Witnessing HK-China history as it unfolded

Historic assignment: (From left) Chun Wai, Kok Leong and the late Sai Wan covering the handover of Hong Kong to China 25 years ago.

FIRST, it drizzled and then it poured. It was really a wet June 30, 1997, when the historic farewell ceremony began, with the British finally leaving Hong Kong and handing over the colony to China.

It’s been 25 years since I witnessed the handover which ended 157 years of British colonial rule as a reporter, but the memories remain etched.

It was as if the wet weather was necessary to cool down the political temperatures.

It was clear that Britain was reluctant to hand back the jewel in the Far East, as some older Brits still think of HK, even in this day and age when air travel is easy.

For the Chinese, the Union Jack was finally lowered and the red flag hoisted.

Reporters covering the event were mostly confined to the convention and exhibition centre where the handover took place.

The Star team, comprising Charles Chan, the late Datuk Wong Sai Wan, Ng Kok Leong, Bonnie Yap and myself, stayed at nearby Wan Chai.

It was a modest hotel located in a seedy place surrounded by clubs, pubs and massage parlours.

But we didn’t complain.

The action was just a hop away, and it was logistically perfect.

And the soy sauce chicken rice at the eatery nearby was really good. Really.

The stiff Chinese President, Jiang Zemin, was the man of the hour.

Naturally, he spoke Mandarin – alien to Cantonese-speaking Hong Kongers – at the ceremony.

Many HK people may not have caught the significance of it. Change had started.

Jiang declared the occasion “a festival for the Chinese nation” and that “it would go down in the annals of history as a day that merits eternal harmony’’ – in short, HK is now under China. It’s simple.

Some Hong Kongers have always thought themselves superior to the mainlanders, even mocking them as simpletons, or Ah Chan as widely used in the colourful Cantonese language.

But they would learn later, after 1997, that China’s economy would explode in the decades to come.

Today, HK accounts for just 3% of China’s economy, according to a report.

On July 1, the day after the handover, the little changes started with the colonial crests and insignias making way for the Bauhinia, China’s HK symbol. Chinese troops quietly rolled into their HK barracks without any fanfare.

On the evening of this world event, my colleague Kok Leong had to cajole, persuade and even pay off some HK residents to capture the mood of thousands of ordinary folk crammed at Victoria Harbour to catch the fireworks display at 8.15pm.

He needed a perfect spot to capture the magic moment but received angry stares instead from people who had booked their spot as early as 9.30am. And he had thought he was early when he reached there at 4pm!

It didn’t help that the rain got heavier, making his task more difficult and he had to rush to a nearby photo shop by 9pm – to get his film processed to make it for page one of The Star.

Remember, this was the pre-digital and pre-mobile phone days, and poor Kok Leong had to push his way through the swarm of people.

He rushed back to the hotel, getting there at 11pm, to scan the images and send them back to The Star in Petaling Jaya, where the editors waited anxiously as the deadline loomed.

The next day, Kok Leong made a confession – there were water marks on the page one picture as his camera lenses were wet, but it made the picture look more surreal to the untrained eyes.

After 1997, I had the opportunity to meet and speak to Jiang as well as other HK leaders, including chief executives Tung Chee Hwa and CY Leung, as part of the Bangkok-based Asia News Network team at the People’s Great Hall in Beijing.

So what has changed? Western media has reported a sharp drop in democratic rights and that press freedom had been violated while the right to protest was killed.

They weren’t entirely wrong. Under the British, the right to protest was guaranteed. The press was certainly more lively as the HK authorities show little tolerance now.

But then, the so-called “peaceful demonstrations” in 2019-2020 were hardly Gandhian. They were violent and no authorities would tolerate weeks and weeks of rioting.

It is also a fact that HK has never been a democracy for over a century. It was for 150 years a British colony, run by an appointed British governor who reported to London – as the Washington Post rightly said.

There were no direct elections with a limited number of seats, mostly involving rich businessmen and professionals. It’s worse now, with seats contested only by pro-Beijing candidates.

HK now depends on China more than ever. Without mainland Chinese tourists, HK is a pale shadow of its old self. Today, businesses hire HK graduates who can speak Mandarin and English – and with knowledge of the mainland.

Over the years, I have made countless trips to HK, meeting up with officials, media friends and just the common folk, including even attending the massive protests there.

Without doubt, there is a strong sense, especially among the young, that China has not lived up to its promise of a “one-country, two-party” system.

But HK isn’t all about liberties and politics. It is hard to live and work in HK as it is one of the most expensive places in the world.

It is one of the richest cities, sitting on foreign currency reserve assets of US$465.7bil and yet it has performed miserably in social housing for the people, unlike Singapore.

Small-time businessmen have suffered greatly during the Covid-19 lockdown, with expensive rentals to pay, and they were certainly not fans of mega protests.

Many working-class Hong Kongers just want a better life, with an apartment and a stable job and the ability to pay their bills and care for their families.

Talk to them, listen to them. Whether it was under the British or now under the Chinese, they don’t really care.

The Chinese race, whether in China, Taiwan, Singapore or Malaysia, has always been a migratory one, searching for a better life for themselves and their children. Those in HK are no exception.

If China can provide the basic needs of the HK people, it would win over their hearts and minds.

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