Kung Sheung Daily News
One of the most recognised businesses under the Ho family’s wide range of investments and ownerships was The Kung Sheung Daily Press, the Chinese language newspaper group based in Hong Kong. Bought by Robert Hung Ngai’s grandfather, Robert Ho Tung, in the late 1920s, the media company’s newspapers remained under the family’s domain until closed by Robert Hung Ngai and his father Robert Shai Lai in 1984, coinciding with the Joint Declaration between Mainland China and the UK on Hong Kong’s future.
The original Kung Sheung Daily News, also known in English as the Industrial and Commercial News, had a colourful history. The newspaper started life ahead of the Ho family’s acquisition as a pro-Hong Kong government vehicle during the lengthy general strike-boycott that took place in the city from 1925-1926. In his book, Edge of Empires, John M. Carroll noted that the newspaper was launched in mid-1925 as a counter-propaganda measure to news media subsidised by the government in Guangzhou, then leftist led.
Kung Sheung, according to Carroll, offered reassurance to readers regarding the strike. It showed that more people were staying in the city than leaving, and placed emphasis on the disarray of life in Guangzhou as opposed to the calm environment of Hong Kong. Success with local readers saw its life extend beyond the ending of the strike, and its acquisition by Robert Ho Tung as a good business prospect as well as an established opinion leader.
Ho family ownership
In the 1930s, the group comprised three newspapers: the Kung Sheung Daily News, the Kung Sheung Evening News, launched in 1930, and pioneering popular one cent “dawn” edition Tin Kwong Pao to catch early risers heading for yam cha (Chinese-style breakfast). The papers’ stance under the Ho family remained pro-business and pro-establishment and against revolutionary change. In addition, family news was regularly reported, providing a useful record of activities and travels undertaken by Robert Ho Tung and Robert Shai Lai during this period.
In 1935, the sensational killing of Mr Kung Chi Lai, jointly the city editor of Kung Sheung Daily and editor of Kung Sheung Evening News, occurred in Li Yuen Street East, Central, when he was shot by an unknown assassin. The death of the long-serving Kung Sheung journalist drew attention to the dangers of the profession, particularly Chinese language commentary and reporting, in the decade’s heated political atmosphere between left and right in both Hong Kong and Mainland China. As noted in the South China Morning Post at the time of the Lai shooting, an earlier incident involving a Chinese newspaper, Mr Wai Keung Lo, chief editor and owner of Tin Nam Yat Pao, had occurred in 1933 when Mr Lo was shot on Lyndhurst Terrace. Mr Lo’s assailant was caught and subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment.
During the Japanese Occupation of Hong Kong from 1941-1945, the Kung Sheung newspapers shut down. Tin Kwong Pao later became a casualty of the conflict, being discontinued when the Ho family restarted publication after the Second World War. Following the communist victory against the Kuomintang led by Chiang Kai-shek in the Chinese civil war and establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, many Hong Kong newspapers dropped the use of the dateline of the Republic of China. The Kung Sheung newspapers, in line with Robert Shai Lai’s close association with the Kuomintang military – in which he rose to the rank of General – and the papers’ consistent support for the Republic of China government after it re-established itself in Taiwan, kept up the tradition until closure in 1984.
In the 1950s, Kung Sheung reporters and editors continued to build up a reputation for solid news stories and objective comment on social and political issues, including criticism of matters related to Taiwan. On the death of Robert Ho Tung in 1956, Robert Shai Lai inherited the newspaper business. Initially, he was heavily engaged in other work, namely his role as Taiwan’s chief representative to the United Nations’ Military Staff Committee, where he was based in Washington DC. But, in the early 1960s, he resigned his main roles for the Taiwan government and started to play a closer role in the Kung Sheung group.
The family’s oversight of the newspapers was further boosted in 1962 by the return of Robert Hung Ngai from the United States. Robert Hung Ngai had studied journalism at master’s level at Columbia University in New York and trained and worked on American publications. The international knowledge and expertise that Robert Hung Ngai brought to his roles of chief reporter, editor, and publisher over the years, helped elevate the standards of local journalism in Hong Kong as he not only sought to bring fresh ideas on content and production to the Kung Sheung group but to increase the quality overall through active participation in professional bodies, such as The Newspaper Society of Hong Kong.
