In hope of a bright future for Britain and for China

Hong Kong handover: A personal view of the handover by Stephen Chan, who left `an Asian backwater' 30 years ago
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The Independent Online
This is an extremely emotional time for me. Like so many of my compatriots from Hong Kong, I went abroad during the 1960s as a young adult in search of work and with hope of a better life. There will certainly be tears when Hong Kong returns to China, the tears of immense joy in the knowledge that one of the most humiliating periods in Chinese history can now be put to rest. Chinese people everywhere should rightfully feel a sense of pride at the retroversion of Hong Kong to the motherland.

However, I also feel that ex-Hong Kongers like myself who have settled in the West are special. We have had the opportunity to live a life fully exposed to, and having the choice to absorb, what is best in the Western tradition, and to combine with what is best from the Chinese tradition.

I have lived in the UK for over 30 years with an unimaginable degree of happiness. Leaving a restrictive Hong Kong in 1967 at the age of 18, I found a British society which was much freer, far more equitable, and inhabited by a vast number of fair-minded people (there are of course exceptions) who really believed that no one should be discriminated against on account of their race, sex, or creed. I found a cultured and civilised society, one that I have come to love.

I am of course also proud of the outstanding achievement of the people of Hong Kong in making it one of the most successful and developed financial and trading centres of the world.

When I was growing up, it was little more than a backwater of Asia. Life was restrictive; corruption was rife; discriminatory preferential treatment in favour of colonial expatriates a fact of life.

Hong Kong then was a place of little opportunity for the vast majority of Chinese including my family, who came to the territory as refugees after the Second World War. The place was full of squatter camps and shanty towns, with large families of refugees living amidst squalid conditions in tin shacks and makeshift cardboard shelters on the rooftops of buildings, or in the back streets, mostly illegally.

The hope of a brighter future, in a place where education for children was neither universal nor free, was only possible if you could afford to pay. Many families from the labourer or coolie classes would pool their limited resources within an extended family, and send only their brightest youngsters to school. The hope was that the collective lives of family members would one day be improved when the child's education endowed him with a well-paid job.

No one then could have predicted that by 1990 the average income per capita in Hong Kong would exceed that in the UK, and that Hong Kong would become an international city of high finance, and the powerhouse that drives the economy of southern China.

I am also proud of the tremendous progress and improvement in the lives of a vast number of people in China, my ancestral homeland, not withstanding the enormity of the problems it still faces. It has to be recognised that nothing like this has ever happened before in the history of the world. In spite of recent upheavals, China has succeeded in raising more people from poverty to near-prosperity in a short time than any society or country has ever done.

It is a matter of the deepest regret to me that the Sino-British relationship has become soured and indeed at times acrimonious. Given the political gulf between the two states, the cultural differences and the less than pleasant historical baggage of the 19th century, the return of Hong Kong to the mainland would have been a delicate and emotional transaction in the best of circumstances. I most sincerely hope that the Anglo-Chinese relationship will move forward after 1997 into a friendlier mode.

Britain has had a long and rich experience of China by virtue of history. This points to a unique and special relationship to be cemented and built upon for the next millennium. This can only be good for China, good for Britain, and good for Hong Kong.

Dr Stephen M.T. Chan MB, BS (Lond.), DMJ, LLM.