Someone in Hong Kong - and I suspect the instruction comes right from the top - is endeavouring to rewrite history. The crucial events that occurred there just short of fifty years ago, as a result of the spillover of China's Cultural Revolution in 1967, are being distorted and rewritten in such a way as to switch the roles of the participants; by making the villains seem the heroes and the heroes seem the villains.
Any inconvenient truth that doesn't fit into this parallax is conveniently 'lost' or 'misplaced' from the public record, so as to prevent historians from ever seeing the full picture. Only those of us still alive, who lived through those watershed events, can upset this applecart.
Hong Kong stood at the crossroads in 1967, and emerged from that turbulent year a far better place. Not because today's so-called 'heroes', who incited the unrest, succeeded in their aim of toppling the colonial government, but because of their grave miscalculation in trying to foist their communist ideology onto a population the bulk of whom had fled from China precisely to escape its yoke.
The leftists hoped to achieve in Hong Kong the same result they obtained a year earlier in Macau. There they had forced the Portuguese administration to its knees by provoking them into over-reaction by clamping down too violently on their agents provocateur. The mistake they made in Hong Kong was to give the colonial government a timely lesson in what NOT to do when they tried to play the same tricks on Macau's larger neighbour.
It was the start of our Year of Living Dangerously, borrowed from the phrase coined by Soekarno to describe his last year in power. But for us it was not a prelude to an end but the dawn of a beginning. It would turn out to be that necessary rite of passage that would forge our first real sense of belonging; the year when we abandoned our ephemeral existence as a tiny, temporary territory of transients and started being a community of fellow citizens.
Desperate to create the impression that this was a campaign of resistance that enjoyed full public backing, the local communists commanded everyone with mainland connections, whether employed in banks, shipping offices, department stores, trade organisations or schools, to participate in mass protests against 'police atrocities'. Here at last was some visible facsimile of the opposition they had hoped to generate. Yet its very appearance served to distinguish it from the broad mass of the populace, who continued to keep their distance, apprehensive and distrustful of where all this was leading.
From our windows at Government Information Services in Beaconsfield House we looked down on regimented columns of identically-dressed men and women, marching with robot-like synchronisation and chanting in unison with their little red books waving like poppies in the wind. Past the Hilton Hotel and up Garden Road this procession coiled, to assemble before the closed gates of Government House in Upper Albert Road.
Time magazine of May 26th 1967 reported the British reacting with 'extraordinary cool': “When 2,500 or so more orderly demonstrators headed on foot and by car to Government House, the residence of Governor Sir David Trench, 51, Hong Kong police politely waved the Red autos to a lot marked ‘Official Petitioners' Car Park.’ Sir David reported that he was not a bit disturbed by the constant cacophony, but allowed that his poodle Peter had become so unnerved that he had to be packed off to an animal shelter.”
With the exception of the leftist press, it was by now clear that most Hong Kong media were opposed to this unwelcome spillover of the Cultural Revolution and calling for more decisive action to put an end to it. Of the four English-language newspapers in circulation at that time---the South China Morning Post, China Mail, Hong Kong Standard and the Star---the last was particularly strident in its demands for a firmer hand.
There were reasonable grounds for complaint in newspaper editorial calls for a more decisive government answer to the 1967 troubles. While it was understandable that the authorities should wish to avoid following Macau’s example by stumbling into the same trap, there was clearly some additional hesitation delaying their hand in regard to the Hong Kong situation. Secretary for Security Jack Cater privately acknowledged it was not easy to determine the level of response, because there was no way of judging how Beijing might react.
It was of course conceivable that the Hong Kong disturbances had commenced without Beijing’s prior knowledge and permission, and were purely a product of local sympathies with rampaging Red Guards across the border. If that were true, the intention of our localised agitators might be to provoke the Hong Kong government into precisely the precipitate response that would compel Beijing to wrest control and terminate Hong Kong’s continued existence as a British colony.
When it was apparent that cross-border deliveries of food and water would continue, no matter what, it became equally conceivable that whoever held the reins in check back in Beijing---and my money was on that consummate statesman Zhou Enlai---might secretly share our wish to see this irritating little thorn plucked from our side. Interviewed years after the event by Wong Cheuk Yin, author of The 1967 Leftist Riots and Regime Legitimacy in Hong Kong, Jack Cater said “I had contacted Beijing, and it was quite obvious that Beijing, especially Zhou Enlai, did not like the troubles made by the leftists in Hong Kong.”
