Hongkong Flag Tips: this is Hong Kong.177 years ago, as the conclusion of the First Opium War, the United Kingdom, and China signed a treaty that read, “His Majesty the Emperor of China cedes to Her Majesty the Queen of Great Britain, etc., the Island of Hong-Kong, to be possessed in perpetuity by her Britannic Majesty, Her Heirs, and Successors, and to be governed by such Laws and Regulations as Her Majesty the Queen of Great Britain, etc., shall see fit to direct.”

With that, the British empire got just a little bit bigger.

Hongkong Flag Tips

The population of the island in that year was reported as 7,450.

Nobody would have imagined what this island, dotted only by a few fishing villages, would become.

Fast forward 18 years: another Opium War, another treaty.

“It has now been agreed between the Governments of Great Britain and China that the limits of British territory shall be enlarged under lease.”

Fast forward 38 years: the third and final agreement.

“It has now been agreed between the Governments of Great Britain and China that the limits of British territory shall be enlarged under lease to the extent indicated generally on the annexed map .

The term of this lease shall be ninety-nine years.”

Hongkong Flag
Hongkong Flag

Ninety-nine years: as good as forever to the signers of this agreement.

This forever, though, had an end and that end was 1997.

That didn’t matter at first, though.

Hong Kong grew and grew and grew and grew into one of the richest, most powerful, and most developed cities in the world.

It became the business center of Asia.

It thrived under a strong capitalistic economic model but then, as forever drew nearer, a question loomed over the city.

Was it really going to go back to China?

That’s the question British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had for Deng Xiaoping, China’s paramount leader when she visited Beijing in 1982.

The answer was effective yes, in China’s eyes, Hong Kong would return in 1997.

Hongkong Flag
Hongkong Flag

Now, it’s important to note that it was only the lease of this portion, the New Territories, that expired in 1997.

Kowloon and Hong Kong island were ceded in perpetuity which meant that according to the terms of the agreements Britain could have kept these areas.

Hong Kong as a whole, though, is small enough already and the city had very much grown into the New Territories so it was decided early on that these negotiations were effectively over what would happen to Hong Kong as a whole—it would be too impractical to divide up the quite integrated city into different parts.

Eventually, after years of back and forth, a decision was reached in the last days of 1984: Hong Kong would go back to China in
1997 but the Hong Kong Way of life, with a capitalistic system and democratic government, would remain untouched for fifty years after the handover until 2047.

Hong Kong would become a semi-autonomous region of China.

With that, a clock started ticking.

There were 12 years, 6 months, and 12 days left until Hong Kong would change from British to Chinese.

In those twelve and a half years an enormous amount of planning and preparation was conducted in order to carry out one of the only modern instances of the change in sovereignty of a city as large and influential as Hong Kong between two countries so different.

In fact, this was the first time a capitalistic territory had been handed over to a communist state.

Conducting such a monumental shift was no easy feat.

As such a significant business hub, Hong Kong-based companies were some of the first to make their handover plans.

There was, at the time, a lot of uncertainty about what would happen to the territory post-Handover so many companies restructured to be legally registered elsewhere.

Jardine Matheson, for example, one of the most prominent Hong Kong companies, moved their legal headquarters to Bermuda and their stock listing to Singapore even if their de-facto headquarters remained in Hong Kong.

HSBC, which stands for the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, legally transferred many of their assets to their London office, as well.

Companies typically didn’t leave Hong Kong but rather set themselves up to be able to in case the Handover went badly.

In addition to companies, individual people made their Handover plans as well.

Now, opinions were mixed on this grand change.

There was no one resounding view on whether the change in sovereignty was good or bad for Hong Kong.

When surveyed in 1991, for example, about 57% of respondents were confident in Hong Kong’s future while 35% were not.

Of that 35% who were not, many chose to move elsewhere and there began a period of mass migration away from Hong Kong.

A staggering 800,000 people left in the twelve and a half years leading up to the handover, according to estimates.

Overwhelmingly, Hong Kongers settled in Australia or Canada, likely because they were commonwealth countries and the US.

Over 110,000 Hong Kongers settled in Vancouver alone—a city still shaped by this wave of mass migration.

Many, though, were just migrating temporarily for a few years to gain Canadian citizenship.

With this, like companies, they would have a way to get out of Hong Kong if things went wrong.

Hong Kongers could also get a special type of passport that was first introduced in 1985 in the lead-up to the Handover.

It was called the British National Overseas passport and it works differently from a British passport.

It gives visa-free access to 118 countries, fewer than a full British passport, and noticeably, does not give the right for someone to live and work in the UK.

Holders can only stay in the UK for up to six months and are not considered European Union citizens.

These passports are still valid today and can be renewed for anyone born in Hong Kong prior to the handover.

There was a huge and increasing rush of people at registration for these passports in the years leading up to the Handover with millions overall being issued.

While today’s Hong Kong Special administrative region passport is more powerful in terms of visa-free access to countries, holders
of British National Overseas passports, as British nationals, get the same consular assistance and protection as a full British citizen in case a holder runs into trouble outside the UK, at least on paper.

