A Battle Royal Rocks Imperial Yacht Club

In 1895, at the height of the British Empire, Queen Victoria granted a group of weekend civilian sailors in a faraway colony the right to call themselves the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club.

Now in Hong Kong's last year as a British colony, club members have conflicting emotions. Should they preserve the "Royal" in their title and the traditions that go with it? Or should they decide that staying "royal" is an expensive anachronism when the territory is passing to new management? What to do about the "R word" may not be the biggest worry for Hong Kong as it hurtles toward July 1, 1997, when the territory reverts to China. But it can still be emotionally wrenching.

At the stroke of midnight on July 1, 1997, the Union Jack flag will be hauled down for the last time. Other symbols of British rule, such as pictures of Queen Elizabeth II (most of them looking as if they have been hanging since her coronation day in 1953), will be removed from government offices.

Public institutions, such as the Royal Hong Kong Police and the Royal Observatory will remove the imperial prefixes as a matter of course on the transition day. The soon-to-be just plain Hong Kong Police are already designing new cap badges that replace the crown with the territory's official flower, and the sailing junk with a modern skyline.

But there is nothing in Hong Kong's post-1997 charter, the Basic Law, that requires private organizations to conform. So, one by one, they have had to decide whether to maintain tradition or bow to the reality that Hong Kong is becoming a part of a country that harbors resentments over its treatment by European imperialists.

"We have members who serve on Beijing-appointed committees, and they tell us that we can keep the word royal in our title, but we would be wiser to drop it," says Tony Scott, commodore of the yacht club. "Anyone not listening to that advice would be in denial."

A significant minority of club members are prepared to put tradition ahead of prudence. When the name change came up for a vote at an emotional general membership meeting last November, the motion to change the name failed to get the needed 75 percent majority by two votes.

"I think that surrendering the title is not the way to go," says Ian Dubin, a Canadian royalist who is leading the fight to preserve the word in the club's name. Dropping the word royal if you don't have to is just kowtowing to China, he argues.

Mr. Scott takes a more practical approach. "We want to continue to enjoy good relations with the administration after 1997," Scott says. "It would be hard to ask the new [Chinese] chief executive to be a patron if we insist on keeping the 'Royal.' We also call on the Navy for help in many of our races. How can we say to the new senior naval officer, 'We're a royal club,' but can we still get your help, please?' "

More than 600 members of the yacht club attended a special general meeting May 20. Although 60 percent voted to drop royal from the title, it was still not enough under the three-quarters majority rule.

Scott says he will let things cool for a while, noting that "We still have 400 days to go."

Hong Kong's two other social bastions of colonialism, the Royal Hong Kong Golf Club and the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club, have agreed to drop the imperial trappings. "It's in our best interest to move forward," says golf captain Ron Carstairs.

But not every Royal institution is following in their path. The Royal Asiatic Society plans to retain its title. "Even our Chinese members think it lends us a certain cachet," says club president David Gilkes. It also helps differentiate the club from the Asia Society, which is based in the United States.

Still undecided is what to do with the innumerable hospitals, streets, and geographic features with names that hearken back to imperial days. Many of the principal avenues in Hong Kong are named after colonial governors. Fortuitously, many of them also have names in Chinese that are entirely different from their English names. Queens Road, for example, is known in Chinese as just plain Big Street.

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