Turbulent beginnings

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 November, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 November, 2003, 12:00am

Birth of a Newspaper

Readers who think they live in interesting times should try imagining what Hong Kong and China were like a century ago. Asia's freest port was still very much in the ascendancy as the world's gateway to the Middle Kingdom; fortunes were being won and lost by the shipload, luring treasure-hunters of every stripe to its shores.

The 'barren rock' government, barely 60 years old, was having to grapple with the social effects of all this runaway commercial success, and although some of the major business groups, or 'hongs', were already well established, the city's establishment was still in the making. Society hummed with opinion on how best to develop a vibrant multinational community.

Much of this opinion was not very constructive. Indeed, critics of the government made their counterparts today seem polite. Newspapers were scathing of governors' policies, and often of their character, too. Editors were routinely jailed for libel. And when they weren't having problems with the law, they were being set upon - sometimes physically - by members of interest groups claiming to have been smeared.

China, meanwhile, was nearing the end of the Qing dynasty's rule and newspapers up and down the coast were speculating about the rise of republicanism. Change was not just in the air, it was hitting the street faster than many could comprehend. The censors of the day were powerless to regulate the international communities in China's so-called treaty ports, western enclaves where Chinese jurisdiction didn't apply, and English newspapers proliferated. There was no television or radio, and the wireless telegraph had only just been invented in Europe. Newspapers had to compete with the rumour mill, and those that could not beat it joined it.

Into this environment stepped the South China Morning Post, on November 6, 1903. Hong Kong had already seen the demise of The Friend of China (established 1842). No friend to the leadership of Hong Kong, it had once famously described the first governor, Sir Henry Pottinger, as a 'man who appears either to have been utterly devoid of the sense of the moral obligations imposed on him ... or deliberately living in seclusion among a few adoring parasites whose limited intellects were devoted to pandering to the great man's vanity'.

The Daily Advertiser and the Hongkong Times had made short-lived appearances. Left standing were the Daily Press in the morning and the China Mail and Hongkong Telegraph in the afternoon.

Though the three papers had made efforts by the turn of the century to clean up their industry's reputation, the founders of the Post nevertheless felt there was a market for a quality morning newspaper. Over the course of the next century the company they established was to buy - and eventually bury - two of its competitors, and would emerge from the ashes of the Second World War to find the third resting in peace.

Although its dominance was to be seriously challenged once - by an earlier incarnation of what is now The Standard - the South China Morning Post went on to prove itself the most resilient, physically and financially, of any newspaper in Hong Kong and China.

The early years

The Post's two founders were fiercely independent figures who proclaimed a political agenda for starting the paper. Tse Tsan-tsai (see page 12) was already a legend in southern China, as a contemporary of Sun Yat-sen, founder of the republic.

An Australian-born, Hong Kong-educated Chinese, Tse led a revolt against the Canton authorities in December 1902, shortly after publishing the first declaration of Chinese independence in English. It failed but, undaunted, Tse sought to establish a credible platform in Hong Kong for the cause of republicanism in China.

For every visionary, there had to be someone to get the job done, and the person who put Tse's proclamation into print was Alfred Cunningham, then managing editor of the Daily Press. A month after the Canton venture failed, the 'Britisher' joined Tse in his quest to set up a new English newspaper to promote their views.

Together, they found the necessary investors, 14 Chinese and 107 'Europeans', who subscribed to 6,000 shares at $25 each. The South China Morning Post Company was established in January, 1903 and opened for business at 15, 16, and 17 Connaught Road - near where Worldwide House stands today - on that most inauspicious of days: April 1. Cunningham was managing director, Tse was comprador and the board comprised three prominent businessmen: G.W. Playfair, head of the National Bank of China, C. Ewens, a prominent local solicitor, and A.G. Ward, owner of a local printing firm.

Considering that communications and transport moved literally with the winds in those days, the paper was put together with remarkable speed. Within seven months, presses had been shipped over from Europe, state-of-the-art linotype machines had been purchased for type-setting, and staff had been recruited from as far afield as the US, Australia and South Africa. A steam launch for delivery to passing ships had been moored outside the office (which, in the early days of reclamation, was on the waterfront), and the company's colours flew from its mast.

The paper was launched under the editorship of a 31-year-old Scotsman, Douglas Story (see page 13), who made up with energy, flair and wit what he may have lacked in experience. His editorials gave the Post a strong reputation for independence.

