China rewrites history of Hong Kong

Teresa Poole in Peking on the early release of film epic that aims to spike British guns at handover

"You like to eat bleeding food," shudders the Emperor's envoy as he cuts into the large rare steak put before him by the uncouth Westerners.

"I understand that Chinese cuisine is unrivalled in the world; I cannot say the same of your cannons," retorts the victorious British officer, chewing his way through a slab of meat as he demands that Peking hands over Hong Kong - adding that it would make a timely present for Queen Victoria's upcoming birthday.

History may be written by the winners, but it can always be rewritten some 150 years later when the original sovereign power regains possession of its territory. The Opium War, the most expensive mainland Chinese film ever made opened yesterday in China, expansively portraying the heinous behaviour of the British in forcing the ceding of Hong Kong in 1842.

The 100 million yuan epic (pounds 7.7m), with a cast of 50,000 extras and a fleet of Victorian warships, is China's blockbuster version of one of the more shameful episodes in British history.

The film tells the story of how China tried to stop imports of opium by the British East India Company and other traders, only to be met by the force of Her Majesty's Navy. Superintendent Charles Elliot is the villain determined to teach China a lesson, and Denton (played by Bob Peck) an evil opium trader. The venal Chinese Qing dynasty officials, who grab every available bribe from the British in return for letting in the drugs, complete a cast of miscreants.

Against this line-up, our hero is Commissioner Lin Zexu, the honest official who was determined to rid China of the scourge of opium, unaware that foreign powers had such might to unleash on the Middle Kingdom. "When a nation uses iron to eat their food, we should take notice of them," he remarks ruefully, perceiving some possible connection between knives and forks and the manufacture of heavy-duty cannons. China "should not be a frog at the bottom of the well", is his advice for the weak Emperor at the end of the film after China has been roundly beaten and Hong Kong lost.

China's leaders are said to be delighted with the film, which was directed by 73-year-old Xie Jin. Over the next few weeks, the film will open at hundreds of cinemas in China and Hong Kong, and an edict has gone out that Chinese embassies around the world should show the film on 1 July, as part of their Hong Kong handover celebrations.

Chen Zhigu, general manager of the film production company, said shooting the film was "the embodiment of a national soul. It is a determination of the proud Chinese to do what their ancestors have never done, and it is a great effort to sweep away the humiliation".

It is one of the many propaganda weapons to be unleashed by China. "Our original plan was to show the film in Hong Kong in July, but the central leaders ordered it must be shown in June as part of a strategy. Because now the British are holding big celebrations there; they will invite the most famous singers, and send for the most luxurious pleasure-boat to ferry the British leaders back home. They will hold banquets and say 'It is I who gives Hong Kong as a gift to you'. This film, as a personal expression of Mr Xie's point-of-view, will tell people the way in which the British stole Hong Kong. They were robbers," said Mr Chen.

The film has opted for broad rather than detailed historical fact, and the big budget demands of the wide screen have encouraged certain embellishments designed to delight a Chinese audience. The serene and beautiful Chinese opium addict who is forced into prostitution is shown rejecting first Denton ("Why not? I am also a man"), and then Elliot, whom she tries to stab with a pair of scissors. The Qing court sentences her to death for endangering the peace treaty with the British.

When the British parliament is shown debating the case for war, the House is divided between the hawks and those, like one MP, who pronounce Confucius far greater than Aristotle or Socrates. "It will take us generations to understand China. We may be able to defeat but not conquer them," he warns, sentiments which appear regularly these days in the People's Daily.

Humour is the unexpected ingredient in this enterprise. During peace negotiations, the English interpreter says with exasperation: "They are always like this; this is so typically Chinese. They never say yes, and they never say no."

In the end, the brutal British get Hong Kong, while Commissioner Lin is banished by Peking to China's far north-west border. The Emperor prostrates himself before his ancestors, devastated at having yielded Chinese soil to the barbarians.

But as the final credits begin to roll, there is every reason to expect the Middle Kingdom to avenge the historical injustice. The camera pans across the dark, rainswept courtyard of the Forbidden City and halts on the statue of a lion - whose eyes start to glow an intense, menacing electric red.

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