At last convinced that China was unlikely to intervene directly in our internal affairs, we applied the firm hand the media demanded and the majority of the public dearly desired. In front of the Hilton Hotel, in full view of the overseas media representatives based at the Foreign Correspondents Club on its top floor, and right alongside our GIS offices at Beaconsfield House, the police were given the clearance to respond with force. Adding to the genuinely bloodied noses of the demonstrators who had done so much to provoke this retaliation was the fake blood theatrically applied by their make-up artists to enhance the effect.
Now that they had visible proof of the retaliation they had tried so hard to engineer, leftist reporters and photographers went to town with special supplements and with a hastily produced booklet entitled Who is Guilty of These Atrocities? Thanks to his contacts in the printing world---for Hong Kong is a small place with very intricate and potent connections--- Acting Director of Information Mike Stevenson got hold of a copy of the latter while it was still in its print run. He set me down at a desk with a pair of scissors, a pot of glue, a typewriter and a stack of our photographs as opposed to theirs.
“Stick to the same heading, the same format and the identical layout,” he instructed me. “Just exchange their pictures and captions for ours. I can find you a translator to work with you on the bilingual text. The two of you have just twenty-four hours to get this on the streets.”
The translator worked as fast as I did at the same desk, providing Chinese versions of the slips of caption I passed to him straight from my typewriter. To substitute for the “aftermath” pictures of our policemen clubbing their demonstrators, I chose earlier photographs of those same demonstrators kicking our immobile ranks of restrained constabulary on their collective shins and sticking fingers in their eyes. On the back cover of the booklet we reproduced a pastiche of letters to the governor, expressing support for his administration and praising the courage and fortitude of our police.
Joining the tributes pouring in for the guardians of law and order was one from the Far Eastern Economic Review which commented, “Their superb mixture of forbearance and firmness in putting down hooliganism should be praised. Their correct attitude has cost them a comparatively high toll of injuries to their own Force, but has kept civilian casualties to a minimum.”
The following day the two versions of Who is Guilty of These Atrocities?, so similar in appearance as to surrender their differences only to closer examination, went out to the news vendors through identical distribution channels, somewhat negating the effect intended by its original authors.
Speaking at a conference at the Commonwealth Office on June 29th 1967, Governor Trench claimed that ninety-eight percent of the general public supported the government in restoring law and order. It so happened that, according to the last census, ninety-eight percent of our population were Chinese, but Trench was not making any racial distinctions. Most Hong Kong residents, Trench added, were passive supporters who accepted and approved of what the government was doing without actually mentioning it. Neither did they voice their objections to the leftists. They kept their silence "because they were afraid that if Beijing really takes over Hong Kong, they would be in trouble".
With protest banners finally ripped down from the railings around Government House, and letters of public support still pouring in by the cartload---along with unsolicited gifts of cigars, wines and caviar---I happened to call with a draft press release requiring Trench’s scrutiny and approval. I found him standing amid a pile of deliveries that gave the drawing room the appearance of being decked out for a premature Christmas Day. He removed a diminutive scarlet booklet attached to the neck of a bottle of VSOP brandy and held it up in an attitude intended to resemble the defiance of a typical product of the Cultural Revolution. Winking at me, he murmured “My own little red book”.
The next phase of the “struggle campaign” moved underground and resorted to acts of terrorism. Innocent bystanders started to die from crudely manufactured bombs. Sometimes---but not always---these devices were readily recognisable because they were left in public places or on street corners, in brown paper parcels, often with notes attached in Chinese, warning “patriots” to keep clear. Their nuisance value, in holding up traffic until bomb disposal personnel could be summoned to the scene, was enormous.
Coupled with this bombing phase was an attempt to close down public transportation through organised strikes of leftist unions. Both ferry companies, the Star and the Hongkong and Yaumati, suffered major staff shortages as a result and struggled to keep their routes open. Buses too were running greatly reduced schedules and there simply weren’t enough taxis to make up the shortfall. However, Hong Kong as ever quickly came up with improvised solutions, and owners of private cars operated baakpai services to transport commuters for modest fees. The police, with more important matters on their hands, turned a blind eye, for without these technically illegal operators many thousands would not have been able to get to work.
