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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.
Sally Baxter has written 136 posts for Sally Baxter

Absent from duty for the 1997 Hong Kong handover



My father Jack Spackman said, when we arrived in Hong Kong in February 1967, his questions about what would happen in 20 years’ time when Britain’s lease on the New Territories expired were routinely brushed aside.

“With few exceptions, no-one wanted to talk about it,” he said. “Whether it was government officials, business people with Chinese interests, journalists – the common response was that it wasn’t something to worry about.”

Dad said exceptions included David Bonavia, Hong Kong-based stringer for The Times of London, and Dick Hughes, whose 1968 book Borrowed Place Borrowed Time was an early attempt to provide some answers. Continue reading

In to the deep midwinter with a backyard banana or two


Dad always said those freezing Grenfell winters convinced him early on that the best place to live was within sight of a banana tree. So it was pretty special to finally put in two banana plants – they’re not really trees – in sight of the back deck.

After two years as the overwhelmed owner of a traditional Aussie backyard here in Ipswich – west but not too far west of Brisbane in the south east corner of sunny Queensland – the results of my modest plantings to date have boosted the confidence of Your Gardening Girl Reporter and given me ideas…

Continue reading

My Extraordinary Aunt: College days in 1960s Hong Kong


When the school year started in September 1967 my honorary aunt Joan ‘The Bone’ Byrne took up her post at Hong Kong’s Wellington College in Caine Road and I began my undistinguished academic career at Kennedy Road Junior School.

It was a steep learning curve for us both.

Wellington College was a private English language school for middle class Chinese. The college was owned by a millionaire who spoke no English and owned four such establishments, according to Joan who was engaged to teach English and ‘oral,’ which I don’t believe had the same connotations in 1960s Hong Kong as it does today.

Salary was by negotiation and there was no sick pay. In fact, not only was there no sick pay, teachers who had to take a day off were required to find and pay for their own replacement. Continue reading

Hong Kong 1967: Snapshots of my grandmother


Macau 1967 Perfectly composed amidst the chaos: My grandmother Doris Estelle Spackman, taken either just before or just after a Communist demonstration. Picture by Jack Spackman

Those first months in Hong Kong for your Young Girl Reporter are a series of snapshots which must be connected by the memories of others. Hong Kong in 1967 was a very different place to the city I left 20 years later. My memories are small but so was I. And it was a small place, on the verge of becoming something bigger.

Traces of an older society were still visible. One day my grandmother and I were walking on Macdonnell Road when we saw an old woman hobbling on bound feet. We were amazed that she could walk at all. Continue reading

Hong Kong 1967: So you say you want a revolution


Like a burst of spring thunder China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution arrived in Hong Kong in May 1967. The catalyst was a strike at a factory which made plastic flowers – one of the colony’s biggest exports at the time.

Labour disputes were not uncommon in Hong Kong, nor were violent clashes between workers and police. This time, however, there was a political element. The Little Red Book of Mao’s Thought was everywhere, along with loud and violent calls to overthrow “British fascism, imperialism and tyranny.”

Bloody clashes between demonstrators and police outside Government House on 22 May led to 167 arrests and prompted David Bonavia, The Times of London’s Hong Kong stringer, to observe that the worlds of Mao Tse-tung (Mao Zedong) and Somerset Maugham had come face to face – and both had retired baffled. Continue reading

My Extraordinary Aunt: In the shadow of Lion Rock


There’s a mountain in Kowloon called the Lion Rock which has come to embody the spirit of Hong Kong. It’s a spirit that had yet to rise in February 1967, when my family disembarked from the SS Chusan at Ocean Terminal and settled into a small room at the YMCA in Tsim Sha Tsui. But its first stirrings were only a few months away.

Education was not compulsory in Hong Kong in 1967 and children from poor families either went without or crammed their learning in between working and caring for their siblings.

It was perfectly legal for women and children to work a maximum of 60 hours each week with permitted overtime of 100 hours per year. Prosecutions of firms violating this maximum were not uncommon but there was a simple way round it: Take home piece work! Fun for all the family! Continue reading

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. Continue reading

My Extraordinary Aunt: Taking the long way to London


Joan “The Bone” Byrne, Hong Kong 1967. Picture by Jack Spackman.

Every child needs an extraordinary aunt. If Nature fails to provide, one must invent or appoint one. Mine was Aunty Joan. Strictly speaking she was my dad’s cousin, and therefore an Aunt by Appointment. But since she was most notable in my life for her absence, I did sometimes feel I had invented her.

Fifty years after she sailed with us from Australia in 1967, I finally got around to asking what she’d been up to when she left us to pick up her own adventure. And, not unexpectedly, it’s an extraordinary tale. Continue reading

Death in paradise: it’s murder in the veggie patch


We haven't been the only threat in the garden this summer. This guy was making quick work of our young grapevine before justice of a swift and terrible kind was served.

We haven’t been the only threat in the garden this summer. This guy was making quick work of our young grapevine before justice of a swift and terrible kind was served. Picture courtesy Lady Severine Sinful

I regret to inform you, Gentle Reader, that there’s been a killing done. It happened one evening, shortly after my previous filing from a Traditional Aussie Backyard, in which Your Girl Reporter crowed about the array of vegetables we had crammed into our brand new raised beds.

There was no malice aforethought, just incompetence and the over-zealous application of a seaweed emulsion without the necessary dilution.

Sally’s Gardening Tip: Work out how to use an applicator before you start spraying things on your plants. Continue reading

After the siege – a fair go for Hong Kong’s China Mail


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. Continue reading

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