It’s Remembrance Day at the Cenotaph as masked crowds throng the streets. The rising drone of bagpipes precedes a pair of police band pipers swathed in striking red MacIntosh tartan. Just down Chater Road, away from the pomp and ceremony, the city’s Filipino community packs and stacks red-white-blue bags full of gifts and sundries to be shipped home for Christmas. Few would guess that there could be any connection between the splendid tartan, worn in tribute to a postwar police commissioner, and the chequered pattern on those humble sacks.
“I see the red, blue and white bag and I think, ‘It’s a pattern,’” says secondary school teacher and piper, Jacky Ming. To Ming and many Hongkongers, the ubiquitous red, white and blue woven plastic bags carry deep meaning and are a vital part of the city’s visual landscape. For a town where adversity is faced head on, with little more than a shrug and a loud exclamation of “hai6! (係),” the bags have been stalwart companions, embodying the modest but plucky spirit of immigrants, families, workers and dreamers who have built lives in hardscrabble Hong Kong.
“Every person in Hong Kong knows this bag,” says Ming. “The price is very low and it is very useful. It has a square, square, square pattern – like tartan.” When Ming learned that tartans can be officially registered with the Scottish Register of Tartans, he decided the red-white-blue pattern could serve as a tartan that represents Hong Kong. “I called it ‘Passion of Hong Kong,’” he says.
The Scottish Register of Tartans is a governmental body headquartered in Edinburgh, and it’s responsible for the registration of new tartan designs, which can come from anywhere in the world. Described technically, tartan is a graphic design in which lines, bands and blocks of colour are arranged in right angled patterns known as setts. Tartans use a minimum of two colours and a maximum of seven. Every tartan is unique and, most crucially, a tartan must have meaning. Without meaning, it is simply a check pattern.
“Tartan means many things to many people – a link with historical roots, edgy non-conformism, military pride and ceremony,” says Brian Wilton, a tartan design expert and former director of the Scottish Tartans Authority. “The ever-evolving and infinite variety of patterns make tartan the most flexible fabric design on the globe.”
The cultural power of tartan, which identifies and unites individuals with shared heritage, causes and interests, has resulted in its enduring worldwide appeal. Tartan has pre-medieval origins, and while some point to examples that exist far from Scotland, the patterned textile is most often associated with Celtic peoples and with Scotland in particular.
The earliest documented tartan in Britain, the Falkirk Tartan, dates back to the third century but tartan’s use as a visual signifier came much later. “We start off in the early days with district tartans back in the 17th century,” explains Wilton. “A weaver in a particular area would produce a tartan that those around him liked. They would wear it and it became associated with the district.”
This unifying power made tartan a problem for British authorities when the kingdoms of Scotland and England joined to become the United Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707. A series of Scottish rebellions in 1715, 1719 and 1745 sought to overthrow Hanoverian rule and restore Scottish sovereignty. To suppress the resistance, authorities attempted to remove a potent unifying symbol of the Scottish clans: tartan was banned for 35 years under a restrictive set of laws known as the Dress Act of 1746. Six month prison sentences, and seven years penal transportation on a second offence, were meted out for donning symbols of rebellion.
But this only served to cement tartan’s edgy popularity amongst non-Scots. And a loophole in the law allowed Scotsmen serving in the British army to wear their native garb, thus tying tartan to the British forces, which deployed Scottish regiments everywhere, effectively ensuring tartan’s international proliferation.
Tartan’s story is as nuanced and complex as its infinite geometric configurations. The pattern has served good and ill alike. During the period of proscription, Scottish weavers made ends meet by exporting tartan. Some of this trade was with plantation owners in the Caribbean. “The plantation owners were Scottish,” says Wilton with a sigh. Tartan once again served as a tool to identify certain groups of people. “If their slaves wore a particular tartan they were easily identified as belonging to one particular plantation,” he explains. “It’s not something that people like to talk about, but one can’t rewrite history.”
In spite of its chequered past, tartan has also celebrated the pinnacles of human achievement, in one instance even breaking free of earthly bonds aboard Apollo 12 with Lunar Module Pilot Alan Bean, who brought two pieces of his ancestral MacBean clan tartan to the moon’s surface. “Tartan fulfils many functions and aesthetically it’s extremely attractive to look at,” says Wilton. “I’m sure that the Scottish influence would be very strong out there in Hong Kong and it would be celebrated with tartan.”
Hong Kong organisations and institutions have historically adopted existing clan tartans, with permission from those clans. In 1970, the Scout Band—either the first or second privately-run Hong Kong pipe band, depending on who you ask—adopted the MacLean tartan in reference to Lord Charles MacLean, Chief Scout of the Commonwealth. The Hong Kong Police Band currently wears MacIntosh tartan to honour Police Commissioner Duncan William MacIntosh, who was appointed to pick up the pieces in the wake of World War II. It is unclear how much longer this will continue as the force adopts practices and traditions more closely aligned with China. Other organisations make use of regimental tartans, such as that of the Black Watch, which was the last British military unit to leave Hong Kong in 1997, and which played a prominent role in the handover ceremony.
