The Handover of Hong Kong 1997

As someone who had a chance to be in Hong Kong on July 1, 1997, let me take a moment to talk about my thoughts on the handover of Hong Kong from England to China. This was put together by Jason Patton on July 13, 1997.

One minute, the people of Hong Kong were under British rule, and a minute later they were under Chinese rule.

When was the last time there was a pre-planned historical event?

My history teacher friend, Todd, will have to help me out on this one.

The Handover of Hong Kong was a fabulous thing to be a part of.

I found out I was coming to Hong Kong back in January when I got a phone call which was going to tell me what international location I was headed to.

My first preference was Brussels, Belgium. The only problem was that this was everyone else's first preference as well. When you get news of such a radical nature like this, you start hoping for the news you want to hear. I remember being on the phone and crossing my fingers for that B sound. It never came. Instead, Hong Kong was uttered and I went into a state of shock. I scribbled notes on a piece of paper but basically didn't say another word the rest of the phone call.

I quickly informed my folks and my girlfriend, Amy.

I was still in shock.

Luckily, the next person I told about my new destination was my friend Josh who worked down the hall.

He had a friend whose father did a lot of business in Hong Kong and always raved about it.

We talked over lunch and while I still wasn't happy, I started to become a little more open-minded.

After doing some reading in the bookstore and on the internet, I started to swing from shock to excitement. And of course, I would be in town for the handover.

I ended up jetting out to Hong Kong in March and settling in quite quickly.

It is a fabulous place. The vast majority of the people speak English. Everyone at work speaks English and they are all very nice to boot. There are so many things to do. I often compare my time here to the time I spent in Boston. For my first destination outside of North America, it has worked quite well.

I never really thought about the handover except in the abstract. It was something that was going to be cool to be here for but that was about it.

That thought pattern didn't change until the beginning of June.

I had just returned from a brief business trip in the U.S. and everyone was talking about June 4. I was a bit clueless as to what June 4 was, but I didn't let on how out of the know I was.

The night of June 4, there was going to be a candlelight vigil in Victoria Park. I had the opportunity to go, but I really didn't have time as I had a mid-term to study for. However, sometimes, history takes precedence over mid-terms.

I hopped on the internet and did some surfing and quickly learned what June 4 was. It was the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square incident in Beijing. In the U.S., we refer to this incident by the name of the square and not by the date. It was the 8th anniversary of the 1989 incident I watched for hours on end on CNN.

A group of us headed for Victoria Park. They dragged me along and luckily they did because I was the only person who knew how to get to Victoria Park. The crowds were just amazing. While Victoria Park is quite huge, the entrances to the park are narrow and limited. Once we got passed the bottleneck, we did have some breathing room.

As we walked in, I was handed a flier. It had a cool poem on it, but I don't think their call for peace plan worked as well as they hoped.

We stopped and looked at signs paying tribute to those who suffered in Beijing. We took pictures, and we grabbed candles and complementary paper drip cups to go around them.

We found prime seats on the asphalt and sat and waited for the beginning of the ceremony. It turned out there was a reason these prime seats were available. They were situated too close to the speaker system which was pumped to a volume suitable to the vast crowd. We took napkins and turned them into earplugs.

After 45 minutes of waiting and listening to music, the democratic organizers started the demonstration. They paid tribute to the anniversary of the event and vowed to never forget the atrocities of Tiananmen. We held up our candles. The organizers vowed to hold this demonstration again in one year's time no matter what China or the SAR government says.

I highlight this event because this was when I started to realize the impact of the handover. The only word I can use to describe the scene at Victoria Park is powerful. History was starting to unfold in front of my face. What will happen next year in Hong Kong on June 4? That is a very important question.

I spent most of the event uncomfortable on the asphalt. I have never really been a fan of sitting on the ground. I took a lot of pictures. I spent a lot of time trying to seal the paper cup to the candle with the wax dripping down the side of the candle (this took 30 minutes).

As the tribute was winding down, I thought I saw a 'gweilo' singing the words to a song in Chinese at a distance to my right. As I tried to determine whether this was the case or not, my friend to my left hit me on the arm. My candle had burned down to the secured paper cup and lit it on fire. The whole thing was blowing up in flames without me noticing.

I stated this was not a big deal as the paper would just burn itself out. It didn't. Plus, with the paper cup disintegrating, hot wax started dropping on my exposed hand.

I dropped the candle to the ground and the fellow to my right who I did not know went to step on the flame to put it out. I realized that I should do this so I started to go for the flame with my shoe when I realized I had just come from work and had my good dress shoes on. So I backed off and let this guy use his sneaker to put the flame out.

After the event, we went and took a closer look at the Pillar of Shame.

A few days later, we had a three day weekend for Tuen Ng's birthday. This was the annual dragon boating holiday.

It was another fabulous time. As they say, a good time was had by all.

I was part of an AT&T entry into the race (I am the psycho with a Mighty Ducks hat on backwards and with his paddle sticking straight up in the air in one shot).

We raced twice earning a 6th place and a 7th place finish.

This was the next step in my realization that the handover was upon us. This was the last time that the Black Watch would be helping out with the Stanley event. Representatives of the Black Watch played their Scottish instruments to the delight of the spectators. The emcee noted this was the last official appearance of the Black Watch at the Dragon Boat races in Stanley but he said he hoped they would return next year as civilians. However, I think most of us knew that this would not happen.

