Hong Kong's new warmth for Cool Britannia

Stephen Vines reports from the former colony where, post-handover, there is an insatiable appetite for all things British
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The Independent Online
THE LOWERING of the Union flag over Hong Kong has, it seems, been a boon for all things British.

"In a way it's made life much easier for us," says Christopher Hammerbeck, the executive director of the British Chamber of Commerce.

In the past, he says, "we were seen as being part of the administration" and having special privileges which had long disappeared. Now the Brits are simply foreigners, but foreigners who happen to be well dug into Hong Kong.

Trade between Britain and Hong Kong rose by 12 per cent last year, covering half a year during which Hong Kong had ceased to be under British rule.

Meanwhile there is evidence of a strong feeling of warmth for absent friends. A survey by the University of Hong Kong's Social Science Research Centre found that 63 per cent of those interviewed trusted the old colonial government, while only 52 per cent expressed trust in the new order.

This may not necessarily reflect love for the British per se; only some 30 per cent said they had faith in the British government, roughly the same number expressing faith in the Chinese government, Hong Kong's new sovereign power.

Another survey, taken a month after this one, found nearly two-thirds of those interviewed expressing the view that things have got worse since the handover. Only 4 per cent thought that things had actually got better.

Maybe the new regime needs more time to find its feet before it generates the kind of confidence which the old colonial order managed to achieve. China, the new sovereign power, needs to work even harder. Hong Kong people in trouble overseas still turn to British diplomatic missions, as opposed to their Chinese counterparts.

Britain, for example, is giving consular assistance to 215 Hong Kong people who have been arrested and detained abroad. This is the double the number being assisted by Chinese missions in any way. The Foreign Office says that those given help in these extreme circumstances are only the tip of the iceberg, as far more Hong Kong people request assistance on a wider range of matters.

Up to 3.5 million Hong Kong people still carry British travel documents, compared to 400,000 who have been issued with China's new Special Administrative Region passport.

The British documents only apply to those born under colonial rule and will gradually die out . The Government's plan to give full British citizenship to remaining colonial subjects specifically excludes Hong Kong British passport holders.

This has caused some resentment but certainly no lack of interest in things British. A recent British educational festival attracted 18,000 visitors, the highest number in four years. The British Council is experiencing a steep rise in demand for its already well- attended English language courses, and, while some 8,000 students were beavering away learning English, a UK Style exhibition, held shortly after the handover, did much to bring Mr Blair's vision of "Cool Britannia" to the former colony.

The British Council rejects any suggestion that the popularity of things British is connected with nostalgia. Renee Fok, the council's spokeswoman, insists Britain is doing well in Hong Kong because it is offering events which are relevant. "The relevance doesn't disappear because Britain is no longer the colonial power."

Mr Hammerbeck says that pre-handover talk of discrimination against the British has turned out to be quite unfounded. On the contrary, he says, "people are bending over backwards to assure the British community that there is nothing to fear".

He believes that China's overwhelming aim is to maintain "business as usual". The Labour government in Britain is busy rebuilding relations with China and Peking has shown every sign of being willing to reciprocate.

Meanwhile there seems to be an insatiable appetite for British memorabilia. Hong Kong is suffering a serious coin shortage because so many people are hoarding coins with the Queen's head.

Extremely tatty pieces of government equipment stamped with the crown have sold for impressive sums at auctions and new union flags are being produced in Chinese factories to replace the sold out "genuine" colonial relics which have already been snapped up.