As the publisher of four of these writers, I was roped in to MC the event. I started off by asking how many of the crowd were in Hong Kong on that rainy night of June 30, 1997. About half, it turned out. But of those, far fewer had expected to still be here 20 years later.
First question went to Rachel Cartland, author of Paper Tigress, an account of her 34 years working in the Hong Kong government. Many people in the audience remembered seeing police officers replacing their cap badges as sovereignty was transferred at the stroke of midnight on handover night. Rachel stayed in office through 1997 and beyond, so did she have any badge to change? No, she said, but non-stop heavy rain during the handover period ruined everyone’s extra-long public holiday allowance!
“When we civil servants did go back to work, we thought we might somehow be different, but in fact everything was just the same as before,” she said. “Gradually, though, things did change and, sadly, the Hong Kong Government lost the dynamism that had previously characterised it.”
Larry Feign, the creator of cartoon character Lily Wong, said 1997 was an ideal time for satirists like him. “The best thing about the handover was that no one ever again brought up the small-talk topic: So, what are you doing after 1997?”
New chief executive Tung Chee-hwa was chest-beating and proclaiming loudly that 156 years of foreign colonial hegemony had come to an end, Larry said. “No speaking English to journalists. Hong Kong is now and forevermore Chinese. The East is finally Red! And first thing, we're going to build a Disneyland!”
Feng Chi-shun had a different view. He was a second-class citizen both in Hong Kong and the US until the handover, he said. There was then a reversal of fortune for some of his British friends. One was arrested for overstaying and was later deported. Chi has written about some of these characters in Hong Kong Noir.
Jason Ng, blogger and author of Umbrellas in Bloom, explained that little seemed to change politically for the first 15 years after the handover, but in 2012 there were leadership changes in both Hong Kong and China, ushering in hardliners in both places. The reaction to these changes saw the rise of a new “Hong Kong identity” among the younger generation, and the Umbrella movement – which he has documented – followed two years later.
Peter Mann, author of Sheriff of Wan Chai, was in government in 1997. He recounted the change of flags and the emotion at midnight. There was imperial bathos after the royal yacht and HMS Chatham had sailed out of Victoria Harbour for the last time, when outgoing governor Chris Patten – having disembarked at Manila and flown back to London – forgot to book a car and ended up in the taxi queue at Heathrow Airport.
Conservationist Graham Reels is the author of Confessions of a Hong Kong Naturalist. He spoke about the British leader on the Joint Liaison Group being an expert on moths in his spare time. “I used to send him boxes of specimens to identify at his home in the UK, which he would then send back in diplomatic bags,” he said. “I would have to drive to Government House to pick them up, evidently incurring Chris Patten's displeasure.”
He also remarked on how Hong Kong’s forests have continued maturing since the handover, attracting more native wildlife, which is a positive story even if not directly attributable to the post-handover administration.
This led us onto retired Hong Kong policeman Guy Shirra – author of The Accidental Prawn. He was absent, as he had gone trail running in the hills of Sai Kung (at the age of 70) and contracted scrub typhus; but his friend Peter Mann stepped in and explained why Guy was still living in Hong Kong 20 years after leaving the police force. Despite unrest and a divided society, Hong Kong still has a lot going for it.
There was time for questions from the audience before we wrapped it up. The authors and I all expressed thanks to the bookshop for continuing to stock our books and helping to keep freedom of the press alive in what are uncertain times for the city we call home.