Painful memories of imperialism's darker side
The British treated Hong Kongers as second class citizens in their own land
Monday 30 June 1997
"Fuck you." The phrase drops grossly, unexpectedly into the quiet flow of Cantonese spoken by the dignified 101-year-old in his apartment in Kowloon. He is explaining that he only knows a few words of English - the words most often used by the British when addressing him and his fellow- Chinese.
"Fuck you," "bastard," "son of a bitch". That is the extent of Tsang Wah's English, because he heard the phrases so often - day after day, year after year - from the colonial masters of Hong Kong. If Mr Tsang's supervisors were dissatisfied, he and his fellow-workers were literally kicked in the backside. It was the kind of thing a Brit just had to do.
Born in 1896, Tsang Wah was two years old when China was forced to sign a lease giving away Hong Kong's New Territories for 99 years - a period that at the time seemed to the signatories to be the equivalent of eternity. Now, Mr Tsang is alive to see the lease expire, and to see the British masters sail away for ever.
In recent years, especially under the stewardship of the last governor, Britain has come to seem a protector of the rights of Hong Kong Chinese. But, as Mr Tsang's story makes clear, it was not always thus.
He came originally from mainland China. Aged 16, he joined his cousin on a pig-selling trip to Hong Kong and stayed, hoping for a better life than the absolute poverty in which he and his family had lived until then. He trained as a cook (he still enjoys cooking today, and proudly shows how rolling dim sum dumplings helps to keep his arms strong). Then, after just a few years, he got a job with Hong Kong customs. His days were filled with contemptuous abuse from his superiors. But he kept at his post for more than 40 years.
Today, he insists that everything was fine during his time as a member of the Hong Kong civil service. In passing, he notes: "When they opened their mouths, they would often swear at you." He claims not to bear any grudges. And yet, it is difficult not to feel that politeness has got the better of him, in the presence of his British visitors today. Tsang Wah's daughter Cathy remembers that her father was for many years unable to mention the British without becoming seized with anger. She herself, born in 1956, recalls being treated as a second-class citizen in her own country within the past 20 years, and the resentment that she felt. "While we were growing up, the superiority complex of the British was very strong."
Chris Patten, the outgoing Governor who will tonight sail off with the Prince of Wales on the royal yacht Britannia, is warmly spoken of by many in the territory. Mr Tsang himself believes that Mr Patten was "very good, fighting on behalf of the [Hong Kong] Chinese". But, when looking back over the grand sweep of history, few Hong Kongers are ready to take Mr Patten entirely in isolation and to forget what came before.
Mr Tsang says he was "tamed" by the British. But, after living in their power since 1912, he does not hide his pleasure that they are going at last. "It's a good feeling. Now, Hong Kong will be ruled by Chinese. In the past, all the rules were made by the British. The inequality was always there."
He insists that this is "an exciting moment". He will, he says, watch tonight's midnight handover ceremony on television. From his balcony he will see the giant fireworks display that will light up the Hong Kong sky. And yet, he also emphasises that he feels separate from the mainland Chinese - the people who still live in the country where he and many other Hong Kongers were born. "I don't know what they will be like. I don't associate myself with them. I can only think of myself as Hong Kong Chinese."
For many years, Mr Tsang sent food and money to relatives on the poverty- stricken mainland. Even today, he feels that affluent Hong Kong is playing from a position of strength. "China still needs us more than we need them. If they come here being unruly and arrogant, they will need us to support them."
Above all, there is a quiet sense of triumph that a gross historical wrong is finally being righted - even if in a strangely skewed way. Mr Tsang describes Communist China as "oppressive". But he believes that it is all a matter of power, and that is how it should be. "Colonialism means: when you're weak, you have to give something up. When you're no longer weak, of course you have to take it back. It's a must."
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