Chapter 23: Trying to Read Tealeaves through Highly Discoloured Tea
The very success Hong Kong had achieved with its efforts to promote itself overseas came back to haunt it in the aftermath of the conclusion to the Sino-British negotiations. All its considerable achievements were now seen to be at risk in the years of 'countdown' to restoration of Chinese sovereignty.
Where cynical foreign media had once been at pains to undermine the magnitude of Hong Kong's accomplishment with stories of sweatshop labour, 'caged men' and the lack of organised labour, they now chose to emphasise its progress in order to illustrate how much it stood to lose. 'The great Chinese take-away' was typical of the facile phraseology they employed in allowing free rein to their forebodings.
Almost overnight, the task for ISD was no longer to say how well Hong Kong was doing but how well it could expect to continue doing after 1997. With little to go on other than the remarkable framework of the Sino-British agreement, the assurances given by China's leaders, the intrinsic belief that they stood by their word and Hong Kong's own past record of peaceful co-existence - through thick and thin - as next-door neighbour to the motherland, it was not an easy assignment.
Even if invested with clairvoyant powers, ISD veterans in the Overseas Public Relations Sub-division, including stalwarts such as Akber Khan and Mark Pinkstone, could hardly be expected to read tealeaves while they were still cooking in highly discoloured tea.
The more Hong Kong could demonstrate its increasing prosperity, the more it invited questions as to how long it would all last. Growing numbers of visiting correspondents were arriving, not as doctors examining a healthy patient but as undertakers measuring a coffin. Most had but one agenda, which was to portray Hong Kong as a fatted calf readied for the sacrificial altar.
It was decided that the time had come to reinforce Hong Kong's overseas representation, to extend its reach beyond superficially dismissive journalism in order to present the facts to those with the most need to know. Although the News and Public Affairs Division of the Hong Kong Government Office in London remained in close liaison with ISD, especially in the wake of increased interest on the part of UK politicians, the emphasis began to shift to other arenas, and particularly to the more recently established offices in Brussels and New York, both of which made their own calls on ISD staff.
The untimely death of Sir Edward Youde, on December 5, 1986, deprived Hong Kong of one of its most beloved governors and forced it to change horses in midstream. Sir Edward, who died, aged 62, at the British Embassy in Beijing, in the course of one of his frequent China visits, had hoped to see Hong Kong through the most difficult stages of the transition period, and would have been well qualified to do so. His role in the Sino-British negotiations had played no small part in securing the Joint Declaration.
Small and clerkish in appearance, with a disarmingly shy smile, Sir Edward possessed an astute intellect and a thorough understanding of the Chinese. The gentle despair of his public relations advisers in ISD, because he declined their image-building proposals to make him seem more visibly gubernatorial, he was nevertheless esteemed by the public as a tireless champion who literally risked his life in Hong Kong's cause.
Thousands of mourners streamed past his coffin in the hallway of Government House to pay their last respects prior to his funeral cortege. He was succeeded, after a brief interval when Sir David Akers-Jones held office as acting-governor, by Sir David Wilson, also from the Foreign Office, steeped in Chinese affairs and returning to Hong Kong after having served as political adviser to Youde's predecessor, Sir Murray MacLehose. Like Sir Murray, Sir David cut a stately figure in his formal attire, complete with plumed helmet.
Meanwhile, changes were also taking place in ISD, where Peter Tsao had been succeeded as DIS, on January 1, 1985, by Cheung Man-yee, who returned to RTHK as Director of Broadcasting the following year, when John Chan Cho-chak took her place. What had become a high-profile department, very much in the public eye, was seeing a rapid turnover in top management, as though its pressures were difficult to take.
Even John Chan remained at the helm for barely more than a year before handing over, on January 8, 1986, to Irene Yau. The first director since Bob Sun to have made it through the ranks of the information grade, Irene was to occupy the post right through the following decade, making her its longest-serving incumbent since the redoubtable Jock Murray left it some 23 years - and eight other directors - earlier.
Chapter 24: The Crucial Years
Irene Yau directed GIS through 11 of the most crucial years of Hong Kong's history. "They were very interesting and eventful years," she recalls, "and for me personally they were very challenging years that I thoroughly enjoyed. I had more fun than most other civil servants because I was always in the thick of things.
"I felt privileged to be present at so many major events, whether through contributing towards the planning, playing a role in the organisation of media arrangements or merely participating. And through my involvement, I believe my colleagues in GIS also enjoyed a more colourful life than they would have in other government careers.
