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Memoir

Hong Kong 1967: Summer of discontent

PERHAPS I SHOULD have seen a portent in the entrails, but I could divine only horror from the scene. We'd come home from a pleasant Chinese New Year lunch to find our backyard had become a charnel house. The chickens which had arrived that morning had been slaughtered; their decapitated, plucked bodies now lay in a small fleshy pile on the concrete.

At the Chinese New Year open house at our home in Kowloon Tong that day in early 1967 – the dawning of the Year of the Ram – my father had doled out, in customary red packets, bonuses to the top men in his construction company. In response they showered him with gifts; no gold, frankincense or myrrh, but plenty of cigars, brandy, dried beef and other food of doubtful provenance and the chickens, in several clucking bags.

My younger brother, sister and I were delighted. We planned to build a coop out the back, near the servants' quarters where our amah, Ah Lun, lived. She had other plans and while we were out wielded her kitchen cleaver with deadly results.

We gawped at the scene but she grinned, pleased with herself. We were mortified; tears were shed. Ah Lun couldn't understand the fuss. ‘I make good dinner," she said. ‘See yau gai.'

She collected the guts and put them in a bowl for her own meal. I felt sick.

There was no seer on hand to divine any forebodings from the blood and guts she hosed into the back gutter. Chinese New Year is a time to think about peace and prosperity. Nobody foresaw the shadow about to fall across our lives, cast by the Cultural Revolution ravaging China, just across the border from the tiny British colony we called home.

But there were warnings. The year before Hong Kong had been rocked by protests and rioting. Leftists emboldened by the Cultural Revolution protested against the rise in fares for the Star Ferry, the main method of crossing Hong Kong harbour. The rise was infinitesimal, but it provided an excuse for the cadres to vent their hatred of the imperialist rulers, paper tigers and capitalist running dogs. Us, that is.

As a ten-year-old I read the South China Morning Post, after my father finished with it, and knew something of what was going on in the region. The Vietnam War was raging not far away, while in Hong Kong, hate-filled Red Guards sought to introduce Mao's Cultural Revolution and disrupt British rule of the colony China coveted since it lost the first Opium War in 1842. I knew the red peril was nearby, poised to strike. We were safe in our quiet suburban enclave of privilege but my parents were concerned.

My father's family were old China hands, British expats, who hadn't called England home for decades. They lived in Shanghai in the 1930s, until the Japanese invasion of Manchuria pushed them to the safety of Hong Kong. When it became clear that the Japanese push south would not stop, my grandfather shipped his family to Australia. He remained in Hong Kong to tie up business, was captured when the Japanese invaded in 1941, and was imprisoned at Stanley civilian POW camp for the war.

The Browns began to consider themselves Australian after their sojourn in Sydney, but returned to Hong Kong until the communists took over in China, which made my grandfather nervous. He didn't fancy staying around for another invasion and moved permanently to Australia. The feared invasion didn't happen and Hong Kong remained strangely immune to the troubles of the region. Meanwhile my father had met and married my Queenslander mother, but hankered for Hong Kong and moved us back there in the early 1960s.

At first the only visible sign of instability was the constant presence of serviceman on rest and recreation leave from Vietnam. The 1966 riots had been a worry but were quickly quelled. Still, everyone sensed the horrors occurring north of the border; headless corpses washed down the Pearl River and into Hong Kong waters, so we knew terrible things were happening.

One of my father's favourite employees, Little Lee (a small, nut-brown man with a mouth full of gold teeth) left to visit his dying mother in Canton just after Christmas 1966, but had not retuned by New Year. We missed him on the day the chickens arrived; his gifts were always the best. I overheard my father and one of his colleagues talking about Little Lee some days later. My father, propped at the bar dispensing gin and tonics, drew a finger across his throat and made a strangling noise, much to my mother's disgust. Apart from that, and the chicken massacre, 1967 started normally enough.

 

THE WEATHER WAS still cool that February, each morning we donned our warm blazers to be chauffeured to school. My parents went about their usual round of cocktail parties. On Saturday mornings we went to the YMCA in Tsim Sha Tsui, downtown Kowloon, my mother took morning tea at the ritzy Peninsula Hotel next door and my father visited his construction sites.

On Saturday afternoons I would often go to my friend Greg England's house, a penthouse apartment in Telephone House, on Kowloon's main artery. From the rooftop we looked down onto the Kowloon Mosque and the bustling streets. We often visited our favourite record store in Mody Road. The area was considered safe and was full of American serviceman on leave. Some of them hung around the record store, mostly tall black guys in colourful Thai silk shirts who jived to Motown records down the back, much to the delight of the Chinese storekeeper, a diminutive, bespectacled fellow with an unfortunate overbite.

The Americans were everywhere and girlie bars sprang up to service them. They were often ferried between bars in rickshaws, several pulled by one small wiry man. One day it was raining, so Greg and I caught a rickshaw home from the Star Ferry and got into a race with another carrying three young sailors who pretended to lash the poor coolie whose misfortune it was to drag them between their dens of iniquity.

On Sundays we went to the Kowloon Cricket Club (one had to have a club) for lunch or to one of the huge yum cha palaces along Nathan Road. At home, like good colonials, we never lifted a finger. All seemed right with the world.

