Tears, Cheers, The Archers, and Soy Sauce: The Hong Kong Handover of 1997

“History is not just a matter of dates. What makes history is what comes before and what comes after the dates that we all remember.” Chris Patten.

It will have been exactly twenty years, this coming weekend, since Chris Patten, the 28th and last British Governor of Hong Kong, gave his memorable speech at the ceremony marking the handover of the former British colony to China. Perhaps there was a tacit acknowledgment in Patten’s words that, actually, the Hong Kong handover was all about dates. Were it not for the clock ticking on the 99-year lease deadline for the New Territories, it is doubtful that the handover would have been negotiated as speedily and peacefully as it was.

To commemorate this twentieth anniversary, I looked at newspaper issues published on the epochal day of the handover when Hong Kong was returned to China – Tuesday, 1 July 1997 – to consider how it was covered by the press.

First, let’s compare front pages.

The headline in The Times reads “Final Farewell to Hong Kong” with a photo of Patten waving, Prince Charles behind him, aboard the departing HMY Britannia. About half of the page is devoted to the event, the central photo flanked by two contrasting stories; the first rather subdued and forward-looking (“Chinese promise to preserve laws and democracy”), the second more emotional and nostalgic (“Tears mingle with monsoon rain as retreat is beaten”).

The Times, 1 July 1997, p. 1+. The Times Digital Archive, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/4xhBn9. Accessed 23 June 2017.

The Daily Telegraph allocates even more space to the handover, with two photos (the lowering of the flag, and Patten with his tearful daughters) covering almost one third of the page, which bears the headline, “Britain’s farewell to empire”. Perhaps reflecting the paper’s conservative stance, the opening article writes, “…Britain handed over one of the world’s great citadels of capitalism to Communist China,” and a second headline, “Communist troops pour over the border at dawn” adds to the somewhat sinister tone.

The Daily Telegraph (London, England), Tuesday, July 1, 1997, Issue 44177, p.[1]. The Telegraph Historical Archive, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/4xhDQ4. Accessed 23 June 2017.
The Independent flaunts its knack for bold design by using Chinese characters for their headline “再見香港” (Goodbye Hong Kong). Like the Telegraph, there is a second headline referring to the Chinese troops, but The Independent’s perspective is quite different from that of the conservative paper: “The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) crossed into Hong Kong yesterday at dawn to receive an extraordinarily warm welcome from village and town people living near the border.”

The Independent (London, England), Tuesday, July 01, 1997; pg. [1]; Issue 3337. The Independent Digital Archive, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/4xhFR9. Accessed 23 June 2017.
In contrast, one struggles to find the Hong Kong headline in the Daily Mail’s front page. It is dominated instead by an account of a tragic car accident (“The Baby Born Into Tragedy”) in which a father and two sons were killed, only to be survived by the pregnant wife who gave birth shortly after (with some rather unrelated details such as the family’s “millionaire” status and the £500,000 price of their house). If one looks carefully enough, the Hong Kong handover can be found on the far right (“A tearful salute to the last jewel in the crown”).

Daily Mail (London, England), Tuesday, July 01, 1997; pg. [1]; Issue 31431. Daily Mail Historical Archive, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/4xhHY9. Accessed 23 June 2017.
The Financial Times, while giving Hong Kong due respect, is quite matter-of-fact: “New flag rises over HK”. While the other three broadsheets featured photos of an emotional Patten prominently on their front pages, the FT instead chose the Chinese flag raising, placing anonymous PLA soldiers at the center while Prince Charles looks on in the far right, slightly out of focus.

Financial Times [London, England] 1 July 1997: [1]. Financial Times Historical Archive, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/4xhJmX. Accessed 23 June 2017.
The International Herald Tribune is more dramatic (“In a Former Colony, the Dawn is Red”). Perhaps unsurprisingly for an American-owned global paper, the emphasis is not on British loss, like in the British press, but on the future of the “former colony” — a trait that Hong Kong now shares with the US (albeit without the latter’s independence). At the top of the page is a yellow banner emblazed with the words, “New Flag Over Hong Kong” that was adopted specially for this issue and the one of the preceding day. Reflecting the IHT’s joint ownership, two of the HK related stories are penned by New York Times reporters, one by a Washington Post reporter, and a fourth by the IHT’s own.

