Book review: Rise and Smothering of Radical Labour in Hong Kong, 1938-58

I actually enjoyed the book a lot! Gives me some real interest in colonial history of South-east Asian states that worked towards decolonisation, as well as 1960-90 labour politics of HK. What seemed distant once played out on Russell Street (outside Time Square), Hennessey Road and Canal Road East, just some 50-70 years ago. It’s there, laying silently, for us to rediscover.


Loss Decades of Militant Unionism in Hong Kong: Perspectives from Workers, Parties and Colonial Government

Lu, Y. (2019). Crossed Paths: Labor Activism and Colonial Governance in Hong Kong, 1938-1958. Cornell University East Asia Program.

Interweaving the perspectives of the British colonial government, Chinese political parties (Chinese Communist Party, CCP and Guomindang, GMD) and the working Chinese, Lu provided a well-grounded chronicle of Hong Kong labour politics in the turbulent years of 1938-1958.


The time period was chosen carefully to mark the ‘crossed paths’ treaded by those on top and at the bottom of the political hierarchy in Hong Kong. There was a short period of time when the two paths went hand-in-hand, and the establishment of a British-style industrial relations in Hong Kong, with strong unionised labour through reformist intervention by the government, seemed possible.

In the late 1930s, London was pressurised into creating more balanced industrial relations in British colonies, in view of labourers’ dire working conditions. Such reform involved empowering trade unions in Hong Kong, which however was prevented becoming the law through resistance by a reluctant local administration and legislature. Immediately after the Japanese invasion, the colonial government required labour cooperation to rebuild business and counter-balance GMD (then heading the National government) influence. Thus the government adopted a lenient and even supportive stance towards left-wing trade unionism.

Meanwhile, Chinese ground-up mass organisation had evolved from the anti-Imperialist National Salvation Movement in the 1930s, to active anti-Japanese guerrilla resistance during the occupation and then colony-wide, democratic and self-initiated trade union movement in 1946-50. As Lu demonstrated, union leadership shifted from employer-friendly, GMD-led organisations into a network of seasoned underground Communist activists. They won popular support by their demonstrated dedication to the cause of ‘improving employment conditions’ (then a frequently invoked slogan) through militant unionism.

However, in Lu’s narrative, the years 1948-50 marked the divergence of the two paths, gearing them towards a head-on conflict. As the political situation in China sharply turned against the GMD since 1948, London and Hong Kong eventually agreed that rising loyalty towards a communist, unified China could jeopardise stability of the empire in South-east Asia, and affect entrenched British interests in the city. Deploying Cold-war rhetoric and branding all unions as purely ‘political’, the colonial government began to revise a series of repressive legislations in 1949, expanding the Emergency Regulation Ordinance and limiting working Chinese’s freedom to strike, freedom of association and right of abode.

In the meantime, grassroot militant unionism reached new heights. ‘During the years between the spring of 1946 and early 1950, rarely a month passed without collective labour action in the colony’ (p. 152). Industries like mechanics, dockyard workers, female knitters and taxi drivers demanded pay rise, more reasonable working hours and conditions under inflating living costs. Labour action often involved popular mobilisation from National Salvation movement traditions, such as ‘one-dollar donation campaign’ originating from street hawkers and high-profile celebrity support. To consolidate power, the Hong Kong Federation of Unions was formed in Mar 1948, combining 25 best organised and CCP-leaning unions. In response, GMD-led Trade Union Council was formed by combining craft unions in Sep 1948.

The Russell Street Bloodshed of 1950 – the incident when the police forcefully broke down a congregation of pro-China Tramway Union strikers and sympathisers on 31 January, 1950 – marked the inevitable collision of the two paths. Waves of detention and deportation, as well as trial against pro-China newspapers followed. As Beijing, mindful of retaining British support for the regime, gave a non-confrontational order, left-wing unions voluntarily retreated into the role of welfare provisioner for workers, marking the end of an era of militant unionism.


In weaving this narrative, Lu refuted two major misinterpretation of the failure of Hong Kong working Chinese unionism: impediments to solidarity from traditional ties like dialect and kinship groups, or pure puppeteering of unions for ideological purposes by the CCP or GMD. She rightfully highlighted the exceptional agency and solidarity of the working Chinese, even at points of crises from Japanese occupation, shown by her chapter-long description of how the East River Guerrilla gained the trust of rural villagers in Hong Kong and western politicians. The arguments that unions were formed out of a humanistic spirit for a dignified life, and that labourers’ allegiance to the CCP was an outcome of the party’s efficient response to immediate needs of workers in wartime and the workplace, were well-supported by her portrayals of the roles played by many dedicated, on-the-ground organisers from the 1930s to 50s.  

To identify the cause of the failure of Hong Kong unionism, Lu instead focused rightfuly on critical decisions made by the colonial government at different points in time, and singled out their initial relaxation and subsequent repression over collective labour action as a major factor in the story. The argument was made while carefully avoiding overgeneralisation – Lu took pains to reconstruct debates at the time, by marking important voices of dissent in British ruling class circles on issues like reoccupying Hong Kong and attitude towards unions. Lu also provided sufficient details of decision-makers’ background that explained their worldviews and decisions, such as governor Grantham’s experience with labour stifle in other colonies that marked his deep distrust of labour. In accouting for the eventual political outcome, the balance between the role of grand geopolitics, organisational calculation and individual decision-making was well struck.

