The Debate on the Flag Badge (1911/12)

The Debate on the Flag Badge (1911/12)

On three occasions in 1911 and 1912 the artistic merits of the badge were debated in the Legislative Council. Although the discussion was based on inaccurate information and adds little to our knowledge of the history of these matters, it is included here to illustrate popular opinion at that time on the virtues of the Colony flag.

The debate was opened on the 21st December 1911 by the Colonial Secretary of Hong Kong, Mr. Cecil Clementi, who addressed the Council at considerable length and with some eloquence.

"Sir, I beg to lay upon the table for the inspection of honourable members a drawing of the present badge of this


There is some mystery here. The badge of the Colony at that time was undoubtedly the version appearing in Plate VII, but the Colonial Secretary's description, as will be seen, although bearing a nightmarish resemblance to the official badge, is quite clearly of a similar, but by no means identical badge. One can only conclude that Mr. Clementi by a strange and unusual mistake (for he was a man of exceptional ability) laid upon the table the wrong device.

Here is Mr. Clementi's description:

"It is a somewhat elaborate picture intended apparently to represent Hong Kong harbour and to symbolize the goodwill existing between the British and Chinese colonists. Beneath a green sky-the like of which I have never seen in Hong Kong-stands in the background a greenish-gray row of hills, and upon the top of the highest hill is a flagstaff. Presumably this represents the Peak; but then to the westward of it are three more hill-tops almost equally lofty, which certainly have no counterpart in Hong Kong island. Victoria City is represented by four white-washed houses at sea-level."

One may ignore the colours (which may well have changed with the passage of time), but there are four (and not three) hill-tops to the West of the Peak in Plate VII and the cluster of buildings cannot be described as "four whitewashed houses".

But worse is to come:

"Then comes a sheet of water intended to represent the harbour, though it looks more like a river. Afloat in the stream is a sailing ship flying the white ensign, but of a type unknown in the annals of His Majesty's Navy. On Board her are three sailors with brick-red faces and peculiar greenish-brown clothes and hats. To the right of this vessel is a Chinese junk under sail, manned by a crew of eight persons also brick-red in face and greenish-brown in costume".

No figures appear on the naval vessel or junk in the official badge.

Mr. Clementi continued:

"In the foreground is a yellow beach-Tsim-sha-tsui, I suppose; and at the waterside are six chests-perhaps the ill-disposed would say opium chests-the tops of which are painted red and the two other visible sides black and blue respectively. In front of the chests, shaking hands over a bargain, are a Chinese and a European-the former dressed in yellow and green, the latter in yellow trousers and a black swallow-tailed coat of eccentric cut stiffening out behind into two points of a darker black. The European is shaking hands with his left hand and the Chinese with his right. At the side stands another European, who has presumably lost the bargain and therefore looks askance at the other two. He is in the same remarkable costume as his more successful competitor. I may add that the artist-who has preferred to remain anonymous-is grossly ignorant of the laws of perspective and indeed violates every canon of art, European or Oriental".

There are a number of discrepancies here. In particular, the European is shaking hands with his right hand and not his left, and only one of the persons is a European.

Mr. Clementi then proceeded to argue that the badge should be replaced :

"I think, therefore, that Honourable members cannot but agree that this drawing is an offence not only against art but also against the Colony and should no longer be tolerated as our badge. There is, moreover, the further objection that a picture of such elaborate ugliness is difficult to reproduce and that, therefore, the copies made of it for various purposes rarely resemble each other. Thus the picture now laid on the table is different in many particular from that in the seal of the Colony, which again differs from the reproduction on the notes of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation; while the copies of this badge made by rule-of-thumb draughtsmen for insertion in the fly of the colonial flag are as various as they are hideous. I hope, then, that the Council will decide that it is high time to make a change in the direction of simplicity and to rid ourselves of a badge which does no credit to British artistic taste".

It seems highly likely that one of the rule-of-thumb draughtsmen had produced for the occasion a version of the badge which differed materially from the approved copy and that the Colonial Secretary did not verify his sources. Be that as it may, the main object was to obtain approval for a new badge, and Mr. Clementi concluded his speech with his recommendations:

"The late Colonial Secretary suggested that a combination of the royal crown with the Chinese characters for Hong Kong would form a simple and effective badge, and working upon this idea Mr. Gale, of the Public Works Department, has submitted the design which I now lay on the table. It is, I think, both simple and artistic. The British royal crown in this design is placed above a white shield on which the two Chinese words "Hong Kong" are inscribed in red seal characters. Such a design can be readily and exactly reproduced, it symbolizes the dominion of the British crown over a Colony in China, and it is both distinctive and decorative, contrasting very favourably with the unlovely series of badges collated in a volume, published in 1910 for official use, of the Flags, Badges and Arms of British Dominions beyond the Seas.

