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Maureen Earls remembers the tense moments in the control booth on handover night. Photo: Jonathan Wong

‘I prayed for the flags to unfurl properly,’ recalls event producer at Hong Kong’s handover ceremony

American expat Maureen Earls witnessed one of the city’s most important moments in a control booth at the Convention Centre

When Hong Kong changed from a British colony to a Chinese special administrative region 20 years ago, those living in the city witnessed the significant moment from different locations, on different jobs and with different feelings. All the little things they experienced, from a hug with Chinese officials to a change in police badges, will be remembered as parts of the city’s history.

On the night of the handover, American expatriate Maureen Earls was one of the very few people to witness the historic moment from an unusual spot: the control panel at the ceremony.

Earls, who helped produce the event, was working for a multinational company at the time. She remembered the experience fondly, and said nothing else she had been involved with compared to its historical significance.

She first visited Hong Kong in 1992 and soon fell in love with the city through her work. Three months later she decided to move from her home in New York and later met her husband and started a family.

Passionate about the city, Earls decided in 1996 that she wanted to become involved in the main event.

“I kept writing letters to various government departments, asking them ‘have you guys thought of the ceremonies and what’s going to happen?’”

She was over the moon when her team finally won the government tender to stage the event.

While everything else went as planned on June 30, the bad weather proved to be an unwelcome guest at the official sunset farewell ceremony.

“ We were informed that there might be rain and had an emergency meeting to discuss how we would cope,” she said.

As rain at the start of the 6pm event turned into a downpour, Earls was struck by the calmness of Britain’s Prince Charles.

“He just carried on with his speech without even flinching as the rain poured off the brim of his cap. I don’t know many people who would have kept going.”

She was also impressed by the tenacity of the local students lining up to perform in the rain.

“The 300 students had the option of not performing, but they insisted on doing it anyway, showing their strong Hong Kong spirit and commitment to the ceremony.”

When proceedings transferred to the newly constructed extension of the Convention and Exhibition Centre in Wan Chai, Earls sat at a control panel with two of her colleagues, as well as two mainland representatives.

While her colleagues focused on making sure everybody was in position and everything was going to plan, her eyes were on the flags.

“When I saw the flags get to the top of the poles, I knew it was 12 o’clock sharp as planned because I heard a colleague loudly whisper ‘yes!’.

“I remember I felt every fibre in my body praying for the flags to unfurl properly,” she said. “I then got so excited that I involuntarily let out an exclamation, which was the only sound that could be heard in the quiet control area.”

What followed was one of the most satisfying moments of the night: officials from the Chinese side came to hug her.

“Earlier, they might have been thinking ‘who is this American woman? What is she doing here?’” she said jokingly. “But when they came to hug me I felt that every second of my work was worth it.”

Earls said those at the ceremony generally behaved as though they had witnessed something truly memorable.

“I do remember there were sections in the audience that clapped loudly. It seemed that everyone was pleased to have witnessed a historic moment.”

Twenty years on, Earls said although she still thought of herself as an expat, the city would always be home to her.

“Life has gone nicely for me here and I am grateful to Hong Kong.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: ‘I prayed for the flags to unfurl properly’