Director Information Services
GIS – as the Information Services Department is more commonly known – has always been a ‘different’ department. A major reason is the scope of our work, which includes news enquiries, public relations, research, overseas promotion, advertising, creative design and publishing. Another is the nature of our work which, in a nutshell, helps build bridges between the HKSAR Government and the community it serves through the dissemination of news, information and policy. Working at the coalface of public interaction as we do, GIS also serves as the ‘eyes and ears’ of government, reporting reaction to important decisions or policies and then helping devise ways in which to sell that ‘product’ to an often sceptical public or media. It is true to say also that the scepticism can sometimes extend to within government, where GIS’s public relations instincts might not always sit well with a more conventional approach preferred by a policy bureau or department. These are the challenges we face daily and expect. And we would not have it any other way.
It should come as no surprise then that this book, written by former Assistant Director Peter Moss, is not your usual ‘anniversary publication’. As you might expect from a published novelist and unconventional civil servant, it is not a dry chronicle of GIS achievements or milestones over the past four decades, nor does it simply explain what we do with lots of nice pictures. Rather, it is a story about Hong Kong from the perspective of a man who worked in the Information Services Department (ISD) through some of Hong Kong’s most formative years.
Peter was with GIS for almost 29 of our 40 years and is a keen student of the Hong Kong story. He returns from his retirement home in Vancouver from time to time to provide the text for Frank Fishbeck’s pictorial essays on old and new Hong Kong.
Peter’s book on ISD takes a personal broadbrush look at the development of the ISD since it was established on April 1, 1959, and also provides a potted history of Hong Kong, its free and vibrant press and the genesis of the Hong Kong Government’s public relations efforts and strategies. In that regard it is a book to mark our anniversary, rather than an anniversary book.
The department today has come a long way since 1959 when, on establishment, staff strength, was bolstered from 53 to 95. In early 1999, there were some 350 information officers in the department, and a further 210 general and common grades staff. Technology has transformed the work of the department. The cacophonous chatter of typewriters has long been replaced by the click-clack of a computer keyboard; teleprinters have been relegated to the scrap heap and replaced by an electronic news service, GNIS, which is wired into every major news organisation in Hong Kong. The Government Information Centre, the HKSAR Government’s Internet home page, gives us a world-wide presence in cyberspace which allows anyone with an Internet account to tap into millions of words of information about Hong Kong. Our photographers now transmit their ‘prints’ digitally, instead of processing hundreds of copies for distribution; our creative designers use the latest software and equipment to produce in minutes, visual effects that once took hours or were impossible. Government officials can now hold a 30-minute video conference with overseas offices in Europe and North America, Australia, Japan and Singapore when once such in-depth briefings would have only been possible one-on-one over the phone and taken much longer.
Our 40th Anniversary has given us all a rallying point for 1999 – an opportunity to look back at our achievements and developments over the past four decades and to look forward to the challenges of the new century. Whatever technological advances there may be, our job will always be one that basically relies on personal contact with our civil service colleagues, the media and the public. The job is getting harder, as the public, rightly, demands more of the government and its ‘public servants’. But I have no doubt that GIS staff are well equipped to deal with any challenges thrown their way. After all, that’s what we have done for the past 40 years. Why should the next 40 be any different?
Chapter 1: Some Fatal Pestilence, Some Doubtful War
Throughout the first century of its existence, Hong Kong persevered through flood, fire, typhoon and the occasional outburst of civic unrest without any kind of formalised liaison between the British colonial administration and the news media. So long as it responded to the demands of the powerful mercantile companies that dominated its commercial life, and refrained from interfering in their business, the government was left considerable freedom to pursue its mysterious affairs.
The bulk of the community, from the outset mainly immigrants from neighbouring provinces in the Mainland, was generally too driven by their own ambitions, or too preoccupied with the mere process of survival, to take much notice. They held to an attitude, acquired through long isolation in the southern periphery of the Chinese Empire, that the mountains were high and the emperor was far away.
Nevertheless they steadily acquired a taste for newspapers, which began to thrive and prosper in the closing years of the 19th century. In 1895 there were 19 Chinese-language newspapers in Hong Kong. Three years later the number had increased fourfold.
