By Cynthia Muak
After I arrived in Hong Kong in 1961, I enrolled with Hong Kong University for a diploma course in Business Administration, which gave me access to the university's library. I was there almost every day reading all they had on China
because the 'hot' topics in Hong Kong at that time were:
- China's ambitious plans for self-sufficiency and industrialisation had failed miserably. China was ravaged by famine; corruption among top army cadres was rife; power struggle, back stabbing, in-fighting, corruption among Party officials
resulted in more abuse of power.
- Thousands of Chinese, presumably from Guangdong because of its close proximity to Hong Kong, were flooding into Hong Kong illegally every day, because of severe food shortage and almost non-existent job opportunities in China. They
sneaked into HK overland over the hills, or swam across the bay, or were smuggled in by boats. Snakehead operators of boats encouraged those who had relatives in Hong Kong to escape. Once the illegal’s were in Hong Kong and hidden away
in safe places, these snakeheads would contact the relatives and negotiate a release fee. Once money exchanged hands, these refugees would be handed over to the HK relatives.
As 1962 became 63, 64, to 65, the migrant situation became more serious. Those caught by HK border patrol police were returned to China but that did not dampen the famine-driven refugees' determination. In later years met up with many
of these immigrants (working in garment factories), who told me they managed to land safely in HK on their 6th or 7th attempt. Almost a million of these refugees managed to remain in HK and squatted wherever they could find a place to
hide without being detected.
Hong Kong's stability was threatened: acute shortage of housing, drinking water levels very low, hygiene/medical facilities over-extended, unemployment at an all time high, social ills increased beyond control, etc etc. I remember the
water situation. The main taps were only turned on for 4 hours every 4 days. Different areas had different timetables. I knew a family near the university and I managed to talk my way into getting myself extra water rationing this way.
1966 could be deemed a very dark year for Hong Kong. Star Ferry, with boat services commuting between Hong Kong island and Kowloon peninsula (the bit of land that is joined to China mainland) wanted to increase its fare by 5 HK cents,
a big deal at that time (25%). Some objected. A young man even went on hunger strike and took up position at the ferry concourse. Agitators used this excuse to start a riot. Several rabble groups gathered in various parts of HK and Kowloon
unannounced and made frightful nuisances of themselves by marching on the streets chanting communist propaganda and hoisting banners.
For me, coming from a relatively quiet and low-density island of Penang, the sight of this was terrifying. Until then, the only terrifying experience I had in my life was in 1953 when Penang celebrated the coronation revelry of Queen
Elizabeth 2nd of England. Everyone at home had gone to enjoy the coronation revellery. Someone must have forgotten to lock the gate because our dog, Bobby, managed to sneak out. I was the first one home and began looking for him. When
I realised Bobby was not in the house I headed off towards the beach because most late afternoons we would take our strolls there. Sure enough, he was there but he wasn't running around the esplanade. Somehow, he had managed to trap himself
on a crop of rocks away from the shore. He couldn't get himself back to the shore. The tide was rising very quickly. I thought all dogs could swim but not our Bobby. I watched helplessly as the rising water was slowly swallowing our Bobby.
It was an experience I never want to wish on anybody.
At that time in 1966, I was working and living in Kowloon, so did not have reason to use the Star Ferry. I thought I would be relatively safe if I avoided the Star Ferry area where many of the agitators had stationed themselves. Soon
after, due to the many existing social issues, coupled with the unsolved problems caused by the sudden influx of refugees from mainland China, giving rise to economic and political uncertainty; a riot broke out comprising many bored,
unemployed, and angry youths. These riots were disorganised so were quickly squashed by the local police force in a matter of days.
Meanwhile the Hong Kong government were quite shaken by this turn of events and began to work towards a feasible solution to arrest further social unrest. As 1966 progressed, the No. 1 priority was finding a solution to the much-congested
housing. To implement even a very, very low cost housing scheme was very expensive due to lack of ready funds and labour.
