Studying the 1967 riots : An overdue project

Research output: Chapters, Conference Papers, Creative and Literary Works (RGC: 12, 32, 41, 45)12_Chapter in an edited book (Author)peer-review

9 Scopus Citations
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Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationMay Days in Hong Kong: Riot and Emergency in 1967
PublisherHong Kong University Press, HKU
ISBN (Print)9789622090828
Publication statusPublished - 2009


The 1967 riots are understudied, but the events which began in May 1967 in Hong Kong led within a year to 51 deaths, 4,500 arrests, and a campaign of bombings which threatened to destabilize the colony. What began as a strike at an artificial flower factory became a major anti-colonial movement led by local leftists, which was eventually countered by a full range of emergency and security measures instituted by the colonial administration. The press and the education system became areas of conflict, and the impact of the events spilled over into Sino-British relations more broadly, and to outbreaks of violence in London, Shanghai and Beijing. By any objective standards this was a major crisis. However, while the public memory of the event is still alive, the public representation of these months of conflict is muted - There is little mention of them in the Hong Kong Museum of History, and most works on post-war history of Hong Kong allocate no more than a few pages on this sUbject.! Despite the paucity of analysis, accounts of the event contrast sharply. Notwithstanding the poor working conditions and appalling state of welfare provision in Hong Kong during the 1960s, John Cooper argued that 'whatever the causes of this unrest were, they could in no way be sufficiently sound to justify the "reign of terror" which was to characterize the daily life of the Colony throughout the long summer of 1967'.2 His indictment focused on the violence of the political campaign instigated by the communists who started 'with the assumption that the Colony would bend under pressure as easily as Macao had done'? Cooper's view finds resonance in an unexpected source; Jin Yaoru, a local communist boss in charge of propaganda work in the 1960s, voiced similar views on the influence of external sources on the unfolding of disturbances almost three decades later. In his book on Chinese Communist Party's Hong Kong policy, he argues that the anxiety of the local party leadership to prove its loyalty to the radical movement in Beijing was the main impetus behind the campaign.4 Hong Kong's 1997 reunification with China seems to have emboldened a segment of the left-wing camp to talk about the events, and more work on the issue has been published in recent years. Gary Cheung's collection of interviews with several key players in the communist camp adds further ammunition to Jin's argument.s While not disputing this basic argument, the account by Zhou Yi, former deputy chief editor of Wen Wei Po, provides a more nuanced analysis of the involvement of leftists in the confrontation. By contextualizing the event against the background of the unabated persecution of leftist organizations and individuals by the colonial administration in post-war Hong Kong ,6 Zhou portrayed the turbulence simply as an explosion of anger fuelled by grievances at the persecution endured by the communist sympathizers over the years, and the violence unleashed as self-defence in the face of colonial ferocity. On the other hand, with the benefit of access to the now-open Foreign Office files, Liang and his colleagues have made a very important contribution to the general understanding of the matter by bringing in the views of the British and colonial governments. Based on the official records of communications between London and Hong Kong during that period, their analysis offers invaluable access to the thinking and calculation of the 'British' side and thus constitutes an important supplement to the various left-wing accounts mentioned above.7 This project is a response to the renewed interest in the 1967 riots. Despite the 'mini-boom' in publications on the event over the last few years, most analyses remain journalistic or partisan. This book aims at revisiting two fundamental questions. First, what had really happened during the riots? By this, we do not mean simply the chronology of events (which is well documented) but aim at uncovering the dynamics and logic of the interaction between the different parties concerned.s Second, we wish to explore the importance of these events. Were they a turning point in Hong Kong history or is that an exaggeration? Was it really a legitimacy crisis, just a storm in a colonial teacup, or a test as argued by former colonial officials? 'How fatuous the whole thing was,' reflected former governor Sir David Trench in 1987, '[ t ] here was no issue between us and the people who were rioting except that they wanted to riot and we didn't want them to.'9 So, do they in fact belong to the obscurity that has mostly enveloped them? Were the social reforms of the post-riots years simply inevitable even without the turbulent explosion in 19677 We aim here to look beyond narratives of confrontation and the parochial dimensions of the event by placing our analysis in a wider context. We conceive the events in 1967 in a wider historical perspective and focus on how the previous experience of local disturbances in the colony had shaped and influenced its responses and perceptions of the challenge faced in the 1960s. We also try to place the analysis in the wider context of the late British Empire as the unfolding of events was determined not only by the concerns and anxiety of the colonial state during the Hong Kong emergency, but also by calculations of the British government that concern higher national interests, such as the diplomatic relationship with China, and strategic imperial planning. In the following sections, we will present an overview of the main concerns of this collective effort. Specifically, the contributors intend to uncover four majorissues in our analysis: historical continuities and the potency of the China factor, the importance of the riots, the capacity of the colonial state, and the relationship between the colony and the sovereign power. Before we proceed to this discussion, three key points about the background of the events need to be elucidated. © 2009 by Hong Kong University Press, HKU. All rights reserved.

Citation Format(s)

Studying the 1967 riots : An overdue project. / Yep, Ray; Bickers, Robert.

May Days in Hong Kong: Riot and Emergency in 1967. Hong Kong University Press, HKU, 2009. p. 1-18.

Research output: Chapters, Conference Papers, Creative and Literary Works (RGC: 12, 32, 41, 45)12_Chapter in an edited book (Author)peer-review