Yet, the important question that remained was what happened next to the legacy of labour activism in the 1930-50s. Lu provided a generally positive portrayal of militant unionism, led by communist leaders that eventually joined the FTU. Their voluntary retreat from militant politics since 1950 was attributed to external causes of colonial repression and PRC’s order to restraint. To what extent were the activists’ compliance responsible for stifling labour politics? When and how did the FTU turn from a genuine representative of labour interests to a partisan apparatus obedient to the PRC’s political orders?

Perhaps the question went beyond Lu’s scope of focus, but the answer would greatly assist us in recovering the full picture to Hong Kong’s lost tradition of labour radicalism. Regardless, Lu’s chronicle of Hong Kong’s decades of militant unionism – from the perspective of workers, party organisation and colonial government – provides invaluable insight in rediscovering the under-estimated potential of labour politics in the city.

Waking Dreams in 1984: A Brief Review

2020年3月25日 星期三晚8:30 
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What the play is about:

In search for a reconstruction of the lived, intimate (blood-tied) experience of the ‘old Hong Konger’.

Intercepting from an activist into an awkward, uncomfortable, aloof (from the lives and consciousness of the masses) culture consumption goods producer.

Becoming part of the daily dust dotting the new Hong Kong through alienated work (newspaper columns, films, undecipherable art, ‘aimless’ exercises).

Two ventures: to creep through the thick, swarmy ‘reality’ consciousness and production circuit and professing one in the modern coded language, or to leap into a mix and remix of one’s subconscious and previously lived experienced into a lucid re-creation of reality, in a form of devil’s contract, selling one’s soul and consciousness for excitement eliciting.

The clash of these two roads taken – in a head-on regret of that particular turning point of events (that Victoria Park demo that resulted in an exile and a premature death).

All are struggling to reveal and assimilate a muted past, and in embracing the dawn of a new age, under Margaret Thatcher’s hypnotically elegent prose that declared the ‘return to the motherland’, 19 December 1984. Hong Kong’s 1984.


I think I really appreciated the layers and all-roundedness in each character. (The bordering on hateful, pretentious, distant-keeping personalities, that gradually resolved into something more rounded and humane, and also fresh employment and action settings of each character). At first I was not too comfortable with their theatre-way of unnatural speech and intonation, but gradually I got used to it, and in the final few scenes the intonation and emotions became a lot of naturally flowing, I think.

Also I really appreciate the juxtaposition of the climatic conflict – between a pair of brothers bearing the same history 6 years apart but overlapping in some experience of key scenarios and characters. The other-worldly faith in communicating through dreams vs. inevitability of speechlessness in this era provided a dreamy yet sharp, and also fresh (relative to many dramas) means of dramatic conflict. I think I thoroughly enjoyed the second last scene when the two brothers wielded swords over the final say/ decision over recounting their shared past.

I also really liked the juxtaposition of characters and props on the stage (stage setting?), mainly of the final scene. That half-waking-up, detachment of body from consciousness and reality from dreams, the way they all completely succumbed to the dreamy world that only Hei was able to enter in all scenes before, showed a silent triumph of the ‘bounded consciousness’ in revenging against a will once succumbed to the ‘new’ HK reality. To the extent that losing the score writing opportunity, which meant everything and was the sole engine driving the drama forward, meant literally nothing anymore. This was a brilliant plot move.

I’m not too sure what to make of Xu Yianfeng, but I am sure I enjoyed the lucid dream version description of her. And the photo shots that kind of represented how one is being forcibly capture in history by inevitably incomplete and dishonest snapshots.

Reflecting on myself, the drama deployed a subcontext of ’70友’, something that 報社友 can identify with. Is this a prophecy of how we’ll interact in the future? However I find this representation of ‘us’ lacking in a crucial dimension: what were ‘we’ fighting for? ‘Decolonisation’? Right to lay claim on ‘the people’? When all these became mystified/ insider-ed into ‘study groups’ and ‘protests’, this is inevitably a yearning within the circle of intellectuals who are now relatively aloof from real material struggles.

This also asks another very important question for my life: is a future as a cultural product producer appealing? Or is it bound to go into ‘champagne socialist’ directions? What is the role of activist-veterans in times unfavorable to taking onto the streets and shouting in loudspeakers? How to avoid empty self-begging in the future?

I think Fa in the drama provided a better illustration of the balance between 入世 and 出世。You can be a 7am-5pm worker without compromising the fire lit in your spirits at some point before. You can ride the modern tides and still stay true to yourself and remind veterans around you to do so.

For me, I think I inevitably want to act and be on the negotiation tables at some point. Even though I am rash, easily startled by even the smallest opposing moves and criticisms, I do feel like the way to press things forward is to be on the institutional frontlines. The point however is to learn to observe before acting and gain some social, people skills. But I do not need to act like some dominating predecessors. And I have learn to accept the differences of members in a team. There are many more aspects of a person for development than sheer, perfecting political-economic grand theories and making clever points for clever people to read and amaze themselves with.

Though when lost it might be good to take an afternoon nap and hope the dive into one’s subconsciousness can bring some already known answers afloat.


遊走於夢與真實之間——《午睡》觀後感 23/1/2016

Is this part of the ‘betrayal’, the forgotten years?

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