Documentary director’s struggle to find footage of Hong Kong’s 1967 riots exposes problems with archives

Connie Lo Yan-wai found few results when searching at the Public Records Office in Kwun Tong

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 January, 2017, 8:14pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 January, 2017, 10:33pm

Connie Lo Yan-wai entered “San Po Kong” and “artificial flower factory” anxiously at the Public Records Office in Kwun Tong, hoping to dig out records on the 1967 anti-colonial riots which turned the city upside down half a century ago.

To her astonishment, not a single result popped up.

Yet the factory was an integral part of the riots, after a labour dispute quickly snowballed to citywide disturbances when leftists and Communist Party officials seized the chance to stage a struggle against the colonial government.

The veteran journalist and director of the documentary Vanished Archives went on trying other keywords to look for footage, but all she found was a 21-second clip featuring pedestrians but no conflict scenes.

Convincing participants sceptical of people outside their social circle to speak in front of cameras was tough enough, but what truly frustrated her were the missing public records, making it hard to verify interviewees’ account.

Lo ended up relying on newspaper clippings and records of the UK Foreign Office.

“It wasn’t until I studied the records [from the UK] that I realised how many files went missing in the city’s archives,” said Lo.

“Peter Moss had once led the foreign journalists filming [the riots] at the scene,” said Lo, referring to the retired official who once headed the government information services’ publicity division. “This footage used to be given out for free but now I have to buy it from [foreign media] at a high price.”

A spokeswoman from the government’s administration wing admitted it only held nine identical 21-second film clips and some 300 archival records relating to the 1967 disturbances for public access. But Lo said she was suspicious of the government claims as her team could not locate all 300 records despite exhausting numerous keywords. Many of the records were merely clippings of pro-Beijing newspapers.

Simon Chu Fook-keung, former government records services director, recalled that in the 1980s, then information services director Peter Tsao Kwang-yung ordered that the films of his own department stored in the government warehouse be destroyed because films were inflammable.

“We archivists rescued the film after Moss told us about the plan ... but in the rescue process, we found that some of the films were in very poor condition,” Chu, who formed the Archives Action Group after his retirement, said. “There’s a possibility the riots films were lost at that stage.”

The Security Bureau said no records on the subject was being kept in its filing registry.

Lawmaker Charles Mok said he, alongside the Civic Party’s Tanya Chan and Dennis Kwok, would work closely with Chu’s group and the Journalists Association ahead of the chief executive race to urge contenders to promise putting forward archive law legislation.

“The best scenario is for the chief executive winner to promise launching the legislation following the election. If not, we are also ready to move a private member’s bill,” Mok said.

Lo reiterated the importance of having an archival law for the city, especially after she witnessed interviewees changing their account of the events which deviated from the government records decades after the riots.

“In the absence of an archival law, we would not know the government discussion behind the ‘umbrella movement’ or the controversy surrounding the Palace Museum,” she said, referring to the administration’s recent announcement to build a replica of the Forbidden City museum in the West Kowloon Cultural District.