1967 : Witnesses remember

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

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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


On 27 May 2007, 150 people crowded into an auditorium at City University Hong Kong to hear those prepared to share memories of their experiences of the events of 1967. The idea of the organizers was to place the academic studies which formed the heart of the workshop in their place: The events were still recent history and there were clearly many in Hong Kong who had participated in or witnessed them, or whose experience of living in those difficult times was strong. The event had been advertised in the press and on radio, and it drew a very large crowd. Many younger people came, which is probably a testament to growing interest in an episode about which there has mostly been a sustained public silence. There were also many in the audience of an age to have strong memories of 1967. Some of those who spoke indicated their willingness to do so in advance, others came from the floor. All were restricted to a short time - eight minutes - To allow as many voices as possible to be heard. The transcripts below have been translated, but are otherwise entirely unmediated. Three speakers have left no contact details for us or did not respond to our requests for permission to reproduce their comments. Some came prepared, with notes and materials, but other speakers reacted spontaneously to each other's assertions or interpretations. Some spoke from very fixed positions; the politics of others had mellowed with time. Yet, the event was constructive and polite, although real anger and real fear were communicated by many of the speakers. The event was in and of itself an important moment in the public history of 1967. We reproduce the transcripts below to remind ourselves that the year 1967 does not belong to historians, and that while opinions and memories can differ sharply, it is possible to sustain a constructive debate about what happened, and about the place of these events in the history of Hong Kong and Hong Kong society. These first-person accounts have made three important contributions to the project of understanding the events in 1967. First, these materials remind us an important dimension of history: An awareness of the past that is personally felt. These speakers connected the events in 1967 with their personal experiences or traumatic encounters. Their accounts are not simply testimony to the emotions unleashed during the months of turbulence, or a window for deciphering the meaning of the event for the local population, they are also contrasting accounts of personal reflections that are forceful reminders of the multiplicity of standpoints on historical events. The task of history writing may thus warrant a more collaborative project and it should not be a process monopolized by experts or academics who are primarily working on archives and official records. The enthusiasm of this self-selected group hints that there may be a prospect of 'bringing the people in'. Second, these vivid accounts of personal trauma reveal the intensity of violence unleashed in 1967. While the discussion remained restrained and moderate, speakers of different backgrounds launched similar attacks on the opposite camp highlighting memories of brutality and senseless violence. It is, however, the fear for his own safety and that of the younger brother in his care, of a teenage boy missing the last bus home before curfew hour that provides the most powerful hint of the rupture to normality caused by the events in 1967. His fear of indiscriminate shooting by the police is certainly ungrounded, but such fear in an innocent boy with no political background is a vivid reflection of the chaos of the time. This certainly was no 'flea-bite', as Sir David Trench described it twenty years after the events.! A related question is, with ordinary law enforcement reinforced by draconian measures in the form of Emergency Regulations and highly determined to contain disturbance, why did the left-wing supporters show no sign of deference? This brings us to the most important lesson drawn from these 'witness accounts' - The domestic character of the 1967 events. For most British observers, the official judgement was that the whole episode was nothing more than a spin-off of the Cultural Revolution and there was no domestic explanation or even justification for the riots. The various accounts here seem to suggest otherwise. Common to most stories told in the forum was a sense of frustration and social tension on the eve of the 1967 riots. These personal reflections point to the possibility of spontaneous involvement of local population as a protest against social injustice and limitations of colonial rule, a perspective which colonial officials simply discarded as irrelevant and misguided. We need to make it clear that we are not presenting these statements as oral testimony of a kind that would properly satisfy an oral historian. Our inspiration was the witness seminar series run by the Centre of Contemporary British History at London University since 1986, but while those bring together the key actors in the events under discussion, we aimed instead to capture echoes in 2007 of the voices that we were not finding it easy to locate in the paper records of 1967. They suggest that there is real potential for an oral history of the events of 1967 and their afterlife, and more than that they suggest that there is a real need for this to be done. The interests of the speakers cross over many of the debates which had emerged in the scholarly workshop, as can be seen, but also discussed areas we had not considered. We do not intend to suggest that they are a comprehensive, representative, systematic, or definitive set of participants, but they offer much for us to reflect on. We have added notes explaining some of the incidents referred to, but otherwise we have left our witnesses to speak for themselves. We are grateful to them. © 2009 by Hong Kong University Press, HKU. All rights reserved.

Citation Format(s)

1967 : Witnesses remember. / Bickers, Robert; Yep, Ray.

May Days in Hong Kong: Riot and Emergency in 1967. Hong Kong University Press, HKU, 2009. p. 163-180.

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