“Long life: a hundred years!” is the standard Chinese birthday wish, yet few people ever attain the milestone.

One remarkable woman who has is Elsie Tu, who celebrates her centenary today.

Born Elsie Hume in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, northern England, on June 2, 1913, as the second of four children, Tu’s personal story encompasses many of the past century’s most significant events, in Britain, the mainland and Hong Kong, where she has made her home – and numerous contributions to public life – since 1951.

Tu’s involvement in social activism started early, and from positive example.

“My father was a major influence on my life,” she says, sitting in the living room of her Kwun Tong home, a space filled with photographs and other reminders of her long service to the people of Hong Kong. “He had only six years of education; then he became an orphan and had to work, when he was doing well at school. It was a pity.

“He was gassed in the first world war and died [a premature death] in his 60s; my brother died as a result of [wounds inflicted during] the second world war. I’m not fond of war, as you can imagine. He brought me up to respect everybody, whoever they were. He had always wanted me to stay in England and become a member of parliament, to help working people.”

When she met and married William Elliott, however, she set out on a different path.

Instead of becoming a politician in England, “I became involved with fundamentalist Christian missionaries and came out to China with them in 1948. My then-husband and I lived in Nanchang, in Jiangxi province, for three years.”

The couple moved to Hong Kong in 1951, having been advised to do so by their missionary group some 18 months after the communist assumption of power.

“I personally saw what it was like under nationalists and communists,” she says, “and I found the communists to be much better. There was no corruption under the communists – at that time – but it’s very different now.”

In Hong Kong, a growing disenchantment with Christian religious bigotry created additional strain on an already unhappy marriage.

“I didn’t realise missionaries were so narrow-minded till I was right in among them,” says Tu. “Women were not meant to speak up; we had to ask our husbands. So one day I made up my mind to speak up. In the middle of a meeting, I was going to blame them for their narrow mindedness, but before I could say one sentence, they dragged me outside and shut me up.

“My father was agnostic; he used to quote from the Bible, and say how church-goers don’t obey what the Bible teaches. He was right.

“But it’s not only Christians that cause trouble; all religions have done more harm than good, in my view. I didn’t think Buddhists in Burma would go the way of violence, but they have recently, haven’t they.” The Elliotts separated on a visit to England and eventually divorced.

Elsie left the church, too, and returned to Hong Kong to make a new and more fulfilling life for herself. “When I finally left the church I felt completely happy – I felt free at last.”

She threw herself into working at a school she had helped establish, in 1954, for poor children in a squatter area in eastern Kowloon. This would become Kwun Tong’s Mu Kuang English School.

Educational provision was limited in Hong Kong in the 1950s; there would be no free primary public education until 1971, and no free secondary until 1978. As a result, an entire generation grew up illiterate and, in consequence, deprived of any basic opportunity for advancement.

Schools such as Mu Kuang filled a vital need for Hong Kong’s poor.

But even that opportunity came at a price – at least at the beginning.

“Originally the missionaries started it, but they only wanted to have the school to make converts and get the children to read the Bible, nothing more,” she says. “I got angry and said that we send our children to university, do you think that the poor Chinese children shouldn’t go to university as well? After a lot of discussion among the men – the women had no say – they said, ‘You can have a secondary school as long as we can put in a Bible teacher.’ The parents, being Chinese and practical, would put up with that, as long as their children could get an education and have some chance for the future.

“Mu Kuang now has 1,270 students, up from 30, when we started in a tent,” she says, explaining that, when the school moved to Kwun Tong, in 1972, “a rich man built the school hall, and my flat here at Mu Kuang.

I’ve lived here since. I never met him – he just wanted to help and didn’t want his name to be mentioned.

“I worked from 1955 to 1968, after I left the church, with no salary,” she recalls. “I used to work in my spare time as well. It was just what I could do. I [taught] at my own school in the morning, another in the afternoon and another in the evening – you couldn’t count the numbers of hours, but I loved it because I was finally free of the church.”

Life was frugal, but happy and fulfilling, she says.

“At that time I could live on HK$200 a month. I could have a weekly treat at the YWCA of bacon and liver; HK$1.80 – it was very cheap. Other than that, I only had a sandwich. I didn’t have any rent to pay; I lived in a hut next to the tent.