International Herald Tribune (European Edition) (Paris, France), Tuesday, July 1, 1997, Issue 35561, p.[1]. International Herald Tribune Historical Archive, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/4xhKL1. Accessed 23 June 2017.
Before we look further into the contents of these issues, a quick Term Cluster analysis may show us what words were trending in the Hong Kong articles. Apart from the obvious, such as “China,” “Britain” and “empire”, the word “tears” seems to be used frequently.

(Generated using the Term Clusters tool in Gale Primary Sources platform)

The fifth article in the “tears” cluster, “Tears and fears at the final sunset,” is from the Daily Mail. The paper makes up for its light front-page treatment of Hong Kong with a two-page spread featuring emotional pictures of a weeping Prince Charles, a dejected Chris Patten holding the folded Union Flag, and his three daughters leaving Government House. (A closer reading of the text, however, reveals a more jocular tone, especially in respect of the Prince of Wales: “At best he seemed miserable, at worst irritable, as though he were nursing severe toothache”.)

Kay, Richard. “Tears and fears at the final sunset.” Daily Mail, 1 July 1997, p. 6-7. Daily Mail Historical Archive, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/4xfbe2. Accessed 23 June 2017.

The second “tear” article is from The Independent, reporting from London, where tears were being shed for a different reason by the ethnic Chinese: “I think if I’d been in Hong Kong I would just be celebrating but this morning I went to the British Museum and I was looking at what they took from the Tang Ming Dynasty and I know it was taken in war, but…” says a Chinese lady in Chinatown, weeping for joy, not sorrow.

Moyes, Jojo. “Cheers and tears in Gerrard Street.” Independent, 1 July 1997, p. 15. The Independent Digital Archive, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/4xfbq8. Accessed 23 June 2017.

However, for the majority of Londoners, the event was of less interest than Wimbledon, where two British tennis players had made their way to the men’s quarterfinals: “Tennis, Not Imperial Nostalgia, Rules the Day”.

Hoge, Warren, and New York Times Service. “In Britain, Indifference to Loss of the Colony.” International Herald Tribune [European Edition], 1 July 1997, p. 6. International Herald Tribune Historical Archive, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/4xfcQ6. Accessed 23 June 2017.
For British expats in Hong Kong, the loss of their favorite radio soap opera, The Archers, was apparently of graver import than any change in their economic and social status:

Watts, David. “Misery for expats facing life without The Archers.” Times, 1 July 1997, p. 2. The Times Digital Archive, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/4xfct5. Accessed 23 June 2017.

In addition to news, there were several advertisements that took advantage of the Hong Kong handover, and there were the obligatory “limited editions”, such as a 24K coin by Pobjoy Mint, a tankard by Aynsley, and this double-decker by Corgi:

“Corgi Classics.” Daily Mail, 1 July 1997, p. 31. Daily Mail Historical Archive, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/4xfdd0. Accessed 23 June 2017.

Benetton had this full two-page ad in the IHT. (A rather tame effort, I would say, by this company known for its more provocative campaigns).

“Goodluck.” International Herald Tribune [European Edition], 1 July 1997, pp. 12-13. International Herald Tribune Historical Archive, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/4xfes3 AND tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/4xffj1. Accessed 23 June 2017.
But my personal favorite is this soy sauce ad by a Hong Kong company:

“Amoy Chineasy.” Daily Mail, 1 July 1997, p. 24. Daily Mail Historical Archive, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/4xfgj4. Accessed 23 June 2017.

To me, the above advertisement symbolises the indefatigable spirit of the people of Hong Kong (not to mention their humor and salesmanship). After all, in the end, isn’t it all about the people?


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About the Author

I am based in the Japan office and I support the Gale sales team in Asia. A former English literature student and classic rock/jazz enthusiast, since having two kids my hobby has become reading snippets of novels or listening to a few tracks of music during the short and tight commute on Tokyo’s infamous subways. I also enjoy watching movies in tiny screens onboard the economy class flights to various Asian destinations.