GIS Through The Years

Chapter 2: This Remarkable Sample Of Peaceful Co-Existence

Disembarking in Hong Kong at war's end in 1945, leading units of the relieving British fleet were surprised to find a newspaper in circulation, announcing their arrival. It was a single sheet special edition of the South China Morning Post, which had been founded in 1903.

Restored to his desk, after a grilling at the hands of Japanese occupation forces, was its Australian Chinese editor, Henry Ching, who had held that position since 1926. Ching had risen rapidly through the ranks even though, as a mere reporter in a still racially-segregated Hong Kong, his ethnic background had denied him admittance to many of the functions he'd been assigned to cover. His son, also Henry Ching, became an Administrative Officer in the Hong Kong Government, serving as Deputy Financial Secretary for many years to Phillip Haddon-Cave, and eventually retiring as Secretary for Health and Welfare.

Humiliated by its defeat at the hands of the Japanese, the re-established colonial administration set out to justify its return to Hong Kong in the face of concerted opposition by the Kuomintang and their American allies. As late as December 11, 1946 the newly-founded Far Eastern Economic Review ventured to suggest that 'virtually all Chinese, even those living there, say that in the near future Britain will have to return the New Territories, Kowloon and Hongkong to China'.

The military authorities assigned to initiate the post-war clean-up discovered the value of public relations in promoting their measures to rehabilitate an economy devastated by the effects of war. From this was to evolve the Information Services Department (more commonly referred to as Government Information Services, or GIS) - but only by degrees.

The first step was the appointment of a military Press Relations Officer to deal with war correspondents still milling around in the aftermath of hostilities. The post was created in September 1945 and held by a succession of occupants on an acting basis until 1947, owing to a rapid turnover of staff.

The original, ex-services appointee died in December 1946 and the principal of the Trade and Technical Schools, George White, acted as Public Relations Officer through the early part of 1947. White was followed by John Henry Burkhill Lee, who served as caretaker until the arrival of Wing Commander A H Marsack in September 1947. Marsack fell ill and resigned in March 1948, when Mrs Elaine Davis took over as Acting PRO, to be succeeded on August 23, 1948 by W Gordon Harmon, OBE.

Retitled the Public Relations Office, the fledgling apparatus was established on a formal footing as a new government department once a civilian administration took over from the military in 1946. Its first home was an arcade located where the Landmark now stands, on a site once occupied by the illustrious Hong Kong Hotel before its destruction by fire on New Year's Day, 1926. From there it moved to 'temporary' offices in Statue Square, alongside what is now the Legislative Council.

This temporary stay lasted three years, during which the staff dealt with an influx of journalists covering the civil war in China, and the consequences for Hong Kong arising from the Korean War. These were the years when Hong Kong became the destination of choice for foreign correspondents, who established here a comfortable base from which they could make their forays into less salubrious neighbouring countries that offered them news - even sensational news - but fewer modern conveniences and a great deal less security.

They were also the years that witnessed the birth of the so-called 'China watcher'; that alleged expert on Chinese affairs who could raise a damp finger in the air and tell which way the political winds were blowing.

Anxious to remain helpful but apolitical, the PRO arranged press briefings confined strictly to pertinent local topics, gingered up by occasional showings of relevant documentary films. These were staged in Statue Square's non air-conditioned, makeshift structures, often in temperatures above 30 degrees Celsius.

Meanwhile, the domestic press corps prospered and the numbers of locally based newspapers and periodicals grew rapidly, topping 150 in all by the close of 1955 - vastly more than were available to any other population of comparable size. Arriving in 1950, on a commission to write a book for the Colonial Office, Harold Ingrams remarked: "How plentiful, opulently thick and reminiscent of the past Hong Kong's newspapers seemed after those at home! And it recalled a bygone era to see newsboys, generally women, carrying printed posters. One morning, soon after my arrival, I was confronted by one reading 'Labour Government may fall tonight'. One was left in no doubt that such an event was felt generally to be a consummation devoutly to be wished."

That year the broadcasting section of the diversified public relations enterprise began a move from Gloucester Building into new studios in the newly-built Electra House, Cable & Wireless Ltd's regional headquarters on Connaught Road Central, where the Ritz-Carlton Hotel now stands. This allowed the Public Relations Officer to take up the space vacated and to record: "The excellent accommodation now at the disposal of the Public Relations Office has contributed in no small degree to an increase in efficiency."

Administrative and policy control of Radio Hong Kong (later Radio Television Hong Kong) passed formally to the PRO on April 1, 1951, having been the responsibility of the Postmaster General since 1938. Not until July 1953 did Radio Hong Kong became a separate department.

In 1952 the PRO, still nominally in charge of everything that went out on the air waves, noted that Hong Kong's government radio station was remarkable among British colonial broadcasters because it made a profit (from broadcast fees), whereas most others were heavily subsidised by the state. Radio Hong Kong broadcast more locally-generated hours each week than any other station, and staff numbers were about half those in comparable operations elsewhere.

The PRO at the time was John Lawrence Murray, whose appointment on September 1, 1950 began a period of relative stability for that post. Murray became the first Director of Information Services (DIS) on June 19, 1959, shortly after his organisation was renamed the Information Services Department on April 1 that year.

Meeting this 'white-haired Scotsman' for lunch, towards the end of the latter's long term in office, Frederick Joss describes, in his book Of Geisha and Gangsters, sweeping his hand across the seething expanse of Hong Kong harbour below.

"Tell me," Joss asks, "who is doing whom?"

With a possibly over-emphasised Scots accent he said "You mean who gains the greater advantage from this remarkable sample of peaceful co-existence?"

"Quite. It's obvious both are making a profit. We, and they over there."

'Over there' in Hong Kong means across the mountains, the country of well nigh a quarter of the world's population.

"How are we doing? 50/50 perhaps?"

Jock threw back his mane. "50/50 be damned! It's more like 80/20."

"80/20 for whom? 80/20 for us, or 80/20 for them?"

Jock Murray grinned. "80/20 for us. And 80/20 for them."

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