Chapter 4: Through the Camera Lens
Photography was early recognised as one of the weapons with which Hong Kong could combat negative reportage and entrenched misconceptions regarding prevailing conditions. By building up a photo library second to none, as a freely-available resource for visiting correspondents, the department set out to present a positive view of a still emerging economy, feeling its way out of squatter huts and flatted factories into better planned resettlement and industrial estates.
Some of its longest-serving officers have left their mark in the department's photographic studios, often producing pictures of salon quality to grace the pages of the government's best-selling annual reports and its numerous other publications. Among the earliest of these veterans were Gatlin Lin, David Au, David Ching and C C Tang, who donned raincoats to patrol the streets in the vilest of typhoons and produced some of their best work under difficult conditions.
They particularly excelled in recording the spirit of ordinary people, many of whom held down two jobs and snatched whatever sleep they could, either while commuting or in a rented tiered bedspace occupied on a shift basis and located as close as possible to at least one workplace.
GIS cameramen were particularly skilled in capturing the winsome moods of children, then more than half the population. Whether emerging spotlessly clean from squatter huts to study in rooftop schools, or contriving to amuse themselves as best they could away from crowded streets, these youngsters were visually emblematic of the buoyancy of a challenged but resilient community. As evidence of all this engaging photographic evidence, GIS bequeathed to posterity an early pictorial essay entitled City of Children.
Valuable groundwork for an increasingly comprehensive photographic archive was laid by Frank Rogers, an expatriate officer who joined the department in its infancy and who has left behind his own photographic legacy in an album simply entitled Hong Kong, which he produced in the early '60s for the newly-established Hong Kong Tourist Association.
The Hong Kong Annual Report 1961 is surprisingly and uncharacteristically specific in regard to the detail of the GIS photographic output: "Each set deals with a different subject and normally contains between one and two dozen 10'' x 8'' glossy prints. Each picture has a comprehensive caption of between 100 and 200 words, enabling them to be used either singly or as a 'spread'. These picture sets are proving of value to overseas publications, both for immediate use and for picture libraries for use with future stories about Hong Kong.
That year the department acquired the services of Nigel John Vale Watt, who was to become Murray's successor in the top post, and who himself came from a photographic background, via colonial service in Africa and Aden.
Watt recalls that when he arrived in Hong Kong early in 1961, aboard the passenger liner Oriana, Murray came aboard to meet him. "He was a rather beefy looking gentleman, with a florid complexion and a mass of white hair. He said 'I might as well tell you, Watt, so that we get things straight from the start, you're not the man I asked for'." Who exactly Murray had in mind was never divulged, but the relationship that developed from this unpromising beginning set the stage for a smooth succession two years later, when Watt resolved to preserve the goals and objectives set by his formidable predecessor.
Since Hong Kong had long exerted a special fascination for outsiders, who saw it through Hollywood eyes as an exotic locale filled with mystery and intrigue, it was important to dispel old misconceptions and replace them with a new respect for what was being achieved here. And since the West was targeted as the principal marketplace for Hong Kong's expanding and increasingly sophisticated product range, it was even more important that this reassessment should take account of the territory's brave new role on the stage of global commerce.
The image Hong Kong set out to portray was of a surprising new 'can do' powerhouse of industry, whose tiny size packed a considerable wallop. Much emphasis was placed in these early days on overseas output, in the form of syndicated feature articles on a wide range of topics, each with an accompanying photo spread. The marketing strategy for this enterprise was carefully devised by Bill Fish, recruited from the Straits Times in Singapore to take charge of the editorial output.
Aware from his own experience as a newspaper man that no self-respecting editor would knowingly accept free hand-outs from an official government agency, Fish decided that at all costs the materials marketed should be free of any suspicion of propagandist intent.
His small team of writers were encouraged to write positively, with a semblance of objectivity, on topics that would bolster rather than detract from Hong Kong's image. And since it would seem strange if all this material kept appearing under the same limited range of bylines, he also encouraged them to invent a variety of pseudonyms, as if their articles were originating from different sources.
Entering into the spirit of the thing, Keith Robinson selected a whole range of exotic alter-egos under which to masquerade, while Peter Moss was translated most frequently into Frank Watson or Ishmael Iskander. Later recruits into the ranks, including Adam Lynford, Brian Hickman and Peter Iliffe-Moon, ventured their own variations on the name game.
