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Hong Kong Deadline, The China Mail

In a corrupt town the dirty cop is king – remembering Peter Godber

It’s 1973 at the start of another long, hot summer in Hong Kong and already it stinks. The jokes about Hong Kong and its Fragrant Harbour have long been stale but visitors still crack them. When you step off a plane at Kai Tak the first thing you notice, especially at this hot and humid time of year, is the stench of the nullah, or stormwater channel, which oozes alongside the runway.

Peter Godber got. The story of his extraordinary run from Hong Kong to escape corruption charges was broken by the China Mail, Hong Kong’s oldest English language newspaper at the time.

Hong Kong in the summer is a fecund riot of smells, from fish drying in the sun at Aberdeen, to beancurd frying in great open woks on the streets of Wanchai, through to the peculiar, cloying base note of vaguely rotting vegetation that underpins all other smells here once the humidity rises with the spring.

But there’s a bigger stink, as much a part of the fabric of the city as the nullah and the fishing boats and the street stalls. It’s the stink of corruption and it’s getting so strong even the locals are talking about it. It’s time for a cleanup. 

‘Tea money’ is, and always has been, a fact of life here. Firemen demand it before turning on their hoses. Ambulance attendants expect it before they pick up a sick person. Even hospital amahs ask for tips before they’ll give you a bedpan or a glass of water.

The biggest stink is coming from one of Hong Kong’s most respected senior policemen. Chief Superintendent Peter Fitzroy Godber has just managed to get out of town with more than HK$4 million – six times his entire official income during his 21-year tenure with the force.

When Godber joined the Royal Hong Kong Police Force in 1952, the unique wealth creation possibilities of the posting were probably not what attracted him. Godber was from Hastings, an unremarkable, not particularly prosperous, town in the south east of England. Once, a long time ago, there had been a bit of a battle nearby. Little of significance had happened since.

In contrast to the slow, steady advancement offered by a provincial UK force, expatriate policemen in Hong Kong started their careers as inspectors, regardless of age or experience. And they enjoyed a lifestyle – even without the enhancements of ‘tea money’ – that their counterparts ‘back home’ could barely dream of.

So, after just a couple of years with the Hastings police, Godber headed East to rowdy, volatile Hong Kong – Pearl of the Orient and festering, capitalist pimple on the backside of the infant People’s Republic of China.

They were interesting times.

Hong Kong’s population, which had dwindled to 600,000 during the Japanese occupation, had by the middle of 1950 swollen to 2.2 million as refugees flooded into the colony in the wake of the Communist victory in China.

Tensions were high and policemen were on the front line – literally, as they manned a string of fortified posts along the border, watching Communist soldiers taking over checkpoints on the other side of the narrow Shenzhen River.

Away from the border policemen were regularly ambushed and murdered for their revolvers. Hong Kong’s dispossessed included a good number of battle-hardened Nationalist soldiers, still spoiling for a fight, along with desperate, hungry people just looking for a new start.

On Christmas Day 1953 the teeming settlement of Shek Kip Mei – home to around 60,000 – went up in flames and all those people were left, once again, with nothing. And, once again, it was the policemen on the front line.

It was a baptism of fire for Godber, too, who must have found it a very wide world away from sleepy little Hastings. The social problems that inevitably accompany a huge population surge would have been challenging enough without the political tensions which continued to boil over periodically.

Protests, labour disputes, riots and looting flared again and again throughout the following two decades driven along by an undercurrent of anti-British sentiment and pro-Maoist fervour.

In May 1967 a labour dispute at an artificial flower factory in San Po Kong soon got out of hand. Riot police were called in to move the picketing workers. In the ensuing melee 21 strikers were arrested and many more injured.

When representatives from their union protested outside the police stations where the strikers were held, they too were arrested and the next day the first public demonstrations began, leading to 127 more arrests. A curfew was brought into immediate effect and all police leave was cancelled.

Hong Kong 1967: Confrontation between demonstrators and police.

The walls of Government House and other monuments to British imperialism were plastered in big character posters. Anti-British slogans were daubed on the walls of the Supreme Court building in Central, on the pedestal of Queen Victoria’s statue in Causeway Bay, on road surfaces. ‘Being patriotic is no crime; struggle against atrocities is justified.’ ‘Long live the invincible thought of Mao Tse-tung!’

Then came the bombs. Police stations were the first targets. The terror quickly escalated as real and hoax bombs were planted around the city. In all, 51 people, including 11 police officers, and a fireman were killed.

Godber, the young man on the make who had arrived fresh-faced and ready for adventure in 1952, was now a senior superintendent and in the riots of 1967 he proved his worth once again.

Hailed as one of the heroes of that long, hot summer, Godber was awarded the Colonial Police Medal the following year, and Princess Alexandra herself pinned it on his chest when she came to town in 1972.

After distinguishing himself in the 1967 riots, Godber was promoted again, to head the traffic branch as chief superintendent, a key posting in the colony. Further promotion followed in 1971 when he became second in command of Kowloon Police District.

Now, here in 1973, Godber is one of the most respected senior police officers in town and he’s moved again – to a post at police headquarters that he himself has described as a desert.

It’s a desert because there’s no money to be made there. Even so, he is still managing to collect bribe money from various police divisions.

In a corrupt town, the dirty cop is king. And the jewel in his tarnished crown is Wanchai.

Almost from the colony’s beginnings in the previous century Wanchai has catered to the baser demands of its inhabitants.

No wonder, since it snuggles up, spoon fashion, to both the naval base of HMS Tamar and the soldiers’ quarters of Victoria Barracks.

