The 'late man' clocks off

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 May, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 May, 1999, 12:00am

THE life of the late-night crime reporter consists of long periods of inactivity and boredom, punctuated by adrenalin-charged battles against deadlines. It is a life that Tommy Lewis knows well. As the South China Morning Post 's 'late man', his contacts, tenacity and experience have helped ensure that when big stories broke late, the Post was on top of them. Now, after 40 years as a reporter - many of them on the crime beat at the Post - Lewis, who turns 60 tomorrow, is about to put away his pen and notepad.

His retirement will mark the end of an era in the Post 's newsroom. In a profession where reporters come and go, the slightly-built Eurasian newsman with the shock of black hair and the oversized glasses has seemed as much a fixture as the glowing banks of computers and jangling telephones.

He has covered many of Hong Kong's biggest stories, from the 1960s riots to the Lan Kwai Fong New Year's Eve disaster. He has lost count of the number of editors he has seen come and go, and watched journalism evolve from the ink-stained, rough-and-ready days of hot metal type to today's slick, hi-tech production.

Lewis admits he will miss the buzz of the breaking story. 'Being the night crime man, you spend a lot of time wandering around, reading papers, scanning the wires,' he says. 'But you never know what will happen in the next second. You never know when things can suddenly turn insane.' Lewis' childhood was far from an easy one. He was the youngest of five children, all of whom were interned by the Japanese at a concentration camp at Rosary Hill, near Stubbs Road during World War II.

'My father was a prisoner of war, and my mother, well, one day she went out to get food, this was during a time of severe bombings, and she never came back. My father was hospitalised for a long time after the war, and he died quite young. I stayed with my grandmother after that, then we were all put into boarding schools.' He began his career in the summer of 1959. After graduating from the Diocesan Boys School and a brief stint as a clerk at the Central Post Office - 'it was dirty, dark and it stank' - one of his former schoolmates bumped into him and demanded to know 'what the hell I was doing in this boring job'.

'He told me the South China Morning Post was looking for people, and suggested I give it a try,' Lewis remembers.

'So I went in to see the editor, and he said he could give me a job but he could only pay me $200 a month.' He took it, and describes the start of his career as 'very ordinary'.

'I got lost, picked the wrong story to do, was shouted at, abused and narrowly escaped the spike,' he says. 'The news editor was a Scot named Johnny Luke and he was a pretty tough sort of character. He asked me if I knew the Central Court and I said no. Anyway, it was a few minutes walk from the Post 's old office in Wyndham Street.

'I found the place and was feeling happy, until I stepped into a maze of corridors and what seemed like a multitude [there were four] of courtrooms. After wandering around in a daze, I decided to go into the busiest court, where there were dozens of people waiting for their turn to appear before the magistrate. It had to be important I thought.

'It was the hawker court. Back on the editorial second floor of the Post building, the news editor bellowed at me for picking the wrong court and then kept telling me to 'hurry with that story'.

'The sub-editor on whose page this masterpiece was to go was getting anxious, and after hours of pounding at my typewriter and countless sheets of script and carbon paper later, I submitted my first story.

'Four paragraphs and every word a gem, or so I thought. Wrong. I had trouble recognising it when it appeared in print the next day. That was my introduction to the world of reporting.' Lewis says the life of a young reporter was a gruelling one in those days.

'I had to work for both the Post and its sister evening paper, the China Mail. So for four years I covered courts. You'd have to leave early to file for the evening paper, before lunch, then back to court and you'd have to rewrite the story for the Post.

'I also had to cover funerals in the afternoon, and then rush over to Kowloon to collect sporting results for the cricket, bowls and tennis. Then it was a dash back to the office to file, then at 9am the next day it started all over again. Young reporters have got it easy these days.' One funeral sticks in his mind. A Jardine taipan had died and Lewis was sent to St John's Cathedral to cover the memorial service.

'I hung around the entrance of St John's until I spied someone who looked definitely sympathetic. 'Stop worrying, young fellow,' he said, passing me a complete staff list. 'Just make sure you have the names of departmental heads'.' Lewis sauntered into the office the next morning, proud of his report, to be told the publisher, Terence Pearce, wanted a word. 'I made my way down to his ground- floor office, thinking I was about to get a well-deserved pat on the back.

'His face was red and he was waving a clipping of the report about. 'Young man, tell me . . . how in God's name did the deceased get to attend his own funeral as one of the mourners?' I was never sent to another funeral.' His first exclusive story - shortly after he left the Post to work briefly at another paper - was a cracker. 'There was a crown counsel who was about to leave Hong Kong and I got on very well with him. He told me, 'Tommy, be in court at such and such a time, I've got a scoop for you you'll never forget'.

'There was a transcript of a tape submitted to the judge, but not read out in open court, and he gave me a copy. The tape turned out to have been made by a Taiwanese agent, who had been caught trying to smuggle it into Guangzhou. When the tape was played, it was a message urging people to revolt against Chairman Mao. The tape had been rigged up so that when the message ended, it was actually a bomb which would explode. This agent was caught with several of these 'tape bombs'.' In the mid-1960s, on the crime beat at the China Mail, Lewis started hearing rumours about corrupt police officers involved in illegal gambling activities with triads. He decided to try to expose them.

'One night I stumbled across a huge illegal off-course greyhound betting centre. Live commentary was broadcast on races in Macau.' He says the centre was on an upper floor of a building in Nathan Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, and was full of people.