While general morale remained high---especially now that the authorities had gained the upper hand---this was also a period of increased exodus by the more nervous of our citizens, usually those of the wealthy minority who had most to lose if their worst fears were fulfilled. They had only to listen to the rumours coming out of China to envisage their fate should the red tide wash over our borders.
The rest of the populace demonstrated their contempt for the leftist cause through a collective boycott of all shops, department stores, banks and food outlets with mainland China connections. This entailed considerable sacrifice on the part of the lower-income majority, who had depended on the cheaper prices they paid for mainland supplies and merchandise, but it had been my experience, even back in Malaya, that when the Chinese launch a boycott the result is complete, unwavering and can quickly bring the ostracised party to its knees.
With public support firmly and demonstrably on the side of officialdom, the government took steps to find and defuse the ticking clock that threatened the safety of the entire community. Information compiled by Special Branch enabled us to launch a series of raids on key centres where the bombs were being manufactured. The police provided the spearhead, with military units manning street cordons at ground level.
Sometimes our arrival would be resisted by force, but mostly not. Occupants would be herded together, squatting on the floor with hands over their heads, while the premises were searched for incriminating materials. In each case the general appearance of the rooms in which we found ourselves would follow a familiar pattern, with the PRC flag and portraits of Mao decorating the walls, together with big-character banners and caricatures of terrified white-skinned pigs and yellow running dogs being subjected to a variety of unspeakable indignities.
By the close of 1967 it was clear even to the most radical of left-wingers in Hong Kong that they had lost their battle to topple the government. However their frustration served only to exacerbate the ruthless hard-core elements, who refined the sophistication of their booby-trapped bombs to trick the sorely-taxed disposal teams manned both by the police and the army. Over a seven-month span these had responded to some nine thousand incidents. At least one military ammunition examiner was killed during this period and another seriously injured when run over by a Chinese motorist while kneeling to dismantle a suspicious package on a traffic island.
The early improvised explosive devices had been manufactured by stripping the black powder from firecrackers and adding a triggering mechanism, but the later ones incorporated photo-electric cells and other systems that could defeat all but the most practised and experienced experts. These took a cruel toll, and the sheer vindictiveness of their creators lingered on years after the “struggle” had petered out. As late as the early 1970s, one particularly brave police officer, Norman “Bomber” Hill, who had survived many previous attempts on his life, lost both hands and suffered extensive facial injuries as the result of an especially nasty contraption he had been called upon to deal with in the grounds of the Central Government Offices in Lower Albert Road.
Given the gradual resumption of political order and internal stability, the government had begun to direct its attention to speedy restoration of the economy. Trench said, “At present the principal threat to the colony appears to be the risk of long-term economic stagnation caused by reluctance to invest. If the policy of reviving trade with Hong Kong is pursued, it will become more difficult subsequently for the Communists to revert to the aim of making the colony an ‘economic desert’, and to encourage terrorist activities that might have the same effect.”
But this reversion to earlier, largely external priorities was viewed with concern by those who felt the administration was neglecting a golden opportunity to build upon the goodwill demonstrated by the great mass of the people it governed. Surely it would be foolish of the government to slide back into the attitude that had prevailed throughout colonial history – based on the belief that the Chinese had no interest in the way Hong Kong was administered and that there was accordingly no need either to inform them or to seek their advice and consent.
The events of 1967 had caused what had hitherto seemed a transient population to earnestly re-examine their perception of Hong Kong, which suddenly appeared less a temporary abode and more a place worth fighting for and holding on to. By failing to recognise that fundamental shift in the groundswell of public opinion, we risked losing all the good that this otherwise ill wind had blown our way. Fortunately we woke up to that danger just in time, and the whole relationship between government and the people became closer and more intimate than it had ever been before.
The leftists who had 'struggled' to weaken the administration and rid Hong Kong of colonialism had inadvertently produced the very opposite effect. But this new, improved version of who we were had come at a high price. By the time the rioting subsided at year's end, 51 people had been killed, of whom 15 died in bomb attacks, with 832 people sustaining injuries,