Where and why the Post moved offices over 115 years of changing media times
- From Central to Quarry Bay to Causeway Bay via Tai Po, the Post’s various office moves often broke new ground in Hong Kong’s media landscape
- How much further the company will evolve at its new Times Square base will continue to be driven by the latest technologies
The South China Morning Post’s move to grade A offices in Times Square this February, in Hong Kong’s buzzing Causeway Bay neighbourhood, was rich in significance.
The move may have raised eyebrows at a time when print publications are struggling to survive. But that is exactly the reaction Alfred Cunningham and Tse Tsan-tai got when they launched the newspaper.
The Times Square move was another milestone for the 115-year-old Post, which continues to be a pioneer in the media industry, as is reflected in other historic moves the company has made over the years.
Back in 1903, when the population of Hong Kong was reported as a questionably specific 325,631, of whom 307,050 were Chinese, the British colony was already served by three established English newspapers.
The first issue of the South China Morning Post was published on November 6, 1903 in a harbourfront building on Connaught Road, roughly where World-Wide House stands today. Staff arriving at the office would have seen workers laying the first tram tracks – which would run between Kennedy Town and Causeway Bay – on neighbouring Des Voeux Road.
By 1904 the Post was already laying claim to the largest circulation among the colony’s English papers. It was the first to go on sale at street kiosks, and the company even invested in a steam launch to ferry newspapers around the harbour for sale.
Just two years after the first edition was published, using the most modern Linotype hot metal typesetting machines from Britain and the US, the company diversified into chromolithographic printing – enabling the production of multicoloured products.
“This department is steadily developing, and a recent order executed on 100,000 banknotes, printed from stone, varying in value from HK$1 to HK$100, will give you some idea of its range,” the newspaper reported.
Whether this diversification would have prompted a move into larger premises is a moot point. A devastating typhoon and storm surge on September 18, 1906 caused widespread damage, including to the Post’s premises. The following year new offices were found on Des Voeux Road, which was to be its base for six years.
By 1913, the Post had grown from a single page to 16 pages, and contract printing services were taking off. Once again, the company outgrew its premises, and found a larger space around the corner in Wyndham Street. It was on this site that the Post bore witness to some of the city’s most historic moments – on and off the pages of the South China Morning Post.
The company initially moved into No. 3 Wyndham Street, then 10 years later acquired the neighbouring building at No. 1. The sites were redeveloped in phases over the next three years. The result was touted as a worthy addition to the growing number of modern structures springing up in 1920s Hong Kong.
The design brief for the six-storey building, awarded to architects Palmer & Turner, was “dignity and efficiency”. The result was a classical exterior in white granite with two grand Corinthian columns supporting a central cornice. It also featured the first use in Hong Kong of extra-large windows with steel frames, creating a well-lit interior.
More importantly, the building had 10 of the Linotype typesetting machines that it had introduced to Hong Kong when it first bought two of them in 1903.
“It was felt that money was well spent to ensure permanence combined with freedom from future expense on upkeep, and in the building there is nothing which will not stand the test of time,” the Post boasted.
It was not quite permanent but Wyndham Street was to be the Post’s home for 60 years, interrupted only by the second world war.
On December 8, 1941, the Japanese army invaded Hong Kong. The Post had not reported on the threat, its columns filled with Christmas advertisements. Then on Boxing Day, the presses rolled out what would be the last edition for more than three years: the Hong Kong garrison had fought until all supplies were exhausted, and the people of Hong Kong were urged to remain calm.
The Post’s “European” staff were interned at Stanley. The Japanese took over the building and the 14 Linotype machines it housed, which the occupiers used to print the Japanese-friendly Hongkong News.
The Post fell silent until August 30, 1945, when it distributed 50,000 free leaflets announcing that the British fleet was waiting to enter Hong Kong.
Hong Kong picked up quickly after the war, and so did the Post. Refugees flooded across the border from China, among them businessmen from Shanghai, bringing funds and skills. From this came huge textile mills and other industries, transforming Hong Kong into not just a centre of commerce but also industry.
