In a rare show of humility, talk-show host Albert Cheng King-hon said last week he would soon become nobody after he quit Commercial Radio's Teacup in a Storm. 'I am finished ... I will become nobody: just a man in the street.' Not quite.
Cheng, also known as Taipan, made the remarks on Thursday after he gave a tearful farewell to listeners of Teacup, which has become Hong Kong's most popular phone-in programme since it first went to air in 1995.
In less than a week, the controversial talk-show host found himself in the eye of the storm over Teacup. As speculation brewed over the weekend about his plunge into politics as an independent candidate in September's Legislative Council elections, Monday saw a dramatic turn in his rift with Commercial Radio over his contract.
Hours after he announced he had made up his mind about his electoral debut, Commercial Radio's director, Winnie Yu, convened a hastily arranged press conference, claiming it had been Cheng who first suggested his contract should be terminated.
Cheng, who sat through the press conference, retaliated immediately after Ms Yu made her case. He claimed the broadcaster had offered to pay out his contract on condition he did not stand for Legco - a claim rejected by Ms Yu. Yesterday, Cheng filed a formal complaint to the Independent Commission Against Corruption over the alleged breach of electoral law.
Upon legal advice, Commercial Radio said it had no comment. Nor would it discuss the row over its programmes. Late on Monday night, the station sacked its chief operating officer, Tony Tsoi Tung-ho, and changed the hosts of Teacup, effective from yesterday until after the September 12 elections. Two veteran journalists have taken up the hot seat which was vacated by consultant Leung Man-to and Ivan Choy Chi-keung, a political scientist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
The shakeup at Teacup and the privately funded broadcaster followed a war of words between Cheng and Ms Yu last Wednesday, apparently sparked by a newspaper advertisement paid for by a group of Cheng's supporters. Countering a promotional slogan of the broadcaster, the signatories, mostly from the pro-democracy circle, asked: 'Do we still have a sense of what is right under heaven and earth? Why sack Taipan? Commercial Radio owes the public an explanation.'
An organiser of the ad, Chan Kwok-leung, said the action was taken after a petition outside the station a week before had gone unattended. Cheng insisted he played no part in the ad.
To the surprise of Mr Chan and many others, Ms Yu went on air last Wednesday during Teacup to confirm talks on an early settlement of Cheng's contract were in progress. She said the hosts had themselves undermined freedom of expression by quitting the show.
She was referring to Raymond Wong Yuk-man and Allen Lee Peng-fei. Teacup, she added, also needed a review of its style to keep abreast of the times. 'We have decided not to resort to airing emotional expression. Instead, we will take a rational approach to deal with issues. The more difficult the situation Hong Kong faces, the more we need to keep control of our emotions,' she said.
Speaking on Close Encounter of the Political Kind, Ms Yu said the departure of Cheng and his long-time partner, Lam Yuk-wah, 'put the era to an end'.
The following day, Ms Yu and Cheng made a joint appearance - probably the first and the last time - on Teacup. Cheng, in tears, said: 'My relationship with Winnie is not damaged by this incident. We can't co-operate on work, but in private we are still friends.'
Grilled by a host about whether she would reconsider, Ms Yu said: 'This was not a hasty decision ... We would not reverse it easily.'
As the story of Teacup winds down, a blitz of confusing reports about Cheng's bid for an independent seat at the next Legco poll heralds a new chapter in the tale of the Taipan.
His media career has been a tumultuous one. At the end of an Asia Television talk show in 1995, Cheng was asked to launch Teacup at the invitation of Ms Yu - it was she who gave the programme its name. Three years later, Cheng was brutally attacked by knife-wielding assailants outside Commercial Radio's headquarters in Kowloon Tong. No arrests were made. Last year, he went off the air for three months while the government was considering a renewal of the broadcaster's licence. Cheng announced a decision to go off the air on May 3 until September 28, citing political intimidation and a 'suffocating' atmosphere.
He revealed last week he had received a call from Mr Tsoi about the decision to terminate his contract on June 21, which was the curtain-raiser to the showdown with Commercial Radio - and arguably his election campaign - in the past week. Following days, if not weeks, of contradictory remarks, Cheng gave the clearest indication so far on Friday that he would run for a Legco seat. He said on Saturday that the idea of entering politics arose after the call from Mr Tsoi in June. 'I was very angry then ... I think the only way that I can continue to speak out is to enter Legco.'
He said he only submitted his application to renounce his Canadian passport in mid-July. He received the formal approval on Monday and is expected to formally submit his candidacy before the nomination period ends today.
Sources said Cheng made initial approaches to key figures in the pan-democracy camp in late June, after he faced the axe. One said: 'He was so confident of his chances, he said he would definitely win in any geographical constituency.
'We have not done any polls on him. Nor has he done any. But we can't stop him from contesting.'
Another source said: 'He was never serious about standing for Legco elections. He really wanted to resume his work after his vacation ended. It was until his days at Commercial Radio were to end that he seriously considered Legco. He has nothing to do after leaving Teacup. He didn't want to retire to Canada, so going for Legco is the obvious choice for him.'
The second source said Cheng was unable to confirm his election bid before last weekend because of uncertainty over his passport. 'He also had to consider the impact of his plan on the pan-democracy camp.'
Speaking on Monday, Ms Yu said Cheng had told Mr Tsoi in mid-June that he was considering standing for election.
She said he had to choose one or the other - the contract or standing for election. 'I didn't want to delay his election timetable. We didn't mean to block him from standing, but the contract won't be valid if he stands.'
Crucial to the row was a letter to Cheng from Commercial Radio dated June 25, on the formal termination of contract. It is understood that it was issued by a law firm on behalf of the station, and delivered to Cheng while he was still in Canada.
Cheng said: 'They didn't say [in the letter] that they wanted to fire me or terminate my contract. The meaning [of the letter] was that they didn't want me to host the programme and they would pay me every month. But there was one condition: I could not stand for Legco elections.'
Ms Yu said it was fair that the contract would become invalid if Cheng stood for elections. 'Many people will agree a Legco member should not have the most popular airtime [programme] as his platform at the same time.'
The second source said Ms Yu had not yet given a convincing explanation of the initiative to terminate Cheng's contract. 'Both sides suffer. But those who support Cheng will probably continue to back him. He has no problem winning a seat in Legco.'
In his regular column in Ming Pao Weekly published at the weekend, Cheng said Teacup would no longer be the 'cup of tea of ordinary people' if it was full of rational analysis, without any emotional input.
Regardless of the programme's new approach, the legacy of Cheng on Teacup has come to a bitter end. The next chapter of the Taipan's tale looks set to be his venture into politics - if he fields his candidacy today and wins a seat on September 12.