Chapter 8: The War of the Louder Speakers
Government's traditional non-interventionist stance - except at the behest of big business - had created a climate rich in commercial opportunity but uncongenial to labour relations. Even so it was apparent, from a sequence of events in the early months of 1967, that at least some genuine industrial disputes were being exploited for political gain. Taking their cue from the Cultural Revolution sweeping across China, local dissidents inflamed grievances in key sectors of Hong Kong industry, producing an atmosphere of mounting tension and concern.
Prime targets for their intervention were four taxi companies, a textile factory, a cement company and the Hong Kong Artificial Flower Works. The Hong Kong Seamen's Union was simultaneously engaged in a dispute with a shipping company and an official boycott of the Government Seamen's Recruiting Office. In each case identical tactics were employed. Workers were intimidated, and attempts to settle their complaints were frustrated by the injection of political issues that had not been their original concern.
Lists of demands requiring 'unconditional' acceptance were followed by rowdy demonstrations designed to intimidate management. Offers of mediation by the Labour Department were rejected as 'unwelcome meddling'. At least one press photographer was attacked for photographing such a demonstration.
On May 6, 1967 some 21 dismissed workers of the Artificial Flower Works in San Po Kong were arrested by police for ignoring repeated warnings and preventing the removal of goods from the premises. Reaction in the left-wing press was immediate. The government and police were accused of persecution and brutality.
Further picketing and demonstrations at the San Po Kong factory culminated in a more serious clash with police on May 11, sparking a riot which spread to neighbouring areas of Kowloon, where buses and other vehicles were set on fire and government offices and staff quarters were looted. A curfew was imposed on that and the two following nights.
The campaign of intimidation spread to Hong Kong Island. Delegations from branches of Mainland-owned department stores, from left-wing publications and from trade unions - most identically attired in white shirts and black trousers - converged at the gates of Government House, waving the little red books so conspicuous among the Red Guards in China.
Powerful loudspeakers, mounted on the Bank of China building, broadcast propaganda at high volume and provoked the government into responding by mounting a battery of even louder speakers on the roof of Beaconsfield House, directly above the DIS' office, playing the contemporary equivalent of today's Canto-pop music at deafening decibels. Working conditions in the heart of Hong Kong's business and banking centre became all but intolerable; but nowhere more so than in ISD.
Bob Sun recalls: "There was rioting in Kowloon and the government had to order a curfew. A command centre under Assistant Commissioner Sutcliffe was set up at the Kowloon Police Headquarters. As the GIS Press Officer, I moved to the Police command centre for my news operations. Latest information was released via teleprinter back to ISD for forwarding to the media.
"In the middle of the evening, Sutcliffe decided to send out a Police squad to reconnoitre. Superintendent Godber (later of corruption notoriety) was ordered to lead the party. He went into the armoury to get his gun. However, he openly admitted he had not carried one for such a long time that he would not know how to handle it. I went along with them.
"It was pretty quiet everywhere we patrolled, except when we reached Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui. No sooner than I got out from the Police vehicle, down came a rattan chair from an upper storey. It landed squarely to my right. As my reflex made me dodge to the left, a bottle filled with water nearly nicked my head. It popped beside me. If either of them had been a direct hit, it could have been fatal.
"Back at the command centre, it was 4am. A voice came over the speaker. It was Henry Heath, the Police Commissioner, speaking from Arsenal Street. He said: 'Ask Bob Sun to go to Yau Ma Tei (police division) to read the riot act to the four correspondents of CBS, Time and NBC. Then escort them to the Star Ferry concourse to await the first ferry back to the Island.' We did not have to wait long for the ferry service to resume. That was the very first time in my life I crossed the harbour at the crack of dawn."
Michael Stevenson, then Deputy Director of Information Services, formed a special team to respond to the propaganda programme mounted by the dissidents. Their prime objective was to preserve the morale of the community and to win public support for the measures government was compelled to impose in order to maintain security.
In July 1967 a mob attack on a police post and the Rural Committee Office at Sha Tau Kok, left five Police dead and 11 wounded. Control of the sensitive border area shifted under the umbrella of joint police-military operations and Peter Moss, Gerry Xavier and photographer Gatlin Lin were attached as the GIS contingent to the so-called PolMil headquarters at Sek Kong.
