This week began with two stories. On Monday, 5th October 2015 international news reverberated to the story of the destruction of temple ruins at the site of the ancient city of Palmyra, in present day Syria. This crime against our common history was carried out in the name of Islamic State, and justified only in the eyes of those who are blind to anything existing outside their chosen ideology.
I first became aware of the news when I was shown images on a friend’s phone. “Why does a part of me feel such a strong urge to cry?” he said. “I feel it too,” I replied.
Neither of us had visited Syria or relate personally either to the place or the culture. We were also aware that what was destroyed were ruins – abandoned structures devoted to abandoned beliefs of a people and civilisation that no longer exists. And yet, we felt that their destruction represented something both personal and of great importance.
Temple of Bel, Palmyra, Syria before it was destroyed. Photo: Bernard Gagnon via Wikimedia Commons.
On the same day local news was dominated by the story that Hong Kong Post would be covering up the colonial era insignias on the remaining 59 historic post-boxes in the city. The offending cyphers feature the British royal crowns set to a design incorporating a mix of both British and local Chinese symbolism, and are unique to Hong Kong.
We were told they had to go to “avoid confusion,” and that the action was part of a wider plan to gradually “de-colonise” the postal service. It is worth noting that the Hong Kong postal service has already been substantially rebranded, and that the preservation of a few historic working postboxes in their original form was not before seen as an issue.
As a news story this may at first consideration seem of little importance. There were no explosions, and no world heritage sites had been destroyed. And yet the news generated a strong and vocal reaction.
Among my familial and social circles I have not heard one person support the Post Office’s decision. And whilst no tears were shed, there is an unmistakable sense of loss. The retention of these historic cyphers has not and will not affect service, nor is it likely that anyone will fail to correctly identify a working postbox. There is no confusion on what motivated this decision.
A post box with British insignia – ERII (left) and GRV (right). Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
A few years ago whilst visiting Lei Yu Mun I was shown one of the offending postboxes by an elderly local resident. I remember her running her hand over it, as if caressing an old friend. “It’s been here longer than me,” she said. “We’ve seen Hong Kong change and have grown old together.” Reading the news this week I again heard the old lady’s parting words:
“This postbox will be here, as it is, long after I’ve gone; a marker of my life’s story. And a marker of the Hong Kong story.”
Replacing an emblem on a handful of historic postboxes is as an action not comparable with the destruction at Palmyra. Hong Kong Post is not the Islamic State, and those who initiated the decision are not fundamentalists. But behind both actions is a blind, ideologically driven callousness to the truth of who we are. The myopia of Islamic State to see beyond the framework of their own version of Islamic history is mirrored by a centrally imposed national narrative blind to the realities of a history they do not wish to acknowledge.
The destruction of the Temple of Bel affects us less for what it represented as architecture, and more for its significance as a marker of our shared understanding of history. It is a story I may not have personally shared, but it bore witness to a history of which I am a part. Queen Zenobia may be long dead and the ancient cities of the Silk Road may have long ago lost their lustre, but their significance lives on in our conscious memory. It is the attempt to eradicate this memory, to impose a new ideologically driven reality by the deliberate destruction or discretion of the old, that makes these acts so fundamentally wrong.
The temples of Palmyra, like the colonial era postbox, were beautiful in our eyes because they were true. Thus their desecration is an act of extreme ugliness and an act that feels, instinctively and deeply, not only brutal but fundamentally wrong.
Thus the real horror of the Islamic State lies not in their actions, however deplorable these may be in their own right, but in their motivation. It is the denial of history, and the desire not to know that feels so instinctively wrong to us; when evidence does not enlighten but is instead understood as a threat.
Two ERII post boxes, one with original design in Western Market (left). Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
The destruction in Palmyra and the removal of colonial era insignia on Hong Kong postboxes may not be comparable in scale, but the offence they represent is identical in nature. Both are physical imposition of a predetermined and ideologically driven narrative, driven not by the realities of what a people remember, but by what an ideology demands. These actions are neither patriotic nor pious. They are blind and intolerant.
1962. Photo: Wikicommons.
It is public knowledge that the offending postbox cyphers are not symbols of either a British post office nor specifically of the British crown, even if at one time they may have been. Like milk tea, they are a colonial legacy, shaped by a local context, that have become central to the Hong Kong identity. The elderly woman in Lei Yu Mun was right: what is being covered, and what has been given offence as colonial, is in fact a marker of our own lives and of Hong Kong’s story.
There is an added poignancy to this argument for forced decolonisation that makes it especially hard to swallow. Can it truly be said that a foreign power no longer appoints our governors, nor controls the administration of our city? Are positions of influence and responsibility no longer occupied by a class of foreign people who are, regardless of their good intentions, culturally, morally and linguistically apart from those on whom their decisions have sway? Colonialism was founded on a presumption that a local people are unable to effectively administer themselves to a degree that would guarantee the conditions requisite for trade and investment; that there was a “right” approach that was needed to be exported, and a “right” way of understanding. For many, these dynamics are still very much at play.
It is ultimately only the colonised who can define what is colonial. Only the people themselves can decide what was and still is an imposition, and how this should be addressed. Any process of decolonisation in Hong Kong can only be defined and enacted by the people themselves.