Why Hong Kong’s new banknotes should feature famous faces instead of butterflies, rocks and dim sum
Peter Kammerer says the Hong Kong Monetary Authority has made safe and generic choices for the new banknote themes instead of using the opportunity to commemorate some of city’s legendary personalities
You’ve got to wonder what was going through the minds of Hong Kong Monetary Authority bosses when they opted for a butterfly as one of the themes for our new HK$50 banknote. Some of the designs for the other notes in the 2018 series, to be released in batches in the coming two years, are also a tad dodgy; they are either not representative of our culture, poorly illustrated or come across as too ordinary.
The point of the exercise is mainly to improve security features to make our money harder to forge, but in the process, a better effort could have been made to boost pride and celebrate our rich past. The unfortunate thing is that with a truly cashless society just around the corner, an opportunity may have been missed.
With three retail banks authorised to each issue their versions of five of the six banknote denominations, there was no shortage of space to express ideas. The HKMA chose to be restrictive, though, setting thematic subjects: dim sum for the HK$20, butterflies for the HK$50, Cantonese opera for the HK$100, the Unesco-listed Geopark for the HK$500, and Hong Kong as an international financial centre for the HK$1,000.
Butterflies can be found anywhere in the world and Cantonese opera originated in Guangdong province. The blue colour of the HK$20 note makes some images appear ghostly, although from a design perspective, Bank of China has fared least well among critics. It has been ribbed for an uncharacteristically large dim sum teapot, Geopark rocks that some people contend look like ancient Chinese tombs and perplexingly, for the HK$1,000 bill, a brain with lots of zeros and ones inside.
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Banknotes circulate among large numbers of people and throughout the world, so they can promote, inform and educate through their designs while settling cash transactions. Dim sum and Cantonese opera are unquestionably part of Hong Kong’s culture, but with the Cheung Chau bun festival, Tai Hang fire dragon dance, Tai O dragon boat water parade and paper and sewing craft techniques among a score of other topics of intangible heritage, there’s no doubt authorities could have chosen better. They could have even tapped the rich list of Hong Kong’s past luminaries.
Putting the images of famous people on banknotes is a tried-and-tested formula elsewhere. But Hong Kong has never made such a choice, variously opting in its Bank of China, HSBC and Standard Chartered designs since the return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 for the politically safe bauhinia flower, Victoria Harbour and other natural scenes, landmark buildings, Chinese inventions, calligraphy and symbols, and local festivals.
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In Beijing-overseen, postcolonial Hong Kong, officials probably see selecting renowned people as a minefield that is best avoided. But it doesn’t take much thinking to come up with a worthy list of notables for our six denominations.
Instantly coming to mind are paramount leader Deng Xiaoping and martial arts legend and actor Bruce Lee. My choices for the remaining four places are Kai Ho Kai, a 19th century doctor, lawyer and translator who played a key role in relations between the Chinese community and British colonial government; entrepreneur and philanthropist Tang Shiu-kin; movie mogul Run Run Shaw; and Elsie Tu, an advocate for the poor.
But there are numerous other worthies, among them scholar Jao Tsung-i; the father of Hong Kong cinema, Lai man-wai; the founder of modern China, Sun Yat-sen; entertainers Roman Tam, Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui; and for those with a bent for being politically incorrect, the longest-serving and arguably the best British colonial governor, Murray MacLehose.
Applying a commonly used rule elsewhere that living people can’t be considered means Nobel Prize-winning physicist Charles Kao Kuen, tycoon Li Ka-shing, novelist Louis Cha Leung-yung and first chief executive Tung Chee-hwa aren’t eligible.
Hong Kong, for its small size, is not short of people worth commemorating on banknotes. Assuming hard currency isn’t put out of business sooner rather than later, space should be found on future notes for important people from our past.
Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post