Why doesn’t Hong Kong celebrate more of its history with commemorative coins?

Peter Kammerer says many of Hong Kong’s events and achievements could be marked with commemorative coins, and politics does not have to play a part

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 April, 2017, 1:58pm
UPDATED : Monday, 24 April, 2017, 7:33pm

A booklet from the Royal Australian Mint lands on my desk every three months. In it are listed new issues of coins commemorating events from Australia’s past and present deemed important enough to be indelibly stamped on metal. Among the latest offerings are the contribution of nurses during the first world war and next year’s Commonwealth Games. I’m not enough of a collector to want to shell out for any, but they do raise questions as to why Hong Kong doesn’t remember its history in a similar way.

I’d wager it’s because many of our most memorable events are too politically sensitive. Since Hong Kong’s return to China almost 20 years ago, two of the Hong Kong Monetary Authority’s four issues have related to that occasion; one marked the Tsing Ma bridge linking Lantau to the rest of Hong Kong, while the last marked the opening of the new international airport. The three note-issuing banks have celebrated their various anniversaries with special banknotes and the Bank of China put out a HK$20 note in 2008 for the Beijing Olympic Games. They’re all safe issues that won’t upset the central government’s liaison office.

Yet, all manner of other anniversaries important to the shaping of our city have passed unrecorded by the Monetary Authority. No coin issue will record the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the special administrative region this year; nor will there be one for the jubilee of the 1967 riots that pitted pro-communist forces against the establishment, a turning point in our city’s development. Although almost half of our population of 7.4 million live in public housing, the 60th anniversary of the scheme went unnoticed in 2014. War anniversaries are important to communities elsewhere, but Hong Kong’s government is in a bind about remembering those who gave their lives defending our city for the British colonial rulers.

The colonial past may also be why the 40th anniversary this year of the country parks system isn’t going to make it onto coins, no matter how significant the trails and parkland are to our recreation. The driving force behind its establishment was Murray MacLehose, arguably Hong Kong’s best-ever British colonial governor. He deserves to be remembered by himself, given that his policies also included the establishment of satellite new towns, the labour ordinance, the adoption of Chinese as an official language and overseeing the start of construction of the Mass Transit Railway.

Lamma quarry site could be an environmental Eden

Historian Jason Wordie has two ideas for commemorating achievements without stumbling into that which is politically sensitive. One is stone quarrying, an industry in pre-urban times that led to exports around the world and helped the migration of a Chinese diaspora to North America from the 1850s through stone being used as ballast on sailing ships. Another was fishing, which spurred a major industry in ship-building that led to the establishment of Hong Kong as a thriving port.

Similarly uncontroversial are plants, animals and places. Wordie’s late friend Gloria d’Almada Barretto, a world-renowned orchid researcher, could be remembered on a coin, as could Shiu-ying Hu, a Chinese University botanist who catalogued hundreds of thousands of Chinese plants, helped save countless species from extinction and significantly furthered knowledge about traditional Chinese medicine.

Commemorative coins are a way of remembering achievements and events that a society has been enriched by. We learn about our past and what’s important. Hong Kong has much to be proud of; the HKMA has a role in improving our sense of being and worth.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post