A number of those arrested and taken off to the Police Training School, near Aberdeen, during the Occupy disturbances of 2014 loudly complained, on their eventual release, that they’d had to wait some hours before they could use the toilets, or even being given something to eat. It was evidence, they alleged, of extreme ill treatment and a shocking infringement of their civil liberties by the police.
Now, of course, nobody likes to hold their water any longer than necessary, but sitting on a full bladder for a few hours hardly counts as torture, even if it feels like it at the time.
Most demonstrators who choose to wave the colonial-era flag and loudly proclaim how much better Hong Kong was in the old days are too young to even remember the sight of the Union Jack fluttering over Government House, unless they were picked up in a parent’s arms and had it specifically pointed out to them. Even fewer “nativists” have any personal recollection of some of the less-good aspects of “the good old days”.
While not routine in Hong Kong (as it was in other parts of the British empire: in Kenya, during the Mau-Mau insurgency, for instance, and during the Malayan Emergency, in the 1950s) torture did happen from time to time. And what forms did this take, in particular during the 1967 riots?
White noise and sleep deprivation were the usual means deployed to make political detainees crack psychologically. Others had pins stuck under their fingernails while being interrogated; not life threatening, but very painful. Various other forms of coercive “questioning” were deployed from time to time.
Was anyone actually beaten up? In an interrogation centre operating during a period of serious civil unrest, when bombs were being laid on tram lines, five police were killed in armed clashes on the China border, and young children were killed by improvised explosive devices, wondering whether physical means of interrogation were used against political suspects is a bit like questioning the Catholicism of the pope.
The main Hong Kong Police Special Branch interrogation centre was a remote compound on Victoria Road, overlooking the sea at the bottom of Mount Davis. The main interrogator during this period was James Morrin. An Irish orphan who joined the Hong Kong Police in the early 1950s, this skilful interrogator could have been taken straight from the pages of a John le Carre spy novel, and – it was widely suggested – he formed a composite character in The Honourable Schoolboy (1977). A polo-playing life-long bachelor who affected a monocle and habitually wore very tight jodhpurs, Morrin possessed the uncanny knack, common to individuals with clandestine aspects to their own personalities, of seeing far beyond the usual horizons, and being able to “smell out” suspicious activities somewhat quicker than the average policeman’s nose allowed.
A few well-aimed clouts from uniformed members of “Asia’s finest” is hardly a new thing; whisper it softly, but (as one former senior police officer privately told me recently) “physical questioning” regularly happens in Hong Kong, as in virtually every other police station in the world. However, unlike Ken Tsang Kin-chiu’s very public “alleged” drubbing at the height of the Occupy protests, doors tend to get shut first, and no cameras are present when the boots start to fly.
For more on Hong Kong history and heritage, go to scmp.com/topics/old-hong-kong