Irene Yau, then an Executive Officer on secondment to GIS, recalls: "I spent the first part of the morning reading out the Chinese papers in the English language in a very dark, smoky room, to a group of gentlemen who included Jack Cater, Mike Stevenson, Bob Locking and some army officers in uniform. They were a pretty high powered lot.
"I joined government as a housing assistant, and then got into the Executive Officer grade. At the height of the disturbances I was posted to GIS, where I remained. One morning I saw a curly, blond guy in the group, and learned he was David Ford. Later the group was joined by a moustachioed gentlemen with a monacle and a long cigarette holder, whose name was John Slimming."
Chapter 9: Hearts, Minds and Mobile Cinemas
The events of 1967 - just 30 years before expiry of the New Territories lease - led to some stocktaking, both by government and the public at large. If it achieved nothing else, that troubled period forced Hong Kong people to re-evaluate their relationship to their chosen place of residence.
Until then, many had looked upon Hong Kong as a temporary transit centre in their as yet unfocused search for a more durable home. Now they began to examine more attentively what this temporary refuge had to offer. Its benefits became more tangible, its amenities more compelling.
If a territory so small, so vulnerable and yet so well suited to their expectations could be placed so precipitously at risk, perhaps there were ways in which its securities could be better reinforced. A closer inspection of its mechanisms seemed in order. The administration, stirred out of complacency, reacted by positively inviting and encouraging this public examination. The opportunity arose for establishing a closer working relationship between government and governed.
To enhance public participation in public affairs, the government began to seek advice on its various policies by appointing committees, the members of which included those with established expertise or familiarities in appropriate fields. By 1980, more than 150 advisory bodies had been established, forming a comprehensive network through which to sieve policy initiatives and legislative proposals.
Government by consensus became the catchword of the new order and bridges of communication were the construction task allocated to its newly-established wing of public relations in ISD. And among the newest of the 'bridge engineers' was Tony Clark, transferred to the department as Senior Information Officer.
"I had worked in the New Territories Administration since my arrival in Hong Kong," recalls Clark, "and survived the riots, despite being tear gassed - by the police as it happened, though you couldn't blame them, since they were merely trying to clear assembled protestors from the steps of the south Kowloon magistracy next door to my non-air-conditioned, windows-open-in-all-weather office.
"In 1967 - and through beyond 1968 - I was District Secretary in District Office (South). Which meant, in those days, that I ran the office administration, the local publics works programme, liaison with the military and so on. Three 'good ideas' were advanced as to how we could bring impartial news to the remote areas:
There would be a free newspaper delivered from the sky by the RHKAAF;
An Army Information Team (AIT) would be set up to show entertainment and news films in remote villages; and
The military would mount joint 'hearts-and-minds' village patrols with the Police and the District Office.
"I was the link at the District Office for all three of these operations once they became established. My task was to report back villagers' complaints about bundles of air-dropped newsprint drilling great holes in the roofs of village houses. I presumed that GIS would pick up the tab for all this.
"I was much more directly involved with the tasking and deployment of the AIT and the PolMil patrols. So much so that, when the time came for the army to withdraw, I was asked whether I would like to seek a transfer to ISD, as a Senior Information Officer, to get the new 'CIT' up and running.
"I had, by then, left the outdoor life of the District Office and was the Secretary of the Government's Central Tender Board - an immensely boring job, and the first of many posts I was later to occupy in the Colonial (later 'Government') Secretariat. One of my first tasks, incidentally, was to open the tenders for the extension of the runway at Kai Tak.
"The Government system - then, as now - doesn't usually allow for individuals simply to move from one grade to another. I was asked to respond to an advert that would eventually be published in the South China Morning Post - I then had to compete with whomever also responded. In the event, there were, I recall, two candidates, including myself. I always like to feel that although I knew the chairman of the interview board (Nigel Watt) and the Secretary (John Telford) such acquaintance had nothing to do with my selection!
