Hong Kong on the brink
For students and teachers at Belilios Public School in Tin Hau, November 7, 1967 at first appeared to be just another, uneventful day. Yet an incident later in the morning upset the calm and changed the fate of 14 girls.
At 8.20am, Lo Wai-king, a student who had been expelled from the school, appeared there when students assembled at the covered playground. Lo had spearheaded a fund-raising programme for a fellow student whose scholarship had been suspended after she wrote a sarcastic poem about a teacher, which was published in Youths' Garden Weekly, a left-leaning magazine.
'The school unreasonably expelled me,' Lo, a Form Five student at the prestigious government-run school, told students assembled at the covered playground. 'I won't accept it and will definitely return to the campus to carry on my study.'
Thirteen students, including Janet Tsang, attempted to block teachers from taking Lo away.
'We chanted slogans such as 'oppose unreasonable expulsion'. But we didn't chant any political slogans at that time,' said Janet Tsang, the younger sister of Tsang Yok-sing, who is now the president of the Legislative Council, in her first media interview on the incident.
Other students were told to go to their classrooms after the incident.
'We intended to follow suit but we were intercepted by policemen who were already waiting near the staircases,' Janet Tsang said. 'We were surprised by the swift actions taken by police.'
Tsang, Lo and the 12 other students were arrested. Lo was charged with trespassing while the other 13 were charged with obstructing the police in execution of their duty.
The 14 students, who were expelled from the school afterwards, were sentenced to one month's jail or a fine of HK$100. Seven, including Tsang, who was 16 years old at the time, went to jail after refusing to pay.
The incident took place against the backdrop of the 1967 riots against British colonial rule, which nearly brought the city to a standstill.
According to a South China Morning Post report on November 8, 1967, police were called to the school after the principal reported that a number of pupils were 'creating a disturbance' outside her office.
But Tsang, who has remained silent on the event for the past 45 years, insists that what they did was peaceful, and that the way it was handled by the police was unfair.
'Under colonial rule at the time, there was no such thing as democracy,' said Tsang, who now lives in Britain.
Another student who was jailed for the Belilios incident said they had decided to take action after a meeting among themselves a day earlier, when they decided to show support for Lo when she returned to school.
Tsang may have embarked on a completely different path if not for the incident. She taught at a private school after being released from Lai Chi Kok Prison for Women and in 1973 joined Wen Wei Po. She resigned from the pro-Beijing newspaper in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.
She was not the only member of her family to pay a heavy price for involvement in the leftist-inspired riots. Tsang Tak-sing, Tsang Yok-sing's younger brother, was a Form Six student at St Paul's College at the time. He was jailed for two years for distributing 'inflammatory leaflets'.
He joined pro-Beijing Ta Kung Pao after his release from Stanley Prison in 1969. He became chief editor of the newspaper in 1988 and is now the secretary for home affairs.
The leftist-inspired riots were triggered by a labour dispute at a factory in San Po Kong that made artificial flowers, but were also seen as a spillover from the Cultural Revolution, which erupted on the mainland in 1966.
The confrontation between the leftist camp and the colonial government escalated in the second half of 1967, when extremists planted bombs on Hong Kong's streets. The situation calmed down only in December, after premier Zhou Enlai expressed Beijing's official disapproval over the disturbances.
By then the riots had claimed 51 lives, with 15 of the deaths caused by bomb attacks. A total of 1,936 people were convicted for offences committed during the disturbances. Of those, 465 were jailed for 'unlawful assembly', 40 for possessing bombs and 33 for explosion-related offences.
The 1967 disturbances were widely seen as a watershed in the post-war history of Hong Kong, and their repercussions can still be felt today. They intensified the anti-communist mentality among many Hongkongers and entrenched the divisions between the left wing and mainstream society. The traditional leftist camp developed a 'siege mentality' after the riots, as they felt that they had become marginalised by mainstream society.
Veteran China-watcher Johnny Lau Yui-siu, who was Janet Tsang's colleague at Wen Wei Po from the 1970s to the late 1980s, said many participants in the 1967 riots did not use violence.
'They just voiced their feelings against injustice, but what they did was not understood by mainstream society. Some of them were abandoned by their work units and associations after the disturbances. Some led a miserable life afterwards.'
Like Janet Tsang, Kwok Hing-lau, who was vice-chairman of the Hong Kong and Kowloon Painters' General Union, is another person to have recently broken his silence on the 1967 riots. Forty-five years later, he remains unrepentant about the bomb attacks he and fellow leftists launched in 1967.
'Planting bombs was a correct and righteous strategy. We did so simply because we had no alternative under suppression by the colonial administration,' he said.
'It was righteous to revolt against the colonialists,' he said, responding to condemnation of the bomb attacks by mainstream society.
His union, which was a member of the Beijing-friendly Federation of Trade Unions, was a key unit in resorting to extremist actions during the disturbances.
Kwok led a 60-member 'combat group' in Wan Chai which staged anti-British demonstrations.
Kwok said his union decided to launch bomb attacks against the police after two union members were shot dead during anti-British protests in the middle of July, 1967. He himself produced five home-made bombs at the union's premises in Lockhart Road in Wan Chai. Some bombs were thrown at local and riot police patrolling the streets during the disturbances.
Kwok said the bomb attacks were more effective than strikes in undermining the rule of the colonial government. 'Bomb attacks unavoidably affected the life of ordinary people, but the impact was not that big.'
A painter, who prefers to be known by the alias Ah Kei, was a member of the group led by Kwok that engaged in bomb attacks. 'We usually acted in a company of three. We often alerted Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Pao after completing our operations,' Ah Kei said. He was arrested in November 1967 for possessing offensive weapons and was sentenced to four years in jail.
But a teacher at a pro-Beijing school who was sentenced to eight years in jail for an explosion-related offence during the disturbances had a different thought. In October 1967, she was arrested when she helped several students who took part in a bomb-planting operation in Kowloon City leave the scene.
'I was told by the head of the anti-British-struggle committee at my school that it was a fake bomb,' said the teacher, who prefers to remain anonymous.
'But I was stunned when I discovered from newspaper reporters several years later that the bomb was genuine and a bomb-disposal expert was injured when he attempted to detonate it,' she said.
'At that time, we believed only what pro-Beijing newspapers reported and most of us lost the ability to think independently. We agreed that it was correct to use bombs as a means to counterattack the colonial government,' she said.
'In hindsight, I think the mentality of 'an eye for an eye' is not justified. It was incorrect to plant fake bombs on the streets, let alone genuine ones, as it seriously disrupted social order.'
Johnny Lau said it was lamentable that the passion for their country among many participants in the disturbances was manipulated by the leftist camp.
'It's not wrong for a person to be patriotic, but it's crucial to keep a cool head,' he said.
A City of Sorrows. Published by FlintStone Culture. HK$88
The number of people killed during Hong Kong's 1967 anti-colonial riots, 15 of them from bomb attacks