• Thu
  • Aug 28, 2014
  • Updated: 8:24pm

Seeing red

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 February, 2012, 12:00am
 

Flags - and all the varied emotions they set in motion - have recently become a hot local topic. Even though we're treated to the national anthem before the six o'clock news, not everyone in Hong Kong views the Chinese flag with rapt adulation. A disgruntled mainland visitor set fire to one some time ago in Wan Chai's Golden Bauhinia Square and was swiftly prosecuted.

Displaying the flags of rival political parties has a long local history. For several decades, Double Tenth - the October anniversary of the 1911 revolution that overthrew the Manchu dynasty - was celebrated in Nationalist strongholds all over Hong Kong. These festivities became even more fervent after the Communist Party took power in the mainland, in 1949.

Displaying Nationalist flags on what was - as far as they were concerned - Chinese soil offered a potent symbol of enduring defiance. Rennie's Mill, the squatter settlement on the shores of Junk Bay mostly populated by former Nationalist soldiers and their families, brazenly flew the Nationalist flag throughout the year.

During the 1950s, when bitter Nationalist-Communist antipathies intermittently spilled over into violence, the open display of competing flags - or their prohibition or removal - often led to trouble. In 1956, when Nationalist flags were removed by an overzealous official at Lei Cheng Uk, a government resettlement estate in Lai Chi Kok, tempers flared into violence - fuelled, as was usual in those years, by Taiwanese agents provocateurs. Riots spread north to Tsuen Wan and dozens were reportedly killed. Over what? A few scraps of coloured cloth.

For many years, flags were given away free by newspapers openly (or covertly) supported by one or the other Chinese political party. And as the triad societies were infiltrated by Nationalists (or vice versa, it was never easy to differentiate), displaying their banner for a few days - regardless of one's personal political affiliations - seemed a sensible move.

In Eastern Windows, his memoir of life in Singapore and Hong Kong, published in 1960, University of Hong Kong lecturer F.D. Ommanney took a shrewd look at the local Nationalist-Communist impasse. He concluded: 'To whichever of these two flags the Chinese in Hong Kong profess allegiance, they are all at heart thankful for the presence of that third one, much less often seen than the others, which hangs listlessly from its staff outside the police station.'

From the early years of British rule, Hong Kong had a local flag of various designs, but the one everyone remembers - with a British lion and Chinese dragon perched on either side of a green island - was introduced only in 1959. Flags are one of humankind's most potent symbols, and the frequency with which this old Hong Kong flag gets brandished at demonstrations these days offers probably the most provocative slap in the face to both the Hong Kong and central governments.

The defiant display of a symbol harkening back to earlier times - and rule by foreigners, what's more - may be seen as a clear message that things in contemporary Hong Kong are not as they should be. When Article 23 is finally introduced - as it will be - maybe we'll see provisions about 'inciting nostalgia' inserted among the anti-sedition clauses. But when one looks long and hard at contemporary Hong Kong society, on so many levels, a longing for the past doesn't need to be stirred up; pent-up nostalgia for earlier times virtually incites itself.

One of the few colonial-era flags retained after independence was that of the Federation of Malaya; Malaysia uses the original design, but with additional stripes to represent new territories.

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