The Big Baxter

This category contains 29 posts

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

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

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. Continue reading

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

Bargirls and journalists have a lot in common. They are basically lazy, but work very hard for short periods of time – Arthur Hacker.

The numbers of foreign journalists in Hong Kong ebbed and flowed to the tides of the war in Vietnam so it’s fitting, and not entirely uncoincidental, that the Hong Kong Press Club was opened in Wanchai in December 1973, just months after the rock n roll war finally ended.

Its arrival sits right in the middle, between the end of old Wanchai, made famous as The World of Suzie Wong, and the new one, with its smart office blocks and trendy bars.

During the war of course Hong Kong was awash with young Boy and Girl Reporters who came from all corners of the world hoping to make their names as war correspondents. Many stayed and took jobs on local newspapers and magazines, both during and after the war. Continue reading

Collard greens and Vegemite, it’s a cultural thing

I don’t know much about golf, but when Australian Adam Scott won the US Masters in 2013, I did know that he would bear the heavy cultural burden of choosing the menu for the following year’s Masters Champions Dinner.

Way back in 1997, Fuzzy Zoeller earned his own special place in the annals of golfing history by suggesting that then first-time Masters champion Tiger Woods would be putting fried chicken and collard greens on the menu.

I had to get my dad Jack Spackman to explain that one. I was familiar with fried chicken but I’d never heard of collard greens. Jack was living in California by then, so was more up to speed on matters of American culture. As in most things for that nation, it turned on the issue of race. Continue reading

Francis James – the long stumble to freedom

Francis cropOn 16 January 1973 Australian Francis James emerged from three years’ imprisonment in Canton (now Guangzhou) with just a brief announcement from China to herald his expulsion to the border and into the waiting arms of Hong Kong and Australian officials.

He collapsed at the Hong Kong border into the arms of John Slimming, Government Information Services director, and an Australian consulate official and was taken straight to the Matilda Hospital, a fair wreck of a man, according to my father the Big Baxter.

Australian newspaper The Age, which had secured a contract for the James story, dispatched top gun Creighton Burns to Hong Kong and had just one instruction for Bax, their local stringer – get a photographer.  Continue reading

China Watching masterclass: Why was Francis James in jail?

Why would the Chinese detain Francis James, a man long regarded in Australia as being sympathetic towards China and North Vietnam? That was the question posed by the Big Baxter in the final part of his series for The Age newspaper in Melbourne in 1971, which we’ve been revisiting as an example of the arcane art of China Watching.

If it was true that he was being held for “profiting from lies about China” what might those lies be? China had already denied that James’ visit to Sinkiang had taken place at all, putting a seal for many observers on their own doubts about his story that he had interviewed nuclear scientists there and found their program far more advanced than had been widely believed.

Since James had been widely discredited, there seemed little point in going to the trouble of locking him up. But what if there was enough truth in his report to make the Chinese keen to check his story out for themselves?
Continue reading

China Watching masterclass with Francis James

In November 1969 Australian Francis James was last seen in China, trying unsuccessfully to cross the border back into Hong Kong. For three years there was no word on his whereabouts although it was widely assumed he was being held by the Chinese. In 1971 my father the Big Baxter wrote a three-part feature for The Age newspaper in Melbourne on the Francis James mystery which today is a masterclass in China Watching. After setting out the story of his disappearance in part one, Bax turned his attention to why James was of interest to China in the first place. 

While the Chinese authorities were silent on Francis James, Bax cited one report, unattributed but accepted as reliable by experienced China-watchers, that James had been held ‘for making profit out of lies about China’. That report, according to Greg Clark writing after James’ death in 1992, came from Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett. Continue reading

The Francis James mystery – a masterclass in China Watching

In November 1969 an Australian named Francis James disappeared without trace. He was travelling by train from the southern China city of Canton, now called Guangzhou, to Hong Kong. He was last seen by his fellow passengers at the border arguing with Chinese officials.

A year had gone by with no word of James or his whereabouts when in January 1971 my father Jack Spackman sent a telegram to Chou En-lai, Prime Minister of the People’s Republic of China, pleading for information.

It was the springboard for a three-part feature Jack wrote for The Age which, in their entirety, make for a pretty good masterclass in the arcane art of China Watching.

Continue reading

Francis James – international man of mystery

Like many children I had no real idea of what my parents did for a living so the last thing I expected on a visit to Sydney in 1973 was to hear my dad on local radio, speaking from faraway Hong Kong.

I was at the home of John Higgins, who had been my father’s first Editor long ago on the Western Star in Roma in country Queensland. I was having a great time when I was hauled out of a tree in the backyard because the Big Baxter was on the radio.

He was talking about someone called Francis James who had been released from a Chinese prison and was now in Hong Kong. Bax had thrown a party for him the night before the broadcast at our flat in Macdonnell Road. 
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From the vault