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Tribute to veteran campaigner Elsie Tu

Elsie Tu, a fearless campaigner for the rights of the underprivileged, died on 8 December 2015 aged 102.

Elsie was born in Newcastle upon Tyne on 2 June 1913, and from her earliest years was inspired by her father to respect everyone. He is credited with a major role in the formation of her desire to serve society.

Elsie graduated from Armstrong College in 1937 with a Bachelor of Arts degree after which she worked as a teacher in Halifax as well as serving as a Civil Defence Volunteer during World War Two. In 1946 she married Bill Elliott and in 1947 the couple travelled to China as missionaries. Following the Communist rise to power, foreign missionaries were expelled and the couple moved to Hong Kong in 1951.

In 1954, having separated from her husband, and being shocked by the poverty she found there, Elsie set up a school for the children of squatters in Kwun Tong remaining a school principal until 2000. Becoming politically active, she was elected to the Urban Council in 1963 as a member of the Reform Club. Later, she left the Reform Club and ran as an independent candidate.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Elsie was a fierce opponent of the corruption then endemic in many areas of Hong Kong life and her campaigning is credited with leading to the establishment of the Independent Commission Against Corruption in 1974. Her work in this area gained her a CBE in 1977. She also campaigned for better working and housing conditions for the poor.

In June 1985, Elsie married her long-time partner in her education work, Andrew Tu who died in 2001. In 1988 she was elected to the Legislative Council as a representative of the Urban Council but in the lead-up to Hong Kong's return to Chinese sovereignty she disappointed many of her allies and supporters by becoming an advocate of a slower pace in democratisation. As this was preferred by the Chinese Communist Party, she was seen to be at odds with many other democrats who advocated faster change.

Elsie responded to criticism by stating that she was, as always, for the people of Hong Kong and for justice: “I'm not for China, I'm not for Britain. I will do the work I've always done and stand for the people who get a raw deal.” In 1995 she lost her Urban Council seat to an opponent whose campaign targeted her perceived pro-communist stance. Although Elsie then left active politics, she continued to comment on social issues - most noticeably criticising 'tycoons with no conscience' during the dockworkers strike of 2013.

Elsie Tu received many accolades and awards throughout her life, including an Honorary Doctor of Civil Law (DCL) from both Durham and Newcastle Universities. In 1997 she became one of the first recipients of the Grand Bauhinia Medal (GBM), the highest honour Hong Kong can bestow in recognition of her 'noble character' and her services to Hong Kong.

She made tremendous contributions in taking forward reforms and developments in various aspects of society according to the Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region who also praised Elsie's ability to adhere to reasoning while respecting the views of the majority, earning her respect from all areas of civil life.

It seems fitting to leave the final word to Elsie herself who was quoted in 2006 (aged 93): “Sometimes I feel like I have been living too long. But as long as I am alive, I will speak up for the poor.”


published on: 2 March 2016