Britain's lasting link
British Council marks 60 years of fostering cultural ties in HK, writes Liz Gooch
From the colonial days to the post-handover years, Hong Kong's relationship with Britain has been a long, intimate affair. The political situation may have changed but more than a decade after the last colonial governor set sail for home, the organisation charged with promoting British culture has continued to thrive.
As it celebrates 60 years in Hong Kong, the British Council kick-started year-long festivities last Saturday with a gathering of 60 prominent Hongkongers who attended British universities.
The guest list read like a who's who of Hong Kong society; from Bank of East Asia chairman David Li Kwok-po, Civic Party leader Audrey Eu Yuet-mee and Liberal Party vice-chairwoman Selina Chow Liang Shuk-yee to media personality Chip Tsao, an indication of the wide-reaching influence of the council, which opened here in 1948.
The Hong Kong office of the British Council was one of the first to open in the aftermath of the second world war. The organisation had been established in 1934 as the British Committee for Relations with Other Countries by Sir Reginald Leeper, ironically an Australian by birth.
According to the council's website, Sir Reginald was 'persuaded of the importance of what he termed 'cultural propaganda' in promoting Britain', and persuaded the Foreign Office to fund work that included lecture tours and book donations to nearly 30 countries.
The first British Council representative to Hong Kong arrived on July 19, 1948.
Director of the council in Hong Kong, Ruth Gee, said the office was opened to strengthen cultural relations between the Chinese and British, a goal that continues to drive the council's work.
'There was a recognition and the very firm belief that you create goodwill and betterment if you have understanding between cultures, and there was a wish to ensure that that happened here,' she said.
One of the council's first activities was to provide scholarships for Hong Kong students to study at British universities.
Its collection of English books was opened to the public in 1948 at the office of the China Mail in Windsor House, before the British Council library opened in Statue Square a year later. The council began holding weekly film shows at the Helena May building the same year.
In the 1970s the council commissioned local universities to conduct a survey to gauge whether there was demand for English lessons. The answer was a resounding yes.
The council's first teaching centre opened in 1976 with 200 students and three part-time teachers, but by the end of the first term 900 students had registered. By 1978, 9,700 students were attending classes.
Ms Gee said the high demand for English classes had continued, with the council now catering for thousands of students, ranging from children under five to senior citizens. A new interactive website, English Online, was launched this year to help learners.
Ms Gee said it was important that the council was not only involved with English-language teaching but also fostered cultural relations by holding events such as art exhibitions.
'What remains our position is that we don't do things other people are doing. We try to meet a local need that's expressed,' she said, adding that partnerships with local organisations had always been important.
Although the council may be best known for its English teaching in Hong Kong, the council's mainland offices - in Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing and Guangzhou - do not teach English.
On the mainland the council operated as the cultural section of the embassy and had diplomatic status, which did not apply to the Hong Kong office, Ms Gee said.
The council receives almost 30 per cent of its funding from the British government and raises the remainder of its funds through activities such as English teaching, running exams and education projects.
Ms Gee stressed the organisation was 'non-political' and 'at arm's length' from the British government. 'We get public funds but we're not a government department,' she said.
Despite the stated aims of the council, a question mark has occasionally hovered over its purpose, with some suggesting political motives may be behind its activities. The council's own central website includes an article that states the council was 'founded as an organ of international propaganda'.
The article, by Nicholas J. Cull, professor of American Studies at the University of Leicester, states that in the late 1920s an influential group of civil servants became convinced that 'British' values of parliamentary democracy could be subsumed by the rising tide of fascism. Their response was the British Council.
'Particular council initiatives included the teaching of English, but political messages always came along with the language tuition,' Professor Cull wrote.
Ms Gee vehemently denies any suggestion that the council's work constitutes any form of propaganda.
'We're not a propaganda organisation and never have been,' she said. 'Cultural relations begin with people understanding each other and valuing their differences and respecting alternative identities. I think that is a far cry from propaganda.'
Ms Gee swiftly dismissed any truth in the occasional anecdotal jibe that the council could have been linked to British spy agencies. 'That's just a joke ... That's fiction,' she said. 'What's not fiction is the fact that our networks in various parts of the world have provided real oases of cultural understanding, very often in very politically torn environments.'
The council is currently embroiled in a political controversy that is adding to diplomatic tensions between Britain and Russia. Last month Moscow ordered the closure of two British Council offices, saying they were operating illegally.
The council had refused to comply but this week suspended operations at its St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg offices after Russian employees were questioned and detained by Russian secret police.
'We regard it as very unfortunate because we are a non-political organisation that's been caught up in political sparring really,' Ms Gee said.
Ms Gee, who arrived in 2003, said the council's work had not changed since Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule.
'We respect the different status of Hong Kong for Hong Kong citizens and we respect the setting up of the Hong Kong SAR government, but our purpose in terms of making impartial, non-political connections between Hong Kong and the UK remains the same as it did before.'
Ms Gee therefore refused to be drawn on the controversial issue of local English standards, except to say expectations of English standards had increased.
'I don't get drawn into the debate about better or worse because for me it's about continued improvement,' she said.
One of the 60 graduates at last week's celebrations, Ada Wong Ying-kay, has worked with the British Council in her role as chairwoman of the Wan Chai District Council.
Ms Wong, who studied in Britain in the early 1980s, said the council played an important role promoting social and cultural enterprise and exposing people to new concepts in the arts. It promoted the type of 'thinking out of the box' that Hong Kong policymakers wanted, 'especially in the area of creative social enterprise'.
Although technology has ensured British culture now crosses international borders, Ms Gee said the council was satisfied that it still had a role to play.
'As the world grows more complex and technology makes things more accessible, it's even more important, in a sense, that you have an organisation that is really about relationship building,' she said.
'I think the council will continue to evolve, to change, to reflect what the local community wants.'