Lai See

A case in point for Hong Kong's woeful archives

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 October, 2012, 8:50am

Readers may be aware of a recent British High Court ruling that three elderly Kenyans tortured during a rebellion against British colonial rule can proceed with compensation claims against the British government. The Kenyans say they were beaten and sexually assaulted by officers acting for the British administration trying to suppress the "Mau Mau" rebellion in the 1950s.

For its part, the government says it cannot be held legally responsible for abuses that were perpetrated many years ago and that many of the key decision-makers were dead and therefore unable to give their side of the events.

However, what is interesting from a Hong Kong perspective is the key role to be played by documents from the period. Justice Richard McCombe says in his ruling: "I consider that I am justified in concluding that the available documentary base is very substantial indeed and capable of giving a very full picture of what was going on in government and military circles in both London and Kenya during the emergency."

Given the scale of the destruction of Hong Kong government documents since 1997, it is highly unlikely that government documents will give much of a picture of, say, the first 10 years of "one country, two systems" in action.

Official record-keeping has become such a concern that the Archives Action Group was set up some years ago to try to redress the woeful state of Hong Kong's archives and persuade the government to introduce an Archives Law establishing legally binding procedures to be followed.

In a damming article in the Hong Kong Lawyer, William Waung, a retired judge and founding member of the Archives Action Group, points to the appalling manner in which government documents and archives are managed. In the past five years, "government departments and bureaucrats have been reluctant to turn over their records for selection and preservation" by the Public Records Office, it says.

He further notes that the number of records turned over to the office dropped 44 per cent between 2008 and 2009 and in 2009 to 2010. Also, important government policymaking agencies, such the Chief Executive's Office and the Chief Secretary's Office, have not made records available for selection since 1997.

The government has never bothered to explain this. On the one hand, it is aware of the importance of record-keeping, which is why it has set up a system that is supposed to safeguard records. On the other hand, it blatantly disregards them, and thus reduces the chance of being held accountable for its actions.

More on 1823

We recently wrote about the government's 1823 call centre service, which can be accessed either by ringing that number or using the e-mail address. The mastermind of this service, Kim Salkeld, who is head of the Efficiency Unit, has written with some refinements to the way in which we characterised the service. We had written that if you phone with a complaint, you need to know the relevant government department. This, he says, is not the case and that if "you don't know, don't worry. We will still take the call, make sure that the issue is directed to the right department and make sure you get a response or report on the action taken."

Salkeld also makes the point that it is not just a complaints service and that most of the call centre's work is answering inquiries. The service is also available online at There is a mobile app to send pictures of problems.

The service was established in 2001, although we have to confess we had never heard of it until recently. Others evidently have, since by the beginning of 2010 it had handled 16.5 million inquiries.

Hair today, gone tomorrow

We're grateful to Bloomberg for its incisive piece on how to sell hair-removing cream on the mainland. Reckitt Benckiser's hair-removing cream Veet initially did not sell well there for the obvious reason that Chinese women do not have much body hair. However, that all changed with a new marketing plan and advertisements that equate hair-free skin with health, confidence and "shining glory". The company, according to Bloomberg, has made many Chinese women self-conscious about every stray follicle, making Veet Reckitt Benckiser's fastest-growing brand on the mainland.

Have you got any stories that Lai See should know about? E-mail them to