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Tuesday, 2 January 2018

The 1997 surrender of British sovereignty over Hong Kong

When I thought about writing a blogpost about the British handover of sovereignty over Hong Kong to Communist China, which happened on 1 July 1997, I went to my archives to find the photos that I had taken on that day in Shanghai. At the time I was working in the English-language PR unit of a Japanese manufacturing company, so going overseas on business meant chronicling technology implementations. When I got back from trips, I would write stories about what I had found for use in marketing documents.


But when I looked at my photo archive I didn’t find the Shanghai photos. The bag that holds my old stash of photos still has many envelopes of negatives and photos from decades past, but the ones from Shanghai have gone missing, so I had to rely on some scans made around 2007 when I first published my personal website. This is a small sample of the whole, which were taken during an entire afternoon on the street amid the crowd of mostly young people. The scans are not very high quality but they give you an idea of what it was like on that day when it seemed as though the city’s entire population was out to witness the transfer of power in what would thereafter become one of China’s two special administrative regions.


At the time the photos were taken I was standing on the Bund, the old colonial foreshore boulevard where the British had part of their concession during the time of the final Qing emperor Pu Yi. There are many 19th century buildings still standing on the Bund, fronting the Huangpu River, but across the wide brown river is Pudong where giant skyscrapers pierce the sky. This is the place that photos of Shanghai appearing in the media usually show. Between the buildings and the river on 1 July 1997 masses of people stood in small groups where friends talked to one another about stuff. I didn’t understand Mandarin so I couldn’t know what they were saying but they were busy talking on and off as they waited.


At some point on the day I had met a German engineer in a cafĂ© who had also come to the city to do business. The Germans had built the subways that criss-crossed the city when I visited, and German car manufacturers had transferred technology to businesses intent on setting up local auto plants to capitalise on the country’s low-wage and highly-educated workforce and to satisfy Chinese demand for such trappings of modernity as private motor vehicle transportation.

A VW-badged Passat was the most common type of taxi in China at the time. The worn vehicles would transport you at speed across Shanghai with a rattle and a smile for little cost if that was the quickest way to move or if you didn’t know which bus would get you to where you wanted to go. I had a coffee with this educated foreigner and we agreed to go to the Bund to see what was happening, and though I remember walking through the streets with him, at some point we became separated and I ended up alone surrounded by thousands of young people with no plans apart from the intention to enjoy themselves regardless of the lack of formal entertainment. The fireworks that the authorities had organised further up near the old French concession were only visible to a select few, so most people just milled about in groups on the Bund soaking up the vibe they themselves were creating.

As with modernity itself, these young Shanghainese were making special moments for themselves as they went along. They were winging it. They thought of themselves as free and the national holiday reminded them of their country’s emancipation from material want. Modernity had delivered in spades for the Chinese and they were ready for whatever the future would bring.


One of the things that modernity brought was foreigners, but taking pictures at the event I must have looked suspicious because one or two people gave me curious looks as I snapped away, keen to chronicle the historic moment, the time when the country’s humiliating colonial past was finally on the way to erasure by events more palatable to those belonging to a proud nation. These people were the factory workers who were propelling China into the upper echelons of the global economic rankings, and I had met people like them when I had gone to my company’s factory in the northern China city of Dalian on another trip during the same epoch. 


In Dalian, I had wandered through streets unchanged for generations where the odours of cooked food reached out from the shopfronts into narrow carriageways that snaked into the hills. You never felt any danger walking around whatever the time of day. The tram that ran down the central spine of the metropolis had been built originally by the Japanese during their colonial tenure. The tram had wooden floors and you could see the pavement going past under your feet through the gaps between the grimy, grey planks. In a dilapidated square in Dalian, a masseur had set up his trade with a seat on the pavement among the throng of tired people going about their business. The man applied himself vigorously to kneading the shoulders of a seated customer as I walked past. 

My company’s factory, where they manufactured such low-value-added control components as plastic-and-metal microswitches and steel ball valves for commercial building applications, was out in the countryside surrounded by fields covered by freshly turned sods. In Japan, the switches were made at factories that dated from the first post-war period of reconstruction and nation-building, the technology transferred from America by enterprising Japanese wanting to capitalise on a low-cost and well-educated workforce. At one of the company’s factories, in Kawasaki, an enormous pneumatic press was still used when I was at the company to stamp out the metal contact arms used in making the switches. 

I don’t remember if they manufactured switch components in Dalian although young Chinese women did assemble them into complete units in one room in the factory. The Japanese managers thought they were well-suited to the labour because they had slim fingers, they said. For the ball valves managers had found a steel foundry to locally supply the heavy castings that were then machined by young Chinese men in the factory at computer-controlled machine-tools imported from Japan, into finished products. I remember there were other, similar industrial plants in the area that had been set up by Japanese photocopier manufacturers. You had to walk along roads flanked by fields that farmers had once used to grow their crops, to get to where you wanted to go. 


One evening on the way to a restaurant where we had organised to meet with some of the other workers from the factory, a group of us walked down a rough road with the stones making it hard going for one of the young women, who worked on the microswitch assembly line and who had worn a pair of high-heeled shoes. She stumbled along uncomfortably but the die had been cast back in the dormitory when she had selected her footwear and it was too late to change her mind now. She made the best of it and we enjoyed the dinner, which my Japanese colleague and I paid for out of consideration for the meagre salaries of our Chinese companions.

