'Commodore Bremer was accompanied by his officers, and at the moment when the British flag was hoisted on Possession Point, the marines on the spot fired a feu-de-joie, while all the ships of war in the harbour made the hills re-echo with the thunders of the first royal salute ever fired in Hong Kong' - E J Eitel, Europe in China Tuesday, January 26, 1841. In a blanket of mist wreathing Hong Kong's harbour, a squadron of Her Majesty's marines in colourful costume and high spirits licked their lips, strained on their oars and inched towards the tip of an island that had long been considered a useless appendage of China. Aye, the rum would go down well today. As well as liquor the lads probably brought ashore a flagpole fashioned by the ship's carpenter, guy ropes, rough-hewn stakes and, most important of all, the Union Flag. When their little boat scraped the sandy shore (near where Queen's Road West now joins Hollywood Road in Western), Commodore James John Gordon Bremer, 55, wearing cocked hat and curved sword, led his men to a nearby mount that would henceforth be known as Possession Point. We do not know precisely what the battle-hardened Bremer said on this occasion, as the flag fluttered over a desolate landscape, the ships' guns boomed and the local Chinese villagers looked on from a safe distance in utter bewilderment at the back-slapping barbarians. But as it marked Britain's first official claim to Hong Kong - the birth of the colony, 21/2 years before its formal cession - it was an excellent excuse for celebration, foot-stomping and a belly full of rum. The shrill of the telephone signals the threat of another attempt by one of Hong Kong's army of thick-skinned public relations officers to get a client's marketing bumpf into the pages of the South China Morning Post. Except that the voice coming through the receiver is measured, thoughtful and unpleading. 'Perhaps you would be interested in doing a story about a woman in Hong Kong who is a direct descendant of the officer who raised the first British flag here in 1841,' says Dr John Merrett, of Cathay Pacific. She had written to the Governor asking if her family could be present at the flag-lowering ceremony in 1997. My eyebrows arched and the stitching in my shirt sleeve loosened as I lunged for a pen. A story about a real, live, great, great, great grand-daughter of the unfortunate fellow who stumbled on this 'barren rock with hardly a house upon it' and claimed it all those years ago would go down a treat. I decided at once that if anyone asked how I came across such a cracking yarn, I would reply: 'I can't say too much, but you may put it down to painstaking research and top-level contacts.' Shortly after noon the next day, Michela Bremer Metcalf appeared at the door of her Clear Water Bay villa, a stone's throw from where the South China Sea laps the shore. Had she ever wondered whether old Bremer might have sailed through the same waters that her children now ply in little yachts? 'I've been quite nonchalant about the whole thing,' she says apologetically. 'I would rather it wasn't known.' She unfolded a document showing the family tree and pointed to a wall print depicting a confrontation between British warships and the Chinese in Chusan. 'We all think he might be the one standing because he was the senior naval officer, but who knows,' she said. 'I've always questioned why I had this strange middle name, Bremer, and it was explained to me that he was someone important in our family who was instrumental in getting Hong Kong British. It is rather special that an ancestor of our family was personally involved in such a historic moment in Hong Kong's history.' History writer Arthur Hacker, whose vast collection of books, drawings photographs and other memorabilia on Hong Kong's past leave him precious little space in his Lantau flat, described Bremer as a 'fairly brave, competent, but not particularly brilliant seaman'. 'He did officially raise the first flag, but Sir Edward Belcher raised it the day before, unofficially,' chortled Hacker. 'Belcher sneaked in to do it before Bremer got there.' It was a thunder-stealing stunt typical of the irascible Belcher, added Phillip Bruce, another Hong Kong historian. 'He was commanding the HMS Sulphur, a survey vessel, and he went in on January 25 and raised the flag. He got a right rollicking for it,' said Bruce. 'Everyone disliked Belcher - he was the biggest arsehole you ever met in the whole world and everywhere he went he named things after himself - but he was a brilliant surveyor.' Indeed, in Hong Kong there is Belcher Bay, Belcher's Street, Belcher Gardens and Belcher House. As a tribute to Bremer (after whom nothing in Hong Kong is named, save for an obscure little building in Happy Valley), Bruce joined a handful of fellow members of the Imperial British Gentleman's Literary, Historical and Philosophical Society of the Crown Colony of Hong Kong near Possession Street on January 26 this year and drained a bottle of Madeira. 'Please tell Mrs Metcalf that we will make her an instant patron,' he said. In his Voyage of HMS Sulphur, Sir Edward Belcher wrote: 'We landed on Monday the 25th January, 1841, at fifteen minutes past eight a.m, and being the bona fide first possessors Her Majesty's health was drunk with three cheers on Possession Mount. 'On the 26th the squadron arrived; the marines were landed, the Union Jack hoisted on our fort, and formal possession taken of the island by Commodore Sir J.G Bremer.' On one of the hottest days so far this year, Bremer's great, great, great grand-daughter is navigating a clear route to the mount where he had been rowed ashore 155 years earlier. Possession Point, according to Dr Dan Waters, a Hong Kong historian and council member of the Royal Asiatic Society, would be marked by something - perhaps a plaque - and easy to find. 'Head for Possession Street,' he said. 'There were a lot of fortune tellers and dai pai dongs when I used to go there, but now it's mostly coffin shops. Time goes so quickly.' Although she has lived in Hong Kong with her Cathay pilot husband for almost five years, Mrs Metcalf had never been to Possession Point. She did not know it existed. 'I automatically assumed it would be buried under a tower of concrete,' she said. 'I know the area is very built-up with ferry terminals.' Peering by turns at an old street directory on her lap and at the blur of signs, shops, people and buildings rushing past outside the car in one of the oldest districts of Hong Kong, she contemplated what Bremer must have come across in 1841. 