Display of rudeness a shock to the system

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 July, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 July, 1997, 12:00am

In the great scheme of things it is a matter of no great importance, no doubt, but I am unashamedly intrigued by the trickle of letters to the South China Morning Post suggesting the handover has led to an increase in unprovoked incidents of rudeness to foreigners.

One of the writers concerned claimed numerous friends had suffered similar experiences. He wondered if the rather jingoistic tone of the handover oratory had anything to do with this.

One of the reasons why I find this so interesting is that my personal experience has been totally different. Over the past six months or so I have found local people not just being normally polite, as they usually are, but positively going out of their way to be helpful to an apparent visitor.

I am not the only person to have noticed this. One of my friends, who is leaving, went to close a neglected bank account the other day. He found the lady behind the counter displaying a degree of sympathy and sadness quite disproportionate to the modest loss of business involved in the closure of his account. It seemed she was genuinely sorry to see him go.

Clearly experiences vary. I do not dispute the accuracy of the letter-writers' memories at all. It is no excuse, of course, but this sort of thing happens in a lot of places.

When I was small I lived for some time in Germany. This was soon after World War II and memories on both sides had not faded. Not only did we find some Germans still quite hostile to Britons, on our return to England some kids were told not to play with me because of the mistaken impression that we were German.

The Balkans, where I used to spend holidays, were a seething mass of ethnic resentments. Greek pacifists would tell you that of course they would be willing to make an exception for a war against the Turks. Yugoslavs - well we all know about Yugoslavia now.

Britain was not immune to this sort of thing either. A railway bridge near my home was still daubed with 'Yanks go home' in honour of our wartime allies. British railway bridges are traditionally neither cleaned nor painted. There is probably still one somewhere with 'hang the kaiser' on it.

While some scorn for foreigners is almost universal, there is considerable variation in the way it is expressed. In some places it is vicious and violent, a real physical danger to anyone who strays into the wrong place at the wrong time.

In others it is a concealed undercurrent. Many people in France have little time for foreigners. This is not expressed openly. The range of acceptable behaviour does not include outright rudeness, at least to Europeans. Instead you encounter the insistence that you should speak French, followed by a dogged refusal to understand your version of it.

It would be surprising if no one saw the handover as an opportunity to avenge injuries, real or imagined. This sort of hostility is very upsetting, because it is directed at matters which you cannot change. It is too late to cancel the Opium War and Britain is the only country willing to issue me a passport. But it is also, in Hong Kong at least, extremely rare. People may have all sorts of feelings, but they rarely find expression in public speech and behaviour.

It is of course very disturbing to be spat or shouted at, but such incidents attract attention precisely because they are so unusual. Hong Kong is a safe city. We have no 'no go' areas, for foreigners or anyone else.

Having said that I must say that some of the handover speeches sounded a bit over-the-top by European standards. The wilder shores of patriotic speech-making are regarded with some suspicion where I come from, because of their association, I suppose, with dictatorial regimes and calamitous wars.

But if the speeches had a whiff of the 1930s about them, there was a singular lack of the traditional hysterical response among the audience.

The superficial impression is confirmed by the early polls: Hong Kong people accepted the need for the handover, enjoyed such parts of the jollifications as they managed to get into, and got on with their lives. Excited they were not.

The arrival of the PLA was a fact of life, to be accepted with what optimism one could muster.

I was, incidentally, puzzled by the suggestion from another columnist that the PLA would not have known where they were going if they had not sent hundreds of people here in advance.

The Japanese army did not have this problem.