23 January 2019
The 1967 riots caused 51 deaths, including those of 10 police officers, according to declassified information from the British National Archives. Photo: YouTube
The 1967 riots caused 51 deaths, including those of 10 police officers, according to declassified information from the British National Archives. Photo: YouTube

My memories and views of the 1967 riots as a bystander

As this year marks the 50th anniversary of the 1967 leftist riots, there have been calls recently among the leftist camp in Hong Kong for Beijing to vindicate the past protest action, which have been continually referred to by some as a “patriotic movement against British colonial tyranny””.

Well, I don’t think Beijing would respond to the calls positively as this year also marks the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule. The last thing Beijing leaders want to do at this supposedly joyful moment is open old wounds and remind people in Hong Kong of a dark chapter in their city’s history.

True, there were numerous cases of civil rights violation during the course of police crackdown on the riots, and some innocent civilians were falsely arrested, wrongfully convicted and sent behind bars. And some rioters even died of unnatural causes after they were detained by the police and awaited trials.

Their unnecessary sufferings undoubtedly deserve our sympathy and cry out for further investigation, but what happened to them doesn’t represent the whole picture about the 1967 leftist riots.

According to declassified information found in the British National Archives, the 1967 riots caused 51 deaths, among whom 10 were police officers and two were public servants.

During the course of the entire incident, 848 people were wounded, including 212 police officers and 35 civil servants. A total of 1,936 people were convicted of participating in the riots. Meanwhile, the police handled more than 10,000 suspected IEDs (improvised explosive devices), and roughly one-tenth of them proved to be real bombs.

I remember when the 1967 riots broke out I was a first-year university student, living in a cramped flat in a run-down residential building along with seven other family members.

On May 6 that year, a labor dispute within a small artificial flower factory in San Po Kong quickly escalated into violent clashes between picketers and riot police units. In the days that followed the situation rapidly deteriorated, with the police sending in massive reinforcements and imposing a curfew.

At first, like many young people at that time, I was sympathetic towards the workers and dismayed at the police’s use of excessive force against unarmed civilians.

However, it didn’t take long for me, and many other young people who were able to keep a clear mind at a time when the whole city was soaked in ultra-leftist propaganda, to realize that the entire incident and the subsequent riots triggered by it had nothing to do with fighting for the noble cause of labor rights whatsoever.

Rather, it was purely a politically motivated plot hatched by indigenous pro-Maoist and ultra-leftist groups, perhaps with the endorsement of Beijing, to bring the British colonial government to its knees.

In fact what I personally witnessed was not faithful and peaceful protesters fighting for a just cause, but rather, hysterical and violent rioters filled with deep hatred, charging police lines while chanting Cultural Revolution slogans and waving the so-called “little red book”. Apparently, the action was aimed at toppling the colonial authorities rather than promoting labor rights.

On July 8, a group of mainland militants suddenly opened fire on the Sha Tau Kok police station near the Hong Kong-Shenzhen border, killing five police officers who were on duty.

In the aftermath the entire city was engulfed by fear and apprehension, and rumors were flying all over the place that the mainland was going to “liberate” Hong Kong very soon. As leftist rioters turned increasingly violent and brutal, the open streets in our city became like war zone.

And in August, two tragic incidents took place, which later turned out to be a watershed in the entire 1967 riots.

First, two children — a brother and sister aged 2 and 8, were killed by an IED planted by rioters in a streetside dustbin in North Point, and the entire public was shocked.

Then a few days later, Lam Bun (林彬), a highly popular radio talk show host and one of the most vocal critics of the leftist riots at that time, was brutally killed when rioters set fire to his vehicle while he was on his way driving to work. He was virtually burnt to death in his own car.

The death of the two innocent children and Lam Bun shocked the entire city, with the mainstream media, all social sectors (apart from leftist groups) and people from all walks of life strongly condemning the atrocities.

The two tragic incidents proved to be a turning point as far as public opinion was concerned, since after these two tragedies public opinion began to turn overwhelmingly against the leftist rioters, eventually leading to the end of the protests in December.

Fifty years on, the 1967 riots remain a highly sensitive and even taboo subject. A recently-made documentary titled “The Lost Files” on the incident has been prevented from airing, indicating that some powerful force behind the scene might be trying to erase the 1967 riots from public memory altogether.

I believe people who weren’t born yet back in 1967 should seize the opportunity with both hands to search for whatever information, videos, eye-witness accounts and newspaper clippings about the incident as soon as possible before such information is removed.

The next thing they should do is piece the puzzle together and form a picture of what really happened during that long hot summer by exercising their own judgment and independent thinking.

It is because the 1967 riots constitute an important chapter in the history of Hong Kong and every citizen in this city has the right to know the truth.

Nobody, not even those who were wrongfully convicted during the riots, can justify tampering with or distorting historical facts about the event even if those facts may upset or embarrass some powerful people.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 17

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Former Secretary for the Civil Service of the Hong Kong Government

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