"In the first years of my directorship I concentrated primarily on the local scene, but in later years I devoted much of my time to overseas promotion. I was involved with some pretty high-powered delegations to various parts of the world: America, Europe, Japan, Australia. We staged conferences, seminars, gala dinners; we took young Hong Kong talent along with us to present artistic performances.
"I travelled in America with people like Jackie Chan and Michelle Yeoh, who is now a Bond girl. We had a great time, but it was all for a good cause. The objective was to tell the world that Hong Kong had more than money; it had heart and soul and a love of culture. That helped to combat some of the negative press coverage Hong Kong was getting over its future prospects."
In the course of this tenure she was to dispel numerous rumours that she would be retiring to join her family in Vancouver, and survive major changes in the government's overall information apparatus, chief of which was the appointment by her former ISD boss and current Chief Secretary, Sir David Ford, of an Information Co-ordinator.
Instituted in 1989, the role of the Information Co-ordinator in the Chief Secretary's Office was described, in the 1990 Annual Report, as maintaining 'overall policy responsibility for the government's relations with the media, while the Information Services Department is the executive agency for implementing that policy'.
The post was in fact a logical development of Hong Kong's determination to improve its image overseas. The Information Co-ordinator's office was to maintain close contact with the government's overseas offices, and with consuls-general and commissioners of foreign countries in Hong Kong. Influential politicians, parliamentarians, government officials and businessmen from countries enjoying close relations with Hong Kong would be invited to visit the territory and see conditions for themselves.
Programmes of overseas speaking engagements for senior government officials and prominent local personalities would also be co-ordinated through this office, with suitable platforms arranged for them to speak on Hong Kong before specially targeted audiences. The whole operation went back to an expanded overseas Division under a Deputy Director in 1992.
And inevitably ISD's own reinforced OPRS personnel would contribute a major input to this extensive undertaking, preparing special information packages and brochures designed to appeal to those targeted audiences. A significant contribution to this input was a handsomely encased twin-volume publication entitled 'Hong Kong - Asia's Business Centre', produced in 1992 when Hong Kong hosted the 25th annual meeting of the Board of Governors of the Asian Development Bank.
Greater emphasis on overseas public relations also required reinforcement of the publicity posts attached to the burgeoning overseas offices. Paul Brown and John Chuan (now CIO in New York) were among a succession of officers to replace Kerry McGlynn in London. McGlynn was later seconded from ISD as Director of the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in New York, the only non-Administrative Officer to have headed an overseas office for the Hong Kong Government. George Yuen went to the Toronto Office as CIO, a post now held by Frank Chuan, brother of John.
By April 1999 there were 10 offices around the world where ISD staff were manning the PR front lines – New York, Washington, San Francisco, Toronto, Singapore, Sydney, Tokyo, Brussels and London and the most recent addition, Beijing.
Chapter 25: Gearing for the New Millenium
ISD had been born of a need for the administration to route its information output through a single authoritative channel. But by the late '80s and early '90s it was increasingly difficult for that channel to handle all the traffic. The administration had grown too large and disparate to speak with one voice. The system was becoming unmanageable.
The wonder was that Hong Kong's government had persevered so long, and so successfully, with a single department co-ordinating and managing all its public relations. Almost nowhere else in the world had an organisation of similar size and complexity soldiered on in this manner.
In the United Kingdom, the Central Office of Information had long been essentially decentralised, and now served only as a service agency for those departments wishing to avail themselves of its services - at rates competitive with what commercial PR agencies might quote. The United States model was a labyrinth of communication channels. Even in Singapore, perhaps the nearest reference point for comparison purposes, the different ministries each had their own information set-ups, often competing vigorously with one another for public attention.
Successive Directors of Information Services had fought tenaciously to retain the monolithic approach, arguing that proper co-ordination, consistency and a centralised pool of resources not only saved money but made sense. The counter-argument, derived from models overseas, was that it was still possible to draw on a centralised pool of resources without hampering the freedom of different sectors of government to speak for themselves.
Even the established protocol for information output through the information units operating in various departments required a review, now that the government was extending its policy branches at secretariat level to oversee all departmental activities. Policy secretaries each wanted their own information advisers, and their needs had become too diverse for one secretariat information unit to handle.
With the arrival of Hong Kong's last colonial governor, Chris Patten, the picture became still more confused. In his book The Last Governor, Jonathan Dimbleby quotes Patten as saying: “‘I'm going to have a spokesman for me here in Government House, just as Bernard Ingham was at Number Ten. Someone who can speak for me but can also make sure that the operation of the information service right across the departments is pulled together.’ The man he chose was an enigmatic and approachable government official on the GIS staff, Mike Hanson.”
