Psst Hong Kong: was it Handover or Reunification?

July 1st marks 16 years since the “Transfer of Sovereignty” of Hong Kong from Britain to the People’s Republic of China. The holiday is called “Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Establishment Day” making it the worst named holiday ever. But cryptically is the only way to deal with this politically sensitive hot potato, as a recent visit to the Hong Kong Museum of History taught me.

Formal group portrait from the 1997 "transfer of sovereignty" midnight ceremony. Photo: China Daily here

Formal group portrait from the 1997 midnight ceremony. Photo: China Daily here

At my own lurching pace — faster through the stone-age fisherman dioramas and slower through the old Punti and Hakka village replicas — visiting all of the Hong Kong Museum of History’s permanent exhibit took the better part of three hours.

Soon after the “Made in Hong Kong” 1960s plastic toy displays, I hit the historic year 1997 and entered a darkened theater. A film was beginning on Hong Kong’s “Reunification” with China, an event called more neutrally the “Transfer of Sovereignty” and less neutrally the “Handover.”

The widescreen displayed three still images or film clips at a time on one theme. There was music, but it was otherwise mostly silent with key plot points noted through subtitles.

Hong Kong’s separation from and return to China is a politically sensitive topic and yet, I was still surprised enough by the storytelling angle to begin furiously writing notes in the dark.

My first impression was that the film retold Hong Kong’s history in a manner that sieved out the bright spots. What came through the filter was an often ominously dark picture of an orphaned Hong Kong lost without the Motherland. It felt like a pro-Beijing propaganda piece:

1. Hong Kong, you were taken from us. The first on-screen title, “6000 years of Chinese history; 150 years of Hong Kong,” highlighted the breadth of Chinese culture while underscoring that Hong Kong was only separated for a relative instant. A forced separation spurred by the first Opium War and the 1842 Treaty of Nanking, which ceded Hong Kong Island to the British. The words “unequal treaty,”said several times in other areas of the museum, hung in the air.

2. We, Chinese compatriots, were kept apart. The film swiftly skirts past close to 100 years of history with a reference to Sun Yat-Sen and the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong during World War II. Mao’s declaration of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 was a key pivot point that lead to Hong Kong’s even greater physically, political and mental separation from Mainland China. The on-screen title “A Fence Apart” was punctuated with a photograph of a Chinese man peering over a spiral, razor wire border fence underscoring the sad separation of China’s people.

3. Mainland immigrants to Hong Kong suffered. Even though Hong Kong and the Mainland were separated by a nearly sealed border, immigrants found a way in. A section on post World War II immigration from the Mainland to Hong Kong was titled “For Better or Worse” and featured images of poor slum children and the tremendous fire that swept through the Shek Kip Mei shantytown in 1953 rendering 53,000 mostly Mainland Chinese immigrants homeless. Hong Kong’s water shortage and a statistic about water only being available every four days, firmly underscored the “worse” aspect of “For Better or Worse.”

4. Reunited and it feels so good. The film ended after the 1997 Reunification ceremony with blooms of fireworks and the title “A Better Hong Kong.”

The message seemed to be: “Hong Kong, you were only gone a short time, it was rough for you, but isn’t it wonderful to be reunited again.”

Then I watched it again. I noted that the official title was “Sino-Hong Kong Relations from 1841 to 1997” and I suddenly interpreted the film differently. It was not a filtered out history of Hong Kong through Mainland eyes, it told of the scant and sometimes harmful relationship between Hong Kong and the Mainland through Hong Kong eyes:

1. Sigh. We always have to deal with the overflow of violent Mainland politics. Chinese politics negatively spilled over into Hong Kong. The “Riots of 1956” were sparked by pro-Nationalist attacks against pro-Communists and evolved swiftly into wide-scale looting and violence. Similarly the “Riots of 1967,” an echo of the Mainland’s Cultural Revolution, included widespread mayhem and even bombings.

2. We were given back to the Mainland and we had no say. Following the Mainland’s opening up in the post-Mao era, a film clip of a champagne toast between Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping was lingered over. Of course neither of them were Hongkongers, but their signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration sealed Hong Kong’s fate to be handed back to the Mainland.

Photo: screen shot from China Central Television (CCTV) via the English People's Daily here.

Photo: screen shot from China Central Television (CCTV) via the English People’s Daily here.

The Handover ceremony itself featured a pathetically sad-looking Prince Charles staring at the lowering of the British Flag. A clip of Charles speaking in English about this momentous day was followed by a clip of Jiang Zemin speaking in Mandarin about this momentous day. No Cantonese was spoken.

3. My God, what will become of us? The title “50 years unchanged” was written over images of booming industry and business and hinted seemingly with a sigh of relief that Hong Kong has until 2047 to be fully reabsorbed into the Motherland. However, this sentiment is dampened by reference to the Tiananmen Square Massacre, which is more safely referred to as “The June 4th Incident” in the film. Images of Hongkongers filling Victoria Park by candlelight to pay respect to student democracy demonstrators in Beijing looked like a prayer for their own hoped for democratic future.

Candlelight vigil in Victoria Park. Photo: via Wikipedia here

4. Please let everything turn out ok. The film ended again of course with the title “A Better Hong Kong,” but during this watching it seemed less like a bright affirmation and more like a question or a hope.

This quiet, mainly black and white film is a triumph of fence walking. It takes a politically charged topic and presents it to the viewer either as a beautiful young woman with a feather in her hair or as a gnarled old woman, depending on the viewer’s own point of view.

The Hong Kong Museum of History is a master of illusion for successfully walking this tightrope with understated nuance.


Related post:

Hong Kong as “the great Chinese experiment in freedom”

16 responses to “Psst Hong Kong: was it Handover or Reunification?

