Every morning I spend about an hour trying to read the Chinese newspapers. Well, okay, not all of them–Hong Kong has something like 15 or 16 Chinese-language dailies. Plus two English language papers. And then there are the five or six weekly tabloid magazines (jau hon). It’s funny. Back in the U.S., all the newspaper editors and pundits are moaning and wringing their hands about the Death of Print Journalism. They should grab a seat on the next 777 bound for Asia’s Ink-Stained World City, where print lives. Where, in fact, newspapers rule.
Did I say “read the Chinese papers?” I am stretching here. I’m not that accomplished yet. What I do is skim the headlines, look for the juciest articles, then slowly, character by Chinese character, work my way through a couple of them. Learning to read Cantonese newspapers (like the prolific columns of Leih Baat Fong) is heavy lifting. I’m lucky to have a few buddies, current and ex-reporters for the Chinese press, to help teach me local journalism’s conventional lingo, and to guide me through the thicket of “real” Chinese (written Chinese language) Cantonese characters, slang, and transcription of vernacular Cantonese speech.
(Speaking of Leih Baat Fong. The other night I had dinner with some of those journalists, and I mentioned to Ah Hing, an editor, that I’d written something about the amazing Mr. Leih. He laughed, then delivered the blow I’d feared. “There is no Mr. Leih. Leih Baat Fong is a pen name for a team of Apple Daily reporters.” )
Upsetting news indeed, but nowhere near as upsetting as what I saw in the papers this morning. I’m having a newspaper-fest over Sunday brunch in the Foreign Correspondent’s Club, which stocks six or seven Chinese dailies on the member’s reading rack. I’d just worked my way through an Apple Daily article about which cha chaan teng in Wan Chai’s Spring Garden Street has the tastiest lo seui duck tongues on the menu. (Note to non-Chinese reading Western friends: Good luck finding such useful info in the culinary pages of the South China Morning Post!).
And now, I’m flipping idly through Wen Wei Po, when suddenly I spot a shocking headline:
Leung Kwok Hung On Trial
Sticks Finger Inside Little Girl’s Body
My god! How can this be? It’s true that Leung was just in court–he and a group of protesters recently won their appeal in High Court against a conviction for blocking the Eastern Harbour Tunnel in 2005 during a demonstration against the toll raise. But how could…
Then I read the small print. The “Leung Kwok Hung” accused of molesting his neighbor’s little daughter is a 49 year old electrical technician who, coincidentally, has exactly the same Chinese character name as a certain 50 year old longhaired anti-Beijing Legislative Council member.
I read on (which, I imagine, the paper’s editors reckon only a handful of the folks browsing the pages over morning tea and cha siu bao are going to do). This is a tabloid-y story, but a very, very minor one. So minor, in fact, that a quick online search reveals that only one other Hong Kong daily paper has bothered to cover it, again with the name “Leung Kwok Hung” prominently in its headline. And that newspaper happens to be another staunchly pro-Beijing outlet, Sing Tao.
The Hong Kong Chinese press can be smarmy and cutthroat, indeed. That is why to read the papers here, you don’t just have to master Chinese, Cantonese characters, local vernacular, and the conventions of journalistic writing. You also have to understand the political subtexts, and learn another set of characters–the personalities behind each of the dozen major newspapers.
You need to know, for instance, that Wen Wei Po is the official organ in Hong Kong of the Chinese Communist Party. As far as this paper’s concerned, Longhair is a combination of Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong-Il. Actually, they probably like Kim better; unlike Longhair, the North Korean despot is welcomed as a guest by the party leaders in mainland China. Anyway Wen Wei Po will go out of its way to print nasty stuff about Leung Kwok Hung–and, it seems, his unfortunate doppelgangers.
Sing Tao isn’t an official party organ, but they are very pro-Beijing. Likewise the working class sheet Tai Kung Po. On the other side of the political spectrum is the pro-democracy Apple Daily (in Cantonese, Pihng Gwo Yaht Bou), the second most popular HK paper, which serves up a winning mix of
Longhair (he’s a columnist) and universal suffrage, tragic bus
accidents, swimsuited beauties and All Your Favorite Cantopop Stars!
Somewhere in the middle, occupying very roughly the same position as the New York Times is Ming Pao, where the news articles are straightforward, relatively balanced, and written, mainly, in “good” Chinese without vernacular. Then there’s the sophisticated Seun Bo, the Hong Kong Economic Journal, probably the most respected Hong Kong paper among the literati. It is an odd hybrid of the Wall Street Journal and the Talk of the Town pages of the New Yorker, with financial news and lots of idiosyncratic columns by Hong Kong’s best and brightest. They are all waiting with bated breath to see what is going to happen to Seun Bo now that Richard Li, son of mega-mogul Li Ka Shing, has purchased a 50% stake in the paper.
Finally, there’s the number one selling Oriental Daily, (in Cantonese, Dung Fong) one of Hong Kong’s oldest newspapers, whose absentee owner lives in Taiwan because he’s been facing charges in Hong Kong since the 1970s. (His nickname is baak faan, “White Powder”). That’s juicy enough, but there’s lots more, so deliciously sordid that someone should make a movie about it.
They could lift half the script from the transcripts of a case now unfolding in the Hong Kong courts. Last night standing outside of Staunton’s Bar I bumped into my Aussie pal Dave, a reporter who’s been covering the Great Newspaper War Murder Affair. “It’s a fucking amazing story,” he exclaims to me, waving his pint of beer for emphasis.
Dave recounts the gruesome tale: Seven years ago, Hong Kong’s newspapers were locked in vicious circulation wars. At one point, Oriental Daily’s distribution company started squeezing its news vendors. Instead of giving them, say, 100 copies of Oriental Daily each day on consignment, the company forced them to buy 150 copies, cash upfront, and eat the loss on the papers they couldn’t sell. But the news vendors in Shamsuipo organized and refused to cooperate. The leader of their action was a woman news vendor named Ho Wai Ha.
One morning, police found Ms. Ho lying outside her news stand in a pool of her own blood. She’d been murdered, chopped to death with meat cleavers. Soon afterward, the news vendors of Shamsuipo fell into line.
Ms. Ho’s killers left no evidence. The case has been sitting unsolved for seven years. It reopened recently after a guy on death row in Shenzhen spilled the beans to the police, who then tracked down the triad thugs responsible for carrying out the news distribution company’s hit order. The Hong Kong cops got them to sing.
Newspapers rule in Hong Kong. Sometimes by brute force. Seven years after the bloody circulation wars Oriental Daily is still the number one selling newspaper in Hong Kong.
But why? I asked my editor friend Ah Hing to explain the huge popularity of a paper with such a murky, notorious past. He chuckled, and answered in two words:
Ma ging. The horse racing tip sheet. According to Ah Hing, Oriental Daily’s is far and away the best. “Go to Happy Valley after the races sometime, and you’ll see piles and piles of Oriental Daily all over the floor.”
There you have it, straight from the horse’s mouth: why newspapers in Hong Kong are alive and kicking.