Your Excellency desires that the resolution, which I now beg to move as printed in the Orders of the Day, should not be put to the vote until the meeting of Legislative Council on Thursday next, so that in the meantime the members of this honourable Council as well as other residents in the Colony may examine the new badge at their leisure".

The resolution was as follows:

Resolved that the existing badge of the Colony is not only inartistic, but it is unsuitable for reproduction especially on flags, etc., and resolved therefore that the design laid on the table, being both simpler and more artistic, be substituted therefor.

The debate was resumed on the 28th December 1911. The Colonial Secretary rose and said :

"Sir, I beg to move that the Council resume consideration of the resolution which I had the honour to move at the last meeting. I would further suggest the following amendment, namely, that the words, "On a date to be hereafter notified in the Government Gazette", be added at the end of the resolution. Some little time must elapse before the new design can be reproduced on the seal and the flags of the Colony. The resolution therefore cannot take effect on the date on which it is adopted".

Mr. C. H. Ross did not agree with him:

"I regret to say that I am unable to support this resolution. I do not think this proposed badge or flag is artistic or that it has any meaning to the ordinary person at all. I do not think there are ten Europeans in the Colony who could tell you what those characters mean. They are seal characters, known by very few people, and the badge merely appears to be a kind of maze. If Chinese characters are required at all, I suggest that the ordinary Chinese characters should be substituted in place of the seal characters. These are very difficult things to put on a flag, as there are so many different lines. In any case, the badge is not at all artistic. The design which appears on the back of the Hongkong and Shanghai bank notes is more artistic and more representative of the combination between England and China. The picture which the Colonial Secretary presented at the last meeting of the Council and which he criticized somewhat severely does not seem to me to be deserving of such criticism. It represents a Chinese merchant and a foreign merchant bargaining. The foreign merchant is certainly not shaking hands with his left hand. It is an old custom of bargaining, giving the left hand to the Chinaman. They would bargain with the left hand, the Chinaman working his fingers until they arrived at the price at which the produce was to be settled. The hills in the background certainly can do with improvement, and in that feature I would suggest that we should copy the Hongkong bank note design. I regret very much that owing to Volunteer duties I have been absent for five or six days, and I have not been able to prepare a sketch. I think that if we had a Peak, a pagoda, a junk and the Imperial crown above it, it would be a far more attractive design than that at present proposed".

Mr. H. E. Pollock, K.C., then spoke:

"I am inclined to agree with the criticisms passed by the honourable member on my left. Surely it would not be beyond the powers of some artist in this Colony to sketch out a suitable design, showing the Peak, the waters of the harbour and a junk. We should have something emblematic of this Colony. I do not think I can agree with my colleague as to the pagoda, as in the first place I don't think we have any pagodas in the Colony. Some design following the Hongkong bank note could be worked up without any difficulty, and would be in all ways a suitable design. I think it is a great drawback to adopt anything as forming part of the device of this Colony that is a sealed book to not only foreigners but also to the great bulk of the Chinese population.

Mr. E. Osborne also did not like the proposed new badge:

"I have asked one or two Chinese if they knew what these characters represented, and they told me they did not. I do not think any Chinese character at all should appear on the British flag. Even if you put ordinary written characters, such as Mr. Ross suggested, it would appear just as ridiculous in the eyes of the Chinese as Roman characters would appear in the eyes of the foreigners, that is to say, if you had under the British crown the word "Hongkong" I think we are agreed that it would appear ridiculous. It would appear equally ridiculous to the Chinese to have the same word in Chinese characters".

Because of this general opposition, the Governor decided to withdraw the motion temporarily from the Legislative Council. His Excellency said:

"I will move as an amendment to the motion now before the Council that the debate on this resolution be adjourned. From the speeches of the three unofficial members who have spoken in opposition to the badge which has been proposed, I gather that some amendment to the existing badge may be desirable. It is a matter for discussion and there is no reason whatever for haste in disposing of the question. Therefore I propose we should hold over any positive or negative answer to the resolution for the present and see whether any artistic gentlemen in the Colony can produce some design that would meet with more general favour".

