Almost as soon as the bricks stopped flying at the lamentable Lunar New Year’s Eve Mong Kok riot, bitter accusations and counter-accusations started. Most thinking observers can agree on only one thing; ultimately, this nasty flare-up wasn’t about a hawker-control exercise aimed at illegal curried-fish ball stalls.
Likewise, the April 1966 Star Ferry riots weren’t – in the final analysis – about an increase in fares. During that upheaval, one person was killed, dozens were injured, some 1,800 people were arrested and – in several days of high drama spread across Kowloon – the British Army was called out to patrol the streets in support of the police.
Social tensions in Hong Kong, then, had been simmering for years. Following catastrophic mainland famines, thousands of people were permitted to surge into Hong Kong in 1962. The already overstretched transport, public housing, health, education and social welfare services were further strained.
Bank runs in 1965 saw the Ming Tak Bank collapse, with massive losses to depositors; a similar run on the Hang Seng Bank ultimately led to its takeover by HSBC. Many ordinary people had their life savings wiped out through internally orchestrated financial services shenanigans; certain interested parties closely involved in those bank runs became even more wealthy.
Far-reaching government decisions were made on behalf of an inward-looking, self-selected coterie of nakedly self-interested business figures, status-hungry toadies to the colonial power and administrative mediocrities whose sense of vision for the society within which they lived seldom extended much beyond their own bloated waistlines. Honorable exceptions existed, but they were few. Corruption was both officially denied and off the graph in scale. Police venality was ubiquitous.
Government officials – and their families – were isolated from the broader consequences of their own decisions. Educational and economic opportunity remained limited, and such social mobility as then existed was in decline. A generation of young people who had grown up in Hong Kong and knew no other place desperately wanted something better and more equitable. And no peaceful means existed to remove the demonstrably incompetent and unresponsive from power.
The eventual flashpoint came with a proposed Star Ferry fare increase at a time of widespread economic hardship. A petition organised by social activist and urban councillor Elsie Elliott, with more than 150,000 protest signatures, was tabled to the Transport Advisory Committee as “a single letter of objection”. Such puerile official dissembling only served to stoke the public anger. Protests began when So Sauchung, a young translator who wore a jacket hand-painted with “Hail Elsie”, was arrested for obstruction at the Star Ferry concourse; preventable chaos erupted and rapidly escalated.
Predictably, a “kangaroo court”-style commission of inquiry blamed the messenger – Elliott – who was even accused by police of personally paying rioters to riot. Censured by the inquiry at “the bar of public opinion”, no one today seriously pretends that Elliott was other than foully framed by a profoundly corrupt officialdom seeking to excuse its own inaction and inadequacy. Her principal “crime” was to be a courageous, principled, forthright woman with a tendency to speak hard truth (albeit, in a shrill, scattershot manner) to unresponsive power.
Hong Kong’s toxic cocktail of unresolved social issues and genuine grievances, which had caused the Star Ferry riots to erupt in the first place, remained mostly unacknowledged. And further, far more devastating, civil unrest erupted the following year.
For more on Hong Kong history and heritage, go to scmp.com/topics/old-hong-kong