Respected news hound loved living in the firing line

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 July, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 26 July, 2004, 12:00am

Tommy Lewis

1939 - 2004

Thomas Victor Lewis, aka sai fei, was a pioneer in newspaper reporting in Hong Kong. In his 45 years in journalism, he set the standards for those who came after him.

He was always at the forefront of dangerous jobs, came within a whisker of losing his life - and relished every minute of it.

It was a remarkable career for someone who wanted to be a prison guard and joined the Civil Service in 1958 hoping to do just that. Thankfully that ambition was short-lived when he found himself stuck in a dull clerical post.

Born in Hong Kong, he was the youngest of five children orphaned during the war.

He was educated at Diocesan Boys' School and married Shirley Lam at the height of Typhoon Wanda in 1962.

His craving for excitement led him to take a 50 per cent cut in pay to accept $200 a month as a cub reporter with the South China Morning Post in 1959. And so began his love affair with news.

In 1963, he was assigned the beat that was to make his name - late-breaking news. He methodically built contacts in the disciplined forces, which had no spokesmen and did not fall under the Government Information Service.

His high-level connections prompted Chinese newspaper reporters to address him as tai lo (big brother). They also nicknamed him sai fei (western teddy boy) because he worked for an English newspaper, sported a James Dean haircut, and wore colourful shirts.

Tommy's exclusives included a story in 1961 about thousands of men, women and children on the mainland waiting to escape because of acute food shortages. Officials did not react until months later when an exodus saw thousands pour into Hong Kong.

During the 1966 and 1967 disturbances, he covered the riots at night and spent days at Kowloon Police Headquarters, keeping tabs on the situation. As a frontline reporter in those troubled times he was assaulted by unruly crowds, hit by flying missiles, tear-gassed by the police and shot at.

All reporters had a hard time, but the Post reporters bore the brunt of mob fury because their paper was considered pro-British and they were deemed fair game, all this while dodging crude homemade bombs, indiscriminate explosives and bomb attacks.

His scariest moment came in Macau, where armed Portuguese soldiers with shoot-to-kill orders enforced evening curfews.

Tommy was in the middle of his dash across the road when a soldier aimed his rifle at him and barked in Portuguese. Convinced he was going to be killed, Tommy continued his flight and made it to safety.

He made it to a phone and filed his story.