Chris Maden reviews Syd Goldsmith’s memoir of his life in Hong Kong around the years of the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution.
Syd Goldsmith, Hong Kong on the Brink: An American Diplomat Relives 1967s Darkest Days (Blacksmith Books, 2017), 280pp.
The Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution was a critical period not just in China’s recent history, but in Hong Kong’s. It unleashed a wave of chaos that left psychic scars in a way that the Hundred Flowers Movement and the Great Leap Forwards – despite an estimated 20-40 million dead by starvation – did not. Syd Goldsmith arrived in Hong Kong shortly before Mao declared the Cultural Revolution, and his memoir, Hong Kong on the Brink, covers his two years in the colony between his arrival and the wind-down of Hong Kong’s own turmoil in the later part of 1967.
The memoir opens with a flashback, but is otherwise chronological. Goldsmith comes from a family that, if not wealthy, is at least well off. He is academically bright, enters Columbia on a naval scholarship, and hears of the Foreign Services Organisation of the US State Department by chance. He applies and, after three months of frantic preparation, is accepted. He directs his education so that he can work on the Russia desk, but is posted to Hong Kong. On the rebound after being dumped by a previous love, he meets Barbara. They marry before leaving the US, and their honeymoon is the passage out which, due to a State Department boondoggle, is on a luxury liner.
They arrive in the calm of 1965 and Goldsmith is assigned to the visa section of the American Consulate, attempting to detect visa fraud. This was a common and profitable practice in those days: a Macanese applies with an invitation to come and study a post-doctoral course at a prestigious university in the US. He comes from a wealthy family and has excellent academic records… from a college that doesn’t exist.
While both Goldsmith and his wife are enchanted by Hong Kong, Goldsmith interacts with the city a lot more than his wife. Both explore, but Goldsmith more so; Goldsmith manages to get himself entered on a Cantonese language course while Barbara stays at home. Although both are aware that they live the cocooned existence of elite expats, Goldsmith is also aware that there is another side to Hong Kong: one of grinding poverty, appalling overcrowding, and ruthless exploitation. Although that exploitation is mostly by Chinese factory owners of Chinese factory workers, the colonial government’s interests are aligned with the owners’. This creates fertile ground for the disturbances to come.
After six months, Goldsmith is transferred to the Economics Section as a political officer. As it happens, this is about the time the Cultural Revolution gets into full swing. The Star Ferry riots, which other historians mark as the start of Hong Kong’s troubles, receive barely a passing mention; the author’s main concern, and that of the FSO, is rather the influence of Chinese politics in general, and the Cultural Revolution in particular, on the possibility that China will take Hong Kong back by force. On the one hand, Hong Kong is vital to the economic viability of China, accounting for perhaps as much as 50% of its foreign currency earnings, so taking it back would be self-defeating. On the other hand, Hong Kong is run by a colonial regime ideologically despised by the CCP.
Goldsmith’s job during the crisis was therefore to piece together, almost entirely from press clippings, though latterly with access to CIA briefings, Hong Kong’s likely fate. Although gaining fluency in spoken Cantonese, Goldsmith had no knowledge of either Mandarin or written Chinese, and therefore had to rely on native language speakers both within and without the Consulate. Language, however, was only a small part of the problem: the CCP was splintering, and it was impossible to know who was in charge.
The combination of the Cultural Revolution, the CCP’s internal strife, and pent-up labour grievances within Hong Kong combine to create fertile ground for violence – from both strikers and the colonial authorities. In the chaos that ensues, the contract for water supply from Guangdong expires in the summer of 1967, and Hong Kong is plunged into a water crisis because no one in Guangdong dared talk to Hong Kong to switch the taps back on. Goldsmith, an amateur concert flautist, has nothing to perform as the colonial government clamps down on freedom of assembly. The Macanese government capitulated to the CCP’s demands a year earlier, but the Hong Kong government refuses to follow that path; after trying force and restraint, Special Branch cracks down. With the trade unions’ leaders in jail, the strikers lose the sympathy and support of the population and, by the winter of 1967, the crisis is over.
On the Brink is written and paced like a novel. The chapters are short and episodic; the writing crisp and to the point. Goldsmith has a nice line in sarcastic asides – “the modest chief … was too nice a person to get promoted to the top ranks of the Foreign Service” and, of a senior diplomat’s assessment in June 1966 that all would be tranquil in China and Hong Kong, “Don’s assessment was two months before Mao welcomed millions of Red Guards in Tiananmen Square on August 18, 1966 and urged perpetual revolution.”
This makes for a very readable book, but the pace and consequent readability sometimes jar with the subject matter. I found myself wishing at times for deeper analysis, references to other books on the subject, and a broader historical context – we are never given the slightest idea why Mao started the Cultural Revolution, or why the CCP was riven by internal strife. There were also a couple of facts that were plain wrong: Goldsmith states that his first trip to Macao in 1966 was on a jetfoil, even though jetfoils weren’t invented until 1974! Similarly, he states that the faan in the pejorative term faan gweilo means trouble (煩) where it actually means alien or foreign (番). If he got these “facts” wrong, one is left to wonder which other facts given in his narrative are similarly “loose.”
In some part, this complaint comes down to the title: Hong Kong on the Brink: An American Diplomat Relives 1967s Darkest Days. It is a title that suggests a history, but what Goldsmith delivers is a memoir. As such, about half of the book concerns the author’s domestic life. These sections have much to recommend them, and make for a useful and insightful portrait of the era. But they ultimately dilute the historical core of the text. Nevertheless, On the Brink is instructive for anyone wanting a clearer understanding of the events of those years, and an entertaining and accessible account for a wider audience.
Chris Maden lives and works in Hong Kong. He is a key figure in the Hong Kong Writers Circle.