Hong Kong’s handover was all gloom and doom for me for one night

I missed the big show, caught out by red tape and left soaked to the skin, but it’s been a privilege to witness the city’s momentous transition

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 June, 2017, 4:02pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 June, 2017, 3:04pm

I don’t know about everyone else, but I had a miserable night on June 30, 1997, when the world stopped to witness Hong Kong’s historic return to Chinese rule.

I had been assigned by the newspaper I worked for back then to cover the British colonial government’s farewell ceremony at Tamar, complete with grand military parades and governor Chris Patten’s last goodbyes. It went quite well, I heard, despite the rain. I wasn’t there.

What happened was that all journalists registered to attend the handover ceremonies were required to sort out their accreditation and secure their media passes weeks in advance, which I had dutifully done.

But when I arrived at the venue that evening, I was suddenly confronted with the fact that I had missed an extra procedural formality whereby those who were already accredited for the event were still required to reconfirm their registrations that morning.

I was blissfully unaware of it and so was my news editor, who would nevertheless hold me solely responsible for missing such a critical assignment.

What would post-1997 Hong Kong look like if Deng Xiaoping was still alive?

Everyone and their mum had already gone in as the ceremony was about to start, and there I was at the entrance, at the mercy of a government information officer who deserved a Bauhinia medal for blinkered enforcement of red tape. He just would not let me in, even though I knew him quite well, having met him a few times and spoken to him regularly as a reporter covering a beat that required frequent contact with his department.

“Rules are rules,” he said, reciting the same mantra over and over again while accepting, in principle, my defence that I was not a security threat and nobody would even notice if he were to cut me some slack.

After a bellyful of the government’s finest gatekeeper and his bureaucratic ‘no can do’ spirit, I gave up in frustration

Don’t forget, those were the days when Hong Kong – and the rest of the world, for that matter – was not as paranoid about security, and 911 was only the number you called for emergency services in the US, not the date of the atrocity that brought down the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York. Terrorism was in its relative infancy, if you will.

After a bellyful of the government’s finest gatekeeper and his bureaucratic “no can do” spirit, I gave up in frustration and headed for a public payphone to break the news to my editor.

The handover: From a rain-soaked night to legal challenges

Easier said than done. Those were also the days when mobile phone technology was in its infancy and you either carried a portable device the size and weight of a dumbbell or made do with your not-so-trusty pager.

So, there I was at Chater Garden in Central, with no choice but to join one of the lines of domestic helpers waiting their turn to make long-distance calls to their home countries. Then it started raining, and I didn’t have an umbrella.

Rancour and division inevitable in Hong Kong, a city not at peace with itself

I remember the two opposite ways that many Hongkongers chose to interpret the incessant downpours that marked the handover: those who welcomed the end of British rule saw the rain as a symbolic cleansing of the city, a washing away of the old to make way for the new; those who were fans of the British and suspicious of China suggested the heavens were weeping.

I saw it as The Law of Sod in motion – you know, when everything goes wrong just when you really, really need things to go right.

To cut a long story short, I eventually managed to inform my editor of my predicament, which he saw as a colossal letdown by his chief reporter. There was no chance now of making it to the main midnight handover ceremony attended by then British prime minister Tony Blair, Prince Charles and then Chinese president Jiang Zemin, so I was summoned back to the newsroom, crushed, demoralised and soaked to the skin.

I spent the rest of the night copy-editing the reports filed by my colleagues and didn’t get a single byline in the paper the next day, when everyone else was picking up extra copies to take home and frame as souvenirs. It was bah humbug long before Christmas for me that year.

Looking back at newspaper clippings I have kept from the old days as a record of my work, there are scores of reports that I wrote before and after the handover, documenting the events that have shaped this city, but I have absolutely nothing to show for the most historic of all those days.

It’s just that one day which was a washout, though. All said and done, I feel privileged to have lived in this city to witness and experience its momentous transition. As I continue to live here, I’m glad that I get to not only record Hong Kong’s journey, but also be part of it.

Looking at how far we’ve come now, I’d say the city has become much more crowded and stressful, partisan politics has pervaded every facet of society, and people generally seem to be more disgruntled and volatile than ever these days.

But this is still a great city, as intoxicating and exhilarating as ever. It’s my home and castle. That’s why I’m still here.

Yonden Lhatoo is the chief news editor at the Post