HK's quiet champion

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 December, 2006, 12:00am

Hong Kong was stunned on the morning of December 5, 1986, to learn that the governor, Sir Edward Youde, had died in his sleep in Beijing during the night.

Unlike many of his predecessors, Sir Edward was a low-key governor, preferring to get the job done away from the public eye.

Yet the genuine outpouring of grief when he died left no doubt about the respect and real affection people had for him.

Perhaps it was the unexpectedness of his death that prompted thousands of people - young and old - to wait up to four hours to pay their final respects to the quietly spoken Welshman as he lay in state at Government House before his funeral. They believed he had given his life in the service of Hong Kong. One woman said at the time: 'He was Hong Kong's man, a great man and our national leader. I had never met him, but I believe he did a lot of good things for Hong Kong.'

Although Sir Edward was officially a member of the British team during the long months of onerous negotiations on the city's future, the people believed he fought in Hong Kong's corner - sometimes taking on both London and Beijing in his determination to give them a voice.

This week marks the 20th anniversary of Sir Edward's sudden death.

But who was the man who became the 26th governor of Hong Kong and where does he rate in the city's history?

Sir Edward was the only governor to die in office. He was 62.

He had heart trouble and underwent open-heart surgery before he was appointed governor in December 1981.

This was something former deputy political adviser Richard Margolis, who had worked for Sir Edward both on the mainland and in Hong Kong, took up.

'He had a history of heart trouble and must have known he was running the risk that he wouldn't survive,' he said. 'I believe he accepted because he had a very strong sense of public duty.'

A fluent speaker of Putonghua, Sir Edward came to Hong Kong at one of the most difficult periods of its history.

His task was to govern an increasingly jittery city worried about its political future.

The fact that all he ever said about the progress of the negotiations was that they had been 'useful and constructive' emphasised how difficult they really were.

Sir Edward became one of the main negotiators on the British side, flying regularly between Hong Kong, London and Beijing. He maintained a gruelling work schedule during the two-year negotiations, which ended with the signing of the Joint Declaration in December 1984. He made 28 official trips to Beijing and 22 to London. Allen Lee Peng-fei, then a senior executive council member, remembers the governor's routine on those trips.

'Even on the plane, as soon as we were airborne, he took out his briefcase and started working on Hong Kong issues. He worked his heart out for Hong Kong. He definitely was a hard-working governor,' Mr Lee said.

'I admired the way he dealt with everything in that very soft-spoken manner he had - even when replying to certain issues that must have upset him.

'Sir Edward Youde dedicated his life to Hong Kong.'

Mr Margolis, who worked with Sir Edward on his first overseas posting and was happy to do it again in Hong Kong at the governor's request, had this to say when asked what Sir Edward's place in Hong Kong's history ought to be. 'He deserves quite a notable place because he played an important role in the negotiations on Hong Kong's future.

'He believed that Hong Kong needed a voice at the talks and while it could be argued that the mechanisms we had in place at the time were not perfect, they were what we had. Sir Edward fought hard for that view to be accepted.'

Mr Margolis was referring to the fact that no members were elected to the Legislative Council at the time. Feedback thus came largely from appointed members, who were hardly representative of the man on the street.

He said what went on behind the scenes took a great toll on Sir Edward - a cloak of confidentiality surrounded the negotiations. The spontaneous outpouring of emotion at Sir Edward's funeral was because the people understood his firm championing of their cause.

Sir Edward was determined to do the right thing. As a government servant he did his best, despite the toll the stressful discussions took on him. And that toll was what most people who knew him remembered, Mr Margolis said. Senior legislative councillor and executive councillor at the time, Sir Roger Lobo, also made some of those London trips with the governor and remembered with fondness how Sir Edward's favourite beige pullover would replace his suit jacket on the plane - the signal that he was not to be disturbed. He was a workaholic and a man who cared for the people of Hong Kong.

