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Colony's guardians say farewell to arms

Marching into history: A ceremony in Hong Kong tonight closes 141 years of service by the Volunteers

Hong Kong

In a little patch of Hong Kong which is still very much part of Britain, 800 serving Volunteers will assemble near the Chinese border at the Gallipoli Lines tonight for a final parade marking the end of the Royal Hong Kong Regiment's 141 years of service.

General Sir Michael Rose, the Adjutant-General and former United Nations commander in Bosnia, will be there to demonstrate the British forces' recognition of the regiment's role. Better known as the Volunteers, the force predates the Territorial Army and other modern volunteer organisations.

The Volunteers were formed shortly after the colony was created. At the time Britain had more pressing concerns than its ``barren island'', as Lord Palmerston described Hong Kong. The British troops stationed there were needed for service in the Crimean War. This worried the small settlement, which felt vulnerable not only to Chinese pirates but to the ambitions of other European states that were busy nibbling away at pieces of Chinese territory. So, 99 men,about a third of the European population, got together to form the Volunteers.

As the colony developed, so did the volunteer force. Young men who came to Hong Kong in search of adventure found a sleepy backwater with few opportunities for diversion. The Volunteers flourished in these circumstances. Membership provided an opportunity for outings to the countryside, shooting matches, polo competitions and great parties. There was also a serious side: Volunteers were called out for policing duties and to help after natural disasters.

About 40 years after the formation of the Volunteers, a few Chinese joined. The first were medical students at Hong Kong University.

Philip Bruce, the Volunteers' historian, raises the possibility that Sun Yat-sen, the ``father of Chinese nationalism'' and first president of the Chinese Republic, was among them, as Sun was a medical student at the time, and all the students were enrolled.

The high point in the Volunteers' history came during the Second World War, when they played a key role in a three-week defence of the colony against overwhelming Japanese assault.

Mr Bruce said a secret defence plan, drawn up in London in 1936, acknowledged that Hong Kong would be isolated in the event of an invasion. Two years later the defence chiefs decided that although the colony could not be defended, efforts should be made to deny the port to Japan.

But Hong Kong was a low priority and there were no reinforcements available. The Volunteers fought pitched battles with the Japanese. They were under orders from Winston Churchill not to surrender. ``The eyes of the Empire are upon you,'' he wrote. ``Be strong, be resolute, and do your duty.''

There is no record of how many Volunteers took part in the fighting, Mr Bruce said, but it probably amounted to about 2,000 men and women.

After the war the Volunteers flourished. They were on the streets during the riots in the late Sixties, inspired by Mao Tse-tung's Cultural Revolution. They were on the borders, trying to prevent the flood of illegal immigration from China, and they were called on to help with the first influx of Vietnamese boat people in the late 1970s.

But the Volunteers are now an anachronism, and even though most members are now Chinese, the parade ground echoes to commands barked out in English. The ethos of the regiment remains very much that of the British Army.

When the Union Flag is lowered in less than two years' time, the Chinese army will be installed where the British garrison once held sway. China has no plans to organise a volunteer force, nor to allow Hong Kong's people to play any role in the defence of the territory.