Hot line, hot seat, hot air

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 February, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 February, 1993, 12:00am

NINETY minutes into the programme, and Chan Yiu-wah looked as though he was feeling the pace. His face contorted in a series of grimaces and he started to shake and shudder, and he climaxed his version of St Vitus' Dance by banging his head repeatedly on the desk while the caller droned on, oblivious to what was happening at the other end of the line.

It was another edition of Radio Television Hongkong (RTHK) Radio 1's Talkabout programme - the early-morning call-in show that has been called the truest barometer of what Hongkong is thinking.

Every morning for more than a decade the irritated, the concerned and the merely verbose have been dialling the Talkabout number at Broadcasting House in Kowloon Tong.

It is not simply Chan and the production team in the adjoining studio C4B they are speaking to - Talkabout is regularly monitored by Government departments and senior civil servants anxious to find out what is on the minds of the territory's inhabitants.

It is also rumoured the inhabitants of the New China News Agency take a close interest in the usually-trenchant opinions expressed, believing they offer a more accurate indicator of what Hongkong is thinking than all their special advisers put together.

Perhaps, then, it is not surprising the amiable Chan sometimes finds it all gets a little too much. His call from the Putonghua speaker came after a spirited rant from a woman unhappy about the Government's plans to charge housing estate tenants different rates depending on their income.

''The Government never told us when I moved in. Does that mean they have broken their contract?'' she demanded excitedly. ''What is your opinion?'' she said, hardly waiting for a reply.

''You must have a personal opinion! I've lived in my estate for 20 years and in that time our income has gone up, but the standard of living has, too, and so has the price of food! The Government broke our contracts!'' she spat accusingly down her mouthpiece and directly into Chan's ear.

He had jogged into the studio 10 minutes before he was due on air, a bundle of newspapers under his arm that he had been studying intently on his journey in from North Point.

Soon after eight, with Chan settled in his seat and two newsreaders going through the bulletin, executive producer Tai Keen-man and producer Winnie Lam calmly strolled in ready to start the programme.

They sat side by side against a wall with a clear view of Chan and immediately started fielding calls from the pair of white phones that were already flashing red from incoming calls.

''Jo san. Neih gwai sing-a?'' they intoned in unison before marking down the callers' name, phone number and subject in a ledger. Over a two-hour programme they can log up to 150 calls, although no more than about 30 will make it on air.

Tai said: ''It's called a phone-in programme. But it's really a call out programme since we telephone people after they ring in.'' At this point a woman was talking about the teenager seriously injured after falling during a pop concert at the Coliseum. She had come on at the start of the programme, but Tai made her ring off because she had left her radio on, causing massive on-air interference.

Contacted again, she made the most of her air-time, telling Chan the accident had been caused by ''excitable, happy and hyperactive youths'' who attend pop concerts because ''they cannot control themselves; so when you create an atmosphere they will start jumping around''.

Tai said the political content of the programme had grown markedly since the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989. Eight of the 26 callers who made it on air wanted to talk about Governor Mr Chris Patten's proposals for democratic reform and Hongkong's relations with Beijing, but there were plenty of other subjects people wanted to get off their chests.

Like Chan, for example. He took over this month from William Lee who had been the voice of the programme for a decade.

Although Chan has been associated with the programme for several years, he is still regarded by many as a new boy who has not earned his spurs.

He has his supporters, but Mr Chan who rang in at 8.45 am was not one. ''I do not think you are suitable for the job. [Legislative Councillor] Tam Yiu-chung would be better.'' A forthright fellow who clearly felt there was no point in expressing anything unless it was done plainly, Mr Chan went on to talk about the East Wood - the ship carrying more than 500 Chinese people who hoped to get to the United States until they were marooned in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

''I would rather not be Chinese these days because we are all begging on our knees to get taken in by someone. If we act like that how can China ever be great?'' Presenter Chan, who described himself as a ''a traffic policeman'' trying to keep the flow of calls moving smoothly, said there was no need for all Chinese people to be ashamed of themselves because of the East Wood episode.

Mr Chan responded dismissively. ''It takes very little to offend you people - I was only trying to make my opinion,'' although at this point his voice became indistinct.

Laughing heartily, Lam said she reckoned someone had put their hand over caller's telephone mouthpiece, having decided he had made enough of a contribution to the show for one day.

The topics under discussion meandered from Mr Patten's political reforms and whether he should pay tax; the plans to change the admission requirements for teacher training; whether the so-called ''sandwich class'' was well off or not and was the Government wrong to site a funeral home near a housing estate.

Late in the programme Tai took over a call about the intricacies of running a home owners' co-operative, speaking with surprisingly detailed knowledge of this fairly obscure topic.

Chan moved to a call from the second Mandarin speaker of the morning. Both were based in the territory, although Talkabout regularly takes calls from Shenzhen and Guangdong, as well as from overseas, all of which have priority, Tai said.

At 9.58 am Chan took his last call, as the newsreaders walked into the studio for the hourly bulletin. A woman was explaining that while she had every sympathy for the parents of the youth badly injured at the Coliseum, it was his fault for grabbing at the decorative balloons.

Afterwards, in an upstairs office with the production team, Chan said he was not fazed by the responsibility, and brickbats that came with presenting Talkabout.

So what was the most difficult thing about the fronting the programme. ''Sitting there for two hours knowing you cannot go to the bathroom,'' he said with a smile.