1967: When the Bank of China Building Became a Giant Propaganda Machine

“Hang David Trench.”

It’s not often a major financial institution calls for the murder of a Hong Kong leader, but that’s exactly what happened in 1967, when a red banner was hoisted outside the Bank of China’s headquarters on Des Voeux Road Central. David Trench was the British governor of Hong Kong at the time and a prime target for revolutionary propaganda. But he was far from the only one.

“Stew the White-Skinned Pig”

“Fry the Yellow Running Dogs”

“Blood for Blood”

“Down With British Imperialism”

All of these slogans were accompanied by loudspeakers blasting calls for revolution. It was an echo of the tumult that was occurring across the border in mainland China, where, in 1966, Mao Zedong had unleashed a chaotic Cultural Revolution aimed at upending every pillar of Chinese civilisation – at least to the extent that it allowed him crush his rivals and consolidate his power.

In 1967, the violence spilled into Hong Kong, unleashing six months of riots, bombings and murders – a history that is still murky, more than 50 years later.

You certainly won’t find any recognition of the 1967 riots in the Bank of China Building, which has become a historic landmark and a testament to the rise of China’s economic might. Founded by the Nationalist government of Sun Yat-sen’s newly created Republic of China in 1912, the Bank of China was a symbol of a new, modern China, and it was eager to assert itself as such.

In 1934, the bank hired Hong Kong’s oldest architecture firm, Palmer and Turner, to design new highrise towers in Shanghai, Singapore and Hong Kong. The Shanghai building was located on the Bund, next to the leading financial institutions of the European colonial forces that had occupied Shanghai for years. (The bank’s official website still trumpets this accomplishment: funded by China and built by Chinese workers, it “showed the determination of Bank of China to compete with foreign banks.”) The tower was completed in 1937.

Although plans for the towers in Singapore and Hong Kong were drawn up in the 1930s, Japan’s invasion of China threw the country into chaos, and construction on the two buildings didn’t proceed until the early 1950s. By that time, Japan had been defeated, and so had the Nationalists, founders of the Republic of China, who lost a long-running civil war against a Communist Party led by Mao Zedong.

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Revolutionary banners hang from the Bank of China Building in 1968, a year after riots threw Hong Kong into chaos. Photo courtesy of the Information Services Department.

Despite the change of political order, the Bank of China Building that rose over Hong Kong in 1952 harked back to the prewar era, with Art Deco architecture that already seemed old-fashioned in comparison to the streamlined towers that would soon rise around it. From the beginning, the tower marked an expedient relationship between Hong Kong and China. Beijing’s new Communist rulers may have been offended by Britain’s continued occupation of Hong Kong, but they looked the other way so long as it offered them a loophole through which to funnel money overseas. The Bamboo Curtain was always permeable.

When Mao ignited the Cultural Revolution, Hong Kong’s many Communist supporters were eager to participate. In a way, the Civil War had continued to live on in the British colony, with politics split between so-called leftists and rightists. A political dispute on October 10, 1956 — Double Ten Day, which was China’s national holiday under the Nationalists — erupted into a bloody riot in Tsuen Wan. 59 people were killed and the British army was called in to reinforce the Hong Kong Police in restoring order.

In the decade that followed, Hong Kong continued to swell with migrants from mainland China. The city’s factories were booming, but worker protections were virtually nonexistent, and many Hong Kong families lived in a precarious state, making do in shantytowns, rooftop huts or streetside encampments. When their homes were consumed by fire or washed away by typhoons, they were transferred to overcrowded resettlement estates, where entire families crammed into 140-square-foot flats with squalid shared bathrooms. Petty crime and corruption was rampant.

To make matters worse, Hong Kong was cut off from the natural resources of mainland China. Despite an agreement to purchase water from the Dongjiang River in Guangdong, China turned off the tap at the start of the Cultural Revolution, leading to widespread water shortages. “A miserly government, a lack of natural resources and a hostile northern neighbour” is how The Economist summed up the situation in the mid-1960s.

Hong Kong was primed for unrest. When the government allowed the Star Ferry to double its fares in March 1966, local politician Elsie Elliott began a petition against the increase that drew 20,000 signatures. That prompted a young man named So Sau-chung to launch a hunger strike at the Central Star Ferry Pier. So was arrested, charged with obstructing a public passageway and sentenced to two months in prison. That sparked a protest that quickly turned into a riot, which prompted the government to impose a curfew and call in the army.

As journalist Gary Cheung Ka-wai notes in his book Watershed: The 1967 Riots, Hong Kong’s leftist forces kept their distances from the Star Ferry protests, with some pro-Beijing newspapers going so far as to support the government’s crackdown. Everything changed in the summer of 1966, just a few months after the Star Ferry incident. Red Guards swept across China, enforcing Mao’s edicts to rid the country of “imperialists, revisionists and reactionaries.” Whereas pro-Beijing trade unions, newspapers and other Communist organisations had been reticent about supporting conflict in Hong Kong just a few months earlier, they were now consumed by revolutionary fervour.

Itching for a chance to put the boot to Hong Kong’s colonial government, they finally got their chance on the unseasonably hot day of May 4, 1967, when workers gathered outside the Hong Kong Artificial Flower Works in San Po Kong. A few weeks earlier, management at the factory had imposed harsh new conditions that forced many workers to take a steep pay cut. When they objected, 658 workers were fired, ostensibly due to a slowdown in business. As usual, the government’s Labour Department did little to help.

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Police confront protesters in 1967. Photo courtesy of the Information Services Department.

