Operation Yellowbird, a Hong Kong Thriller, Will Never Be a Movie

Next to all the vast political, historical, and human tragedies that were playing out in China 25 years ago, it's a tiny thing to regret, but: This Bloomberg story about the rescue of dissidents after the Tian'anmen Square massacre would be an ideal Hong Kong movie scenario, if only Hong Kong were able to make such a movie.*

But Hong Kong belongs to China now, and China is not going to memorialize or marvel at the bravery, lunacy, and sorrow of Operation Yellowbird—in which, as Bloomberg's reporting staff recounts, escapees were smuggled to safety by "an unlikely alliance of Hong Kong gangsters, police officers and businessmen, the British and French governments, and even a Baptist minister":

The escape plan relied on a smuggling network run by people including Chan Tat-ching, known as Brother Six. Local filmmakers recruited him for Operation Yellowbird because he knew people with high-powered speedboats who were experts in evading police as they smuggled foreign cars into China.

"They took me to a hotel room, saying that China is now trying to catch people and asked if I was willing to help rescue them," said Chan, who owned nightclubs, saunas and hotels, but said he wasn't a member of the city's Triad gangs. "I didn't think too much and agreed to it. If I pondered too much, I might have had second thoughts."

Why would anyone assume that a nightclub owner who had connections to smugglers would represent the triads? Oops, two paragraphs later a politician goes ahead and characterizes it as a triad operation. Sorry, Brother Six.

Anyway, there are speedboats picking up fugitives and racing off with into the darkness, till they spy "the glamorous Hong Kong nighttime view." There are disguises ("more fashionable, branded clothes and a mobile phone to look like a businessman") and coded signaling and various desperate means of subterfuge. There's this scene:

Before leaving for France, Su said he was invited to breakfast at an expensive restaurant with a gangland kingpin, Brother Six's boss, who gave him $2,000 in cash.

"He said 'we rescued you,'" Su recalled."After you get out you must call for or think of a way to save someone.

'''Who?' I asked.

'''Zhao Ziyang,' he replied.''

That was, unfortunately, beyond the limits of Project Yellowbird's ingenuity. Zhao was the former general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, who had chosen to resign rather than go along with Deng Xiaoping's plan to impose martial law and crush the protests. As Bloomberg notes, Zhao died in 2005, still under house arrest in Beijing—his funeral one more event that the authorities did their best to suppress.

[Image via AP: "A 33 foot plastic foam replica of the Goddess of Democracy statue built by pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing, unveiled in Hong Kong, stands in a park with buildings in the British colony as a background in this 1989 photo. The statue in Beijing was destroyed by troops June 4, 1989."]