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Hong Kong Deadline, Jack Spackman, Jack Spackman, Journalism, The China Mail

After the siege: China Mail job hunt tough for some

My father Jack Spackman was never terribly good at looking after his finances and his role as militant unionist Red Jack in the China Mail industrial dispute was never going to contribute to an improvement in the baseline requirements of a steady income.

In my teens I hit a brief insomniac phase and often ended up in the wee hours drinking endless cups of lemon tea with my fellow insomniac father, whose delight at having some company overrode his responsibilities of ensuring I was in good shape for school.

It was on one of those nights he told me that he and the other seven contracted staff had nothing to gain from the China Mail dispute. “In fact, we had everything to lose. Who was going to employ us after this – especially me,” he said.

A surviving bill line from the China Mail’s last day – its usual slogan was ‘Good News for Everyone.’ This one was autographed by some of the attendees at a wake for my dad in Wanchai, Hong Kong in 2005.

He never repeated it and I have never heard anything similar from any of the other seven. In fact, although the seven are mentioned in the reports of the time, they are never named and so we’re left to presume exactly who they were.

But the documents, and his employment history, confirm that Jack’s payout was as outlined in his contract and, in the absence of a paying job to go to, he freelanced until he could set up his own magazine in the then relatively new and untilled field of computing.

For Jack and the rest of the Magnificent Seven, the China Mail dispute was never about them. As China Mailer Linda Siddall recalled, “Jack provided wonderful ethical leadership on behalf of the Chinese staff who the owners proposed to sack without notice or recompense.

“Thanks to your Dad, they all received their dues and perhaps a bit more, so devastating was the adverse publicity he mustered!”

In addition to their dues, the China Mail staff needed jobs. The Hong Kong Journalists Association set up an Employment Committee two days after the closure of the newspaper.

On it were Lindsay Brinsdon, Bruce Pollock, Vicky Wong and Eddie Cheng who immediately compiled a file to correlate jobs available with those out of work. According to the HKJA newsletter The Journalist of 5 September 1974, jobs were not easy to find.

Literally hundreds of phone calls were made to the rest of the media, ad and PR agencies, airlines and hotels. An ad was placed in the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s largest English-language newspaper and a 40 per cent shareholder in the China Mail. The Journalist does not record if the HKJA got a favourable advertising rate.

Some would-be employers attempted to profit from the China Mailers’ misfortune by offering jobs at lower salaries than they were paying a few months before. “No names here, but we won’t forget,” said the report in The Journalist.

Jack Spackman and Linda Siddall at the wake for the China Mail, a few hours before the start of the staff action.

“The China Mail case has demonstrated that unscrupulous employers will try to take advantage of out-of-work journalists. It should also have proved to HKJA members (and those who ought to be) the need for a union-enforced salary scale in Hong Kong.”

In all, the Employment Committee was trying to place:

16 reporters – experienced in news, finance, sports and feature writing; salaries $800 to $5,000 plus.
8 sub-editors – including editorial department heads; salaries $3,000 to $5,000 plus.
8 photographers – some of Hong Kong’s best, with international awards to prove it; salaries $700 to $1,800 plus.
1 darkroom operator – 18 years’ experience.
3 copy boys/messengers – one training in photography; one training in art; salaries $300 to $600.
1 translator/copy taker – salary approx. $1,400.
1 editorial secretary – salary approx. $1,400.
4 advertising salesmen
4 circulation department staff – salaries $800 to $1,500.
2 typists– salaries $700/$1,400.
1 telephonist/typist – salary $800 to $1,000.

One year on from the dispute, a special newsletter published by the Hong Kong Press Club titled The Ghost, reported that most of the staff had settled into new jobs.

“Some have had to take positions outside the newspaper industry while many who were lucky enough to stay in the business have achieved this only by taking a cut in pay,” it said.

Just one of the China Mail’s full-time editorial staff had been taken on by the South China Morning Post: Editor Barry Sullivan. He had been on leave at the time of the closure and missed all the dramatics.

“Never mind,” he was told, according to The Ghost, “you’ll be able to attend the first anniversary party and make that speech you couldn’t deliver last year.”