As temperatures soared into the mid-30s, workers stood in protest outside the factory gates. The protests lasted for two days, until tensions boiled over and riot police were dispatched to put down the protests. What exactly happened on the evening of May 6 is disputed by all of the parties involved. Leftist organisations claim that police savagely beat the workers, while police say they were being attacked by projectiles thrown from above. Either way, the incident gave pro-Beijing groups the chance they had been waiting for. “The incident quickly escalated and started to be politicised,” writes Cheung.

Egged on by Hong Kong’s substantial pro-Beijing press — up to a quarter of the city’s population read leftist newspapers — protestors gathered on Garden Road in Central on May 22. They clashed with police who tried to disperse them. Some accounts accuse the police of brutality, while others claim protesters were instructed to splash red ink over themselves to make it appear they had been injured. “In one clash outside the Hilton Hotel, uninjured women smeared blood on their faces, produced bandages from their pockets and shouted that they were the victims of atrocity,” reported the South China Morning Post.

Meanwhile, the Bank of China hoisted enormous banners and mounted loudspeakers that blasted out anti-British slogans. Leftists hurled stones at police vehicles. Bus and tram service was suspended, shops closed and boarded up their windows, and the government began blaring jazz music and Beatles songs to combat the Bank of China propaganda. “The noise drowned the Central area,” reports Cheung. “The heart of the colony appeared to have entered into a state of war.”

What happened over the next six months was an all-out civil conflict. In early July, rumours spread that China was planning to mount an invasion of Hong Kong, bolstered by an incident in Sha Tau Kok, in the northeastern New Territories, in which members of a Chinese militia crossed the border and exchanged gunfire with Hong Kong police. The colonial government banned leftist publications and closed leftist schools; leftist groups retaliated by planting bombs in the street. Barbed wire was erected around the Bank of China Building, turning it into a fortified camp.

Things took a turn for the worst in August. Several pro-Beijing protesters had been beaten to death by police, but any sympathy the public had for the leftist camp disappeared when eight-year-old Wong Yee-man and her two-year-old brother, Siu-fan, were killed by a bomb disguised as a gift. Four days later, Lam Bun, a radio commentator who poked fun at the leftists in a satirical programme, was driving to work with his cousin when their car was stopped by a group of men disguised as a road workers. They blocked the doors, doused Lam and his cousin in gasoline and lit them on fire.

Things could have become even worse. In the 2017 documentary Vanishing Archives, the notes of Communist Party official Ng Tik-chow reveal that state-owned enterprise China Resources attempted to smuggle 700 sugarcane swords into Hong Kong; another state-owned company, China Merchants Group, was planning to sneak guns into the city. Ng stopped both shipments, but he later paid the price, as he was eventually purged from his position.

Ng’s notes also reveal that Chinese premier Zhou Enlai helped encourage the riots by funnelling nearly HK$12 million to Hong Kong leftist groups via the Bank of China. But it was also Zhou who finally put an end to the violence when he expressed Beijing’s official disapproval of the riots in October 1967. By then, 51 people had been killed, including 15 civilians in bomb attacks. All told, leftist groups had planted more than 1,100 bombs in the streets, along with another 6,900 decoys.

Gary Cheung’s book Watershed digs into the history of the riots, as does May Days in Hong Kong: Riots and Emergency in 1967, a collection of academic papers edited by Robert Bickers and Ray Yep. What they both make clear is how little Hong Kong has come to terms with the legacy of 1967.

It was indeed a watershed year. On one hand, the colonial government finally realised it needed to address Hong Kong’s many social ills, and when David Trench was replaced as governor by Murray MacLehose, it set to work on building a more inclusive civic infrastructure. On the other hand, many of the leftist leaders — including some accused of violence — eventually rose to power at the helm of various pro-Beijing organisations. When Hong Kong’s sovereignty was transferred to China in 1997, then-Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa awarded a Grand Bauhinia Medal to Yeung Kwong, a riot ringleader who served as director of the Anti-British Struggle Committee. Yeung never accepted responsibility for the 15 civilians killed in bomb attacks, and he said he didn’t feel particularly sorry for the victims, either.

Yeung’s award was one of the few times the riots have been the centre of public attention. For the most part, they have been relegated to an obscure corner of Hong Kong history. There are no official commemorations, no school lessons – and increasingly, no records. When journalist Connie Lo began looking into the history of the riots, she discovered that there was little to be found in the government’s own archives. “Everything is gone,” she says. “I think less than 10 percent [of all the records] are left in Hong Kong.”

That led her to the United Kingdom, where some of the remaining records have survived, and to search for privately-held accounts like the notes of Ng Tik-chow, which were provided to Lo by Ng’s daughter. The result is Vanishing Archives, which has played to packed houses in Hong Kong, Toronto, Los Angeles and other cities – despite a complete lack of support from the Hong Kong government and institutions.

“We can’t find any cinema who wants to show it, even if we want to rent a room,” says Lo. “Every screening is so difficult.” Most have taken place in university halls, community centres and churches, and some have been disrupted by Beijing supporters.

That hasn’t deterred people who want to know more about the riots. Vanishing Archives was released on DVD last month, and Lo says sales have been brisk even though it has been blacklisted from some of Hong Kong’s biggest bookstores. As of writing, the documentary is the top-selling Asian movie at HMV, just ahead of mainland Chinese action film Operation Red Sea.

Why the secrecy around the riots? “After 1997, many of those who participated in the riots are now in government,” says Lo. “They don’t want to mention it.” On top of that, Hong Kong lacks an archives law, meaning many of the government’s historical records have gone missing over the years – either deliberately or by accident. “Our feelings are complicated,” she says. “This is part of history. But it’s gone missing.”

The propaganda banners remained on the Bank of China Building well after the riots ended. Today, however, there is no trace of what happened – no plaque, no guided tours. Just a silent monument to a vanishing part of Hong Kong’s history.

 

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