"Getting selected and getting appointed are two different things. I recall two hurdles - the Head of the Executive Grade called me up and asked if I really knew what I was doing. How dare I leave such a thriving family of friendly people for all those strange guys in GIS. In any case, he didn't know when he could release me - and it was not until some months later that he did.
“The other hurdle came from GIS itself. Dick Norman was the Assistant Director in charge of personnel. I had set him a problem. I was on the permanent establishment of the Hong Kong Government. All other expats in GIS were on contract. Would I resign from the Hong Kong Government so I could be reappointed on the same terms as all the rest? Not likely was the answer. More delay. But the day eventually came when I was released and reported to my new boss, John Slimming, CIO/PRD, in Sutherland House, just across the Hong Kong Cricket Club ground from GIS headquarters in Beaconsfield House.
"At least the time had not all been wasted - John Telford had asked me what equipment would be required. I told him - two Land Rovers, film projectors, mobile generators and the rest of it. I even had an office - in the spanking new Canton Road Government Offices in Kowloon - much more convenient for travel to the NT; and very handy for the Government Dockyard which provided all our marine transport to the outlying islands."
Back at Sutherland House, Irene Yau (herself destined, some years later to become DIS) had joined Slimming's team, having transferred from the executive to the information grade to continue the vital task of analysing, and abbreviating in a nutshell, what the Chinese media had to say in response to, or in the absence of, various government initiatives.
Irene had proved her mastery of the art of appearing cool and unruffled in the most daunting of circumstances, when she presented a daily condensation of media highlights to a panel of luminaries back in that 'dark, smoky room' in Beaconsfield House.
Out of such Herculean efforts in rapid digestion of voluminous headlines arose GIST and, later the Daily Media Summary which, ever since, have been in great demand both among heads of department and - when they can get their hands on it - the media at large.
Chapter 10: Bounding into the '70s
To reward the beginnings of a new sense of community in its citizens, the government launched, in December 1969, the first Festival of Hong Kong, with a crowded week of programmes including musical and sporting events, exhibitions, youth rallies and special displays.
Succeeding Roy Wraight as ISD's new Art Director, Arthur Hacker arrived just in time to design the Festival logo. He found he had inherited an office manned by the charming veteran designer David Chin and a solitary assistant.
Like some prophetic precursor of the flag designed many years later for the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong, the Festival logo's spiralling orange and white radials suggested a 'bright, bouncing ball incorporating the Hong Kong orchid in the centre, representing 'the progressive and resilient spirit of the community'.
Fittingly, the festival took place on the eve of Hong Kong's most progressive and resilient decade, when both the place and its populace finally came of age. With the arrival of the '70s, the people of Hong Kong began to reap the benefits of their industry. Improved labour legislation, combined with increased competition for a workforce that had earned the right to choose from a range of available options, ushered in new affluence and greater self-assurance.
This was also the age of the emergent middle class, at first narrowly parting and then laying massive and unmistakable claim to the gap between rich and poor. These became the exemplars of Hong Kong society, the extensive middle ground of new money from which arose a younger breed of entrepreneurs, if anything more adventurous and confident than their predecessors.
Fittingly, the '70s was also an era of rapid localisation within the civil service, as reflected in the recruitment policies of ISD. Since 1972, there have been only two expatriates, as opposed to seven locals, appointed to occupy the post of DIS, and none since the untimely death of John Slimming in 1979.
Hong Kong started taking off in new directions, its products acquiring greater flair and style, setting trends rather than following them. Fortunes were made and unmade by riding this formidable engine of enterprise. Risk-taking sometimes went disastrously wrong, but the impetus was ever upward and onward, and those who fell momentarily by the wayside simply had to run harder to catch up.
Government's efforts to assist industry in its quest for wider trade opportunities had their origins in the previous decade, when the Trade Development Council and the Hong Kong Productivity Council were founded in quick succession, in 1966 and 1967 respectively. But Bob Sun can remember even earlier forays into prospective new markets overseas. His trip to London for the Ideal Home Exhibition was not his first exposure to the milieu of the international trade fair.