“A teacher’s salary at that time was HK$1,200. So when Baptist College gave me a job on that salary, I felt so rich.”

Largely through her work at Mu Kuang, she became close to Andrew Tu Hsueh-kwei, a fellow teacher. After many years of steadily growing friendship, the couple married in 1985.

“We were very happy together, and well-suited,” she says. “He came from Inner Mongolia. He was a member of the church when I met him; he liked the ethical teaching of Jesus but – like me – he didn’t like all the other stuff. It seems strange; my husband was from Inner Mongolia and my father was from Britain, yet their thoughts were very similar.

“Andrew was brought up by an uncle who used to beat him terribly. What I admired was that he could be very angry – say about someone who wasn’t doing their work – but he could see them the next day and speak kindly. He didn’t hold anything in his mind against anybody. He set up the Hong Kong Samaritans and set up another group to get the Japanese to apologise for the war. He didn’t want to punish them, just wanted them to acknowledge what they had done.”

After having battled cancer and other health problems for some years, Andrew Tu died in 2001.

Elsie Tu remains actively involved with Mu Kuang – “I still sign all the cheques!” – and the bright, airy flat on the top floor where the couple lived contains numerous mementoes of their life together, and a plantfilled terrace that was special to Andrew, which overlooks the old Kai Tak airport runway.

Daily exposure to ordinary people and decades of up-close experience of their personal struggles opened up a new world for Elsie. A desire to help them led her in unexpected directions – and into local politics. She joined the Reform Club, and was elected to the Urban Council in 1963.

Hong Kong’s first serious political party, the Reform Club was established in 1949 by English barrister Brook Bernacchi and Canadian doctor Raymond Lee. It was the closest Hong Kong offered by way of an opposition political party for many years and had as its main aim the provision of public housing for all who needed it. The group was unpopular with the government and Tu’s increasingly vocal opposition to official corruption and bigotry drew a reaction.

“Brook Bernacchi was a reformer, which put him in the government’s bad books. I joined his Reform Club, but I was only in the Urban Council with them for one term. Brook asked me to resign, as he was getting into trouble. He was a homosexual; that was a crime then. And so Brook’s personal life was used to get at me. Police and government officials went after him; they got young men to write statements to the effect that they had been involved with him; they would beat the boys up to get the statements.

“As soon as I left the Reform Club, they stopped troubling him. It was disgusting that something as unimportant as that should be used to silence opposition figures, but it was done. Bernacchi was silenced.

He eventually got married, too – and as soon as he married, [the police] stopped bothering him. Bernacchi was such a good person; it was just that the law at that time was nonsense. Such a fuss about nothing!” Not that it had been deemed “nothing” by the religious bigots she had once kept company with.

“The missionaries were dead against homosexuality, of course. I went once to a church in Tsim Sha Tsui and got surrounded by young people who went on at me about Sodom and Lot’s wife; I never went back.

“I don’t blame the young people; it’s the blinkered way they are taught. If they start to think for themselves, their families even kick them out. In due course, I brought in the Legislative Council motion about homosexuality being decriminalised, in 199.”

1Institutionalised corruption was once a fundamental fact of life in Hong Kong and Tu was at the forefront of attempts to stop the rot. It was widely remarked, accurately, that corruption was like a steamroller; one could walk alongside it or ride on the back, but if you stepped in front, it would crush you. Tu was one who refused to be crushed.

“The fact is, I was the one who gave all the facts on Peter Godber [a monumentally corrupt senior policeman who was later jailed]. They thought they were safe at the top,” she says. “I personally watched the police collecting triad money, so I immediately went and took photographs of police and triads co-operating, and got it in the press. That was when Godber began to prepare to run away. So many top-level people were so corrupt that they wanted – and needed – to protect each other.

“A lot of the information I got on corruption came from police at the lower end, both Europeans and Chinese; they would ring me up and give information on condition I wouldn’t give their names.”

Years of persistence paid off; the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) came into being in 1974 and high-profile prosecutions for corruption started.

Nevertheless, Tu feels the battle against corruption has never been entirely won. A politically motivated amnesty on crimes committed before 1977 – brought about by a threatened police strike and raid by corrupt officers on the ICAC headquarters (despite being captured on security cameras, the individuals were never “identified” or charged) – meant that some of the worst offenders were never punished.

