Colony bids 'confident' farewell to British rule

Thousands turn out to shake PM's hand, writes Donald MacIntyre
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The Independent Online
It could have been Croydon if it wasn't for the vast chandeliers of resplendent red and gold paper lanterns put up in honour of the Chinese New Year and the fact that the crowds were genuinely pleased and excited to see John Major.

The shopping plaza in downtown Sha Tin - where Benetton, Marks and Spencer and the Body Shop compete for business with local stores - boasts the "largest musical fountain in Asia".

But yesterday, the incongruous strains of The Blue Danube which accompanied the dancing jets of water could scarcely be heard above the welcoming cries of several thousand locals all trying to shake hands with the Prime Minister at once.

Many them, drawn from the sprawl of high rise overspill estates that make up this new town outside Hong Kong city, couldn't speak English. A few were not even sure who the unassuming man with grey hair and glasses that "Fat Pang" - as Governor Chris Patten is irreverently known - had brought with him actually was.

But the majority were determined to make the most of what will be their last chance to catch a glimpse of a British Prime Minister before the Chinese take over the territory on 1 July. When Mr Patten and Mr Major looked up to the crowd on the first floor balcony dozens of cameras flashed amid shouts in Cantonese of "Thank you for our visas", a reference to the Prime Minister's announcement just a couple of hours earlier that two million Hong Kong Chinese would now have the right to visit Britain without a visa.

There were both optimists and pessimists in the crowd. Kam Wong, 38, an insurance man who does much of his business in China, broke off from talking to a customer on his cellphone to say he was "confident" about the future.

Mr Major's visit was "very important" to future relations between Hong Kong, China and Britain. "I believe the Chinese leaders," said Kam. "They do not want to lose face by allowing Hong Kong to go downhill economically."

He wasn't over worried about the unequivocal Chinese threat to dismantle the elected legislative committee (LegCo) as soon as it took over. "Eventually there will be a compromise," he added. But a 30-year-old doctor, who refused to give his name, holds a British National Overseas passport and had unsuccessfully applied to live in the UK, was much less sanguine. Mr Major was just "an old Englishman," he said."What he can do is pretty limited. Even if he did do things, they would be undone because China has threatened they are going to get rid of LegCo. I tend to be on the pessimistic side. The optimists are either not well informed, or they cheat themselves."

Kristina Baker, 11, managed to get the autograph of the Prime Minister and they both agreed in a brief chat that Hong Kong was a "lovely place." But Kristina's sister, Ro, was frustrated that she didn't talk to the Prime Minister."I wanted to ask him since Hong Kong is supposed to stay the same for another 50 years, how will Britain react if the Chinese tear the agreement up?"

Deep down, Ro Baker may have reflected the apprehensions of many in the crowd. In shaking hands with Mr Major they were, in effect, saying their last goodbyes to British rule. But yesterday in Sha Tin, 35 ominous minutes from the border with the People's Republic, their noisy farewell could not have been more graceful or good humoured.