British icons of the long goodbye

Visitors searching for the place where the Union flag was first raised over Hong Kong will be disappointed. There is indeed a sign marking the spot but it is located in an undistinguished road called Possession Street, topped by what the inventive minds from the Urban Council describe as a "sitting out area".

Britain is coy about the colonial past. The administration fears any hint of what Governor Chris Patten calls "triumphalism" in recording the era of colonial rule. In any case this period will be snuffed out in three months' time.

In the past few decades the government went so far as to decree that the colony should always be described as a "territory" in official documents, the Colonial Secretary was renamed the Chief Secretary and there was an attempt to convey an image of a self governing society.

Nevertheless the long succession of colonial officials could not resist the self indulgence of seeking immortality through enshrining their names on most roads covering Hong Kong island and the Kowloon peninsula. Only the New Territories were allowed to have real Chinese place names and road names.

Whether these names will survive the return to Chinese rule is hard to predict, although it seems unlikely that China will feel easy with the main thoroughfare of the Central district being called Queens Road, nor with the harbour being known as Victoria Harbour, after the queen who told Prime Minister Disraeli how "amused" she was to be ruling over Hong Kong.

The demolition men are eradicating the imperial symbols which might be considered offensive to the eyes of the new masters. There was even an attempt to remould the roof of the legislative council building, which contains some distinctly colonial images, but it was thwarted by fears of a total roof collapse.

The Queen's head has already disappeared from the currency and stamps. Post boxes are being replaced with new models shorn of their royal insignia. The uniformed services are ordering new uniforms and badges, and the government is replacing its distinctive British Rail-style crockery which bears a green coloured crown.

The eradication of the British symbols has created a frenzy among collectors and speculators, who queue for hours to buy the last of an item carrying some reminder of the colonial presence. The post office has been transformed from a place of commerce to a cluster of buildings under siege as word gets around that the last royal stamp of a particular kind is about to be removed from sale.

The only place to hold out against the tide is the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club, occupying a prime site on the harbour front. The club's members have voted twice not to drop their royal affiliation. Unlike the Jockey Club, the Royal Hong Kong Golf Club and even the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the sailing folk are determined to prove their credentials as members of the awkward squad.

The symbols and name changes are relatively unimportant, however. The real changes, which strip away the lingering relevance of the colonial power, have been apparent for at least a decade.

This is unsurprising because the change in Hong Kong's sovereignty was agreed 13 years ago, making it the longest notice period in history for such a change. The gap was so long that, at first, the change seemed unreal and most Hong Kong people did little to acknowledge the new order.

As the date drew near the reality could not be avoided. The centre of power gradually shifted northwards towards Peking, where the new rulers were busy issuing statements denouncing the outgoing regime.

Visits by British ministers, once major set piece occasions, are relegated to side shows. Utterances by the Governor, once front page news, are often lucky to make it into the newspapers; and past associations with the colonial regime are being eagerly concealed behind the new badges of offices handed out to members of the numerous committees set up by the Chinese government in its attempt to foster influential allies.

Despite a century and a half of British presence, it seems unlikely that the colonisers will leave much of a lasting impression on this very Chinese place. At most some colonial mementoes might linger as nostalgic reminders.

Leading article, page 21

1. British street sign - Northcote Close; 2. Prince Edward mansions; 3. Royal Hong Kong Police force badge; 4. Nelson Street; 5. Hong Kong police sergeant's badge; 6. HK$5 coin: 7. Royal Mail: 8. Hong Kong government ensign; 9. the Queen's warehouse; 10. 20-cent coins; 11. Legislative buildings; 12. View of central Hong Kong; 13. Royal Hong Kong Police arsenal; 14. Rolls-Royce; 15. Bus stop; 16. Royal Observatory van; 17. Star ferry bell; 18. Commemorative beer mug; 19. Signal Hill; 20. Shop window; 21. Opium lamp; 22. Elizabeth Hospital security; 23. Royal Hong Kong police dog; 24. Victoria Park; 25. British post box; 26. Hong Kong flag; 27. Queen Elizabeth II jigsaw; 28. Star ferry window.