Hong Kong to remove British emblems from post boxes

Decision over colonial-era royal insignia stirs controversy as some fight to ‘retain heritage’

Hong Kong is currently grappling with one of the key identity issues that post-colonial territories, including Ireland, all have to deal with – what do you do with your colonial-era post boxes?

Hongkong Post believes it is “inappropriate” to display royal insignia on the remaining letter boxes installed during the colonial period and has opted to cover up any colonial-era markings.

Activists are angry, saying the post boxes are part of Hong Kong’s street heritage and should be kept as they are.

Peter Li Siu-man of the Conservancy Association told the South China Morning Post that he suspected the decision to cover up the cyphers may have been politically motivated.


"Back in 2010 when they planned to remove the George V post box on Lamma Island, we wrote to [the postal service] about the importance of these post boxes," he said.

Some suspect the hand of pro-China elements behind the decision, after a former Beijing official last month called for the former crown colony, which reverted to Chinese rule in 1997, to “de-colonise”.

Chen Zuo'er, deputy director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office from 2003-2008 and now chair of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies think tank, called for greater levels of "de-colonisation" because attitudes towards China were stiffening.

“There is no de-colonisation but just de-sinofication,” he said.

In Ireland, red post boxes were painted green after the Anglo-Irish Treaty was ratified in 1922, and the same thing happened in Hong Kong in 1997, when red letter boxes were given a green coat of paint, with a blue base.

Hong Kong has 59 colonial-era post boxes, seven of which date back to king George V’s reign, making them 80-100 years old.

There are 51 post boxes in Hong Kong with Queen Elizabeth’s royal symbol, and one which has the Scottish crown, which does not bear the queen’s cypher.

The post box was first introduced to Britain in 1852 in Saint Helier in Jersey, and it was originally painted sage green, changing to red in 1874.

The novelist, Anthony Trollope, who worked for the Post Office in Ireland as a surveyor from 1841, is credited with introducing post boxes to Ireland.

Ireland is home to one of the oldest surviving British post boxes, known as the Ashworth – there is one in the An Post museum which dates from 1856.

Ireland is also home to many Penfold post boxes, which date from the 1860s onwards.

After independence in 1922, existing British pillar boxes were retained and painted green.

Many of these can still be seen around the country and they retain the monogramme of the monarch, according to IrishPostalHistory.com.

Never underestimate the political importance of a post box. During the S-Plan campaign of sabotage in England in 1939/1940, the IRA put letter bombs in post boxes to devastating effect.

After 1949, the Department of Posts and Telegraphs continued installing similar pillar boxes and wall boxes, but with the initials “SÉ” for Saorstát Eireann, a harp or the P & T logo, instead of the British symbol.

All around Ireland now you can see “hybrid” post boxes with Edwardian surrounds and replacement doors bearing the insignia of the Irish Free State. Since 1984 An Post has used its own logo.

Failure to remove the royal emblems does not appear to have resulted in any major outbreaks of “de-hibernification”.

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan, an Irish Times contributor, spent 15 years reporting from Beijing