Hong Kong handling of UK postbox symbol removal draws ire

Current political climate blamed for decision to erase UK insignia from historical postboxes, which post office labels "inappropriate"

A cast-iron postbox with the UK royal insignia in Hong Kong
A cast-iron postbox with the UK royal insignia in Hong Kong

Authorities in Hong Kong have chosen to remove the British royal ciphers from old post boxes, prompting critics to say the country is trying to rub out its own history.

The decision will affect just 59 historic cast-iron post boxes, which were painted green after the transfer of sovereignty to China in July 1997, out of a total 1,150 in Hong Kong.

After much public clamouring and several media enquiries as to why the decision was taken, a spokesperson for Hongkong Post said: "The government considers it inappropriate to display the crown and the British royal cipher on old posting boxes that are still in service, and is looking into ways to update the markings on these boxes.

"In parallel, [the] government is considering the best way to conserve old posting boxes. We will listen to and study the views of stakeholders, and will make an announcement after making a decision."

Given Hong Kong’s recent political turbulence in the wake of democracy protests against Chinese rule last years, the decision is being seen by some as a tightening of Beijing’s grip on Hong Kong and its rejection of its colonial past.

Rachel Catanach, senior vice president and managing director of FleishmanHillard in Hong Kong, said while it’s inevitable that the decision to remove the royal cipher would be interpreted this way by some people, it should not have come as a surprise as it is almost 20 years since the handover.  

From a PR perspective, the Hong Kong Post Office has tried to ease the transition by committing to put seven of the old boxes on display for tourists, Catanach added.

"However, they could have done considerably more to demonstrate their motives for taking action now," she said. "For example, announcing the change in conjunction with some sort of collaboration with schools to celebrate their history and look to their future would have given it a more community-spirited context and less opportunity for it to be interpreted as a politically motivated response."

Ray Rudowski, Edelman’s regional director for crisis planning and training, says cultural preservation in Hong Kong has been a very sensitive issue since the destruction of Queen’s Pier in 2008 over strong objections.

"The government could have positioned removing the insignia as a cultural heritage issue rather than having it be seen as tied to a wider agenda. It could have held an auction for the post boxes as they did with colonial memorabilia right after the handover," he said. "It would have then been able to ensure the cultural heritage was preserved and offered the public an opportunity to own a piece of it."

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