Even more to the point, it was essential that none of this material should find its way directly into editorial in-trays directly from government sources or bearing the GIS imprimatur. A series of middle agents had therefore to be found in the respective target territories who would proffer it - for whatever commission they might make - as though it had stemmed from assorted stables of freelance writers.
The gambit proved remarkably successful, particularly in the case of GIS photographs, whole categories of which, classified under all the most commonly-wanted subject headings, found their way into the archives of the world's major newspapers and magazines, from which they could be readily retrieved every time someone needed a piece on Hong Kong. Watt's own photographic background proved invaluable to this exercise, for he had links with Camera Press in London, who took on the role of marketing the GIS output.
For GIS it was the product that mattered; not the credit for it.
Chapter 5: Tales of Mystery and Imagination
With government's policy on information already under review back in 1957, Murray started thinking ahead and pushing for staff expansion, particularly through the creation of more senior personnel. Among the officers he acquired that year were specialists in features writing, visual publicity and films.
The last of these posts was intended primarily to oversee the production of documentaries and short educational films that might be shown between the commercials and before the main feature presentation in Hong Kong's 68 cinemas. Although Governor Sir Alexander Grantham had just inaugurated the first television service made available to any British colony - courtesy of Rediffusion Ltd - its 2.5 million yards of installation cabling fed into the homes of only 2,000 subscribers. And the latter were unlikely to be found in the squatter areas and resettlement estates.
The vast majority of the populace continued to confine their hard-earned leisure hours to the restaurants and the cinemas, where they might enjoy brief air-conditioned comfort and escape into the unreality of ancient court intrigues and melodramas featuring sorrowful heroines battling to preserve their virginity against desperate odds.
The Hong Kong Annual Report 1957 announced that "The demand of Overseas Chinese cinema audiences for films of Chinese theme told in their own language is insatiable, but the total possible market is not numerically large enough to guarantee an economic return unless production costs are kept at a minimum. This results in the majority of Hong Kong films being produced on what is by Western standards a 'shoe-string budget', and quantity rather than quality is the general trend of Hong Kong production."
With the annual report under his overall supervision, it is easy to envisage Murray dictating this particular paragraph, seeking to justify his high expectations for the department's embryonic film unit. By the following year he could claim: "During 1958 there was considerable expansion of the government's general publicity programme, particularly in the field of visual publicity."
Not only did he have his film unit, but it had taken on additional staff. and over the next three years was to make rapid strides, enabling Murray to recount that: "The short film has proved an invaluable medium for reaching large sections of Hong Kong's population, and an excellent vehicle for projecting Hong Kong overseas. For this reason the film unit of the department concentrated upon the production of newsreel shorts during 1961."
In addition to these newsreels, six short black and white 'comedy' films were made in connection with that year's road safety campaign, together with six colour films for the Fire Services. These were intended for local cinema screenings, and would later become the staple fare of the mobile cinema that entered service in the mid-'60s, touring resettlement estates to set up its collapsible screen on playgrounds and other open spaces.
Distribution prints were processed for the department in the commercial studio of T C Wang, whose son Charles joined the GIS film unit to learn production techniques that would later stand him in good stead when he replaced his father as head of Salon Films.
No longer would it be possible for local cinemagoers to escape reality in their palaces of dreams. Reality would pursue them there, either in the form of 'dramatically simple but important fire prevention precautions' or through the explicit detail of a 15-minute film on anti-tuberculosis measures, also distributed to cinemas in 1961.
With an eye to the future of television as an increasingly useful medium of communication, Murray assigned his newly-arrived deputy, Nigel Watt, to draw up a plan for the future of that medium, together with its related medium of sound radio.
"That particular obligation influenced the course of my future career," recalls Watt, "for I was placed in the unusual situation of laying down ground rules that I would later come to enforce as Commissioner of Television and Entertainment Licensing."
Aside from labouring over this blueprint with the help of the then Director of Broadcasting, Donald Brooks, Watt became involved with some of the early GIS film productions directed by the first head of the unit, Ben Hart.