By the beginning of 1967 the ongoing Cultural Revolution, which began brewing in China in 1966, spilled over to Hong Kong, threatening to destabilise the Crown Colony. Do not forget China was forced to cede Hong Kong Island to the British
Government because of the Opium Wars. This humiliation was never forgotten by China.
In 1967, the Revolution triggered protests in Hong Kong on the pretext of a minor labour dispute. This dispute soon escalated into mass demonstrations across Hong Kong. Wherever these demonstrators went they chanted Mao's slogans and
waved Mao's Little Red Book. They even threatened that whoever they stopped on the streets, without Mao's book or did not know how to recite Mao's sayings, would be punished and subjected to physical humiliation there and then on the
spot! Much violence ensued.
For me of course, I was scared and went immediately to one of the local communist stores to buy a few copies of this little red book. I was not the only one who thought Communist China would take over the Colony any day and made plans
to emigrate to Australia.
Perhaps China underestimated the resilience of the Hong Kong people. Many of the Chinese people in Hong Kong had escaped from southern China to make a new life for themselves in Hong Kong. They were heirs to Dr. Sun Chung Shan's (Sun
Yat Sen) ideology. They would never welcome Mao's government and made it known they would oppose vigorously a communist takeover.
The riots in Hong Kong, which had an obvious communist bent, continued for several months and finally in December 1967, Chinese Premier Chou En Lai (Zhou Enlai) ordered the rioters to end all such disturbances.
Things in Hong Kong went back to normal and I gave up all thoughts of going anywhere. To be honest I was told life would not be that much better in Australia. At that time, Australia was very protective of her 'white' policy, and though
I might have been better educated than many Australians, they would definitely consider me inferior to them and good jobs would not be open to me.
Because Mao's Red Guards continued to wreak destructive havoc indiscriminately all over China, to all sectors of society, the main objective, as I understood it, was to bring down Mao's political opponents to cement his firm grip on
power. All of the so called 'elite', 'privileged', white Russian and other stateless rich émigrés, and 'bourgeois' groups who managed to escape persecution thus far fled the country, either legally or illegally, to Hong Kong as their
first touchdown base.
Their first breath of 'free air' and what a big difference this narrow stretch of water between mainland China and Hong Kong Island made! The territory offered plenty of food, plenty of opportunities if one had plenty of money, or was
willing to work hard. Free enterprise was available for all, whether it was big money talk, or pushing a street cart hawking fruits or sundry merchandise. Incentives and bonuses were an expected norm for high productivity, personal ownership
possible of any asset purchased through financial means. Every dream could be realised: peasant could become a shop owner, an office worker could become a multinational CEO, poor man with only a dollar in his pocket could become a millionaire,
a millionaire could become a billionaire, a billionaire could own the world -- all this vision possible when you take in that first air of Hong Kong freedom. Hong Kong did not realise it then, but it was on the threshold of a revolutionary
The privileged refugees brought money, the educated brought technological skill and expertise, and the bulk of the refugees—the poor—brought the much needed labour en masse; unskilled, semi-skilled, skilled, highly skilled. Whatever
couldn't be readily available, the Hong Kong government grasped the expertise these professional refugees brought with them and a vast training network was set up to provide instruction in all the necessary trades. I am not biased when
I say Southern Chinese people are intelligent and hard working. Very soon, Hong Kong boasted of a highly qualified workforce much envied by neighbouring countries, especially when they saw how quickly Hong Kong's economic power and development
mushroomed. Boom, boom, boom ... Hong Kong was suddenly right up there streets ahead of its nearest rival. Up to today, Hong Kong is still right there at No. 1, when you take her Hang Seng Index and compare it to the world's other indices.
With money coming in through land sales, tourist dollars and taxes collected in all kinds of shapes and modes, there was money for the Hong Kong government to build the much-needed low-cost housing. Thus, they were able to house the
majority of the poor refugees, who in turn were the backbone of the labour force for the tens of thousands of factories that had sprung up all over Hong Kong in a span of just 2-4 years. All this happened quite by accident and a stroke
of pure luck; it wasn't through any clever planning or management by the British government, though they might like to claim otherwise.