The previous year, Jock Murray had assigned him to assist the Commerce and Industry Department in the month-long First International Trade Fair in Nigeria. "He gave me specific instructions to learn the management of such a display, in preparation for the forthcoming one in England," Sun recalls. Bill Fish was another ISD staffer loaned for the purpose of promoting Hong Kong's presence at such venues, and was regularly detached to assist the TDC in its initial ventures on to the world stage.
It was left to Murray's successor, Nigel Watt, to take on the task of preparing what was to be Hong Kong's first participation in the series of category one world Expos staged, every four years, with elaborate expense and ceremony in major cities around the globe, many of which compete vigorously for the honour of hosting these events.
In 1970 the honour fell to Osaka, in Japan, and Watt recruited Grahame Blundell as co-ordinator of the Hong Kong pavilion. Arriving two years early, to keep within the long lead time required for so elaborate a venture, Blundell commissioned the late Allen Fitch, architect of Hong Kong's City Hall, to design the structure. Fitch came up with a low profile building spectacularly crowned by a flotilla of full-sized masts and junk sails, designed to be raised and lowered each day and to rotate with the prevailing winds. The fabric for the sails was a fine mesh to let the air through and protect them from sudden gusts.
Blundell recalls: "Over nine million visitors from all over the world trooped through the pavilion. Prince Charles was perhaps the most important visitor. He was followed by three Kings, two Crown Princes and various Presidents and lots of ambassadors. The VIP room in the pavilion was rather small and there was always a shortage of chairs. Frequently, distinguished guests sat on the floor having enjoyed a superb Chinese meal in the pavilion restaurant. They sat on the floor in the VIP lounge enjoying good conversation, champagne and brandy. The parties were great and frequently quite boisterous!"
It would be 16 years before Hong Kong next participated in a major international exposition (Expo '86 in Vancouver), but the pavilion at Expo '70 marked a significant escalation of Hong Kong's efforts to earn wider recognition for its spectacular post-war achievements, and set the tone for its engagement in a succession of other events in the international arena.
Initially - and inevitably in view of its status as a British colony - the bulk of this endeavour went into arranging venues and showcases in Britain, where attendance at trade fairs, arts festivals and events such as the International Boat Show became almost an annual exercise. But increasingly, as Hong Kong gained respect and renown as a self-supporting entity making its own way in the world, these efforts were directed wider afield, in Europe, the Americas and Asia.
Chapter 11: Jacks - and Jills - of all Trades
Among the first GIS officers to prove the adaptability of the grade, by leaving the parent department on secondment to other arms of the civil service, were Jimmy Evans and Joseph Cheng, assigned respectively to information liaison posts in the Hong Kong Government Office in London and in Police Headquarters.
Irene Yau, by then a Senior Information Officer in the Inquiry Service, became another early 'lone scout' on detachment when she was posted to the Social Welfare Department. "Those were hectic days," she recalls. "I was the only one there, and there were lots of fires in squatter areas, which meant I was called out practically every other night, helping to deal with hundreds of people made homeless. I learnt early on to sleep by the telephone."
At the beginning of 1979, she was transferred to the Police as Chief Police Information Officer. "I can't recall whether it was the first or the second day I joined the Police, but we had two things running at the same time. One was an unprecedented protest in the yard of Arsenal Street Police Headquarters, when hundreds of Police officers were demonstrating against the ICAC. That was before Governor MacLehose declared the amnesty.
"At the same time there was a big hijacking incident at the airport. It was a bit stressful, but great fun.
"I was very, very lucky that the Police trusted me, and counted on my advice. We worked very well together. We just hit on the right note I guess. And the experience I gained there, in handling crisis events, was extremely helpful to me when I later returned to GIS. I learned from them how useful it was to have clear operational orders, and how important it was to have the discipline to carry them out.
"There are lots of activities in GIS which are quite similar in their logistical requirements, particularly in organising big events. You have to be very methodical, and disciplined, in planning the detail and preparing for any eventuality.
"The contacts I made in the Police remained valuable to me throughout the rest of my career, especially when we required Police co-operation in mapping out the route for a VIP tour or any other occasion where senior government officials or visiting dignitaries might attract the attention of the media. I believe it was useful to the Police too. They had somebody whom they trusted, talking to them about the media whom they disliked.