Hart's successor, Brian Salt, had more ambitious goals. Having cut his teeth in the production of feature films, Salt had romance in his soul. Documentaries, he believed, were best served spiced with an element of drama. If the objective was to report on Hong Kong's achievements, why not bring the humble wooden kitchen god to life so he could deliver the report in person to the celestial deities? Hence Report to the Gods, as conveyed by well-known Cantonese comedian Leung Sing Bor in the role of the kitchen god.
Much more grandiose was Salt's historical costume drama The Magic Stone, filmed at the little fishing village of Lung Suen Wan, or Dragon Boat Bay. For this he managed to persuade actress Nancy Kwan, newly-returned from Hollywood and the success of such films as The World of Suzie Wong, to play a humble fisherwoman.
This wasn't to be just any fisherwoman. Salt's script called for her to be married to the inventor of the compass. Defending this enormous historical liberty, he argued, in a handsomely produced book which GIS published to accompany the film: "It is a fact that magnetic compasses - pointing south instead of north - were being used by Chinese mariners in these same waters a thousand years ago."
Sensing that the invention of the compass wasn't enough to engage movie enthusiasts for long, leave alone Nancy Kwan's dramatic talents, Salt decided that the real drama should focus on the latter. As the faithful consort who scaled the heights every day, with her child strapped to her back, to keep vigil for her husband's return, refusing to believe that he is lost at sea, she would be rewarded for her fidelity by being turned to stone - together with the child.
The shipwreck in which the doomed inventor of the compass meets his untimely end was less easily devised. Salt persuaded the Government Supplies Department to purchase a suitably elderly sailing junk and then proceeded to wreck it on the rocky headlands of the Sai Kung peninsula. Supplies Department was appalled. Deliberately contrived shipwrecks were not acceptable means of writing off government equipment.
The completed film aroused great interest but some bewilderment among overseas audiences unused to seeing loving spouses turned to stone for their loyalty. The last time they had heard of such a thing was when Lot's wife gave the literal origin to the word petrified by flouting celestial prohibition and turning to look back on the destruction of Sodom and Gomorra.
Salt's quest for the unusual led to the production of the first GIS announcement of public interest - a brief black and white forerunner of the APIs (Announcement of Public Interest) which the department would later produce at the rate of one a week - to be banned by the government film censor operating under its own departmental jurisdiction.
Produced as an appeal to conserve water, the shortage of which was to haunt Hong Kong throughout the '60s, this depicted four adults of mixed sexes and racial origins bathing together in the same tub. 'Save water - share a bath' was the motto. The film censor did not agree.
Chapter 6: Manning the Battle Stations
Where circuses might be left to the publicity division, the daily bread was baked in the GIS news room, which from the outset has remained the powerhouse driving the entire department. "News equals information," as one news room incumbent put it. "The rest is just icing on the cake."
Geared to instantly transmit press releases by teleprinter (nowadays through a computerised newswire service and on the Internet), or dispense them through an ever-growing array of dedicated press boxes for local and overseas media, the news room has long been the department's 'perpetual flame'.
A 24-hour vigil, manned on a 12-hour shift basis, has kept this unsleeping nerve centre alert to the possibility of suddenly and inconveniently breaking news that must be communicated, at any hour of the day or night, to those with a need to know.
Crisis always brought out the best in the news room, as was the case in April 1962 when, without warning, thousands of people began pouring across the border from the Mainland. By the end of May, more than 60 000 were apprehended and returned, in an operation which taxed police and military patrols to the limit of their endurance.
The eventual estimate was that the numbers who evaded capture, to swell an already burgeoning populace, probably exceeded those who were caught. Information officers worked alongside security forces and immigration officials, whose own department had only come into formal existence the previous year, to report on the phenomenon and raise the alarm regarding its potential consequences.
As the Colonial Secretary was later to state in a policy speech: "Nothing could wreck both our plans and our achievements more rapidly or certainly than a further flood of immigrants."
No one relished crisis more than long-standing news room supremo David Willis, who was never happier than when winds were rising, rain clouds gathering and barometers dropping to herald another typhoon.