English newspapers established an even earlier foothold on the South China coast. The Canton Register, launched as a weekly in 1827, supplied whatever validated reports or unsubstantiated gossip might inform or titillate foreign traders trapped in the ghetto-like isolation of their factories' on the banks of the Pearl River.
Hong Kong's earliest English-language newspapers were of indifferent quality. A Government Gazette was first published in March 1841, just two months after the British flag was raised at Possession Point. Within a year other publications made their appearance - notably The Friend of China.
The latter made a determined stand against the evils of opium, the prohibition of which by Chinese authorities had precipitated the first of two infamous Opium Wars and led to the ceding of Hong Kong to Britain. Despite its euphemistic title, one of its two editors, American Baptist minister Lewis Shuck, proclaimed on May 26, 1842:
"We believe that Hong Kong is destined, by the uncontrollable force of circumstances, to become the base of naval and military operations, which sooner or later must revolutionise or subvert the existing state of things in China."
Another editorial in this typically unfriendly newspaper described the first governor, Sir Henry Pottinger, as 'a man who appears either to have been utterly devoid of the sense of the moral obligations imposed on him, his heart being perfectly seared to the impression of suffering humanity, or deliberately living in seclusion among a few adoring parasites whose limited intellects were devoted to pandering to the great man's vanity'.
With fewer axes to grind and little hard news to report in an embryonic colony of limited population, where everyone knew just about everyone else, rival editors resorted to plagiarism, parochial gossip, smear and innuendo.
Government legislated in 1844 to regulate the publication of newspapers, but generally failed to curb the rampant exercise of what one commentator described as 'the widest freedom', pointing out that 'there were no clauses to safeguard against libel, and the expression of opinion of press writers was couched in what would nowadays be counted criminally libellous language'.
The Friend of China later merged with the Hongkong Gazette, but was overtaken by the more popular China Mail, established in 1845. Its editor, Shortrede, saw himself as guardian of the public conscience and scourge of incompetent administrators. In his first year at the desk he alleged underhand dealings by Colonial Secretary William Caine in regard to the banishment of prostitutes.
Not all editors escaped retribution. An irate Irish officer, objecting to his description as an 'informer' in the columns of the Hongkong Register, attacked its editor, John Cairns, with fists and an umbrella. William Tarrant, a former Registrar of Deeds, bought out The Friend of China and used it as a weapon of revenge for his dismissal from government service - only to be charged with libel, sentenced to a year's imprisonment and fined 50 pounds. Shortrede himself fell foul of Ordinance No 2 of 1844 by failing to communicate to the authorities the removal of his printing establishment.
Yorrick Murrow, of the Daily Press, was sentenced to six months jail and fined 100 pounds for libelling Governor Sir John Bowring, whose conduct over the Arrow incident had led to the infamous destruction of the Summer Palace in Beijing. Murrow had accused Bowring of showing favour to Jardine Matheson & Co over the award of charter contracts.
Undaunted by his punishment, Murrow continued to contribute 'editorial effusions within prison walls', thanks to the fact that Bowring had asked for him to be treated with every indulgence and to give him every facility for carrying on his paper. As a result of Bowring's intercedence, Murrow was transferred to a far more comfortable debtor's prison, but this did nothing to curb his attacks on the deservedly unpopular governor.
Observing these insular bickerings from its hallowed fastness in London's Fleet Street, The Times commented that Hong Kong 'is always connected with some fatal pestilence, some doubtful war, or some discreditable internal squabble. So much so that the name of this noisy, bustling, quarrelsome, discontented and insalubrious little island may not inaptly be used for an euphonious synonym for a place not mentionable in polite society'.
The Duke of Newcastle declared, in the House of Lords on January 26, 1860, that 'in no part of Her Majesty's dominions is libel so rife and flagrant as in Hong Kong'. When Sir Hercules Robinson arrived as Bowring's replacement, entrusted with the task of restoring order in the colony, the Duke cautioned him 'against stirring up again all the mass of mud which appears to have encumbered society in Hong Kong'.
