Geoffrey Bonsall, radio broadcaster and expert on Chinnery shorthand

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 July, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 July, 2010, 12:00am

Geoffrey Bonsall, who was the son of a missionary, a sinologist, expert on the shorthand of artist George Chinnery and the broadcaster known as Charles Weatherill at RTHK, has died at the age of 85.

Bonsall (pictured) was born in Wuhan, Hubei, in 1924. He spent his childhood in Norwich, England, after leaving China in 1926, due to anti-foreign unrest. His father was even kidnapped temporarily.

He is thought to have been a conscientious objector during the second world war and in the mid-1940s did relief work in Sichuan and Guizhou with the Friends Ambulance Unit, driving charcoal-burning and alcohol-fuelled trucks between Kunming and Chongqing . He would later return to England to study for a masters degree in oriental languages at the University of Cambridge, later adding a masters degree in library studies.

Friends in in Hong Kong remembered him for his work ethic and love of electronic gadgets. In a 2006 interview with the South China Morning Post he predicted books would slowly be replaced by electronic readers.

After a stint as assistant librarian in charge of the Japanese collection at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, he came to Hong Kong in 1955 as the deputy librarian of the University of Hong Kong.

He was the second head of the Hong Kong University Press, but is perhaps best known for his ability to decipher the shorthand of 19th century artist Chinnery.

Dr Patrick Connor of the Martyn Gregory Gallery in London, along with Sotheby's, were among those in the art world who relied on Bonsall's expertise to read Chinnery's annotations on his paintings. 'I think he regarded the shorthand like a conceptual crossword puzzle,' Connor said. 'He thought about the likely words Chinnery would have used until he cracked it.'

Former South China Morning Post editor Robin Hutcheon wrote a book on Chinnery, with Bonsall's chapter on the artist's shorthand. 'It was a very scholarly piece. Geoffrey was a courteous and charming man.'

Royal Asiatic Society members and friends of Bonsall Dr Dan Waters and Geoffrey Emerson recalled he helped found the society's Hong Kong branch and edited the society's journals for years. He was also Macau casino mogul Stanley Ho Hung-sun's speech writer. Both feel the self-effacing Bonsall should have written his memoirs, a sentiment Connor shares.

As Weatherill, that being his mother's maiden name, Bonsall was a freelance newsreader and broadcaster of news, music and documentaries on RTHK's Radio 3 and 4. While some remember him for his dapper bow ties, RTHK colleagues recall his more flamboyant weekend clothing.

Bonsall had a reputation for sometimes being critical, with a willingness to help. Noting that a fledgling pigeon had fallen out of its nest near his flat a few years ago , he took it home. Rambo, as the white pigeon was named, is still going strong.

Bonsall, who died on Thursday after a long illness, is survived by his partner of 45 years, Johnny Cheng Wai-hung.



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