Elsie Tu

Happy birthday

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 31 May, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 31 May, 2003, 12:00am

When I returned to Hong Kong in 1974 after 14 years in the United States, first as a student and later as a journalist with The New York Times, I was looking for some extra-curricular involvement. I had been an activist in New York, both in Chinatown and in the larger Asian-American community, and wanted to do something meaningful.

Before long, I became a volunteer worker for Hong Kong's greatest activist, Elsie Elliott. Mrs Elliott - that was in the days before she married Andrew Tu Hsueh-kwei - was an elected member of the Urban Council and maintained a ward in Kwun Tong. Although she was but one councillor, she received by far the greatest number of complaints from the public, just as, every election, she received the largest number of votes.

Urban councillors had no executive powers, no power to conduct investigations and no access to information which any government department - except the Urban Services Department - might choose to withhold. Despite these drawbacks, the ward system handled a vast number of cases. Many of the complaints Elsie received related to areas outside the Urban Council's limited scope, and she could do little more than write referral letters for those aggrieved.

But she wielded an influence totally disproportionate to her actual position. She attempted to help as many people as she could, but she also realised that there were people who tried to take advantage of her to obtain things to which they were not entitled. When she decided that someone coming to her had a legitimate grievance, she would write a brief note to the relevant government department and ask them to look into the matter.

My duties were modest, primarily consisting of typing up these little notes for her. So great was her standing within Hong Kong that, frequently, a note from her was enough to cause an official to take a second look - I suspect in many cases a first look - at the complaint and, more often than not, to act on it.

Her ward office was within the Mu Kuang English School, at 55 Kung Long Road, in Kwun Tong, which she had founded. She was the supervisor. The first time I went to Elsie's ward, she invited me home for lunch, and I met Andrew Tu, a school principal and at that time, still just an old friend.

This was shortly after the formation of the Independent Commission Against Corruption, an organisation with which Elsie was intimately involved.

For years, she had spoken of corruption in the colonial government, especially in the police force and, in the police force, even in the Anti-Corruption Branch. Her book, Elsie Tu, An Autobiography, contains vivid accounts of her reports of police corruption.

After the formation of the Hong Kong Observers in 1975, my association with Elsie continued. We were at one time trying to help Sergeant Iqbal Hussain Khan of the Royal Hong Kong Police.

To raise funds for Sergeant Khan, we held a press conference and set up a bank account which, appropriately, was named Elsie Elliott's Fund for Justice.

Elsie was also an early champion of democracy in Hong Kong. She and I were both involved in a short-lived organisation called the Movement for Representation in Government, which was set up by a British lawyer. At a meeting to discuss what percentage of the legislature should be directly elected, she and I were among a small handful who supported 100 per cent.

It is difficult to imagine the environment in Hong Kong in the 1970s. The colonial government was totally against democracy, and looked askance at people who set out to help those less fortunate, wondering what ulterior motives they had.

Even those within the establishment who were considered liberal were, by today's lights, conservative. I remember proposing Elsie for membership to a group of establishment liberals, and the initial reaction of the chairman - who shall remain nameless - was: 'Oh no, she's too radical'.

No doubt, the colonial government would have kept its institutions unrepresentative for much longer, but with the signing of the Joint Declaration, Britain realised it would have to quit Hong Kong in 1997. Only then did it begin to localise the top ranks of the civil service and introduce elections to the legislature.

And so, in 1985, when functional constituency elections were introduced, Elsie became one of the first legislators elected to Legco, to represent the Urban Council. She certainly would never have made it on to the legislature otherwise, because no British governor had the courage to appoint her.

Hong Kong's grand old lady of politics and a champion of democracy turns 90 on Monday, still as feisty as ever. Happy birthday, Elsie! Hong Kong is a better place because of you.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator