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A Hong Kong newsmaker is chosen each month by HKFP. The influential social activist Elsie Tu has been chosen for December 2015.

“Hail Elsie.” Those were the words etched across the back of So Sau Chung’s jacket as he began his hunger strike at the Star Ferry Terminal in Central in 1966.

So Sau Chung
So Sau Chung. Photo: Wikicommons.

The Star Ferry Riots—a gentle preamble to the far more destructive riots of 1967—were just kicking off, and to So, and many others, Elsie Tu (then Elliott) was Hong Kong’s sole voice of compassion which echoed within the halls of power at the time.

When the Transport Advisory Committee proposed a five-cent fare hike for the cross-harbour ferry, Tu was the sole dissenter. Powerless to turn the tide, she appealed both to the people—collecting 20,000 signatures for a petition against the proposed fare increase—and directly to London, flying home to the Brits to plead the case of impoverished Hongkongers.

To most of the governing class, fives cents was nothing but Tu knew that to blue-collar families, every cent counted and losing out on half a dollar every week was not a loss to be taken lightly.

In the end, the efforts by Tu, So and other activists paid off: ferry operators limited the fare hike to first-class passengers and exempted those under 16 and students.

It was just one of many instances from which she emerged as one of the foremost advocates for Hong Kong’s downtrodden.

A new home in Hong Kong

Tu came to Hong Kong in much the same way that many local Chinese did: fleeing chaos and arbitrary rule in the mainland—and seeking safe harbour down south.

Her and her then-husband William Elliott came to China as missionaries in 1947, just as the worst fighting in the Chinese Civil War began to rage and the young republic was about to be exiled to Taiwan by a Soviet-backed Communist insurgency. After Mao’s takeover in 1949, foreign missionaries were expelled from China’s borders and the couple relocated to Hong Kong. After the two separated, Elsie made the colony her new home while William returned to the old country.

elsie tu
Elsie Tu. Photo:

Tu was shocked by the poverty and inequality she saw in 1950s Hong Kong, in the days before the colony had any social welfare to offer the unending stream of refugees fleeing from the mainland.

She made immediate moves to alleviate the suffering around her, first by opening a clinic and then the Mu Kuang Middle School in 1954, which she started with her future husband Andrew Tu Hsueh-kwei.

Tu was elected first to the the Urban Council in 1963 and then to the Legislative Council, where she sat from 1988 to 1995.

It was in 1995 when Tu’s 32-year winning streak was finally broken by democratic icon Szeto Wah, whose hand Tu refused to shake after he unseated on a platform targeting her pro-China stance.


New Hong Kong, new Elsie

In the run-up to Hong Kong’s handover, Tu was accused of “selling out to Beijing” when, after being voted out of Legislative Council, she instead joined the Beijing-backed Provincial Legislative Council. In the eyes of some Hongkongers, Tu had gone from champion of the underdog to cheerleader of the elite.

“I’m not for China,” Tu said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times at the time. “I’m not for Britain. I’ve always been for the people of Hong Kong and for justice. I will do the work I’ve always done and stand for the people who get a raw deal.”

Tu had lived through the worst excesses of the colonial regime and fought tooth and nail to correct them: the rampant corruption prior to the establishment of the ICAC; the haughty racism of many in the British governing class; and economic inequality in the colony.

For decades, she had urged her adoptive home to better itself; and although this progress was slow, it was real. She hadn’t just seen the colony improve, she’d made it improve. For this reason, she had an unshakable optimism in Hong Kong that could not be overcast by the coming handover. “I don’t think things can be worse than under the British 20 years ago,” she said at the time.

Despite her support for the succession of pro-Beijing leaders to take the helm after 1997, Tu continued to engage with social issues and worked to improve the lives of local residents.

A complicated yet indelible legacy

Tu once observed that colonial Hong Kong was “run by a handful of civil servants and a handful of wealthy, influential families, determined to preserve for themselves as much as possible of the prosperity of the Colony.”

As we look back and appreciate all that Elsie Tu did for our common home, we must also consider how much—and how little—Hong Kong has changed.

By placing her chips on the select group of Beijing-approved billionaires and business leaders that would call the shots in the Special Administrative Region, was she betting on further progress, or a regression to the unfair, fractured society she crusaded against?

Whatever one makes of her views on China or her post-handover politics, Hongkongers will remember Elsie for her love of Hong Kong and all she did to make this great city greater.

Half a century after So Sau Chung etched those words across his back, those words still resonate and Elsie is still hailed in the city that only death could make her part with.

Ryan Ho Kilpatrick is an award-winning journalist and scholar from Hong Kong who has reported on the city’s politics, protests, and policing for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, TIME, The Guardian, The Independent, and others