A bad reporter on a bad newspaper

Working at the South China Morning Post

Finding a job in Hong Kong wasn't difficult. Within a few weeks, I had landed a steady gig at the South China Morning Post.

There are publications people read, and there are publications people carry under their arm and put on their coffee tables to show others.

The South China Morning Post was one of the latter, which in our case was good, since it was mostly unreadable. But it was one of the highest-circulation newspapers in Hong Kong in 1987, in part because local Chinese liked to be seen with it.

Carrying around a newspaper in English showed anyone in view how well-educated and international they were, certainly better than the mainland Chinese types flooding the city and selling noodles from carts.

Also, due to a quirk in the British-run education system, there were a lot of local Chinese who could read and write only English, and speak only Chinese.

Computer technology, circa 1988. At the Post.




It was largely unreadable newspaper because it was put together by second-rate foreigners and Chinese writing in second-hand English.

It wrote about things that were important but that no one cared about - like the construction of a new sewerage infrastructure - and things that a few people cared about but were certainly not important, like British discontent with local tailors. All in all, just nothing worth reading.

At the time, the South China Morning Post was owned by Rupert Murdoch, who inexplicably failed to give it famous appeal of his tabloids. Perhaps he didn't see any reason to tamper with success. The Post was most profitable newspaper in the world at that time, due a huge amount of job and real estate ads.

But make no mistake about it, it was a pretty bad paper. I worked for it, and when I did I was a pretty bad journalist.


I was first hired for the South China Morning Post's Young Post section, distributed five days a week to the local schools. My idea was to get my foot in the door, then move to the daily paper.

So I spent my workdays covering school assemblies and sports days and interviewing publicity-seeking Chinese teen idols, and my free days working as an unpaid reporter on the city beat.

This was fine with me: I had plenty of time, and I was young enough and eager enough that even the most routine assignments were exciting.

Schoolteachers' press conference, check. Airport arrival of victorious local sports team, check. Possible pilot's strike, check. Screamed at on the phone by pilot insulted by a previous Post story, check.

On assignment for Young Post.


When I did end up on a big story, it was by accident.

One Sunday night when I was on duty, we got a call about a horrid accident at the Royal Hospital. A British woman was being operated on for a foot ailment, and while the surgeons were concentrating on her foot, they neglected to notice that her face had turned blue. For some reason she had been given nitrogen during the operation instead of oxygen.

I weasled my way into the hospital and, taking advantage of the still extraordinary Chinese deference to white people of all ages, pretended I was a friend of the family and persuaded the surgeon to tell me what was going on. The lady was brain dead. It later emerged that a vengeful employee of the hospital supply company had intentionally put nitrogen in an oxygen tank.

We got the story, and we got it way ahead of the competition, but I felt pretty lousy.

Next: Things go downhill, journalistically

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