OBITUARY: Cheng Yang-ping 1929-2014

Interpreter who took secrets to his grave

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 July, 2014, 4:38am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 June, 2018, 5:55pm

Cheng Yang-ping, the only Hongkonger privy to the secret Sino-British negotiations over Hong Kong's sovereignty, has died. He was 85 years old.

Cheng was an interpreter for Britain during the talks in the 1980s. He died in hospital in Nanchang , Jiangxi province, on Friday. His wife, Geng Yan, said he had been in poor health since suffering a stroke several years ago.

Cheng worked for the BBC in London before being recruited in 1972 by the British colonial government in Hong Kong to establish training for simultaneous interpreters. Before that, he worked for RTHK forerunner Radio Hong Kong and All India Radio in Delhi.

The bespectacled, bearded Cheng was interpreter for Hong Kong governor Murray MacLehose during his visit to Beijing in the late 1970s in which the question of Britain's 99-year lease of the New Territories was raised.

Cheng, who was born in Hong Kong and educated in Guangdong and Shanghai, went on to serve MacLehose's successor, Edward Youde, throughout the Sino-British negotiations.

Discussing the differing roles of an interpreter and a translator, Cheng once likened an interpreter to a cab driver and a translator to a chauffeur of a Rolls Royce. Time was the chief concern of the former, while the latter's priority was the comfort and safety of his passengers, he said.

Journalists Association chairwoman Shum Yee-lan covered the talks in the 1980s and remembered Cheng for his skill at interpreting the on-the-spot archaic poems cited by Beijing's chief delegate, Zhou Nan . She said Cheng never gave anything away about the talks, adding it was regrettable that he had left no memoir to finally let the public in on the secrets of the negotiations.

Former Apple Daily chief editor Cheng Ming-yan first encountered Cheng in the 1970s. "When there were government press conferences, we reporters would see Mr Cheng working very hard inside a small cubicle, interpreting," he said. "He was friendly but not talkative."

It was through his work that Cheng Yang-ping met his wife. He was accompanying Sir Edward to Jiangsu in 1985 at the invitation of Xu Jiatun, then-director of the Xinhua news agency's Hong Kong branch. Geng was Xu's interpreter. Her father is the late Communist Party official Geng Biao , according to press reports

After the Sino-British talks, Cheng took up language teaching posts in the United States and Taiwan. He retired in 2005. He is believed to have had an earlier marriage and is reported to leave four children.