I had to leave the festivities early to go finish studying for my midterm.

And time ticked on.

The days passed and the anticipation grew.

On Tuesdays, movies are half price. The Tuesday just under a week before the handover, I checked out the 3-hour long film The Opium Wars which documented a Chinese perspective on how Hong Kong came under British rule.

The film had been derided as a 3-hour documentary, but after watching it I thought it was well worth seeing. I had pretty much forgotten what little I learned in history class about the Opium Wars. The entire movie was in Chinese with English subtitles (save when the British people talked... I didn't need subtitles for those scenes). I enjoyed the film. I found it to be more of a movie like JFK than a documentary. I thought seeing the Chinese perspective on things was very interesting as well.

I walked around town the Thursday before the handover and you could tell something fantastic was on the horizon. Every building was emblazoned with celebratory lighting that made the town rival Las Vegas for evening glare.

The handover would happen during the evening of Monday, June 30 and the early hours of July 1.

The 30th, 1st and 2nd were all holidays so we got a five day weekend.

There were a lot of parties to celebrate the handover.

I hit the American Chamber of Commerce's bash at the Viceroy on the 28th, and Unity, the Great Hong Kong Handover Party, a 12-hour rave going from 10pm on Saturday to 10am on Sunday featuring headliners Grace Jones and Boy George (who served as a DJ) in Kowloon. Both were quite cool.

That was a prelude to the big event.

I expected something ten times more powerful than New Year's. My expectations were a little grander than reality.

TVB held an event at the Happy Valley racecourse to celebrate the handover.

Since I was unable to figure out a way to get into the Convention Center to watch the actual ceremony, this seemed like the next best option. I knew that TVB would have a screen to see the actual event take place, and I knew saying someday that I was at Happy Valley for the handover would be cool.

I bought tickets in advance and got there in plenty of time. They expected 20,000 people. They didn't get it. The largest problem was the rain. It was pouring when I got to Happy Valley and I was quite happy I had tickets in the grandstand and could stay out of the rain.

We had a decent view of the fireworks over the harbor to our left. On the stage, they put on an array of fabulous performances to celebrate the occasion. I got a chance to see Jackie Chan live for the first time. I took lots of pictures so if you know me, at some point you will have to get me to show them to you.

When the actual moment came, it seemed like a New Year's and nothing more. It was very, very interesting.

This Happy Valley event was predominantly made up of native Hong Kongers and that was part of the reason I was there. Perhaps this was the reporter in me that led me to go there. Yes, I could have been part of a huge party in Lan Kwai Fong (a major expat hangout), but this moment didn't seem like an event I wanted to be in expatville for.

I have talked this less than exuberant reaction of the crowd at Happy Valley over with many people and here is what we have come up with. Our best theory is that in a way, the stroke of midnight was a time of saying goodbye, and while you always try and stay positive when saying goodbye, the fact that you are saying goodbye does affect you.

I was told that the fireworks on the 1st put on by China and the new Hong Kong government exuded more of the positive display of emotion I had expected 20 hours earlier.

The lower numbers of people gathered because of the rain certainly had an effect as well.

The rain stopped me from going out to watch the PLA troops roll into Hong Kong (and visiting the release of the homing pigeons in Sha Tin).

The handover was an event that was very much designed for television. Instead of battling the weather, it was much more enjoyable to watch the events unfold on television, and that is what a lot of people in Hong Kong did.

After the ceremony at midnight, the Provisional Legislature was sworn into office at the Convention Center, and they quickly assembled at 2:45am in the morning for their first meeting so they could fill the void of laws a new country, er... Special Administrative Region (SAR)... ends up with. I had made it home by this hour and this was hilarious to watch. The TV cameras enjoyed panning from one 45-year-old man yawning to another fast asleep during the proceedings. While I usually never have a problem staying awake at 3 in the morning, I did empathize with those at the meeting falling asleep when they didn't want to.

I guess in retrospect, as a 24-year-old American in town for the handover, it would have been more exciting if I streaked down the streets of Wan Chai to celebrate the stroke of midnight.

The handover was not a scary proposition. There was no change between life in June and life come the first of July.

One of the most important things people outside Hong Kong fail to realize is that Hong Kong went from a colony to a special region. The people in Hong Kong had no choice in the selection of Chris Patten as governor. So there is very little difference in the fact that they had no choice in the selection of Tung Chee-hwa as Chief Executive.

In fact, the legislature in Hong Kong was not democratically elected until 1992 when Patten came on the scene. So the fact that there is an un-elected Provisional legislature in place is not that much of a change as some may believe. This is not to say I don't support elections as soon as possible (Tung says they will come in May). However, this is a perspective that should be kept in mind.

It is reassuring that the western world has made it known that they have a vested interest in Hong Kong remaining the vibrant place that it is. This fact gives Hong Kong a pretty good shot at becoming the virus which spreads into China rather than things going the other way around.

I am very interested in what these two months following the handover are like. I never saw British troops around town. Will I see PLA soldiers? Will the police clamp down on unapproved protests as the new Provisional Legislature says they should?

I am very positive but within two months, one should be able to see the seeds of which way it is going to go. The elections in May will be key. And June 4, 1998 will be the ultimate litmus test.

As anyone will tell you, the people of Hong Kong are excellent at adapting and succeeding. I give Hong Kong an 80% chance of getting the job done. I am very positive.

But as you should never end a paper, time will tell.

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