Like a burst of spring thunder China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution arrived in Hong Kong in May 1967. The catalyst was a strike at a factory which made plastic flowers – one of the colony’s biggest exports at the time.
Labour disputes were not uncommon in Hong Kong, nor were violent clashes between workers and police. This time, however, there was a political element. The Little Red Book of Mao’s Thought was everywhere, along with loud and violent calls to overthrow “British fascism, imperialism and tyranny.”
Bloody clashes between demonstrators and police outside Government House on 22 May led to 167 arrests and prompted David Bonavia, The Times of London’s Hong Kong stringer, to observe that the worlds of Mao Tse-tung (Mao Zedong) and Somerset Maugham had come face to face – and both had retired baffled.
I saw the demonstrations outside Government House, topped by an angry sea of waving red books, in Lower Albert Road not far from our flat. I only have a lingering impression of the events and don’t recall much more. My father, Jack Spackman, said I asked him why the governor didn’t just come out and talk to them.
When I wasn’t asking naïve questions, I was quickly becoming fluent in the revolutionary songs and slogans which blared from the loudspeakers on the parapets of the Bank of China building in Central.
The East is Red, the sun is rising! Being patriotic is no crime! Struggle against atrocities is justified! Blood debts must be repaid in blood! Down with British imperialism! Long live the invincible Thought of Chairman Mao!
In July the bombs started. Thousands were planted across the city, many manufactured in left-aligned schools, which killed 15 people and wounded many more. The most bitter of the bombs was wrapped like a gift and killed two small children outside their home.
The demonstrators sang vigorous songs of the Cultural Revolution and chanted slogans. At times different groups were singing different songs, with cacophonous results which ill accorded with the sentiments of the most popular number, Unity is Strength – David Bonavia, Hong Kong 1967
Chinese police officers were singled out for abuse, labelled ‘yellow running dogs’ and promised a terrible vengeance for their treachery. Many of these officers were earning paltry wages – a mere $300 a month, according to my Aunty Joan, and 10 of them paid with their lives. Many more were injured.
Joan ‘The Bone’ Byrne had arrived in Hong Kong in May 1967 after three months of travelling around Asia, with hopes of continuing her journey via China. “Mao’s Red Guards were on the rampage, with bodies floating down river from Canton (now Guangzhou) into Hong Kong waters. I could only look across the border from the New Territories. The dream of travelling through China remained just that, an elusive dream,” she said.
Hong Kong’s Communist sympathisers had long taken their orders from the Canton branch of the Party. But the Red Guards had recently toppled the Party leadership in Canton and in the resulting chaos there were some in Hong Kong who were looking for an opportunity to demonstrate their loyalty through revolutionary zeal.
They had a lot of local discontent to work with. Hong Kong at that time was crammed with more than four million people, many of them refugees from China. This was long before the colony became an economic powerhouse. Living and working conditions for most people were appalling.
Hong Kong’s dozens of Chinese-language newspapers fell into three broad categories, each presenting a different interpretation of events. Pro-communist newspapers like Ta Kung Pao accused the Hong Kong government of savagely intervening in a peaceful labour dispute to crack down on its oppressed citizens.
“In utter viciousness and ferocity, the British Hong Kong authorities have murdered more than 20 Chinese compatriots, illegally assaulted, arrested, ‘tried’ and abducted more than 4,000 Chinese inhabitants and sent more than 2,000 Chinese compatriots to prison since they began the sanguinary suppression early in May 1967,” according to Ta Kung Pao in November that year.
The pro-Nationalist (Taiwan) newspapers accused the Communists of planning the riots and urged the government to take strong action against them. Meanwhile, the non-aligned Ming Pao Daily urged its readers to remain calm and united.
“Hong Kong people supported the government efforts to end the riots not because they fully endorsed the colonial government, but because of their eagerness for freedom. They would rather remain free in a colony than live under the rule of the Communists,” a Ming Pao editorial said in October 1967.
A few nights ago a left-winger (businessman) was arrested next door and nobody heard or saw a thing, much to Jack’s disappointment. – Joan Byrne, Hong Kong 1967
In August the Editors of Hong Kong’s pro-Communist newspapers were arrested, along with many other leftists. One of our neighbours in Grosvenor House was among them. “He was a businessman,” Joan said. “One night he was arrested while we were right next door and nobody heard or saw a thing, much to Jack’s disappointment.”
The key question for the China Watchers was to what extent the riots in Hong Kong were driven by the regime in Peking (now Beijing). Of all the foreign correspondents, spies and diplomats, The Times’ Man in Hong Kong, had a distinct advantage.
