Avoid a war of words

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 November, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 November, 1994, 12:00am

AT this time of year, a handful of people troop to the Cenotaph, a monument standing, appropriately, a few metres from the Hong Kong Club, to pay tribute to soldiers killed in action.

The mourners - many, perhaps most, sent by one form or another of Anglo-Saxon officialdom - acknowledge sacrifices made during World War I and II.

No one should deny or even question the right of this small, but ever dwindling, gathering on Armistice Day to honour heroic soldiers, but I believe the time has come for Hong Kong to ask whether the Cenotaph and its current dedication are appropriate for the new Hong Kong, under the Special Administration Region.

The Cenotaph's east and west sides are inscribed: 'The glorious dead, 1914-1918, 1939-1945.' Above this are Chinese characters which may be translated: 'The heroic souls are forever, let their vigour live eternally.' The two wars that the Cenotaph asks us to recall were essentially one long, Western civil war, albeit one which encouraged Imperial Japan's opportunism in the Pacific. However elegant the monument, its current inscriptions will be startlingly irrelevant on July 1, 1997.

Whether dated to 1949 or 1911, the Chinese Revolution - which possibly had an even greater impact on history than this century's European turmoil - deserves to be acknowledged just as prominently.

The Shanghai International Settlement's grandiose Victory Monument did not long survive a change in administration in 1949. Probably sooner rather than later, the new Hong Kong will demand that the Cenotaph's role be reviewed.

It would be a pity if Hong Kong lost the monument altogether. However, there is an alternative: change the Cenotaph's inscriptions to wordings more appropriate to the realities and wishes of our new community.

'To the fallen of just wars', might be one suitable alternative.

We should do it now - before, say, Anzac Day, April 25, and certainly before next Armistice Day.

Beyond July 1, 1997, controversy surrounding any forced change in this monument could be unnecessarily divisive and would be certain to be misunderstood internationally.