"But how can you live and have no story to tell?" Fyodor Dostoevsky
A bittersweet story caught my eye this week. Two ill veterans of Communist East River Column (ERC) found themselves admitted to the same ward in a Shenzhen hospital. These two guys fought in World War II against the Japanese. They sustained resistance in Hong Kong and Guangdong after the defeat of the British forces. One, Zhuang Shuifan, lost an eye to a Japanese bullet. The two served in the same platoon as teenagers. They'd lost contact after the war. Only after four days in the same ward did they recognise each other. They are now in adjacent beds.
For political reasons, the colonial government played down the huge contribution that the ERC made during World War II. With the communists out of favour, their efforts didn't receive the publicity deserved. The Column operated guerrilla style, forming up in 1937 to resist Japanese aggression. With the fall of Hong Kong in December 1941, the Column set about aiding the fleeing British personal. In January 1942, the ERC extracted Sir Lindsay Ride and others from occupied Hong Kong. It then mounted a campaign that kept the Japanese forces unsettled. They'd collected weapons discarded by the British to supplement their own meagre collection.
The ERC operated in Kowloon, the New Territories and Sai Kung. They rescued twenty American aircrew, who'd parachuted into Kowloon after their planes were hit. Moreover, they were able to assist escaping prisoners of war, and open lines of communication to prison camps. As the occupation progressed, they attacked Japanese forces in Tai Po Police Station. Later they ventured into Kowloon to sabotage aircraft and equipment at Kai Tak. The harassment of the Japanese extended to the identification of collaborators. Many faced execution when caught by the ERC.
Such was their foothold in rural areas, the Japanese rarely ventured to the Sai Kung peninsula fearing an ambush. All this was achieved by a motley crew of villagers, students and communist officials. At its height, the Column had an estimated 6000 soldiers. After the war, with China in crisis, the achievements of ERC got scant attention. Internal communist disputes further dampened interest in the Column. At the same time, the British, now at loggerheads with Beijing, wrote their version of history. Mention of these hardy fighters was minimal.
Lying in their hospital beds today, Zhuang and his compatriot Lin Shuishou are heroes Hong Kong should recognise. Both are now fighting their last battle. We wish them well.
All good friendships come to an end. Mine with Bob Dylan has had a bumpy ride. I've excused many things he's done. We tend to treat any new work with sympathy because of his past achievements. Let us give the master the benefit of doubt. Unfortunately, this position cannot stand with his latest series of albums. We’ve now entered old man karaoke territory.
The early protest stuff defined a generation by giving voice to discontent. His words captured, then shaped the mood of the 1960s. Whilst his singing was at times off the mark, the same could not be said of his poetry.
His songs made the connection with what people felt - fears and desires. The poet created a moving and unusual song-scape that embodied dreams, ideals and questioned the meaning of life. Shaping the zeitgeist was no mean achievement for a scrawny nasal kid with a guitar.
Although he asserts he never sought to be a protest leader, and he rarely turned up at demonstrations, that was the role thrust upon him. Then he lost his way. He'd come under the influence of a Christian cult, who’d sought to exploit his fame to their ends. By the 1980s his relentless sermons drove away many. He was booed on stage, something he didn't take kindly to. We shouldn't be surprised as Dylan had always had an undercurrent of religion in his work.
That's not to say that Dylan wasn't a willing convert. On the contrary, the collapse of his marriage made him vulnerable, open to exploring redemption. At a low point in his life, he embraced Jesus, only to confound later by worshiping as a Jew. This confusion spread to his music.
The high watermark for me was 'Blood on the Tracks'. This 1975 album is Dylan confessional as his marriage fragments. Although he disingenuously denies this, contradicting his own son. Jacob Dylan described the album as a 'conversation between my parents'. Getting a mixed reaction from the critics, it later became recognised as some of his best work.
The preaching that manifested itself in 'Saved' - a 1980 album- marked a low point. It coincided with the rumbling aftermath of his first marriage. At Earls Court, London, in 1981, his preaching proved too much. After three religious songs, an audience member snapped. A bottle hurled on stage struck Dylan’s guitar. He’d poisoned the well of public affection as word of his evangelical stance spread.
With 'Modern Times' in 2006, Dylan emerged from the fugue. All his fine gifts were back on display. He followed this with the pleasing 2012 ‘Tempest’. Lyrically back on form, he laid down a series of well-received tracks.
Then in 2015, we get 'Shadows in the Night' - a Frank Sinatra tribute album. The critics loved it. I'm not so sure. 'Fallen Angels' followed in 2016. Dylan is now functioning in the past, as he delivers covers of classics such as 'That old black magic'. Yes, we are now firmly in the land of the old guy singalong. Granted, he can hold a tune but brings nothing new to this genre except a touch of barefaced cheek. Again, the critics were less skeptical.
