Language, patriotism and ambition behind creative legacy

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 February, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 February, 2006, 12:00am

Journalist, educator, filmmaker and publisher ; Born: September 18, 1916 Died: February 2, 2006

In 1928, when 11-year-old Chang Kuo-sin and his father left their native Hainan Island in search of a better life in Kuching, north Borneo, he had only a rudimentary education in Chinese.

The farm boy could not have dreamed that 20 years later, he would have mastered English and his coverage of the Chinese civil war would be read by millions in the English-speaking world.

Nor would he have expected his journalistic career to make him an unofficial ambassador who might have altered the course of Sino-Indian relations.

When the former head of the Communication Department of Baptist College (now Baptist University) passed away on February 2, he left a legacy that has few parallels. He was 89.

Chang was a teenager when he was admitted into a modern school in Johore Bahru in southern Malaysia. But he made up for lost time by studying diligently. He fell in love with English and read countless books from the school library.

In Kuching in 1937, Chang worked in the local courts by representing litigants who didn't speak English. By then, the Sino-Japanese war had already broken out. He would follow the war by listening to the BBC at night and recount the news to fellow Chinese the next morning.

In 1938, Chang won a lottery that paid a handsome $275. He used part of the money to start a coffee shop with seven partners. When he fell out with his partners, Chang opted to buy them out with borrowed funds.

A year later, he paid off his debts. He then sent for his mother, younger brother and sister in Hainan to join him and his father in Kuching.

He could have settled down for a life as a businessman, but his patriotic spirit lured him back to China in 1939 to help defend the nation.

His plan was to join the air force, but that was derailed by a chance encounter with another young overseas Chinese from Hawaii, who encouraged him to enrol in the National Southwest Associated University, which he did.

Two years later, Chang interrupted his studies to become a translator with the Allied Forces in India. Working in Kashmir, he helped sift through mail from Japanese-occupied territories in China for intelligence on the situation there.

When he graduated in 1946, Chang joined the Central News Agency. A year later, he was recruited by the American news agency United Press to help cover the civil war between the communists and nationalists.

Chang later learned that, for exposing corrupt dealings in the Nationalist government, he was once suspected as a communist sympathiser and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek had wanted him dead.

Luckily, Chiang was dissuaded from sending for the killers by advisers who knew Chang better. In fact, when he was at university, while most students were pro-communist, Chang was among a minority who felt communism was an ideal that would not work.

After the communist forces took control of Nanking in April 1949, Chang was barred from filing to the news agency. But he kept taking notes of his observations on communist rule, and came up with an ingenious way to sneak them out.

He bought a Chinese dinner set of porcelain bowls, dishes and spoons. Using his notes as wrapping paper, he packed the set in a camphor chest. It was a complete success.

Arriving in Hong Kong in December, he turned his notes into 22 articles on life under communist rule in China, which were widely read all over the world.

He later expanded the articles into a book, Eight Months Behind the Bamboo Curtain. In the book, Chang predicted that the Chinese communists would have to change their ways or they would fail. He was happy to note, in 1999, that his observations had been justified by subsequent developments.

In 1952, with the support of the Ford Foundation, Chang started Asia Press to help publish the works of scholars who had left the mainland.

A year later, he entered filmmaking by launching Asia Pictures. Several of his films became big hits. Long Lane became the first Hong Kong film to win an award at the Asian Film Festival. The Three Sisters broke the box record for Putonghua films.

In 1963, war broke out between China and India in the Himalayas. In Taiwan, Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek regarded that as an opportunity to persuade New Delhi to switch diplomatic recognition from Beijing to Taipei.

By then, Chang's work in Hong Kong had convinced Chiang that he was not a communist and could be trusted as his unofficial emissary. Chang was secretly despatched to India, where he met with prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, but the mission was unsuccessful.

In 1968, Chang had a stint with the South China Morning Post as editorial consultant. In 1969, he joined Baptist College, where he taught feature writing, press law, political science and China reporting. He became head of the Communication Department in 1978 and retired in 1986.

An oft-repeated remark by Chang in class was about communism. 'If you're 18 and you're not a communist, you're a fool. If you're 48 and you're still a communist, you're also a fool,' he said.

But that didn't mean he was switched off to all communist thoughts. Former student Lo Wai-luk remembers getting full marks for a piece on the future of communism in China after the fall of the Gang of Four.

'He said: I do not agree with your views, but your logic is good and your English is not bad. You've made an effort and I'll give you full marks,' said Lo.

Chang is survived by his wife, two sons, three daughters, their spouses, and five grandchildren.