perfect goodbye Hong Kong dreams of Gun salutes and grateful thanks . . . the perfect goodbye

Britain lowered the flag on its other Chinese colony in model fashion 60 years ago. Teresa Poole reports.
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The Independent Online
Weihai - It was just as Britain wanted. The day before the handover, local Chinese leaders thanked the departing top British colonial administrator, presenting him with a symbolic bowl of pure water. The next morning, the British withdrawal was handled with pomp and mutual respect. Buglers, military bands, and two 15-gun salutes marked the raising of the Chinese flag, which for a few hours flew beside the British one. The chairman of the Chamber of Commerce spoke of how the British officials had "loved the people". The incoming Chinese commissioner said the colonial power had ruled wisely, and warned "evilly-disposed persons" not to cause mischief during the transition period.

Finally, at sunset, the Union flag was lowered, and the British team sailed peacefully out of the harbour. Thus ended a short but fairly honorable chapter in British colonial history.

All this may sound like some fantasy dreamed up by Chris Patten, the Governor of Hong Kong, as he contemplates his departure from Hong Kong on 30 June next year. But it is not. For, in the sensitive business of giving parts of China back to the motherland, Mr Patten has an illustrious predecessor. On 1 October 1930, it was Reginald Johnston, the last British Commissioner of Weihaiwei (and a former tutor of the last Emperor), who handed back this corner of Shandong province, east China, after 32 years of colonial rule.

On 1 July 1898 China granted leases for two areas to the British. One was Hong Kong's New Territories, which was turned over to the British for 99 years. The other was Weihaiwei, an area of 288 square miles on the north-east tip of Shandong province with 128,000 inhabitants, which Britain wanted as a naval base.

Weihaiwei was leased for "as long as Port Arthur shall remain in the occupation of Russia". Russia lost Port Arthur to the Japanese in 1905, but it was not until 1930, after eight years of protracted negotiations, that Weihaiwei was returned to China.

Like Hong Kong, Weihaiwei was run as a duty free trading entrepot, and had a steady trade in ground nuts, bean-oil, silk, and salt. The pleasant climate also made Weihaiwei was a popular summer recreation stop for the British Navy, and missionaries represented the rest of the small foreign community.

Relations with the Chinese in Shandong province were generally good. According to Dr Pamela Atwell's study of the period, British Mandarins and Chinese Reformers, the first civilian commissioner, James Lockhart, was in 1903 invited to a banquet in the provincial capital where his host's band "played foreign music throughout dinner and whenever it had the least excuse, God save the King". However, British commitment to Weihaiwei was always in doubt. In contrast with Hong Kong, the local inhabitants kept their Chinese nationality, and as early as 1902, London abandoned plans to construct a full naval base.

The British legacy these days is rather limited, even though Weihai (as it is now called) is, somewhat improbably, "twinned" with Cheltenham. A simple 32ft-high white marble column commemorates the British period - one foot for each year.

But one can find elderly locals who remember their old colonial masters. Gu Yuanjin, 89, was there the day the British left. "The Chinese followed the British to the port, and there was a military salute." How did he feel at the time? "It was glorious for the Chinese." And, he nodded approvingly, "the British left without taking any property". In those days, Mr Gu was a blacksmith. "I did not make friends with any British, but I went into almost every household of the British to repair locks, stoves, chimneys, doors and windows."

There is little resentment expressed against the British, probably because anti-Japanese feeling was so much stronger. Lu Zhenlian, 86, has lived her whole life in Heqing fishing village, in north Weihai. "We still have a blanket given by the British," said Ms Lu. "The big British ships threw things overboard, things they did not want. A lot of stockings, boots, food and so on. I was six or seven at the time. From May to August, the ships came. The things were all wet. The British were very kind to the Chinese."

Thus are colonial reputations made. Wang Zhenchang, 51, a restaurant manager in Weihai, said: "When I was a child, some old people told me that commercial British ships once came and wanted to hire some labour

ers. Because at that time the British did not like the meat, so they just drank the soup and gave the meat to the Chinese workers. So the Chinese said the British were quite good."

Meanwhile, one urban myth has gained currency among the locals, as told by Zou Deli, Weihai's foreign affairs chief. "Some people say Weihai was the birthplace of Mrs Thatcher, or that one of Thatcher's relatives was based here in the British navy and she lived here with him.

According to British law, if you want to be a senior diplomat, you need to have a relative who is a senior military figure," he said.

British architectural remains can be found, often identified by Victorian- style red-brick chimneys.

But access is limited, for Weihai is now a Chinese army and naval base and many of the old buildings are inside military compounds.

At the Weihai Port Primary School, the old church living quarters are used as teachers' offices. Inside, one can see the ceiling roses, boarded up fireplaces, and the original painted wooden floor.

Similarly, the "Tolerance Benevolence Monastery", originally a British banker's house built in 1902, sits perched by the seafront. It is now the Talent Computer Training School.

The best relics are out on Liugong Island, where British naval officers built fine villas with terraces and conservatories up on the hillside. At one impressively proportioned bungalow, the Chinese Navy inhabitant laughed: "Chinese houses only have a door at the front. The British have a door at the front and also at the back. In fact, there are doors everywhere. You can always get out!"

A visit to Weihai poses the question of what parallels can be drawn between the two handovers. In 1930, many of the same contradictions were in evidence as in Hong Kong today. The day before rendition, posters declaring "China for the Chinese" and "Down with Imperialism" appeared on the city's lamp- posts.

But in the weeks before 1 October 1930, several merchants started to shift away money and move salt stocks to Japan, fearful of what a change in sovereignty might mean.

The early results of return to Chinese rule were not auspicious: there were street riots over new taxes, the number of government officials quadrupled, land prices collapsed, and Weihaiwei lost its status as a free port. More positively, the Chinese put greater efforts into education, campaigned against footbinding, and tried to shut down the opium dens. But Chinese rule proved shortlived. On 8 March 1938, the Japanese invaders took Weihaiwei and the city was once again under foreign rule.

For the past decade, Weihai life has finally started to improve with a thriving seafood industry, 4 million domestic tourists a year, a new port, and a technology development zone to attract foreign investment.

Direct shipping links have opened to South Korea and Japan. At night, the skyline glows with neon trademarks such as Samsung, and South Korean writing adorns many buildings.

Now that modernisation is catching up with Weihai, one man pondered what might have been if Britain's Weihaiwei lease had also been for 99 years. "People say, if the British had stayed, Weihai would have been like Hong Kong," he laughed.