My Take

Colonial revisionism based on fantasy

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 March, 2014, 3:33am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 March, 2014, 3:33am

I love Chris Patten. I am among his legions of fans in Hong Kong. I was awestruck as a cadet reporter when the last British governor went on stage at City Hall, gave a short, funny speech and took questions from the floor for more than an hour without notes.

That was sometime in 1994 or '95. It was hard to recall any other colonial officials being so informal and open with the public. Indeed, that was how the colonial government billed the event at the time: a groundbreaking "summit" with the public. Everyone was so excited, we all fell in love with "Fat Pang" back then. Before Patten, a governor was someone remote, unaccountable and unapproachable.

Patten's popularity has given us a false sense of what much of post-war colonial times were like in Hong Kong. While on a visit to the city, Patten said he felt "flattered" by nostalgic Hongkongers who missed colonial rule and waved the colonial flag. I am afraid he jumped the gun, considering those who do so in protests nowadays are mostly young people who were either children or babies during or before the Patten years and had little real colonial experience.

And while the rule of law and freedom of the press and of speech, which Patten also cited proudly, are admittedly long-standing British values, it's far from obvious they were widely practised during colonial times. A data search of such phrases in public documents and newspapers during the colonial era would probably find they were terribly underused or not mentioned at all. Colonised subjects like me just assumed the local press was muzzled. Those "core values", useful for sloganeering, are only of recent usage.

Did you ever try getting answers and statistics from senior colonial officials? An exercise in futility. Today, hacks like me can practically scream at policy officials and their secretaries if we don't get answers by the end of the day. For all its flaws, the post-handover government is more transparent than it ever was under the Brits. But young people have idealism rather than memory.

In our hatred and frustration with the post-1997 government, some of us are now practising a dangerous "revisionist" history of colonial rule that is not based on facts or experience, but fantasies and ignorance.