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. A hastily-organised protest led by my father on her final day turned the China Mail Affair into a defining moment for the Hong Kong Journalists Association, for workers’ rights and for my family.
The Siege of Tong Chong Street, as the workers’ sit-in was dubbed, was just the beginning of a hard negotiation for a decent settlement for the China Mail staff, who also needed to find jobs – and fast.
Fortunately, there was a trades union for that. The Hong Kong Journalists Association had been founded in 1968 by my parents Jack and Margaret Spackman shortly after we arrived in Hong Kong.
And perhaps even more fortuitously, just months earlier, the HKJA had moved into its first permanent home, the Hong Kong Press Club, a pet project of my mother’s.
But most fortunately of all, as enough of them have told me over the years, the China Mail staff had a great leader. Spackman was the right Aussie battler in the right place and time. He had laid the groundwork. It was time to take the field.
The Hong Kong Press Club in Luard Road, Wanchai had become campaign headquarters and was packed every day with people planning strategies and starting to organise job hunting on a massive scale.
A big collage of all the publicity the sit-in had received was stuck on the wall, along with a list of all the staff who needed work.
In a special edition of the HKJA newsletter The Journalist, the China Mail staff reported that much had been achieved in the three days after the Siege of Tong Chong Street, which had ended with management agreeing to negotiations.
“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,” they wrote.
“Specifically, in the past three days we have taken our case to the negotiating table, presenting a long list of demands. Agreement comes easily on the more insignificant ones but progress is slow on others.
“Late on Sunday afternoon the game starts going our way and they agree we have a case for a pro-rata annual bonus. Then we get them to concede a payment based on length of service. Holidays prove a stumbling block but eventually they give in and say they will pay cash for any accumulated holidays.
“We feel these are hardly earth-shaking concessions. They should have been in the letter of dismissal.”
Barry Pearton, who was chair of the HKJA, said the China Mail dispute showed that responsible trade unionism could work in a system still clinging largely to 19th century thinking in labour-management relations.
The dispute also revealed, he wrote, that the colony’s labour laws were totally inadequate for a sophisticated industrial and manufacturing society.
“We sit at the negotiating table today because we took direct industrial action. It was a last resort, taken by a staff which had been frustrated in every effort it made to meet the management,” Pearton wrote.
“These efforts were being directed through an officer of the Labour Relations Service. The officer left the South China Morning Post building when he was accused by management of trespassing.
“That such an action should even be considered by a management in today’s Hong Kong is nothing short of scandalous – and emphasises the desperate need for labour laws which provide for compulsory industrial arbitration.
“As the China Mail staff told the Governor, Sir Murray Maclehose, in their message on Saturday, they were fighting for more than themselves – they were fighting for the rights of every worker in Hong Kong.
“The HKJA is pledged to continue that fight.”
Negotiations broke down the following day when management delivered an ultimatum.
According to an outline of grievances prepared by the China Mail staff, they were told the points agreed to in principle the previous night were as far as they would go and the staff had until 3pm Monday, 19 August to accept them.
In their outline of grievances the staff said: “They did not fulfil their undertaking to compile severance costs based on their own formula. We had compiled such figures. The management also imposed a particularly obnoxious condition – that settlement would depend on every last detail of the written contracts held by six or seven staff members being finalised.
“The China Mail staff voted unanimously to reject the offer. However, in an effort to keep negotiations open they proposed yet another variation of the severance pay formula.
“They did this in an effort to acquire a better settlement for the many lowly paid junior members of the staff who will face considerable difficulty in finding new jobs. Many of the young staff have been there less than a year and on the three points agreed to in principle they stood to gain very little.
“This revised formula was accordingly forwarded to the management’s solicitors and more than 36 hours later we have heard nothing. That is where the matter rests.”
With formal negotiations at an impasse Spackman, in cooperation with the Labour Department, agreed to meet privately with a representative of TVB, major shareholders in the China Mail.
“Private talks of this nature are often used to settle industrial disputes and we had two such meetings late in the first week of the dispute,” Spackman said.
“At the second meeting the TVB man suggested his company’s image was being distorted by press reports that negotiations had broken down. As far as I was concerned they had broken down.
“We had a four-man negotiating team but three of them were excluded from the haggling that was taking place and as far as I could see we would achieve better results if we could all get back to the table.”
“The TVB man decided he wanted it made public that he and I were talking, so at a staff meeting the next day I informed my colleagues of what had been going on.”
