Standing tall against China

Watching news broadcasts over the few days brought back some rather mixed memories from my time in one of the most fascinating places on the planet.

I refer to the unrest in Hong Kong as the population, or should I say an element of the population, are struggling to resist attempts by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to smother the previously agreed democratic rights they had negotiated by vetting all election candidates.

I think it was inevitable that the PRC would seek to establish political controls there similar to their own, but were initially careful to maintain a watch and wait policy. After all, to rock the boat too much in Hong Kong could easily see vast amounts of foreign money go down the tubes if the economy of the former colony were to collapse.

I’m not in any position to give a comprehensive account of the current difficulties in Hong Kong, other than to suggest the population is in many ways different to the citizens of the PRC, of which there is a seemingly huge number, reckoned in billions.

The Hong Kong Chinese have strong roots among those who fled China and communist rule after the formation of the communist state. Those who settled in Hong Kong tended to be honest, hard-working folk, usually with an ambition to get on in life; they did not take kindly to any moves to take away any of the freedoms they had so painfully gained and were not slow to express their feelings with action.

For me, a humble squaddie, living in barracks in the middle of Kowloon, I was able to observe the initial rumblings of discontent in the spring of 1966.

It should be noted that the communists long harboured an ambition to establish political control of Hong Kong while conserving the money-spinning side. They were adept at fomenting discontent which could so easily bubble over into violence, and at that time the Cultural Revolution of Chairman Mao was in full swing with the whole of mainland China in turmoil, so it was only a matter of time before the disciples of the cultural revolution, known as red guards, turned their attention to Hong Kong. It is interesting to note that 48 years later, the same folk are now on the receiving end of similar treatment.

The spark that lit the gunpowder trail to trouble in 1966 emerged as a move to increase the fares on the famous Star Ferries between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, among other routes by five cents, with a Hong Kong dollar at that time worth 12 1⁄2 pence. These ferries ran continuously, almost always fully loaded, and were incredibly efficient, which meant that any suspension of services due to weather or other conditions soon became a problem.

Anyway, back to the fare increase; a prominent though stroppy local councillor called Elsie Elliot (good Border name, although she was born in Newcastle-on-Tyne) got up a petition demanding the fare increase be cancelled, a move that was meat and two veg to communist agitators who circulated all manner of rumours, designed to stir up trouble.

And trouble there was; in the late afternoon and evening of April 6, a “spontaneous” demonstration by one man protesting against the fares increase was carefully manipulated into a full-blown riot, something the Hong Kong cops were ready for, but hampered by government dithering. As is the case of riots, the mob cheerfully began to smash up the place, targeting anything associated with colonial authority, with buses, offices, etc bearing the brunt of it for several hours. At around 9pm, the army was instructed to take to the streets to help out. Because the colony was no stranger to riots, all infantry battalions posted to Hong Kong made anti-riot training their first priority on arrival, so at least we had a previously prepared plan of action; but here we come to the tragic bit.

Our battalion, or the major part of it, were miles away in the New Territories on exercise. It took a few hours to recall the troops and get them kitted out for what was quaintly called aid to the civil power. In the meantime, an ad hoc platoon of those who had not been on the exercise were hastily assembled, armed, loaded into trucks and set off to do their bit for Queen and country.

It was a long and nervous night; a curfew had been declared and by the time the army showed up, the cops had more or less regained control, although in the teeming resettlement areas the rioters were still playing cat and mouse with the constabulary, who by that time had suffered a collective major sense of humour failure, giving short shrift to those ignoring the curfew. Our duties were largely concerned with various aspects of mopping up, with tasks such as escorting drivers as they retrieved abandoned buses to depots or protecting fire crews as they damped down fires.

The situation remained tense for many months, but from memory of long ago, I recall the authorities played a very skilful hand in restoring order and rule peacefully, ever-mindful of the small detail that any move by the PRC to take over the place would have been a simple walkover, resulting in British humiliation and quite a lot of chaos.

The current population of Hong Kong have my sympathies with regard to their predicament. The dead hand of communist rule would destroy the flame of initiative that is the key to their success; it would also have global repercussions on international trade, particularly gold. I had around two-and-a-half years in Hong Kong, during which time I grew up and witnessed life in ways no other place could offer.

I still cherish the only two words of Cantonese I can remember – “gou lou” meaning tall man, chanted by gangs of grinning kids in the side streets of Kowloon.

Those were the days.