HONG KONG: From its rattling trams and racecourses to its legal system and the ubiquitous consumption of Spam, Britain’s colonial legacy still resonates through Hong Kong.
But almost 20 years since the city was handed back to China under a deal that made it semi-autonomous, colonial emblems have become a symbol of protest.
The old Hong Kong flag, emblazoned with the Union Jack and a dragon and lion motif, is waved by anti-China activists and local football supporters alike in the face of what many see as growing Beijing interference in politics, education and media.
Some angry young campaigners are promoting independence for Hong Kong—but activist Alice Lai says she would rather rejoin Britain.
The 39-year-old artist and designer regularly flies the colonial flag at political rallies and heads a small protest group called HK-UK Reunification Campaign.
“Hong Kong and the UK coexisted in a proven, well-functioning system for close to two centuries,” says Lai.
“China is simply unfit to be governing Hong Kong—it’s a different way of thinking, a different way of life.”
Discontent is fuelled by a yawning wealth gap and lack of affordable housing as mainland investors drive up prices.
Retired bank worker Sarah Ng says she felt life was “fairer” before.
“During the past 20 years things have gradually changed. Living standards, people’s liberties—it’s a disaster,” she said.
Britain raised the flag over Hong Kong Island in 1841 during the first Opium War against China, which was pushing back against the destructive trade.
It was ceded the Kowloon peninsula in 1860 after a second Opium War and extended north into the rural New Territories in 1898, leasing the area for 99 years.
In 1997 that lease expired and Britain returned Hong Kong in its entirety to China under a 50-year agreement designed to protect its semi-autonomous status, freedoms and way of life.
Historian John Carroll says British rule in the city, for the most part, “avoided the kind of excesses” seen in other parts of the empire.
He believes much of the current nostalgia is because people focus on recent history.
The 1980s and 1990s in Hong Kong were a time of prosperity, democratic reform and global interest in its culture: Bruce Lee’s kung fu movies or the works of film directors such as John Woo and Wong Kar-wai.
But there were darker times earlier on.
Violent anti-colonial riots in 1967 in an era of poverty and corruption led to widespread arrests and censoring of the Chinese press. Activists were beaten by police and jailed.
Carroll also points out that democratic reforms were partial and came very late.
“I do think it ironic that some people are calling for a return to the UK, given that it deprived Hong Kong people of these rights for so long,” he says.
Former nurse Peter Tsang, who was jailed for participating in the 1967 riots, criticizes those who look back with rose-tinted glasses.
“I’m extremely glad and happy the British are gone,” said Tsang, 66.
“People say things were better in colonial times simply because they have nil experience. Most are still young.”
In the wake of the re-emergence of the old flag, former Beijing official Chen Zouer— who worked on the 1997 handover negotiations—called for Hong Kong to shake off its colonial past.
But there has been resistance to airbrushing history.
Plans by the Hong Kong post office to cover up royal British insignia on mail boxes two years ago sparked outrage from conservation campaigners.
Protesters also chained themselves to the Queen’s Pier—the former landing place for British dignitaries—in an unsuccessful attempt to stop its demolition in 2007.
Former army officer Albert Lam, a Hong Konger who still lives in the city, says there is increased demand among local people for talks he gives on the British defense of the territory against Japan in 1941 and his tours of old battle sites.
“In recent years there are more people interested in Hong Kong’s own story,” says Lam, 65.
He thrived during 24 years of military service under the British, rising through the ranks to become a captain in the transport corps and awarded an MBE.
However, he says he had to work “much harder” as non-Chinese staff to prove himself.
Lam retired from the army in 1997 and is now logistics manager at a local university, as well as vice chairman of the Hong Kong branch of the Royal British Legion.
As the city marks 20 years since the handover on July 1, he is optimistic.
“I’m not at all worried about the future of Hong Kong,” says Lam, who reasons it is still a prosperous business gateway between the mainland and the wider world.
The mass anti-government rallies of recent years are an illustration of the city’s enduring freedoms, he adds, and would not have been allowed in colonial times.
Lam concludes: “Hong Kong people don’t have any hard feelings against the British. But I wouldn’t particularly say the British were a lot better than the Chinese.”