Letter From Hong Kong

Dear Stepmother,

This is your long lost stepson Michael writing from Hong Kong.

Let me begin by once again congratulating you on reaching your 100th birthday earlier this year. You are my eldest relative by several decades. Nearest to you in age is my Chinese stepfather, who now lives in Xiamen with his 4th wife. But he is barely into his early 70s.

It was he who told me before I married for the second time not to be nervous. "When it comes to wives," he said, with all the assurance of an expert, "the even numbers are better than the odd numbers." No doubt Henry VIII would have agreed.

I have not written much in recent years, as I learned from my annual pilgrimages to Cornwall to visit that your vision had gradually faded and you are now not able to read even the largest print in the newspaper, or focus clearly on what is on TV. Though you still turn your set on every day to listen to the programmes.

We have contented ourselves with weekly telephone calls and I know from my brother Tim who still lives in England and visits more often that you appreciate these very much.

You will remember that Tim and I worried about you a lot living alone in your large house when you were in your early 90s. You assured us everything was fine as "Mary next door" looked in every day to check on your welfare. Tim and I felt better on hearing that, until we learned that Mary herself was 84 years of age.

There must be something special in the water down in St Austell. And we must have it too here in the Hong Kong water as it has just been announced that the average lifespan of Hong Kong ladies is now the longest in the world, having recently surpassed that of the Japanese.

Following your fall at home last year, you were moved into a care home. Under the British system, you have to pay the cost of this yourself. As cash at hand is beginning to run low, I understand from Tim that your house will soon be sold off so that the proceeds can continue to meet the charges until everything is gone.

This is the kind of tough policy choice that we in Hong Kong are soon going to have to address as our own population ages.

On a more cheerful note, I am sure you will have enjoyed the London Olympics. The event itself was spectacularly well organised, largely with the help of volunteers. And the British athletes achieved their best results in over 100 years.

You will have particularly enjoyed, I know, the result of the tennis final. Andy Murray was the first British player to win a final at Wimbledon since 1936, and the first to be in the final there for nearly as long – the last having been in 1938.

You are the only person I know who might have remembered those previous appearances.

We in Hong Kong are also celebrating. One of our cyclists won a bronze medal, only the third time any participant from here has stood on the winners’ rostrum.

Most people still recall with affection our only gold medallist, San San, who won the wind surfing event while we were still under British administration.

Interestingly, few feel as proud of our other medallist, in table tennis, as he was a recent immigrant from the Mainland and didn’t really count as "one of us".

Equally interesting, Singaporeans have just experienced a similar sensation when a new immigrant, also from China, won that city state’s only medal.

On the other hand, Hong Kong people do feel proud when Chinese athletes win medals for China. No doubt many thousands will turn out to cheer them when they visit our city in the near future.

All this is a long winded way to introduce the subjects of patriotism, pride in one’s nation, and so on, and the debate in Hong Kong about the government’s recent decision to introduce "national education" into the school curriculum here and make it compulsory in three years time.

Now at one level this is a remarkably simple matter, but our community has contrived to make it incredibly complicated. Who could possibly argue with children learning about the history of their own country?

Indeed Hong Kong schools used to teach Chinese history but its compulsory status was scrapped a few years back and it is now optional.

Against that background people naturally wonder what national education has that history didn’t have.

The first batch of teaching materials was not very reassuring, as it extolled the benefits of one-party rule and stressed the disadvantages of confrontational democratic political systems.

"Aha!" exclaimed the critics. "The object is not to engender love of country, but admiration of the Chinese Communist Party. It is nothing more than brain washing". This assessment resonated with Hong Kong’s middle class and tens of thousands of them braved stifling summer heat to march on the government headquarters and demand the whole thing be scrapped.

Hong Kong’s love/hate relationship with the mother country has deep roots and goes back many decades. Most Hong Kong Chinese do love their country most of the time. But they do have grave reservations about some of the things their country has done under Communist rule.

The "Great Leap Forward" of the 1950s, the "Cultural Revolution" of the 1960s and 1970s, the violent suppression of the anti-corruption/pro-democracy movement of the 1980s, all these things left deep scars on the psyche of many people now living here. Many of them are refugees, or the children of refugees, who fled the political upheavals in the mainland.

The pan democrats in Hong Kong play upon these fears to gain political advantage. In the run-up to our forthcoming Legislative elections, no doubt they will continue to do so.

In exchange, pro-establishment forces portray the democrats as unpatriotic, as "anti China".

In return, the democrats point out that many of their leaders are precluded from visiting the Mainland as they are not granted the necessary travel documents to do so. "How can we love a country we are not allowed to visit?" they wail.

In an attempt to prove their patriotic credentials, some of them periodically set sail to reinforce China’s claim to sovereignty over a group of islands also claimed by Japan.

They are discouraged from doing so by Mainland authorities.

I’m sorry if all this sounds rather complicated and confusing. It is.

Perhaps from your perspective as one who has lived through two world wars, you could help us bring our focus back to more important issues. Such as how to take better care of our elderly.

Meanwhile, if there is ever an Olympic event on how to confuse political issues, Hong Kong can be sure of another gold medal.