Sun Yat-sen, founder of China's Nationalist movement to depose a floundering and enfeebled Manchu Dynasty, had been educated in Hong Kong and initially chose it as his base of operations. This was to cause acute embarrassment to a colonial administration that had elected to remain seemingly indifferent to his revolutionary aspirations.
More alert to the potential damage to Britain's own dubiously-founded imperial footholds on the China coast, and as ever placing mercantile interests above all else, the local media were vehemently opposed to Sun's machinations. 'Sun must go' thundered the Hong Kong Telegraph, following the defeat of the Canton Merchant Volunteer Corps by Sun's Kuomintang in 1924. Alarmed by the KMT's collaboration with communist advisers, Hong Kong's Chinese media were equally critical.
Labour disputes became the principal threat to commercial complacency in the years between the two world wars. A prolonged seamen's strike, for example, almost brought the city to a standstill before it ended in 1926.
In 1941, at the close of its first century as a trading port on the South China coast, Hong Kong emerged largely unscathed from its occasional alarms and excursions, its strikes and boycotts. It had even escaped the brunt of the astonishing upheavals overtaking the neighbouring Mainland, where central authority had been eroded by the rising power of the warlords and a falling out between communist and KMT forces.
All this was to change dramatically on December 8 that year when, coinciding with their raid on Pearl Harbour, Japanese forces launched an invasion across the border, circumventing a system of defence based on the mistaken premise that any such onslaught must come by sea.
Chapter 2: This Remarkable Sample Of Peaceful Co-Existence
Disembarking in Hong Kong at war's end in 1945, leading units of the relieving British fleet were surprised to find a newspaper in circulation, announcing their arrival. It was a single sheet special edition of the South China Morning Post, which had been founded in 1903.
Restored to his desk, after a grilling at the hands of Japanese occupation forces, was its Australian Chinese editor, Henry Ching, who had held that position since 1926. Ching had risen rapidly through the ranks even though, as a mere reporter in a still racially-segregated Hong Kong, his ethnic background had denied him admittance to many of the functions he'd been assigned to cover. His son, also Henry Ching, became an Administrative Officer in the Hong Kong Government, serving as Deputy Financial Secretary for many years to Phillip Haddon-Cave, and eventually retiring as Secretary for Health and Welfare.
Humiliated by its defeat at the hands of the Japanese, the re-established colonial administration set out to justify its return to Hong Kong in the face of concerted opposition by the Kuomintang and their American allies. As late as December 11, 1946 the newly-founded Far Eastern Economic Review ventured to suggest that 'virtually all Chinese, even those living there, say that in the near future Britain will have to return the New Territories, Kowloon and Hongkong to China'.
The military authorities assigned to initiate the post-war clean-up discovered the value of public relations in promoting their measures to rehabilitate an economy devastated by the effects of war. From this was to evolve the Information Services Department (more commonly referred to as Government Information Services, or GIS) - but only by degrees.
The first step was the appointment of a military Press Relations Officer to deal with war correspondents still milling around in the aftermath of hostilities. The post was created in September 1945 and held by a succession of occupants on an acting basis until 1947, owing to a rapid turnover of staff.
The original, ex-services appointee died in December 1946 and the principal of the Trade and Technical Schools, George White, acted as Public Relations Officer through the early part of 1947. White was followed by John Henry Burkhill Lee, who served as caretaker until the arrival of Wing Commander A H Marsack in September 1947. Marsack fell ill and resigned in March 1948, when Mrs Elaine Davis took over as Acting PRO, to be succeeded on August 23, 1948 by W Gordon Harmon, OBE.
Retitled the Public Relations Office, the fledgling apparatus was established on a formal footing as a new government department once a civilian administration took over from the military in 1946. Its first home was an arcade located where the Landmark now stands, on a site once occupied by the illustrious Hong Kong Hotel before its destruction by fire on New Year's Day, 1926. From there it moved to 'temporary' offices in Statue Square, alongside what is now the Legislative Council.
This temporary stay lasted three years, during which the staff dealt with an influx of journalists covering the civil war in China, and the consequences for Hong Kong arising from the Korean War. These were the years when Hong Kong became the destination of choice for foreign correspondents, who established here a comfortable base from which they could make their forays into less salubrious neighbouring countries that offered them news - even sensational news - but fewer modern conveniences and a great deal less security.
