that its pictures are all in black and white, cheating the reader of the colour of the colonial finery against a lush tropical backdrop, and the vibrant brocade of chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang's outfits. At the handover ceremony, for example, she sat between Hong Kong's past and future sovereigns in symbolic 'through train red', not as a blip in FormAsia's lighter shade of grey.
In End of Empire's final section, The New Dawn, the monochromed ranks of British troops are portrayed standing in the rain, but there are no pictures of similarly rain-sodden Chinese troops being greeted by cheering crowds at the border, or the swearing-in of the new SAR regime.
End of Empire misses other key aspects of the handover's colour: of the 'tango-dancer' and 'whore of the East' references to Patten that punctuated Britain and China's mutual suspicions on sovereignty, democracy, infrastructure and cash reserves in a city the last governor described as 'the biggest dowry since Cleopatra'. Moss recalls Prince Charles' prescient handover fears about 'creeping corruption and the gradual undermining of Hong Kong's greatest asset - the rule of law', but stops short of the 'appalling old waxworks' comments that were later linked to the royal visitor's diary.
End of Empire reproduces Patten and the prince's goodbye speeches, but omits president Jiang Zemin's speech in which he reassured Hong Kong people that their freedoms would remain.
Inexplicably, the book overlooks the excitement of Hong Kong's big moment beyond the dignitaries, officials, tycoons and troops, when reporters and film crews from all over the world crowded Central.
It also skirts the effect of the event - of the overtime required to get the airport, railways and extra newspaper pages finished; of the new HK$2 bauhinia coins that failed to register in the MTR's ticket machines; the fluctuation in property prices as the foreign 'brickies' came and left; how Patten's policies split expatriate opinion; and how many of us scorned Hong Kong's commie-looking Bauhinia flag, or later nodded off during Jeremy Irons and Gong Li's 1997 film, Chinese Box.
I watched the handover on TV and fell into its aftermath at the Foreign Correspondents' Club, a good seven drinks behind everyone else. My friends went off to watch the Democrats demonstrate at the Legislative Council, or greet the PLA. I didn't bother. I just work here. And it is my tribute to Britain and China that I still do.