Hong Kong residents like to tell newcomers about magnificent buildings that have been demolished, the ones you will never see because, foolishly, you have arrived too late. The universal human impulse to crow over those who have missed the best bit was particularly pronounced in a city churning through uncertain times in the 1990s. No one, fresh off a 747 at Kai Tak airport as I was, could ever know the true glories of the past. People tended to sigh especially over three vanished edifices: the Repulse Bay Hotel, the Hong Kong Club and the General Post Office. If I mentioned I had had tea in the Repulse Bay hotel, I was always told I had not. The real hotel had been torn down in 1982 to create flats but the lobby had been rebuilt to pretend the hotel was still there; also, the huge gap in the complex above provided ease of dragon-access to the sea. Years later, I interviewed a Miami architect who hit this feng shui myth briskly on the head by saying the Repulse Bay was based on a building with exactly the same hole in dragon-free Florida. Perhaps that is the Hong Kong way: a retrospective fable always lends enchantment. As for the old Hong Kong Club – it had been demolished in 1981. The new incarnation, however, still did not allow female members. By 1996, the Equal Opportunities Commission had set out to rectify this. The members’ baying distress in public put me in mind of P.G. Wodehouse’s mastodon aunts bellowing across primeval swamps. I could not mourn their lost world. Sometimes I wondered if it was a coincidence that the year Hong Kong was claimed by the British Empire – 1841 – was also the year the word dinosaur was coined. Life of legendary ‘hawker queen’ Old Mary celebrated on stage But the old General Post Office… that I would have liked to have seen. Built in 1911, it was a confection of Hong Kong granite and red bricks from Amoy (now Xiamen) that dominated the corner of Des Voeux Road and Pedder Street, where World-Wide House now stands. In those days that was the seafront, which was the point: mail could easily be transferred from ship to shore. In photos, it looks like a 19th century London railway station; it even had a ladies’ counter for females travelling alone in the land of philately. On one wall was a wooden arch bearing the Old Testament proverb: “ As cold waters to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country .” You will probably recognise those words from the current GPO, which moved to Connaught Place on August 11, 1976. Land reclamation meant that this location had now become the seafront. A plaque commemorates the opening by then-governor Murray MacLehose. The wooden arch curves above, rainbow-style. In 1976, the South China Morning Post described it as consisting of two crescents. Only when I enlarged a photo could I see the tiny crack; the wood on the right is fractionally darker than that on the left. Otherwise, you would never know the two parts had been separate. The Post stated the arch was 50 years old, though the association of that Biblical text with Hong Kong post offices goes back much further. In the autumn of 1869, an American clergyman called Edward Dorr Griffin Prime had noted the same words “engraved on the stone arch in front of the post-office” as he had passed through Hong Kong. What he saw was the city’s second-generation GPO, which stood on Queen’s Road Central and Theatre Lane along the previous seafront. (The first GPO in 1841 was situated, roughly, between what is now Lower Albert Road and St John’s Cathedral.) Prime wrote a book, Around The World: Sketches of Travel Through Many Lands and Over Many Seas (1872), about his year-long excursion. He enjoyed visiting colonial post offices. In Delhi, India, he was advised to cancel his stamps before mailing them; otherwise they would be removed and resold. (The letters all arrived at their destinations.) But it was Hong Kong’s postal piety that most impressed him. He refers to it twice in his book: “Those who have been 10,000 miles or more from home do not esteem it a small matter that by international arrangement they may hold direct and free communication with those they have left behind, and the motto […] of the post-office at Hong Kong will recur as among the expressive sentiments of inspired wisdom.” Almost half a century later, in the spring of 1916, an Australian parliamentarian called Albert Green visited Hong Kong’s third-generation GPO. He had once worked as a postal clerk and would become Australia’s postmaster-general in 1931. On May 16, 1916, he told The West Australian newspaper in Perth how nearly all the office work in Hong Kong “is done by Chinese and Portuguese clerks with Europeans at the heads of department”. He approved of the Superintendent of Mails, a Cantonese-speaking New Zealander who had come to Hong Kong via the Boer war. He quoted the legend he had seen on the wall of the new GPO. By then, the words had been transferred from stone to wood. As it happens, on the same page as Green’s 1916 interview with The West Australian there is another postal story. The newspaper reports how a young Englishwoman went into Dublin’s GPO on Easter Monday (April 24) to buy stamps and found herself trapped by what became known as the Easter Rising. That was the day Ireland’s Declaration of Independence from British colonial rule was read from the GPO’s front steps. Germany, with whom Britain was then at war, was thought to be the foreign influence. One of the leaders of the failed Easter Rising was Michael Mallin. His son Joseph, aged two, was taken to his prison cell the night before Mallin’s execution to say goodbye; later, Joseph became a Jesuit priest and moved to Hong Kong, where I met him several times and where he died, with exquisite synchronicity, on Easter Sunday 2018 aged 104. The last time I was in Dublin’s GPO, I posted a card to Father Mallin at Wah Yan College, in Wan Chai. There are certain moments in life when an email or a text just