Les Bird, born in 1951 in Staffordshire, England, after leaving school, he traveled extensively in Africa and Australia before joining the Royal Hong Kong Police in 1976.
As a senior officer, he dealt with sensitive issues including refugees fleeing Vietnam and the smuggling of guns, drugs, and people to or from Communist China during the handover of the colony back to China in 1997. Bird is a founder member and chairman of Asia’s Rugby Football Club. He is married with two daughters. He still lives in Hong Kong.
Was it difficult to go over so many memories?
I was fortunate in that throughout my 20-plus year career I always carried a camera in my kitbag and, when out at sea, and if circumstances permitted, I would take photographs of our work.
I have a collection of about 500 shots, some of which show when I first began as a young inspector in rural Tai O in west Lantau, the decade I spent on the Southern Boundary as hundreds of thousands of refugees came in by boat following the Vietnam War, which ended in 1975.
And then there was my work in the Tolo Channel combating smugglers.
These photographs helped me remember many of the more important moments so that I was able to write in detail about them. But of course, with a memoir, the facts are all important.
Times, dates, places must be exact, so there were also many long hours of research in government archives before I began writing. From an emotional perspective, some memories are more positive than others, the camaraderie and the loyalty of your team and not being in a boring desk job!
But there were also the young mainlanders we picked up, who didn’t make it after being attacked by sharks or barracudas as they tried to swim from the mainland to Hong Kong. And my young officer Billy Lee who got killed outright when a smuggler’s armour-plated speedboat went straight into him. Those kinds of memories aren’t easy.
How did you get to Asia and how did you join the Hong Kong Police?
After leaving school I traveled extensively in Africa and Australia, before returning to the UK at the age of 23, where I began looking for a career. I joined the Hong Kong Civil Service in London and came out to Hong Kong for the first time in 1976.
After joining the Royal Hong Kong Police I volunteered for the Marine District, so the Marine Police, and was accepted. I spent almost all of my 21-year career in the force out at sea working on board patrol launches.
How was your first impact with Hong Kong?
I fell in love with Hong Kong immediately. I found the city vibrant and exciting. I loved the hustle and bustle of the place. Upon arrival, together with my fellow recruits, I was sent to school to study Cantonese. I think being able to understand and speak the local language helped us integrate into society. Being able to communicate certainly helped us better appreciate our new home.
What was the purpose of your unit?
I was the commander of a specialist marine unit that was initially established to combat illegal immigration from mainland China into Hong Kong. But over time we expanded and developed into the Hong Kong Government’s maritime counter-terrorism unit. This unit was highly trained, and selection to serve in it was tough.
In addition to counter-terrorism work, the unit was also deployed as an anti-crime task force. Between 1989 and 1991, our main duty was combating the cross-border smuggling by high-powered speedboats, known locally as ‘daai feis’. This was an extraordinarily dangerous job in which high-speed chases would take place at sea and at night, in total darkness. There were many instances of collisions, injuries and, sadly, fatalities.
How were the foreign agents received by the local population?
We were given a mixed reception. A mix of smiles and suspicious stares. But I always felt that as foreigners it was important for us to prove ourselves. Of course, in those days Hong Kong was a British colony, and I am British, so that might sound a bit odd.
But as government servants, it was our duty to serve a population that was 98% Cantonese. I always felt it was our job to integrate into Hong Kong. But, I think back then, in the 1970s and 1980s, most local people were pleased to see us, foreign officers.
The book is filled with fascinating and powerful stories spanning twenty years. What were the events that most struck you?
The stories involving people in distress never leave you. Early on in my career, I was deployed along the sea border with China in order to catch those attempting to enter Hong Kong illegally. Most were very young people, the same age as myself, who wanted to come to Hong Kong to start a new life, just as I had done a few years before. It was an odd sensation having to send them back to China. Also, for most of my career, there were the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese boat-people coming to Hong Kong in the hope of starting a new life.
After the war in Vietnam ended in 1975, Hong Kong was flooded with refugees arriving by sea. Many were in very poor physical and mental state. Being the first people they saw after leaving Vietnam our duty, in effect, became more of that of welfare officers than police officers. There were lots of medical requirements. Many of those arriving in Hong Kong after months at sea in small wooden vessels were malnourished and dehydrated. And, in 1979, they were arriving in their thousands, every single day.
How has Hong Kong changed over the years, what has changed on 1st July 1997?
For me, it has changed a great deal. During my first three-year tour of duty, I lived out at Tai O, the westernmost village on the Lantau coast, overlooking the Pearl River estuary. I lived at the old police station that, today, is a luxury boutique hotel. It was a very rural existence back then. There was also the isolation. There was no road between the police station and the village, and the road between Tai O and Mui Wo, in the west, was just a dirt track. We had just one telephone at the station, but that didn’t work if it was raining.
Apart from the Italian Catholic priest, I was the only gwailo living in the western half of Lantau. Of course, the 1980s were the boom years for Hong Kong in terms of finance. This was the decade when Hong Kong cemented its position in the world as a major financial hub.
Thinking back to my days in the 1970s walking through Tai O village, and then comparing it to walking through Central District today – it’s like a different world. But to answer your 1997 question. Life for me changed a great deal that year. I left the Royal Hong Kong Police, Marine District, on 30 June 1997 and moved into the private security business world. So, on the day of the handover, I became a civilian.
Did your former colleagues read the book?
Yes, in Hong Kong I have received a lot of comments and feedback from former colleagues who have read the book. I am happy to say that most of the feedback has been very good indeed, with many writing to thank me for reminding them of the days when they too served in the Marine District.
Also, as my book will be published in the UK at the end of February, I am hoping for more of the same comments from the former officers that retired to the UK after their service ended. But what is interesting for me, is that most comments have come from people who were not living in Hong Kong in those days. I guess my book also serves as something of a historical record of the final 20 years of British Hong Kong.
Photos courtesy of Les Bird
Thanks to Earnshaw Books
CHINA-UNDERGROUND. Matteo Damiani is an Italian sinologist, photographer, author and motion designer. Matteo lived and worked for ten years in China. Founder of CinaOggi.it and China-underground.com.