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Hong Kong Deadline, Journalism, The Big Baxter

Risks and rewards of Hong Kong’s Press Club

Journalists’ dollars alone had been unable to keep the Blue Sky Bar afloat after the end of the Vietnam War (Suzie doesn’t live here anymore – the night Old Wanchai died) and so the opening of the Hong Kong Press Club was a huge risk.

But my mother in particular recognised that the vast majority of Girl and Boy Reporters were local people who did not necessarily want to socialise in a girlie bar.

If the Press Club was to survive it could not afford to be another cheap Wanchai drinking hole. It had to win the support of local Chinese journalists as well as – perhaps in spite of – the hard core of the international press corps who stayed on after the war.

In 1973, according to the Hong Kong Government’s annual report for that year, there were 113 newspapers, with a combined circulation of 1.36 million, serving a population of 4.2 million people.

That adds up to a lot of journalists – and a lot of associated tradespeople too. Let’s spare a moment for the printers, typesetters and platemakers who were the first to go in the Great Disruption. But I digress.

Just four of Hong Kong’s 113 newspapers were English-language dailies which employed a range of nationalities in their newsrooms, including a disproportionate number of South Asian and antipodean journalists, who seemed to form a natural coalition of their own, as well as Hong Kong Chinese.

Even without the benefit of precise numbers the sums are easy enough and the results stark. By any sensible reckoning a club for journalists would not, could not, survive without local support.

My mother Margaret Spackman on Hong Kong television's Meet the Press in 1972 - the year before she founded the Hong Kong Press Club

My mother Margaret Spackman on Hong Kong television’s Meet the Press in 1972 – the year before she founded the Hong Kong Press Club

My mother Margaret Spackman carried the burden of the risk. She was the one who believed in it, so she also pretty much single-handedly saw the project through to completion. She signed the lease and was the club’s first chair.

Her responsibilities included heading down to Wanchai in the early hours one morning to be formally arrested after someone left a tap running during water restrictions.

These occurred periodically in Hong Kong and were taken very seriously. Not serious enough for handcuffs, but she did have to get in the van for the ride to the police station.

I believe the Press Club’s position was usually precarious, and not just in those early days, but its focus from the start was to provide a base for the activities of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, which had been founded by my parents in 1968.

For five years the lack of a permanent home for the HKJA had been a problem, with meetings held at our place in Macdonnell Road or at friendly venues like the Singapore Hotel.

The opening of the Press Club was the culmination of much hard work, as recorded in the Hong Kong Government’s Annual Report for 1973:

“During the year the HKJA led the way in establishing the basis for a permanent training scheme in both English and Chinese newspapers linked with a Journalism of the Year award scheme which enabled four local journalists to travel overseas.

Nostalgia and its trimmings: special edition of HKJA The Journalist, put together by China Mail staff at the Hong Kong Press Club.

Nostalgia and its trimmings: special edition of HKJA The Journalist, put together by China Mail staff at the Hong Kong Press Club.

“The HKJA now has close links with journalist organisations in the US, Canada, Britain and Australia.

“Nearly a year’s planning resulted in December in the establishment of the Hong Kong Press Club, a separate though closely-linked body providing social and working facilities for journalists and photographers.”

Just eight months later the Press Club was to prove its worth to the many doubters, including my father Jack Spackman, when it became the base of operations for Hong Kong’s first multi-racial industrial dispute, prompted by the sudden closure in August 1974 of the English-language newspaper The China Mail.

According to a special edition of HKJA newsletter The Journalist from 22 August 1974, three days after the start of the dispute, the Press Club had been packed every day with people planning negotiating strategies and organising the massive job hunt for the 44 staff, who included my dad.

“Much has been achieved, but perhaps the most important achievement is the continuing solidarity of the China Mail staff, whether they are Chinese or European, reporters, photographers or copy boys,” The Journalist said.

The seeds of that solidarity had been sown in the previous five years, in the fight to improve working conditions, in the effort to raise standards, and also in the social activities – the barbecues, the dragon boat races, and finally in the opening of the Press Club.

Publishing industry snapshot: Hong Kong Annual Report 1973

  • Your Girl Reporter’s battered copy of the annual report quoted in this post.

    According to the Hong Kong government publication there were 113 newspapers including four English dailies and 101 Chinese language newspapers.

  • The combined daily circulation of the English language newspapers was estimated at 102,000 while the Chinese newspapers commanded an estimated circulation of 1.26 million. 
  • Of the 71 Chinese dailies there were three selling more than 100,000 copies each.
  • About 40 Chinese dailies concentrated solely on entertainment news.
  • Periodicals – 201 divided into 54 English and 147 Chinese, covering a wide range of subjects from specialised technical journals to local entertainment guides.
  • The Newspaper Society of Hong Kong had 19 members and four associated members. Formed in 1954 it was empowered to act in matters affecting the interests of local newspapers the society or its members.
  • Hong Kong was the south-east Asian base for many international magazines, newspapers, radio and television networks.
  • International news agencies represented included the Associated Press of America, Agence France Press, Kyodo, Reuters and United Press International.
© Sally Baxter 2016

Further reading:

Suzie doesn’t live here anymore – the night old Wanchai died

A matter of dignity – the formation of the Hong Kong Journalists Association

Death of a newspaper, birth of a movement

After the siege, the China Mail battle for hearts and minds

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About Sally Baxter

Once I was a girl reporter. Now I'm an interested observer covering the past, present and future of journalism and whatever else takes my fancy. All views my own.

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