1967, the people of Hong Kong staged a six month long, colony-wide social
revolution that forever changed the face of British colonialism. What
become known as the "riots of 1967" was a series of incidents
that government authorities - whether of the British colonial or Hong
Kong SAR variety - would rather have you forget. For them, the riots are
a reminder that when authorities repeatedly ignore the needs of the community,
the masses will rise up and take to the streets to fight for social change.
Hong Kong in the 1960s can be best described as a "sweatshop’"
colony where working and living conditions were nightmarish. Although
the British colonial authorities knew that uncontrollable urban crowding,
unchecked corruption and a gross lack of social provisions was a recipe
that would instigate a widespread revolution, they still maintained the
passive colonial social policy of ‘wait and see’. The 1967
uprisings would become instrumental in bringing about a new face to colonial
rule in Hong Kong and started the development of urban Hong Kong as we
know it today.
'SWEATSHOP' COLONY. 1960S HONG KONG
From a removed cluster of South China fishing villages to a busy British
colonial trade-port, Hong Kong rose to fame internationally in the 1960s
as the ‘sweatshop’ colony of Southern China. Then, Hong Kong
was known as a place where cheap’ goods such as plastic toys, artificial
flowers and wigs were produced. While the British colonial officials and
the local comprador business class rejoiced in their newly acquired material
wealth, the increased prosperity in the colony was unequally distributed.
Unless you were part of the colonial or business elite, life was grim
and harsh in the sweatshop colony.
The production of low-cost goods necessitated the mass exploitation of
lowly paid workers. Most people toiled away for over sixteen hours a day
in small non-ventilated, family-run sweatshops. Living conditions were
horrific. The urban overcrowding worsened as the migration boom, brought
about by mainland upheaval, continued.
The sweatshop colony had a continuous supply of ‘cheap’ labour
as tens of thousands of refugee families fleeing from the famine of the
Great Leap Forward came to Hong Kong everyday in search of work. More
and more people were struggling to live within the same small and inadequate
supply of housing space. Landlords cashed-in on the situation by increasingly
dividing up their rental flats into smaller tenement cubicles while some
even devised a way of renting out the meager room available into night
and day shift bed-spaces.
While their adult parents were working most hours of the day at the local
sweatshop factories, it was the youth of 1960s Hong Kong who were the
first ones to voice their discontent about the social problems in the
colony. For the majority, school was often an unaffordable luxury as only
one in three completed primary school education. Instead many began working
in odd jobs from a very young age to help offset the high cost of living
in Hong Kong.
Not only did the youth grow up amongst widespread urban poverty, they
were also often the victims of police brutality and the witnesses to the
rampant abuses of power by corrupt colonial officials. Corruption had
become a way of life in 1960s Hong Kong and police and other civil servants
were widely known to be ‘on the take’. The common consensus
of the time was that the police protected opium dealing and gambling,
made money from prostitution and ‘squeezed’ hawkers for money.
It was only when no money was paid that they made arrests. >2