22 October 2016
The debate surrounding colonial-era mail boxes is a reflection of the ambivalent attitudes that prevail in Hong Kong toward the city's history.
The debate surrounding colonial-era mail boxes is a reflection of the ambivalent attitudes that prevail in Hong Kong toward the city's history.

Should our British past become such a sensitive issue?

During a recent visit to Bangkok, a relative invited me to a prom at a British-style high school he is connected with.

I was expecting a student dance and a gathering of parents and staff. However, as things turned out, it was an entirely different sort of event. It was a “Last Night of the Proms” – a concert named after a similar very British and patriotic musical performance that takes place every year in London.

The student orchestra and singers were, by the way, extremely talented. Indeed, so were the members of the audience – or at least some of them. The tradition at the Last Night of the Proms is that everyone in the crowd waves Union Jacks and sings along to British songs like “Land of Hope and Glory” and “Rule Britannnia”.

While the students at the school are a mix of British and local Thais, most of the audience singing and cheering were British expatriates living in Bangkok. Some were parents of students, but others seemed to be there because the evening was clearly a major event for the whole British community.

I couldn’t help wondering later whether such a British-style event would take place in Hong Kong. Thailand of course was never a colony, and most Thais would not notice or care much about the nationalistic British aspect of the performance. But in Hong Kong I think it would be regarded as outdated or even insensitive.

After I returned to Hong Kong, I had a meeting with a British contact and raised the issue with him. He mentioned a group called the Society of St George – the patron saint of England – which might holds some patriotic events, but not in a public setting. It is hard to imagine any international school in Hong Kong having a Last Night of the Proms.

My British contact was wearing a red paper poppy in memory of the war dead. This fund-raising exercise has been an annual event in Hong Kong for as long as I can remember – the money goes to local causes such as veterans and their families. It seems to me that most people wearing poppies every year are British (and I think Canadians and Australians).

At around the same time this was happening, news broke that the Post Office was going to cover the British royal cipher on the older post boxes that still have the symbol. This is of course a heritage issue (the post office plans measures to conserve some samples). But it also raised the question of the colonial past and what sort of symbols are or are not appropriate 18 years after the handover.

The simple truth is that examples of our British past are, inevitably, all around us. Some aspects of our colonial history – the legal system and the use of English, for example – are vital parts of our success as an international city. Some aspects of British culture, ranging from place names to school uniforms to traditional “cha chaarn teng” cuisine, are part of our local identity.

There is nothing at all wrong with any of this. But there is a problem. A few young radicals and activists think it is amusing to use British symbols in very public ways to make extreme political points. For example, some claim to want “independence” for Hong Kong.

This behavior is obviously designed to provoke not only the authorities, but many other Hong Kong people who are proud to be Chinese as well as Hongkongers.

To some members of the community, this sort of behavior is insulting and intolerable. They can get so angry that they demand that the government take some sort of action – which might include finding ways to give colonial symbols a lower profile.

This puts officials and conservationists and others in an awkward position. We can end up in a situation where preservation of heritage conflicts with what is politically correct. At that point, our British past becomes extremely sensitive.

This is unnecessary. There is no reason why we as a community cannot be comfortable with our own history as well as our present. Young hotheads risk making parts of our heritage controversial or even shunned.

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Executive Council member and former legislator; Hong Kong delegate to the National People’s Congress

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