Bonavia was a brilliant linguist, fluent in Russian, German, French and Italian, with a working competency in perhaps a dozen more. Pertinently, Bonavia could not only speak Cantonese and Mandarin, he could also read Chinese.
Bonavia had arrived in Hong Kong in the mid-1960s, aged 25, and was engaged in the dreary business of translating international trade enquiries (many concerning the hot global demand for plastic flowers, I expect).
No doubt realising that his talents could be more usefully employed, Bonavia turned to journalism, just as things were getting interesting. With no direct communication lines open to Peking, China Watchers like Bonavia relied on careful study of the newspapers. Unlike many of his colleagues, the Times man didn’t have to rely on translators.
Bonavia determined that the Hong Kong agitators were not backed by the Chinese leadership, which showed no appetite to take the colony back from the British. According to Joan’s letters at the time, the British in Hong Kong were also showing no real appetite to stay.
Hong Kong, as always, was the small but hot potato caught between two powers with survival dependent on its relative use to each. It was later revealed that China’s Premier Zhou Enlai had vetoed a plan, hatched by the People’s Liberation Army in Canton, to invade and occupy Hong Kong at the height of the disturbances.
At the time, with Hong Kong’s future tipping in the balance, analysis like Bonavia’s was essential in trying to work out just how far China would go in backing the Hong Kong Communists.
Those armed with Mao Tse-Tung’s Thought are the most courageous people. They angrily denounce police without showing the slightest fear – Ta Kung Pao, Hong Kong 1967
In early August, when the New China News Agency declared a “new upsurge in the struggle of the patriotic Chinese” in Hong Kong, it was an expression Bonavia recognised.
“It can be rendered: ‘This campaign is going badly; we must give it a puff.’ Certainly the puffs keep coming from Peking, but all along the purpose has seemed to be the nourishing of the emotions of mainlanders in need of a cause for righteous indignation rather than giving any effective backing to the Communists in Hong Kong,” he wrote.
The puff from Peking ensured that August continued in a fury, culminating with the horrific attack on Lam Bun, a popular radio personality and an outspoken critic of the riots. Lam Bun was attacked on his way to work and burned alive in his car.
In spite of mass public revulsion, the bombings continued until October, when Zhou Enlai gave the order for them to stop. As the mood abated, Joan reported in a letter home that there was “still an occasional light flare-up but you don’t see as much of it and the tourists are coming back.
“Certainly there is no cause for alarm as even the big character posters are now urging the protestors to go easy. Still, I think the British will pull out after a couple of years but not now,” she wrote.
Trouble continued sporadically until the end of the year when it finally subsided and Hong Kong settled back into the pragmatic approach it has always preferred when it comes to the great questions which plague humanity.
Firecrackers were no longer heard on the streets of Hong Kong at Chinese New Year and other high days and holidays. They were banned after 1967. The Communist 1 October celebrations were observed by some, the Nationalist 10 October celebrations by others, and on those days their respective flags fluttered unimpeded.
Dick Hughes, the doyen of the China Watchers, said that well into the 1970s a China products store in Happy Valley would cover its name with red flags and banners on another important day in the socialist calendar: 1 May. Every other day of the year its huge sign was easy to read: Profit Traders.
“China’s stake in Hong Kong is, quite naturally, national pride as well as commercial advantage,” he wrote in his book Borrowed Place, Borrowed Time. “The first influence will be more durable and, in the long run, stronger than the second. But how long is the long run?”
Well, it was another 20 years. But that’s another story.
© Sally Baxter 2017
Regular viewers will note that my focus on the blog this year is very much on the past, with two significant anniversaries – the 50th of the Hong Kong riots in 1967 which were inspired by the Cultural Revolution, and the 20th of Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997, both occurring this year. It’s also the 50th anniversary of my family’s arrival in Hong Kong. I’ll be sticking to this particular seam for the next few months, with your kind indulgence. Do join me! It’s fun. Well, some of it is.
Further reading on the story so far:
My Extraordinary Aunt: In the shadow of Lion Rock – some context on the labour conditions which existed in Hong Kong in 1967, in the company of my extraordinary aunt Joan ‘The Bone’ Byrne.
Little Red wolves in sheep’s clothing – a personal reflection on the insidious nature of propaganda, based on my experience with the material which was pouring into Hong Kong during the Cultural Revolution.
In a corrupt town the dirty cop is king – remembering Peter Godber – Your Girl Reporter’s account of a hero of the 1967 riots whose later fall from grace led to the formation of Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption.
Journey Interrupted – The unusual tale of how we ended up in Hong Kong in 1967, by Your Girl Reporter, natch!