For this reason, hundreds of thousands still renew these passports to this day despite their redundancy.

As the date of the Handover drew nearer, though, the government started focusing on the changes they needed to make.

Of course, there were enormous changes to the entire structure of government, the laws, the legal system, and more but there were also small changes to be made, plenty of which were visual.

For example, they needed a new flag.

The previous flag, which included the British Union Jack, certainly wouldn’t work under Chinese rule.

A contest was held with 7,000 submissions but all were rejected.

In the end, one of the contest’s judges, Architect Tao Ho, came up with this design which was eventually approved to be the new
flag in April 1990.

But there were plenty of other signs of British-ness in Hong Kong.

The emblem of the police force included a crown and the word, “royal,” so that had to be changed too.

They eventually came up with a new design that swapped out British symbols and replaced all uniforms at a cost of $2.8 million US

The word, “royal,” in fact, was removed from basically every institution from the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club to the Royal Hong
Kong Golf Club.

They just became the Hong Kong Jockey Club and the Hong Kong Golf Club.

There was just plenty of sign changing city-wide.

Hong Kong’s post-boxes were another symbol that needed altering.

Most, at the time, were imported from Britain and therefore were the iconic red pillar box style featuring a crown.

Most of these were progressively removed with all being painted green to distinguish them from the UK’s.

As the days of British rule dwindled, the focus shifted towards planning the actual event of the handover.

Now, this event was of enormous significance to Hong Kong, China, Britain, and the world.

The BBC described it as the biggest planned event they had ever covered.

What was known was that the event would be centered around midnight on the night of July 30th, 1997—the exact moment of the reversion to Chinese rule.

As you can imagine, the two governments, Britain and China, each crucially desiring the best possible optics for their side, negotiated relentlessly on the details of the event.

For example, there was a long dispute on which flags would raise and lower in which order.

Britain wanted the British Hong Kong flag lowered first followed by the Union Jack flag to signify a dignified retreat from the colony.

China wanted the Chinese flag to be raised at the same time as the British flag was lowered to signify an instantaneous resumption of sovereignty.

China also wanted the new Hong Kong flag to replace the British Hong Kong flag on the same flagpole.

In the end, a compromise was reached to lower the Union Jack and British Hong Kong flags at the same time then raise the Chinese and new Hong Kong flags at the same time.

There were also other subtle negotiated details such as the Convention center, where the event was to be held, was designed to have chairs facing south towards the stage.

For this event, though, a stage was built on the north side so the attendees would look north possibly for the symbolism of looking
towards China.

Eventually, though, the meticulously negotiated invites went out to thousands of dignitaries and VIPs.

One week before the handover, the Royal Yacht Britannia sailed into Victoria harbor and moored to the pier.

It would serve as home to Prince Charles, who would represent the United Kingdom, during the handover.

Over the next week, the majority of the handover’s VIP’s, including Prince Charles, then British Prime Minister Tony Blair, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, American Secretary of State Madeline Albright, and plenty more arrived in the city.

That week was a week of lasts: the last meeting of the Hong Kong executive council, the last changing of the guards at the British garrison, and then it was just the last day of Britain in Hong Kong—Monday, June 30th, 1997.

The process kicked off with a 4 pm ceremony at Government House marking the final departure of Chris Patten, the last governor of Hong Kong, from what had been his official residence for the previous five years.

At 4:30, that first of his goodbyes was completed and he was driven to the Royal Yacht Britannia to join the rest of the British delegation.

Shortly after, around 5:30, a chartered Air China 747 touched down at Kai Tak airport carrying Chinese President Jiang Zemin, Premier Li Peng, and the rest of the Chinese delegation.

Then, at 7:11 pm, the sunset on British Hong Kong for the final time.

Minutes later, the 4,000 lucky individuals invited to the handover ceremony gathered at the convention center for a cocktail reception.

At 8 pm, an enormous fireworks display started in Victoria harbor, and then at 9, the handover guests sat down for their banquet dinner at the Convention Center.

Simultaneously, around 500 Chinese People’s Liberation Army troops were allowed over the border to move into position and ensure that there would never be a lapse in the defense of Hong Kong.

At 30 minutes to midnight, dinner was over and the ceremony began.

Prince Charles gave remarks bidding the territory goodbye on behalf of the Queen then about a minute to midnight, God Save the Queen was played and the British and British Hong Kong flags were slowly and simultaneously lowered, just as negotiated.

Then, in an instant, when the clock struck midnight, Hong Kong was Chinese again, just like that.

The new Hong Kong and Chinese flags were then raised to the Chinese national anthem and Chinese President Jiang Zemin gave a speech.

15 minutes past midnight, Prince Charles and governor Chris Patten boarded the Royal Yacht Britannia and sailed out of Victoria harbor for the final time.

Prime Minister Tony Blair and most of the rest of the British delegation then boarded a chartered British Airways 777 at Kai Tak
The airport swiftly took off bound for London Heathrow.

By 3:30 am, all the British forces tasked with guarding Hong Kong until midnight had boarded flights and taken off from the Chinese territory and with that, Britain was gone from Hong Kong, for good.

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