HKFP Voices Humour & Satire

HK20: 20 things people hope no one remembers about the 1997 Handover

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1) IN 1997, BOSSES OF MING PAO, once a proudly independent newspaper, ordered staff to carry fawning full-page profiles on Hong Kong’s first post-97 leader Tung Chee-hwa for FIVE DAYS IN A ROW. One report focused just on the psychological implications of having a hairstyle like his. (Mr Tung had a crew cut.)

2) BEFORE THE HANDOVER, Jasper Tsang Yok-sing pledged in front of TV cameras NEVER to take a seat in Hong Kong’s parliament unless he had been democratically elected to it. At the handover, democratically elected politicians were thrown out and a seat was offered to election-loser Tsang – who immediately took it.

Jasper Tsang Yok-sing

Jasper Tsang Yok-sing. File photo: GovHK.

3) ALSO BEFORE THE handover, Discovery Bay residents set up an organisation called The Association for Celebration of Reunification of Discovery Bay with China. (This is not a joke.) Shouldn’t they have waited for a reunification between Discovery Bay and the rest of Hong Kong?

4) AT THE HANDOVER CEREMONY, businessman S.Y. Chung took his pledge in Mandarin Chinese to show his new-found patriotism. His Mandarin was so bad that the assembled multitudes laughed and the media featured discussions trying to decipher what he had actually pledged to do.

5) PRO-ESTABLISHMENT POLITICIANS denounced Hong Kong people as “unpatriotic” when statuettes of the Goddess of Democracy were found in the city. They shut up when a newspaper columnist (me) bought one and revealed that all the statuettes were “Made in China”.

6) THE HONG KONG STANDARD urged readers to mark the handover by buying a set of patriotic videocassettes called The Original Video Tapes of Deng Xiaoping: “Special Offer to HK Standard Readers at HK$1,380,000.” [sic] I don’t think they sold many at that price, or any other.

Deng Xiaoping

Deng Xiaoping. File photo: Apple Daily.

7) OF THE 58 “LOYAL” pro-Beijing people who turned up to form the provisional legislature (the gang that replaced Hong Kong’s elected governing council at the handover) 27 owned overseas properties, and 20 had properties in destinations in “safe haven” countries popular with people trying to emigrate from Hong Kong, such as Canada, Australia, the US, Britain and Singapore.

8) INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER Gren Manuel wrote an expose of how Hong Kong’s business community was claiming everyone should stay put while quietly moving their money out of Hong Kong. His editors rewrote it as a puff-piece about how Hong Kong tycoons were generously funding projects around the world. As if anyone would actually believe that tycoons re-register operations to places such as Panama out of a generous impulse to bolster distant economies.

9) THE PRO-DEMOCRACY Next Media Group, run by Jimmy Lai, was popular with the public. Its Initial Public Offering was timed for the spring of 1997 and investors were excited. But the group’s journalists pledged that they would remain faithful to the truth – and the project’s investment bank, Sun Hung Kai International, pulled out of the IPO with no explanation, causing it to be cancelled.

Jimmy Lai Chi-ying Next Media

Jimmy Lai. File photo: Apple Daily.

10) LARRY FEIGN’S celebrated Lily Wong newspaper cartoon strip was cancelled before the handover, with South China Morning Post editors saying there was zero interest in it. Feign was number one in the Hong Kong bestseller chart at the time.

11) EDITOR JONATHAN FENBY became a legend for the enthusiasm with which he tried to turn the South China Morning Post into a sad propaganda sheet. The front-page headline on July 2, 1997 was: “Beijing extravaganza charts China’s heroic path to glory.” The picture shows a pair of headlines as written by SCMP journalists, and the same headlines after the reptilian Fenby re-wrote them.

nury scmp

Photo: Nury Vittachi.

12) HONG KONG’S DOMINANT television station, TVB, purchased an acclaimed documentary on Chairman Mao, and then lost the nerve to broadcast it. TVB spokesmen said they could not find a time slot and criticised the documentary makers, implying that they were tin-pot amateurs in the TV business. It was a BBC documentary.

13) OFFICIALS COMMEMORATING THE 20th anniversary of the handover ceremony will neglect to mention that the representatives of the two countries that mattered most to the organisers left before the event. UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and American representative Madeleine Albright flew out of Hong Kong hours before the ceremony, to protest the removal of democratically elected people from Hong Kong’s parliament.

Tony Blair Madeleine Albright

Tony Blair (C), Madeleine Albright (R). File photo: NATO.

14) PRO-BEIJING ELEMENTS in Hong Kong in 1997 demanded that the word “independent” be removed from the name of the city’s anti-graft agency, the Independent Commission Against Corruption. Wags suggested that all Hong Kong freeways be renamed “ways”, the Hong Kong car firm Honest Motors be renamed “Motors”, and the Sincere Department Store be renamed “Department Store”.

15) BEFORE THE HANDOVER, pro-democracy campaigner Emily Lau used Hong Kong’s personal data law to ask Xinhua (China’s office in Hong Kong) for the file they kept on her. Silence. After the handover, Xinhua said they had no files of any kind on her, a claim no one on either side of the debate believed for one second. The new Hong Kong government admitted their behaviour clearly broke laws but declined to prosecute.

16) SHORTLY BEFORE THE handover, I wrote a column criticising foreign correspondents, who I felt were all missing the story. I said that as July 1 dawns, the important question is NOT how China will change Hong Kong, but how Hong Kong will change China. After all, Hong Kong only had 6.3 million people. A few days later, Nicholas Kristoff wrote an article for the New York Times: “July 1: As dawn rises for the first time over red Chinese flags officially fluttering here in a capitalist breeze, the most fascinating question is not how China will change Hong Kong but how Hong Kong will change China. At stake is not just the fate of the 6.3 million who live here…” Yes, my column, reworked. Cheeky bugger.

17) IN JUNE OF 1997, people were so confused about the change of power, that a member of my network offered to sell a HK$2 coin with the Queen’s head on it as “an important colonial era souvenir”. A buyer paid HK$9, not noticing that the Queen’s head was on much of the cash in his pocket.

Money Coin Currency Queen Elizabeth

File photo: Apple Daily.

18) SENIOR ASSISTANT POLICE Commissioner Lee Ming-kwai ordered Beethoven’s Fifth to be played at a loud volume to drown out the sound of reunification protesters exercising their democratic rights. The Independent Police Complaints Council declared it “unnecessary use of authority”, but police ignored this, gave Lee a Commendation for Government Service, and made it standard policy.

19) NURY VITTACHI (the guy writing this article) needs to join this List of Shame. After the 1997 handover, I was told my daily gossip column at the South China Morning Post was being “temporarily” put on hold because there was “a redesign of pages” at the newspaper. I believed it, and denied that I had been silenced when other journalists asked me. What an idiot.

20) BRITISH FOREIGN OFFICE staffer Derek Fatchett was tasked with keeping an eye on Hong Kong for its former colonial masters. In the spring of 1998 he told the UK’s Foreign Affairs Committee that he was confident Tung Chee-Hwa would introduce universal suffrage in Hong Kong in 2007. Hmm.

NOTE: The above tales are true, and on the record, and can be easily checked. But I think it’s worth pointing out that many of the newspapers mentioned above, including the Hong Kong Standard and the South China Morning Post, are very different today, and include some excellent staff. And some modern journalists understand that we should not hide our history but learn from it.

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HK20: 20 things people hope no one remembers about the 1997 Handover