"I have also been very lucky in receiving tremendous support from colleagues I worked with. I had the good fortune to be blessed with good teamwork and to benefit from a tremendous team spirit. Those I worked with remained loyal to me, and have proved their abilities in many other testing roles since - people like Akber Khan, Julianna Chen and S Y Tam.
"In all my years in GIS the most significant development was the rapid expansion of the department. When I first joined, the department was still a small, family-scale operation. It has since expanded I don't know how many times.
"It becomes a very different operation to control when your people are not working together under one roof but spread all over the different departments of government - even all over the world, as is now the case. It requires tremendously complex decision making when you have to decide who to send where, because you are in fact looking for jacks of all trades who are masters of everything."
Chapter 12: A Mini United Nations
Betty Shum arrived in ISD at the point where it was just beginning to take on some of these new initiatives. "I joined," she recalls, "in late 1968 when it was a small news-oriented organisation staffed mainly by ex-journalists. I was among the first few female university graduates without any journalistic experience to be recruited as an Assistant Information Officer. Being my second job after leaving the campus, little had I expected it to become my life-long career. But I ended up spending 28 years in the department!
"It was a sunny December morning when I set foot on the sixth floor of Beaconsfield House for the first time. As I met my colleagues, among whom were David Willis, Osman Talip, Jimmy Evans, Johnny Khan, Gerry Xavier, Tommy Hahn and Jimmy Marshall, I thought I had mistakenly walked into the Office of the United Nations!
"Later, the multi-racial and international flavour of the department became even stronger with the arrival of newcomers like Carlos Digmanese, Alberto de Cruz, Harold Yau, Lionel Rodrigues, Bushi Ratour, Vinki Sharma, Ramachandran, Halima Gutteres, Jo Tashiro and Akber Khan to name a few. Their ethnic origins ranged from Pakistan, India, Malaysia, Korea and Japan to Spain, Portugal and Holland. Added to the list were their Chinese, British, Australian, New Zealand and American counterparts. It would not be an over-statement to say that the department was made up of people from four of the five continents.
"Another characteristic of the department in the old days was the high percentage of smokers. Ashtrays were everywhere and the newsroom was filled with the aroma (or odour if you dislike the smell of tobacco). As a non-smoker in those days, I used to watch in amazement how one or two heavy smokers would talk on the phone with the receiver being placed comfortably between head and shoulder, light up a cigarette and let it hang loosely between their lips, and bash away on their typewriters with two index fingers, all at the same time! It fascinated me to see their cigarettes getting shorter and shorter as the ash at the end grew longer and longer, desperately trying to cling to the butts against the force of gravity.
"My previous employment was in the academic field, where many fellow workers could be described as 'intellectual snobs'. The casual and lively atmosphere of GIS was a refreshing change and I fell in love with it at first sight. The compact and simple structure of the department held its staff together as a closely knit family. It must have been one of the least bureaucratic government departments there were. Our then Director, Nigel Watt wore long hair with sideburns, smoked a pipe, and travelled around on a motorbike. To me, he was certainly not the picture of a typical civil servant.
"David Willis, then assistant director, was also a character. Whenever a typhoon hit Hong Kong, he would show up in his shorts and sandals, jumping up and down with excitement like a little boy about to take part in a war game. On such occasions, one would find in the GIS theatre objects that one would not expect to see in a normal office environment. These included helmets, raincoats and boots prepared specially for officers who were required to cover outdoor incidents during the storm.
"There would even be canvas beds, blankets and mahjong tables! In those days, there was no MTR, and cross-harbour ferry services would be suspended, very often at short notice, when the gale force became too strong. To make sure that they could get to the office in time for their emergency duties, officers living in Kowloon or the New Territories would come in much earlier or even spend the night in the theatre. What better way was there to kill time than playing a few rounds of mahjong with ones colleagues while waiting to go on shift!
