Scottish Hong Kong: Symbols All Around

From the window of the Hong Kong Club’s Garden Lounge, a Saltire can be seen fluttering from the Cenotaph. The heraldic symbol represents the X-shaped cross on which Saint Andrew is said to have been martyred by crucifixion; set against a blue field, it forms the flag of Scotland. Inside the lounge, an urban planner and former St. Andrew’s Society Chieftain, Alan MacDonald, eases into his chair considering something that seems self-evident to him. “There are a lot of things – very subtle symbols of Scottish Culture in Hong Kong. Lots of subtle inflections around the place,” he says. 

It has been a long time since anything of Scottish origin has been considered exotic by Hongkongers who, at one time, would have stopped MacDonald on the street for photographs if he happened to be wearing a kilt. “Nobody bats an eyelid these days,” he says. The signs and symbols of Scottish culture have become so deeply ingrained in the landscape that one might even consider them to have been completely subsumed into Hong Kong’s visual culture. They are everywhere, from the pockets of every Hongkonger—poor or rich—to the soaring skyline of the city itself. 

Not five minutes walk from the Hong Kong Club, an escalator rises into the hushed underbelly of HSBC’s main building. Busily going about their business, staff and customers pay little mind to the sunlit interior. But gazing up, the lattice of steel and aluminium tells its own story. Prefabricated in Glasgow by Scott Lithgow Shipbuilders, the building’s structure criss-crosses to form two enormous Saltires that bespeak the bank’s Scottish origins. 

Founded in 1865 by Thomas Sutherland, a young Aberdonian who had never held a bank account himself, the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation was represented by a heraldic crest resembling Hong Kong’s former colonial arms. Bearing the motto “Dieu et Mon Droit” (“God and My Right”), this crest was supported by a unicorn – Scotland’s national animal. Famously proud and untameable, these cryptids are a symbol of power and purity, with their spiralling horns said to be capable of purifying poisoned water. First introduced to the royal coat of arms of Scotland in the mid 1500s, the Scottish unicorn is wrapped in gold chains to signify the power of Scottish kings to tame the untamable.

As the bank entered an era of global expansion, the graphic designer Henry Steiner was enlisted to create a modern visual identity. It was unveiled in 1983, with a red, hexagonal symbol serving as the bank’s new logo. Though abstract, modern and multinational, this mark still subtly acknowledges the institution’s Scottish heritage by implying a St. Andrew’s cross.

Further east, in Causeway Bay, another Saltire flies above the Noonday Gun, an artillery piece that has traditionally fired each midday since Victorian times (with a three-year break during the Japanese occupation) as a result of an obscure punishment handed out in perpetuity by a senior naval officer to the gun’s owner, Jardine Matheson. (The conflict arose when the company’s men fired their guns to welcome one of its executive ships, but not a British navy ship.) Originally founded by John Cox and John Reid as Cox & Reid, the partnership was later joined by the Scotsmen, William Jardine and James Matheson. Jardine Matheson’s fortunes and history have long been intertwined with Hong Kong’s. Flying alongside the Saltire is the company’s flag which bears its emblem. Now a master of property, transport, retail and industry, Jardines has its origins in trade, with an awkward history of opium trafficking and other colonial dealings that cannot be ignored. As such, their emblem could easily have been a tea leaf, cotton plant or an opium poppy, but instead it is a thistle – Scotland’s national flower.

A common weed found throughout the highlands, islands and lowlands of Scotland, the prickly purple thistle is an odd but apt choice for a national emblem. Protected by vicious spines, the plant has no natural enemies. Several legends explain how the humble thistle came to be a national symbol, the most commonly cited of these dates to the Battle of Largs in 1263 which saw the Norse King Haakon IV vying for conquest over the Scots. Embarking in a fleet of longships, Norsemen landed at Largs in Ayrshire and attempted a surprise attack, removing their shoes and moving stealthily under cover of darkness only to come upon thistle covered ground. Howls of pain rang through the night, alerting the clansmen, who rose up to engage the enemy, thus saving Scotland from invasion and establishing the thistle as a Scottish emblem. 

The interpretation of Scottish symbolism and visual language in Hong Kong has been heavily influenced by local culture and history, evolving new meanings far from home. Even as the HSBC logo signals its Caledonian origins, its red colour more likely brings to mind connotations of good fortune and wealth in a local context. A calyx of triangles, rather than hinting at an X-shaped crucifix, is more likely to evoke the delight of great riches enfolded within red packets. 

In a bid at decolonisation, various authorities and institutions have made attempts to accelerate the process of change by the wholesale removal of foreign symbols that bespeak details of the colonial past. In 2015, Hong Kong Post revealed plans to cover up royal insignia on its colonial-era postboxes, deeming the ciphers “inappropriate” and prone to causing “confusion” as the city had been under Chinese rule for 18 years at that point. Only 59 colonial post boxes remain in active duty, a tiny proportion of the more than 1100 in use. These postboxes, once red but hastily painted green following the handover, feature a range of royal ciphers including those of George V, George VI, Elizabeth II and a single one which carries the Scottish Crown – this one can be found on Chater Road at the north end of Statue Square.

This move to excise or hide foreign symbols was energetically resisted by concerned citizens who lobbied to preserve the postboxes and their insignias, citing their importance to Hong Kong’s heritage. They remain for now, but the impulse to expunge foreign symbols because of uncomfortable connections to the past means that it will become rarer for foreign symbols to naturally evolve into local cultural icons that are a legitimate part of Hong Kong’s heritage. Images that tell stories and take on the particular patina and careworn hue that Hong Kong confers on such things.

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