Chinese Coins: 1997

Posted on 3/12/2019

Numerous coins and medals were issued to commemorate Hong Kong’s return to China.

Hong Kong Harbor darkens in the late afternoon sunshine. Little waves slap, slap, slap against the concrete shoreline. I stand and watch a tourist boat — tricked-out Chinese-style in yellow, red and green — glide toward the Kowloon dock. Black truck tires hang from its sides to act as bumpers. Behind it, across the water, the curves of the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre are dwarfed by the towering skyline.

Yet, 21 years ago – on the night of July 1, 1997 – it was the most important building in Hong Kong. While a brass band played “God Save the Queen,” the British colonial flag and the Union Jack were lowered. Moments later, the five-starred red flag of the People’s Republic of China was hoisted over the city for the first time. Among those present were Communist Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin and Premier of the State Council Li Peng for China, while Prince Charles and Prime Minister Tony Blair represented the U.K.

That night, the normally black waters of the harbor danced with streaks of red and orange as fireworks burst overhead. Of course, the numismatic industry never misses a party. Coins and medals to mark the event were hawked to a worldwide audience. The British Royal Mint cashed in on 1997 by selling 400,000 1997 Hong Kong mint sets and 97,000 proof sets. 97,000 ½ oz gold Hong Kong $1,000 coins were struck at the Canadian Mint and also sold.

Hong Kong’s return to China was a long time coming – almost two centuries. The original handover – to the British – had its roots in the late 1700s. This was a prosperous period for the Chinese. The country benefited from its vast area and large duty-free domestic market, so unlike Europe’s diced-up geography and competing nations.

Chinese goods, like tea and furniture, were in great demand in countries like England. The trouble was that the Chinese demanded silver for their products. So, a river of silver coins from other countries flowed into China; Spanish Reals, US Trade Dollars, German Marks, British pounds, anything that tested out as genuine silver was acceptable. Because China didn’t buy much in return, countries like England that ran a perpetual trade deficit with China had a problem. By the end of the 18th century, China and the Western powers – especially England – were on a collision course.

From the British perspective, part of the problem was a trading system that confined English traders to one city: Canton (now Guangzhou). The British sent a delegation to the famous Qianlong Emperor to discuss this. They arrived with so many gifts that it took 90 wagons, 200 horses and 3,000 porters to haul it all to Beijing.

The emperor was not impressed, “I set no value on objects strange or ingenious and have no use for your country’s manufactures.” Nothing changed.

A scholarly friend once remarked to me that this was a mistake: “China should have asked for and learned from British cannons, which were very good.” A few years later, this deficiency would be disastrous.

Eventually, British merchants discovered something the Chinese would pay for: opium. The drug was legal for medicinal use in both countries, but its abuse caused severe social problems in Southern China. In 1839, the Chinese government shut down the opium trade and destroyed merchants’ supplies in Canton. This led to the first Opium War.

It was in Hong Kong that the opening shots of the first Opium War were fired. The English community in Kowloon could not get supplies due to a Chinese blockade. The reason for the blockade was the lenient punishment given to a drunken British sailor who killed a local man in a brawl. At the Battle of Kowloon on September 4, 1839, British boats fired on Chinese war junks. The Chinese responded. When the British ships ran low on ammunition, they withdrew and the battle ended in a draw.

The First Opium War lasted from 1839 to 1842. Hong Kong island fell to British occupiers on January 25, 1841, and was then used as a military staging point. When the war ended in 1842, the territory was ceded to Britain in the Treaty of Nanking and it became a colony of the British Empire.

Half a century later, on June 9, 1898, China and Britain signed another agreement, the second Convention of Peking. In its twilight years, the Qing Dynasty gave a 99-year lease to Britain for the New Territories, beginning July 1, 1898. This expanded the colony’s area tenfold. The lease’s length was somewhat arbitrary as both sides expected it to be renewed. It was inconceivable in that era that the sun would ever set on the British Empire.

But time flies by. As the lease expiration date approached, China and Great Britain began to dicker over Hong Kong’s future. Although Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had other ideas, Chairman Deng Xiaoping informed her: “Sovereignty is not negotiable.” In 1984, the terms of the handover were agreed to by both countries.

The first coins to mark this agreement did not appear until 1995. That year, three coins were issued by China that bear the words “One Country, Two Systems”: 5 oz. gold 500 Yuan, ½ oz. gold 50 Yuan and 1 oz. silver 10 Yuan coins. Their designs are identical and feature a side view of Deng Xiaoping above the Hong Kong skyline.

There were 88,000 of the 1 oz. proof silver coins minted and it is not too difficult to locate one. Only 228 of the 5 oz. gold version were struck and those are seen less often. The same denominations with identical mintages were released in 1996 and again in 1997. In 1997, a BU 1 oz. silver 10 Yuan coin was added to the group. 800,000 BU coins were struck.

A. 1997 "Hong Kong Return Series III" 10 Yuan 1 oz. silver coin. Shanghai and Shenzhen Guobao Mints.
B. 1997 “Hong Kong’s Return to China” 50mm diameter copper medal with gold and silver plating. Shenyang Mint.
C. 1997 40mm diameter “Sovereignty” gold-plated medal. Shenyang Mint.
D. 1997 50mm diameter “Sovereignty” medal with gold and silver plating, Shenyang Mint.
Center photo: A view of the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre and surroundings.

1997 was a prolific year for Hong Kong Return medals. Among them is a Shenyang Mint 50mm copper medal that is gold-and-silver-plated. An image of the city with doves flying over it is on one face together with the words “Hong Kong’s Return to China 1997.” 20,000 were minted and shipped in blonde wood boxes. The Shenyang Mint also issued a set of 40mm gold-plated medals that includes one gold-and-silver-plated 50mm medal. The 50mm design has a dragon-pillar in the central gold area. 97,000 of this set was issued and it comes in a rosewood-colored wood box.

From the Shanghai Mint came a bimetallic medal design with the Great Wall on one side and the famous five-petal Hong Kong orchid flower on the other. There is another set (mint and mintage unknown) with one 10 gram gold medal and three 1 oz. silver medals. The legend on these is: “The Reunification of Hong Kong Sovereign Commemorative Gold/Silver Plaque.” A Chinese flag is the main subject on one face while the opposite side shows a Hong Kong skyline, writing and the date 1997.7.1.

I watch the passengers disembark from the yellow, red and green boat. A father carries his young son, travelers young and old follow. As the sun goes down, Hong Kong lights up like Times Square. Crowds stroll along the harborside promenade. Lines form at restaurants. Workers stream out of office towers.

Prince Charles, who witnessed the handover in 1997, said, “Hong Kong has created one of the most successful societies on Earth.” While limited in area, it offers an unlimited world of possibilities. Collecting coins and medals about Hong Kong and China does, too; you can never be certain of what you might find, or how far collecting will take you. And the time will fly by.

Peter Anthony is an expert on Chinese modern coins with a particular focus on Panda coins. He is an analyst for the NGC Chinese Modern Coin Price Guide as well as a consultant on Chinese modern coins.

Articles List