Royal Hong Kong Police Force: THE CELL and THE SAFE HOUSE
1961 – Before 1997
Beginning in 1961, the Special Branch (SB) of the Hong Kong Police Force1 used this site as a training facility and detention centre officially called the Victoria Road Detention Centre (VRDC). Between 1961 and 1990, the VRDC probably held several hundred inmates, though never more than 53 at once. Most were held briefly, and often deported thereafter; a few were detained for over a year during the unrest that began in 1967.
SB – in Chinese, the “political branch” – was charged with protecting Hong Kong’s security. Part of this involved preventing Hong Kong from being caught up in China’s Nationalist/Communist conflict. The SB carried out counter-intelligence work, tasks related to border control, and political surveillance, and SB officers in Hong Kong were encouraged to work alongside Military Intelligence, Section 6 (MI6) agents of the United Kingdom. During the 1950s, the bulk of its work involved suppressing the activities of pro-Taiwan Nationalist agents. Those responsibilities never disappeared, but during the 1960s – which coincided with the period when the VRDC was most used – elements favouring the Chinese Communist Party became a greater cause of concern.
The VRDC replaced a detention facility on Chatham Road. The SB held people here without trial, sometimes without even their families knowing the exact location where they were held. (When detainees were allowed visitors, they were usually picked up elsewhere and transported in a closed vehicle.)
One of the VRDC’s first known inmates was especially prominent. In October 1961, Hong Kong Police learned that Tsang Siu-fo, then the Assistant Superintendent of Police and Deputy Commandant of the Police Training School, was spying for Beijing. He was the highest-ranking Chinese officer in the Police. Tsang was arrested, interrogated at the VRDC, and deported to China.
Another early detainee became briefly well-known for a different reason. In 1963, Chan Kin Kin, a refugee from Guangdong, was arrested for allegedly plotting violence against the People’s Republic of China (PRC). He was held secretly at the VRDC for 13 days, until the SB cleared him. Two newspapers interviewed Chan, and alleged that he and other VRDC detainees had been physically abused. The government sued for libel. A confidential commission of inquiry cleared the SB of having mistreated Chan; it did not investigate claims about other detainees.
Hong Kong had its most extended period of serious unrest in 1967-68. It began with labour disputes but turned into a series of confrontations over political issues. Some protestors demanded that the British leave Hong Kong, and some voiced support for Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Pro-Communist groups rallied the protesters, at least rhetorically; some encouraged and/or aided the violence. Beijing – which had never demanded that Britain leave Hong Kong – began encouraging the hardliners. Rumours circulated that Chinese troops might invade. While there is no evidence that Beijing ever came close to taking such a step, there was one border clash at Sha Tau Kok in which mainland forces shot 16 Hong Kong policemen, five of whom died. Disturbances continued for roughly a year; police handled over 8,000 suspected bombs, including 1,167 real ones. Over this period, 51 people were killed, and 832 injured.
Police arrested thousands of people for vandalism, assault, unlawful assembly, and other crimes, using regular jails, courts, and prisons; 1,936 were convicted. Meanwhile, 52 (or perhaps 53) prominent leftists, who were never charged with any crimes but were considered threatening, were seized by the SB and held without trial at the VRDC under Regulation 31 of the Emergency (Principal) Regulations. Detainees included movie stars, school headmasters, labour activists, the treasurer of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, and a reporter for the PRC’s Xinhua News Agency. Some were kept for over a year; one was held for 22 months.
Conditions in the VRDC were stark, but less harsh than some accusers claimed. In fact, most ex-detainees who were interviewed later (including the 3 with whom we were able to do lengthy interviews) said they were not physically mistreated there, though some were at the police stations where they were initially taken. Food and medical care were adequate. The detainees’ greatest complaint was the detention, itself, and the lengthy solitary confinement that many endured. A significant number also complained about having nothing to do and being denied their preferred reading material and news sources. Ling Wang Yan, an amateur artist, made art from the materials used for packaging the food items brought by his family; one example is exhibited here. Conditions gradually improved: one ex-detainee even said that the guards became friendly. Exercise and visiting times were expanded. Solitary confinement was reduced, and the smallest cells (which a delegate from the International Committee of the Red Cross had deemed sub-standard) were used less often.
Hong Kong’s violence peaked during the summer of 1967 and continued at fairly high levels until November. That same summer, Red Guards set fire to Britain’s diplomatic compound in Beijing and held a British journalist under house arrest (releasing him in October, 1969). But by 1968, less radical elements were ascendant in Beijing; they signalled PRC supporters in Hong Kong that they wanted less turmoil there. As tensions eased, the VRDC detainees were gradually released; the last one was freed in May 1969.
The riots inflicted obvious immediate damage, and the violence significantly reduced support for the far left. Afterwards – due to the riots, other domestic developments, and political change in Britain – the authorities became more attentive to people’s social and political discontent, leading to numerous reforms during the 1970s. Free, comprehensive public education was instituted; a number of lab our law reforms were enacted; additional public housing was built; and a major campaign was undertaken to reduce police corruption and improve relations with the populace.
Little is known about the VRDC in the 1970s and 1980s, though it appears to have been used less than in the 1960s. After focusing on leftist activities during the riots, the SB returned to dealing with a broader range of political threats, whether aimed directly at Hong Kong or at using Hong Kong as a base for actions against other governments. One of the few public mentions of detainees at VRDC during this period came in 1976, when the SB caught some members of the Japanese Red Army terrorist group, armed with explosives, who were planning unspecified actions to mark the 50th anniversary of Japanese Emperor Hirohito’s reign.
Beginning in 1990, the VRDC was used as the base of operations for the Witness Protection Unit, and sometimes provided housing for people needing protection. (What had been cells for group detention in Block C were renovated for this purpose.) These were people who had agreed to provide evidence against important criminal defendants – usually triad members accused of drug smuggling or other organized crime activities – but who might be in danger due to their willingness to testify. Placing them in protection both prevented attacks on them and made it less likely that they could be induced to change their minds about testifying. The SB, meanwhile, was disbanded in 1995, two years before the handover of Hong Kong in 1997. In a radically new security environment, neither the unit nor the site fit the government’s perceived needs in the way they had amidst an earlier set of tensions.
1 The name of the Hong Kong Police Force was changed to Royal Hong Kong Police Force in 1969. The designation “Royal” was removed when Hong Kong’s connection to the British monarchy ended in 1997.