Dimbleby was jumping the gun. Hanson was never on the ISD payroll, in fact he was on secondment from the British Government, although he had enjoyed a close working relationship with ISD since his earlier appointment as Information Co-ordinator in the Secretariat. However, his successor as Patten's spokesman was a GIS man - no less than Deputy Director Kerry McGlynn, who is described, later in Dimbleby's book, as professing himself 'gobsmacked' by a statement from Michael Heseltine, UK deputy prime minister visiting Hong Kong as president of the Board of Trade.
The word was a favourite of Patten's, and marked a departure from the established gubernatorial lexicon. However, in the best traditions of ISD, McGlynn had taken on some of the style, and the colour, of his new surroundings, proving that seasoned information officers are nothing if not adaptable.
The same was true of Irene Yau when she stepped down, after more than a decade at the helm of GIS, to spend the last five months before her retirement as PR advisor to Chief Executive-designate Tung Chee Hwa, in the lead-up to the Handover in 1997. Effectively this placed her on the opposite side of the fence from McGlynn, but both were sufficiently versatile to take this in their professional stride.
Irene looks back on those hectic months as her 'seven-eleven' period: "Seven am to eleven at night, seven days a week. There were only a handful of us. It was very busy, very fruitful and I wouldn't have missed it for the world. It was a bit like going into the opposition benches. We had little or no back-up. I had to proof read; something I hadn't done in years. We prepared our own press releases and publications, did everything ourselves."
The Government House operation had been even smaller - just McGlynn and Chief Information Officer Tse Cheung-hing, who had been despatched a little earlier to provide support for Mike Hanson. For the last couple of months of the transition, the team was reinforced by Paul Brown, on secondment from the Publishing Sub-division. Remembers McGlynn : “Before I took over from Mike Hanson for the last 2 years of Chris Patten’s governorship, I was the Deputy Information Co-ordinator in Anson Chan’s office, looking after the administration and acting as back up spokesman to Hanson. So I was close to, or at the centre of, the action for most of those final momentous years of British administration. An unforgettable experience and enormously hard work fielding phone calls from journalists at all hours of the day and night, 7 days a week, but hugely stimulating. I think I learned more about political PR in that period than I had in the rest of my career.”
Irene’s departure from ISD, just at the start of Hong Kong's new era as a Special Administrative Region, was not intentional but the result of a decision reached many years previously, when she opted for the new terms that would enable her to retire at 55. "I chose 55, and it so happened that I would reach that age in 1997."
She regrets leaving at a time when GIS was experiencing a problem of succession in the directorate. "I anticipated difficulties years before, because I saw that the directorate were all more or less of the same age. If some of us chose to retire at 55, we would be leaving at around the same time. That indeed did happen, but what made it worse was the fact that those I did not expect to retire early also chose that course.
"I expected George Yuen and Betty Shum, being more or less the same age, would retire at about the same time. Chris Wong was also due to go around that period. I did not anticipate that Akber Khan and Harold Yau would opt to leave as well. That created quite a problem, from which of course GIS has long recovered." Ironically, the only “survivor” from the old directorate is McGlynn, now a 25-year departmental veteran. Irene’s successor as DIS, Thomas Chan, moved quickly to fill the gaps with experienced professionals including Ella Tam, Juliana Chen, Mak Kwok-wah, Joe Yiu, S Y Tam and Alex Choi.
Thomas, who like his namesake predecessor John Chan, was also from the ranks of the administrative grade. However, he was coming to the position with a wealth of knowledge of how ISD functioned, derived from his days when he had served as Deputy Director under Irene. His particular strength was his ability to combine the related disciplines of information and information technology - an alliance that brought together both the message and the carrier.
To him fell the task of organising the enormous role the department would have to play in providing media facilities and press arrangements for the Handover ceremonies, when 6,500 media personnel collected accreditation badges to cover the various elements of the programme. The world had shown intense interest in Hong Kong in the months prior to the Handover, and live television coverage of the actual ceremonies was relayed around the planet. A world-class press and broadcasting centre - the largest and most complex ever established in Hong Kong - was set up in the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, managed by ISD staff from its opening on June 15 to its closure on July 9, 1997.
Much of the credit for the establishment of the media centre goes to the small planning team of information and executive officers in ISD (and later under the umbrella of the Handover Ceremony Co-ordination Office). The team was first headed by Akber Khan and when he retired, the difficult task fell to Ella Tam who was initially assisted by Jonathan Lange as CIO, the first information officer to be specifically recruited into the media centre planning unit when it was set up on April 1, 1996. A much larger team gradually built up to handle the accreditation process for the media ‘invasion’. In this task, Ella was helped by CIO, Daniel Sin. Following the Handover, Ella was transferred to the Chief Executive’s Office as Assistant Press Secretary. She has since become Deputy Information Co-ordinator with the reintroduction of the Information Co-ordinator post attached to the CE’s Office.
