A look back at 115 years of letters to the editor at the South China Morning Post
Empires rise and fall, governments come and go, economies soar and sink, but some reader gripes are eternal
The most important people for a newspaper are always its readers. The relationship between the two parties has been transformed as media companies reinvent themselves for the digital age. However, the fundamental dynamic remains: it is never an exaggeration to say that without the readers, there would be no newspaper.
Since it was founded in November 1903, the South China Morning Post has been running letters. They were published as “Correspondence” for years, until the section was renamed “Letters to the Editor” on April 11, 1967.
To date, the Post is the only newspaper in Hong Kong running a letters to the editor page.
The first batch were published on November 25, 1903. The writer of one letter that day titled “China railways” called for early construction of the Kowloon-Canton Railway connecting Hong Kong with Guangzhou.
“If not, then we shall, of a surety, be behind all the important cities, both in the north and south,” said the writer, using the pseudonym “progress”.
His plea bears heavy resemblance to warnings more than 100 years later. In recent years Hong Kong officials have repeatedly cautioned that the city risked being left behind without construction of the latest rail link to Guangzhou.
In the first few decades of the 20th century, writers dipped their pens in ink to protest against everything from inadequate bus services to the need for tree branches to be trimmed on The Peak.
Empires rise and fall, governments come and go, economies soar and sink, but some gripes are eternal. Issues such as classroom sizes, domestic helpers, hospital services, political reform, law and order and the cost of living dominated debate.
A writer named “Commission” in 1914 penned his low opinion about lamentable standards of English in Hong Kong schools. A century later, Post staff selecting letters handle almost identical complaints.
In 2004 editor-in-chief David Armstrong wrote in the foreword to the book Points of View: A Century of Letters to the Editor of the South China Morning Post, that readers “are people with clear – often passionate – opinions on the widest possible range of issues, from the location of the nearest bus shelter through to the causes of war and peace”.
“Letters to the Editor is where the two-way nature of the relationship is on display. Here readers show their concerns, vent their anger, share their approval and express their opinions,” Armstrong wrote. “Without the letters page, the Post would be a lesser newspaper and Hong Kong would be a much-reduced society.”
In the colonial era, some of the keenest readers of the page were successive masters of Government House. Hong Kong governors frequently gained their first grasp of residents’ woes by turning to the Post’s opinion section.
David Trench, governor from 1964 to 1971, regularly scanned the page with his morning cup of tea. By the time departmental heads got to their desks, there were often messages from Trench asking what action was being taken on a range of problems, from dirty hospital corridors in Happy Valley to slack service at the lands office in Tai Po.
Letters served an even greater function before the introduction of elections for the legislature in the mid-1980s, when it was more difficult to get the measure of the city.
“Through the letters page, the readers have become part of the life of the newspaper and active participants in the life of Hong Kong, often exposing problems in the city and forcing officialdom to respond, in words, and, often, in actions,” Armstrong wrote.
Professor Joseph Chan Man, emeritus professor of journalism and communications at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the Post’s letters page played a significant role in those days.
“It served as a feedback channel for the Post and a platform for the exchange of information and opinions. To some, it was also a venue for the expression of grievances against social ills,” he said.
But Chan noted the media environment had drastically changed in the last two decades.
“The rise of internet-based media and social media has resulted in the multiplication of channels for the audience to speak out. The importance of the letters page has thus been reduced significantly.
“Having said that, I think the long tradition and the formality of the letters page have lent it a sense of dignity and importance unmatched by general online venues for the expression of opinion.”
Hilton Cheong-Leen, who from 1957 to 1991 served as a member of the now-defunct Urban Council, which ran municipal services on Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, wrote frequently to the letters page. His opinions were first published on June 28, 1958, when he called on the colonial government and the British garrison to return the premises of La Salle College to the Catholic school.
He became a regular contributor and has since had about 210 letters published in the Post.
On January 16, 1959, he opined that Hongkongers wanted the colony to remain British.
“But that does not mean to say I am not in favour of gradual constitutional changes, providing they strengthen local security, and are overall progress for Hong Kong,” he wrote.
Cheong-Leen, one of the early advocates of a gradual development of democracy in Hong Kong, served as Urban Council chairman from 1981 to 1986 – the first Chinese chairman of the body, which was disbanded in 1999.
In a letter published on June 12, 2002, he urged the government to take a more proactive attitude in tackling domestic violence. It prompted a response from then director of social welfare Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who last year went on to become the city’s first female leader.
In her letter published seven days later, Lam echoed Cheong-Leen’s appeal and stressed that the Social Welfare Department had made considerable effort to strengthen support for families in need.
Cheong-Leen, now 96, is also life president of the Hong Kong Civic Association. He has tackled a myriad of subjects in letters over the decades.
“I also wrote about ‘one country, two systems’ and the importance of Hongkongers knowing about and cooperating more with mainlanders across the border,” he said. “Post letters, through their ever-widening range of contributors, are helping Hong Kong become a better integrated society.”
Events in Hong Kong also drew responses from writers north of the border, including a retired top mainland official who before the handover helped map the city’s future.
The waving of British flags during protests in Hong Kong after 2012 prompted a letter from Lu Ping, who was director of the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office from 1990 to 1997.
On October 12, 2012, Lu Ping wrote that “these guys who advocate Hong Kong independence are sheer morons”.
“Deprived of support from the mainland, Hong Kong would be a dead city. Do they know where the water they are drinking daily comes from?” Lu wrote.
He died in May 2015 at the age of 87.
For decades, the letters page was also an early version of an internet chat room. Some writers sought romance and some looked for pen friends. In a letter published on February 2, 1935, J.J. Hall, a 20-year-old man from Lancashire in England, wrote that “being lonely and very interested in your part of the world, I would welcome friendly correspondence with any of your readers”.
“I shall be happy to reciprocate with those who write to me and send me personal or scenic snapshots,” Hall wrote.
Soma Roychowdhury, the Post’s assistant editor in charge of the letters page, said pieces were published if they were topical, in the public interest or about interesting, offbeat subjects.
“Above all, the aim is to speak truth to power, and to provide a platform for a balanced, mature debate on all possible issues – local, national or international. Our role is mainly as a moderator, so that all sides of any controversy or issue, or reactions to such, are presented impartially,” she said.
“We have a valuable role as a bridge between the Hong Kong government or public bodies and the people, presenting their views to each other, and, we would like to think, helping to influence public policy for the greater good,” Roychowdhury said.
“With the Post now going international, our overseas readers help offer personal highlights and commentary into issues affecting people across the world.”
Every morning for 115 years, readers of the South China Morning Post have grabbed their copy and flicked quickly to the page titled Letters to the Editor. While nowadays many are inclined to simply hit the “letters” tab on SCMP.com, the result is the same – they keep their fingers firmly on the pulse of Hong Kong and the region at large.