From Hong Kong’s first day as a colonial possession in January 1841, the British national anthem was played at public events. It was the last thing performed by bands at dances, marked the end of an evening radio broadcast and heralded a stampede for the exits in Hong Kong’s cinemas.
Few, if any, would stand respectfully until the music had finished, and such “disrespect” occasionally prompted angry letters-page outbursts from “Fed Up of Kowloon Tong”, “Disgusted of Stanley” and the likes. No one paid them any attention.
When the term “colony” became unfashionable, in the early 1970s, obvious reminders of Hong Kong’s status were downplayed: Hong Kong was redesignated a “territory” in official documents, the colonial secretary became the chief secretary, Happy Valley’s Colonial Cemetery was renamed Hong Kong Cemetery, and the national anthem was quietly discontinued in cinemas.
With the 1997 handover, God Save the Queen was replaced by March of the Volunteers. Not everyone welcomed the political, social, economic and symbolic changes that accompanied “1997 and all that”.
As with everything else pertaining to Hong Kong’s increasing homogenisation with China, there were two ways of dealing with this altered reality: either some personal accommodation was made for the changed status quo (which encompassed everything from enthusiastic embrace to silent rejection), or one made plans for departure.
And so it remains today. No one in Hong Kong is prevented, except by personal circumstances, from drawing stumps and making a fresh start elsewhere. Calling for the “mainlandisation” process to stop, in some King Canute-like gesture, will only see those who do so drown in the attempt.
Ultimately, the impending national anthem issue is an unsubtle way of saying, “Hong Kong is part of China. Deal with it!” Various forms of “disrespect” for what is – like it or not – Hong Kong’s national anthem will soon be formally criminalised, rather than dismissed as childish breaches of civic manners. That old legal standby, de minimis non curat lex (“the law does not concern itself with trifles”) clearly has diminishing relevance here.
Contemporary equivalents to “Fed Up of Kowloon Tong” are “the Cobweb Sisters” – Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai, Maria Tam Wai-chu and Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun – who sidle down from the rafters whenever messages from their puppet-masters need retransmission.
Leading the arachnid chorus is former secretary for justice Elsie Leung Oi-sie, who emerged from her crypt to announce that the new national anthem law – in sharp contrast to other legislation – could be retroactive in scope.
What is completely missing – as ever with Hong Kong’s proxy debates – is some sensible discussion about just why the relationship between a non-trivial section of Hong Kong’s young people and their sovereign power has so badly deteriorated in recent years.
Both sides are now perilously in the wrong. The Chinese tendency to scold, harass and punish until, somehow, a miraculous mindset change occurs continues unabated; the Hong Kong penchant to flip the finger straight back in their faces only becomes proportionally more strident and angry.
“Play stupid games, win foolish prizes”, as the old saying goes, and it now seems inevitable that, before long, individuals will be prosecuted and jailed simply for jeering at a soccer match.
Perhaps, however, future historians will regard the impending national anthem fracas as merely an overture to Hong Kong’s looming Article 23 Symphony, with March of the Volunteers as mood music played to set the scene.