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Souvenirs of empire lure Chinese buyers

Most remnants of the colonial era have been sold off by the Hong Kong government. But one last big house-clearing auction is still under way, and the large crowds show many still hanker for even the smallest scraps of an era that ended just five months ago.

Buyers can bid for Lot 828, a modest dining service "badged with HK & Crown". It includes such items as "dish pie, 165mm" and "jug tankard, 160ml", not to mention a "cup egg" with the crown inscribed in the centre.

The 127-page auction catalogue shows the departing Brits were not only obsessive about putting their mark on crockery, but have also left behind a great many portraits of the Royal Family. These are expected to be hot items.

Royal portraits have been removed from postage stamps since the handover, and those in circulation have lost their validity. Hence many of the sale lots consist of what the catalogue calls "unusable revenue stamps".

Seats for the two-day auction were allocated long ago. The demand was so great that many bidders who could not be accommodated had to submit sealed bids, containing full payment for the items they want. They will get the money back if they are not successful, but the government is cashing the cheques meanwhile and earning a tidy sum in interest.

Several earlier, enthusiastically attended, auctions were thought to have marked the end of the clean-out, but as remnants continue to crop up, enthusiasm for them seems to be growing. Some of the keenest buyers come from the Chinese mainland, where people have made a beeline for red letter boxes and Union flags.

Hong Kong's old red letter boxes have been replaced by gaudy green and purple ones; the crown insignia have given way to the drab emblem of the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong, the bauhinia flower, the region's new symbol. But in an entrepreneurial spirit, manufacturers have taken to making new/old artefacts, such as Union flags, cards with portraits of past governors, and "old" road signs.

However, the most surprising vestige of British rule belongs to the People's Liberation Army, which occupies the former British military sites. Its headquarters are still dominated by a building called the Prince of Wales Barracks. No doubt one will be able to buy that sign in the near future.