THE other day I went into a family-run noodle shop and when I paid, I handed over a colonial-era one-dollar coin with the British queen’s head. I instantly felt a pang of regret.
“Sorry, could I swap it? I want to save the one with the queen’s head,” I explained, popping another dollar coin with a Bauhinia flower into the money pot and retrieving my old coin. The owner frowned and gave me a funny look.
I was puzzled by my own action. It’s not like I loved living under the colonial government. I vividly remember the sense of humiliation we endured: as a child in the 1970s, I remember kids from the nearby British school habitually jumping the public bus line. As late as 1997, I was shocked at the blatantly racist attitude of white colleagues: one even told me to “go home and eat chicken feet” and laughed when I looked offended.
So despite the fact that I spent my formative years in Britain, I was looking forward to the handover of sovereignty to China in 1997. I returned to Hong Kong only months before the event that July, worrying my friends in England who couldn’t understand why I was going “the opposite way” from those who tried to get out. Since the 1980s, many Hong Kong people who feared Communist rule had emigrated. But I told my British friends: it was time we proudly called ourselves Chinese.
So 15 years later, why was I hanging on to a coin with the queen’s head?
Perhaps, it was just nostalgia. But more likely I was trying to hold on to something that linked me to the pre-handover way of life. Under the “one country, two systems” arrangement, we were told our freedoms would be preserved for 50 years after the handover, but many locals now feel under threat as mainland China takes an increasingly active role in Hong Kong affairs.
This year, emotions boiled over when the local government — likely prompted by Beijing —tried to introduce patriotic education classes in the school curriculum, prompting tens of thousands to take to the streets in protest.
A proposed anti-subversion law, which would put limits on speech and publication freedoms, is hanging over our heads like the sword of Damocles. The draft law, introduced in 2003, was stalled after a protest of 500,000 people, but mainland officials remind us repeatedly that Hong Kong has a constitutional obligation to enact such a law.
Our press freedom has suffered — Hong Kong’s ranking on the Reporters Without Borders worldwide press freedom index slid from 18th in 2002 to 54th in 2011-2012. Journalists have long complained of an “invisible hand” prompting the local media to self-censor, but this year it was reported that China’s representative office here had directly contacted a newspaper’s top management to complain about its coverage.
And Hong Kong’s democratic development, started before the end of colonial rule, suffered a U-turn after the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress in 2004ruled out a goal of achieving universal suffrage by 2012. Even though it later ruled that the election of Hong Kong’s political leader and the legislative council, or parliament, “may be” elected by universal suffrage in 2017, many fear that Beijing will not honor its commitment, given a political system that is designed to favor pro-Beijing policies.
Our new political leader, Leung Chun-ying, chosen by a largely pro-Beijing group of 1,132 people, is seen as Beijing’s man and is widely distrusted by Hong Kong people. He has denied allegations that he was an underground Communist Party member but many people continue to view him with suspicion.
Of course, these frustrations add to the complaints that an influx of mainlanders is altering Hong Kong’s original way of life. From tens of thousands of mainland mothersflooding Hong Kong hospitals to give birth, to the 28 million mainland visitors crossing the border into the crowded territory every year, many Hong Kong people are feeling overrun.
Dozens of protesters waved colonial-era flags emblazoned with the Union Jack at antigovernment demonstrations this year, alarming Beijing. A Chinese official warned “pro-independence” was “spreading like a virus.”
But Beijing needn’t worry. Few Hong Kong people actually believe independence is a viable option. The apparent display of longing for the colonial past shows not so much our feelings toward British rule but nostalgia for the freedoms we once enjoyed and for a government which left us to get on with our lives — without trying to muffle the press and indoctrinate the young.
It is also a manifestation of the sense of helplessness over having a leader not endorsed by us, but by Beijing, and having little say in how our territory is run.
The solution is simple: adhere to the “one country, two systems” formula of the late Deng Xiaoping and allow us to continue enjoying our freedom and our original way of life. Then people will cease waving the colonial flag and I won’t need to think about keeping the coin with the queen’s head.
Verna Yu is a freelance writer.