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    Greater China
     Mar 21, 2008
BOOK REVIEW
Larger than life
Tell Me a Story by Kevin Sinclair

Reviewed by Kent Ewing

HONG KONG - A reckless, boozing, sometimes obnoxious journalist of the old school, Kevin Sinclair did not always allow truth to stand in the way of a good story. His memoir, Tell Me a Story: Forty Years of Newspapering in Hong Kong and China, makes that perfectly clear. But when he was finally felled by cancer last December - after a 30-year battle against the disease - Sinclair was Hong Kong's best-known and arguably most respected English-language journalist. He held jobs at the riotous (and now-defunct) tabloid, The Star, in the late 1960s before moving on to the lower-octane Hong Kong Standard and, finally, to the relatively sedate South China Morning Post over his long and illustrious career.

Known locally as the "mad gweilo [foreign devil] with a hole in his throat" after a 1979 laryngectomy left him literally voiceless, 

 
Sinclair built a reputation for battling inefficiency, falsehood and corruption in the city until the Big C ultimately took his life. He was honored as a Member of the Order of the British Empire for his work in 1983 and also voted Hong Kong's Person of the Year in the year of his death.

He represented the larger-than-life, swashbuckling journalist class of yesteryear, and his memoir and passing are sure to stir up nostalgia for the old days of inebriate gatherings of close-knit China scribes at the Foreign Correspondents' Club and in the girlie bars of Wan Chai. Indeed, Sinclair was the leader of the pack. There will never be another like him. Readers of this - the last of the 24 books Sinclair wrote in his 65 years - are likely to feel both wistful and thankful about the changing of the guard.

It all started rather inauspiciously for the native New Zealander. Born in 1942 to a teenage mother in Wellington, the capital city located on the southern tip of the country's North Island, Sinclair had few advantages in life. His father abandoned the family two years after his birth, and Sinclair left school at 16, the same year in which he was arrested for vandalism. Thankfully, his youth counselor recognized his talent and love of language, recommending him as a copy boy to The Evening Post, then Wellington's afternoon newspaper. Otherwise, the bold and brash figure who later dominated Hong Kong journalism may never have risen above teenage delinquency.

Inspired by Edgar Snow's Red Star Over China - in which the author recounts the months he spent with Mao Zedong and his revolutionary communist army in 1936 and presents a vivid (and later questioned) description of the heroic Long March - Sinclair developed a fascination with China in his early teens. It would be many years before he could actually go there and report what he saw, but by 1968 the young Kiwi reporter had landed on just the other side of the bamboo curtain, in the then British colony of Hong Kong.

Sinclair's account of those early Hong Kong years in the sensationalist newsroom of The Star make for entertaining reading. As Sinclair writes, "The bizarre was normal at The Star."

These were the pre-Internet, early-television days of journalism, when even English-language newspaper reporting in Hong Kong was cutthroat and deadlines and lively leads were matters of life and death. On any given day at The Star, Sinclair informs us, if a great story did not rise up and strike you across the face, it was your job to find - and sometimes even to fabricate - one.

And this explains how an obscure report about an outbreak of a disease that allegedly shriveled the penises of men in Borneo could wind up creating a panic on a dull news day in the late 1960s on the streets of Hong Kong. Always the happy newspaper warrior, Sinclair played an enthusiastic role at The Star, and his descriptions of the crazy stories and eccentric personalities involved in this part of his career are an important contribution to the history of journalism in the city.

For a journalist of Sinclair's talent, however, respectability called, and he was wise enough to answer - first, in 1970, when he became news editor of the Hong Kong Standard, and again, in 1972, when he assumed the same position for the Standard's arch rival, the South China Morning Post, then and now Hong Kong's English-language paper of record.

Meanwhile, Sinclair also married Kathleen "Kit" Allred - then a miniskirted American occupational therapist just out of the Peace Corps who would become not just the love of his life but also his biggest fan and a key source of support during his battles with cancer. The love and appreciation shared by Sinclair and his wife develop into a warm theme as the book progresses and the journalistic scoops and honors add up, as do the repeated bouts with cancer.

Another uplifting theme, once the author graduates from the den of sensationalism at The Star, is Sinclair's growing passion for truth and accuracy in journalism, which soon becomes a hallmark of his career.

"Times and work practices had long changed for me since the wild era of The Star," Sinclair writes. "Now [at the Post] I had a notice behind my desk which said: 'Check the facts, then check them again. When you are absolutely confident they are correct, check again'."

That notice served Sinclair well over the course of the rest of his distinguished career, which included his superb reporting from mainland China once Deng Xiaoping's reforms kicked in, his popular column on fine food and wine in Hong Kong and his founding of the ground-breaking trade magazine, Asian Hotelier.

Sinclair's 40 years of reporting in Hong Kong and on the mainland also inspired books celebrating Hong Kong's police force and tracing the history of the forgotten tribes of China and the rural communities of Hong Kong. Sinclair's endeavors as an author left him full of advice on how to make a decent profit on a book - although this was something he never managed to do.

Ironically, in a city that is 95% Chinese, the "mad gweilo with the hole in his throat" may have been the most loyal Hongkonger of all. His love affair with the city started with his arrival on the MV Oronsay in 1968 and lasted until his death. He stayed on through thick and thin, reported positively on the handover as well as the post-handover and chose to die here after (barely) completing one last book that is a paean to both his profession and to the city in which he practiced it.

But there are also darker threads to this memoir. Repeatedly, Sinclair confesses (and manifestly demonstrates) his ignorance and stupidity. For example, having secured the job of his dreams as news editor at the Post, he is sacked from the position six years later after spending most of the night in a bar, rather than at the news desk, as severe tropical storm Agnes tears through Hong Kong. True, Sinclair discovered a lot of great stories hanging around in Hong Kong bars - especially the bar at the police headquarters - but sometimes he just got drunk.

And Sinclair's cavalier attitude toward his health, even after he becomes a cancer patient for the first of six times, is absolutely stunning. Cured of throat cancer at the age of 33, a happy Sinclair goes out to celebrate with his wife and Robin Hutcheon, then editor of the Post. As the meal ends, Sinclair lights a cigarette! Even in the dark old days of the 1970s, his behavior seems incredibly reckless.

"Three years later, I was back in the cancer ward," he laments. "This time there would be no easy way out through radiation. This time, it was either I have the massive laryngectomy or die."

The operation was a success, but it left the once-loquacious journalist speechless for more than a year. After he had taught himself to talk again, Sinclair's soft rasp became, along with his incisive prose, an integral part of his public persona. Battles with skin, colon and liver cancer would follow, and Sinclair would bounce back from the disease six times before finally succumbing last December, less than a week after launching his last book at his beloved Foreign Correspondents' Club.

He was a shadow of himself at this last public appearance, and his book, written while he was undergoing chemotherapy, is uneven and, in places, haphazardly organized. But it is rich in stories and photographs, and Sinclair's robust personality and love of his work, his adopted city and his life shine through every page.

Tell Me a Story: Forty Years of Newspapering in Hong Kong and China by Kevin Sinclair. SCMP Book Publishing Ltd, December 2007. ISBN 9789621794000. Price US$41.

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer at Hong Kong International School. He can be reached at kewing@hkis.edu.hk.

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Hong Kong and the oral tradition
Feb 23, 2008


 

 
 



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