Monday, August 28, 2006

The Colonial Flag of Hong Kong

The flag of Hong Kong has never been a particularly potent symbol. Because Hong Kong has never had a military, or any real effort at creating a sense of patriotic municipal identity, there have been few that would volunteer to die for the flag (with the notable exception of the Hong Kong Volunteers during the Battle for Hong Kong in 1941). Today, that flag hardly inspires any real fervor; fittingly so then that this city that is supposed to be the offspring of East and West, is represented today by a sterile hybrid orchid. But what was the old flag like? Those of us left over from before the Handover will dimly remember this flag. But this was a flag that was instituted in the 1950s, long after the War and any pretense to develop a spirit of civic 'Hong Kong-ness'
had evaporated. The flag that Hong Kong had long known, with a notable half-decade interregnum in the 1870s, was one that had the blue ensign and the flag of the United Kingdom in its top left corner. On its right side was a circle that showed a scene, apparently from Kowloon, of a man buying chests of tea (or was it opium in the early days?) from a merchant, and with ships in the harbour.

Now this image irked successive Governors and senior civil servants, keenly aware that the flag showed that it was the merchant, and not the authority of the Queen, that made the flag distinctive. It was also cartoonlike, and they felt ill-befitting men of their office to rally behind such a symbol.

Where did I find this out? From a fascinating debate that took place in the Legislative Council in 1912, on the 15th of April. The Colonial Secretary of the time, and an urbane, mild-mannered Sinologist / government cadet named Sir Cecil Clementi, made an astonishing outburst about the poor quality of the flag. This is what he had to say, in response to a previous veto by unofficial members of Legco of his efforts to change the flag:
As a fact a young lady now resident in Hongkong did design a new badge. It consisted of a naval anchor and a Chinese grapnel crossed underneath the Imperial British Crown. The design was simple and artistic. Sir F. Lugard approved it...Honourable members, however, decided by a majority of 8 to 5 that the existing badge of the Colony should be retained and that it was undesirable to change it. I confess that this decision was a great surprise to me, and before accepting it as final I would like to give hon. members a short account of the origin of the existing badge as recorded in the archives of my department. It would appear that in the spring of 1869, the Crown Agents for the Colonies approached an oilman at Wapping with the request that he would design a badge for the Colonial flag of Hongkong. An economical bargain was driven and for a fee of some 3 pounds the existing badge of the Colony was painted. It was then set in a blue ensign and sent out to Hongkong as the flag of the Colony. Local opinion was not consulted, and it seems that the artistic feelings of the community recieved a rude shock when the new flag was first unfurled. The then Governor, Sir Richard Graves Macdonnell, brought the matter before his Executive Council, which had no hesitation in recording the opinion that the flag was "both design and execution extremely defective."

Accordingly Sir Richard on the 3rd July, 1869, addressed a protest to Lord Granville, at that time Secretary of State for the Colonies. He wrote: "As the design seems to have been compiled by an oilman at Wapping for about 3 pounds, a specimen of the highest art could not well have been looked for. Apart, however, from the abstract merits of the flag, it is the wish of the Council and of every one who has expressed an opinion on the subject, that your Lordship should direct some fresh and more suitable design to be substituted. It has been suggested that in lieu of the gentleman in an evening coat who is purchasing tea on the beach at Kowloon, an unusual place for such transactions [sarcasm is the author's, italics are mine - Ed.], it would be more agreeable to the feelings of the community if the foreground were occupied by the well-known figure of Britannia with the British Lion lying beside her and near the British flag. it is suggested that in such case the shield might bear either the motto Coelum non animum mutant or the Royal Arms, as your Lordship may decide.
Let us stop for a moment, given that latin is a language dying now even in our schools. Caelum non animum mutant means literally, 'they change their sky but not their heart'. But it is a reference to an oft-quoted section of Horace, which is "Coelum non animum mutant, qui trans mare currunt". In its entireity, it means, 'those who cross the sea change their sky but not their heart', and may have been a very meaningful aphorism for the British in Hong Kong in the 1860s, so very far from home. Anyway, let us continue with the rant of Sir Cecil (later Governor) Clementi:
I admit that in the design of the enclosed flag there is a certain unpleasant resemblance to a portion of the present arms of the Colony, but I respectfully submit that the opportunity is not unfabourable for considering whether the Arms themselves now borne on the seal of the Colony are not capable of improvement. That, however, which is appropriate on the smaller surface of the seal seems quite unsuitable to the larger field of the flag." Again on the 27th December, 1869, Sir Richard wrote to Lord Granville:-"The flag at present assigned to the Colony is capable of great and easy improvement, and in fact that it is wholly unsuitable, as the device, though not strikingly out of good taste when put on a medal or a seal, becomes obviously so when occupying the larger field of a flag. Such at least is the opinion of myself and my Council as well as of every one else whom I have hitherto heard speaking on the subject. I have even referred the matter again to my Council, and they unanimously recommend a change of the device in the flag to something of the same idea and character as that which I ventured to submit to your Lordship in my despatch No. 734 of July last." He added, "I may say that, however pleased we might be to obtain a flag with a more tasteful device, our principal object is to get rid of that which at present appears to be decidedly obnoxious." "On the 5th May, 1870, Lord Granville replied:- "I have the honour to inform you that not being satisfied with the designs for a Colonial Flag for Hong Kong which have been submitted to me, I have decided that the best course will be to adopt for use in the Colony a pattern somewhat similar to that which has been selected by the Governor of New Zealand, viz.: a blue ensign with a white crown over the initial letters of the Colony. The Crown Agents have been informed of my decision, and in accordance with it will forward a supply of flags of that pattern for the service of the Government of Hongkong." Then for some reason which cannot be traced in my archived the whole matter appears suddenly to have fallen into abeyance. The new flags were never sent out and the exiting flag remained as an enduring witness to the artistic standards of Wapping.
But unfortunately for Sir Cecil, the British respect for tradition, which makes it the only advanced polity in the world without a written Constitution, got in the way:
Hon. Mr. C.H. Ross- I opposed this resolution on the last occasion when it came up, and did so, not because I admire the present badge, but because I have a great respect for antiquity. The Hon. Colonial Secretary just now has said that if we continue our present flag, we will be upholding that which the Legislative Council of 1869 disapproved. That is some forty-three years ago, a considerable space of time. I do not think the present badge is artistic, but still it has the dignity of age, and with a small improvement, as I suggested on the last occasion, such as an artistic pagoda or a junk, with the Peak in the background, would meet the case. Two anchors crossed are certainly pretty, but I do not see what connection they have with Hongkong. [He must be deliberately obtuse - Ed.]

Hon. Mr. Hewett-With regard to what my hon. friend, the last speaker has said, I entirely endorse his proposal. When the question came up in the Council, I played a lone hand, as it were, in opposing any change. I admit that when the flag was invented it might have been more artistic, but it was descriptive of Hongkong as it was shortly after the flag was housted here. I do not think any unhallowed hand should be allowed to tear down any monument of those historic days...The Hon. the Colonial Secretary has laid great stress on the fact that in ancient days, in 1869, certain officials and unofficials appeared to agree that the flag was inartistic, but he has produced nothing later to show that the flag is inartistic. What we know is that the whole world has advanced very much in artistic training, and whereas in 1869 the whole of the Council might have been opposed to the artistic merits of the flag, we have been so far educated that we find the great proportion of the present Council in favour of the flag as it stands.
The acting Governor Claud Severn agreed with Clementi but because there was no agreement on a new design they had to stick to the old one. At that point, Sir Cecil threw in the towel and withdrew his resolution.

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