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Then & now: Down Under to over here

The good, the bad and the ugly: the list of Australian journalists who have worked in Hong Kong is as varied as it is long, writes Jason Wordie

 

Australians have been a feature of south China journalism since the late 19th century. Hong Kong, in particular, has been a destination of choice for Antipodean hacks seeking fresh experiences, personal reinvention, higher pay and lower taxes. While most of them have come and gone with the tide, some have made their homes here, forged long-term careers and even played significant roles in politics and public life.

One of the most interesting early examples was W.H. Donald, who came to Hong Kong in 1903 to edit the China Mail. Donald had responded to an advertisement requesting a teetotal journalist. The perils of alcohol abuse were clearly as much of a problem a century ago as in today's newspaper world, where heavy drinking and associated macho behaviour (both traits being commonplace among journalists of both sexes) are occupational hazards.

Donald became heavily involved in Chinese politics: by the mid-1930s he was one of Chiang Kai-shek's principal foreign advisers and he forged close bonds with Madame Chiang. Little inside information about Nationalist policy and internal politics passed him by. He was also a close adviser to Manchurian warlord Chang Tso-lin, popularly known as the Old Marshal. After Chang's assassination, in 1928, by the Japanese, Donald cleaned up the Old Marshal's heroin-addicted son, Chang Hsueh-liang. Under Donald's tutelage, the "Young Marshal", as he became known, forged the Nationalist compromise with the Chinese communists in 1936. This, in turn, paved the way for the communist takeover on the mainland.

All this was achieved despite (and, one suspects, partly because of) the fact that even after decades in the country, Donald remained unable to speak or read a word of Chinese. In this respect, he epitomised much of Hong Kong's expatriate commentariat down the decades, many of whom have spent far more time working on their beer guts, towering egos and variously flavoured sex drives than in getting genuinely close to the culture and society they presume to report upon. Less stereotypical, however, was Donald's dislike of Chinese food: he refused to eat a mouthful under any circumstances. Donald died in Shanghai in 1946.

Another Australian scribe who ended up in Hong Kong - after a spell in China - was Graham Jenkins, who established The Star newspaper. The paper was quietly funded in the 70s by two prominent, but not particularly establishment friendly, tycoons, who provided Jenkins (when it suited their purposes) with inside-track tittle-tattle, which made for some incendiary headlines.

Henry Ching was another Australian journalist who left his mark on Hong Kong society. Born in Queensland to a Chinese father and a European mother, Ching edited the South China Morning Post for many years and became a highly respected, if crusty, local figure.

The doyen of Australian expatriate journalists, however, was Richard Hughes. Probably the most legendary of Hong Kong's "legends in their own lunchtimes", Hughes reported a number of international coups, including the unmasking of British traitors Kim Philby and Donald Mclean in the 60s. Caricatured (to his apparent delight) in John Le Carre's Hong Kong-themed spy novel The Honourable Schoolboy, Hughes died in Hong Kong in 1984.

 

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