Tuesday, August 23, 2005

The Trouble With Anniversaries in Hong Kong

As regular readers of this blog will know, I have frequently tried to remind people of the significance of particular dates in history significant to Hong Kong, or more generally to the history of Sino-Western relations. The reason I do this is to invest both time and space with a greater memory of past events. I do this not only for sentimental reasons; Hong Kong's legal system and rule of law is based on English (some like to say Anglo-American) Common Law, which is in turn based on precedent. How can one have a city with a strong sense of the rule of law, if people have no sense of the past and have therefore have little sense of precedent?

But as I have mentioned in past posts, the reason for the lack of historicity lies in the postwar colonial government here. For all of its merits, and the progress under its watch, there was little it could do to hide its own embarrassment about Hong Kong having been seized as a prize of the First Opium War. I found an interesting article written 14 years ago in the International Herald Tribune (to this day, actually) about the difficulty of celebrating anniversaries of Hong Kong's founding. It discusses how in that year, the 150th anniversary of the post office was being celebrated, but how the fact that that was also the 150th anniversary of Hong Kong's birth was being totally hushed up:
On Jan. 26, 1841, Captain Charles Elliot raised the Union Jack over Possession Point [actually it was Captain Edward Belcher of the HMS Sulphur - Ed.], claiming the island of Hong Kong for the British crown.
It is an event that the present colonial government has chosen to overlook.
"I didn't even realize that that was the case," said Stanley Wong, a government spokesman, when asked about the anniversary. "I don't even know if there was any discussion about it."
Mr. Wong later said that the anniversary had been discussed by the colony's leaders, but that it had been decided that 150 years was nothing special.
"We don't think there is any significance to this particular event," he said. "This year is no different from any other year."
But Mr. Wong denied that the government was not doing anything to celebrate.
"I'm sure you are familiar with the fact that the Post Office is celebrating its 150th anniversary," he said.
It is fascinating that actually even soon after Tiananmen, the British still felt that it would have been inappropriate to celebrate the taking of Hong Kong from China on its 150th anniversary. Perhaps so, since while that was the date that Britain officially claimed Hong Kong, they did not receive it from the Chinese in writing ultimately until the signing of the Treaty of Nanking on August 29th, 1842. In any case, the pro-China Lord Wilson was then still Governor, and it was to be another year before the more antagonistic-to-China Chris Patten was assigned as the last Governor to the Colony (oops, Territory) of Hong Kong.

But the article later mentions some perceptive local historians that point out that all of the major anniversaries of Hong Kong's capture by Britain have come at the most dreadfully inconvenient times that made it impossible to celebrate then:
The 125th anniversary in 1966 came amid China's Cultural Revolution, when resentment of British rule led to riots in the colony. The 100th anniversary in 1941 came during World War II, and the 75th in 1916 occurred during World War I. There was apparently a celebration in 1891 to mark the 50th anniversary, but no one is around to remember what went on.
.. "I don't think any colony around the world has had the same remarkable level of social an
"Every time Hong Kong tries to celebrate, the situation is not so favorable, like this year," said Joseph Ting, curator of the Hong Kong Museum of History.
Under the circumstances, many believe a celebration of the Hong Kong Post Office is an appropriate substitute. With its state-of-the-art optical recognition system and its low-key efficiency, the postal service is among the cheapest and finest in the world, exemplifying what may well be Britain's most lasting contribution to Hong Kong: an honest and well-run civil service.
Maybe so, but Hong Kong's willingness to forget history and embrace whatever-may-come from the future may come at the expense of the rule of law, and the 'honest and well-run civil service' the author mentions.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

pardon the passive aggressive nature of my response to the Hong Kong government in general, but..