My father Jack Spackman said, when we arrived in Hong Kong in February 1967, his questions about what would happen in 20 years’ time when Britain’s lease on the New Territories expired were routinely brushed aside.
“With few exceptions, no-one wanted to talk about it,” he said. “Whether it was government officials, business people with Chinese interests, journalists – the common response was that it wasn’t something to worry about.”
Dad said exceptions included David Bonavia, Hong Kong-based stringer for The Times of London, and Dick Hughes, whose 1968 book Borrowed Place Borrowed Time was an early attempt to provide some answers.
It was a live question in our household from the moment we arrived until the last Spackman foot – mine, as it happened – left Hong Kong soil in March 1987, and we continued to watch from afar as the deadline approached.
In June 1997 Dad was in California and I was in Britain, working on the Eastbourne Herald. I had taken the day off to watch the handover coverage, but instead the date which had loomed so large in our lives for so long was overshadowed.
Just days earlier my sister Alin had died in a single vehicle crash and the momentous events taking place in our hometown took second place to the task of preparing to travel to a little place called Dunsborough in Western Australia for her funeral.
It was the hardest goodbye of them all.
Jack broke the news, in a call from San Francisco. “Alin’s been killed.” And then he broke down and sobbed. I howled. A terrible howl that wouldn’t end. A howl that threatens to rise whenever I try to recall the days that followed.
On 1 July 1997 I had the television on in the background as I sorted clothes for packing. I fished through laundry for knickers and socks for the kids and tried to think beyond something suitably sombre for the day itself to what else they would need for the trip.
Of the handover itself I have only a blurred recollection of a few key moments. The coverage was interrupted in my house by conversations about how many cuddly toys would be required and other important family matters. And yet, I did stop and watch with full attention at the moment when the Union flag and the old colonial Hong Kong flag were lowered for the last time and the red flag of China and the new bauhinia flag were raised.
I saw a group of young British men – rugby players I guessed – who wore Union flag jackets. At the historic moment in unison they removed them, turning them inside out so that they were now wearing the flag of the new regime.
It was a nice touch from a group not usually known for their cultural sensitivities.
And then came the moment, the crucial moment, dreaded by so many Hongkongers for so long. The armoured vehicles of the People’s Liberation Army came over the border, with 4,000 heavily armed troops. My feelings were mixed then and they are mixed now.
The return of Hong Kong was an occasion of great national pride for China. There’s no glossying up for the British in the history of Hong Kong’s acquisition. It was a convenience for the illegal opium trade and a humiliation inflicted on a weakened nation.
As British forces departed it was natural – expected – that Chinese forces would replace them. But what would they bring? The cold hard fist of the state had been brutally exposed in 1989, just a few years earlier, in Tiananmen Square. Its extension into Hong Kong was not universally celebrated.
When conversation in Hong Kong finally turned to what a post-1997 future might look like, the views of the locals were largely excluded from the discussions which mattered.
But for many Hongkongers there was much to fear, and those fears had been heightened by the events of June 1989 and what it meant for their own future. The vast majority of people in Hong Kong were there precisely because they did not want to live under Communist rule.
There was a love of China – and continuous contact with family on the mainland – which was evident throughout my family’s 20 years in Hong Kong, but significantly less affection for the Communist Party.
Some sections of the community had more to fear than others. Police officers who had served during the May 1967 Communist-inspired riots would have been one group that may have been feeling on edge, along with many outspoken commentators and champions of democracy.
My thoughts, as I watched the troop-filled trucks cross the border on that rainy July day, were with my former friends and neighbours on one of Hong Kong’s many outlying islands.
I will never forget the exact date that I struck out into independent living with my first flat on Lamma Island. It was 10 October 1981 and the main street of Yung Shue Wan village was decked with Nationalist flags to celebrate Double Ten.
That’s the anniversary of the 1911 Wuchang Uprising against the Emperor and Taiwan’s national day.
A year after my arrival on Lamma negotiations had begun between Britain and China to determine Hong Kong’s fate. I did not see a Nationalist flag fluttering over Yung Shue Wan again.
That was the memory prompted by that sight, and the moment on 1 July 1997 that I shed a tear for Hong Kong. And then I cried for my sister, suddenly acutely aware that she was not somewhere witnessing it too.
Alin had been living in Yeovil, in the apple country of Somerset in south west England, until just a few weeks before she died. She and her husband Martin and 4-year-old son Jonathan were going to try their luck in Perth.
They rented a house and, without spending a night in it, rented a car and drove to Dunsborough to see our youngest sister, Sophia. They bought a car in Dunsborough and so Alin was driving the rental vehicle with Jonathan in the back seat for the return to Perth.
Martin said in his rear view mirror he saw his wife suddenly veer off the road and hit a tree. Jonathan sustained minor injuries but Alin died in her husband’s arms.
The day after the handover Your Girl Reporter and family boarded a plane for Perth. I don’t remember where we stopped but I bought a copy of Asiaweek along the way to read about Hong Kong. When we got to Dunsborough I picked up Alin’s copy of Newsweek, covering the same.
It’s just one of the many things I wish I could talk to her about.
© Sally Baxter 2017
Hong Kong Profile – Timeline – a handy timeline from the BBC of the key events in Hong Kong’s history, including a good rundown of the handover negotiations
Hong Kong handover: No time wasted as forces arrive by land, sea and air – Teresa Poole and Stephen Vines, The Independent, 30 June 1997
In pictures: The 1997 Handover of Hong – a nice collection at Hong Kong Free Press (give them some support while you’re there!)
Business as Usual – transcript of a Four Corners special by the ABC, led by Sally Neighbour, which was broadcast on the eve of the handover
Regular viewers will know that I take a winter break. Your Girl Reporter could use a recharge after an intensive, and occasionally intense, trip down Memory Lane over the past few months. I’ll be back at the end of July with some more Adventures, a bit more dipping into the family history, and whatever else takes my fancy. See you then! It’ll be fun.