The bitterly divisive statements and spectacles staged by President Trump over the July 4th weekend were powerful proof once again that iconic statues of heroes from the past are social and political flashpoints in the present—not only in the U.S. but around the world. They're not all the same, however. This is the third of three essays examining the ambiguous and surprising history behind public monuments in France, in England, and in Hong Kong. (Updated on July 7, 2020, at 6:45 a.m. EDT.)
HONG KONG—As the Chinese Communist Party attempts to exercise tighter political and cultural control on this city than ever before, Hong Kong has historical markers everywhere that recall how the island found its own identity—quite separate from mainland China's.
On Tuesday, July 7, Hong Kong media reported that Chinese intelligence and security services will occupy a hotel for six months before they establish a permanent site for their day to day operations. If they do their work in its west-facing rooms, they'll have a clear, unobstructed view of a bronze statue of Queen Victoria on the edge of her namesake park. Among all the world's increasingly controversial monuments few with such a complex past also have such a counterintuitive present.
Possession Street, which is about 100 yards long, is the first named road of Hong Kong. It was built to lead into the military encampment that British troops established on the island in January 1841 during the First Opium War. Its name reflected the status of Hong Kong Island and its inhabitants in the British Empire, but Possession’s Cantonese transliteration felt unnatural to the fishermen and stone-cutters who lived nearby, so they dubbed it Shui Hang Hau instead, after a nearby stream where they drew water.
That divergence of what to call a dirt road was the first conflict between island dweller and colonizer—mere days after the latter’s arrival.
Many Americans are oblivious to the history of the wars waged in this part of the world during the 19th century so English (and American) merchants could make huge profits by pushing narcotics on the Chinese.
In 1800, traders were importing about 250 metric tons of opium each year. By the late 1830s, that number was above 2,500 metric tons, much of it from Bengal, where England’s East India Company had a monopoly on production. In addition to the cupidity of the merchants, the British government had a cold-blooded macro-economic motive to back the pushers: opium sales helped redress the balance of payments as Europeans spent fortunes on Chinese silks, porcelains, and other finery. Millions of Chinese became addicts.
The Qing emperor had tried to ban the opium imports as early as 1799, but with little effect. Beijing, finally fed up, sent a mission to Canton (now Guangzhou) that arrested Chinese dealers and spent three weeks destroying warehouses full of the narcotic.
The British empire responded by going to war in 1839 and claimed victory in 1842, having won commercial privileges and territorial concessions from China’s rulers. More than 350 British troops died, while Chinese casualties ran above 3,000. The opium trade went on.
In the next round of conflict, which ran from 1856 to 1860, the British governor of Hong Kong, Sir John Bowring, used a minor incident to start another of what popular historian Byron Farwell called Queen Victoria‘s Little Wars and Rudyard Kipling, the great poet-apologist of colonialism, called "the savage wars of peace."
The Chinese had seized a British-flagged Chinese vessel, the Arrow, and the British public was riled by false reports that the ensign was pulled down and trampled. Eventually several hundred European troops were killed (France joined this campaign as well) and the fight was taken all the way to Beijing (then known as Peking). Several thousand Chinese soldiers lost their lives.
China’s defeat in the Second Opium War meant more territory was ceded to Britain, extending the empire’s foothold into the Kowloon Peninsula. This time, the road that marked the edge of British control had a softer name: Boundary Street.
By 1880, two decades after the end of the Opium Wars, European and American traders were working with Chinese smugglers to move 6,500 metric tons of opium to China each year, much of it through Hong Kong.
The drug trade helped fuel the city's rise as a regional economic hub, but it also fueled a sense of humiliation in Beijing.
As a colony, many of Hong Kong’s streets and important landmarks were given the names of British merchants, government officials, and royals who left their mark through the centuries.
A larger-than-life Queen Victoria, whose long reign embraced both Opium Wars, is seated in a park named after her. Northward, beyond the edge of the park and a few lanes of traffic, is the shoreline that hugs Victoria Harbor, where British warships used to drop anchor.
Princess Margaret, the late royal party girl, had a road named after her in Kowloon after her 1966 visit to Hong Kong. It cuts through Argyle Street, which is the namesake of a British merchant ship that moved cargo, likely including opium, between the subcontinent and China. To the south is Bowring Street, after the city’s fourth governor who served in the post from 1854 to 1859; he was a man whose appetite for war was described by the head of the U.S. Secret Service in Europe as a hunger for efficient cruelty: “There is probably not a man living whose hands are so deeply dyed in the blood of the innocent and helpless, whose deliberate crimes are of so great magnitude as those of Sir John Bowring.”
Bowring’s son, John Charles, was a partner in the conglomerate Jardine, Matheson & Co., which trafficked opium in Asia. The name of one of the firm’s founders lives on in Jardine’s Bazaar, one of Hong Kong’s oldest shopping areas, a short lane lined with a meat and fish market, noodle restaurants, and bubble tea shops.
