By August 1983, I’m back in Hong Kong. I’d taken the law exams, passing with great credits, which gave me an accelerated promotion to Senior Inspector. With an apartment in Kowloon, overlooking the harbour, I'm made.
My posting for six months is the joint Police Military command centre, known as PolMil. This facility is the centre of government in emergencies.
Working a 12-hour shift, I'm assigned to coordinate support services. This includes helicopters, bomb disposal officers, the PTU platoons and other resources. I also act to keep the bosses briefed on significant incidents. I have a direct line to the Governor and the Commander British Forces.
At times it was hectic. While “action cards”guide you through most incidents, you also had to think on your feet. We made decisions that had far-reaching consequences. The role entailed a lot of responsibility for a young inspector with only three years of service.
You could call up the chain-of-command if things got difficult. Direct support usually arrived within 20 minutes. But until then, you’d be directing the action.
This is all before mobile phones. Locating people could be a challenge. You'd call their homes, no response. Then you'd page them. With luck, they'd call back.
As an example, in the 1990s, one Police Duty Officer took the decision to cut-off a large part of Kowloon’s water supply. A blackmailer had dumped a quantity of cyanide in a reservoir. With the amount unknown, about two million people faced possible poisoning.
As a young inspector, with only limited service under his belt, he had the pluckiness to act. He called the head of the Water Supplies Department, telling him to shut off the water immediately.
Now, it has to be said that heads of department don’t typically take orders unless it’s from the Governor. This one decided to listen and act. Fortunately, the cyanide was soon dispersed. The water checked and then cleared for consumption before anyone noticed. Nonetheless, the inspector made the right decision, earning praise for his action. The blackmailer died at his own hand later.
The most significant event during my stint in PolMil was the taxi riot of Friday 13th January 1984. The government was seeking a new tax on taxi operators. Strong opposition from the trade was building over many weeks. A strike is threatened.
In a bold and reckless move, the Commissioner of Transport came out to state that he did not believe the taxi drivers would strike. At which point they did. Things escalated further when they proceeded to block critical intersections. They sought to pressure the government by disrupting traffic flows.
This went on for a week. Some traffic disruption resulted, although Hong Kong continued to function as usual. The police response was being coordinated from PolMil. We had extra staff to assist.
I spent my time organising helicopter flights for reconnaissance purposes. This was before the era of CCTV. Thus, helicopters with spotters provided an overview of developments.
We had a helicopter pad on top of the canteen at Police HQ housed between tower blocks. I watched in amazement as the Auxiliary Air Force approached, swung between the buildings, then landed in a space no bigger than a tennis court. They did this repeatedly over the week, even taking me for a spin to view what was happening.
The Force, while on alert and ready, was playing a hands-off game. The Police Tactical Unit was on standby and contingencies in place. As the event is non-violent, negotiations continued to resolve the matter. At such times, Police chiefs are stressing that officers must not take any provocative actions. Police display a high degree of tolerance to behaviour that would typically warrant action.
On Friday evening gangs of kids had gathered on Nathan Road to watch the blockade by the taxis. At road junctions in the Mongkok and Yaumati areas, plainclothes officers reported the mood was festive. Although known triad and hooligan elements were circulating in the crowds. The first sign of trouble arose from a foolish incident in my old division of Yaumati.
In a moment of recklessness, a teenager grabbed a bell from a bicycle and threw it at a passing police patrol van. He hit and broke the rear window. For the officers, this was too much. They alighted, jumped on the kid and dragged him into the police van.
Making their way back to Yaumati Police Station, a hostile crowd followed. Yobs were soon throwing anything it could get their hands on at the building. The station went into lock-down. Officers drew anti-riot weapons and readied for action.
Meanwhile, at the junction of Nathan Road and Dundas Street, things had turned nasty. Seizing the opportunity, a group of hooligans smashed their way into a watch shop. Looting started.
The few plainclothes officers on the ground responded, catching the looters inside. Then a large crowd pressed in around the scene threatening the cops. A lone detective drew his service revolver to hold hundreds at bay.