More and more individuals, organisations and institutions are having custom designed tartans registered for themselves through the Scottish Register of Tartans. The Hong Kong St. Andrew’s Society dates back to 1881, but the organisation, which exists to celebrate the culture and heritage of Scotland, only recently registered a tartan in 2016. Designed by former society chieftain Alan Macdonald and his graphics team from the urban planning and landscape architecture firm Urbis, the red and blue tartan is as bold as the Hong Kong skyline itself. “It’s quite a powerful tartan,” he says. “It was very important, particularly for Chinese members who are Scots but don’t have a clan tartan. There aren’t many ‘MacChans’ around. So that was good.”
The Hong Kong St. Andrew’s Society tartan is not the only one dedicated to the link between Scotland and Chinese people. A woman sitting nearby is wrapped in a blue, white, red and yellow tartan shawl. This is the Chinese Scottish Tartan, which celebrates the relationship between Scots and the Chinese Community in Scotland. The Saltire and the Five Star Red flag are referenced along with striking green bands that symbolise the Botanic Gardens of Edinburgh, which houses the world’s largest collection of Chinese plants outside China itself.
Brian Wilton, who has created tartans for the G8 Summit, Brooks Brothers and COP26 among many others, designed the University of Hong Kong tartan, which was gifted by Aberdeen University on the occasion of HKU’s centenary in 2012. Through the university’s tartan, Wilton explains his design process and the kind of graphic, genealogical and historical research that goes into it.
“This was a relatively simple one,” he says. “It was just taking the red and the gold from the lion on the shield [in the university’s coat of arms] to form the centrepiece of the tartan. The adjacent azure and light green symbolise Hong Kong’s island status. Finally, narrow black lines on white denote the open book that’s in the arms – suggestive of lines of type and the university’s role in learning and knowledge. Those are the kinds of design elements that I look for and hope to include in tartans. The explanation of a tartan design is very important.”
A tartan designer might make use of existing imagery, but may also reference significant numbers or biographical information. “If it was someone’s 50th birthday and their favourite colour was red, I might put 50 red threads into the basic sett,” says Wilton. “If it is a family tartan and they have a couple of youngsters, I might add a tiny pink and a tiny blue line. Therein lies the difference between fashion checks that you’ll see in shops and a tartan that belongs to somebody and means something to them. One that will mean something to their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. It all sounds a bit romantic – but tartan is romantic.”
Trivialisation has been a perennial problem for tartan, which has been used and abused for anything from tartans that commemorate pets to tourist shops using it to sell “cheap dolls and goodness knows what else,” as Wilton puts it. He was an early proponent of opening tartan up through the Scottish Register of Tartans, and he is of two minds on the issue. Wilton has created tartans for Judaism, various Church of Scotland groups and the LGBTQ community, and he recognizes that tartan should be inclusive – but he is nonetheless wary of “stretching beyond legitimacy and credibility.” He points out that even among Scots, tartan is sometimes viewed with “a certain amount of embarrassment and a jaundiced eye, because [abuse] has brought the whole ethos into disrepute.” The key difference seems to be in whether tartan is being used frivolously or with respect.
To purists, the playful elevation of a common check pattern from a lowly woven bag may appear flippant. But to assume this would be to underestimate the meanings associated with red-white-blue bags and the deep affection felt for them, especially by those Hongkongers who have immigrant roots. As a valediction and an expression of the love that Hongkongers have for their city, Jacky Ming registered Passion of Hong Kong in August 2021, just two months before emigrating to Birmingham. “The design of the tartan is a way for me to express my feelings about home. I miss Hong Kong. Home.”
Despite his registration, Ming is not seeking profit, nor does he assert ownership over the tartan. “It belongs to Hong Kong people, not me, so no copyright. Everyone can use it,” he says. Working with local kilt maker Yuen’s Tailor, Ming is in the process of having Passion of Hong Kong woven in Scotland. Ming and Bonny Yuen, of Yuen’s, did hours of research, making revisions and consulting experts; Yuen has committed to ordering a large quantity of the fabric. “Am I right? Or am I wrong?” muses Yuen. “I don’t know, but if I can promote it then I can promote Hong Kong. Many people have already ordered products made from Passion of Hong Kong. Kilts and cheongsam. They’re local Hong Kong people. No gweilos yet – maybe later!”
In Birmingham, Ming and his family slowly adjust to a new life but his thoughts are often of home. “Peace is my hope for Hong Kong, because there have been many troubles these two years,” he says. Ultimately, red-white-blue is an expression of Hong Kong identity while the blue and white checks have a particular meaning of their own: they represent the sincere wishes of one Hongkonger for the future of his city. “Blue represents Victoria Harbour, which represents Hong Kong,” he explains. “White represents peace. I hope that peace can come again to Hong Kong and beautiful Victoria Harbour.”