At the height of the Handover operations, more than 200 Information Officers and 100 Executive Officers and representatives of other grades provided support services for the various facilities made available to the international media.
The last years of colonial rule, in particular, could have proved a perilous time for ISD, when four decades of experienced information management were put to the test. Instead, they provided an opportunity to demonstrate the value of all that experience, when the department's most senior and promising personnel were elevated in rank and seconded to the new posts created at much higher levels of the expanding information hierarchy.
The fact that the greater part of this transition was achieved when Hong Kong was confronted by all the stresses and uncertainties of changing times, in the final countdown to reunification, is a credit both to the calibre of the information grade and to the quality of its officers. Many have gone on to vital posts in the quasi-public and private sectors; among them Kathleen Lau to Legco, Juliana Ma to Hong Kong Electric, Selina Lo to the Hospital Authority, June Tong at New World Telephone, Philip Bruce at the Airport Authority, George Yuen to the Better Hong Kong Foundation, Peter Randall to the Hong Kong Tourist Association and Irene Yau herself to KCRC along with Akber Khan, Raymond Wong and C. K. Yeung. And the inimitable Arthur Hacker remains one of the most readable contributors to the Hong Kong press. Other old GIS hands have made a mark internationally. Mark Pinkstone secured a globe-trotting job for a Malaysian conglomerate when he left the department and Barry Walsh, Ross Clarke and Richard Linning now run successful consultancies in Sydney, London and Brussels respectively.
The Hong Kong Annual Report 1957 carries two paragraphs describing the work of the Government Public Relations Office. Yet the second of those paragraphs speaks - even then - of the government's policy on information being under review. Who at that time could have foreseen that, in December 1995, ISD would launch a Government Home Page on the Internet (http://www.info.gov.hk), making it possible to directly access essential Hong Kong information on a Net-connected computer screen anywhere in the world? Or that digital technology would enable ISD to dispense with issuing photographic prints - except to those who still needed them - and instead digitise its picture output for direct incorporation into page lay-outs on any editor's desktop monitor?
This upgrading should have come with no surprise as Thomas Chan is one of the most technologically literate officers in the SARG. He created the first Hong Kong Government Home Page when he was Director of the San Francisco Office prior to his return to Hong Kong to take up the post of DIS on Irene Yau’s retirement.
Recognising the shift in media focus from Sino-British transition issues to domestic concerns, Thomas Chan also set about ensuring an accelerated expansion of the Secretariat Press Office teams under the supervision of two Assistant Directors, Juliana Chen and Mak Kwok-wah, so that the department’s professional expertise was on tap to the SARG’s policy - and news- makers. There are now 10 SPO teams serving 15 policy bureaux. The eventual aim is to cover them all.
Forty years later, the successor to that annual report, entitled Hong Kong - A New Era, summarises the multi-disciplined role of this ever more complex department, pointing out that ISD serves as the government's public relations consultant, publisher, advertising agent and news agency. All of which enables it to continue doing - albeit vastly more effectively - what it set out to do at its inception; namely, to provide the link between the administration and the media and, through the latter, enhance public understanding of government policies, decisions and activities.
Nobody who has worked in, or is even slightly familiar with, ISD will believe it can ever be content to rest on its laurels. It has spent the final years of a closing century gearing for the new Millenium.
As they say of breaking news in the media world:
Watch this space...
Directors of Information Services
Mr John Lawrence Murray 1.4.59 - 10.4.63 (PRO from 1.9.50-31.3.59)
Mr Nigel John Vale Watt 11.4.63 - 26.9.72
Mr David Robert Ford 27.9.72 - 4.1.76
Mr Richard Lai Ming 5.1.76 - 19.6.78
Mr John Desmond Slimming 20.6.78 - 3.7.79
Mr Bernard Renouf Johnston 9.7.79 - 31.12.79 (Acting DIS)
Mr Robert Strong Sun Yuan-chuang 1.1.80 - 31.1.83
Mr Peter Tsao Kwang-yung 1.2.83 - 31.12.84
Miss Cheung Man-yee 1.1.85 - 7.1.86
Mr John Chan Cho-chak 8.1.86 - 28.1.87
Mrs Irene Yau Lee Che-yun 29.1.87 - 11.3.97
Mr Thomas Chan Chun-yuen 12.3.97 -