The list goes on. These colonial era names define the contours of Hong Kong—its history, geography, and a seemingly permanent imprint on the city’s unusual character which certainly is not British, but also is not quite like the rest of China. These names remain in place 23 years after Hong Kong’s sovereignty was transferred from Britain to China not because the city’s population clings to its colonial roots. Rather, it is a statement about maintaining an identity that is explicitly separate from mainland China’s.
Without referring specifically to colonial era individuals, protests in Hong Kong have a casual link with British figures. Every year, on June 4, candlelight vigils are held in Victoria Park to commemorate those who were killed during the Tiananmen Massacre, people streaming in on either side of Victoria’s statue. And its grounds are often the gathering points for large-scale demonstrations that have in recent years attained seven-figure attendance.
And Harcourt Road, which is named after the commanding British naval officer in the war effort to retake Hong Kong from Japanese occupation, was the site of what is now called Harcourt Village—a camp with its own logistics, recycling, and waste management systems—during the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement in 2014. A similar setup was built across the harbor on Nathan Road, which carries the name of another former governor of the city.
A BRUSH WITH SCRUBBING
Two years ago, a member of Beijing’s top advisory organ proposed that Hong Kong’s government should scrub away all of the city’s colonial-era connections, starting by renaming all of its streets. The delegate said that “loving the country was a duty,” and part of that meant replacing Hong Kong’s mishmash of Cantonese and British names with patterns that fit in with mainland China’s.
In many major Chinese cities, the same street names are used, usually reserved for the widest boulevards—Minzhu Lu, “Democracy Road,” because the CCP’s apparatchiks apparently have no sense of irony; Renmin Lu, “People’s Road”; Jiefang Lu, “Liberation Road”; Heping Lu, “Peace Road”; there are more that complete the set. The idea is to impose uniformity across the country—and in turn pave over much of what makes each locality distinct from the others.
At a more individual level, in 1996, the year before the handover, a Chinese artist named Pun Sing-lui used a hammer to strike Victoria’s statue and disfigure her face. He also poured red paint over her. The performance, he said, was his way of acting out against Hong Kong’s “dull colonial culture” while he called for “cultural reunification with ‘red’ China.” Hongkongers mostly thought of him as a vandal who was after the limelight. Victoria’s nose job required a hydraulic jack, acrylic resins, pigments, and HK$150,000, or a little more than $19,000.
More than two decades later, during Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping’s visit to Hong Kong in June 2017, a pro-Beijing group erected wooden boards and an inflatable banner to obscure Victoria’s statue from the road. Out of sight, out of mind.
Many Hongkongers consider Beijing’s influence in the city and its efforts to redefine Hong Kong as a new form of colonial-style control, particularly when it comes to attempts to erase elements of Hong Kong’s history and culture—its Cantonese inflections, as well as, yes, the colonial history that shaped the city for more than 150 years.
Hong Kong's sense of independence, culturally if not politically, unsettles Beijing.
On the last day of June, a new national security law targeting individuals committing what the Chinese government calls acts of “secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces” came into effect, just one hour before the 23rd anniversary of Hong Kong’s transformation from British colony to Chinese special autonomous region. The next day, 370 people were arrested, including 10 people who police said breached the new security law.
Beijing’s law brands Hongkongers as secessionists, so they owned the label and carried flags that read “Hong Kong Independence.” Government officials said blocking roads was a subversive “act of terror,” so thousands of people banded together to march peacefully down main streets, bringing traffic flows to a halt. Normally, these marches start from Victoria Park, and people would gather in the soccer courts behind Victoria’s statue, but its grounds were empty throughout most of the day, effectively sealed off by the police shortly after dawn.
People poured in anyway—from the subway, on foot from other parts of the city, from their residences, packing the streets. It would not be accurate to call them activists or protesters. Rather, they were just Hongkongers who felt compelled to do something, even if it just meant walking together in a cluster, immediately after 64 draconian measures of control became law.
Colonial-era names aside, Hongkongers recognize new types of landmarks that are not found on any map.
People identify parts of the city’s geography based on what they’ve seen or what they’ve done during anti-government demonstrations. It might be a piece of graffiti left by someone with a skilled hand, or a street corner where a memorable banner fluttered in the wind. It might be where volunteers maintained Lennon walls—collections of handwritten notes of encouragement that evolved into sites where posters summarizing the latest news are pasted up. Or it might be where piles of bricks were dug up from sidewalks to hurl at police, or where blood pooled after someone’s head was cracked open by a police baton, broken teeth landing nearby.
After the British government said it may grant residency to Hongkongers who leave the city because of the new security law, Beijing said it would deploy countermeasures against the U.K. Chinese state-run media outlet Global Times and the Chinese embassy in the U.K. said the offer “violates international law,” without unpacking how.
The new security legislation that has spooked Hongkongers has vague language that seems to apply to any person who criticizes the Chinese government anywhere in the world, and leaves open the possibility of extraditing them to mainland China to face trial should they ever transit through Hong Kong’s airport.
The people of Hong Kong interpret Beijing’s actions as moves that not only claim sovereignty over the city’s physical territory, but also ownership of its residents—making them mere possessions of the occupier, much as British troops had done when they first set foot on Hong Kong Island in 1841.
—Christopher Dickey also contributed reporting to this essay.