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The 1960s: A decade that changed Hong Kong

Corruption. Glamour. Riots. The Beatles. The 1960s was an iconic decade in Hong Kong’s history. We look back at the good, the bad and the ugly events and how they continue to influence the city half a century later.

It was the decade the world changed. Man landed on the moon, Beatlemania transformed music, there were race riots, assassinations, wars and Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. Fashions changed radically, a new era of art and culture dawned and people across the globe became more sexually – and, in some places, politically – liberated. The 1960s was one of the most important decades in world history – and it saw Hong Kong emerge as the high-rise financial hub we know today.

Wind the clock back 50 years and you’d be met with a Hong Kong in the midst of change. Low-level colonial buildings surrounding Central’s Statue Square are being razed to the ground only to be replaced – at lightning speed – by super-structures which tower well over their predecessors. The new Prince’s Building, the Mandarin Oriental and City Hall have just opened up. Rickshaws are still in use and it costs you a mere 50 cents for a coolie to wheel you from the Peninsula Hotel to the Star Ferry Pier – which, by the way, is your only means of getting across the water in these pre-harbour tunnel days. There are few educated investment bankers, saleswomen and teachers, like today. Instead, there are workers with few skills – young men sewing jeans in a factory in Kwun Tong seven days a week and stay-at-home mums assembling plastic flowers at home while caring for the kids. But, as the decade moves on, they are joined by refugees from the Mainland who scramble to make ends meet in ramshackle squatter homes which have been haplessly built on government land.

This is Hong Kong in the 60s. A pretty incredible place to be, whichever way you look at it. Whether you’re a businessman from England, a refugee from the Mainland or a hard-working local, you’re in the centre of a city in the flux of fast-paced change. You’re living in a decade when the economy quickly swells, powered by so-called light and cottage industries. You see the city transform from a colonial harbour into a financial giant over just a few years. There’s an incredible population boom (a growth of just under a million people) which sets the foundation for the haphazardly-planned, low-cost public housing blocks which dominate the city today. And, due to the growth, the widespread corruption and the poorly paid jobs, there’s ugly social unrest which is bound to explode any day now...

The riots. The most defining episodes for Hong Kong in the 60s. The sheer numbers which flood into the city strain the social systems – housing and education in particular – while, at the same time, light industry thrives and breeds economic prosperity, lining the pockets of the rich, fuelling corruption in the government departments and the police force. The poor have lost out and they are reacting with violence. There are two riots, one of which lasts half a year, kills 67 and injures more than 800 people. It’s the event of the decade – and it has been forever etched in the memory of those who witnessed the bloody events.

But the blood isn’t shed for a lost cause. As a result of the riots, improvements are made, especially in education, and the way is paved for the establishment of the Independent Commission Against Corruption (which happens in 1974). The civil unrest instills a sense of community and belonging in this multicultural society of Hongkongers, Mainland refugees, their first-generation children and foreigners.

Then there’s the first ever Hong Kong Festival in 1969 – a week-long celebration of parades and carnivals, demonstrating a ‘community which is at one’, putting local culture in the spotlight. The city embraces the new music trends sweeping the globe, as well as a raft of 60s styles, foods, fashions and interior design – and also develops its own takes on these styles.

But the 60s in Hong Kong doesn’t stop there. Throughout these years there’s a massive drought, followed by an incredible typhoon, then another drought and all the while there’s great anxiety from colonial powers over the possibility of communist China attempting to reclaim a territory it once owned. It seemed there was always something happening.

Welcome to Hong Kong in the 60s. A period described as ‘the decade of one damn thing after another’. Join us as we travel back in time and revisit the most iconic decade in history and see how it shaped the city we know and love today…

You can enjoy the rest of this feature article by picking up a Time Out HK at your local newsstand! Or, subscribe to Time Out HK here.

More in our 60s Issue:

Kowloon Walled City…The lawless land of Kowloon Walled City was in its seedy heyday during the 60s. Shirley Zhao looks back at the history of this ‘den of sins’ and what went on behind its walls.

Pop Culture… East met West and a distinct cultural identity emerged in the 60s. We pick the music, fashion, film and food moments of the decade.

Then and Now… Check out what some of your favorite Hong Kong hotspots looked like in the past!

Plus, we show you how to relive the 60s with a visit to these shops here.

Photo 1 courtesy of Tim Ko
Photo 2 courtesy of The Hong Kong Heritage Project
Photo 3 courtesy of Cheng Po-hung

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