Urban life

50 years beyond the riots of San Po Kong

CHRISTOPHER DEWOLF tells the story of San Po Kong, 50 years after it dominated global headlines

Modern Hong Kong was forged in San Po Kong, but you won’t find any plaques or monuments in this low-key industrial neighbourhood in northeast Kowloon, where former factory blocks jostle for space with concrete high-rises.

It was here, in the spring of 1967, that a strike at a plastic flowers factory launched Hong Kong’s worst period of instability since the Second World War – a period that changed the city in some very profound ways.

It all began on 6 May, when picketing workers clashed with management at the Hong Kong Artificial Flower Works, which was owned by plastics tycoon Duncan Tong. When riot police arrived, workers inside the factories along Tai Yau Street began throwing glass bottles and cans at them. Twenty-one demonstrators were arrested, which unleashed the fury of Hong Kong’s pro-communist trade unions. The next day, they organised huge demonstrations across the city in response to the arrests.

At the time, Hong Kong was booming with new factories, but working conditions were often dire and much of the population was barely scraping by. When a protest against a fare increase for the Star Ferry (the main way to cross the harbour at the time) turned into a riot, pro-communist trade unions saw their chance to bring China’s Cultural Revolution to Hong Kong, with the ultimate goal of overthrowing the British colonial government.

And so on 7 May 1967, demonstrators waved copies of Mao’s Little Red Book as they took to the streets. Police arrested more than 100 protesters and the government imposed a curfew. Communists responded with terrorist attacks: 1,167 bombs were planted throughout the city, killing 15 people, including two young children in North Point. Anti-communist commentators were attacked; in August, radio host Lam Bun was burned alive in his car as he drove to work.

The instability finally ended in December, when Chinese premier Zhou Enlai expressed his official disapproval of the violence. The colonial government understood that, for all its excesses, the riots had been fuelled by legitimate grievances, and the decade following 1967 saw a wave of reforms. Chinese was made an official language, along with English, and new social services were introduced, such as free public education and universal healthcare.

Since the riots, San Po Kong has undergone its own set of changes. China’s economic liberalisation in the 1990s saw the neighbourhood’s factories move across the border. Many of them have been replaced by hotels to accommodate the surge of tourists visiting from the mainland. Streets that were filled 50 years ago with demonstrators waving the Little Red Book are now home to visitors brandishing something very different: wallets full of cash.

Mikki shopping mall san po kong hong kong
Credit: Calvin Sit

Today, San Po Kong’s old factory blocks and 1960s-era apartment buildings are home to classic Hong Kong-style cafés and decades-old family businesses. But the area’s relatively affordable rents have also invited a new wave of enterprises, like Silver Stationery, which taps into nostalgia for products from the 1980s and ’90s. Meanwhile, new developments like Pentahotel, the towering Mikiki shopping mall and luxury housing estates are taking the district in a more upscale direction.

Credit: Calvin Sit

A few blocks away from the old plastic flowers factory runs the Kai Tak River, an old stream that was converted into a drainage channel during the Second World War. As the area industrialised, it became a fetid open sewer, but new pollution controls and the departure of the area’s many factories have led to a renewal in the past 15 years. Fish swim through crystal-clear waters, and a green walkway along the river has been proposed. It’s a tranquil place – a far cry from the days when paint cans were being hurled out of nearby windows.

In many ways, San Po Kong’s evolution mirrors that of Hong Kong itself. When the 1967 riots broke out, this was a place where workers strove for a better life against a backdrop of Cold War political dramas. Now the picture has changed, but it is no less complicated. Is this a neighbourhood doing better for itself, or one that is losing touch with its history and heritage? 

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