They were also the years that witnessed the birth of the so-called 'China watcher'; that alleged expert on Chinese affairs who could raise a damp finger in the air and tell which way the political winds were blowing.
Anxious to remain helpful but apolitical, the PRO arranged press briefings confined strictly to pertinent local topics, gingered up by occasional showings of relevant documentary films. These were staged in Statue Square's non air-conditioned, makeshift structures, often in temperatures above 30 degrees Celsius.
Meanwhile, the domestic press corps prospered and the numbers of locally based newspapers and periodicals grew rapidly, topping 150 in all by the close of 1955 - vastly more than were available to any other population of comparable size. Arriving in 1950, on a commission to write a book for the Colonial Office, Harold Ingrams remarked: "How plentiful, opulently thick and reminiscent of the past Hong Kong's newspapers seemed after those at home! And it recalled a bygone era to see newsboys, generally women, carrying printed posters. One morning, soon after my arrival, I was confronted by one reading 'Labour Government may fall tonight'. One was left in no doubt that such an event was felt generally to be a consummation devoutly to be wished."
That year the broadcasting section of the diversified public relations enterprise began a move from Gloucester Building into new studios in the newly-built Electra House, Cable & Wireless Ltd's regional headquarters on Connaught Road Central, where the Ritz-Carlton Hotel now stands. This allowed the Public Relations Officer to take up the space vacated and to record: "The excellent accommodation now at the disposal of the Public Relations Office has contributed in no small degree to an increase in efficiency."
Administrative and policy control of Radio Hong Kong (later Radio Television Hong Kong) passed formally to the PRO on April 1, 1951, having been the responsibility of the Postmaster General since 1938. Not until July 1953 did Radio Hong Kong became a separate department.
In 1952 the PRO, still nominally in charge of everything that went out on the air waves, noted that Hong Kong's government radio station was remarkable among British colonial broadcasters because it made a profit (from broadcast fees), whereas most others were heavily subsidised by the state. Radio Hong Kong broadcast more locally-generated hours each week than any other station, and staff numbers were about half those in comparable operations elsewhere.
The PRO at the time was John Lawrence Murray, whose appointment on September 1, 1950 began a period of relative stability for that post. Murray became the first Director of Information Services (DIS) on June 19, 1959, shortly after his organisation was renamed the Information Services Department on April 1 that year.
Meeting this 'white-haired Scotsman' for lunch, towards the end of the latter's long term in office, Frederick Joss describes, in his book Of Geisha and Gangsters, sweeping his hand across the seething expanse of Hong Kong harbour below.
"Tell me," Joss asks, "who is doing whom?"
With a possibly over-emphasised Scots accent he said "You mean who gains the greater advantage from this remarkable sample of peaceful co-existence?"
"Quite. It's obvious both are making a profit. We, and they over there."
'Over there' in Hong Kong means across the mountains, the country of well nigh a quarter of the world's population.
"How are we doing? 50/50 perhaps?"
Jock threw back his mane. "50/50 be damned! It's more like 80/20."
"80/20 for whom? 80/20 for us, or 80/20 for them?"
Jock Murray grinned. "80/20 for us. And 80/20 for them."
Chapter 3: Many-Splendoured Things
The stabilising influence of Murray's long tenure could not have been better timed. The '50s were the truly formative years for Hong Kong, when external factors produced internal pressures that altered the whole course and direction of this former entrep_t on the China coast.
On May 18, 1951 Hong Kong's reason for existence vanished at the stroke of a pen, virtually overnight. To comply with a United Nations resolution of that date, arising from China's entry into the Korean War, the Hong Kong government was required to impose a complete embargo on the export of strategic materials to its key trading partner.
The previous year had produced the best trade performance on record - an all-time high of $1,314 million. In the aftermath of the embargo, figures plummeted, and it looked as if Hong Kong was finished as a world trading port. Even the government's official report for the year, not normally given to hyperbole, conceded: "It is no exaggeration to say that the Korean War and the world events following it have put Hong Kong in an economically impossible position."