After dinner, they went back to the company dormitory, which was located on the same plot of land as the factory, and my Japanese colleague and I went back to the hotel and our rooms. We had booked into this brand-spanking-new edifice on a day when the toxic fumes from adhesives used in the construction process were so strong that I had immediately retreated to the front desk to ask the clerk there if alternative rooms were available on a different floor. They had complied with my request readily enough but the raw feel of the place was ubiquitous. In the factory, which we were preparing for a grand opening ceremony and a gala dinner with the local government officials you had to butter up to get such things as factories built, there were men’s and women’s toilets but there were no signs on the doors to tell you which was which. I had some local carpenters put together cloth screens – one pink and one pale blue – to place outside the toilet doors. The wood used to make the screens was full of splinters but at least their frames stood unassisted.

For the opening dinner the company had hired ballet dancers to entertain the dignitaries seated at the large, round tables on which food was served on lazy-susans in the middle of the tables and that had been brought from the kitchen, that normally fed the factory workers. The ballerinas pirouetted silently and made picturesque poses in a space cleared for the purpose among the tables of heavy, suited men and their Japanese hosts. No-one batted an eyelid at the incongruity of seeing this exotic sample of European elite culture translated without a smidgin of irony to the fields of rural China.

But in the nearby town there were stores selling equally foreign bottles of Hennessey XO cognac to those who could afford them. A man outside one of these stores held the reins of a horse and you paid a small amount of cash for the privilege of getting up on the back of the docile beast, from where your picture could be snapped by your companion. The horse’s trappings were made of colourful rough cloth.

After an event company salesman, factory managers and support staff would retire to a venue in the city where we sat around the walls of a room accompanied in every second seat or so by a young Chinese woman hired for companionship. It was like a cabaret club in Japan from the 1970s except without the promise of sex. I sat next to one of them repeatedly taking the wedding ring off my finger and putting it back on. I placed it on my open hand to show people what it was.


In Shanghai on the day of the handover I walked down broad avenues flanked by tall, modern, glass-covered buildings through crowds of young people ambling along to who-knows-where. I ended up back on the Bund where there was a ferry to take people across the river to the other side. I was looking for food and ignored the ferry, but because of the holiday no shops appeared to be open. I went back to the hotel I was staying at and put my feet up. 

One day I caught the subway to get to where I had to go and in the carriage there were men and women with faces creased and tanned by the sun who had come from the countryside to work in the city, most likely on building sites. They had next to them several big, striped nylon hold-alls containing their belongings and their appearance contrasted sharply with the more refined faces of the city girls standing in the same carriage. I asked one of the young women for directions in English and she answered me in the same language. The parasols Chinese people carry on sunny days in the summer months are a testament to the fact that they are only a generation away from field work.

Outside a building one day where he had gone looking for this kind of employment I found an elderly man to work as my interpreter. It was a bank branch, if I remember correctly, where I had gone to exchange Japanese banknotes into renminbi. He spoke English and he helped me take photos of a library that had recently installed a control system sourced from my company. The man and I went to the quarter where the library was located and across the street from it we entered the courtyard of a traditional Chinese dwelling with multiple apartments served by several staircases that each debouched into a common, central courtyard. We ascended one staircase and knocked on a door that had a sign on it attesting to the good character of the residents, hoping to get access to the apartment so that I could take photos of the library from a window. They invited us in and I sat on their couch in their living room where they quizzed me for a while and gave me a can of Coke to drink.

On another occasion I was in China with a young woman from the office named Mika. She was an “OL” (for ‘office lady’, or “oh-eru” in Japanese) and at work she wore a navy-blue uniform. The men all wore suits and ties. One day, to get a good shot of another building, Mika and I climbed onto a fun-ride at a Shanghai amusement park out in the suburbs next door to the edifice we had targeted. The ride took the form of a set of paired pushbikes mounted on a metal rail running across the tops of metal pylons studding the park’s dirt enclosure. Children would normally get on them on their days off school and ride around companionably with their mother or father. The two of us on that day cycled our way to the middle of the course and there we stopped while I snapped the requisite shots of the building we needed to document.

The old man, I paid him the equivalent of about 10,000 Japanese yen (in local currency) and I recall that he became frustrated with something about me at one point during the day. I think he might have remonstrated with me about something, but I don’t remember clearly. I just remember his displeasure, even though I was paying him. I knew how to say ‘receipt’ in Chinese because I had asked Ying Sang, who worked in our office in Tokyo as a translator. Sang-san (we called her by her family name, in the traditional Japanese fashion) told me to say “fa piao” when asking for a receipt in China, and so I was able to reclaim such money spent there as a company expense on my return home.

I still remember the old man walking away down a street alone as he left me at the end of the afternoon, merging back into the bustle of the city where market stalls were set out on the pavements and you could buy live fish out of buckets of tepid water or bunches of raw vegetables off low tables set on the pavement for housewives to peruse as they went past on their errands. One day on one of my trips to Shanghai I came across a man at one of these street markets selling objects laid out on a piece of cloth on the pavement. There was an intricately-carved green jade object about three inches tall that I later regretted not buying off him; in fact, I tried to find the man again just before leaving for Japan but of course he was long gone. 

The man had probably just arrived from the countryside looking to make a bit of money to use to buy food before he could find his first paying job, turning family heirlooms into cold, hard cash in the Shanghai entrepot. On another day I went jogging through the streets early in the morning before work, navigating my way through the smells that suffused every part of the city. I was young and free. But all night the sound of steam hammers knocking pilings into the foundations of new skyscrapers would reverberate through your dreams. Blue-tinted windows in tall buildings reflected the still-dusty streets of that fabulous city.

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