Now, either Bob is taking the piss or enjoying himself. Or maybe both. I guess the guy can do what he likes at the age of 75. Standing in the pantheon of greats, should we not indulge him for sustaining his verve for some long. And, perchance, the old trickster is having laugh at our expense.
YIP Kai-foon, notorious robber and gunman, died this week. His passing attracted much media coverage. I never met the man, although he had a significant impact on how I did my job. In the early 1990s, whilst attached to Emergency Unit Kowloon East gun crime was an issue. Most of the culprits were ex-military types armed with either black star pistols or AK 47s. The latter was a real worry. A military grade weapon, it could lay down a lot of fire and it out-gunned the Royal Hong Kong Police. Armed with only revolvers, shotguns and the odd semi-automatic AR15, the Police were at a distinct disadvantage.
Tactics, equipment and firearms needed to evolve to address the threat posed by YIP and his sort. He was not alone in bringing gun crime to the fore, yet his escapades caught the public imagination. This was due in part to an iconic photograph. More on that later.
Some of the media coverage given to YIP this week is distasteful. A few sought to portray him as an honourable sort. This is a gross insult to the many people he harmed. It also denigrates the brave police officers who brought him to justice. Don’t forget this is a guy who fired an AK 47 on a busy Hong Kong streets, whilst throwing hand grenades to foil capture. Once wheelchair bound, paralysed from the waist down, and facing years in jail, he got God. Aimless, isolated in prison and profoundly vulnerable, he was easy pickings for those peddling religion. To now laud the man is contemptible.
YIP is thought to have started his criminal career in the early 1980s. A series of armed robberies he staged in 1984 brought him to the attention of the police. Caught in a sting operation in December 1984, he attempted to murder an undercover officer. With his cover blown, the officer had to act fast. YIP was in possession of two pistols. After a fierce struggle, YIP was eventually restrained.
Sentenced to jail, he escaped in 1989 by feigning an illness that meant he was sent to the hospital. From there he fled to resume a life of crime.
By June 1991, YIP was back with his gang. In a daring operation, they robbed five goldsmiths shops in one raid on Mut Wah Street, Kwun Tong. During this audacious crime, they fired 54 shots at responding Police Officers, before fleeing with HK$5.7 million. YIP next surfaced on 10 March 1992, robbing two jewellery shops on Tai Po Road, Sham Shui Po. 65 shots were fired at the Police. On this occasion the gang also fired at the public.
It is suspected that YIP masterminded and led a raid in April 1994 on the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Macau that took HK$40 million in gambling chips. By 1995, he was operating in Shenzhen. There is suspicion he killed two people in Shenzhen, one a police informer.
An iconic photograph of a robber standing in Nathan Road with an AK 47 has long been associated with YIP. Yet, that robbery on 6 January 1993, during which 30 shots were fired, was not YIP or his gang. Despite this being common knowledge, the media roll out the picture at every mention of YIP.
In spite of the millions YIP made from his criminal career, he kept at it. Suggesting that his lifestyle was burning through his pile of loot in no time.
He finally met his match on the evening on 13 May 1996. Trying to sneak into Hong Kong with an AK 47, a pistol and explosives, YIP encountered a Police patrol. When challenged, he produced a pistol and began shooting at the officers. He then fled with the officers chasing. The Police returned fire with YIP hit twice. He sustained injuries to his spine that left him paralysed from the waist down. Serving 40 years in jail for his crimes, YIP had cancer. This ended his life.
The real heroes of this story are the cops who pursued Yip. The officers who put themselves at risk to bring this guy down. YIP's supporters, including a politician, have spoken of a caring man. That does not tally with the individual who indiscriminately fired an assault weapon at the Police and public. Those who utter such sentiments betray the victims of his crimes.
YIP's conversion to Christianity is late and perplexing. The detail is not incidental. It is sanctimonious rubbish to embrace a God when your whole life up to that point was about visiting evil on others. This statement no doubt dismays the religious zealots. They'd claim we are all born sinner, with redemption through embracing God. I take the position that basic human integrity must trump any doctrine.
This conversion is a conceit, supplementing the misplaced hubris that surrounding YIP. Plus, if mental and physical torture is required to effect a conversion, what does that say about religion. Lets not forget he spent his final years paralysed, confined to a wheelchair, wearing an adult diaper. Only then did he seek solace. Perhaps had he taken the Lord earlier his grubby ending may be different.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.