The ongoing turmoil in Hong Kong takes me back to my Navy days, which spanned 1959 to 1963.
When my ship deployed from Pearl Harbor to the Western Pacific to join the Seventh Fleet, we all looked forward to a visit to Hong Kong, which was every sailor’s favorite liberty port.
Hong Kong Island was a British crown colony then, having been ceded to England in 1842 following the First Opium War. With its continental flavor, Hong Kong was an intoxicating mixture of East and West, but mainly East. Although we spent a lot of time in Japan and the Philippines, plus some in Formosa (Taiwan), for me Hong Kong was the Orient.
Today’s spectacular waterfront in Hong Kong bears no resemblance to its appearance in the early 1960s. Wooden sampans cluttered the harbor then, aboard which whole families lived year-round. There were no cruise ships in sight.
The sun was setting on the British Empire, but everyone pretended to believe they were in charge, although the Chinese Communists could have taken Hong Kong with little trouble had they wished.
One of our favorite watering holes was the famous Foreign Correspondents Club, located high atop the city and offering a sweeping view of the harbor. One of my treasured photos shows me leaning on the balustrade of the club’s overlook, the harbor spread out behind me, doing my best to look like a foreign correspondent.
One day we took a water taxi ride across the bay to Kowloon, also a British possession. There I had my one and only rickshaw ride, followed by high tea at the regal Peninsula Hotel.
Under the British, Hong Kong always welcomed U.S. naval vessels, but with the current unrest the Chinese have denied our ships port privileges. I wouldn’t be surprised if that becomes permanent.
When Britain hauled down the Union Jack in 1997 and returned Hong Kong to China, the Joint Declaration signed by both parties specified that Hong Kong would remain self-governing until 2047.
It remained so for a while, until China started flexing its muscles. It didn’t take long for China’s pledge of self-government to be revealed as just another Communist lie.
But if you give people a taste of freedom, as the residents of Hong Kong have enjoyed, they will fight to keep it. Those who are risking all by taking to the streets to stand up for their liberties deserve our admiration and support.
Whether they will be successful is another matter. Exactly 30 years ago, when similar protests occurred in Beijing, the Tiananmen Square massacre took the lives of thousands of protesters. Will history repeat itself?
No one can say, but what’s certain is that the residents of Hong Kong are writing a new profile in courage.