There’s a mountain in Kowloon called the Lion Rock which has come to embody the spirit of Hong Kong. It’s a spirit that had yet to rise in February 1967, when my family disembarked from the SS Chusan at Ocean Terminal and settled into a small room at the YMCA in Tsim Sha Tsui. But its first stirrings were only a few months away.
Education was not compulsory in Hong Kong in 1967 and children from poor families either went without or crammed their learning in between working and caring for their siblings.
It was perfectly legal for women and children to work a maximum of 60 hours each week with permitted overtime of 100 hours per year. Prosecutions of firms violating this maximum were not uncommon but there was a simple way round it: Take home piece work! Fun for all the family!
On 27 February 1967, 10 days after my family arrived in Hong Kong, the British MP for Kingston upon Hull West James Johnson reported to Parliament his disgust at the labour conditions he had found on his recent visit to the colony.
“I must state categorically that working conditions in Hong Kong are so fantastic that they just cannot be reconciled with the principles which brought the Labour Government – my Government – into power,” he said.
“As far as I can gather, the only justification for the conditions existing in Hong Kong is that they are no worse than those that obtain in China, from where most Hong Kong workers came. In other words, our yardstick is Communist China.
“The conditions for women and juveniles who work in Hong Kong are worse than in other Asian territories – not Commonwealth territories and such places like Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, but alien places as Seoul, Manila and Tokyo.
“It is shocking that this description should apply to a Colony administered by a Governor and officials who are ultimately accountable to the House.”
The conditions were shocking, too, to Joan ‘The Bone’ Byrne, my honorary aunt who joined us in May 1967, just as China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution burst its banks and washed through the streets of little Hong Kong.
The spark for the 1967 riots, which began on 6 May, was a labour dispute at a plastic flower factory in San Po Kong which was managed, according to Joan, by an Australian.
At the time, plastic flowers were a huge export business for Hong Kong although my father Jack Spackman, who preferred the real thing, often wondered who was buying them all.
There were more than a thousand factories, employing tens of thousands of people in appalling conditions. In San Po Kong, below the Lion Rock, the conditions had just been worsened at the Hong Kong Flower Works, one of the biggest in town. The workers objected. Strongly.
In the resulting skirmish with police, 21 workers were arrested. Simmering widespread resentment at the deplorable conditions joined Communist-inspired revolutionary zeal in a wave of protests and bombings that rocked Hong Kong for the next six months.
Through it all, life went on – although it was made significantly harder for the workers of San Po Kong when bus services to the factories were suspended during the riots.
Aunty Joan had secured a teaching position at Wellington College which she was due to start in September and she filled in the time tutoring Chinese kids in their English language skills.
One of her jobs was at an evening school in Shau Kei Wan, another really poor industrial area of Hong Kong. In the 1960s most of its population were refugees from the mainland living in squatter huts which washed away during typhoon season, only to be doggedly rebuilt by the survivors.
Joan’s school window looked out on a busy street market where children played and slept, people haggled at the open stalls and cars struggled to get through the jumble of produce, parked cars and lorries. Most of her students were 10, 11 and 12 year olds who went along to school at night after working during the day.
“They desperately wanted to learn English as a way out of poverty, but often went to sleep in class and I don’t think it was from boredom,” Joan said. In a letter home she wrote:
“Most of them have had no contact whatever with Europeans so my arrival caused quite a stir. They were terribly shy for a start but are coming out a little now and they are quite sweet. My class also has a number of students aged over 20, but their English is quite poor, as they have never really used it.
“There are names such as Yip Wing Lam, Lam Hui Yin, Kwong Lai Sin and so on, so that I have some trouble with both writing and spelling their names.”
One evening after class Joan was stranded on her way home to our place in Macdonnell Road when traffic was stopped because of bombs. Luckily some shopkeepers recognised her because of her work at the school and helped her through the barricades.
In the afternoons Joan saw the other side of life in Hong Kong. From the same letter:
“I coach five Chinese children of very wealthy parents. They live up on the highest part, have six servants and the children of the family have one complete flat (3 bedrooms, lounge, dining room, 2 bathrooms, study etc) while their parents have an adjoining flat.
“The flat is opposite the university with its lovely grounds and there is a magnificent view of the harbour and its surroundings. I am picked up and driven home again in an air-conditioned car. At the place itself it is always cool because of the height.
“But these children are just as shy as the slum children of Shau Kei Wan. It will be interesting to see if the children of Wellington College, a middle class school, are any different from this lot.”
© Sally Baxter 2017
This is the latest in a series of posts chronicling the adventures of my extraordinary aunt, who spent two years as a teacher in Hong Kong before resuming her travels. It’s also a record of an extraordinary time in Hong Kong’s history, half a century ago. I’ll be covering the 1967 riots and their aftermath in future posts. In the meantime, you can read part one of Joan’s story here:
In 2014 the Lion roared:
The New Lion Rock Spirit: How a Banner on a Hillside Redefined the Hong Kong Dream – Yuen Chan, Huffington Post
Climbers unfurl huge pro-democracy banner on Lion Rock – some great pictures here at the Hong Wrong blog
Little Spiders chiselled the new Hong Kong spirit – an account of the protestors’ action and public reaction to the unfurling of the Umbrella Movement banner on Lion Rock in 2014.
You might also like:
That 1967 Parliamentary speech by James Johnson in full, plus the rest of the debate – includes a discussion about introducing democracy to Hong Kong. Worth a read.