In PolMil the first news reports were coming in. Crowded around the TV, the sight of this lone detective brandishing his revolver caused shock. I heard calls for disciplinary action. Then, as the TV cameras pulled back the scale of the looting and rioting becomes clear. It dawned on us that the detective was doing an outstanding job. That’s the danger of making judgments based on limited understanding of events.
But someone had messed up. The Kowloon anti-riot units were switching over that day. Thus PTU was ill-placed to mount an initial response. Some quick work by the outgoing Company Commander, Ed Hillier, saved the day. He soon had his four platoons reformed. With looting spreading up and down Nathan Road, PTU needed to contain the rampage.
Ed Hillier led his men from Yaumati Police Station pushing the crowds back. From the control room, we could hear the pandemonium through the radio. Orders to charge and fire tear gas bellowed forth. A series of running battles developed.
The rioters dispersed into the side streets; out-flanking the police line, then reformed behind them. Constant action is needed to keep the looters on the move. The aim was not to arrest people. This would hamper movement by the police; instead, the focus is dispersal.
Later in the evening, the Commandant PTU, Bob Steele, arrived to take charge of a sweep. This went through most of the lower part of the Kowloon peninsula.
Simultaneously, CID units picked up looters as they fled the area. This is only a snapshot of the thousands of events that unfolded that night. From my position in the control room, there was much confusion.
We had an unclear picture of what was happening; what information we had was misleading or misinterpreted. Orders and counter-orders came out at a fast pace. The whole episode was a lesson in leaving officers on the ground to get on with the job.
Make sure they are well-supported with reserves but trust your people and their training. In such situations, it’s pointless people in command posts taking tactical decisions. They had inadequate timely information.
This forgotten lesson had to be re-learned on many occasions. Even with comprehensive CCTV coverage, command posts have an inadequate understanding.
I later heard that one senior commander on the ground turned off his radio in frustration. He opted to defend a section of shops, holding his position all night.
That evening a few reputations were burnished, and others suffered. One senior officer was henceforth christened “Chicken George.” He "became confused" in the face of the rioting. His robust deputy stepped in. George took a rest in his office.
And what of the striking taxi drivers? Once the first signs of trouble started, they're gone. In the following days, they asserted they could not be responsible. While that may be true, they helped create the circumstances that led to the rioting.
Preceding the taxi-riot over Christmas 1983 was a mini-disturbance in Central. Gangs of youths went on the rampage. This led to 18 arrests, with seven cars damaged.
The same scenario played out on New Years Day, although the violence flared up in Admiralty. This had a racial dimension as expatriates got roughed up.
These events prompted much soul-searching by the government. It appeared sentiment amongst some young people were turning hostile. How history repeats itself.
These flare-ups of trouble indicate the simmering tensions in Hong Kong. Events like the taxi strike proved the catalysis for that tension to boil over. The alarmed government goes into its usual spasm of soul-searching.
Why are the kids angry? What do we need to do? We need to work harder to address the underlying injustices? How remains a challenging question.
The most onerous job in PolMil involved writing the morning situation report. Then getting it circulated on time. Computers were starting to appear, with limited functions.
Yet, this report is handwritten, typed and then copied on a Xerox machine. Kids, look that one up. Produced against a tight deadline, it's dispatched by motorcycle to the Governor and various officials. One copy went to London.
My boss arrived every morning at about 7 am to check the final report before it got copied and dispatched. An old colonial who’d seen action in Africa, I never saw the man eat. Vast amounts of coffee sustained him. He spotted my many errors, politely pointed them out and then went about his day. By 8 am he’d be gone.
One of the perks of working in PolMil was access to the military communications system linked to the UK. In those days making a call home involved a trek to the Cable and Wireless Office. You had to book a call and then await the connection. Plus, it cost a fortune.
The nice ladies who ran the Communications Suite let me make calls. The call went down as a system test in the log book. Although, why the British Military would be calling my Mum was never questioned.