The debate was adjourned for about four months, while the Colonial Secretary undertook some research in the origins of the badge. Sir Frederick Lugard had left the Colony in the meantime and Mr. Claud Severn was administering the Government. At the resumed debate on the 15th April 1912, Mr. Clementi again addressed the Council-

"Sir, when the resolution which stands in my name was discussed in this Council on the 28th of the last December, Sir F. Lugard decided to postpone a vote upon it in the hope that, although the design which I had the honour to lay upon this table on 21st of that month did not commend itself to my unofficial friends in this Chamber, residents in the Colony might have an opportunity of suggesting new designs which might meet with general favour. As a fact a young lady now resident in Hong Kong did design a new badge. It consisted of a naval anchor and a Chinese grapnel crossed underneath the Imperial British Crown. The design was simple and artistic. Sir F. Lugard approved it, and by his direction the design was circulated for the inspection of all members of the Executive and Legislative Councils. Honourable members, however, decided by a majority of 8 to 5 that the existing badge of the Colony should be retained and that it was undesirable to change it. I confess that this decision was a great surprise to me, and before accepting it as final I would like to give honourable members a short account of the origin of the existing badge as recorded in the archives of my department".

Mr. Clementi then proceeded to give a colourful and highly inaccurate account of how the first flag badge had been devised by the oilman of Wapping Old Stairs. He quoted at length from Sir Richard MacDonnell's despatches of 1869 and scoffed at the taste of the Crown Agents, and it is quite clear that the Crown Agents' repudiation of the story had never been passed on to Hong Kong. As a curious consequence, the story of the Wapping oilman, being recorded in Hansard, passed into the legend and folklore of the Colony.

Mr. Clementi concluded:

"That sir, is the history of our present badge. In 1869 the Governor, the Executive Council, the Community of Hongkong and the Secretary of State for the Colonies agreed in condemning the badge which has been foisted upon us willy nilly by the Crown Agents. If it is the case today that a complete volte face has taken place, and that the community has at last educated itself up to Wapping standards of fine art, then I have no more to say and I can only beg for leave to withdraw the resolution now standing in my name. But I find it hard to believe that this is so, for I am reluctant to think that it is only a minority in this Council today which agrees with the Council of 1869 in considering the existing badge "decidedly obnoxious". I do not at the moment press for the adoption of any particular new design, but I do press for an expression of opinion by this Council that the existing badge is extremely defective both in design and in execution and that a fresh and more suitable design should be substituted for it."

He received support from Mr. Osborne-

"I do not pretend even to the artistic temperament of Wapping, but I do think that the conglomeration of bale goods, junk masts, the Peak and various other articles in the present flag are certainly inartistic and difficult to reproduce. There is a want of dignity about it, sir, and I consider that it would be improved if the Colonial Secretary's resolution were adopted by this Council."

But Mr. C. H. Ross was not convinced-

"! opposed this resolution on the last occasion when it came up, and I did so, not because I admire the present badge, but because I have a great respect for antiquity. The Honourable Colonial Secretary just now has said that if we continue our present flag, we will be upholding that which the Legislative Council of 1869 disapproved. That is some forty-three years ago, a considerable space of time. I do not think the present badge is artistic, but still it has the dignity of age, and with a small improvement, as I suggested on the last occasion, such as an artistic pagoda or a junk, with the Peak in the background, would meet the case. Two anchors crossed are certainly very pretty, but I do not see what connection they have with Hongkong."

Mr. Hewett also remained adamant:

"With regard to what my honourable friend, the last speaker, has said, I entirely endorse his proposal. When the question came up in the Council, I played a lone hand, as it were, in opposing any change. I admit that when the flag was invented it might have been more artistic, but it was descriptive of Hongkong as it was shortly after the flag was hoisted here. I do not think any unhallowed hand should be allowed to tear down any monument of those historic days. It is said that the old design of the Peak on the shield is inartistic. That I refuse to admit. Any of us who have seen a Hongkong bank note will see that it makes quite a good steel engraving. The Honourable the Colonial Secretary has laid great stress on the fact that in ancient days, in 1869, certain officials and unofficials appeared to agree that the flag was inartistic, but he has produced nothing later to show that the flag is inartistic. What we know is that the whole world has advanced very much in artistic training, and whereas in 1869 the whole of the Council might have been opposed to the artistic merits of the flag, we have been so far educated that we find the great proportion of the present Council in favour of the flag as it stands. No proposal has been put forward which in any way compares with the old flag. With regard to the remarks made by my honourable friend on my right, I must say that I have never yet discovered any suggestion of a tramway on the flag, and I have been a resident in the Colony for thirty years." This last remark may refer to a facetious aside remark made by one of the other members.

The opposition was too strong, and Mr. Severn decided to end the argument-

"I must say that I am not enamoured of the present badge of the Colony; it came out three months before I was born. It has, therefore, the merit of antiquity to which the honourable member referred just now. The difficulty is that we cannot get a sufficient number of members to agree to any particular design, and therefore I am afraid we shall have to stick to the present one."

The Colonial Secretary-

"I beg leave to withdraw the resolution."