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Empire Fades, but Sun Will Never Set on Loyalists

Many Britons with deep roots in Hong Kong have decided to stay on and build new lives after Beijing takes over July 1.

May 30, 1997|MAGGIE FARLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HONG KONG — On June 30, the last day of the Empire here, after the Union Jack slinks down the flagpole and the last British governor sails quietly into midnight on the royal yacht Britannia's final voyage, Jack Edwards will fold up the flag and he too will head home--not to Britain, but to the Hong Kong flat where he has lived for 34 years.

Edwards, who first came to Hong Kong in 1945, is the keeper of the flag that British soldiers raised on Victoria Peak at the end of World War II to reclaim the territory for the king. This same banner, he hopes, will be used in the ceremony next month when Britain gives the colony back to China.

One of the territory's older colonialists, who has shaped and been shaped by Hong Kong, won't join the homeward-bound crowd. Edwards will, as they say in the Empire, be staying on. And for him and other crown loyalists, there will be changes, large and small, when this British colony changes hands.

"Of course I'll feel a pang," Edwards says about the moment that Hong Kong will be handed over. "But I've seen that flag torn down, stepped on and burnt, so to see it lowered in dignity won't be so bad."

Edwards has been the keeper not only of the flag but also of part of the Empire's conscience: He was a prisoner of war held by the Japanese, and has made a career of shaming his government into rectifying little perfidies. And as Britain's legacy in its last major colony is being measured and reassessed, he has done his bit to nudge concessions from London.

In 16 years of letter-writing, demonstrations and media campaigns, he helped win British pensions and passports for Hong Kong Chinese soldiers who defended the territory in World War II, POWs held here and the soldiers' wives.

"When I found out that the government was denying those people, I thought, 'That's no good to Jack,' " he says, decked out in a safari jacket in his tiny office at the Royal British Foreign Legion. "I went to London and saw those 'Yes, minister' types hiding behind their desks."

Here, he rolls his eyes and does an impression of a British bureaucrat, turning his nose up, giving a stiff-upper-lip explanation of how the government stalled the paperwork while the war widows slowly died off. By the time the women won the documents this year, he says, only 29 of the original 56 were still alive. "It took a long time, and I'm bitter about it," he says, reverting to his own Welsh lilt, "but they finally did the right thing."

Edwards, who celebrated his 79th birthday May 24 (Empire Day, the holiday in memory of soldiers who died defending the Commonwealth), plans to stay on with his wife. He'll help run the legion office--one of the few institutions left with "Royal" in its title. "The Chinese haven't said we have to change the name," he says, though he notes that Liberation Day, marking the date Britain reclaimed Hong Kong after the war, will be renamed to reflect China's role in the victory.

Other changes are inevitable. A military garrison that once included more than 10,000 has dwindled to a few ceremonial troops.

The daily flag-raising ceremony at the cenotaph, performed by kilted Scottish Black Watch honor guards, probably will end. The British flag there may give way to China's red national banner and the crowns will come off the tops of the flagpoles.

But the monument, a memorial to those who died in the war, has been transformed already into a rallying point: Protesters covered it with wreaths in 1989 to honor pro-democracy demonstrators killed in and near Beijing's Tiananmen Square. And Edwards joined them. "Those kids were dying for the same ideals that the cenotaph stands for--that is what it is all about," he declares.

Frank Knight: 'Time Marches On, Eh?'

Frank Knight, 67, was a crack shot as a soldier in colonial Kenya, flew (and crashed) a Tiger Moth in Malaysia when that nation was under British rule, and escaped from a Chinese prison on the other side of Hong Kong's barbed-wire border when he served with the Royal Hong Kong Police.

More recently in his resume of anachronism, he was chapter president here of the Royal Society of St. George, a group dedicated to the celebration of all things English.

Knight is a man who keeps one step ahead of extinction as celebration of the Empire has become nearly forgotten, almost forbidden, on continents across the globe. But he's staying on here.

"Time marches on, eh?" says Knight, a tall, bearish man. "You have to cut the cloth to fit the situation."

It is advice well taken by Britons remaining in Hong Kong. The expatriate population has shrunk by 1,200 in the past year, and most of the 29,400 still living here will find life a bit harder. For the first time, Commonwealth citizens will have to get a work visa and prove they have skills that local workers don't.

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