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
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
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
"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.
Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer at Hong Kong International School. He
can be reached at email@example.com.