Confrontation between rioters and the police during the 1967 Riot, 1967, Hong Kong.
(Photo: 香港舊照片Old Hong Kong photo)
Last year was the 50-year anniversary of one of the most controversial and turbulent moments in the history of colonial Hong Kong – the 1967 riots. The mainstreamaccount of the violent disturbances is that the San Po Kwong labour dispute triggered a series of strikes and demonstrations, which rapidly snowballed into a bloody “anti-British struggle” of the Hong Kong leftists, a spill-over of the Cultural Revolution in mainland China. From May to December 1967, 51 died. 15 of the dead were lost to bomb attacks and 1936 rioters were subsequently convicted of criminal offences. Among the victims, the very popular Commercial Radio talk show host, Lam Bun, who was known for his vehement criticism of the extremist actions of the leftists, was virtually burnt to death in his car. Around the same time, two children — a brother and sister aged 2 and 8, were brutally killed by a bomb hidden inside a parcel they picked up in a rubbish bin in North Point. Fifty years on, the traumatic 1967 riots remain a highly sensitive and taboo subject and have left an indelible mark on the psyche of Hong Kong people.Every time my parents recount what happened at that time in their childhood, they tell me sombrely about the “communists’ self-made bombs” (土製菠蘿, literally ‘mud-made pineapple’) in the streets and their fear of not being able to go to school anymore. Far from being a distant historical event, the riots have been and still are entangled in Hong Kong’s contemporary political climate.
In recent years, Hong Kong has increasingly become a stage for political spectacles, or fiascos. In such a polarised political climate, the Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China saw the wrestling between camps of the ‘pro-democrats’ and the ‘pro-Beijing leftists’, manifest most blatantly in the Umbrella Movement in 2014 and the Leftist backlash. This rupture of the society has, meanwhile, been exacerbated by mass media and the use of social media. People tend to receive information so selectively and uncritically according to what they believe, rather than to search for the truth. Or is there any ‘truth’? As Walter Benjamin wrote, “Truth is an intentionless state of being, made up of ideas. The proper approach to it is not, therefore, one of intention and knowledge, but rather a total immersion and absorption in it. Truth is the death of intention.” In a time of political turmoil when ‘intentions’ seem to overpower ‘truth’, the past has seemingly fallen prey to current political ideologies and agendas. The 1967 riots, being so contentious in nature, have come to be one of the ‘victims’ in a trend of distortion of history.
As tension builds and social ruptures worsen as they have over the past few years, the Hong Kong identity and the Chinese nationalist understanding of Hong Kong people appear to be in conflict. Fears over recent signs of interventions and ‘mainlandisation’ manifest themselves in debates over issues like national education, the ‘co-location arrangement’ of the Express Rail Link and the disqualification of six Legislative Council members.The Umbrella Movement, meanwhile, countered the Beijing decision that Chief Executive candidates would effectively be vetted by the nominating committee dominated by the pro-Beijing figures. Occupying the three major intersections of the city, namely Central, Causeway Bay and Mong Kok for 79 days in 2014, the Movement ended without bringing any change to the political system. Many felt a sense of powerlessness and fear of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that was exacerbated by an ingrained psychological resistance to it stemming from events such as the 1967 riots and the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre.
Rioters hurling bricks at the police during the Mong Kok Riot, 2016, Hong Kong. (Photo:Takungpao.com)
Whilst mainstream accounts of what happened 50 years ago condemn the leftist rioters and their violence and saw it as influenced by the concurrent Cultural Revolution in mainland China, the Leftists in recent years seem to present it as a patriotic struggle against the "British imperialists". From ‘1967 riots’ to ‘Anti-British Struggle’ to, sometimes, ‘1967 Incident’, the constant renaming of the riots speaks volumes of their revisionist intentions. Leftist groups, such as ‘The 67 Synergy Group’ (67動力研究社), have been set up to ‘rehabilitate’ those “patriots” who were convicted of rioting, proclaiming that “it is always right to love your country” and that they have been “demonised by the public”. While it was true that social injustice and the lack of protection of rights of grassroots workers were underlying factors for general resentment of the British colonial government that led to the riots, the leftists’ accounts do not mention the external factor of the Cultural Revolution at all. Rather, theyrush to identify British misdeeds and praised Beijing’s contribution to Hong Kong throughout the years, calling for decolonisation. What is worse, they propose to “recover the truth” of the 1967 riots and use the (their) “truth” as a “teaching material” for decolonisation.
At the same time, it was discovered in September 2015 that the Hong Kong Police Force had made their version of the riots’ history “concise” (as it claimed) on their website. 264 characters were cut, including those recording the violent deeds of the leftist rioters and how they were galvanised by the spirit of the Cultural Revolution.
Lo Yan Wai during her research for Vanished Archives. (Photo: Vanished Archives)
Meanwhile, a recently-made documentary titled Vanished Archiveson the 1967 riots stirred up much controversy. As the director, Connie Lo Yan-Wai, and her team was conducting research in the Public Records Office of Hong Kong, they found that most of the archival documents and videos of the 1967 riots had literally disappeared. In a stark contrast to most other major historical events, such as the 1956 riots, the 1967 riots are left with 110 incomplete files and a 21-second video documentation. As the title mournfully hints at, the documentary points to a crisis in the archiving and treatment of history.
As history is being “forgotten”, made selectively “concise” and distorted, both the pro-democracy and the pro-Beijing leftists hold on to their versions of the ‘truth’. Conflicting accounts of this traumatic event are followed by vilifying comments against each other for the distortion of history for current political agendas, further intensifying the pro-Umbrella Movement rift in the society. Many from the pro-democracy side hurl disparaging remarks on the leftists, let alone irrational protests and riots, and the emerging call for “independence”.It is even more irrational on the Internet.
In 2015, one of the leaders of the riots and the Federation of Trade Unions, Yeung Kwong, passed away. On Facebook, many people with leftist views posted tribute messages such as, “we will miss our fellow fighter in the anti-British and anti-persecution struggle”. On the other side, those critical of the pro-Beijing camp scathingly attacked Yeung, calling him “a murderer with blood on your hands”. These, in turn, “blurred” the history of the 1967 riots further through the conflation of the current with the events happening 50 years ago.
It is, therefore, no coincidence that the historical ‘truth’ of the 1967 riots has been so contested, influenced by the current political climate of the city. It now seems untenable that a historical ‘truth’ of the 1967 Riots can ever be told in this state of antagonism and irrationality, especially for younger generations who did not experience the events first-hand. In fact, the further both sides try to forge a ‘truth’, the bigger the rift becomes. The confrontational atmosphere is problematic and counter-productive. It has also intensified what Ackbar Abbas called the "culture of disappearance" of Hong Kong. Many Hongkongers are simply fed up with messy politics, thinking that the government and everyone should pay more attention to livelihoods of the people rather than staging fiascos and political performances, be it in the Legislative Council or in the streets. This “reversed hallucination” is very much due to the sense of futility and pessimism in the face of society’s rupture and polarisation.
The escapist attitude, at the same time, is very dangerous when it comes to looking back at history. One should not just ignore how the different sides are interpreting the 1967 riots with intentions or serious bias without trying to look for the ‘truth’, however difficult it may seem. If forgotten, history would be subject to ‘intentionally’ harmful revisionism. We have to be critical and always look at historical ‘truths’ presented to us with an acute awareness of how susceptible history is to the present. As Milan Kundera astutely put, “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting”.