“The ICAC didn’t get rid of the biggest corrupt ones – look at the people still around today, at the top, who have so far escaped. But these, I know, are being investigated. I am very worried that corruption is coming back and more worrying is that there were some at the top that were never discovered; it’s the top end that I am scared of.

“When the ICAC started, I said to Jack Cater [the body’s first commissioner] that it was wrong; they were starting at the bottom when it’s the ones at the top you should get hold of.”

Although Tu is basically pleased with her efforts to rid Hong Kong of corruption, she feels that “the work I put into education was more successful, in the end”. Not that those were her only areas of endeavour.

“When something really rouses my anger, then I get going,” says Tu.

“Most of the time the newspapers won’t print my letters [but, when they do] people write to me when they think I’ve gone after them. I’ve had a personal letter from Li Ka-shing on my desk for days, telling me all of what he has done for Hong Kong. Why does he need to tell me all this?

I don’t think I’ll even bother answering.

“He hasn’t done much for Hong Kong in my view, and in this recent port and dockyard case [the 40-day dock workers’ strike over pay against Li’s Hongkong International Terminals], no matter what he says, he has got some responsibility. It would have been good to at least meet and talk to the workers; it’s arrogant [not to]. I used to like him but now he only wants his name all over as a great philanthropist. Why doesn’t he just give it away? Can’t his sons work for themselves; don’t they have enough money?” At an age when many others would have stopped working, Tu is “trying to think of what I should do next! I don’t want to sit and twiddle my thumbs, that’s for sure. I want to do some more writing. I want to carry on what I have been doing and write something that might be useful to young people, and help them to avoid unnecessary troubles, and to help them to find what is worth going on with in life.”

What advice would she offer today’s young Hongkongers?

“I’ve had troubles in the past – and those with the church were the worst. Young people should avoid them. The church made me feel there was nothing worthwhile to do in life other than getting people to heaven.

You don’t know till the end whether there is one or not.

“Anyway, their idea of heaven sounds like sitting around playing the harp and singing hymns – I like music, but not to that extent, and not for ever afterwards.”

At 100, her health remains remarkably sound, although a walking frame is used for safety at home and a wheelchair for when she is out and about.

“In 2007 I had a fall and my shoulder is a bit frozen now; otherwise I’m fine,” she says. “I don’t eat very much, I don’t drink, I’m not totally teetotal, never smoked and always got a lot of physical exercise – I used to play all sorts of games: netball, hockey, lacrosse, tennis, just about everything. I’ve always had a very good memory, even now. If I forget a word I’ve known forever, 10 minutes later it comes back to me.”

Having a purposeful life has been important.

“If you don’t have a purpose, then every sickness makes you feel like you’re dying,” she says. “If I have nothing to do – which is seldom – then I feel pretty bad.”

And what of her personal legacy to Hong Kong?

“There are a lot of things I could have done, but didn’t do,” she says. “I just made up my mind I would make up for the wrongdoings of my own people, if I could. I was horrified about the social justice situation for the average person when I came here. I felt ashamed. I thought things would be much better in Hong Kong than in China but they weren’t. So I did what I could to change things.

“When I got [to China], I realised that they weren’t all opium smokers with a dagger in their hand – as I had been led to believe. They were nothing of the kind. People were very polite, well-mannered and very nice on the whole. And much broader-minded than we were.

“My life began to mean something when I was here, living among these people. They completely changed my life.”

And that feeling is clearly reciprocated: “Whenever we go out shopping, people come up and say to me, ‘Thank you for what you did for me’ or ‘for my mother’ or ‘for my family’, ‘for getting rid of corruption’, ‘for all you have done’,” she says. “It’s very touching and means more than the CBE [the British honour she was awarded in 1977, for her work against corruption] or anything else. Every time we go out, it happens, at least a dozen times.

“When I got a taxi in the past – I have a driver now – the men didn’t want to accept my money. I would never leave without paying, even if I had to throw it through the window. They always took it in the end. I said, ‘This is your work, you need to take the money.’ And so they did.

“Whenever I meet a hawker, they always thank me for helping them get their licences. It’s heartwarming. One even gave me a packet of tea, recently.

“When I see those people, I think, ‘These are my people.’ And they seem to feel the same way, too, about me.”