“I can’t,” he reportedly told The Ghost, “I’ll be on leave.”

The Ghost was so named because it commemorated a quirk of publishing law – the requirement for a daily newspaper to publish at least every six months or lose its licence. To keep the title alive, the owners of the China Mail produced a back-from-the-grave edition on 2 April 1975. It was a 4-page tabloid with most of the stories taken from the South China Morning Post’s April Fool’s Day edition. There were no further sightings, as far as I’m aware.

The Ghost documented the progress of all the China Mailers one year on. I’ve just pulled out a few examples here, and it wasn’t bad news for everyone. Law King-lam’s success is a standout – he emerged from the darkroom to score a photographic job at Sing Tao, one of Hong Kong’s major Chinese language newspaper publishers.

In contrast, photographer Eddie Cheng spent many weeks out of work, surviving on part-time assignments, before joining the Excelsior Hotel as their in-house snapper.

Chief sub David Smith, who was acting Editor at the time of the closure, had joined the subs’ table at the Far Eastern Economic Review. Chief photographer Raymond Tam had been unable to find a spot in newspapers and, after trying his hand at running his own business, joined a commercial film company.

News Editor Lindsay Brinsdon went to Brunei to edit a local weekly paper. Sports Editor John Criddle married Patricia Chan, who had been head of circulation, and they left for Australia.

Vicky Wong moved into magazines as managing editor of Style, a Hong Kong fashion glossy. Linda Siddall was still out of fulltime employment a year after the China Mail dispute and was freelancing for local and foreign publications.

Jack Spackman was also still living on freelance work a year on from the dispute, according to The Ghost, stringing for overseas newspapers and editing in-house magazines for local companies.

Fun fact: Your Girl Reporter’s first subbing jobs were helping Dad with some of those in-house magazines – I learned to write captions at about the age of 12, providing a little non-unionised labour for the Old Man as required.

He would turn over to me the pictures of all those golf days and business lunches from companies like Swire and the Hongkong Bank. It was my laborious job to convert the provided captions – which always named people in order of their seniority – into the more commonly used left-to-right format, while taking due care over spellings and job titles.

The Ghost also sardonically noted that since the closure Spackman no longer appeared on Meet the Press, a weekly program broadcast on TVB, the other major shareholder in the China Mail.

Many China Mailers will tell you bitterly that there was a blacklist, and it’s a charge which is alluded to throughout that one-year-on special edition of The Ghost. I doubt there was a physical list, but it’s clear from the numbers who had left either journalism or Hong Kong – or both – that job hunting after the Siege of Tong Chong Street was tough for some, Jack Spackman included.

China Mail staff, August 1974: Linda Siddall, Kenneth Hann, Anders Nelson, Wazir Ackber, Samuel Pang, Johnny Ng, Law King Lam, John Criddle, Walter Wong, Betty Ling, Dora Yan, Bruce Pollock, Debra Jopson, Gabriel Tong, Michael Chugani, Louis Li, Alan Solley, Lavinia Lam, Lindsay Brinsdon, Peter Olaes, Vincent Mang, Raymond Tam, Daniel Wong, Thomas Wong (YN), Jack Spackman, Stuart Duncan, Michael Scott, Lam Ming Kwan, Johnny Cheung. Arshad Majeed, Ivanna Wong, Robert Cheung, Margaret Chan, Patrick Chan, Jimmy King, Peter Leung, Frank Chuan, HS Chow, David Smith, Eddie Cheng, Thomas Wong (TW), Alison Liu, Ivy Chow, Zena Rahim, Tony Tse, Rover Chan, Richard Borsuk, Norideen Kitchell, Pauline Kang, Vicky Wong, Anna Hwang, Jackie Lee, William Chu, Marr Chi Kwong

© Sally Baxter 2017

This is the latest 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:

Death of a newspaper, birth of a movement

After the siege: The China Mail battle for hearts and minds

After the siege: A fair go for Hong Kong’s China Mail

The China Mail’s finest hour:

In a corrupt town the dirty cop is king: remembering Peter Godber

More Jack Spackman:

A Matter of Dignity

Correcting the record

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

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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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