A Small Band of Men is a highly entertaining memoir of life in Hong Kong’s Marine Police from 1977 up to the 1997 handover. I find books which give you a close-up look at a profession of great interest; they’re educational, grounded in reality, and a welcome change from introspective novels and academic titles wallowing in abstractions of identity. I rather learn about people actually doing something, especially blokes building things or messing about in boats. Obviously, certain occupations are more appealing subjects than others, (a point I make lest I’m deluged with English-teacher memoirs). Police work is worth reading about, and throw in the maritime element, especially in a place like Hong Kong, and you’re on track for some engaging content. Such is the case with Les Bird’s account; as we follow the young man’s rise through the ranks, we ride shotgun on maritime rescues and anti-smuggling operations, deal with Vietnamese refugees and illegal Chinese immigrants. There’s even a sting operation, “double-sting” to be precise, codenamed “Operation Seagull” to stop heroin trafficking.
Bird’s Hong Kong story starts in 1976, him aged twenty-two, back in England after “four years drifting around the world,” and with few prospects ahead. He sees a Royal Hong Kong Police recruitment advertisement in the Daily Telegraph, successfully applies, and embarks on an eventful 21-year career in the Marine Police.
Post training, Bird finds himself under a larger-than-life commander “Diamond” Don Bishop, a domineering, hard-drinking, loose cannon of a man. He is an anecdote-generating machine and looms large – perhaps too largely – in the memoir; and though the stories are entertaining, there are times when you feel they’ve grown over time.
Bird’s very first patrol at sea was quite a baptism. He found himself arming up to board a ghostly foreign freighter that seemed to have no crew.
Kwan began handing out weapons: shotguns, machine guns, and clips of ammunition. One by one, designated officers came forward to receive their equipment. Everyone went about their task with a minimum of fuss. I was handed a revolver and a pouch full of bullets. I had fired a gun many times before, but that was under training, and at a paper target. This was for real.
I won’t spoil the story by giving away the ending. Other early marine police work involved stopping Chinese who were attempting to illegally enter Hong Kong territory by swimming there.
These were the first illegal immigrants I had seen, and my feeling of pity returned. Young people trying to break free from a life they didn’t want. It felt odd. I’d left home too, and chosen to come to Hong Kong. Yet here I was stopping others doing the same thing.
Bird wasn’t alone in having sympathy for these illegals risking their lives, who were typically poor hungry peasants. He explains that many officers were themselves a generation earlier young illegal immigrants who had fled repression and poverty to make a better life.
My favorite section of the book is about Bird’s posting to Tai O district in the west of Lantau Island; it’s hard to imagine that the island now associated with a huge international airport and a Disneyland theme park was so remote as recently as the late 1970s. Bird was put in charge of the only police station for the western part of the island, and took up residence as the sole officer at Tai O police station overlooking the Pearl River estuary. It was “more castle than a police station” with a watchtower, four cannon, thick walls, and heavy metal window shutters; it had been built in 1902 by the British as an anti-pirate outpost,
There was only one other white man in his part of the island, an Italian Catholic priest called Father Don Giovanni Vigano.
Over the next few months our friendship grew, while our methods of communication remained basic. I discovered that the father‘s Cantonese was actually very good so the villagers found it highly comical that their only two foreign residents often communicated in their own tongue. When the father and I dined together in one of the village restaurants, the locals would pull up their chairs so they could eavesdrop. When I got a little muddled with my Cantonese, there was always advice shouted from the crowd that had gathered at the rear. When one of us got a sentence or phrase spot on, it would be accompanied by laughter and applause. Dinner was never dull in Tai O.
But even in the backwater of Tai O, Bird was not free from exciting police work, or the charms of Don Bishop’s company. While Bishop was visiting on one of Bird’s days off, they received a police emergency call about an unspecified incident at a bay called Lo Kei Wan. They drove their jeep to the end of a dirt track then had to thrash their way through thick bush. After half an hour they crested the hillside and had a panoramic view of a remarkable sight:
A large ship, a freighter of about 3,000 tons, had sliced the beach in two and was perched with its bows almost touching the undergrowth below us. The ship was well and truly high and dry and appeared to have plunged into Lantau Island at full-speed. From our high position on the hillside, we could see directly down into the open cargo hold, which was packed full of people.
“Refugees,” muttered Don. “Vietnamese. There’s more than a thousand people crammed in there.It’s another damn people smuggling ship.”
To find out how two out-of-uniform cops manage to keep fourteen hundred illegal immigrants in order, you’ll have to read the book.
Fast forward to 1988 and Bird takes command of the Special Boat Unit (SBU), “a small, elite, maritime unit comprising of one hundred men and a dozen small fast pursuit craft, or rigid hull inflatable boats (RHIBs), whose primary role was that of marine counter-terrorism.”
Just four weeks after taking command of the SBU, he finds himself involved in the rescue of a crashed Chinese passenger plane at the old Kai Tak airport. Much of the SBU’s work was combating the major problem of criminal gangs smuggling high-end goods, such as stolen luxury cars, from Hong Kong into China. It was dangerous, frustrating work – the smugglers were armed and had fast, purpose-built speedboats. And there was little cooperation from the local Chinese authorities; quite the reverse, some of them behaved like “crime lords rather than civil servants,” as demonstrated by a telling anecdote in the closing pages.
Bird was part of a delegation to Shenzhen in 1995 to discuss arrangements for post-1997 policing. As the meeting was winding up, Bird raised, as delicately as he could, the issue of smuggling and said that any assistance in the matter would be appreciated. In particular, he brought up the “spate of thefts of Mercedes Benz saloon cars.” Bird’s long-time colleague and friend Joe Poon added that these cars – which were almost new, stolen to order, and smuggled into Shenzhen – should be easily spotted as they were, after all, right-hand drive cars, unlike the usual left-hand drive cars in China. The Chinese chairman smiled and gave his assurances, but the value of these were indicated by the trip from the Shenzhen back to the Hong Kong border. The convoy of cars provided by the Chinese consisted of five right-hand drive Mercedes Benz. It’s a funny episode but an alarming indication of the caliber of Hong Kong’s soon-to-be new masters, and it raises questions about what has happened to the police force since the 1997 handover.
I’m in two minds about the rather abrupt end of the book. It would have been nice to read an epilogue and hear what an old-timer thought of the handling of recent protests in the city, police morale, and so on. But the author, who still lives in Hong Kong, avoids the subject. And yet, the memoir is such a gripping and immersive travel back in time to a now vanished era, that it’s perhaps best he didn’t break the spell.
A Small Band of Men: An Englishman’s Adventures in Hong Kong’s Marine Police is a published by Earnshaw Books.