 

YET, WHEN THE weather became warmer in late March, trouble began to brew. There were reports in the papers, on radio and TV, of labour disputes and communist agitation. I recall the Red Guards on television, angry young men and women waving little red books in the air, denouncing imperialists and capitalism. They painted anti-Western slogans on walls and papered posters denouncing us all.

My father had a copy of the little red book – Quotations From Chairman Mao Tse Tung published by the Foreign Language Press, Peking in 1966, I have it still. He kept it on the bar and used to read from it in a falsetto Chinese accent after a few drinks. I'm not sure Mao spoke that way but it seemed to amuse everyone. Suddenly the book disappeared off the bar and into a drawer. Mao may have been a figure of fun, but the joke wore thin as 1967 progressed.

What looked at first like the sporadic protests of a rabble began to spread and by May major civil strife was inevitable. A labour dispute at an artificial flower factory at San Po Kong escalated into a march on Government House which was besieged by thousands of Red Guards protesting British Rule. Violent demonstrations followed and communist infiltrators stirred up trouble on some of my father's construction sites.

As kids we noticed that our social life was curtailed. We were forbidden to go into what were laughingly referred to as ‘Chinese areas'. In Hong Kong shouldn't all areas have been Chinese areas? I wondered. My mother's shopping trips to Lion Rock Road in nearby Kowloon City were off the agenda. Kowloon City was an exotic world, where remnants of the Qing Dynasty hung on in the mysterious walled city that no Europeans penetrated. The new rules meant we must also keep away from Mongkok in central Kowloon, one of the most densely populated places on the planet, a teeming maze of markets and high rises where the washing of thousands of families hung limply on bamboo poles from the apartment buildings. This, we were told, was where communists came from.

The restrictions didn't disrupt our lives too much though, as we moved between colonial oases of privilege. We'd go from our house in Devon Road, in salubrious Kowloon Tong, where we lived behind a high wall topped with broken glass and barbed wire, to the Kowloon Cricket Club, Peninsula Hotel, YMCA and European enclaves where friends lived. As the temperature rose we spent more time at the club in the pool or feasting on their famous samousas.

 

HONG KONG IS sultry in Summer. As the clouds began to shroud Lion Rock, the stony sentinel atop the mountain that overshadowed our suburb, humidity rose and troubles multiplied. By June, as we sweltered, things began to get out of hand, but for me it was a month of joy and the arrival of Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. As a Beatles fanatic, I had spent months waiting for the release of the landmark album, pouring over mentions in my monthly Beatles magazine. Its release was like the second coming for me. After a pilgrimage to Mody Road to blow my pocket money on the record I took to my room for a weekend playing it over and over.

Eventually, however, we could no longer ignore what was going on in the outside world as the troubles continued. One of the most serious incidents happened early the following month. Armed militia crossed the border into Hong Kong, shooting and killing five policemen. My father was worried; there were rumours that the Chinese were about to invade. The British response was to call in Nepalese Ghurkhas, their front-line shock troops, to hold the border.

It seemed strange that anything could happen at the border post at Lo Wu. We often went there when friends visited from abroad, to gaze across into what my parents called ‘Red China' – a boring excursion, ogling a vast emptiness which didn't look very threatening. All we could see were farmers tending rice paddies, flocks of ducks and the occasional water buffalo wallowing in the mud. The militia who crossed the border were not acting with official sanction, it was found later, and seemed to be an isolated group. But it scared the hell out of everyone.

Things turned worse. Communists started a campaign of terrorist bombings. At school we were warned to keep away from large crowds of Chinese – difficult in Kowloon – and report any suspicious packages or items left in public paces and keep clear of them. Many people were killed in these bombings and in late August came a particularly horrific case – two young Chinese children blown to smithereens when they investigated a mysterious parcel.

Around that time a local paper was criticised for showing the body of a man killed in a bombing on its front page. The paper argued it was just reporting the news, but I remember my mother's agitation when someone at the club held it aloft so everyone could see the awful picture. She told us not to look.

In late August, Lam Bun, a popular anti-leftist radio announcer was murdered – his car doused in petrol and set alight. My parents and their friends started talking about the possibility of leaving Hong Kong, a thought which horrified me – it was my hometown. Then, by September, the Hong Kong police had contained the troublemakers and the Ghurkas had well and truly secured the border. But the carnage was considerable – fifty-one dead and eight hundred injured.

Later that year Chinese Premier Chou En-lai ordered Hong Kong leftists to stop the bombings and riots. The People's Republic of China didn't want a war on its doorstep; it had enough trouble at home as the Cultural Revolution tore the country apart. It only had three decades to wait before Hong Kong reverted to China, not long for a country that measures its history in millennia.

Things seemed normal then but that long hot summer of 1967 marked the end of something. Our innocence was lost, a tranquil colonial idyll was shaken to it foundations, the year Sgt Pepper's ruled the charts and Little Lee disappeared and never returned for Chinese New Year, arms full of gifts, gold teeth glinting from his smile. 


From Griffith Review Edition 18: In the Neighbourhood © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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