Post memoirs a last farewell

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 August, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 August, 2004, 12:00am

In 1959, I was working for a family friend at a car-importing firm when I bumped into a schoolmate who was working as a reporter with the South China Morning Post. He told me how much fun his job was, writing something new every day and talking to people from all walks of life. I was hooked, and wrote to the Post's manager, Peter Plumbly.

At my interview at his office in the Post building at 1-3 Wyndham Street, he asked me what I was doing and how much I was being paid. When I told him I was getting $100 a week, his eyes widened: 'Great Lord, we can't afford that. A reporter's salary starts at $200 a month.'

I told him I was interested in the job and money wasn't a problem. He told me to report to the news editor, Alec Greaves, on the second floor.

I spent the next two years or so as a cub reporter, covering magistrate's courts, before being let loose on the Central Court in Hollywood Road. When I became a night reporter, responsible for late-breaking news, I started building contacts in the disciplined services and went with them on police and customs raids. One of the more scary was a drug raid with customs officers on a suspected opium divan in Causeway Bay.

I was told to hide in the bushes at a distance as a precaution. An officer handed me a pair of handcuffs and jokingly said: 'If you are able to intercept an escapee, handcuff him.'

From behind a bush, I later saw about 50 people fleeing the structure. An addict walked past me and I challenged him, ordered him to squat, handcuffed him and handed him over. More than 30 people were arrested.

I was one of the Post's frontline reporters covering the riots that broke out in 1966 and 1967, at the height of the Cultural Revolution. It wasn't easy; you had to be prepared for assaults by leftist crowds, and missiles and tear gas fired by police.

The dangers were worse for us at the Post, which was considered pro-British - the Union Jack fluttered at the entrance to the Wyndham Street building. We local reporters were branded 'yellow-skin running dogs' by pro-China newspapers and by the leftists, who attacked us at every opportunity.

One evening, Greaves told me to go to Government House, where demonstrations had become unruly, to relieve fellow reporter William Lam. Sensing trouble, I left everything except my press pass in the office. When I reached the Hilton Hotel at the junction of Garden Road and Queen's Road Central, I was recognised by a man in the crowd who rushed at me, grabbed my shirt and shouted: 'A running dog is here.' He punched me several times in the chest, someone tore off my shirt pocket and the crowd surrounded me, shouting abuse.

I told the crowd I was 'just making a living, I am a Chinese', and reminded them of the directive in Mao's Little Red Book that said: 'Chinese do not hit Chinese.'

The situation eased when a middle-aged man came forward and shouted: 'Let this running dog loose, he cannot go far.' The other man released his grip on my shirt. Frightened, I darted away, and scurried back to the office.

The news editor was not sympathetic. 'What?' he shouted. 'I've always told you to keep clear of the crowds and never get involved. You go to Government House right away to relieve William and stay there until further notice.' I drifted back and managed to reach him.

About a week later, I was sent to cover rioting in Shamshuipo, but no taxi drivers would take me, claiming rioters had set fire to the taxis there.

I finally found one driver who would take me to the 'nearest place' where crowds were, but at 'double the fare'.

At Nam Cheong Street, there was a crowd and I was told to get out of the car in a hurry. I walked about a kilometre before getting close to the riot, which was near the Garden Bakery in Tai Po Road. A large crowd had gathered at a nearby road junction, confronting police on the opposite side of the road.

When orders to disperse were ignored, police took out a warning banner telling people to go home.

I knew the tear gas was ready, and I was with the crowd.

I ran for the police line. The crowd behind me started cheering, thinking I was a brave one taunting the authorities.

I got to the other side only to have a constable shove a revolver into my stomach. He was so scared I could feel the barrel shaking.

After showing him my pass, he directed me to his senior officer further down the road.

I came across an expatriate officer and he told me six taxis had been burned. He and his men were about to leave. Within seconds, he shouted 'fall in' and all the police jumped into a line of police cars and sped away, leaving me standing alone to face the surging crowds.

I ran into a dark alley and was followed by a volley of missiles, before the crowd ran after the police.

The riots spread to Macau. Locals refused to sell food to Portuguese nationals and assaulted them in the streets. Heavily armed Portuguese soldiers with orders to shoot to kill enforced evening curfews. The streets emptied at nightfall.

I was told to go to Macau because the Post's correspondent, a Portuguese national, did not dare go out for fear of attack. The British consulate in the enclave was stormed and its consul-general was forced to stand out in the sun until he 'admitted his guilt'.

My scariest experience came when I had to phone a report in. The hotel phones could not dial Hong Kong, so I had to call from a Chinese-language newspaper in a side street across the road from the hotel. It was about 8pm and the curfew was on. I peeped out. There was not a soul in sight. I decided to dash across the road. I was halfway across when a soldier who had been leaning against a pillar rushed out, aimed his rifle at me and barked in Portuguese. I did not understand what he was saying. Convinced I was going to be killed, I continued my headlong flight and made it to the newspaper office, from where I filed my report and spent the night.

Over the years, I have covered many major incidents, including brutal murders, squatter fires, plane crashes, gun battles between police and robbers, killer typhoons, drug seizures and kidnappings, as well as the Lan Kwai Fong tragedy on New Year's Eve, 1993.

The hard reporting days are now history. We had none of the tape recorders or television newscasts to fall back on for quotes that reporters have now. Our tools were notepads and good memories: every quote we used had to be obtained personally. It was definitely harder, but infinitely more satisfying.