Book review: Hong Kong on the Brink– An American Diplomat Relives 1967’s Darkest Days

As the only Cantonese-speaking non-Chinese foreign service officer at the American consulate general in 1967, Syd Goldsmith was in the thick of the unfolding political situation

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 June, 2017, 8:31am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 June, 2017, 12:30pm

Hong Kong on the Brink: An American Diplomat Relives 1967’s Darkest Days

By Syd Goldsmith

Blacksmith Books

3.5/5 stars

As civil disturbances go, 1967 certainly put 2014 into perspective. You probably know the story: dreadful working and living conditions prompt widespread industrial strife and demonstrations against the colonial administration, which quickly escalate.

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Beijing, itself locked in an impenetrable power struggle, appears to support the protesters; rumours swirl that China is about to take over; bombs start appearing on the streets of Hong Kong; the British authorities crack down; and mayhem threatens to engulf the city, with existential implications for its future.

Syd Goldsmith was there throughout all of it, as the only Cantonese-speaking non-Chinese foreign service officer at the American consulate general. His memoir, Hong Kong on the Brink, mostly covers the period between his arrival in Hong Kong 1965 and the end of the riots.

Goldsmith was charged with reporting on Hong Kong and Macau’s political situation for the US government, a job that largely seemed to involve summarising the local press, leaning heavily on his Chinese assistant. It also leads him, however, to have a machine gun pointed at him by a PLA soldier at the border; and to be beaten by an angry mob, and only just escaping with his life, after being asked by the deputy chief of the US mission to take a look around the city’s restive areas.

The book opens with a gripping description of the latter, and concludes with a killer anecdote related to the same incident. In between it’s an informative, engaging read filled with vivid historical detail, although it does rather take a long time to get to the point.

Apart from the opening chapter, the Hong Kong riots don’t make an appearance until page 151 of 281. Much of the time is spent focused on the internal politics of the US mission and Goldsmith’s passion for the flute. At one point in the book Goldsmith’s boss berates him for repetition in a written report, and evidently he has not entirely cured himself of the habit.

But the book is gripping when it gets to the riots. Goldsmith offers an unsparing critique of the deprivation and exploitative labour conditions that gave rise to them. With labour laws that gave workers no bargaining rights, allowing employers to sack them for even attempting to negotiate, and a ready supply of labour, the colonial regime’s treatment of the local population managed to turn a good chunk of the people, who had come to Hong Kong largely to escape the worst excesses of Mao’s China, into Little Red Book-carrying communist sympathisers.

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The book is also illuminating on the insulated bubble of expat life, based on strictly reinforced and deeply regressive British class divisions. He is both very close to the riots and living on The Peak, a metaphorical million miles from them.

Goldsmith gives a good sense of how weak the colonial administration was, partially tolerating protests out of a desire not to provide grist to the mill of Hong Kong’s nine communist controlled newspapers. With China having forced concessions from the Portuguese administration in Macau after the 1966 riots that gave it effective control of the city, and Beijing-controlled businesses already deeply embedded in Hong Kong, the survival of British rule was in the balance.

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In fact, in many ways the riots gave birth to the modern Hong Kong, as the British authorities realised the need to build a Hong Kong identity, ushering in everything from compulsory education to labour rights, and from the ICAC to Chinese as an official language under governor Murray MacLehose, appointed in 1971. But Goldsmith’s book conveys an urgent sense of just how close we came to just having celebrated the 50th anniversary of the handover rather than the 20th.