Out would come movable blackboards, with chalk at the ready to record incidents, evacuations and casualties. Out would go instructions as to which shift would be manning the desks in relays around the clock until all signals were lowered and Willis would reluctantly put himself to bed. If he snatched any sleep at all before the storm abated it would be on a camp cot near to the phones, with instructions to be awoken if anything singular occurred.
This emergency footing met its severest test when Typhoon Wanda swept through Hong Kong on the weekend of September 1-2, 1962. It was the worst typhoon since 1937 and killed 138 people. A further 34 were missing, presumed dead, two tugs sank, with the loss of their 39 crew members, 75 000 people were made homeless and 20 vessels of more than 100 000 tonnes were driven ashore. Sha Tin experienced a three-metre tidal wave which flooded the town - then at the head of a long inlet from Tolo Harbour - more efficiently than technology could later devise for The Magic Stone.
The news section operated on an emergency basis for three days. Its teleprinter transmitter ran non-stop for 36 hours, sending out weather reports and forecasts, situation reports, warnings and news of the damage. The pace was so hot that the printer head had to be replaced.
Perhaps the worst year for the sheer number and intensity of direct hits and near misses was 1964, when five typhoons struck and five others came close enough to trigger warnings. The five that hit Hong Kong waters with gale force winds and more did the greatest damage. Local storm signals were hoisted for a record of 570 hours that year, equivalent to some 24 days.
Although they brought relief from a desperate water shortage, which had restricted supply to only four hours every fourth day, the storms did so in such abundance that streets and cars were left buried in mud sweeping down from the hillsides. The season began early, with a visit from Typhoon Viola in May. Next came Winnie, succeeded by Ida, which killed five in an avalanche of mud, followed by Ruby, which left 38 people dead, six missing and 1,336 squatter huts together with 400 fishing boats damaged or destroyed.
Then came Sally, which killed another nine with a dislodged boulder at Shau Kei Wan, just ahead of Tilda, which hung around close enough to keep signals raised for a record 161 hours. Next were Anita, Billie, Clara and finally Dot, whose centre passed 20 miles east of the Royal Observatory as late as October 13.
The GIS summary of these extraordinary events, in the 1964 year book, is restricted to the following comment: "In a severe storm, when movement for the public, and even for reporters, may be difficult, the department's direct links with police stations, fire stations, hospitals and other key points provides a steady flow of news which might otherwise not be available."
No mention is made of the difficulty GIS staff might have experienced in their own movement, but then that was ever the case. If there was a chance you couldn't get to your shift on foot or in a taxi you'd better be there well before such obstacles might arise; failing which Willis could always send the duty van for you, with its windshield protected by wire mesh against falling trees and flying debris.
Even in the quietest of times, there was never a moment when the news room was left unmanned. In this respect it has maintained the same record of round-the-clock service as hospitals and emergency services. Somebody has to be there to stand guard for incoming missiles in the way of press agency reports that might have sufficient bearing on Hong Kong affairs to warrant a rapid response.
In the course of 1958, just a year before PRO Jock Murray became DIS, the Daily Information Bulletin (DIB), distributed to all newspapers, foreign news agencies and correspondents, totalled between 2,500 to 3,000 items. By 1964 that output had doubled to more than 600 items per month, or 7,200 in all - and that was without counting the typhoon bulletins. By then the DIB, as it came to be known, was going out in English and Chinese to more than 100 recipients, while the teleprinter service reached 31 subscribers, who were fed instant reportage in order to meet publishing deadlines.
Murray persuaded the government it was in their best interests to bear the costs of installing teleprinter links in the offices of those newspapers and press services which agreed to accept them. But it was to be a long, hard battle persuading subscribers that what they received through these channels was not propaganda but information, pure and simple, without embroidery and without editorial comment. For years the GIS teleprinter installed in the Hongkong Standard newsroom bore a label describing it simply as 'The Enemy'. Kevin Sinclair, who merits a stack of files all to himself in the GIS newsroom for his many requests of - and complaints - to the department noted early on in his long and colourful Hong Kong journalistic career that GIS stood for “God Is Speaking”.
