History in the streets

Recently, in Hong Kong, there has been much heated debate over “decolonisation” as one of the former Chinese central government officials commented on Hong Kong’s failure to implement a process of decolonisation, which was believed to have caused severe problems in the society and in constructing a healthy national identity. A few weeks later, Hongkong Post announced that they would start covering up the colonial era insignias on the remaining 59 historic post-boxes, which feature the British royal crowns (King George V, King George VI, and Queen Elizabeth II), to “avoid confusion” (read more from the Guardian and Hong Kong Free Press).

After such controversial announcement made by Hongkong Post, journalists and activists have started listing out what colonial symbols might be the next “victims”. In fact, there still exist countless colonial traces in Hong Kong. For example, the statue of Queen Victoria in Victoria Park, names of numerous streets and hiking trails (e.g. Nathan Road, Pottinger Street, MacLehose Trail), names of schools (e.g. Queen’s College, King George V School), names of hospitals (e.g. Queen Mary Hospital, Prince of Wales Hospital), and coins featuring Queen Elizabeth’s head1, etc.

Could decolonisation really make Hongkongers loyal to the Beijing government or to the mainland China? Is removing these tangible and historical assets really worth it?

This reminded me of Madrid’s latest historical movement – removal of all 167 street names related to the former dictator Francisco Franco regime, for example, Avenida Comandante Franco and Calle del General Yagüe. Mayor Manuela Carmena (left-wing Ahora Madrid Party) pledged to remove all remaining public symbols (e.g. names of schools, public squares, etc.) of the former dictatorship in the capital city in order to compile with the Historical Memory Law (La Ley por la que se reconocen y amplían derechos y se establecen medidas en favor de quienes padecieron persecución o violencia durante la Guerra Civil y la Dictadura) passed by the then-Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero in 2007.

The Historical Memory Law recognises the victims on both sides of the Spanish Civil War, gives rights to the victims and the descendants of victims of the Spanish Civil War and the subsequent dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, and formally condemns the Franco Regime. However, the Rodríguez Zapatero government was accused of weakening the political consensus of the transition to democracy and using the Spanish Civil War as an argument for political propaganda.

“We are still evaluating how to apply the Historical Memory Law, which we believe is not being used 100 percent,” Rita Maestre, city council spokeswoman, said, adding that city officials would welcome suggestions from the public for new names to replace those on the streets and squares affected.

“In any case, we will change the names that are not in line with the state law on Historical Memory. We want a coordinated effort between neighbourhoods and social entities,” she added.

(Translated by Martin Delfin, El País)

The Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory (Asociación para la Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica), an organisation that collects oral and written testimonies about the victims of the regime of Francisco Franco, and excavates and identifies their bodies that were often dumped in mass graves, welcomed such act but requested that the government should not do it secretly, as they once removed a statue of Franco from Nuevos Ministerios area without prior notice in 2005, and that they should provide concrete reasons for changing certain street names.

It seems obvious that the change was initiated to erase the distressing memories related to the Franco regime though there are still monuments honouring it. However, is this yet another propaganda in nature, as commented by the Popular Party (Partido Popular)? Is this of similar nature in Hong Kong as well?

History is an intangible communal possession, however, we can now alter historical events by technology, hide historical truth away from books, or destroy historical assets with violence or laws. We might not be able to find history in the streets anymore because we fear. Perhaps it is time for us to ask ourselves: What are we scared of? Who do we fear for?


  1. The Monetary Authority has already taken thousands of such coins out of circulation since Queen Elizabeth’s head was replaced with a bauhinia flower in 1993. However, such “colonial” coins are still legal tender.

Cover photo: Green pillar post-box (Source: SCMP)