The tremendous political upheaval on the Mainland towards the close of the '40s had accelerated the flow of refugees into a colony still struggling to fully regain its footing and composure in the aftermath of World War II. Rudimentary social services were also placed under an impossible burden.
Lacking adequate accommodation, even in the ugly, though commercially profitable 'fast buck' residential blocks that escalated around the harbour, the bulk of the population contrived to seek their own housing in makeshift squatter huts scattered wherever the terrain allowed, sometimes up precipitous hillsides.
A series of disastrous fires, culminating in an inferno which swept unchecked through the congested squatter shacks of Shek Kip Mei on Christmas Day 1953, forced the government's hand, and precipitated a major review of its woefully inadequate concessions in the form of temporary 'cottage areas'.
'Resettlement' became the catchword for the new government initiative, and focusing on administrative progress in this field became a preoccupation of PRO Murray, whose still meagre 'one man and a dog' outfit arranged press facilities and conducted tours of the so-called seven-storey 'H-blocks'.
The first of these, completed on a fire site at Tai Hang Tung, north of Boundary Street, became something of a showcase, and an object of almost morbid curiosity to overseas visitors unused to the kind of basic standards Hong Kong was compelled to provide in order to deal with the enormity of the problem.
Compliant families, shoehorned into a single room measuring 12 feet six inches by nine feet six inches, were encouraged to smile bravely for probing cameramen and film makers and to say how much better off they were now they were no longer living under the threat of being swept from soggy hillsides by the next rainstorm. Delegated by Murray to accompany these media teams, escorting officers smiled bravely too.
The more perceptive observer might discern that, viewed from Victoria Peak, the Kowloon promontory is a pestle descending into the concave mortar of the Hong Kong island coastline. The alchemy this crucible produced in the '50s was to mould the shape of Hong Kong's future destiny.
Its chief ingredients were the very factors that imposed its greatest burden - the trade embargo that forced Hong Kong to industrialise and manufacture its own goods, and the huge boost of population that produced the labour, the skills and, paramount of all, the determination to bring about that transition.
Hong Kong had always been a base for light industry. The Chinese Manufacturers Association was founded in 1934 to promote its exports to other colonial territories. But never before had it been forced to rely almost exclusively on its manufacturing base for its sheer survival, or to aggressively seek out overseas markets for its vastly expanded range of products.
These were the years of 'flatted factories', rapidly erected by government contractors to stack one above the other and to house, in conditions of controlled chaos, such disparate enterprises as artificial flowers, hand-painted porcelains, plastic toys and clock radios. They were also years that produced a new perception of Hong Kong in the world at large, as some kind of vast transit centre whose occupants were desperately knitting, hammering and soldering their way towards sufficient savings for a better life somewhere overseas.
It was a perception bolstered by such hugely successful novels - translated into films which, curiously, both starred William Holden - as Han Suyin's A Many-Splendoured Thing and Richard Mason's The World of Suzie Wong. And while it was a view on the whole sympathetic to Hong Kong's plight in the face of adversity, it was also to label and dog Hong Kong for many years to come until - like a successful businessman haunted by his past as an orphan child - Hong Kong would fight to reshape its own outmoded image.
The fight to put it all in perspective, and achieve a more balanced view of Hong Kong, was embarked on early within the scope of Murray's still limited domain, and little by little the additional posts, the talents and the technical resources were acquired to achieve that objective.
When the Public Relations Office became the Information Services Department in April 1959, staff numbers were increased from 53 to 95, with proportionately increased funding. By now the organisation had moved into the West Wing of the Central Government Offices, just across the courtyard from the seat of power and fount of all information it would ever be permitted to release.
Despite this closer proximity, it was still viewed with detachment and cynicism by many civil servants who, as in imperial China of old, had acquired rank and status through the process of civil service examinations. As such, they distrusted those that, in the days when GIS placed emphasis on journalistic experience rather than academic qualifications, might have gained access through what the mandarins regarded as the 'tradesman's entrance'.
Successive Directors of Information, from Murray onwards, have fought to achieve professional status for the information grade, balancing the government's insistence upon academic qualifications and university degrees against the invaluable asset of sound journalistic experience. Although not incompatible, the two - at least in the early years - seldom went hand in hand.