Political correctness

What colonial symbols might they target after Hong Kong’s royal postboxes?

From statues to school and street names, a private club, courtroom attire and the change we carry in our pocket, there are myriad physical reminders of Hong Kong's colonial history. Are they also 'inappropriate', as royal crests on postboxes have been deemed?

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 October, 2015, 1:32pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 October, 2015, 2:49pm

The city’s decolonisation process has not been completed, former Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office deputy director Chen Zuoer lamented last month, in remarks believed to have been prompted by the appearance of colonial-era flags at demonstrations.

In an announcement soon afterwards whose timing may or may not have been a coincidence,  Hongkong Post  announced it would  mask the British royal insignia on its remaining 59 colonial-era post boxes, because they were “inappropriate” and could “confuse the public”.

Relics and symbols from pre-handover Hong Kong are everywhere in the city, which begs the questions: what might be the next targets of colonial cleansing? And what should those who care about preserving such things be keeping an eye on?

Still standing

Obvious candidates for purging are the statue of Queen Victoria, in her own park in Causeway Bay  and that of Sir Thomas Jackson in Central’s Statue Square. These figures as just as  inappropriate and confusing as post box insignia, after all – especially given most Hongkongers have probably never heard of Jackson. The statue of the former chief manager of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation was erected in 1906 to honour him for making the bank Asia’s leading financial institution.

Queen Victoria’s statue has a colourful anti-British history. During the second world war, the bronze figure was taken to Japan to be melted down, but later returned to Hong Kong. In 1996, artist Pun Sing-lui dented the queen’s nose with a hammer and poured red paint over her. The Chinese artist described the act as a piece of performance art to express his disdain for colonial power. Maybe it’s finally time to cart both these landmarks off to London.

Basic wardrobe law

There has already been discussion about the British custom of barristers wearing gowns and horsehair wigs in Hong Kong’s courts. It’s possible this issue will resurface in the current climate. Barristers argue their fancy dress maintains the perception of an independent legal system; it differentiates them from the solicitors who instruct them. Although the rule of law is a vital pillar of Hong Kong’s autonomy, the archaic dress code is sometimes regarded as a load of colonial baggage. 

Royally outdated

Government-linked institutions promptly dropped their “royal” titles after the handover. Other entities to follow included what are now the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Hong Kong Golf Club and the Hong Kong Jockey Club. An exception was the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club. It’s believed Beijing has no truck with private clubs remaining “royal”, and such a decision is for its members to make, whatever external pressure is brought to bear. It is an issue that has reportedly been debated fiercely within the club.

Other regal names that stand out in the city include King George V School, Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth hospitals, and even Victoria Harbour, which could revert to the English translation of its evocative but irrelevant Chinese name – Fragrant Harbour.

Streets of shame

A much greater challenge would be renaming the streets of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, many of them rich in colonial symbolism. Queen’s Road Central, and its eastern and western counterparts, would naturally be high on the list, as would the numerous streets named after former governors – Matthew Nathan, Henry Pottinger, George Bonham, William Caine, Arthur Kennedy, William Des Voeux and Cecil Harcourt, to name just a few.

One solution could be to rename them after famous Chinese notaries, or even the tycoons who have shaped this city. Alternatively, Hong Kong could take inspiration from another financial capital, New York, and number the streets, starting with Queen’s Road Central as First Avenue.

Arguably the first street to come under the radar of the decolonisers should be Possession Street, in Sheung Wan, where the British flag was first planted in Hong Kong in 1841. Boundary Street, in Kowloon, may also be living on borrowed time. It follows the former border between British Hong Kong and China before the New Territories lease was signed in 1898.

History is also evident off the beaten track. Hikers are familiar with Mounts Parker, Butler and Kellett, Jardine’s Lookout, Tate’s Cairn and the 100km MacLehose Trail. Smaller paths in the hills include Black’s Link and Lady Clementi’s Ride. 

Money, money, money

The Monetary Authority has taken thousands of coins featuring Queen Elizabeth’s head out of circulation since she was replaced with a bauhinia flower in 1993. However, the old coins still pop up from time to time and are still legal tender. A change of policy, or financial incentive, may be needed to get residents holding onto any royally minted coins to hand them in.

And what else ... 

Other reminders of the British empire in Hong Kong include the Noonday Gun on the Causeway Bay waterfront, where Jardine Matheson’s godowns once stood. It was historically fired when the company chief arrived in the territory – a practice that was supposed to be reserved for military commanders. The company was ordered to fire a one-shot salute every day as punishment, the story goes, and the distinctly colonial tradition remains to this day.

If we are to truly whitewash the city’s colourful and unique, but now in some quarters deemed inappropriate, history, other structures may deserve scrutiny, such as four 19th-century gaslights on Duddell Street, Central. Like the colonial postboxes, although they are rare relics they are simple outdated and could confuse people.