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British navy bids poignant farewell to Hong Kong base

April 11, 1997
Web posted at: 11:11 a.m. EDT (1511 GMT)

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HONG KONG (CNN) -- With tears, tradition and brass-band pomp, Britain's Royal Navy closed its HMS Tamar naval base in Hong Kong on Friday, making way for China's July 1 takeover.

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Two hundred sailors -- both British and Chinese -- marched, sang hymns and recited the Lord's Prayer under a burning sun, wearing tropical white dress uniforms similar to those worn by the first navy men to land on Hong Kong Island on January 25, 1841.

The ceremony at HMS Tamar, the naval base on Stonecutters Island in Hong Kong harbor, took place exactly 100 years to the day after another vessel of the same name first arrived in Hong Kong waters.

A lone sailor struck a ship's bell eight times -- the "Eight Bells" that signal the end of a long watch -- before the White Ensign, the flag of the Royal Navy, was gently lowered to an anthem of recession.

"I had to wipe away a tear..."

-- Commodore Peter Melson, British Royal Navy
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'No sad thoughts'

"The White Ensign has just been lowered over this shore base, but the values that it has stood for will, I hope, remain in this place: respect for law and for person, trust, duty and service," Hong Kong Gov. Chris Patten told the sailors.

"But there is no cause for thinking sad thoughts, that there is dishonor in these endings. Nothing has melted away. There have been no defeats," Patten said.

The HMS Tamar base was once home to three armadas, consisting of scores of battleships, cruisers and destroyers.

The navy fought piracy, then the Japanese army, and isolated Hong Kong from the turbulence of China's 1949 communist revolution, said Maj. Gen. Bryan Dutton, commander of the British Forces in Hong Kong.

'Allowed Hong Kong to flourish'

"I think the armed forces will be remembered for having provided the infrasructure ... which allowed Hong Kong to flourish," Dutton told CNN.

The closure ends a 156-year association between the Royal Navy and Hong Kong but not necessarily the British presence in the region.

"The Asian Pacific rim is extremely important to the interests of many countries in Europe," said Admiral Sir Jock Slater, the navy chief known in Britain as the First Sea Lord. "Therefore, I think there is every chance that we shall be deploying army, navy and air forces to meet and work with our friends in the years ahead."

China not represented at ceremony

China, whose navy will occupy another site on Stonecutters Island, was not represented at the ceremony. The only Chinese present were locally hired personnel, many of whom must now find new jobs.

The future of the HMS Tamar site is uncertain, but the three Peacock class patrol craft based there have been bought by the Philippines.

Correspondent May Lee and Reuters contributed to this report.


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