The subsequent report on TVB’s evening news, that “Spackman today admitted he has been holding secret talks with the management,” got under my dad’s skin so bad that he included a detailed explanation of his side of the story in a speech he gave to a local organisation in September, when it was all over.
“Admitted? Under the delicate circumstances that was an unfortunate choice of word. I believe you ‘admit’ when you’ve been doing something wrong. And keeping something secret at the other man’s request could hardly be described as wrong,” Spackman told the gathering.
“Anyway, TVB made capital for itself at my expense with that news report. I trust it was not done with any malice.”
David Smith, who had been serving as acting Editor as the China Mail went down, said Dad had taken the revelations of the secret talks far harder than he needed to.
“Your dad felt they were trying to make it look as though he was cutting a secret deal for himself, but none of us thought that at all. It was nonsense and we all knew it, but it really did get to him. It was the only thing that did in all that time,” Smithy said.
The unity of the China Mail staff remained strong throughout and, once negotiations resumed, they were ultimately rewarded with a deal which didn’t contain everything they wanted but which failed to breach their rear battle line. Their closeness endured over the decades and today there are many people who still proudly refer to themselves as China Mailers and to Jack Spackman as a hero.
I’ll be returning to the China Mail story in future posts. For now, I’ll leave you with the HKJA’s summary of the proceedings from the file given to me by Dave Smith after Jack’s death in 2005.
Anatomy of a settlement – reproduced from the HKJA newsletter The Journalist, 5 September 1974
Sunday 18 August: 10am sharp at the Labour Department with a good turnout of China Mail staff to support the negotiating team as they went in.
Round the table: Jack Spackman, Dave Smith, Frank Chuan and Raymond Tam for the Mail, with Mike Scott an efficient secretary (though not as pretty as most).
For the management, K H Hung, company secretary of the Mail; Gerry Pilgrim, managing director of the SCMP, and their lawyers Peter Jolly and James Bertram.
Rounding off the cast, the two Barrys, Pearton and Wain, for the HKJA, plus the Labour Department’s long-suffering Mr Sin who chaired the meeting.
Morning spent laying down guidelines; afternoon (after Mr Pilgrim’s departure for Australia) hammering out the start of a settlement formula. Meeting adjourned 7pm on a hopeful note, both parties retiring to work out details of acceptable terms.
Monday 19 August: Back round the negotiating table, Mail team produced figures as promised, management team produced a take-it-or-leave-it offer.
Tuesday 20 August: Mail staff voted unanimously to leave it, and a “two-tiered” approach was suggested, favouring the lower-paid staff. Union solicitors communicated this to management solicitors; Spackman communicated it via a press conference to the public.
Wednesday 21 – Thursday 22 August: No word from the solicitors, so no formal negotiations. But Super-Spack secretly negotiating a détente with China Mail Company Secretary Mr Hung behind the scenes.
Meanwhile back at the Press Club, morale continuing high and unity total. Mail staff flat out running employment agency, publicity bureau, tee-shirt industry… support from overseas unions and local residents pouring in. Notices, press cuttings, appeals for cash flow over the Press Club bar obliterating the club walls.
Friday 23 August: HKJA executive committee announced a “blacking” of TVB. Mail staff and Hawaiian-shirted Special Branch men turn out in force to greet SCMP Chairman Mr Eric Udal at Kaitak Airport on his return from Australia.
[The China Mail was owned 60/40 by HK-TVB, Hong Kong’s biggest television station, and the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s biggest English-language newspaper.]
Saturday 24 August: Tea for two (Spackman and Pearton) with Mr Udal. Things looking brighter.
Sunday 25 August: HKJA meeting at the Press Club. Ban on TVB lifted, private Hung/Spackman talks revealed at the request of TVB.
Monday 26 – Tuesday 27 August: King’s Steak House, Sunning House and all points west doing well out of innumerable sudden meetings of Mail negotiators planning further strategy.
Wednesday 28 August: Final meeting with Mr Hung and Mr Sin. Letter on settlement terms drafted, sent to Labour Department for formalisation, then to both sets of solicitors.
Thursday 29 August: SCMP board meeting… followed by signing of the settlement at 3.45 chez the Labour Department… followed by drinks all round at the Press Club, and big thank yous to everyone, particularly our colleagues in the media for their broad coverage, unbiased reporting and general support.
A fight well fought, everyone agreed (though Mr Eu was not available for comment).
© Sally Baxter 2017
For more on the China Mail dispute, there’s this:
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