kevin sinclair's hong kong

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 June, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 June, 2004, 12:00am

The British sailors who couldn't steer straight in the Shatt al-Arab waterway caused an incident last week which could have sparked a major diplomatic row or even armed clashes. Fortunately, sanity prevailed. The Iranian authorities handed the men back with a minimum of fuss. In future, the Royal Navy will navigate with more care.

I couldn't help but chuckle when I read the story. There was a similar confrontation on the Hong Kong border in the middle of the Cultural Revolution, a blunder which could have led to bloodshed and political eruption.

Both sides reacted smartly and swiftly to treat it as farce rather than force. All were eager to pour water on a potentially explosive situation. That episode ended in laughter, a very rare commodity at the time along the border where British soldiers and Hong Kong police faced large contingents of the People's Army, People's Armed Police and armed militia. The Red Guards who had once rampaged bloodily through the paddy fields of Shenzhen had, thankfully, been dispersed a couple of years earlier. Otherwise there could have been a much nastier outcome.

It was a sunny spring afternoon in May 1971 when an eight-man squad of the 1st Battalion, the Irish Guards, bumped along Shataukok Road a few metres from the border. The newly arrived soldiers were in a four-tonne lorry loaded with supplies and ammunition, following a Land Rover carrying their company quartermaster sergeant.

There were prominent signs along the narrow road in English, Chinese and Gurkali with a large arrow pointing to the right with big warning letters and signs emphatically saying no entrance. The driver followed the no-go sign and swung right, directly into the narrow shop-lined lane that is Chung Ying (China England) Street. The border runs down the middle marked only by small stone blocks. The Irish unit crossed that road and ended up in China.

Astonished Hong Kong policemen saw the truck cross the border and raised the alarm. Four years earlier, rampaging militiamen had stormed out of Shataukok, machine-gunning police, killing five and wounding 12. During the frenzy of the Cultural Revolution there had been frequent riots, parades, demonstrations and noisy confrontations in the divided town.

Two Hong Kong constables grabbed on Chung Ying Street in 1967 were held for two months. An inspector, Frank Knight, was kidnapped on our side of the border by angry farmers, dragged across and held prisoner until he made an astonishing escape over the wire.

So as the alarming news of the 'Irish invasion' spread, police and troops were put on alert. It didn't take long for rumours to reach Hong Kong. I telephoned the army information office and asked for details.

'Total rubbish, old boy,' I was told, blandly. 'There's absolutely nothing happening.' Ten minutes later, the major was back on the line. 'Ummm, there seems to have been a slight cock-up,' he admitted.

Once over the border, the Irishmen started to unload crates of supplies onto a street, thinking they were at a British army supply dump. A Chinese soldier approached and in startled astonishment, tried to wave them away. The Irishmen joked and ignored him. It was only when a squad of Chinese soldiers appeared with weapons drawn that the Irish soldiers seemed to realise they had inadvertently staged an eight-man invasion of China.

British officials made placatory remarks. Despatches were flashed to London and Beijing. 'Solve it, now!' came the replies.

In Shataukok, the Irishmen were treated to cold beer and snacks at the military canteen. Ten hours later, they were freed and allowed to drive back over Chung Ying Street to the relief of the Hong Kong and British governments.

One other incident as the Cultural Revolutionary madness faded always made me laugh.

A Welch guardsman was posted at a crossing point where farmers walked through the wire to tend their fields on the Hong Kong side. A girl with hoe and basket came through. 'Morning,' the squaddie said. The girl, horrified, ran back to her village. In minutes an angry mob had surrounded the soldier, police were called, officials arrived, apologies were demanded, punishments sought, compensation requested.

It emerged that the young soldier's polite greeting in his strong Welsh accent sounded in dialect like 'Touch your breasts'.

After that, the Welch Guards stood silent while on duty.'