Newspaper legend a mentor to many

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 July, 2012, 12:00am


Harva James Yapp 1914-2012

Harva James Yapp, who died on July 13, two years short of his 100th birthday, will long be remembered as a media legend in Hong Kong.

'Jimmie' - as he was known to colleagues, friends and admirers - was a self-made success story. He rose from humble beginnings as a largely self-taught Chinese reporter to become a revered editor at the China Mail, South China Morning Post and Tiger Standard - three of the leading English dailies in colonial-era Hong Kong.

He endeared himself to colleagues, particularly juniors, as a mentor, friend and philosopher.

Yapp was born in 1914 in Cape Town, South Africa, where his father had emigrated from China to join an uncle in the grocery business. After his father died, Yapp's uncle advised him to go back to his ancestral village of Mei Hsien, in Guangdong, to learn his native language and traditions.

While there, Yapp got into trouble for criticising the village chief and, warned of his impending arrest, he fled to Hong Kong.

After stints in several odd jobs, including pest extermination, he landed a post as freelance reporter at the Post. And, after plucking up the courage to ask if he could have more work, he was told he could cover all sport in Hong Kong.

Knowing little about sport except the basics of soccer, Yapp went out and bought books to educate himself. Thereafter he went to Happy Valley, where the army held its league games: he always went to the goalkeeper first to ask what game was being played and for the names of teams and players. That way, he discovered, he could cover five or six games each afternoon.

The soldiers wanted to see their names in the paper, which helped boost circulation. At night, Yapp covered badminton to boost his earnings. Before long, however, he was offered a monthly salary of HK$80.

While contemplating whether to take the job, Yapp one day chanced upon the news editor screaming at a junior. The poor chap had been on his way to court when he saw a fire and stopped to investigate. He had then written up the fire story before his court copy. The news editor was furious and warned him: 'If you are assigned to cover courts, you do just that. You are not to do anything else.'

So Yapp decided against joining the Post and went instead to a smaller paper - the Hong Kong Tiger Standard - because, in his own words, he wanted to gain more experience. He later became news editor there.

Years later he returned to the Post as assistant news editor and later became editor of the China Mail, a broadsheet evening paper.

In the 1960s, the publishers of the Post decided to convert the China Mail into a tabloid and in the reshuffle that followed, Yapp was transferred to the Post as China affairs editor and chief leader writer - the post he held until his retirement in the late 1970s. He was awarded the MBE for services to journalism in 1977.

During the second world war, Yapp saw action when he served as editor with the British Ministry of Information, China Branch, in Guilin and later in Kunming , Yunnan . There he met and married Harriette Wong following a whirlwind romance in 1944. His wife, born in Burma, worked for the Kunming Broadcasting Company and used to translate Yapp's English scripts for broadcast in Burma.

Harriette died in 2005, aged 83. The Yapps had one son, three daughters and six grandchildren.

The funeral will be held on Monday, August 6, at St Joseph's Church, Kennedy Road, at 10.30 am. Cremation will follow at Cape Collinson.