'I broke the story, which appeared on the front page. Police took immediate action and neutralised the illegal operation. We thought it was all over. The next day, I received a telephone call from a man who threatened me with violence for the expose. I was given police protection for a short period, before police arrested a man, one of the partners in the illegal betting centre.' A year or so later, Lewis was on the spot when riots broke out. He was sent to Macau to cover the communist anti-Portuguese riots in 1966, and had to make a dash for the police lines with a furious mob hard on his heels.

'I reached the police to be greeted by a revolver jammed hard into my stomach. The young constable who had it pressed into my middle was trembling so much, I shut my eyes and waited for the gun to go off,' he says.

'I heard myself saying 'Reporter. Press pass in my back pocket. Please be careful with that thing'.' A year later, the riots had moved to Hong Kong as the Cultural Revolution swept through China. Lewis found himself surrounded by another angry mob. He was shouted at, punched, kicked and had his shirt ripped open.

'We were in the Western district, which was full of coolies at the time. It was a scary place in those days, dark and dirty. The coolies were armed with clubs and rice hooks and they told the photographer and me that if any pictures were taken, they would kill us. I ordered the photographer to take some pictures - I think I was more scared what would happen at work if we went back empty-handed. I told him he wouldn't be the only one to die. Anyway, his hands were shaking so much that the pictures turned out to be out of focus.' As the Cultural Revolution gathered steam, news from the mainland dried up. Lewis went 'under cover' on the trains between Tsim Sha Tsui and Sheung Shui trying to glean information from across the border.

Asked about other career highlights, Lewis lists giving evidence at a commission of inquiry into the riots that erupted after the Star Ferry increased its fares in 1966. 'I was following one of the ring-leaders, who led a mob down Nathan Road to Mongkok, which got out of control and started looting and smashing windows. I had to testify about what I saw and the ringleader was eventually jailed.' Three overseas assignments are etched in his memory. The first saw him sent to Bangkok, after a Hong Kong man was arrested for trying to smuggle a load of heroin on a new flight from Bangkok to Guangzhou. 'I managed to get the police chief to give me the full story and pictures, and that turned out to be a front-page exclusive,' he says.

The second was during what he calls the 'wild west' days of the Philippines as the Marcos regime began to crumble. 'There had been a massacre in Chinatown. I was sent down there, and I persuaded the Metro Manila police general to second me to the homicide squad. Manila was a wild place then. I got to report daily to the homicide squad, I was issued a handgun and handcuffs, and went out on their raids. There were so many people running around with guns, you expected a shootout at any time. That was a very interesting 10 days.' The third trip he describes as a 'mission impossible'. When Oriental Press Group kingpin Ma Sik-yu fled to Taiwan to avoid drugs charges, Lewis was sent on his trail. 'It was impossible, no one was saying anything, it was all hushed up by the Taiwanese Government.' For once, he came back empty handed.

In more recent times, Lewis lists the night of Deng Xiaoping's death as one of the more hectic times in the office. 'It was very quiet, the editor and most of the staff had gone home. All of a sudden I got a phone call from a contact of mine who said something big had happened in China.

'It was about midnight, and eventually he rang back and said it was someone senior in the Chinese hierarchy who had died. But there were so many old buggers up there, no one knew who it was. Then a bit later the word came that it was Deng, but the New China News Agency (NCNA) would not confirm it.' Lewis alerted the editor and senior staff, who were sceptical at first - rumours about Deng's death had been floating around for months. But Lewis was insistent he was '95 per cent sure', so senior staff rushed back to the office and got cracking on the story. At 2.45am, by the time the NCNA confirmed Deng was dead, a special edition of the paper was almost ready to go to press.

Before that there was the horrific, unforgettable night when New Year's Eve revels in 1993 turned into a bloody stampede in Lan Kwai Fong that left 21 people dead. 'I heard on the police radio they were calling for reinforcements and ambulances. It was already close to deadline by the time I got down there and it was just chaos. That must be one of the fastest stories I've had to write.' Lewis now plans to travel with one of his sisters around Southeast Asia and the US. His dream is to open a coffee shop in Zhuhai and he is searching for a joint venture partner he can trust.

He says he is proud to have been able to pass on some of his experience to aspiring journalists in lectures at the Baptist and Chinese universities.

'It's nice to be able to share some of what I have learned,' he says. Lewis also rates as one of his finest moments being asked to give a lecture to a group of police superintendents in 1984 on 'police and the media'.

'Some of the recommendations I made to the officers, I'm happy to say, have been implemented since, such as on-the-scene briefings at major incidents. I think it helped improve relations between police and the media, which used to be pretty tense.' Lewis says he never wanted to be anything other than a reporter. Not for him office politics or trying to ascend the corporate ladder.

'I was offered jobs from time to time with the Government Information Service and the Independent Commission Against Corruption. I turned them down. I felt that in government you don't have the same freedom you do as a journalist. Many of my former colleagues joined GIS and I suppose if I'd joined them I'd have more money now.

'But I've never regretted staying in journalism, not for a second. I'm not one for rank or title, that means nothing to me. I feel I've achieved all the roles a reporter could have done, from cub reporter to chief reporter, deputy news editor and news editor. The one thing I never did was sub-editing - my spelling is horrible.

'What has been the best part? Every day there's something new, some sort of excitement. You don't know what will happen, you can't guess it. And that's what I've really enjoyed.'