Hong Kong is unrecognisable now from the city which 50 years ago was the scene of bloody riots, fuelled by resentment of colonial rule and inspired by the Cultural Revolution unfolding in China.

But although memories of the bomb-strewn chaos of 1967 have faded, the city  is facing a new era of turbulence as democracy activists take on Beijing and many ordinary residents still struggle to make ends meet.

riots 1967
Photo: hkchcc.org.

What started as a labour dispute in an era of poverty and corruption, where many were jobless and living in shanties, became large-scale street battles fomented by the Chinese Communist Party.

The clashes between leftists and police lasted from May to December and left 51 dead, including five police officers.

Images from the time show bloodied residents, including women and children, and large groups of protesters facing off against police.

1967 riots

Luk Tak-shing, now 70, was jailed during the riots and remembers police swooping on the union building where he worked.

He says he was beaten, arrested and imprisoned for unlawful assembly as 40 union workers were rounded up.

Luk had been helping workers organise a strike and he says he saw himself as part of a patriotic movement against colonial power.

“These ethnic hostilities had taken root in my heart from a young age,” said Luk, who attended a communist-run leftist school where he learned about historic injustices and racial inequality.

“The scenes of police beatings infuriated me, even now when I recount them I’m very agitated,” Luk told AFP.

Watershed moment 

The riots followed the start of the “Cultural Revolution” in China, which saw mass purges of government opponents, and followed similar unrest in Macau, then under Portuguese rule.

YouTube video

They began on May 6 when sacked workers attempted to prevent goods leaving an artificial flower factory and were arrested.

Clashes, strikes and more arrests were followed by bomb attacks across the city by protesters, including on tram stops and residential streets.

Calm was only restored in December, when Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai ordered the rioting to stop.

Documentary maker Connie Lo, whose film about the riots “Vanished Archives” is now showing in Hong Kong, described the scale of the violence as a watershed.

“After experiencing terrorism in the city, people saw the significance of having stability in life,” Lo said.

The violence was never repeated, and the city was eventually handed back to China by Britain in 1997, becoming semi-autonomous.

However, as fears grow that Beijing is squeezing its freedoms, issues around sovereignty and identity are again at the fore, with tensions exacerbated by sky-high housing prices and cost of living.

In 2016, frustrations boiled over.

mong kok unrest fire
File photo: Joel Christian.

Young activists calling for more autonomy or even independence from China were among protesters who fought running battles with police in the commercial district of Mong Kok.

Although far removed from the severity of the 1967 riots, with no fatalities, it was described as the city’s worst violence since then.

Leung Kwok-hung, a veteran lawmaker known as Long Hair and a self-identified leftist, told AFP that while there are key differences between today’s protesters and those in 1967, the underlying issue for the public is the same — “a government they did not choose”.

Moving on 

The pro-Beijing government’s approach to democracy activists has become increasingly hardline, with a number of recent arrests of high-profile campaigners.

1967 riots

Leung accuses authorities of being “brazenly repressive” and points out that some protesters from 1967 are now part of the establishment.

However, others have turned their backs on the Chinese Communist Party.

Lau Man-sing, 88, a former underground party member in Hong Kong, recently published a memoir about his disillusionment, saying leftist leaders abandoned ordinary workers after 1997.

“They transformed into legislators or business elites, became a group of upper-class workers. Their words confuse right and wrong,” wrote Lau, who also appears in Lo’s documentary.

As Hong Kong remains politically divided, some of those who were on the streets 50 years ago have managed to build bridges.

Former police inspector James Elms, now 75, deployed to deal with the rioters, says he has become friends with former protesters, although they still have very different views.

“I see no reason why we need to keep throwing stones at each other,” he told AFP.

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