'It is hard to imagine today the scene of a landing so long ago on an unspoilt island, when the site is now surrounded by concrete buildings and is quite a distance from water,' she said. 'I think he would be horrified at the size of the harbour now, because it would have been enormous in his day - absolutely gigantic.' Three days after Bremer's landing, according to A History of Hong Kong, a proclamation promised that all natives of the island were to be governed according to the laws of China, 'every description of torture excepted'. All British subjects and foreigners were to be given full security and protection according to British law. Within three months of the flag-raising and the formal declaration of British sovereignty, 'the haphazard building of wooden or mat-shed structures, sometimes with stone or brick foundations, began and the question of surveying and marking out allotments of land for buildings and provision for roads and other public works became urgent'. The first land sales of 50 marine lots, each with a frontage along Queens Road, took place in June, and by October a town of about 15,000 people was flourishing. It took until June 26, 1843, for the 'unequal' Treaty of Nanking to be ratified and the declaration of Hong Kong as a crown colony. 'He lived in very different times,' said Mrs Metcalf. 'I'm sure he would have agreed that the return of Hong Kong to China would be a necessary and natural progression in time.' We drew up beside the Hollywood Road Park. On our right, as Dr Waters had promised, was a line of coffin shops. Ahead lay Possession Street. Mrs Metcalf, clutching a book that mentions her swashbuckling ancestor, stepped into the searing, humid afternoon and began looking for a plaque or a statue or anything that might mark Britain's original claim to Hong Kong. She walked hurriedly towards a green and red pagoda with a small, weathered sign attached to it. 'Oh, here it is,' she exclaimed. The notice read: 'Poison rat bait is being laid in this area.' It came courtesy of the Urban Council. 'It can't be too far away,' I ventured hopefully. We split up and traipsed over the park, past the drunks lying comatose on benches, across the pond with its dirty tepid water and motionless fish, through the group of old-timers gambling on the cards spread out before them. We walked around the block, up to Tung Wah Hospital, down to Possession Street, and through the park again. 'Do you know Possession Point, where the British first claimed sovereignty over Hong Kong?' I asked a coffin seller, who stared at me suspiciously. In Possession Street itself, the colours of the Union Jack were unmistakeable on the side of a nearby wall. Heaving sighs of relief, we marched right on up to it. There was indeed a flag, but it was draped in the window of the local Jockey Club outlet as part of a promotion for the Epsom Derby. Perspiring freely, we traipsed the area a second time. I might have suggested a third attempt to find the elusive mark if I had not feared that Mrs Metcalf, visibly wilting in the heat, would have disavowed all her ancestors had she been asked to try to retrace Commodore Bremer's steps again. We were at the point of no return. I could not go back to the office without a picture of her standing roughly near where her great, great, great grand-father raised a rum to Her Majesty on January 26, 1841. And she could not return to her home in Clear Water Bay without my driving her, or at least not without expense. Near the entrance to the popular park is a dilapidated timber stand with dirty perspex covering an array of old black and white illustrations and photographs. One of the picture captions says: 'Possession Point, 1841.' I called Dr Waters from the coffin shop and asked whether this could mark the spot where the Union Flag was hoisted for the first time. Yes it was, he replied. The photographer patiently shot several frames of Mrs Metcalf, who was clearly disappointed as she mopped the glistening beads of perspiration from her furrowed brow. 'Well, it wasn't really what I expected,' she said. 'It was quite a way inland, and there wasn't much to it when we got there.' Arthur Hacker explained later that the lack of anything marking Bremer's historic landing was typical of the Urban Council and its eschewal of colonialist icons. 'There's nothing named after him because the council tends to conceal it,' said Hacker. 'I think it's a rather soppy attitude, myself.' Added Dr Waters: 'It's a colonial legacy and probably regarded as being a little close to the bone, which is a pity because it was the beginning of Hong Kong as a British colony. We are looking at putting up more plaques, but at the same time, under the circumstances with 1997 next year, we have to be pretty careful not to upset anyone . . . so I don't think we will erect anything for Bremer.' Unremembered in Hong Kong, Bremer, who narrowly survived a fierce typhoon and shipwrecking while sailing to Macau in July, 1841, would not have returned to a hero's welcome the following month in Britain, where in the early days it was generally believed that the colony was not worth claiming. 'There used to be a saying in Britain then, 'you can go to Hong Kong for all I care',' said Dr Waters. Bremer and the earliest settlers were even mocked by a spoof paper, the Wang Tung Argus No 2, put out by the Canton Press, which pledged in May, 1841 that a 'premium of one thousand dollars will be paid to any person who shall devise means for feeding cattle on granite rock, or raising crops from the sands of the sea shore; as both materials are likely to be found in good abundance on the new settlement'. Meanwhile, I was beginning to worry about my story. With nothing commemorating the deed of Commodore Bremer, who died in 1850, and scarcely anyone apart from historians who had heard of him, I decided the best option was to explore the angle my deep-throated original source, Dr John Merrett, had mentioned, about how he thought it a good idea if Mrs Metcalf might pull down the Union Flag on behalf of her long-gone ancestor while the world watched the handover ceremony. 'Oh no, I wouldn't presume to lower it,' she said. 'I wouldn't dream of it. I would be happy if I was just present, just to be there for the end of a family era. Do you know whether I can get any tickets?'