On Saturday 17 August 1974 a newspaper died but she did not go quietly. The China Mail was in her 130th year and was Hong Kong’s oldest English-language newspaper. The Mail was not a great newspaper but she was a very good one and had been making some big waves in Hong Kong before her untimely death. Most notably in 1973 the newspaper had been at the forefront of investigations into police graft which led ultimately to the formation of the ICAC.
For little Sally, my father Jack Spackman’s role on the China Mail to date had been nothing more nor less than a huge embarrassment. The switch from tabloid to broadsheet in 1973 coincided with a television advertising campaign, made possible no doubt by the 60 per cent holding of TVB, the biggest station in town.
Night after night we were treated to the sight of him leaping out of a helicopter to the opening strains of 2001: A Space Odyssey and proclaiming his mission as Financial Editor of the China Mail. And day after day at school, kids would leap into my path proclaiming the same before falling about in merriment.
But that was nothing to the notoriety that was to come when, on that long-ago Saturday afternoon, Jack and his co-workers put the last edition to bed and a few hours later became the biggest story in town.
Mike O’Neill, Asiaweek Editor, put it best in an obituary he wrote for the China Mail which was published in Media magazine: “When she was good, she was very, very good. But when she was dead she was dangerous.”
TVB and its fellow shareholder the South China Morning Post offered the 44 editorial and semi-editorial staffers a take-it-or-leave-it goodbye present totalling HK$120,000 – two months’ wages for August and September.
Since it was already mid-August, the staff were able to marvel that they had been on severance pay for two weeks without being aware of it.
The dismissal letters arrived in the newsroom at 11am, shortly after the last edition of the China Mail, an afternoon paper, was put to bed. The wake had been going on around them as Spackman and Smith composed the final front page. One by one the staff opened their letters, read the terms and rejected them.
At a hastily convened meeting of the China Mail chapel of the Hong Kong Journalists Association Spackman was elected to lead a team of negotiators to discuss severance terms.
“We decided no-one should personally accept their cheque until we had time to clarify our position with the management and with the legal advisors of the HKJA,” Spackman wrote in his later submission to the Labour Tribunal.
At 12.30pm they wrapped up the wake and headed for the production room which they shared with sister papers the South China Morning Post and the Sunday Post-Herald.
Linda Siddall and Debra Jopson were detailed to contact outside media while Ivanna Wong and Alison Liu rushed off to get food. The rest filed into the production room with instructions not to touch any machines.
Instead, they each approached one of the operators working on the next day’s Sunday Post-Herald, tapped them politely on the shoulder and asked them to rise before taking over their seats and refusing to budge.
The works manager protested. “You’re being very silly you know, you can’t do this.” To which one of the young Chinese Girl Reporters, my unnamed hero, replied: “We’ve already done it.”
SCMP managing director Gerry Pilgrim said there’d be no meeting until the production room was vacated. “No way,” said Spackman. “We don’t leave until we have a meeting.”
An hour later the police arrived and advised them all to leave, especially those with incorrect security badges, including the Labour Department official who had been trying to mediate. He was the only one to go.
“This is a purely industrial dispute,” Spackman said. “I don’t see any need for the police but I am quite happy that they stay to guard the machines so no damage can be alleged against us.”
At 2.30pm tea and coffee was sent in by the management and guzzled down by the thirsty crew just as they realised access to the toilets had been cut. “They can pee in the wastepaper baskets,” Pilgrim is reported to have said. At the same time the phones and air conditioning were also cut.
A radio was thrown down the copy chute, giving them their only access to the outside world where HKJA secretary Barry Wain was outlining their demands. But TVB managing director Andrew Eu had elected to spend the Mail’s last day on his yacht, leaving negotiations at an impasse.
“It was a beautiful day to get away from it all,” my dad said later. “The sun was shining and there was a light breeze blowing out on the harbour. But those of us on the China Mail didn’t know that.
“We were camped in the hot, sterile atmosphere of the South China Morning Post’s production department, staging a sit-in in an attempt to get meaningful negotiations going with our employers.
“But the one man with the power to make a decision on our severance terms couldn’t be with us because he had an appointment that afternoon out on his boat. And if you think we were downright angry at his attitude then you are downright right.”
At 4.35pm the protestors were told a court order had been applied for and, once it was granted, the police would have no alternative but to arrest anyone who attempted to resist it.
