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Then and now – 20 years on from the Handover

This weekend marks the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s historic return to Chinese rule. As the territory prepares for celebrations, Boase Cohen & Collins lawyers reflect on the events of 1997, the changes that have occurred and the challenges ahead.

Handover Ceremony

The Handover – British and Chinese leaders mark the transfer of power.

MELVILLE BOASE – Consultant

What were you doing 20 years ago? I was a young slip of a lad, only 53 years old! Boase Cohen & Collins had been going for 12 years, we were in the same offices as now and, in those days, I could look out of my window across to Tamar and see the British naval dockyard there. I was riding a motorbike to work every day. I was a member of the China Fleet Club, fondly remembered and sadly missed now, and still playing cricket. I had two daughters at university and another just starting secondary school.

How did you spend Handover Day? It was a grey and overcast day. I remember going past Government House in the late afternoon and it was dead as a dodo. Chris Patten had left it for the final time shortly before. I came into the office and did some work. In the late evening, I ventured down to HMS Tamar to watch Her Majesty’s Yacht Britannia, with Prince Charles and Patten on board, sail off to the Philippines. After that I went home and watched the rest on TV.

In what ways has Hong Kong changed since? Obviously a lot of the old landmarks have gone, such as the aforementioned China Fleet Club, Beaconsfield House in Central and the Hilton Hotel next to it, as well as the Tamar naval base. The Hong Kong skyline is much different now and, of course, the New Territories have changed beyond belief with the new towns and transport links. I first went to Shenzhen in 1984. Back then it was just a small town surrounded by fields. The main road into town had about 600 yards of laid road and the rest of it was a dirt track. As for the legal system, before 1997 we had the Legal Department and if you were counsel assigned to a case you made the decisions and that was it. Now decisions are referred back to the Department of Justice, and then back to the police, and you end up going around in circles. The speed of decisions these days is slower.

What are your thoughts on Hong Kong's future? In 1997 Britain still had quite a voice in the world while China was the up and coming nation. Now the roles are reversed completely. Going forward, the big question is: “Will the values we have still stand?” Looking at China, one has one’s doubts.


JEFFREY CHAN – Partner

What were you doing 20 years ago? I was in year two of studying for my law degree at the University of Hong Kong.

How did you spend Handover Day? I spent the day with my friends in the student hall watching the celebration activities on TV. The atmosphere was quite good.

In what ways has Hong Kong changed since? The influence of mainland China has become more significant to the living of Hong Kong people. Also, there is a sizeable growth in the number of mainlanders living and working in Hong Kong.

What are your thoughts on Hong Kong's future? In near future, it will always be difficult for the SAR Government to cultivate harmony in our society and maintain Hong Kong’s role and positioning in the economy of the region. Personally, I am quite positive about the future.


USHA CASEWELL – Partner

What were you doing 20 years ago? Working at the Law Society of Hong Kong inflicting cruel penalties on solicitors and trainees who did not keep up with the CPD courses I arranged for them. At that time the Law Society was also ensuring that all foreign lawyers were treated the same by removing the exemption enjoyed by UK qualified solicitors from taking exams in Hong Kong to be admitted in Hong Kong.

How did you spend Handover Day? The early part swimming, then a traditional English supper of fish and chips at Harry Ramsden’s in Wanchai. My husband was at the ceremony at Tamar when it started to rain. I watched it on TV. On 1st July I watched the Chinese celebrations on TV amazed that this was being celebrated as a victory. We couldn’t go out because Hong Kong was literally weeping – that’s how the continuous heavy rain seemed to be.

In what ways has Hong Kong changed since? More polluted, congested and difficult to get round. Public places have become monetised, making it difficult for the public to enjoy Hong Kong. One-way roads are used as carparks for drivers, interesting corners are taken up by coffee/tea shops so you have to pay to use them; to buy property is more and more unaffordable to ordinary people, locals complain to me of a lack of opportunities which older generations enjoyed under the colonial rule, for example good education and job opportunities. There is also less talk of 50 years unchanged. Also worrying is the use of Hong Kong’s courts to stamp out political dissent.

What are your thoughts on Hong Kong's future? Now that 20 years have passed there will be 10 years of intense change to move towards “one country, one system” despite the Joint Declaration. Over the further 20 years the changes will be consolidated so that there will be no need for a formal change in 2047. Who will be around to complain, remember and enforce the promises made prior to 1997? Perhaps the unresolved issues from Occupy will arise again as the young struggle to find a voice and acknowledgement of their needs. Hong Kong might just become a backwater to Shanghai and Beijing, perhaps even Shenzhen.