will not do. Hong Kong’s fourth-generation GPO is not magnificent. Nevertheless, since the government announced the beginning of its end – developers had to submit bids by June 18 – the outcry has been partly on grounds of design merit. On a recent Backchat programme, on RTHK Radio 3, I heard it described as “a very, very good example of Modernist architecture”. Perhaps. One listener wrote in to ask if the previous post office could be rebuilt. It was only when another listener said, “It’s an anchor, and if you nod off on a bus you know where you are when it comes into sight – it gives you a feeling of familiarity, of home”, that I felt the thrill of kinship. My mother was an industrious letter-writer, as was her mother; and, although I cannot claim their vigour or legible writing, a devotion to pen-and-paper correspondence has survived the generations. Until Covid-19 halted airmail to Britain and Ireland, I had been posting thank-you cards, birthday cards, sympathy letters, how-are-you cards in Kennedy Town about four times a week. Since 1996, when I moved there because it was considered inaccessible and the rents were cheaper, its post office has had three locations. I like to think my stamp-buying has contributed to each upgrade. The GPO, however, is the mother ship. I visit it at least once a month – looping through the old Star Ferry underpass, up the GPO escalator, then back along the walkway to its ancestral grave at World-Wide House – often for no other reason than to inhale it for the umpty-third time. During Hong Kong’s 1967 anti-British riots, postmen were unwitting carriers of letter and parcel bombs and the GPO was having to detonate suspect packages In pre-Covid-19 days, when family and friends were able to visit Hong Kong, I would always escort them to the GPO as part of the tour. How lucky they were to have such an enthusiastic guide… and yet, looking back, the suspicion dawns that no one considered it a holiday highlight. The colonial arch was often obscured – by accident or design was debated – behind displays advertising for forthcoming stamp issues; and, unlike the Star Ferry or Peak Tram, the PO boxes, counter service, chained ballpoint pens and damp sponges for stamps were universally familiar. Maybe you know that helpless feeling of unshareable delight. How could I explain what it meant that the place where I used to buy aerogrammes every week, because weightier notepaper and telephoning were too expensive, was still here? How could I convey an era – comparatively recent yet wildly remote – when the queen’s portrait had hung on these very walls? And how could anyone fail to appreciate the many notices in which the GPO peels the blether of world news down to its essential kernel, ie, can the mail be delivered? Years ago, I began writing down those public notices. As informed by the United States Postal Service, all postal services to the areas in Louisiana previously affected by Hurricane Katrina have resumed as normal. However, due to the rebuilding involved, most addresses in the area may become invalid . It became clear that beyond the GPO’s Modernist walls lie far countries where good news is often in short supply. As affected by recent violence in Addis Ababa … As affected by the eruption of the volcano in Ecuador … Due to the recent forest fires in Greece … As advised by the postal administration of Philippines, owing to an ongoing armed conflict in Marawi City … Still, the thought of the mail striving to arrive is strangely cheering, like those photos of London postmen, bags over shoulders, making deliveries amid the rubble of the Blitz. It is true that my mother’s letters – hundreds of them – often contained news of violence and death and sickness, which I hesitated to read and were part of the reason I was here not there. Occasionally, I look at that GPO arch and wonder about the letters expatriates did not want to receive, the ones that chilled their souls. But I have kept mine, alongside correspondence from others who have gone to that even-further country from which no traveller returns; you might say they are filed in my dead-letter office except that when I re-read them, the handwritten voices speak out as clear as the day they were delivered. To Hong Kong’s philatelic world, 1997 is not memorable only because of the handover; it was also the year when the public was seized by stamp madness Hong Kong has had its own troubles, of course. The Public Records Office (PRO), in Kwun Tong, which smells of old paper and dust and gum – like a post office, in fact – contains hundreds of files on every aspect of Hong Kong’s postal history. Where to start amid such a treasure trove of letters, memos and envelopes labelled On Her – or His – Majesty’s Service with still-glossy red-wax seals? One file alone, Summer Uniforms For Postmen , is about four centimetres thick; there are pages of 1970s body measurements, concerns about staff being “slovenly dressed” and brusque nudges to the Prisons Department, which had the uniform-manufacturing contract but was taking its penal time fulfilling it. Stamps were always a tribal totem, especially after the Japanese occupation, in 1945. The postmaster-general, Edward Wynne-Jones, spent part of his Stanley internment designing a stamp for post-war Hong Kong, a risky enterprise under the circumstances. It featured a phoenix, emerging from the flames, and was issued exactly 75 years ago, in August 1946. It took time, however, for the post office to burn off its past – as it did, literally, with a consignment of stamps that had been on its way from England when Hong Kong fell in 1941 and was diverted to Australia. It finally arrived at its destination in 1949, when all pre-war stamps had been declared void. The bonfire was held at “the temporary Cattle Crematory at Kennedy Town Slaughter House”. (Of course it was – Kennedy Town, site of a quarantine ship, smallpox hospital, mortuary, abattoir and many plague