“The cops told us it would take at least two hours to get the court order so we assured them there wouldn’t be any violence and started planning our next move,” Spackman said.
“We drafted an open letter to the governor Sir Murray Maclehose and prepared to be carried out, putting the heaviest among us in chairs and other awkward positions.”
Someone on the scene took running notes of what happened next:
5.02pm Police arrive. Newsflash on Commercial Radio on our situation. Stay dead weight, fine with sunny periods. Hope Andrew Eu is having a good time.
5.04pm Pilgrim: Will print Herald at Star so it’s pointless for you to stay… go!” Are staying and thanks for the accommodations.
5.14pm Spackman advises (China Mail journalist and musician) Anders Nelson to leave. He wanted to go at 8pm latest possible (he has a gig that night) but is going to be courier with pic, notes and letter. Word got through… reporters are outside. Anders will be singing tonight “There’s much more happening at the China Mail.”
5.37pm Strippers (pre-press technicians, you young ‘uns) coming in and if we try to obstruct them we will get arrested for sure. Voting whether we should get arrested. Probably not really worthwhile but will if necessary.
6.30pm Change of tactics. Go quietly and amiably but with Spackman leading to give statement to explain what we tried and hope to achieve. Court order still nowhere to be seen although Pilgrim keeps saying it’s on its way.
7.00pm Two plainclothes policemen arrive to do walkabouts to keep equipment safe.
7.30pm Our first deadline is up. To make our point now Spackman and others feel might take fight from room to the streets and people. Do it with dignity. Voted. Very close. Voted to talk some more.
7.55pm Linda Siddall in bad way so better with Vicky Wong to go outside and face the crowd. We stay with new unknown deadline as late as possible before injunction. Post having much trouble over printing.
8.05pm Production men come in but do not work. Post faces very black and bleak.
8.10pm Young, light and female police leave.
9.15pm Talks on decision on whether and when we walk out at 9.30/10/11/12 or injunction. Some talk of face for giving up now and others unsure. Hold on. Some desperate for loos.
9.20pm Negotiations are now taking place with own people talking to Post. We tried to press Pilgrim to give us some confirmation at least or anything definite on negotiations set up. Lawyers from TVB come bringing injunction.
9.40pm Discussion over. Tidy up cups etc and leave in order to meeting room. Injunction given but have finally made them agree to hold meeting tomorrow 10.30am at the Labour Dept. Very orderly, left exhilarated. Press Club.
It had been a long day, with news filtering back to Macdonnell Road in snippets from Anders, Linda and Vicky and the reporters covering the story. I was glued to the television, waiting for a glimpse of my father through the police-lined glass wall of the production room.
When they finally emerged my father was in the lead, waving the injunction high above his head.
“I wanted the front pages to show us victorious,” he said. “We made sure we were all smiling and punching the air, looking as if we’d won.”
In fact, they had only just begun, with two weeks of tough negotiations to follow. But from the outset, Dad was determined to win the public relations battle.
“We believe we won that dispute because we had justice and therefore public sympathy on our side,” he said later. “And we had that sympathy because we knew how to extract the maximum advantage from the major weapon at our disposal – the media. Of course, if we didn’t know how to go about getting a story into print then we shouldn’t call ourselves professional journalists.”
What made the China Mail affair more than a simple dispute was its multiracial character. For the first time in Hong Kong’s history Chinese and Europeans combined to press their demands in a manner “both conciliatory and steadfast,” as Mike O’Neill put it in his Media magazine obituary.
“If that seems a contradiction in terms, it has to be remembered that the staff initially asked for a lot more than they got (such as six months’ pay across the board) but drew up their own rear battle line,” he wrote.
“They never went beyond it, and in their unity can be seen the seeds of a great deal of concern among other managements in Hong Kong. It is scarcely likely that the China Mail will be the last newspaper to go to the wall in Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Journalists Association, however unhappy the occasion, was able to demonstrate the viability of a multiracial union within an industrial anachronism.”
© Sally Baxter 2014
This is Part 1 in a series of articles by Your Girl Reporter on the closure of Hong Kong’s China Mail newspaper and my father Jack Spackman’s leading role in the industrial dispute which followed. Read all about it:
The China Mail’s finest hour:
More Jack Spackman:
This article is part of a continuing series on 1970s Hong Kong, as remembered by Your Girl Reporter who was lucky enough to be growing up in the small and boisterous community of its journalists. You can find more of these articles here