ALEX LIU – Partner

What were you doing 20 years ago? I'd started my legal career with Boase Cohen & Collins but in 1997 I was working with another firm. Two years after the Handover I returned to BC&C and have been here ever since.

How did you spend Handover Day? I remember it rained heavily and I stayed home, watching the day's events on TV. I'm patriotic and was pleased to see Hong Kong return to China.

In what ways has Hong Kong changed since? I think Hong Kong has evolved like the world has evolved – more hectic, more cosmopolitan, more competitive. I see that reunification has taken place in all walks of life. There are a lot more mainland Chinese here and people are on a learning curve to live with each other. Hong Kong is still a wonderful place to live and work.

What are your thoughts on Hong Kong's future? Hong Kong has always thrived because its people are industrious, energetic and innovative and I believe this will continue. I'm optimistic.

Handover Chris Patten

The last Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten.

LISA WONG – Partner

What were you doing 20 years ago? I was at university in Sheffield in the UK.

How did you spend Handover Day? I watched the events on TV at my friend’s house.

In what ways has Hong Kong changed since? There is more disharmony and division in our society.

What are your thoughts on Hong Kong's future? Hopefully people will be more united, more fulfilled and have fewer complaints.


CHARLES COOK – Consultant

What were you doing 20 years ago? Working for another law firm in their Tsim Sha Tsui office.

How did you spend Handover Day? Friends arrived from overseas. We watched the fireworks from a lookout on Stubbs Road and then participated in a fully catered sit-down dinner on the beach at Repulse Bay – all dressed in evening dress in torrential rain!

In what ways has Hong Kong changed since? A vicious cycle of the mainland distrusting the locals and vice versa.

What are your thoughts on Hong Kong's future? Concerning, given the above.


TEDDY LAM – Partner

What were you doing 20 years ago? I was working as a private physiotherapist in Princes Building and struggling to decide whether I should take a step further to study full time P.C.LL. in the University of Hong Kong.

How did you spend Handover Day? I can’t remember exactly but I recall that I did sit in front of the TV watching the Handover ceremony.

In what ways has Hong Kong changed since? Many ways have changed gradually. You can hear people speaking Putonghua everywhere nowadays, previously you would feel it unusual. News on the TV was more focused on international affairs back in 1997, now it is common to hear about news in China.

What are your thoughts on Hong Kong's future? Generally it should be OK but it depends on what kind of business you do.


COLIN COHEN – Senior Partner

What were you doing 20 years ago? I was here at Boase Cohen & Collins, we had been in existence for 12 years. I recall the period vividly. We weren’t particularly worried about the Handover or concerned for the future. Nothing like that. If anything, it was more a case of healthy anticipation and wanting to get it over with.

How did you spend Handover Day? My best friend, Tony Fekete, came out to Hong Kong from the UK for a holiday. Tony and I had been to school together and he was best man at my wedding. He was keen to experience the Handover. I remember it rained all day. Together with my wife Peggy, Tony and some other friends, I went down to the Legislative Council building to see some of the LegCo members appear on the balcony and give speeches. After that we went to Tamar and positioned ourselves right next to the two warships which would be escorting Her Majesty’s Yacht Britannia away from Hong Kong. We saw Prince Charles and Chris Patten board the Britannia and watched it sail off. There were a few emotional comments among the crowd, but nothing untoward. After that, Peggy went home to follow events on TV, but Tony and I stayed out to enjoy the festivities. I was optimistic about the future and considered it the start of a new era.

In what ways has Hong Kong changed since? I always thought there would never be any issues in the first few years after 1997, I believed the real issues would occur 10, 15 or 20 years on and so it has proved. One significant change is that as Hong Kong has prospered, so tertiary education has become more widely available and affordable. This has resulted in young people becoming more vibrant in their views and speaking out about their status, the wealth gap, property prices, perceived lack of opportunities and other issues. In many ways, Hong Kong is still forging its own identity.

What are your thoughts on Hong Kong's future? The ‘one country, two systems’ concept is not perfect but it has served Hong Kong well so far. People ask me if we have to bow down to Beijing, but I don’t view it like that. I believe Hong Kong is still a young child and is experiencing growing pains. We are still growing up, we are still learning and certainly our society has become a lot more complicated. But, in the final analysis, I cannot think of a better place to live and work. Hong Kong is still full of incredible potential.

Handover HongKong2017

Hong Kong in 2017 – a vibrant, cosmopolitan city marking 20 years of Chinese rule.