Sunday, April 19, 2009

From Union Jack to Bauhinia Flower

A great thing about living in Hong Kong is that it is easy to learn the history of the place. I have found some wonderful books, fact and fiction, that would not be so readily available elsewhere. Add to that the many various stories from local china hands and a rich tapestry of Hong Kong and its history starts to take shape.

Very briefly, Hong Kong was claimed by the British after they planted the Union Jack in what is now called Possession Street, on Hong Kong Island, in 1841. After an array of political twists and turns and wars with the Chinese, it was finally agreed with the signing of the Treaty on Nanking in 1842, that Hong Kong would be handed over to the British government in perpetuity thereafter. Thus ended the first of the Opium Wars!

By 1898 the relationship between the British rulers in Hong Kong and London and the Chinese government in Beijing was still very wobbly, mutual suspicion abounded. In that year the two nervous neighbours signed an agreement which allowed the British to lease the island of Kowloon for 99 years, up to 1997. This lease did not affect the ownership of Hong Kong Island itself. With the extra land, the strategically vital free port of Hong Kong had a buffer from the Chinese mainland. When the take-over of Kowloon was complete, the newly leased area became known as the New Territories, with Kowloon keeping its name in the southern peninsula which faced off across Victoria Harbour and looked out at Hong Kong Island itself. This is just as it is today.
Move forward 99 years and the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong was handed back to the Chinese in 1997. British rule was over after decades of controversial dialogue between the two nations which saw the Treaty of Nanking rescinded and Hong Kong (proper) handed back to China, although it had never been leased in the first place and was officially still a British colony (there was much anguish and debate about this). The flag was changed and the new one carried an image of a Bauhinia flower which could be found flapping from flagpoles everywhere.

The years between 1841 and 1997 were colourful, painful, squalid, heroic and brave. Pirates ruled over the seas and, by all accounts, in the boardrooms of banks and the hong trading giants of this now powerful nation. Many testimonies to this period in history exist and are worth reading (details in another blog). I have read several of them, all of which are as delightfully swashbuckling and tragic, as were the lives of the people themselves. Living on this group of small islands at the time meant suffering from epidemic and famine, war and destruction, occupation and liberation, overcrowding and disease, floods and landslides, poverty and abundant wealth, and all the time businessmen, politicians, triads, spies and soldiers traded goods, people and secrets. It is said that you could buy just about anything in Hong Kong in those days and perhaps that is true, somewhere in my mind’s eye I can see it all unfolding.

Today in the towns and villages on our island there are many restaurants and bars which seem to attract a mixture of newly settled residents, like us, and the old china hands who have lived here all their lives or at least most of it. Stories of the history of Hong Kong when the British ruled flow thick and fast after several gigantic scotch and soda’s and one such place is not so far away from where we live.

Every village needs an historian of some sort, and in our village there are many, but, one old china hand stands out. She is an ex- journalist who, according to her own account, was on first name terms with the last Governor and is unafraid of local triads or the Chinese mafia - and the police have been known to be her friend once or twice, at least! She was born and raised in Hong Kong. Her mother and father were British and came to the islands in the 1950’s before having children. They became so wealthy and powerful working for one of the hong companies, that they never left. Her parents belonged to the higher echelons of the business community and were very well connected, definitely on the A list of the time. As she grew her childhood was peppered with regular visits to the family home of politicians, hongs, police and pirates and she was always intrigued by a good story. Journalism seemed the obvious career and off she popped to London to get her respectable degree and she returned in the late 1970’s when talk about democracy and the 1997 handover was just taking off. Over the next decade Basic Law was hashed out and democratic politicians and those opposed to the return of Hong Kong Island to the Chinese were complaining bitterly. Bankers, smugglers, commies and spies abounded and our friend was never without something to report. Looking like an unwashed Kate Adie, without any of the blond hair, glamour or make-up, she lives here still and freelances, generally snooping around asking lots of personal questions – not that she stands out at all in the villages because everybody does that here! In those trade mark Kate Adie fatigues, she cuts a dashing figure – minus the helmet, of course. She frequents various watering holes around the town and is good friends with the team at our local where she can often be found propping up the bar with one hand, stroking one of her three dogs with the other and recounting a ripping yarn or two.
All this brings me to my book for today. Whilst our journalist friend was growing up in the streets of Hong Kong in the mid 1950’s, so too, was Martin Booth. In his wonderful memoir of a Hong Kong childhood, Gweilo, he calls to mind, with razor sharp focus the sights, smells, society and life of that time. (Gweilo is the Chinese slang word for ‘white man’, but in real terms it means white ghost or devil and is a derogatory term). There is something so endearing about this book, not least of all because it was to become Martin Booth’s epitaph, as he died a shortly after writing it. A career journalist, Booth was diagnosed with a nasty incurable brain tumor in 2002. His grown up daughters urged him to write down his life story before his memory slipped away from him. He did and the result is magnificent. The descriptions he provides are so convincing and the images so carefully crafted that I was transported into the back streets and alleyways of Kowloon in 1955, out on a fearless mission of discovery and friend making with this seven year old Luke Skywalker of the day. As we climbed the outcrops of The Peak a year later, our view of Victoria Harbour was crystal clear. The book is also a moving tribute to the memory of the love he had for his mother and a testimony to the smoldering hatred he had for his father. It is very near the top of my favourite book list.


  1. It is great to read about the history of Hong Kong. I have only visited it for a few days, but I really enjoyed my time spent there.

    I've just discovered your blog, and we seem to read similar things, so I'm sure I'll be back!

  2. Thank you for dropping by. Hong Kong is a great place, so rich and varied with such a checkered history.
    Do come back any time, I'll pop over to yours too.