The day after presiding over Britain’s part in the ceremonies for the Hong Kong handover, Prince Charles found himself on the royal yacht Britannia making its way to the Philippines. By all accounts he had not had a happy time during his brief visit and, in widely leaked remarks, reflected on his discomfort with his Chinese counterparts who he privately described as being a bunch of “waxworks”.
The prince had endured a rain-drenched ceremony at the Tamar barracks and looked far from happy when he arrived at the main handover event in the newly built Convention and Exhibition Centre.
Ahead of the ceremony Robin Cook, Britain’s then-foreign secretary, assured us journalists that the colony’s return to Chinese rule most certainly did not mean that Britain’s interest in Hong Kong was at an end; the assembled British hacks gave each other knowing looks.
At the handover ceremony itself, Prince Charles dutifully read out his script echoing the foreign secretary’s remarks: “we shall not forget you”, he promised, adding “our commitment and our strong links to Hong Kong will continue and will, I am confident, flourish as Hong Kong and its people continue to flourish”.
Just a couple of hours later he was gone. Tony Blair, the prime minister, was also whisked away, having stayed in Hong Kong little more than 12 hours and the whole circus of grand British officials quickly moved on.
While they were in the Convention Centre, I was busy making my way up to the border to witness the arrival of People’s Liberation Army troops at the stroke of midnight. They stood rigidly to attention on the back of flatbed trucks as the rain enveloped the soldiers in a sort of haze. They were greeted with unabashed enthusiasm. The flags supplied to their greeters were somewhat damp but the welcome was genuinely warm.
When I got back, colleagues from T he Independent filled me in on what had happened during the big ceremony, including the pledge about Hong Kong never being forgotten by Britain. We all had a good chuckle because in an uncertain world, one of the few certainties was that forget would be precisely what Britain would do.
Sure, reports would be produced, occasional ministerial visits would be made and every now and again the British government would remember that it was party to a treaty under which it had residual monitoring responsibilities following the handover; but none of this would be taken too seriously.
Official interest in Hong Kong faded almost as quickly as the interest of the average Joe on the British street.
Those of us who covered the handover for British media outlets had flirted outrageously with snippets of colonial nostalgia. We wrote about the red letterboxes bearing the royal insignia (now painted green), the firing of the Noonday Gun by representatives of the Jardine group (now decamped to Singapore) and there was much more in this vein. I don’t apologise for this because the job of a reporter is to supply readers with what interests them.
But they were not much interested in Hong Kong after 1997, only bad things captured their attention, not least the outbreak of Sars.
I was also acutely aware that most Hong Kong people had little interest in Britain. The British influence in their daily lives was, at most, marginal. This colony – that no one in London wanted to acquire in the first place – lacked the investment in cultivating imperial ties that was evident in other colonies.
Literally overnight the new order got busy removing the more obvious symbolic reminders of the colonial past. The Royal Hong Kong Police instantly had the imperial appellation removed from their name and uniforms were changed accordingly. Members of the local elite who had so assiduously vied to obtain royal honours, quickly locked them up in the deepest recesses of their closets.
However I don’t recall anyone being particularly upset by any of this – pragmatic Hongkongers simply got on with business without looking back, even though it is also true to say that they were not looking forward without reservations. ■