Chief Superintendent Barry Smith cuts an unassuming figure for a former Flying Tiger. Walking casually through Kwun Tong police station, where he is the district commander, he greets colleagues before arriving at his spacious office, which is decorated with awards, trophies and photos with celebrities. “Arnie Schwarzenegger was in town recently,” notes Smith.
These are rough days for public relations with the police in Hong Kong. Once lauded by the media as “Asia’s Finest,” the police force’s reputation took a nosedive after students protesting China’s restrictions on Hong Kong’s democratic reform were tear-gassed on September 28, 2014. That prompted thousands more to pour into the streets in solidarity, unleashing a 79-day occupation of Admiralty, Mongkok and Causeway Bay that became known as the Umbrella Movement.
Things haven’t improved since then. A clash between protesters and police in Mongkok last year turned particularly ugly. Last month, thousands of police attended a controversial rally in support of seven officers convicted of beating a pro-democracy protester in 2014. But Smith, who once battled gangsters in the elite Flying Tiger unit, is a reminder that relations between police and the community don’t always need to be sour. In 1996, the decorated officer helped found Operation Breakthrough, which lets juvenile offenders trade crime for sports.
“[The participants] all come from poor backgrounds, the poorer housing estates in Hong Kong,” says Smith. “What we find is that the parents have given up on them, the teachers don’t really care, and they start to wander. They just want to attach themselves to something and often in these housing estates it will be to a triad gang. Once they start in that path it very quickly escalates and next thing, they’re in prison for drug trafficking. So what we did is we took over that role – ‘Join us as we’ll look after you.’ They’re happy for someone to show some interest in them.”
The programme began with 27 boys who had run into trouble with the police. “Sports seems to work,” he says. “We run our clubs quite strictly. We have a set structure and they have to keep up and do what they’re told. They’re no swearing, no smoking.” Smith was a boxing enthusiast, so he led boxing lessons on the rooftop of the Tuen Mun police station. “By the end, we were all best of friends,” he says. “We started to understand them more.”
Since then, Operation Breakthrough has grown to include 400 kids who have the chance to train in several different sports, including boxing, rugby, football, dragon boating, dance, sailing, judo, running, basketball and cricket. It draws tributes from high-profile visitors like Schwarzenegger, who was in Hong Kong last September to host the first Asian edition of the Arnold Classic, a charity sports event that donated its proceeds to Breakthrough.
Through the programme doesn’t keep track of all its alumni, Smith says there have been a number of success stories. Tank Lam, who joined the rugby programme at the age of 15, now plays on Hong Kong’s national rugby team. Suruz Gurung began boxing at 14 and now represents the Hong Kong Police boxing team in local and international tournaments. 10 alumni ended up joining the police force, while others went on to become firefighters and social workers.
“I could put on my uniform, go into a room and say, ‘Listen, this is what you’re doing wrong,’” says Smith. “Within ten minutes they’ll all be bored. Kids don’t like lectures.” With sport, by contrast, they learn the values of self-discipline and respect for others, “but they don’t even know they’re learning it. It all sort of creeps up on them.”
Smith’s own path has been just as unexpected. Born in Singapore, where his father was stationed with the Royal Air Force, he grew up in England. In the early 1980s, he enrolled in a civil engineering course at university, but he soon found himself struggling to maintain interest in his studies. Then a friend applied to join the Royal Hong Kong Police, and Smith decided to follow suit on a whim.
The police had been aggressively recruiting candidates from the UK since the 1970s. “Yau Ma Tei, 3am, a fine time to discover yourself,” read one recruitment ad from 1974. But Smith didn’t know anything about Hong Kong. It wasn’t until after he was offered a job — one of five chosen from a group of around 20 candidates — that he began to wonder what he had gotten himself into. “It dawned on me – what have I done?” he recalls.
Smith began his career as an inspector, the second-lowest rank. His training lasted for nine months. “The biggest thing was the language,” he says. Along with the other overseas recruits, Smith spent two months learning Cantonese full time. “There’s no way you can learn it in two months,” he says. But he had to make do. His first assignment was to patrol the streets of Ho Man Tin, his radio blaring in Cantonese. “I had a dead body on my very first night of patrol.”
Hong Kong was a somewhat rougher place in the 1980s than it is today, but life was still easier for the police here than it was for their counterparts in many other major cities. “The public respected us,” says Smith. While the street patrols were relatively tame, Smith’s time in the Flying Tigers was anything but. Drawn by the excitement of the elite anti-terrorism squad, Smith went through a selection process so gruelling, one of his friends died of heatstroke on the third day of training.
The early 1990s were a time of uncertainty in Hong Kong. Nobody knew what would happen after the handover in 1997. As hundreds of thousands of people emigrated, Hong Kong gangsters and ex-soldiers from the mainland decided to cash in, using smuggled weapons to rob jewellery stores in broad daylight. “They thought, ‘This is our last opportunity to make money before the Chinese army comes in,’” says Smith.
In the first months of 1993 alone, thieves used pistols and grenades to rob a jewellery shop in Causeway Bay. A few days later, a bystander was killed when three men opened fire on Nathan Road with AK-47s. Not long after, gangsters cornered by police in North Point threw grenades into the street. In 1995, Smith was awarded the Queen’s Gallantry Medal for his bravery in these shootouts.
These days, Smith is winding up his career in relatively quiet Kwun Tong. He is one of just 80 expatriate officers left on the force. When he retires later this year, he expects to split time between Hong Kong, where his wife is also a police officer, and England, where his mother lives.
He isn’t particularly sentimental about being one of the last British police officers in Hong Kong. “I think it will be a case of quietly exit stage left and no one will even know we’ve gone,” he told the South China Morning Post in 2014. But he is proud of the legacy he has left with Operation Breakthrough. “Our bad kids have just gone the wrong way – they aren’t really bad,” he says. “Breakthrough has affected the lives of a lot of kids. They’re definitely in a better place now than when they joined the programme.”
Barry Smith was one of 67 Hongkongers profiled in the Hong Kong edition of Those Who Inspire.