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SCMP Springboard

I wrote this for an anniversary issue of the South China Morning Post in 2002. I was a reporter on the newspaper from 1972 to 1976, had a fantastic time.

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SCMP – springboard to success?

Wherever I go, whatever I do, I bump into people who have worked at the South China Morning Post at one point or another in their careers. It proves itself generation after generation to be one of the great global breeding grounds of journalists, editors and businessmen.

It’s hard to understand what it was about that cavernous and primitive room in a converted warehouse in Tongchong St – the Morning Post newsroom of my era, 1973 -1976 — which attracted such extraordinary individuals, and gave them such a career momentum. But there was something.

It may be simply that the SCMP under Robin Hutcheon and Kevin Sinclair – the editor and news editor at that time — were willing to take a punt on unlikely people, including myself, while just getting to Hong Kong itself weeded out the less adventurous.

I got a job on the newspaper in the summer of 1973. I was the second foreigner intern Robin had ever taken on, and I got a salary of HK$2,000 a month. My first story was about dolphins being imported to Ocean Park, as I remember. I couldn’t type, I didn’t know shorthand, I didn’t know the first thing about obtaining and checking information. I was next to useless. But Kevin and his sidekick T.S. Koo (his nickname “The Bloodless Koo” was completely unfair, but it sounded good) put up with me and trained me.

Kevin was an inspiration – at that stage in his colourful career in ways both positive and negative (he could be truly insufferable after long and liquid lunches). But that’s not the point. He would grab one of my pathetic excuses for a news story, storm over to his desk, slam a piece of paper into typewriter and – even on his more liquid days — rewrite it with a speed and fluency that was staggering. He would shout red-faced at me for my excuses for not having got a quote, not having got through to some source, not having got the point of the story. T.S., chewing on ulcer pills, did his best to emulate him.

There are many journalists out there across the world today who learned the trade in the SCMP newsroom in the same shock-treatment way, and by god it was effective.

We were given the chance to make it, by Kevin and by Robin behind him, and many of those that took it prospered. Both the foreign riffraff and the Hong Kong Chinese, all of us thrown together and working as equals at a time when Hong Kong was still pretty damn colonial.

I learned a lot from my colleagues — about the dark side of Hong Kong from ace crime reporters Tommy Lewis and Harold Chang, about the Portuguese twilight zone from copy-taker Victor Garcia and the Shanghai connection from Victor Su. I was guided by the wise and experienced photographers like Chan Kiu and Sam Wong who came on assignments and knew far more about what was required than I did. I learned about China-watching by listening intently to what David Chan was saying in the newsroom – something that had a huge impact on my future career.

I was studying Chinese as I worked on the Morning Post – T.S. kindly let me do the afternoon shift most days so I could go to Mandarin classes at HKU – and on one occasion I had to tussle over a Chinese newspaper with one Chinese reporter who felt uncomfortable at the idea of a foreigner gaining access to the leads and scoops contained in the local vernacular press. But it was a minor hiccup. The SCMP newsroom was whatever you wanted to make of it.

At that time, Hong Kong was probably the easiest place in the whole world for people to break into real English journalism. The SCMP and other local media often took on people with zero experience, and gave us the opportunity to not only do the small town newspaper stuff – the flowers shows and the Rotary Club lunches – but also world class stories. I was the shipping and aviation reporter for a while, and had the opportunity in 1975 to help write some of the extraordinary HK angles on the edge of the fall of Saigon and the beginning of the boat people tragedy. What a privilege.

In 1974, just a year after joining the newspaper, I had to go into hospital for a major operation and the SCMP in its wisdom put me on unpaid leave for the duration – around five months. Robin, good on him, came to the see me in Queen Mary and gave me HK$500 to tide me over. At HK$2 a day all-in public ward charges, that made the difference. Long live humanitarian management.

The reporter crew was motley for sure. Myself and Dinah Lee, Barry Choi, Halima, Ian Watkins, Kenneth Ko, Tommy and Harold, Mark Giles, Gary Marchant, Martin Evan-Jones … Lydia Siu. There we were, in the middle of this warehouse room in Quarry Bay, turning out every day an English language version of the news for Hong Kong, struggling with the divide between the two cultures, the secretive and generally pretty incompetent Government departments, the swashbuckling disregard for truth from much of the business community, brooding inscrutable Red China in the shadows off to stage left … but we had a great time doing it.

I went on, for what it’s worth, to work for Reuters and the London Daily Telegraph as a reporter, and editor, then set up a company in Shanghai called SinoMedia, and later became involved with a company called XFN. Many adventures along the way.

But fundamental to all I have done since was the experience of my three years as a reporter with the Morning Post. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.


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