'I had heard he had heart trouble, but because he looked fit and healthy I just filed it away in the back of my head and thought nothing more of it,' he said.

He described Sir Edward as a man of great integrity and someone who controlled his temper. 'When he was angry, his lower lip would quiver.'

Sir Roger also gave this insight into the governor's sense of humour. 'New consuls to Hong Kong invariably asked what was most needed for the job. He told them they had better have strong stomachs because of the eating out they would be doing every night in Hong Kong.'

Sir Edward was a Chinese scholar and had a long association with the country and its people.

Beijing officials described him as 'a good friend of the Chinese people'. His Chinese name Yau Tak, meaning 'abundant virtue', was said to have been coined by late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping in 1948 when Sir Edward was the third secretary in Britain's Nanjing embassy.

He served four tours of duty in China, the last as ambassador from 1974-78.

Sir David Akers-Jones, chief secretary and then acting governor, said Sir Edward 'played a prominent role in the talks on Hong Kong's future, shuttling between Hong Kong, Beijing and London. He was untiring in his service to Hong Kong'.

He said the regard in which he was held by Hong Kong people was evident when he died, judging from the queues waiting to sign the books of condolence.

'Teddy' Youde, he said, was unwavering in his decisions.

He loved to get away and was off bird watching with a huge telescope at the Mai Po marshes whenever he could. He always encouraged young people to get outdoors more. The University of Science and Technology was a great memorial to him. It pointed to the new technical direction in which Hong Kong ought to move.

Martin Lee Chu-ming, the unofficial leader of the 'opposition' at the time, was moved to sadness when asked how he viewed Sir Edward's place in the history of Hong Kong.

'He would be so unhappy if he knew what's happening today. He worked so hard for the 'one country, two systems' concept. Twenty years on, where is Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy?

'More recently Donald Tsang [Yam-kuen] said we must follow Beijing's 11th five-year plan. I was very sad to hear that.'

Going over old papers recently, Martin Lee said he came across the phrase 'masters of our own house'.

'It's a joke. How can we be masters of anything when, even at our most humble, elections are dictated to at every level. It is a complete break with everything Sir Edward worked so hard for.'

Martin Lee remembered 'talking to him about the necessity of the governor speaking up for Hong Kong'.

'He told me he would certainly stand up for Hong Kong, but he did not believe in megaphone diplomacy. 'You're going to have to trust me on that', he said. He was so genuine.'

Lady Youde, the former Pamela Fitt, a Chinese scholar in her own right, was in Xian when Sir Edward died. She returned to Hong Kong with his body the day after his death.

She was joined in Beijing by their daughters, Jennifer and Deborah.

Sir Edward was given Hong Kong's first state funeral - the pomp and ceremony of which rivalled anything in the British tradition at such occasions.

The band of the Royal Hong Kong Police struck up the national anthem as Sir Edward's coffin was carried out of Government House on the shoulders of 10 Coldstream Guardsmen and placed in a specially converted army vehicle bearing the governor's insignia, before being escorted in solemn procession to St John's Cathedral for a 30-minute service.

The procession was punctuated by a 17-gun salute fired from HMS Tamar - the first going off as Sir Edward's coffin emerged from Government House, with the others following at one-minute intervals.

Kerry McGlynn, retired deputy director of information who set up the interviews in London for the newly appointed governor in 1981, said Sir Edward was a real mandarin and he believed 'Teddy Youde would occupy a very high and distinguished place in Hong Kong's history. His term was short, but came at a crucial time when confidence was stretched. He was unflappable, incredibly calm, cool and collected in the face of it'.

Sir Edward was not particularly charismatic, he said, but people felt he was genuinely on their side and when the files were opened they would show he fought in Hong Kong's corner with Britain.

'The display of affection and sorrow from ordinary Hong Kong people after his death and at his funeral shocked those on the mainland who were under the impression that the people here wanted nothing more than to return to the motherland,' Mr McGlynn said.