At 2am on July 1, 1997, returning home to Kam Tin after a handover party, bone-tired and fortified with that most colonial of drinks, BGA (brandy-ginger-ale), the long-anticipated day had finally come and gone, “the captains and the kings” (Chris Patten and Prince Charles) had departed these shores and the world we knew hadn’t, yet, come to an ignominious end. Came the dawn, Hong Kong was now unmistakably China. Through the torrential downpour, the East Was Red, and I ventured outside with a mug of tea (British Army style, strong and thick with evaporated milk) to await the People’s Liberation Army’s arrival in my road.
Not everyone was so keen to observe the spectacle. Auntie Cissie, my next-door neighbour, would not come out of the house; lamenting the fact she’d lived to see Hong Kong returned to China, she sat inside in tears. On the other side, the gambling den resounded to the usual thump and rattle of mahjong tiles, as it did every day of the year from midday till dawn.
Much like the Lunar New Year fireworks that annually turned Kam Tin into an echo of the Somme, such establishments were an aspect of New Territories life that urban residents were either unaware of, or refused to believe existed.
As the first PLA trucks rumbled past, the mahjong parlour’s elderly custodian staggered outside, as he did each morning around sunrise, and – as on every other day – hawked up the night’s sputum, spat it copiously into the street, hung up his freshly rinsed underwear on a wire coat hanger from the air conditioner, then retreated back inside and slammed the door.
The passing parade fetched only the briefest glance before he returned to other, more pressing matters.
So I waved and shouted, and the poor drenched soldiers standing in the back of open trucks waved silently back and shook the plastic bouquets each one firmly grasped. Presumably, the sight of grown men in military uniform brandishing bunches of flowers was intended to look friendly and unthreatening.
Finally, the last open truck disappeared past the bend of the road towards Sek Kong Camp. And that was that. Later that morning, the newspaper seller and I exchanged bemused comments about the new arrivals, market stallholders remarked on how pitiful the soaked young soldiers had looked, and life went on as usual.
Late that afternoon, out for a walk, the thought suddenly occurred to me – had anyone local personally welcomed the PLA? Probably not. So, on an impulse, I went up to the camp gates and smiled and waved at the two sentries, who looked at each other questioningly.
At that moment, a young officer came out of the guardroom, so I smiled again and beckoned him over. He strode across sternly and said something questioning in Putonghua, whereupon I poked my hand through the gap in the gate, and said, “Welcome to Hong Kong” in Cantonese, and then repeated it in English.
He looked taken aback, then smiled broadly as understanding steadily dawned, pumped my hand in a warm (if rather limp) grip, and said, “Sank You!” a few times. With a quick glance at their officer, and each other, the sentries smiled broadly and waved back, too.
As I walked home I reflected on how important it was, with Hong Kong now part of China, that we who choose to continue to make our homes here accept and embrace that fundamental reality. Twenty years later, I have not changed my mind.
Some time ago, I became friends with a young PLA officer stationed in the city and once, over a convivial meal, I recalled this pleasant, long-ago incident. “So it was you that did that!” he said, without any trace of surprise. Clearly, word had been passed back along the lines.