A Dynamo Female Leader with Steadfast Principles who lived to 102
She came to detest British colonialism. In her mind as a community leader, it underscored the perception of British arrogance and a class-based system. However, it would take some time for her to become an outspoken advocate for the poor, a critic of government corruption and a thorn in the side of the rich. Born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne”, England, she lived to 102 years of age, dying on December 8, 2015.
Meet Elsie Tu, born Elsie Elliott, who moved to the Hong King, then a British colony, in 1951. The wife of a missionary (Bill Elliott), she initially saw her role as assisting him in his work to spread the gospel of Christianity. This required her to know her place in Hong Kong society and to essentially remain mute on political issues. After years of playing the good wife, Tu (later from her second marriage to Andrew Tu) became impatient, wanting to address the atrocious conditions many citizens were living in, such as the slums of Kai Tak in Kowloon.
She ended up leaving her husband and became active in not only assisting the poor but exposing police corruption. At the time Hong Kong had no middle class, where the elite rich and British civil servants ensured that this division remained intact. In 1963, while a member of the Urban Council, her perseverance to expose police activity in the trade of narcotics made newspaper headlines. Three years later she fought to prevent an increase in ferry tolls between Kowloon and Hong Kong. Her role as a central figure led to her arrest following the 1966 Kowloon riots stemming from the ferry rate increase.
Tu’s childhood in a coal mining area of northern England influenced her later-in-life’s actions for various causes. The second of three daughters, her parents were of very modest means. However, what the family lacked in material comforts was more than made up for by intelligent discussions at the supper table on far-ranging topics. Her father greatly influenced Tu to pay attention to the human condition and the rights of people, and to use politics as the springboard to get things done.
As an adult, and far ahead of her time, Tu became a strong advocate for gay rights. She fought for better housing for Hong Kong’s poor, along with improved welfare services, bus routes and children’s playgrounds. And as a key part of her focus on the elite and police, she was instrumental in the creation of the Independent Commission against Corruption.
Tu and her husband, Andrew, founded the Association for the Promotion of Public Justice in 1979. Focusing on the human rights issues affecting Hong Kong’s thousands of Filipino domestic servants, she made it known that she paid her Filipino maids twice the legislated minimum wage. The couple also campaigned successfully for decriminalizing homosexual acts.
She later served on the Legislative Council (1988 to 1995), continuing to attack authorities for the repression of Hong Kong’s poor people and keeping alight the need for justice for all. When Hong Kong underwent its transfer from Great Britain to China in 1997, Tu went at it again, criticizing Britain’s weak if not “disgraceful” reforms that had been introduced too late.
While Tu’s politics weren’t always clear, being accused by some that she was pro-Beijing, what was always in focus was her unswerving commitment to standing up for Hong Kong’s underclass. As she once stated: “I’m not for China, I’m not for Britain. I’ve always been for the people of Hong Kong and for justice.” This stance linked directly to the views of the United Nations Association, which believed in self-rule and democratic reform for Hong Kong. As a consequence, Tu became a spokesperson for the Association and used this role to lobby ministers in London.
Elise Tu was not perfect. She may have been rough around the edges at times and occasionally unfocused on her brand of politics, but one thing she wasn’t was being unclear on her principles and for whom she was fighting.
The world needs more people like Elsie Tu. That’s how big change occurs.
Those who now yearn for the days when Hong Kong was a British colony should be aware of past cruelties, and realize that Britain took no steps to introduce a democratic system until it was certain that Hong Kong would ultimately be returned to China.
– Elsie Tu
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