South China Morning Post: a Hong Kong story

By Published November 6, 2021

The South China Morning Post was first published on November 6, 1903, when Hong Kong was a British colony. In its 118 years, the newspaper has told tens of thousands of stories, some small, others historic. In 2021, the Post is an international media company focused on the global China story. Here’s a look back through the years.

It is 1903 and two enterprising friends want to set up a new English-language newspaper. Their mission is to be the voice of China’s growing idealism and progress. South China Morning Post launches on November 6, even as the British colony is already served by three other established English papers

One of the founders is a Chinese patriot, Tse Tsan-tai, who is determined to help bring down the Manchu emperor’s tottering Qing dynasty

The other is Alfred Cunningham, a veteran British journalist of local publications, who starts editing the Post

The pair press hard for reforms, not only in the crumbling empire of the dragon throne, but also in the entrepôt city on its southern flank, Hong Kong

… as in 1904, when the paper attacks the Hong Kong authorities over the colony’s poor sanitary conditions

In 1906, a major typhoon strikes Hong Kong, leaving some 11,000 people dead. The storm causes widespread damage, including to the Post’s premises in Central, and sinks or grounds more than a thousand junks and 41 ocean-going ships

In one of the paper’s first major campaigns, the Post demands a full inquiry over the Royal Observatory’s failure to alert the public to the advancing typhoon

Henry Ching joins the Post as a reporter. Eight years later he becomes editor, a position he holds for 33 years

Some influential figures in Hong Kong society show little enthusiasm for Ching because of his Eurasian ethnicity. On one occasion, the resourceful young journalist is barred from entering the Hong Kong Club so he sneaks in through the back door and pretends to be one of the staff to report on a business meeting being held there.

The city experiences tremendous changes and more than its share of horrors …

… such as during the autumn of 1931, when a mob breaks into a house in Kowloon City, hacking a Japanese family to death. It is the worst incident in the anti-Japanese rioting that paralysed the city for two weeks

The Post’s first female reporter, Helen Duncan, joins in 1932. One of the 18-year-old's first assignments is to attend the magistrate's court to report on a rape case

At dawn on December 8, 1941, Japanese dive-bombers hit Kai Tak, hours after the Pearl Harbour attack in Hawaii. The war comes to the “Fragrant Harbour” and fighting ensues

On December 18, Japanese troops land on Hong Kong island. Post reporter Reg Goldman, serving with the Hong Kong Volunteers, dies in the fighting. On December 25, the city surrenders

The Post’s Western staff are sent to internment camps like the one at Stanley

The Japanese occupy the Post’s offices, forcing its remaining staff to launch the pro-Japanese newspaper, The Hong Kong News

After three and a half years of Japanese occupation, Allied troops take back the British colony. Henry Ching breaks the news as the Post rushes back into circulation

As Hong Kong and the Post pick up quickly after the war, thousands of refugees flood across the border to flee the civil war in mainland China

Many of them settle in illegal shanties in Shek Kip Mei. On December 25, 1953, a raging fire destroys the settlement and some 53,000 people are left homeless. This tragedy spurs the governor into establishing a Housing Authority to provide 600,000 public homes

In 1957, Henry Ching retires from his long editorship. S.A. Gray moves from the China Mail to take over as editor of the Post

Post reporter Tommy Lewis often accompanies police on anti-triad raids. On one occasion in 1965, he helps detain and handcuff a drug dealer

In the 1966 and 1967 riots, Post reporters are often accused of being pro-British and become targets of mobs supportive of the Cultural Revolution

On January 9, 1972, a mystery blaze sweeps through the Seawise University, formerly known as RMS Queen Elizabeth, once the largest ocean liner in the world. Despite the efforts of firefighters, the ship is destroyed and sinks in Hong Kong's Victoria Harbour

On September 9, 1976, Chairman Mao dies and thousands queue at the Bank of China to sign a book of condolences

Hong Kong becomes a destination of first choice for tens of thousands of people fleeing Vietnam after 20 years of war ended in 1975 with the fall of Saigon and a communist victory over the US. The exodus continues after a brief and bloody war between Vietnam and China in February and March 1979, as Hanoi orders the brutal expulsion of ethnic Chinese. Thousands of boat people die in the South China Sea

Hong Kong is horrified by one of the city’s most heinous crimes in 1982, when four women are killed by 28-year-old taxi driver Lam Kor-wan. The Post reports shocking details of the case: he photographs their bodies, dissects them and stores sexual organs in jars of formaldehyde under his bed

