By Elaine Dunn
“It is my dearest wish that young people… see life according to the facts as they are, that they will face these facts, and that they will not be deceived by ideals that are meant to deceive or even control them.” Elsie Elliott June 2, 1913 – Dec. 8, 2015
The 1960s were turbulent times. Protests and demonstrations abound around the world. The decade of transformation saw women emerge as leaders fighting for cultural changes such as equal pay for equal work, and calling for an end to domestic violence and gender disparities.
In the U.S., Gloria Steinem burned the bra for Women’s Rights. Angela Davis was front and center in the Black Panther Party. Across the pond, Bernadette Devlin was the fiery Irish socialist and the youngest person (she was 21) to be elected to UK’s Parliament … to name a few.
And in Hong Kong, there was Elsie Elliott.
To younger readers, you’re probably going, “Who?” To older folks like me, she was a force to be reckoned with in Hong Kong for half a century!
When the Chinese Civil War broke out, foreign missionaries were expelled from China. After four years in the mainland, Elsie and her missionary husband William Elliott fled the chaos and arrived in Hong Kong in 1951.
So how did a meek missionary wife from North England, (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, to be precise) become one of the most outspoken and effective advocates of Hong Kong’s downtrodden?
Mrs. Elliott, the name by which she was known from the 1950s to 1985, was almost a fixture in the Hong Kong media for five decades. The overcrowded living conditions of Hong Kong’s lower socio-economic sector shocked her upon her arrival. She was further taken aback by the lack of regulations over child labour, the long working hours, the low wages and the primitive working conditions. She wasn’t going to stand by and do nothing, which was her missionary husband’s and his church’s position. This split in ideology also caused a split in the couple’s marriage. They divorced shortly after.
Elliott threw herself into championing the rights of the Hong Kong underprivileged. She knew the Chinese did not dare complain about the serious corruption, especially in the latter1960s and 1970s, so she took full advantage of her British citizenship to become their voice. She composed and sent an incessant barrage of letters to a succession of colonial administrators in an effort to improve the lives of the ethnic Chinese population in the British colony she now called home.
She first met Andrew Tu (the Anglicized name she gave him because “Andrew was the apostle who helped the people.”) at her then-husband’s church. Tu, a Mongolian, was also very outspoken. He was instrumental in showing her how to better understand the Chinese ways. Furthermore, he shared her vision and the two co-founded the first English “school” (a one-classroom army tent) for children living in the squatter areas in 1954. In 1955, Elliott and Tu were able to establish two classrooms, and could then register the school with the Department of Education. But it was not without a fight, literally, with the other church members. However, she emerged ever more determined, bruises and all, to build up the Mu Kuang English School, with Tu along her every step of the way. She was its supervising teacher and he, the principal. And they both taught at the school where she even taught students physical exercises!
During the 1960s, many of the Chinese citizens in Hong Kong were distrustful of the police. Communist agitators from the mainland fanned the anti-colonial rule sentiment. Social unrest was percolating.
In 1963, Elliott was elected to Hong Kong’s Urban Council, the body that oversaw the municipal services of the colony, representing an opposition group called the Reform Club. She was also a member of the Transport Advisory Committee. As a spokesman for the United Nations Association, she also lobbied for self-rule and democratic reform for Hong Kong in London.
When the Star Ferry – the crucial cross-harbour ferry service between Hong Kong’s Central (financial) District and Kowloon Peninsula – announced a five-cent fare increase in April 1966, she was the lone member on the committee who objected to the fare increase. Although a fare increase of five cents does not sound like much, it represented a 25 percent increase, which, as Elliott sees it, cannot be taken lightly for the blue-collar working families.
Protestors took to the streets. However, peaceful protests turned into violent riots where stones were thrown at buses, vehicles and buildings were set on fire, and shops were looted. Police had to use tear gas to disburse the crowd of 300. Three days of riots ensued, and Elliott was the scapegoat – she was accused of instigating civil unrest.
She earned her “social activist” stripes by collecting 20,000 signatures and took the petition to London to plead the case directly to the Brits. The hunger striker at the Star Ferry Terminal had “Hail Elsie” painted on the back of his jacket.
In the end, only the first-class fare was increased, and students and anyone under age 16 were exempted.
In the 1970s, corruption among Hong Kong civil servants and, in particular, the police, was rampant. When the police chief fled the colony upon being investigated for alleged corruption, mass street protests broke out. Elliott led an anti-graft campaign/ She took photos of police turning a blind eye while triad gang members collected protection money. She turned these photos over to the local TV station, which resulted in heightened public awareness of the gravity of and widespread corruption problem. Her action eventually led to the establishment of The Independent Commission Against Corruption in 1974.
In 1979, she and Tu collaborated on another project: the Association for the Promotion of Public Justice, a social justice advocacy organization that worked on improving the working conditions of the many Filipino maids working in Hong Kong. They also led the fight in decriminalizing homosexual acts.
In 1985, 31 years after the two first co-founded the school, Elliott and Tu took their partnership one step further - they got married and stay married until Tu’s death in 2001, living in an apartment above the school.
As the Hong Kong handover (back to China) approached, Elliott questioned the reason why the British did not grant Hong Kong democracy decades ago, calling then-Governor Chris Patten a hypocrite for proposing reforms just before the handover. She lost re-election to both the Urban and Legislative Councils in 1995. When she was appointed to the Beijing-backed Provincial Legislative Council in 1996, many accused her of “selling out” to Beijing, to which she famously declared, “"I'm not for China, I'm not for Britain. I've always been for the people of Hong Kong and for justice. I will do the work I've always done and stand for the people who get a raw deal."
When the Provincial Legislative Council was dissolved in 1998, she officially retired. However, she kept up her watchdog-for-the-underprivileged role, with letters to the newspapers criticizing unfair governmental policies. And in her 100th year, feisty as ever, she openly spoke out about the widening income gap and expressed sympathy for the dock workers who had been protesting for three weeks for better wage and working hours.
The long outspoken critic of colonial corruption and tireless defender of Hong Kong’s downtrodden passed away peacefully of pneumonia-related complications on Dec. 8, 2015, at the age of 102. The physical “spirit of Hong Kong” may have passed away, but, judging by the tremendous outpouring of tributes since her death, and the growth of the Mu Kuang English School, her legacy will live on.