Hong Kong tycoon Gordon Wu suggested in 1986 that the UK should use Tamar, where the current government headquarters and the legislature are now located, for the new British Consulate-General after the Handover, declassified documents reveal.
The Hong Kong and the UK governments were discussing where to locate the new consulate in the city, when Wu – managing director of developer Hopewell Holdings – gave his “interesting remark,” as described by the senior British trade commissioner in Hong Kong at the time, Reginald E. Holloway.
“We were looking out of his Hopewell building across Wanchai and Central and he pointed at HMS Tamar and said, ‘That is where the Chinese will want the British office after 1997’,” Holloway wrote in a document recalling events in late June, 1986.
“I asked him why he thought this and he said it would reflect well on them and be a sign to all that the handover from Britain had been done in an amicable and dignified manner.”
The HMS Tamar was a Royal Navy troopship which served as a base ship in Hong Kong from 1897 to December 12, 1941, when she was scuttled to avoid being used by the invading Japanese forces. It became the name of the piece of land in Admiralty that hosted the shore station of Hong Kong’s naval forces.
“[Wu said] The fact that the British remained in Tamar (which was so prominent) rather than removing themselves to a less significant site would also demonstrate the strength of Britain’s continuing interest in Hong Kong and China. This would also, though incidentally, please the Hong Kong people as well,” Holloway wrote.
“He did not think Tamar’s association with the British Military would matter at all to the Chinese.”
The current British Consulate-General is located on the redeveloped site of the former Victoria Barracks in Admiralty.
Wu was one of the 1,194-member election committee that selected Hong Kong’s chief executive this year. He gave his nomination to Carrie Lam, who later won.
The records were part of a set of Foreign and Commonwealth Office documents declassified in January this year. They are available to the public at the National Archives in Kew, London.
‘Symbol of imperialism’
Months before Wu made the suggestion, both the Hong Kong and London governments looked into the option and thought it would be an incorrect decision to use HMS Tamar.
Sir Antony Acland, then-permanent under-secretary of state, wrote to then-governor Edward Youde in November 1985, saying the Chinese would be unlikely agree to the plan, “both because of their military connotations which they would probably consider a symbol of ‘imperialism’, and also because they might want to use Tamar themselves for part of the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] garrison after 1 July 1997.”
Acland continued by saying: “Even if the Chinese were to agree to our using these buildings, we are not sure that we would be wise to do so.”
“The military connotations of HMS Tamar would have a lingering effect after 1997. Ranging as they do around the military docks, they would be a prominent, and by that time probably disadvantageous, reminder of the former British military presence.”
Acland also said the buildings were probably too big for the Consulate-General: “Furthermore, we would not wish to take part of the site (for example, one building) since this would create security problems if the PLA garrison were to be housed nearby.”
Youde agreed with Acland in a reply in April 1986.
After the Handover, the PLA took over the Prince of Wales Building – the British garrison headquarters – which sit next to HMS Tamar.
Other rejected options
Hong Kong and London at the time also considered placing the new consulate at the West Wing of the then-Central Government Offices, but this was rejected. They agreed the Chinese and the future Hong Kong governments would not favour this option, since the West Wing would be ripe for redevelopment by the late 1990s.
The West Wing will reopen in 2018 to provide space for local and international law-related organisations, to enhance Hong Kong’s status as a centre for international legal and dispute resolution services in the Asia-Pacific region.
Other rejected development options included a new building at the site between Murray Building and the new Bank of China Building – now the “Three Garden Road, Central” commercial complex opposite the US Consulate-General; redevelopment of the Old Wan Chai Police Station site; and reclamation on Fleming Road, Wan Chai – now the Exhibition and Convention Centre.