White Collar

Joseph Yam – the man who replaced The Queen with the Bauhinia

Replacing millions of coins bearing The Queen’s head was a carefully planned exercise. But some of those older ones, still in circulation, could earn you a mint

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 May, 2017, 2:51pm
UPDATED : Monday, 29 May, 2017, 10:45pm

Joseph Yam Chi-kwong, former chief executive of Hong Kong Monetary Authority, has offered some nice historical background behind the plans to replace millions of Hong Kong coins bearing The Queen’s head, with those minted with the Bauhinia flower.

For many the coins’ transition from queen to flower, has become a strong symbol of the British handover of Hong Kong back to China.

But who actually decided when and how the change would happen to the currency?

According to Yam, “secret communications channels” had been created between Hong Kong and British financial officials as early as the 1980s, on how the city’s financial arrangements would be handled in the run up to, and after, the handover.

A civil servant who had been focused on finance, Yam was among the group of top officials, for instance, who set up the peg system in 1983, linking the Hong Kong dollar at 7.8 to the greenback.

That peg’s introduction couldn’t have been more timely. In the early 1980s, there was growing confidence crisis in Hong Kong over when Britain and China would actually start to negotiate the handover.

“There were lots of secret face-to-face meetings between British and Hong Kong officials. All the information was kept secret and we held many in-depth discussions on how to build up, and maintain, the strength of Hong Kong’s various financial platforms,” he says.

Among the highest-profile outcomes was the establishment of Hong Kong Monetary Authority in 1994 as the city’s de facto central bank.

But what about the finer details, such as The Queen’s head appearing on millions and millions of coins in circulation...?

The Sino-British declaration indicated that Hong Kong would no longer issue any coins with The Queen’s head, from the moment the handover was completed.

“But in actual fact, discussions took place well in advance of that, with officials deciding it would be best to stop issuing The Queen’s head coins far earlier, to let the ones in circulation gradually be replaced by the new ones,” he said.

The Queen’s headed coins actually stopped being issued in 1993, and it was Yam himself who made the final decision on the design of the new Bauhinia coins – the city’s most common flower.

Existing Queen’s head coins continue to circulate today, as officials certainly couldn’t have replace them all in one go. But as they have gradually flowed back to the HKMA, the authority has simply held onto them.

By 2015, the authority had collected 880 million Queen’s head coins, but they are still believed to represent 10 per cent of the coins in circulation, with some starting to become collectors items, meaning that 880 million tally is probably actually worth around HK$1 billion, according to HKMA data.

Open your wallet and you’ll still find the occasional coin bearing the face of Queen Elizabeth II, and they still remain the same value.

But a 5 cent Queen’s head coin, for instance, sold at an auction recently for HK$5,000 – a 100,000 times its face value.

Coin and stamp collecting shop owner Cheng Po Hung says some of The Queen’s head coins could cost five to ten times their face value, depending on their rarity.

Those bearing the head of The Queen’s father, King George VI, or earlier ones including King George V, Edward VII, or Queen Victoria, crop up too, although rarely, and can fetch very handsome prices, he added.

Time to rush home tonight, maybe, and break open those packed pig piggy banks stored in the cupboard for years – maybe there’s a fortune hiding in there.