The death on Tuesday of renowned social campaigner, legislator and educationalist Elsie Tu, at the age of 102, has closed a chapter in Hong Kong’s recent political history. A controversial figure for most of her 64 years in Hong Kong, Elsie – as she was popularly known – attracted both widespread criticism and enduring public respect.
While vocally active in Hong Kong’s public life for several decades, labelling Elsie Tu as a “politician” is seriously wide of the mark. Any attempt to pigeonhole her wide-ranging political stances – and many have, down the years – completely misses the overall point of this remarkable, redoubtable lady’s decades of dedicated public service.
No single label – “pro-establishment” is the most widespread term used to describe her – can neatly package her complex skein of apparently contradictory views or do personal justice to a genuine original. True to herself, whatever the consequences, she remained, until the end of her very long life, a magnificently inspiring one-off.
Elsie’s political convictions were – much like the lady herself – the practical, public embodiment of an old-fashioned, now largely extinct personal value system. Put most simply, Elsie was “decent”. Outspoken in the cause of basic social justice on behalf of the poor and powerless at a time when few others were willing to publicly speak out and always prepared to match words with actions, she regularly attracted the outrage of smaller-minded, less courageous people. Not that their approval (or otherwise) bothered her much. Doing what she could to assist others, when and how she could, always remained her primary motivation.
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Until the end, ordinary Hong Kong people appreciated and remembered her basic values. In far-from-affluent parts of “Asia’s World City”, where Europeans are a rare sight, Elsie was greeted warmly by passing strangers who recognised her and respected what she had tried to do for others. Helping others, to her, was the right course of life, done simply to make the world a bit better. Personal thanks and a smile was all she ever hoped for.
Some months before her 100th birthday, in 2013, we met up for lunch in Kowloon Bay. While we waited on the pavement as Eddie, her driver and helper, parked the car, passers-by stopped, smiled and greeted Elsie. One man in his early 30s, out with his son, aged two or three, came up and asked if I could take a photograph of them with the near-centenarian, who smilingly agreed and held the little boy’s hand for the picture. After handing back the camera, I asked why they wanted a photograph – after all, how many people of the current generation had even heard of her? His reply summed up the regard in which she was so widely held: “I want my son to be able to show his grandchildren that, once in his life, he met such a person as Mrs Tu.”
A last word on the private individual – unknown to those who saw only the energetic public firebrand – goes to Rosann Santora Kao, a close friend who visited Elsie regularly in her last months.
“There will be much in the press [about her passing],” wrote the author on the day of Elsie’s death. “The ‘great friends for years’ will all make themselves known. And the few of us who knew her – and knew she liked ginger cakes and friendly dogs and gardens with flowers – well, we will just know that we were her friends.”