November 1903: the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party splits into Bolsheviks and Mensheviks; a 68-year-old Sir Robert Hart is see-ing out his last years as inspector general of China's Imperial Maritime Customs Service (see page 34); what will one day become an iconic Bombay hotel, the Taj Mahal Palace, is readying for business (see page 82); and, on the sixth of the month, the South China Morning Post begins informing the English-speaking people of Hong Kong.

Earlier that year, Cuba had leased Guantanamo Bay to America "in perpetuity"; Italian-born Maurice Garin had won the inaugural Tour de France (he would be stripped of the title the following year for cheating - sound familiar?); the Ford Motor Company had produced its first car, the Model A; and the nation of Prussia had introduced the world's first driver's licence.

In the immediate future lay Orville Wright's first powered flight (December 17) and the Russo-Japanese war, which began with an attack by Japan on Port Arthur (Lushun, now part of Dalian, in Liaoning province) on February 8, 1904.

As readers at the time turned to the stories featured here and on the following pages - all taken from the very first edition of the South China Morning Post - they were being governed by Sir Henry Arthur Blake, although not for very much longer as he would step down on November 21, immediately after laying a foundation stone for the old Supreme Court building. Many readers would have been aware of construction work associated with the city's first tram track, from Kennedy Town to Causeway Bay, and some of them may have seen the seven boundary stones recently erected to mark out the city of Victoria. They would not have seen them in the paper, though, as the first editions of the SCMP carried no photographs.

We do not know what readers picking up that first newspaper thought or felt, of course, but we do know what they were told.


Paper trails

More than a century ago, China's foreign-influenced cities had a wide variety of locally published foreign-language newspapers. Shanghai had four English-language dailies, as well as daily and weekly papers in German, Russian, French and Portuguese; Tientsin (modern-day Tianjin) had an Italian Concession and an Italian newspaper.

Shanghai's leading English-language newspaper, the North China Daily News - British-owned and popularly dubbed the "Old Lady of the Bund" due to its reactionary editorial views - was widely regarded as one of the Far East's most influential publications. It circulated for some years after the Pacific war and closed down in 1952, three years after the Communist assumption of power.

English-language newspapers have been published in southern China since the 1820s - more than 20 years before Hong Kong was established as a British settlement. The Canton Register started in 1827 and the missionary-sponsored The Friend of China operated for some years from this time. The latter's Christian bias is obvious, yet it contains fascinating information on foreign views of official decisions and political trends that were - even then - almost impenetrable. News sheets that lasted mere months appeared from time to time. By the early 20th century, Hong Kong had no less than four English-language newspapers in circulation. China Mail, established in 1845, was the oldest and, for many years, by far the most popular in the territory. It and two other papers, the Hong Kong Post and Telegraph and the Hong Kong Herald, were joined in 1903 by the South China Morning Post.

The new rival, and its sister publication, the South China Weekly Post (arguably a forerunner of today's Post Magazine), were inaugurated to add variety to the local market. A widely held view maintained that the other local newspapers were too parochial and a new newspaper with a fresh outlook would inject life into a staid local press. From the outset, the editorial and reporting standards of all these local newspapers varied considerably. Much ill-concealed copying from rivals regularly occurred, high staff turnover meant there was little or no real professionalism, and there was an insatiable appetite on the part of readers for localised gossip and business scandal.

Coverage of events closely linked to the Chinese community was limited, especially when only Chinese-language sources on them were available; it was generally considered that everyday goings-on within the Chinese community would be of little interest to the average European reader.

Generally unreliable for use as primary historical source materials - journalism really is history's "first draft" - Hong Kong's long-defunct English-language newspapers nevertheless now provide us with an invaluable day-to-day record of the period, its personalities and what mattered (or appeared to matter) to readers at that time. And as most other contemporary sources such as letters and diaries have gradually succumbed to war, typhoons, insects and the climate, historians must mine these resources to maximum advantage.

Hong Kong's English-language newspapers had a pronounced Australian element among their ranks for many years. A lack of any meaningful local knowledge or Chinese-language skill on arrival (or, for the most part, for the rest of their working lives) was never a barrier to forging a successful journalistic career. Some journalists did eventually become acknowledged experts on some aspect of China (usually politics) and a few became public figures in their own right; Australian newspaperman W.H. Donald, an editor of the China Mail for some years, later became a trusted and highly influential adviser to Generalissimo and Madame Chiang Kai-shek.

During the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, from 1941 to 1945, the South China Morning Post, China Mail and other English-language publications closed down, and only the Japanese-sponsored Hong Kong News continued to operate. It had been in operation for a couple of years before the war broke out, and was paralleled in Singapore by the similarly Japanese-controlled The Shonan Times. Despite being an unabashed propaganda organ, Hong Kong News nevertheless provided important information for those astute enough to read between the lines. European news agency dispatches, mainly routed via Lisbon, were generally reported accurately, enabling readers to infer that as Nazi Germany collapsed, Japan would come under pressure and the Pacific war would reach a successful conclusion for the Allies.

Reportage from Asia in the latter stages of the war became almost comical, with the paper describing increased numbers of ever-more decisive Japanese victories against the Allies that nevertheless got inexorably closer to Japan as time went on. Hong Kong News was closed down immediately after the Japanese surrender, in 1945, but old copies make for fascina-ting reading.

Financed by Tiger Balm millionaires Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par as part of their Sing Tao publishing group, and later controlled by Boon Haw's adopted daughter, Sally Aw Sian, the Tiger Standard commanded a considerable market share for decades. It was later renamed the Hong Kong Standard, and then changed ownership. It continues today as The Standard, a free daily.

China Mail, Hong Kong's oldest English-language newspaper, eventually declined in popularity, amalgamated operations with the South China Morning Post and closed down in the mid-1970s. Another newspaper, The Star, was established in the 1960s by veteran Australian journalist Graham Jenkins, and was quietly financed for some time by Hutchison International chairman Sir Douglas Clague. Known for its incendiary "inside track" reporting, especially relating to scandals and other developments in the business community, The Star closed down in the late 1970s.

In 1994, the Eastern Express was established. Perhaps best remembered for a gratuitous, politically motivated personal attack on former chief secretary David Akers-Jones on its maiden front page, it eventually went the way of all the others and shut down after three years.

In a telling comment on contemporary Hong Kong's "Asia's World City" pretensions, almost a century ago, when the total population of Hong Kong numbered less than half a million and included some 18,000 non-Chinese residents, the colony could support four daily newspapers published in what has increasingly become - like it or not - the world's "international" language. Hong Kong's current population is more than seven million, with a non-Chinese population of almost a quarter of a million; English-medium instruction (of a type) was near-universal in local schools until just after the handover, in 1997; and there are 10 universities - yet the city can only support two English-language dailies and most Hong Kong people pass their entire lives without reading either of them.

Jason Wordie