On December 19, 1984, Britain’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Zhao Ziyang, the Chinese premier, sign an agreement to return Hong Kong to China. Hong Kong is to be ruled under a “one country, two systems” policy

In October 1987, the stock exchange closes for four days in an attempt to stop unprecedented losses during the Black Monday global equities market crash. A Post photographer is threatened by an enraged stock exchange president when he takes a picture of him

Seven people die when a passenger plane crashes at Kai Tak airport in 1988. It is the first fatal accident at the airport since 1967. The Post runs a large infographic on the front page - drawn using cutting edge computer technology at the time - to explain how it happened. Two years later the governor announces a new airport development on Lantau Island

The Post dedicates many pages about the June 4 Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989 and prints special editions as events unfold. Over following days, hundreds of thousands of people demonstrate on the streets of Hong Kong

On January 1, 1993, Hong Kong awakes to tragedy: “20 Dead In Crush Of New Year Revellers”, ran the front-page headline of the Post. More than 100 are also injured in the stampede involving some of the 20,000 in Lan Kwai Fong in Central. The eventual death toll is later confirmed at 21

Windsurfer Lee Lai-shan, popularly known as San San, wins Hong Kong’s first ever Olympic gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Games, where she famously declares: “Hong Kong athletes are not rubbish!”

The Post goes digital as launches on December 2, 1996. Two years later, the website is voted the best online newspaper outside the US at the E&P Best Online Newspaper Awards, also called the EPpys

The world watches as Hong Kong returns to China on July 1, 1997, after 156 years of British colonial rule. The Post records what is believed to be a Hong Kong record of over 7.9 million hits to its websites in one day. Almost as soon as the handover celebrations end, the Asian financial crisis grips the region

The Post’s Greg Torode is among the first foreign journalists to see the body of Pol Pot, after the leader of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime dies on April 15, 1998, in the jungle near the Thai-Cambodian border

In 1998, the Post and RTHK jointly launch Operation Santa Claus, one of the largest charitable donation drives in Hong Kong

In 2003, Sars – severe acute respiratory syndrome – rips through the city, killing 299 of the 1,755 people it infected. Among the fatalities are eight medical staff. The Post launches a campaign to help protect medical workers handling the outbreak in Hong Kong

On June 13, 2013, Post reporter Lana Lam interviews Edward Snowden. She is the only Hong Kong reporter to interview the US whistle-blower during his time in the city

On September 18, 2014, the student-led Occupy protests paralyse Hong Kong for three months. It’s dubbed the “Umbrella Revolution”

The Post opens its first permanent US bureau in 2017, a move that signals its commitment to leading the global conversation about China

The Post’s headquarters move to Hong Kong’s Times Square in 2018 after Alibaba Group’s acquisition of the company from the Kuok family. The hi-tech offices are among the best in the city and are fully equipped to facilitate the Post’s ongoing transformation from a regional newspaper to a global media company. It even has a pub

In 2019, Hong Kong is again in the throes of anti-government protests, sparked by a since-withdrawn extradition bill, this time bigger and more defiant than 2014. Frontline Post reporters and photographers wear masks and protective gear as street clashes between police and protesters turn increasingly violent over many months

And just as 2020 begins, a new health crisis puts the world to the test. The Post is among the first English language media to report on a mystery viral illness in Wuhan, China. Cases of the novel coronavirus soon emerge in other parts of the world. By March 11, the World Health Organization declares the Covid-19 outbreak a global pandemic

In 2021, Post reporters in Tokyo and Hong Kong provide live coverage as seven Hong Kong athletes deliver one gold, two silver and three bronze medals at the Tokyo Olympic Games, producing the city's best showing on the world's greatest sporting stage. “Fencing god” Edgar Cheung Ka-long, 24, wins the city’s first Olympic gold medal in a quarter century. Other medals are won in swimming, table tennis, karate and track cycling

As 2022 approaches, the Post becomes the first news organisation in Asia to champion a new blockchain standard where historical and archival items can be connected, discovered and collected. The standard, called ARTIFACTs, will use non-fungible token (NFT) technology to give anyone a chance to own and trade historical moments accumulated by the Post since 1903, in the forms of text, pictures, cartoons and graphics

Edited by Andrew London
Creative Director Darren Long

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