"Another colleague who still makes me giggle whenever I think of him is the one-time editor of the Chinese DIB, Hui Ying Ke. He had this habit of slapping his forehead while subbing our copy. I suppose our translations sometimes drove him up the wall, and in frustration, he would hit his head very hard with his palm, first from the front and then immediately from the back. 'To balance the blow' was the only reason I could think of. Watching him repeat this act throughout the day could be painful, and that was probably why our Chinese improved by leaps and bounds when we were working under him.
"I majored in English literature at university. But after I joined GIS, I discovered to my horror that I could not write, not even a simple three-paragraph press release on such topics as 'water cut', 'road closure' or 'buildings declared dangerous'.
“Training was non-existent in those days; you learned on the job through your mistakes. For months, which seemed to me years, every single draft I passed to the editor was thrown back in my face.
"All he said was 'Rewrite'. No guidance, no advice. Then one fine day my draft did not come back, and I actually found the press release in the next morning's DIB. But alas! It bore no resemblance whatsoever to what I had written. I think what happened was that the editor got so tired of repeating the word 'rewrite' that he decided to do it himself. As my writing was time and again torn into pieces, so was my self-confidence. I was about to embark on a job-hunting exercise when the long-awaited breakthrough came.
"One day, Osman Talip, then a PIO, assigned me to interview an officer in the Agriculture and Fisheries Department and write a feature article on fish marketing in Hong Kong. Eager and excited, I churned out a three-page story and handed it to Osman. Nothing happened for a long time. I said to myself, 'Uh oh, it's ended in the wastepaper basket again!' Then on a Saturday I found my story in the DIB, printed almost word for word! Overnight, I grew a few inches taller, only because I was able to walk with my head held up high.
"There was a time when new recruits were required to take turns to man the press enquiries desk on week-ends and public holidays, single-handedly. You were practically alone except for a few teleprinter operators. We were then unfamiliar with the personalities on the other end of the line, how and where to obtain the necessary information, or how much we were supposed to release to the press. Unlike nowadays there was no 'line to take' except in very rare cases.
"Moreover, there were no departmental units; GIS headquarters provided a one-stop service to the media. Whenever an incident occurred, the telephones would start ringing all at once. You hardly had time to take down one set of questions, not to mention getting the answers, before another set came in. And let's face it, some reporters could be really nasty, particularly when they discovered that you were new on the job. Every time I went home after a shift duty, I would suffer from stomach pain which, according to my doctor, was induced by stress and anxiety. The way we used to describe this experience among ourselves was: 'They dump you in the water. You either learn to swim right away or you drown.' Well, we all survived, and became pretty good swimmers too!
"Editors' briefings were at one time regularly held, almost once every fortnight if I remember correctly, in the Director's office after 5.30pm. Senior government officials were invited to conduct briefings on their respective subject areas, particularly those aspects that were controversial. The editors of Chinese papers in the '60s were mostly elderly veteran newsmen who spoke relatively little English, although I am sure they all had a good understanding of the language. The speakers, on the other hand, invariably used English as the medium of communication. So we, a group of inexperienced AIOs, were ordered to interpret on those occasions.
"Usually we would go in blind, without being told of the topic. It was not at all surprising that we would often get stuck over figures, jargon, and technical terms, or even get them wrong. Ironically, it was always one of the editors, Eddie Tsang of the Hong Kong Times, who came to our rescue! Those were the moments when I wished there was a hole in the ground so I could hide. The feeling of incompetence was bad enough. Worse still was the awareness that everyone there had spotted your mistakes but pretended not to have noticed. Worst of all was the realisation that your presence was totally unwarranted! We all uttered a sigh of relief when the practice was finally stopped. One good did come out of this farce though - we became very thick-skinned in the process, which helped us to deal with more awkward situations in later years.
"I guess, like first love, initial impressions and early experiences always make the strongest and most lasting impact. There have been more significant events in the latter part of my career, but somehow they seem comparatively dim and blurred. Looking back, it is the people with whom I have worked that form the best part of my memory. A unique personality trait, a peculiar mannerism, a characteristic laugh or a favourite expression. They always remind me of their owners, and I miss them, very very much."
Betty Shum was Assistant Director Public Relations before she retired in August 1997