The farewell to a coat of arms
HAIL to another hilarious report from the Provisional Working Committee, whose legal sub-group has solemnly decided that the Colony Armorial Bearings (Protection) Ordinance 1964 is in violation of the Basic Law and will have to be repealed.
The odd thing about this story is that it is clear from several reports that everyone involved thought that the item protected by the ordinance from unauthorised copying and exploitation was the Union Jack.
Sub-group leader Shao Tianren observed that 'it is impossible to use a particular ordinance to protect the British emblem', adding that if the ordinance was kept then the emblems of all other countries would have to be protected as well.
Several newspapers (though not this one) gleefully reported that the Union Jack would be bereft of protection after 1997, thereby puzzling numerous British readers who know perfectly well that the Union Jack has never been protected here - or for that matter in the United Kingdom.
It is, in fact, routinely used by an American shoe company as a trade mark. It has been printed on carrier bags, running shorts and even underwear. It is not the official British national emblem, Royal or otherwise. This role is of course performed by the Princess of Wales.
The problem is that nobody had understood the ordinance. This is a pity because the ordinance concerned is one of the shortest in the book. It occupies less than a page. It protects from commercial abuse the 'armorial ensign and supporters assigned to the colony under Royal Warrant on January 21, 1959'.
This does not mean that the items concerned are themselves royal. Nor are they symbolic of Britain. They are symbolic of the colony of Hong Kong and will presumably lapse in 1997.
People are on the whole quite law-abiding (or ignorant) about the colony's armorial ornament, and it is seldom seen. There is a perfectly legal copy of it inside the front cover of the Government's annual report.
The technical description of heraldry is an arcane pursuit involving a lot of gules, vert, unicorns rampant and such like with which I am not familiar. But the basic outline in everyday language is as follows: There is a green hump with wavy blue lines round its bottom, presumably representing mountains and sea. Over this is an ornamental scroll with 'Hong Kong' written on it. Perched on the mountain is a shield embellished with two junks, some more symbolic sea, and at the top a red patch with a gold crown. On the left of the shield is a lion, wearing a crown. On the right is a dragon, hatless. On top is a baby lion, crowned, and holding a pearl in its paws.
This is not really a flag or an emblem. It is an example of a species known colloquially as a coat of arms. The Queen has one but this is not it. Britain as such does not have one. Mr Shao could have one if he wished. They are issued by an official in London to any gentleman who wishes to be 'armigerous'. You are assumed to be a gentleman if you can afford the fee, which for a simple item of a graphic design is quite hefty.
Having acquired your 'arms' you can put them on your notepaper and business cards, or have them engraved on the lintel of your ancestral hall, supposing you have one.
Usually the arms of established bodies are protected by regulations forbidding copying for commercial purposes. This is not done to protect the dignity of the owner, but because allowing use of the arms was traditionally a way of providing a commercial endorsement.
Some British firms are still allowed to put the royal arms on their products because one of Their Majesties uses the item concerned.
All this has nothing to do with the Union Jack. Strictly speaking (I had better make this point because someone will point this out if I don't) the symbol seen on running shoes and other unlikely places is the Union Flag. It is only a jack if it is flown on a jack staff, which is the miniature mast at the sharp end of large ships.
British people are, by international standards, not emotional about their flag. It is routinely subjected to a variety of indignities. I have never seen it on toilet paper but that is probably only because expensive three-colour printing would be necessary.
Legal sub-group members can rest assured that nobody in Britain will mind what happens to the Union Jack in Hong Kong after 1997.
Members might, though, usefully reconsider their own working practices. Apparently the meeting which condemned the Armorial Bearings Ordinance also considered 48 other ordinances. Dare we entertain the thought that this consideration may have been rather superficial?