graves, had been a dumping ground since the colony was founded.) In 1947, the GPO was still employing that 19th century Hong Kong individual, the comprador – or middleman – who bought stamps from the post office and then sold them on to the counter sellers. A Russian called Mr Serebriakoff had been employed to keep count of the stamps; there were murmurs that he was “undesirable from the security angle”. What should be done? In a 1947 memo, the accountant-general recommended seeking advice on fraud insurance from the postmasters of Singapore, Malaya, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Trinidad, Mauritius and Gold Coast (now Ghana), all of whom were in the process of delivering themselves to a postcolonial era. In 1967, Hong Kong had anti-British riots . From the GPO’s point of view, these began when a stream of post offices reported smashed windows and daubed Communist slogans in May; in July, the Sha Tau Kok postmaster sent a message about 300 armed Chinese militia crossing into the restricted border area for a 10-hour siege (“It is due to the unexpected clash that I have to report again that no delivery of mails and no routine daily cash account were made in this office”); and, by August, postmen were unwitting carriers of letter and parcel bombs and the GPO was having to detonate suspect packages. Why many women are being denied a chance at motherhood in Hong Kong One of the public files has an envelope addressed to the GPO in Chinese characters. A hand-drawn stamp of a Union flag being torn in half is in the top right-hand corner. On the back flap, written in Chinese characters, is the instruction “ Comrades! Don’t open! ” I cannot read Chinese but having seen the preceding memos about letter bombs, I checked with the PRO staff before looking inside, a little gingerly. (It contained a lifestyle page from Sing Tao Daily but no obvious threat.) Also in the files is a letter addressed to the postmaster-general with a tip-off that Communist leaflets were being distributed in envelopes that carried only a 5 cent stamp even though they were sealed and should have cost more. (“I thought you might like to know that this method of evasion of postal charges is being freely practised,” wrote the principal of one of the local colleges, enclosing 22 examples.) A memo was sent that sorting clerks must be on the alert for such deception. In the end, 51 people died – 15 of them killed by bombs – but the colonial administration prevailed. By 1976, when architect Tao Ho was commissioned to design a stamp for the opening of the new post office in Connaught Place, he was reminded to leave room for Queen Elizabeth’s initials and the British crown. He would go on to design the Bauhinia flag, the new emblem of Hong Kong identity. To Hong Kong’s philatelic world, 1997 is not memorable only because of the handover; it was also the year when the public was seized by stamp madness. I can testify to this because I did a story on a stamp exhibition the Post Office organised in the Convention Centre that spring. It opened on February 14 but the thousands of people who queued to get in were not buying stamps for their Valentines and they certainly were not collectors; they were speculators. In 1996, a sheet of definitive Hong Kong stamps purchased in 1991 for HK$10 was valued at HK$1,200. The overseas stamp dealers were stunned by the figures; also by the fact that no one seemed to know anything about stamps. The Ombudsman’s Report of the Investigation on Issue and Sale of Special Stamps and Philatelic Products , issued in September 1997, stated that the disappearance of the queen and her royal cypher from Hong Kong’s stamps had probably fuelled the speculation. In March, a man had collapsed and died outside the GPO while queuing to buy some of the residual stock with the queen’s portrait. The report also noted that collectors in mainland China – estimated at between 20 and 30 million – were now interested in Hong Kong stamps. In 1996, on the first day issue of the Lunar New Year of the Rat, 898,000 souvenir sheets had been sold. In 1997, the Year of the Ox, the figure was 7,975,170. What I remember is that no one I spoke to that year had any intention of putting those stamps on cards or envelopes, writing a loving message and placing them in a postbox. (These, having been British red, were being painted Irish green, at least to my eyes, in time for the July 1 transition.) The Post Office, which was about to become Hongkong Post, was obliged to introduce stricter limits. “ Babies are not served ” said a notice in the GPO when the Heartwarming series went on sale to cheer us up after Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) in 2003. Still, on July 1, 2007, the 10th anniversary of the handover, the queues continued to curl round the GPO. I was there not because I was buying stamps but because I had gone to see the protests at adjacent Queen’s Pier, which was about to be demolished, just as the Star Ferry pier had been the previous year. I did not think Queen’s Pier was in any way remarkable but one of the banners, in English, summed up the mood: “ It is at this aging [sic] pier that history is being written and they are (and will be) important part of the memory of this city ”. Soon the GPO will be demolished and, once it is gone, I will be one of those dinosaurs who will tell newcomers of its glories. Truth to tell, it feels like part of it has already disappeared: I am typing this at my desk looking at a pile of HK$4.90 stamps and airmail stickers gathering dust. I still go to Kennedy Town post office to send local cards to friends I will see within a week; but it is not the same. In 1860, a letter from Hong Kong to England took about three months, which is about as long as surface mail takes these days. Now when I do my detour through the GPO, I look up at the old arch and think how strange it is that in 2021, a far country – like the past – can feel so much further away.