Hong Kong's colonial-era postboxes should be treasured, not covered up or destroyed

Mike Rowse says covering the royal insignia on the small number of postboxes here is political correctness gone mad, serving only to undermine the city's uniqueness

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 October, 2015, 9:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 October, 2015, 9:00am

Even though there are still over two weeks to go in October, I think we can already declare the winner of the silliest government decision of the month. The announcement by the post office that it was going to cover the royal insignia remaining on a small number of postboxes shows all the signs of political correctness gone mad.

READ MORE: Royal cover-up: claims of political motive behind Hongkong post moves to hide Queen’s insignia on letter boxes

In case you thought the award was a fluke, I can also report that the same department has won the prize for silliest explanation of a decision. Leaving the royal insignia visible, it said, "will confuse the public".

Someone round here is certainly confused but, with respect, it is not the general public, it is whoever made the decision in the first place and then invented the ludicrous explanation to cover it up.

Someone round here is certainly confused but, with respect, it is not the general public

There must be something in the water at the post office that causes otherwise sensible people to lose their marbles. Excessive lead levels perhaps? A predecessor of the incumbent decided around the time of the handover to paint all the boxes green to cover up their distinctive red. I can't now recall the official explanation given at the time - something to do with the environment, perhaps - but everyone knew that the real reason was so they would look the same as the ones on the mainland.

Let us return to the present debacle and put matters in perspective. There are some 1,150 postboxes at the moment; of these, 59, or 5.1 per cent, still bear the colonial-era insignia. Former deputy director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office Chen Zuoer recently criticised us for not having completely decolonised since 1997. I doubt Chen was referring to postboxes: in any event, surely a success rate of 95 per cent would be enough to satisfy even the harshest critic.

But look at the wider context, what about all the names of our roads, public hospitals and other facilities? If we drop Queen's Road East, Princess Margaret Road and all the rest, how on earth will we be able to tell the taxi driver where to go? If we are involved in an accident and need to rush to hospital, should we look for one with a politically correct name or is it OK to proceed directly to the nearest A&E department, even if it is called Queen Mary, or Queen Elizabeth, or the Pamela Youde hospital or any of the others with names from the past? Is there anyone in government headquarters at Tamar - whoops, there's another "no-go" name - in charge of policy in this area that we could ask? Victoria Park anyone? Victoria Harbour?

With all due respect, this is nonsense. The only instance where there was an argument for change was the headquarters of the People's Liberation Army. No doubt the garrison felt uncomfortable being housed in a building called after the Prince of Wales, especially after discovering all the bugging devices that the British had foolishly left behind.

When we have all finished laughing at the post office, there is a serious principle at stake here. British administration of Hong Kong for 150 years is an undeniable part of our history. It is in the past, and for the past 18 years, we have celebrated - and many of us take pride in - the resumption of sovereignty by China. But that does not require us to rush round trying to delete facts from history.

As Professor Bob McKercher, an expert in tourism from the Polytechnic University, pointed out in a recent radio programme, although we sometimes market Hong Kong as a place where East meets West, it would be more accurate to characterise us the other way round: we are the place where the West first met the East in a substantial way.

That is one of the things that makes us so interesting as a tourism destination, both for mainlanders and visitors from further afield. We are not just another city in China. These relics from the past, whether names or insignia, are treasures we should cherish because they are different and they make us stand out.

Far from eradicating the royal insignia, we should be highlighting them in gold. And while we are at it, we can paint the boxes red again as well.

Mike Rowse is the CEO of Treloar Enterprises and an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. mike@rowse.com.hk