Kevin Sinclair's Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 June, 2007, 12:00am

The vicious political riots of 1956 took Hong Kong by surprise. Communists and Kuomintang supporters battled each other in the streets of Kowloon and butchered victims in the factories of Tsuen Wan. Foreigners were a particular target; a mob burned to death the wife of a Swiss diplomat.

As police rounded up thousands of suspects after the Double Tenth riots, the government and public were shaken. The authorities realised the existing structure of the police, even backed by the considerable British army presence, could not handle widespread civil unrest.

As hundreds of rioters, mostly former nationalist soldiers, were deported to Taiwan, the administration and senior police officers pondered how to cope with future upheavals.

The answer was the Police Tactical Unit. After a year's planning it was established in early 1958, and this unique organisation is now preparing to celebrate its 50th anniversary. The PTU has rightly been called Hong Kong's best insurance policy. It demonstrated its value in 1967 when the thin khaki line stood firm against rioters and bombers.

Since then, the Blue Berets have marched with pride from the parade ground at their headquarters in Fanling and have patrolled with great effect the streets of Hong Kong. They are not only the tough steel spearhead of the force trained to cope with rioters; they are well practised to deal with any disaster from an aircraft crash to a major typhoon.

They practise constantly to cope with disasters they hope will never happen. They are also on duty at New Year fireworks displays, race meetings and major sporting and community events. They boost the strength of local police beats, check identities of suspected illegal immigrants and take to the hills when criminals are on the loose in the countryside.

The Blue Berets are the jack-of-all-police-trades. They stand ready when they are needed.

Fortunately, they have not recently been called out to fulfil their crucial role of riot control. In our peaceable city, civil strife is rare. When taxi drivers went on a go-slow that paralysed Hong Kong in 1984, the Blue Berets showed their value. In 1989, criminal gangs tried to take advantage of the tension caused when the student demonstrations were put down in Tiananmen Square. This was quashed within minutes when the PTU were mobilised.

They displayed hard heads and common sense during the World Trade Organisation standoff in Wan Chai in 2005, when the loutish army of Korean farmers and professional global troublemakers attempted to bring the WTO summit meeting to a chaotic end. They will be on duty to ensure the 10th anniversary celebrations of the SAR go smoothly.

Unseen by the public, PTU companies are on duty around the clock.

Four companies a year pass out and are based throughout Hong Kong. They provide regional police commanders a precious backup, a pool of highly skilled, motivated men and women trained to cope with everything from shepherding a parade, helping organisers to peacefully control a huge demonstration and coping with an outbreak of thoughtless violence.

It's all a far cry from 1958 when the Police Training Contingent, as it was known, began in a collection of rusty old tin army huts on Volunteer Slopes, on the fringe of Fanling. The tin huts were supposed to be temporary, but police often come last on the government's priority list; while the rest of the New Territories infrastructure was built, the men and women of the PTU shivered and sweated in the rough shelters for more than 30 years.

Although the PTU now has modern, purpose-built headquarters, life there is still tough. Discipline is rigid. Physical exercise brings every man and woman to the peak of fitness, then they are pushed further.

The result is a steady stream of proud companies that develop a high level of morale and spirit. They train together, march together, work together, exercise together, then serve together protecting the public. One hidden value of the PTU legacy is that when their service in a company is completed, individuals return to many units of the force.

As they rise through the ranks, their memories of the PTU keep them keenly aware of the value of the anti-riot units. Police commissioner Tang King-shing was a chief inspector in the Special Duties Unit, the anti-terrorist specialist wing at the PTU, in the 1980s.

As the organisation prepares for its 50th anniversary, it's worthwhile for the public to recognise the value to our community of this insurance policy against disaster. At times of greatest peril, our lives and safety are in their hands.