From riots and graft to Asia's finest

Since a humble beginning in 1844, police in Hong Kong have overcome many hurdles to be a force to be reckoned with

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 August, 2013, 3:33am

From its early days as a chaotic band fighting pirates and plagues, the Hong Kong police force has survived wars, riots and endemic corruption to emerge as what some labelled "Asia's finest".

It dates to 1841 when Captain William Caine was tasked with managing law and order over the new British colony, with its opium parlours and gambling dens, with a budget of £1,400 to build a 32-man police force, officially formed on May 1, 1844. From 1861 to the end of the second world war, the force drew many recruits from India.

In 1945, following the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, the police force effectively had to start from scratch. Duncan MacIntosh, who had served in Ireland and Singapore, was appointed commissioner in 1946. "The police force he took over was decimated, its equipment lost or looted, its stations largely destroyed," says the police website.

MacIntosh oversaw a rapid increase in officers and pushed for better pay and housing, a move which proved crucial as the first waves of refugees began to flood into Hong Kong from the mainland in 1949.

A major test for the police came on Christmas Day 1953, when fires ripped through one of the largest squatter villages in Shek Kip Mei, destroying more than 10,000 huts and leaving 58,000 people homeless.

In 1966 and 1967, the Cultural Revolution spilled over the border. During months of violent riots, five police officers were gunned down; others were killed by bombs.

But the police emerged from this period as a force to be reckoned with and in 1969 Britain's Queen Elizabeth awarded it the royal charter.

However, during the 1960s and 1970s, corruption was rampant as officers of all ranks - and across most government departments - sought to bolster their low pay with "tea money" and other favours.

One of the biggest scandals involved Peter Godber, who had been hailed a hero in 1967. Before his retirement in 1973 he amassed HK$4.3 million stashed in overseas bank accounts.

He fled Hong Kong and went on the run. He was arrested in April 1974 in England and later extradited to Hong Kong where after a trial, he was jailed for four years for corruption.

The scandal led to the creation of the Independent Commission Against Corruption in 1974. The clean-up campaign rankled, however. In 1977, thousands of officers took to the streets, protesting against what they called victimisation.

By 1973, there was equal pay for men and women.

The last intake of expatriate officers was in 1994. After the handover, the force dropped the royal from its title.

Today, it's now a 28,000-strong force.