1967 riot antagonists seek common ground with reconciliation committee

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 July, 2013, 7:23am

A former senior police officer and a veteran leftist who stood on opposite sides of Hong Kong's deadly 1967 riots are setting up a truth and reconciliation committee in the hope of reaching a view of the events that people in both camps can accept.

The bid for reconciliation comes after the release of a new documentary that the two men say is dangerously one-sided.

"It's no longer the time to trade accusations. We're too old for that," said James Elms, a police inspector in 1967 who retired in 1996 as a senior superintendent.

Peter Tsang Yu-hung, who was jailed for unlawful assembly during the riots, said the public, especially the young, deserved an unbiased account of what happened.

"We want to draw peoples' attention to the forgotten part of our history. It's our very own history. Why does everyone remember the June 4 crackdown and go to Victoria Park for the candlelight vigil every year but the 1967 riots are not even talked about?" Tsang, 62, said.

They believe the riots can offer a valuable lesson to the young about how to avoid such political upheaval occurring again.

"There are many similarities between society then and now. It is becoming more and more polarised," Elms said. "We don't want our younger generations to walk the same paths we have."

Added Tsang: "History tells us that if it's something good, we should let it grow. If it's something undesirable, we should learn about it and not repeat it."

Elms and Tsang attended the screening of 1967 - A Look Back, a documentary commissioned by the 67 Synergy Group, an organisation of leftists who were jailed during the riots.

Elms agreed to take part in the film, and the directors interviewed him twice on camera about the police's actions, but Elms discovered most of his comments were left out.

"If I knew the final product would be [as biased as] this, I wouldn't have bothered to go," he said. Elms faulted the filmmakers for showing only how the riots unfolded and the aftermath - the loss of 51 lives and the nearly 2,000 convictions. But they neglected to fully explain what triggered them and why they were suppressed.

Tsang criticised his friends in the 67 Synergy Group and the producer for delivering remarks on the police beatings in 1967 ahead of the screening.

"You have to let the audience watch the film and let them arrive at the answers. They'll have their own conclusion," Tsang said.

Elms and Tsang first met in May last year at a seminar at Chinese University where commentators, scholars and witnesses to the riots shared their views on the disturbances. Elms, speaking for himself, offered an apology to those who suffered during the riots.

They want the new body, the 1967 Witnesses' Assembly, to gather fresh information, witness statements, film footage and reports on the riots and present them to the public. They hope police and leftists who took part can come together to achieve a common goal.

"Society has advanced. We shouldn't sweep the history of 1967 under the carpet. This won't help," Elms said. "This is our history. Our children should know about it."

The riots can be traced back to a labour dispute at a factory in San Po Kong in early May, 1967. Throughout the summer, unionists and pro-communist sympathisers staged demonstrations across the city. Police responded in force, creating a series of tit-for-tat rallies and crackdowns. The Cultural Revolution was gearing up on the mainland and some of the leftists displayed Mao Zedong's Little Red Book while they marched in protests.

Tsang was in Form Five at the pro-Beijing Heung To Middle School in Kowloon Tong. He, 51 classmates and a teacher were arrested for attending an unlawful assembly. Last year he asked Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying to help clear his name.

The confrontation between the colonial government and the leftists calmed in December, after then premier Zhou Enlai expressed Beijing's official disapproval.

"We were all common civilians and it was not our fault. Everyone suffered and is a victim, no matter what side you were on," Tsang said.

He said the younger generation deserved to know the facts, which was far more important than who took what side in the upheaval.

The riots claimed 51 lives, 15 of which were the result of bomb attacks.

A total of 1,936 people were convicted for offences committed during the riots.

Of those, 465 were jailed for "unlawful assembly", 40 for possessing bombs and 33 for explosion-related offences.