Hong Kong

I find amusing, reading through journals I kept at the time, the number of references to the territory’s insufferable colonial society. Even as head of the Canadian mission, I frequently felt insulted by the rudeness and superior airs put on by some of the snobbish Brits with whom we interacted or found ourselves sitting beside at dinner. These were the last vestiges of a colonial mentality and, indeed, totally out of keeping with the grand hospitality I had enjoyed earlier as a student in Glasgow. One could only imagine what the ambiance must have been like during the peak period of British rule in India, Malaya, South Africa and elsewhere in the Empire. During our first year in Hong Kong, my reaction was simply to seethe inwardly and keep it to myself. The solution, I learned, was to preempt the insult by acting a bit overbearing myself and pointedly ignoring those who would be rude. In those days, I felt little remorse over the prospect of the Hong Kong British getting their comeuppance from the Chinese who, in their own way, could be equally insufferable when they chose. As Sir Philip Haddon-Cave, the Finance Secretary, pointed out to me shortly after our arrival, “Don’t be fooled. When you look at a small Chinese boy selling widgets on the street, just remember: when he looks at you, he thanks God he wasn’t born a round-eye!”

The hypocrisy of Britain’s last governor, Christopher Patten, in raising the flag of democracy and becoming teary-eyed over the ‘abandonment’ of the Hong Kong Chinese as he took his departure was something I found unfortunate. The colony existed through most of its colonial history under iron-fisted British rule and with scarcely a shred of political democracy. (…)

The sudden influx of so-called ‘boat people’ from Vietnam in their thousands shortly after our arrival triggered a crisis in which Canada became intimately involved. (…)The exodus quickly turned into a humanitarian crisis of major proportions. The sight of freighters grounded off the Hong Kong coast, overloaded with human cargo, stranded for months, and of small boats loaded with refugees with harrowing tales of encounters with weather and pirates clutched at the heartstrings. The refugee issue became a political football in Canada. I pitched in, strongly supporting Canadian humanitarian intervention. Over a relatively short period, our immigration section was ordered to come up with many thousands of refugees and move them to Canada. This was over and above the already large number of Chinese applicants for normal immigration visas. The task was Herculean, although made lighter by a drastic loosening of the criteria for selection. It came down basically to a question of if you had a head and most of the necessary appendages, you qualified. Our people, with section head John MacLachlan at the helm, did a tremendous job. The main role I played, apart from lobbying my own government, was having my photo occasionally taken for the media kissing babies aboard chartered aircraft about to depart for Vancouver.