Alongside Willis in the newsroom was Bob Sun, who had joined the department in 1957 as an Assistant Press Officer, equivalent to an AIO, and rose through the ranks to become the first 'home grown' Director (1980 to 1983). Sun was also the first information officer to receive overseas assignments. He recalls taking a team of local craftsmen to give demonstrations at the Ideal Home Exhibition in London: "Most of those people did not speak much English and would follow me around. Pushing through a crowd, I would normally say: ‘Excuse me. Excuse me.’ One ivory carver attempted to follow my example but did not hear me clearly. To a group of ladies standing in his way, he politely said: ‘Kiss me. Kiss me.’ Wondering why they gave him a strange look, he asked me for an explanation, which he thought funny enough to relate to his friends back in Hong Kong.”
Sun accompanied Bill Fish across the border to Shenzhen in 1964 to witness the signing of the original water supply agreement. The actual signing ceremony - a major historical event - was completed in a matter of minutes, but the Hong Kong delegation spent the rest of the day being wined and dined at a sumptuous eight-course dinner.
Sun remembers: "The wide variety of Chinese liquor served created the deepest impression on those present. Hong Kong guests included editors of the Ta Kung Pao, Wen Wei Pao, New Evening Post and Xinhua News Agency with all of whom I was well acquainted. The spirits provided by the hospitable hosts ranged from mao tai and kao liang to ta chueh and wu chia pi. There was indeed a great deal of drinking that evening.
"When I returned to the office, it was about 9.30pm. I learned that by 9pm, the local press had become fidgety for news about the water agreement. Because the delegation had not returned after an early morning departure, it was suspected something had gone awry. The managing editor of the Sing Tao Jih Pao, the late Cheng Yu-long, telephoned my house and said to my wife: ‘Vivian, I think Bob has been detained. He's not likely to be coming back tonight.’ She of course did not believe him and countered it was a preposterous speculation. Before such a rumour could gain momentum, an official press release on the agreement appeared on the teleprinter.”
Chapter 7: Defending the North House
On June 8, 1963 the Information Services Department moved from the Government Offices West Wing into newly-built Beaconsfield House at No 4, Queen's Road, Central, which was to remain its home for almost 33 years.
The move followed closely on the heels of Jock Murray's succession by Nigel Watt, who was appointed DIS on April 11, 1963. Relocation to Beaconsfield House inevitably meant a major upheaval for a total staff which still numbered less than 100.
The site of the new home was originally a steep slope from a rocky hill to the shore of Victoria Harbour - which lay generally within metres of Queens Road. In 1841, Hong Kong's Deputy Superintendent of Trade and acting administrator, Alexander Johnston, levelled the top of the hill to build a home. The slope below was cut away to provide space for stables and outbuildings. The rock and earth were used for reclamation.
The new Beaconsfield House, its Cantonese name Gung Bak Hong (Defend the North House), beckoned when ISD outgrew its quarters in the Government Offices West Wing. But the department was at first allowed only the two top floors of the ugly and utilitarian six-storey structure. The lower floors housed three service messes, a post office and a public toilet.
Into the two floors allocated to ISD were decanted a news room, press conference room, Chinese translators' office, teleprinter service, photographic studio and darkroom, art studio, editorial section, film unit and two theatres for the censorship of commercial feature films, which then also fell within the purview of the DIS. Also shoehorned into this already constricted layout were a publications distribution office, administrative office and various secretarial desks.
The entire building was serviced, at one end only, by a single lift which was sorely overburdened, particularly at lunchtime, by various members of the public seeking relatively cheap meals in one or other of the messes catering - no questions asked - to their demands.
Despite various unsuccessful attempts to provide separate access for tradesmen, senior government officials and visiting politicians, arriving for a press conference, would frequently find themselves crowded into a corner of the lift by delivery boys with bloodstained tunics, bearing baskets and trays of raw meat.
From the rear of the fourth floor's western extremity a narrow bridge linked Beaconsfield House with Battery Path, alongside the French Mission Building (which at one stage housed a wing of ISD and is now the Court of Final Appeal), and this too became congested with pedestrian traffic when the noontide rivers of civil servants flowed down from the heights above.
Competition for parking spaces, lining vehicular access via the Central Government Offices from Lower Albert Road, grew so fierce that staff cars occasionally spilled into the precincts of St John's Cathedral. Returning to the vehicle he had left in the church grounds, one information officer found a message slipped under his windscreen wiper warning that 'God will strike you dead for this'.