18 April 2019
Retired police superintendent James Elms said society and the police stood together throughout the 1967 riots but the force today has to enforce laws in a more divided society. Photos: Internet
Retired police superintendent James Elms said society and the police stood together throughout the 1967 riots but the force today has to enforce laws in a more divided society. Photos: Internet

A Hong Kong Police story from a Eurasian superintendent

Hong Kong police always find themselves caught in the middle of two contending camps as tensions and conflicts in society rise. 

Last year alone, police had to handle 1,142 protests and rallies. In many of these demonstrations, pro-democracy activists accused police officers of excesses and sometimes even brutality, while those from the opposite camp said the officers were condoning illegal acts.

While some Hongkongers may have a low regard for their men and women in uniform, internationally, the Hong Kong Police Force commands great respect and esteem and is lauded for their efficiency and professionalism.

The force is the pride of Hong Kong and a core aspect of the territory’s overall competitiveness.

In the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report for 2013-14, Hong Kong ranked fourth among 148 economies in terms of reliability of police services, only after Finland, New Zealand and Qatar.

The streets of Hong Kong have never been safer and crime rates continue to drop, making the city one of the safest on the planet.

The Hong Kong people’s feeling of safety on the streets is palpable. Not only is Hong Kong’s crime rate one of the lowest in the world, the number of every type of major crime has been dropping over the past decade or so.

The police force’s overall crime detection rate, 44.8 percent in 2015, is also one of the world’s highest. In terms of security, our city is the envy of most municipal governments.

Just like the local populace, the nationality and ethnic composition of the Hong Kong police has been very diversified, especially before the 1997 handover.

Until today the force has constables, inspectors and senior officers from England, Scotland, India, Pakistan, Africa and even the West Indies in the Caribbean region.

James Elms, a British national and Eurasian who was senior superintendent in the police force before his retirement, shares with me his first-hand story of the Hong Kong police, including the 1967 Riots and the force’s bitter strife with the Independent Commission Against Corruption when the latter was founded in the 1970s to eradicate syndicated corruption.

Shen: Waves of exodus from China and other parts of the region after World War II brought numerous refugees to Hong Kong. How did people of different races and religions live with each other back then?

Elms: Hong Kong wasn’t that open to ethnic minorities back in the 1960s: people from outside with different hair and skin color would always get wird, curious eyes from local Chinese.

You had to choose your ethnicity in government forms back then.

And, even among locals, those from Canton, or Guangdong province, had higher social status.

Ethnic minorities faced many hurdles when they tried to settle into the Hong Kong community and Westerners and other non-Chinese used to live in “enclaves” in Happy Valley, Graham Street in Central, and areas between Castle Road and Western Street in Sai Wan.

Today most of Hong Kong’s Pakistanis, Filipinos and Nepalese live in their own communities in Yuen Long, Sau Mau Ping and Kwun Tong.

Were you discriminated against as a Eurasian or someone of mixed race in school or at work?

My first job was at HSBC’s billing department and I had many non-Chinese colleagues like Portuguese and Indians, while most of the counter staffers were Chinese. The situation back then was basically different jobs for different races.

There’s no blatant discrimination in the police, which are, after all, a key disciplined service. Though Chinese and foreigners tend to mingle with people of their own after work.

My boss once joked that since I’m of a mixed race, he could regard me as Chinese during Christmas and a European during Lunar New Year; that way he would refuse granting me a leave during those holidays.

Why were there so many different nationalities in the police?

After the war many British troops pulled out of Hong Kong and the colonial authorities had to draw recruits from India to bolster the ranks of the local police force. There were also Portuguese from Macau, and many of those who fled famine and calamities in China also joined the force.

The colonial government also took in policemen from Weihaiwei (威海衛), a town leased as a British enclave in China’s Shandong province, from after World War I to the 1950s. They were mainly garrisoned at the Government House and on the Peak.

The pioneer batch of Shandong recruits subsequently became members of the Emergency Unit. The government also wanted them to counterbalance the constables chiefly from neighboring Canton.

The diversified constabulary composition also made it easier to communicate with different ethnic groups.

(Chief executive Leung Chun-ying’s father was from Weihaiwei and was assigned to patrol the Government House and Victoria Peak.)

How’s the situation after 1997?

There have been fewer foreign policemen. A worrying sign is that the population of South Asians in the city keeps growing but we do not have as many South Asian policemen as before, when some South Asians, particularly youngsters, are increasingly involved in organized crimes, triad activities and violence.

I also worked in the Hong Kong Unison, a charitable organization for ethnic minorities, and I found that what has been holding these young people from joining the police or moving up the social ladder is the language barrier.

Indeed, many of them can speak fluent Cantonese and their English capabilities are more than adequate for many jobs but Chinese reading and writing is a threshold they can hardly overcome.

For instance, there is a Chinese language test, including a task paper that requires a candidate to write an essay on general or social related topics, in the police’s selection process.

Sadly, there’s very little language assistance from the government for non-Chinese youths.

What were your experiences during the 1967 Riots?

The police was in a war state back then and all policemen had to be on call.

In July that year, five policemen were killed in Sha Tau Kok, in the border frontier area, by some militia organizations and while on standby in Causeway Bay, I heard distinct gunshots through beat radios.

Quite a lot happened on the border: some fell into ambush while on patrol and some were injured by mines.

London then deployed Gurkhas at the request of the colonial authorities to guard the border.

How corrupted were the police before ICAC?

I would always find money in my locker each morning when I returned to work in the 1960s and if you refuse to take the money, you might be demoted or isolated by your colleagues.

Corruption was rather rampant inside the force, from the bottom to the very top.

That began to change after there was ICAC in the 1970s and Governor Sir Murray MacLehose’s “partial amnesty” to resolve the conflict between the police and the anti-graft agency.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal Monthly on July 9.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]


Protesters sit in front of a police cordon on an overpass in Wan Chai during the 2014 Occupy protests. Photo: AP

Two police superintendents are seen in Mong Kok following a clash between Occupy protesters and suspected triad members. Photo: Internet

Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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