During the Vietnam War thousands of American servicemen put ‘the Wanch’s’ reputation to regular test. But this is 1973 and some are saying that Wanchai’s glory days are behind her. The war in Vietnam is winding down – American involvement is officially over and while there are still plenty of Americans rolling through town, business isn’t quite what it was.

But there’s still plenty of dirty money to be made. The post of Wanchai divisional superintendent is one of the juiciest on the force, with up to $100,000 a month reputedly coming in from the brothels and the bars, the mahjong schools, opium dens and off-course betting.

No wonder, then, that a Chinese superintendent will pay Godber a one-off bribe of $25,000 to secure the job. It’s the deal that will finally nail him when the superintendent testifies against him. But that is yet to come.

A remnant of the China Mail coverage of the Godber Affair – somewhere in a box Your Girl Reporter has more of these cuttings, but I haven’t found them yet…

It’s June 1973 and a routine enquiry by a Canadian bank about an account held by a Peter Fitzroy Godber leads to an investigation.

When Commissioner Charles Sutcliffe confronts him with proof of his hidden fortune Godber is said to have fainted on the spot. Yet, incredibly, he escapes before he can be arrested on bribery charges.

The story is broken by an English-language afternoon newspaper called the China Mail.

The Mail has had a long and rambunctious history in Hong Kong and, like so many good newspapers, has struggled to make money.

A relaunch earlier in the year and a number of hirings from overseas – including John Gold from the London Evening News as editorial advisor and Stuart White from the News of the World – has boosted its tradition of aggressive journalism and its team of Chinese and expatriate journalists has been hot on the trail of corrupt officials, especially within the police force.

That Hong Kong has bred a corrupt cop is no surprise. This is a corrupt town. Just about every man and his mangy old dog are on the take. But the nature of corruption makes it difficult to pin down. It’s sly. It whispers. It suggests. It keeps to darkened corners. It avoids crowds and thrives on assumptions and understandings and threats that rarely have to be spoken out loud.

The China Mail has made a mission of bringing the beast out into the light and in the lead up to the long hot summer of 1973 its call to the public for tip-offs on corruption has brought in a huge response. Most of them are anonymous and hard to pin down for the small team of China Mail journalists but their campaign is vindicated with the unmasking of Godber.

Some say squeeze is a fact of life in Hong Kong, that it’s an inevitable and irremovable feature of Chinese society. But the clamour to finally get serious is coming from the locals, specifically the young. Student activists lead the protests, waving anti-corruption banners and calling for Godber’s arrest in noisy street demonstrations.

And when Hong Kong people take to the streets, the authorities get nervous. It’s time to act.

With memories of the 1967 riots still warm, no-one wants to keep them waiting. Governor Sir Murray Maclehose (“Jock the Sock”) sets up a Commission of Inquiry, with senior judge Sir Alastair Blair-Kerr at the helm, to look into the circumstances of Godber’s escape and to review the so-far unsuccessful (and many feel lukewarm) efforts to stamp out corruption in the colony.

At the Hong Kong Journalists Association outing at Chimawan, where inmates from the nearby prison man the barbie, the running joke is whether Godber will be flipping the burgers next year.

It will take a little longer than that to bring the crooked cop to justice but the events of 1973 and the power of the press to keep them in the spotlight lead directly to the formation of Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption.

The hunt for Godber is on and Hong Kong will never be the same again.

Further reading:

Creating a legend 1967-94 – From the website of the Hong Kong Police

A brief history of ICAC

Godber’s downfall – from the ICAC website

Grappling with legacy of graft – by Victoria Finlay, South China Morning Post, December 1999

The China Mail’s coverage of the Godber Affair was its swansong. In August 1974, a few months after Godber was finally arrested in the UK, the newspaper was shuttered. It did not go quietly. Read all about it: 

Part 1: Death of a newspaper, birth of a movement

Part 2: After the siege, the China Mail battle for hearts and minds

Part 3: After the siege: A fair go for Hong Kong’s China Mail

Part 4: After the siege: China Mail job hunt tough for some 

More on the Hong Kong Journalists Association:

A Matter of Dignity

Correcting the record

Suzie doesn’t live here anymore – the night old Wanchai died

Risks and rewards of Hong Kong’s Press Club

This article is part of a continuing series on Hong Kong in the 1960s and ’70s, as remembered by Your Girl Reporter who was lucky enough to be growing up in the small and boisterous community of its journalists. You can find more of these articles here 

© Sally Baxter 2014
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About Sally Baxter

Once I was a girl reporter. Now I'm an interested observer covering the past, present and future of journalism and whatever else takes my fancy. All views my own.

Discussion

8 thoughts on “In a corrupt town the dirty cop is king – remembering Peter Godber

  1. For your information, Norman “Bomber” Hill was not killed in the riots of 1967. I knew him. He died of a lung infection in Queen Elizabeth Hospital in 2007 at the age of 84.

    Like

    Posted by John Shostrom | December 1, 2016, 3:12 am

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Pingback: Death of a newspaper, birth of a movement | Sally Baxter - October 19, 2014

  2. Pingback: After the siege – a fair go for Hong Kong’s China Mail | Sally Baxter - February 12, 2017

  3. Pingback: After the siege – the China Mail battle for hearts and minds | Sally Baxter - April 1, 2017

  4. Pingback: After the siege: China Mail job hunt tough for some | Sally Baxter - April 1, 2017

  5. Pingback: Death of a newspaper, birth of a movement | Sally Baxter - April 1, 2017

  6. Pingback: Hong Kong 1967: So you say you want a revolution | Sally Baxter - April 30, 2017

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