Heading into the 1970s, Hong Kong’s financial and property markets were taking off as the population grew wealthier and globalisation gathered steam.
The curtain fell on the Wyndham Street office when the Post made its next significant move – to “far-flung” Quarry Bay on February 2, 1971.
Central had become crowded and the Post was on an irreversible upwards trajectory, once more necessitating larger premises.
It was not a popular move among the staff. “The prospect of working in Quarry Bay was greeted with despair by many newsmen,” former news editor Kevin Sinclair reported later. “Tong Chong Street? What stories ever happened there? How were reporters, and even more urgently, photographers, to get to where big stories were breaking?”
Chairman E.R. Udal insisted that as well as the Wyndham Street building not being big enough, the Cross-Harbour Tunnel, due to open in August 1972, proved that the centre of gravity in Hong Kong was moving east. It therefore made sense to change location to ensure not only the highest quality of production but better distribution to all parts of the colony.
“The cost of moving into our new premises at Quarry Bay is expected to run into the region of HK$8 million,” G.A. Pilgrim, a Post director and its general manager, said at the time. “But we regard this as an investment in Hong Kong’s future.”
The investment, in “the most up-to-date publishing centre in Asia”, paid off. The newspaper was based in a new nine-storey building developed on the site of Swire Group’s former sugar refinery and part of its Taikoo Place development.
Whereas the old Crabtree printing press in Wyndham Street could roll out about 10,000 40-page papers an hour, the new seven-unit Goss Urbanite press, Hong Kong’s fastest, was capable of printing a 28-page paper at 40,000 copies an hour.
Replacing the by now clanking Linotype typesetting machines, which laboriously cast each line of type on a lead slug, were eight Automix 720 electronic keyboards. The noise, ink and hot lead of the old letterpress composing room was replaced by the “cool cleanliness of photo-electronic type-setting and page making”, the Post reported at the time.
With the extra capacity, the Post entered a partnership with Dow Jones to print the Asian Wall Street Journal. The Classified Post job postings, launched in 1973, was spun off into a separate section in 1975, and profited mightily from a boom in recruitment advertising.
Being once again constrained by space, the company sold the Tong Chong Street building for about HK$500 million, and invested HK$670 million to establish the Morning Post Centre in Tai Po Industrial Estate, which opened in October 1995.
The editorial department had moved to more modern Taikoo Place offices in Dorset House when profits peaked. In 1997, the year of Hong Kong’s handover back to China, the company reported that the previous year’s net profit had been a record HK$805.3 million. Almost as soon as the handover celebrations ended, the Asian financial crisis gripped the region and profits dipped.
With a fall in recruitment revenue, coupled with a decline in the newspaper industry since the early 2000s, cost-cutting began to threaten the Post’s viability. The editorial department, though remaining in Taikoo Place, moved to older offices in Somerset House, and then, in 2007, to dingy digs on Leighton Road, Causeway Bay.
The move to Times Square is a breath of fresh air for the Post, marking the start of yet another new era – the digital age, beyond newsprint.
The new premises – six floors in all by the end of 2019 – is fully equipped to facilitate the Post’s ongoing transformation from a regional newspaper to a global media company. If features social hubs to encourage interaction and houses an open news hub around which staff and guests are welcome to listen in on editorial meetings.
Screens are mounted on the walls at every turn, broadcasting data that helps the Post’s journalists make rapid editorial judgments. Emphasis is being placed on finding new ways to tell stories, through video, podcasts and other kinds of new media.
The company has already launched three new digital products since this latest move: Inkstone, which aims to explain China to the world; Abacus, presenting the latest news and reviews of Chinese consumer technology; and Goldthread, focused on Chinese youth culture.
The Post has come a long way in its storied 115-year history and each office it has occupied has an interesting tale to tell. How much further the company will evolve – and how quickly – at the new Times Square base will continue to be driven by the latest technologies. Some of the hi-tech processes may not even have been invented yet. Interesting times, indeed.