Elsie Tu, 1913-2015


Everyone seems to have an Elsie encounter, so here’s mine. It would have been the late 80s/early 90s. I was drooling at the deli counter in Oliver’s – then as now in Central’s Prince’s Building. It was pretty much the only store selling fancy imported foods at the time, and I was counting my pennies to see if I could afford a few crumbs of Norwegian Jarlsberg, or some exquisite Spanish olives. Suddenly, Elsie was beside me, curtly asking the assistant for a generous portion of surprisingly pricy French pate. She would have nipped over from the Legislative Council next door.

To put this in its full, four-dimensional context, Oliver’s was (as now) part of Dairy Farm, thus Jardines, the original opium-trading colonial hong.

The South China Morning Post seems a bit confused (not to say short of sub-editors) about how to categorize the lady…


She was pro-democracy but became anti-colonial? To the extent that the concept even existed in the 50s-70s, ‘pro-democracy’ would by definition mean ‘anti-colonial’ (though Communist supporters were also obviously both anti-colonial and anti-democracy). The conflation of ‘pro-dem’ and ‘pro-West/British’ is an anachronism here, and doesn’t apply (if at all) until the post-80s era of the Washington-lobbying Democratic Party, the reforms of Governor Chris Patten and – more recently – the localists who wave colonial flags to outrage Beijing. The SCMP writers give up trying to make sense of it all and say Elsie ‘was later seen’ as pro-Beijing ‘because of her political views’, as if there could be some other reason.

Elsie’s anti-colonial activism was in its own way intensely colonial. She originally came to China to save benighted native souls. As she made pretty clear in her book, she got away with organizing and protesting the way she did in Hong Kong only because she was white and British. Ultimately, she was absorbed into the establishment as a token fighter against injustice, adding legitimacy and credibility to the more modern and open style of regime starting in the 70s.

What the SCMP should have written was ‘she was anti-colonial but became anti-democracy’. Much of that book is a fascinating and eye-opening account of the extremely corrupt and oppressive nature of Hong Kong’s colonial government in the 50s and 60s. But as it goes on (it was written in 2003), she starts to get more and more furious about the US, imperialism and democracy, as a way to rationalize her transformation into a pro-Beijing apologist.

What happened is that in the early 90s, new/last governor Chris Patten introduced a (relatively) forthright approach towards the Chinese side and sidelined wishy-washy, hand-wringing has-beens among government hangers-on. Elsie was one, and she was miffed. She joined ‘instant-noodle patriot’ businessmen and opportunistic politicians and academics in the pre-handover migration to what is now the pro-establishment camp. Though easily dismissed as shoe-shining, this was simple self-preservation: as we see today, the United Front system divides everyone into ‘loyalists’ who can be insiders and ‘the enemy’ who are outcasts – with no middle-ground fence to sit on.

Rather than keep her head down – not her style – she went the whole way, supporting the official line during the 2000s and backing unpopular causes like Regina Ip’s 2007 LegCo election campaign. She hadn’t gone senile; she was still baiting critics sharply at 100. ElsieTuIt was just standard, chip-on-shoulder, side-choosing stuff (see how British radical leftists embrace anti-Semites).

The upshot is that the pro-Beijing camp is today sparing no effort in claiming and celebrating Elsie as one of their own. She is a god-send to them. She represents a vivid reminder of the rotten nature of British rule, contrary to the current trendy nostalgia. She provides them with an icon of workers’ struggle for justice (a cause for which they have no sympathy, but the symbolism is a gift). And she is a riposte and even humiliation to the pro-democrats, who struggle to get their heads around the contradictions.

She is also a total one-off: with a few minor exceptions, she is the pro-Beijing camp’s only worthy, authentic, popular hero – the rest are all sleazebags, shysters or (most unforgivable) just plain boring.

This entry was posted in Blog. Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Elsie Tu, 1913-2015

  1. Gooddog says:

    Lefties all start with good intentions but its amazing how many of them end up as apologists for dictators and fascists.

  2. Sir Crispin Bentley-Smythe IV says:

    “an icon of workers’ struggle for justice (a cause for which they have no sympathy)”

    Odd, given it’s supposedly the People’s Republic. But, I digress.

  3. Flip-Flopper says:

    From the “miffed” link:

    “With leaders like Tung Chee Hwa, Elsie Leung Oi-sie and others upholding justice and the rule of law, Hong Kong has a bright future.”

    Mad as a hatter.

  4. Stephen says:

    Your ability to find the most amazing attachments, “miffed” is what makes this blog stand head and shoulders above the rest. Not sure when it was written however, this letter illustrates the contradiction that was Elsie Tu in her later years. I may get the book.

  5. Red Dragon says:

    “She adhered to reasoning while respecting the views of the majority”.

    Can anyone enlighten me as to what, exactly, 689’s gnomic utterance signifies?

    I’ve been contemplating his rather profound apercu all day, but I have to confess that I haven’t got a fucking clue what it means.

