Perhaps I’ve just been unlucky in the books I’ve read, but, heavens above, diplomats are among the very dullest of writers. They have a tendency to self-importance, unnecessary detail, and verbosity, and, although their professional life calls for a certain mastery of language, too often their skill for saying a lot while saying very little carries over into their personal writing. Thankfully, former U.S. diplomat Syd Goldsmith’s excellent memoir Hong Kong on the Brink shows none of these occupational hazards. He writes in a highly readable, down-to-earth manner; you can see his casual style in his name on the cover: “Syd” rather than “Sydney” and without either a title or middle initial.
Goldsmith was dispatched to Hong Kong in 1965, arriving the best way there is to come into the beautiful harbour city – by ocean liner, (though to quibble, it was not quite the perfect arrival for an adventurous 27-year-old as he was accompanied by his wife). And indeed, although Goldsmith fell in love with Hong Kong, it was very much a case of being thrown in at the deep end; he was hopelessly unprepared: “I didn’t know any Chinese and hadn’t taken a single course on China in college or graduate school. My only feel for China was my mother’s admonitions during World War II. ‘Millions of Chinese children are starving. Finish up all the food on your plate.'”
The backstory to this is interesting. Goldsmith had passed the exams and security clearances for the Foreign Service, served in the Navy (been through the excitement of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962) and done two years of intensive Russian history and language training. As Goldsmith readied himself for his first deployment as a Foreign Service officer, he envisioned a career as a Soviet expert. The personnel officer in charge of postings had other ideas. He told Goldberg: “We don’t send first-tour officers to Russia. We have more Soviet experts than we will ever need.” The officer explained that, “The Russians are expert at exploiting our frailties. An attractive woman entices a young married FSO and he will do anything to avoid having his infidelity exposed, because it’s the end of his career and probably his marriage too.”
When asked what his second choice was, Goldsmith asked about Japan. The personnel officer replied: “You look more like a Chinese type than a Japanese type to me. What would you think of an assignment to Taipei, or possibly Hong Kong with some Cantonese language training?”
The personnel officer was spot on in his assessment; whereas someone of quiet reserve would be suitable for Japan, Goldsmith’s informal, outgoing character was a better fit for the Chinese world. “I was much more suited to serve in Chinese cultures. I never learned whether the personnel officer was prescient about these personality traits or just filling a roster of job vacancies.”
The author’s first work involved processing immigration visa applications, which was largely an exercise in fraud investigation because the annual quota for such visas was miniscule, leading to fierce competition and creative strategies from the many applicants. Goldsmith moved on to processing visitor visas, which was not as straightforward as it sounds; genuine visitors had to be sorted from the aspiring immigrants. Because visas were so sought after, employees of the consulate – especially those handling visas – found themselves with ready access to the elite circles of Hong Kong society, being invited to lavish meals and outings on luxury boats and so forth.
Goldsmith took six months of intensive Cantonese classes and made good progress with the difficult language afterwards. When Hong Kong erupted into chaos in 1967, he was the lone Caucasian Cantonese-speaking political officer for Hong Kong and Macau at the consulate. His job was to investigate and analyse the political situation in Hong Kong. The madness of the Cultural Revolution had kicked off in China the year before, and now leftist agitators both in China and Hong Kong were calling for the overthrow of the British colonial government. The trigger was labour disputes at factories, where workers had genuine complaints about poor pay and conditions. These took a political turn and the summer was plagued by riots and strikes.
The title “Hong Kong on the Brink” is no exaggeration. The city’s survival was in the balance. Yes, common sense suggested that China would not push agitation too far, nor march in and seize the colony because “cooler heads in Beijing were keenly aware that Hong Kong was infinitely more valuable to them as a British colony than it would be as a trophy taken over from the so-called imperialists and their running dogs.” However, common sense was in short supply during the height of the Cultural Revolution. Moderates in China were battling radicals and the situation was unstable.
The worst of the violence included a cross border attack by leftist Chinese militia which left five Hong Kong policemen dead. Another memorable case was the assassination of a popular anti-leftist radio host Lam Bun; while he was driving to work, assailants dressed as road maintenance crew stopped his car, poured gasoline and then set him and his cousin on fire. Both men died from their burns.
Goldsmith had his own moment of danger. During the early days of the unrest he was sent out to investigate a hotspot. An angry mob set upon and began beating the baak pei jyu (the white-skinned pig). He managed to get away largely unhurt but the real danger he was in is brought home by an echo of this incident in an amazing final chapter.
In contrast to the excitement Goldsmith was experiencing during his Hong Kong posting, things were rather duller on the home front for his wife, Barbara. Goldsmith frequently rebukes himself for ignoring his wife, for being so indifferent to her feelings, especially when she was pregnant. He was, he says, too absorbed in his work, language learning, and his music.
The 1967 unrest in Hong Kong, which lasted from May until December, makes for a fascinating comparison with the protests of 2014 (the Umbrella Revolution). The 1967 protests saw far fewer people in the streets, but they were more violent and disruptive. Much of the disruption came from strikes, not least by the leftist transport unions crippling public transport. Goldsmith doesn’t make any comparisons with the Umbrella Revolution, but he does contrast the unrest he experienced with the Detroit riots of the same year:
I couldn’t help but think how different Hong Kong rioters were from those who took to the streets in the United States. Detroit had just experienced huge race riots not three months before. It took thousands of National Guard and army troops to quell an urban insurrection. Much of the riot area in Detroit was looted and put to the torch, leaving it an urban wasteland when order was restored after nearly a week. In Hong Kong property damage after four and half months of communist agitation was insignificant.
Hong Kong on the Brink is Syd Goldsmith’s third book and I think his best. He came to writing surprisingly late; his first work, Jade Phoenix, a moving romance set in Taiwan in the 1970s and drawing on his time working as a diplomat in Taipei, was published when he was in his late sixties.
The author’s writing style is sometimes a little too stripped down for my Edwardian tastes. Here’s the worst example, a description of Goldsmith throwing himself into learning Cantonese at the expense of his Russian: “I had no time for Soviet affairs. Lost interest quicker than I should admit. Never got to Russia. Can’t speak even elementary Russian now. No regrets.”
Still, the lean writing works most of the time. Hong Kong on the Brink is a quick read – the breezy style, short chapters, and the interesting and varied content make it feel shorter than its 281 pages. Sympathetic without being overly sentimental, the no-nonsense memoir gives us a great look at Hong Kong in the 1960s and what it was like for a young Foreign Service officer to be in the heat of a dramatic Cold War episode. And it leaves a Taiwan-based reader such as myself hoping that Goldsmith turns his hand to a sequel covering his time in Taiwan.
Hong Kong on the Brink: An American Diplomat Relives 1967’s Darkest Days was published in 2017 by Blacksmith Books to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the riots. It can also be purchased from Amazon.com and various other retailers.