Kevin sinclair's hong kong

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 November, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 November, 2004, 12:00am

In March 1914, a South China Morning Post reader signing himself 'The Jay' forcefully expressed his views in a letter to the editor. He was writing about women's rights to vote. In Britain, the suffragette movement was demanding female equality and 'The Jay' was outraged by their temerity. How dare they, Sir!

His letter thundered against the spineless British government for failing to take sufficiently robust action against women activists. He called for recruitment of stalwart women warders who should 'vigorously birch' suffragettes and, 'if they remained obstreperous, then birch them again'.

In recent months, I have been scanning century-old copies of the paper and microfilm files, poring over the letters columns.

Some of the published views were humorous. Some were offensive. Others, in the age of a politically correct 21st century, are scandalous in their views of people of different ethnic or social backgrounds. While many readers wrote with intelligent insight about the challenges of their times, others huffed with colonial hauteur about perceived social inferiors.

Some readers were proud of Hong Kong, others shamed. Some were happy, some depressed, some boisterously confident, others fearful of the future.

About 'The Jay' I couldn't make up my mind. Was he serious or was his letter an elaborately worded joke? You can decide for yourself; his is one of more than 350 letters published in a new book, Points of View; Letters to the Editor of the South China Morning Post.

Covering aspects of life that include pets, civil servants, pirates and corruption, the book gives snapshots of how our readers saw themselves and their society. Researching the book was an intriguing assignment, the final chapter in your newspaper's celebration of its 100th anniversary.

I tried to work out how many letters have been published since the South China Morning Post first rolled off the press before dawn on September 6, 1903. It was an impossible task. In some periods, there were three or four missives published daily.

At other times, spreading over an entire page, up to 20 irate, smug, irritated, outraged, amused or bemused correspondents would daily express their views. At a rough count, I reckon the paper has run about 400,000 letters from readers, not counting the three years and eight months that the Post presses printed the English-language Hong Kong News put out by the Japanese occupation authorities.

Scanning the letters pages, year after year, several themes emerged. Our readers in 1903 may have phrased their views differently but their main concerns, preoccupations and interests remained remarkably constant. It was the basics that mattered, then and now. Transport, education, housing, the ever-rising cost of living, safety and, of course, the weather dominated the columns.

In 1906, people didn't write about terrorism, but correspondents had ample scope to vent their anger and impotence about the persistent threat of piracy against vessels on the China coastal trade and river steamers heading up the Pearl. Long before Sars, the community was justifiably fearful of tuberculosis, diphtheria, cholera, the plague and the flu, all of which have afflicted the city.

'Disgusted of Mid-Levels' had many problems over the decades. In 1910, he was mightily upset about having his white linen suit soiled by a dirty seat in a rickshaw. Seven decades on, another 'Disgusted' had similar complaints about filthy taxis. 'Paterfamilia', who penned an irate and worried letter about the evils of gambling in 1914, could have been writing about the social perils of legal betting on soccer in 2003.

'Ray' in 1913 worried about the damage to young minds caused by smutty magazines; now correspondents are concerned about access to pornography on the internet. The technology has changed, the concerns remain.

A reliable standby over the century was criticism of the government and civil service. Could they do nothing right? Readers blamed them for most problems of existence. If there was too much rain, the Observatory tended to be blamed, rather than Mother Nature or the monsoons. Blocked sewers, potholed roads, noisy neighbours, barking dogs ... what were all those highly paid civil servants doing to earn their vast salaries?

Reading the letters pages year after year, it seems that generations of readers have similar complaints and voice them in almost standard expressions. Editing the letters pages is a task for senior journalists. Exercising sound judgment and discretion, they also try to help readers. I am still pondering what response 'Broken Hearts' got in reply to his 1936 letter, in which he asked: 'What is love?'