My 41 years photographing Hong Kong and China moments, big and small, by SCMP’s longest-serving staff member, David Wong
Wong started work at the Post at the age of 19. Now approaching 60, he looks back on four decades of snapping tycoons, typhoons, princesses and Chief Executives, demonstrations, handovers and crashed planes
David Wong Chi-kin didn’t plan on being a photographer. But after 41 years at the South China Morning Post he has won numerous awards for his striking images and is the newspaper’s longest-serving employee.
On his 19th birthday, Wong, who turns 60 in February, got a call from the paper out of the blue. He was informed his job application for office assistant had been accepted and was asked to report for work at its offices on Tong Chong Street in Quarry Bay. Little did he know it would be the start of a long career at the Post, where colleagues call him “Sir David”.
His tasks included photocopying, delivering faxes, fetching tea and coffee, and monitoring the “wires” from news agencies. “I had to watch the printers for wire stories. When they were printed out I had to quickly give them to the right editor – business, sports, news. I was running around a lot,” he recalls with a smile.
After about three years he was transferred to the photography department to work in its library, where his main job filing negatives and pictures that had been published that day.
“I made contact sheets of the negatives, writing down the date, photographer’s name and a description of the pictures, and then circled the ones that were used in the paper. I did that because there were many instances when readers asked for copies of pictures, so it was easier to look them up if they were marked,” he says.
Wong soon became interested in taking pictures himself, and began taking classes. If colleagues had time, he would ask them to critique his work.
He was later promoted to technician, responsible for processing black-and-white film in the dark room. It was initially a nerve-wracking task because if done carelessly the film could be ruined or overexposed. The processed negatives were next given to the photo editor, who would examine them on a light box and pick the most suitable ones for developing. These would be taken to the daily news meeting, where it was decided which photographs would be published.
“Between 4pm and 6pm it was very busy because photographers would come in with film that needed to be processed right away,” Wong recalls. “Some photographers were very particular and insisted on developing their own film and pictures.”
At the end of 1986, about 10 years after he began working at the Post, Wong officially became a photographer – and his first assignment? Taking pictures of entertainers at Ocean Park. “I was so happy to see my picture make it into the paper,” he says.
His early assignments were mainly for the Young Post and business desk before he tackled news.
“Breaking news is tough,” he says. “Back then, you might run out of film, and waste precious time rewinding the film and putting the new roll in. And cameras weren’t built to take pictures in low light, so we had to push the ISO as much as we could.
“When we came back to the office, the photo editor would ask if we had any pictures, but it was hard to tell – we would only know when we developed the film. Sometimes the entire strip was ruined.”
Over four decades, Wong has captured many memorable and historic moments, such as the Hong Kong and Macau handover ceremonies, a visit by Princess Diana, windsurfer Lee Lai-shan receiving her gold medal at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Vietnamese refugee riots, and students attending their first day at school.
He even snapped tycoon Li Ka-shing practising his golf swing one early morning at his Deep Water Bay home. Wong clambered up the Li mansion gates to get the shot, but when he climbed up a second time, a security guard saw him and he fled.
The Post introduced colour photography in the 1990s and insisted photographers use slide film which took longer to develop, for better quality pictures. Then, in 2000, digital cameras arrived.
“Now, taking pictures is much faster and more convenient,” Wong says. “Before, with black-and-white, it was much harder, because you were never quite sure if the pictures were out of focus or too dark or light. Now you can take pictures and see the result right away and take another picture if necessary.”
Wong’s career at the Post also had romantic benefits. In 1992 he met and courted Gracia Wong Yun-chung, who worked in the library. They tied the knot in 2000 and have a son, 15, and a daughter, 10.
Over four decades, he has witnessed the Post change ownership a few times, from Rupert Murdoch to Robert Kuok Hock Nien and now Jack Ma Yun.
“Murdoch wanted us to visit his many media outlets,” says Wong, who visited Australia in 1995. “I was on assignment there too.”
Under the Kuoks, Wong says, the newspaper’s focus shifted more towards China and now, under Ma, online publishing has accelerated news reporting and publication.
“Before, we depended on listening to police scanners to find out where the next big incident was. Now we can’t do that,” Wong says, referring to the government switch to digital communication in 2004. “So we have to wait for the police to inform us to take photographs. It’s kind of tame now,” he says.
“It used to be a chase to see if we could get to the scene before the police. Now we ask witnesses if they took pictures or video, or use CCTV footage if there is any.”
“Everyone can see everything on their phones. We have to think of another angle to tell the story in pictures, and hope the images are used,” he says.
“There’s also more pressure to get the picture faster. Our editors ask us, ‘Do you have the picture?’ because some stories are picture-led.”
The award-winning photographer credits his success in part to patience and a willingness to wait – several hours, or overnight, if necessary – but also quick thinking and dashing to the best vantage point for the shot.
In January 2000, he snapped pictures of several mainland Chinese pirates who had been sentenced to death. Before their execution, they were allowed to have one last meal, including alcohol. Afterwards, they were so inebriated that police officers had trouble getting them into the truck to the execution site.
“I scrambled onto the truck. It was open and no one stopped me,” Wong recalls. “There were lots of people taking pictures – at that time they openly let us – and I got behind the driver’s seat. Originally it was a wide-angled shot, but it was cropped. That picture won an award at the [Foreign Correspondents’ Club],” he says.
“It’s unpredictable when you take pictures in China. You might come across a guard or person who refuses to let you take pictures, and then they change shifts and the next person is OK with it.”
His patience paid off when China Airlines Flight 605 overran the runway while landing at Kai Tak airport during a storm on November 4, 1993.
“I went there at midnight, and by that time the plane was submerged, except for the tail. Other media were waiting for the tail to be destroyed by explosives. By 2am or 3am, people left, but I continued waiting. It wasn’t until 4am that the explosion happened, and I got the shot. By that time it was almost light, so I waited again for the sun to rise to take a third picture.”
One of his favourite subjects is children, and Wong took a memorable shot of a little girl, Adriana Fok peeking under the gown of her father, judge Joseph Fok, during a gathering of legal professionals. “I just happened to be there when she poked her head under, and snapped it. In the next frame, her head was already out. Children can be unpredictable so it’s sometimes about luck and timing.”
Wong intends to keep working at the Post, saying he still has the energy to run around like a young boy.
Not bad for a guy who has spent four decades dedicated to the art of photography, and still considers taking pictures “lots of fun”.