  6. LRE says:

    @Red Dragon:

    I think it means that in 689’s opinion most Hong Kongers are unreasonable (and worse still, they’re frightful oiks).

  7. LRE says:

    As to Elsie Tu, I’m tempted to recall Sick Boy’s “theory of life” from Trainspotting:

    “It’s certainly a phenomenon in all walks of life. At one time, you’ve got it, and then you lose it, and it’s gone forever. All walks of life: George Best, for example. Had it, lost it. Or David Bowie, or Lou Reed… ”
    “Some of his solo stuff’s no bad. ”
    “No, it’s no bad, but it’s no great either. And in your heart of hearts you kind of know that, although it sounds all right, it’s actually just… shite.”
    “So who else?”
    “Charlie Nicholas, David Niven, Malcolm McLaren, Elvis Presley…”
    “OK, OK, so what’s the point you’re trying to make?”
    “All I’m trying to do, is help you understand that The Name of The Rose is merely a blip on an otherwise uninterrupted downward trajectory.”
    “What about The Untouchables?
    “I don’t rate that at all.”
    “Despite the Academy Award?”
    “That means fuck all. Its a sympathy vote.”
    “Right. So we all get old and then we cannae hack it anymore. Is that it?”
    “That’s your theory?”
    “Yeah. Beautifully fucking illustrated.”

  8. Knownot says:

    In an interview in the SCMP, Elsie Tu gave a personal view of her meeting with Chris Patten, described formally in the “miffed” link.

    She said that when she reached down to pat one of his dogs, he stiffened. He didn’t want her to touch his dog.

  9. @Sir Crispin – “When the people are being beaten with a stick, they are not much happier if it is called ‘the People’s Stick'” (Bakunin).

  10. I just checked the availability of Elsie’s books in the online public library catalogue, and found that her date of death has already been added to her catalogue entries. Is this a record for rapid response by the Hong Kong government?

  11. Gin Soaked Boy says:

    The kicking she took at the hands of T L Yang’s 1981 inquiry into the death of Inspector MacLennan is well worth a read. She so upset the establishment that Yang felt it necessary to dedicate five pages to destroying her evidence and credibility. Even with the passage of time the vitriol he poured on her is blistering.

  12. Dame Diane Butler says:

    Nobody ever explained how MacLennan, a closet homosexual like so many in the colonial establishment at that time, was able to pump 6 bullets into himself. Apparently Police Commissioner Roy Whatshisname, an A-1 faggot himself, had something to do with it.

  13. Dirty Gerty from No. 30 says:

    Maybe Ted Thomas was involved. You never know.

  14. Red Dragon says:

    Yes, indeed, Gin Soaked Boy.

    TL Yang certainly didn’t pull his punches, but then again, if the MacLennan affair really did involve an establishment cover-up, he could hardly have been expected to.

    In any case, here’s a snippet from his report:

    “However, based on her (Elsie Elliott’s) public announcements, letters, statements and evidence given in relation to the MacLennan affair, I come to the following view:-

    (1) she has the tendency to draw conclusions or express opinions too readily, and without first carefully ascertaining whether those statements and opinions have any or sufficient factual basis;

    (2) she has the tendency to exaggerate;

    (3) she has the tendency to resort to emotive and extravagant language;

    (4) she has the……..”

    It goes on in this vein for some time.

  15. Gin Soaked Boy says:

    He didn’t pump six rounds into himself, it was five. One round was still in the gun.

  16. Scotty Dotty says:

    Hemlock’s on the money: “Elsie’s anti-colonial activism was in its own way intensely colonial. ”

    Over the years I had several bumps with the Geordie Queen. Many cordial, several tiresome if I’m honest, but basically – baaasicully – she was a snooty little minx.

    Elsie’s MO was demeaning both sides. Governors and governed, she always had her nose in the air, the only difference was with the governed she pretended she was about to sneeze.

  17. Nimby says:

    Elise was about as democratic as any Confucius, and she was fully a racist in the Kipling form, if a mostly benign one for most of her life. Her office even ran in manner not dissimilar to the Yuan of an “honest” Ming/Qing county magistracy, with all the little ceremonies reminded supplicants of their place in the scheme of things. The Colonial structure certainly recognized her bias and value in promoting non-democratic mechanisms for stress relief which never the less would not ever challenge the underlying corrupt system. Even her “marriage” was an expression of her flavor of racism, a bestowing of a (probably sexless) reward and recognition for years of proper kowtowing and service.

    However, like most racist, when she felt her power and position threatened, as Hong Kong promulgated methods where Chinese were able to get direct action without involving white intermediaries, she began to view this as a challenge to her own self-importance, her own superior place in society. Elsie sought recognition of her superiority from another bias eccentric group, and equally a slap down for her “children” who failed to both demonstrate their phial duty and inferior position.

  18. Nimby says:

    Elise Tu and Mother Teressa, two of a kind snakes, with two sets of moral standards, as your observation on a poverty campaigner shopping at Olivers demonstrates.

Comments are closed.