Where it had consistency and vigor in its early editorials, however, it lacked the same in its sales accounts. The paper's ambitions were oversized, and although it had prominent businessmen among its shareholders, no single business group had enough of an interest to underwrite its operations. As Robin Hutcheon, one of the paper's longest-serving editors, wrote in his account of the Post's first 80 years: 'While this may have given its founders a sense of editorial independence, they found soon enough that the heavy initial costs of launching a modern progressive newspaper needed far more capital than they had envisaged.'

By 1907, a tough business environment, compounded by a number of financial oversights on Cunningham's part, such as buying too much paper stock, had led the Post to a massive $92,939 loss. Cunningham was pushed out, but hope appeared in the person of Dr Joseph Whittlesey Noble (see page 13). A dentist by trade who had made a fortune as a savvy investor in several of Hong Kong's largest companies, Noble had quietly built up a 70 per cent shareholding. He became chairman of the board soon after Cunningham's departure and set about instilling financial discipline - often ruthlessly. Over the next decade, he was to guide the Post out of its financial troubles and set it on course to market dominance.

The Pre-war years

Profitable at last

Noble needed until 1912 to get the company into the black. He boosted printing revenue by landing contracts for other products such as calendars; he raised advertising rates; and he cut costs by leasing out office space and the company's expensive steam launch (using sampans to deliver the paper cross-harbour instead). The Post made a profit of $4,197 that year, even though the directors were worried about the looming first world war.

Despite the uncertainty, the Post went ahead with plans to move into a new, bigger building in Wyndham Street for its rapidly expanding printing operations. And so it moved up the hill from offices it had occupied just five years previously in Des Voeux Road after the 1906 typhoon had damaged its Connaught Road premises.

As Hutcheon writes in his account of the time, the war actually ended up helping Hong Kong and the Post. Profits nearly tripled to $11,388 the following year, as demand for news about the war overcame growing costs for materials. It peaked the following year at $13,233 before falling back to the more sober $10,218 by 1916. Dividends were an established custom by then, and were to be paid until the second world war.

Noble felt the time was right for an investment, and so the newspaper company became a newspaper group by buying the Hongkong Telegraph. The seller was none other than Noble himself, who had bought the afternoon paper from the famous Eurasian tycoon, Sir Robert Hotung, five years before, and now sold it to the company which he himself ran.

Despite Noble's vested interests, it proved a sound financial decision at the grand sum of $50,000 in cash and stock. As Hutcheon describes it, the purchase ended up 'considerably boosting profits and pushing SCMP into a wider field of publishing which was to establish its pre-eminence in the post-war years as the leading newspaper publisher in the colony.'

From one war to the next

With the company set financially, Noble began to distance himself from daily management. He could afford to, as the two men who would guide the company through turbulent pre-war years were on the way up: Ben Wylie, who rose from the printing department to become general manager), and Henry Ching, an Australian Chinese who joined in 1916 as a reporter and eight years later began his legendary 33-year editorship (see page 14).

The business of war, meanwhile, had proved to be better than imagined. In 1919, the company made a whopping $43,884 profit, with about 55 per cent coming from the Post, 30 per cent from the Telegraph, and the rest from printing and investments.

Challenges closer to home were soon to prove more costly, however, as the next year Hong Kong was hit by its first general strike. It was not to be the last, and over the next two decades Wylie was called upon to show his mettle by keeping the company's presses going through the toughest of times, frequently with a skeleton staff. Both the Post and the Telegraph were on occasion reduced in size, but neither failed to appear for a day until the Japanese marched into Hong Kong a quarter-century later.

These were also times of wrenching change for the entrepot of Hong Kong as its hinterland fragmented. A surging Chinese nationalism resulted in boycotts of British goods. Together with the political uncertainty caused by conflict among regional wardlords, and then the civil war between the nationalists and communists, exports passing through Hong Kong to China plunged. From $432 million in 1921, they fell to just $90 million by 1939. But, as always, Hong Kong was to live up to its reputation for adaptability, and the secure fence that ran around its border with Guangdong became attractive to a range of industries that established operations in the colony.

Ching proved an inspired choice as editor, and the Post's reputation seemed to grow with every burst of violence in and around the region - which made for great newspaper reading. Regrettably, there is not enough space here to chronicle all of Wylie's and Ching's achievements in the run-up to the second world war. Suffice it to say that the Post eclipsed the Daily Press as the colony's premier newspaper, and became known around the region for its coverage of China, especially the Sino-Japanese conflict that presaged the second world war.

The story of how the Post came through the war and rebuilt itself is detailed on the following pages. It tells of how Ching and a team deputised by Wylie - who survived internment during the war but was too weak to manage - pulled the paper from the ashes and got it working again. It was all that was needed to prepare for an amazing run through to the end of the century.