  1. lots of worries. The current political environment is already this terrible. The general public is controlled by media and political parties. Government is not putting out a thoughtful image that could foresee future. What else is out there except financial market and the bubbling real estates. The future will be worse. It’s already happening. As soon as the ‘one country two system’ ends, will there be a mass migration that empties out Hong Kong (just my silly thought)?

    • You make a great point about the need for (and current lack of) a positive image of what Hong Kong’s future will look like. It would be nice if true universal suffrage could be achieved in HK for the 2017 CE election so that Hongkongers could know they have a voice in their future. Let’s see.

  2. Thanks for this educational and enlightening post about what’s really going on… and how our own biases affect how we even view a documentary film about a contentious topic. The HK Museum of History is a cool place, and my favorites are the recreated streets from the old colonial era and I found all the old bank notes/bank bonds to be fascinating. 3 hours sounds about right!

    • I was lucky to spend a Saturday there on my own to take as long as I wanted to look at everything. (And have time to watch the video twice!) Next time I’ll take my older daughter too. She’d love the replicas of old Hong Kong.

      Strange to be back state-side for the summer where the political discussions center on such different topics.

  3. As I started reading this, and you painted the reunification from China’s eyes, my mind immediately went to “What would the Hong Kongers think of this?” Which you then answered with the angle portrayed by the second video. It *is* alarming. I do not think the people of HK will “go down easily.” My ex is a Hong Kong native (still there) and he HATES everything Mainland, understandably. I just might have to visit that museum the next time I’m in Hong Kong.

    • I so agree that there will be big, important political debates ahead in Hong Kong. People who are used to certain freedoms will not easily give them up. A point that is perhaps difficult for Mainland officials to fully understand… Let’s hope that HongKong is ultimately a successful ‘Chinese experiment’ in freedom.

  4. I only really know about Hong Kong reunification from an economic standpoint – In ’97 when the reunification was about to take place, a ton of people immigrated to Vancouver to “escape” – property prices in HK plummeted, future looked grim (Vancouver became another Hong Kong). After reunification, Hong Kong seemed to have a problem re-identifying itself and its standing in the world. It used to be this “gateway” to China but now China doesn’t really need a “gateway”, being accessible to just about everyone. Hong Kongers were despondent about their future, some committed suicide (I was told this is why they put up the plastic barriers at some of the busier MRT stations/exchange stations).

    Now it seems Hong Kong is gaining from the influx of Mainland Chinese tourists, whether they like it or not. The Hong Kong residents I’ve talked to – the ones who’ve grown up there – have always felt they *should* reunify with the Mainland one day in theory, but of course they don’t like the things that come with it. Mainly, the Mainlanders. I look at Hong Kong as an interesting example of what *might* happen to Taiwan one day, as it’s *supposed to* move in the same direction.

    The museum sounds interesting and definitely a worthwhile stop. BTW, did you get a chance to see the Warhol exhibit when it was in Hong Kong? Super cheap and a great guide (if you happen to get the curator).

    • Didn’t make it to the Warhol exhibit. Mistake on my part.

      And wow re Hongkongers and Mainlanders: there is a loud sub-set of Hong Kong that seem to make spotting and bitching about rude Mainlander behavior a personal hobby. Sigh.

      Interesting to think about how the Taiwan factor shapes and influences the relationship between the PRC and Hong Kong.

    • 2014 should be a very interesting year. Let’s see what happens with “Occupy Central.” I also hope that (true) universal suffrage in time for the 2017 CE elections might happen simply because the PRC wants to set a good example for Taiwan of what “one country, two systems” can mean.

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  6. yip it’s a great museum,

    Your right, Hong Kong and China have very different cultures, unfortunately it think HK culture will eventually be replaced by the Chinese culture, as oppose to a happy medium being found . The slow death of Cantonese being the prime example. Personally I find this to be disturbing, (spitting and urination in public including public transport being my pet hates in Shenzhen).

    The 6000 vs 150 years argument I find quite amusing, given that next to no one lived on the Island and peninsula when it ‘belonged’ to China, even though China wasn’t a country.

    • I really enjoy both Hong Kong and Mainland China, but for completely different reasons. The slow erosion of Hong Kong’s uniqueness is indeed a terrible shame.

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  8. After last year’s events and the way the government responded to the protests, I can safely say I have lost any nerve to hope. Having grown up in the mainland and been Americanized at the same time, I always felt a strange compulsion to defend the Mainland whenever Americans or HK’ers attacked the Communist party. For the most part, I felt, things were improving and people were living happier lives.

    I have been disabused of this notion. Even though I had strong Mainland sympathies, I still have deep affection for my home city and would like to see it thrive and gain democracy. After seeing the government blatantly mistreat, talk down to and disrespect her own citizens, as well as the wave of propaganda and psychological warfare directed at the protestors, I can see that besides becoming smarter, the Party really hasn’t reformed at all. It’s still the Party that oppressed millions of people back in those days, and still do everyday, as long as they keep their rich and powerful and youths complacent and ignorant. It’s a gilded cage in an active volcano. Good thing I was raised international. I don’t yearn for my “homes” nearly as much as HK’ers or mainlanders might. I will leave the city of my birth, and the country where I was reared (Mainland) and settle elsewhere.

    Also, I’m not convinced HK “belongs” to PRC. It was handed over to the UK during IMPERIALISTIC rule. What gives PRC a better claim than Taiwan? If anything, after all this time and history, HK belongs to Hong Kong, and no one else, if we are talk about some idealistic “ownership”. So PRC, please, stop with the “HK is the offspring of China” talks. It’s disgusting.

    • A lot has certainly happened since I wrote this post almost two years ago. Sadly, nothing very encouraging. You are spot on. The new National Security Law (and the shadow it casts over even Hong Kong) is particularly menacing.

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