Uniformed services aim to give a public impression of being exactly that – uniform. But surprising diversity of experience and origin can be discerned within apparent ethnic homogeneity and, historically, the European contingent within the Hong Kong Police Force has offered various examples.
Now wryly referred to – mostly by the men themselves – as a critically endangered species, fewer than 100 expatriate officers remain within the 28,000-strong force.
From the colony’s 19th-century beginnings until the 1990s, the Hong Kong Police Force recruited large numbers of Scotsmen and Irishmen, and for similar reasons; urban and rural poverty, and lack of opportunity at home, impelled many to seek better prospects in the colonies.
When the International Settlement Police force in Shanghai was formally disbanded after the Pacific war, a small number joined the Hong Kong Police. Policemen with Allied nationality had been disarmed and interned when the Japanese occupied the city’s international settlement.
Numerous White Russians were also recruited into the Hong Kong force around this period. Drawn from a sizeable émigré population that fled into China after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, the reasons for their employment were ultimately economic.
After the Bolshevik regime was recognised by Western powers in the early 1920s, their Tsarist-issued passports were invalidated. They were stranded in China as stateless persons and acquisition of a new nationality became very important. If they lived in Hong Kong long enough, White Russians could be naturalised as British subjects. But in the meantime, they were far cheaper to employ; without overseas homes to return to, they did not qualify for standard expatriate allowances such as sea passage and paid overseas leave.
Colonial sunsets throughout the 1950s and ’60s brought other policemen to Hong Kong. Informal, internal cliques evolved as officers from newly independent territories, who had known each other in their earlier professional lives, found themselves here.
Some transferred from Palestine when the British mandate there ended in 1948. Most ex-Palestine Police, however, went first to the Federation of Malaya Police. When the Chinese communist-fomented Malayan emergency erupted in 1948, their anti-terrorism and counter-insurgency skills – acquired during the ultimately unsuccessful attempt to keep Palestinian Arabs and immigrant Jews from each other’s throats – were much in demand.
Others, having transitioned from post-Merdeka Malaya to the South Pacific – in particular Fiji – came to Hong Kong to finish their careers in the wake of further decolonisation in the ’70s. They were widely known as the “Coconuts” – a jovial reference to their dispersed tropical origins – and included Roy Henry, Hong Kong’s police commissioner from 1979-85.
“Afrika Korps” was the nickname given to those who relocated to Hong Kong when African territories became independent. Most were young men who had served only a few years in territories such as Tanganyika, Kenya and Northern Rhodesia, before their posts were localised in the early 1960s. Some enjoyed full careers in Hong Kong, and the last of the “Afrika Korps” contingent retired only in the 1990s.
Along with administrative and technical-grade government officers who transferred from other newly independent former colonial territories at a mid-point or later in their careers, these recycled policemen were known by longer established Hong Kong hands – somewhat dismissively – as “retreads”.
As with certain local legal firms and – whisper it softly – the judiciary, the Hong Kong Police Force had a strong Masonic streak from the 1840s onwards. Those who declined to join – according to some sources – found that their careers didn’t go in the direction that they had, anticipated. The Marine Police, it appears, was the branch where non-Freemasons felt most at home, and where they could enjoy a successful career without the need to regularly wear, shall we say, a somewhat different out-of-hours uniform.