In April 1964, the Kung Sheung newspapers moved from their long-established Des Voeux Road home in Central to the Kung Sheung Daily News Building at 18 Fenwick Street in Wanchai. In the 1960s and 1970s, a combined editorial team of around 100 worked on the newspapers, advancing media coverage and presentation in numerous ways.
The Kung Sheung Daily was then regarded as one of Hong Kong's major Chinese language papers, together with the Overseas Chinese Daily News (Wah Kiu Yat Pao) and Sing Tao Daily. The main paper carried official company announcements, government notices and regular advertising alongside comprehensive editorial content, including international news, local stories, features, entertainment and sports. The lively, energetic evening edition would cover court hearings, accidents, reporters’ own stories, early stock market news and detailed coverage of local football, according to Mr Lo Sin Shiu*, who worked as a reporter and editor at the Kung Sheung group from 1967-1981.
Given the Ho family’s global worldview, the Kung Sheung Daily News offered extensive coverage of international news. Indeed, one defining characteristic was that its front page was devoted to overseas news, said Mr Raymond Chi Leung Yeung#. Mr Yeung joined the newspapers in the mid-1970s as his first job following graduation from Hong Kong Shue Yan College, and worked there until the papers closed in 1984.
International stories arrived via teleprinter from the four major global news agencies in operation at the time – US-oriented Associated Press (AP) and United Press International (UPI), the UK’s Reuters, and Agence-France Presse (AFP) from France. These agencies provided Kung Sheung with a broader perspective on issues than many other local media. Given the expense involved, other newspapers would make do with just one, Mr Shiu said. The Kung Sheung also established close relationships with prominent overseas news magazine, such as TIME, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report, providing useful background information, news analyses and wider scope, while Robert Shai Lai and Robert Hung Ngai occasionally commissioned correspondents in the US and Europe to write pieces. Staff and freelance translators would then turn wire and freelance stories into Chinese.
Detailed maps, a rarity at the time, were often included given Mr Ho senior’s experience in military logistics and interest in geography, and to show readers where in the world an event was taking place. One member of staff was hired specifically to draw such illustrations, Mr Shiu said. The paper was also one of the first locally to switch to offset printing, facilitating greater use and higher quality of photographs. Mr Yeung ascribed this to Robert Hung Ngai’s US experience. “He spotted the difference in quality between overseas and local newspapers when he came back to Hong Kong. That’s why we were relatively early in moving to offset printing. It also enabled us to vary the look of headlines, including using frames or circles as design elements.”
In terms of content, the Ho family were rapid adopters of financial news coverage, with their newspapers providing analyses of gold prices and trends, and stock markets in the US and UK as well as Hong Kong. The sports desk led the way in providing detailed coverage of UK and international football, producing supplements for major events such as the FA Cup and World Cup. Local football was well covered, with sales of the evening paper rising 20% to 30% when there were major matches, Mr Shiu said. Local and international tennis was another sport allocated space, the Ho family being excellent and passionate players themselves. In addition, the daily paper was regarded as ground-breaking in its use of local celebrity columnists, such as socialite Pamela Wan Kam Pak and the first Miss Hong Kong, Elaine Wing Yan Sung, on its features pages.
With less government press conferences or information officers in that era, reporters often dug up local news and feature stories through their own contacts or followed up new angles on stories in local English-language papers, given the latter’s close relationship with government officials and senior business figures during the UK administration of Hong Kong.
Here the Ho family’s social standing, overseas exposure, and language capabilities gave the Kung Sheung newspapers a competitive edge among Chinese language publications as they also had close connections with Hong Kong and international political and business figures, in particular in Taiwan and the US. Both Mr Shiu and Mr Yeung noted that the elder and younger Mr Ho would sometimes pass on potential items for reporters to follow up. They also said that neither of the owners interfered in how stories were written.
Interest without interference
“They both cared a great deal about the news carried in the paper and would ask us frequently about this,” Mr Shiu said. “However, they would not say: ‘This should be done in this way or that way.’ Instead they would discuss the direction and angle of a certain news story but they would never intervene.”
Mr Shiu felt that the influence of Robert Hung Ngai’s journalistic training and experience overseas was shown in his rigour regarding “the truthfulness of news and quest for professional journalism”, meaning he would not exaggerate or inject sensational elements into stories, making the Kung Sheung papers more serious about authenticity. Nor would he bow to pressure from friends and acquaintances to hold off reporting certain news items. “The younger Mr Ho was a true journalist, who set high professional standards. Not giving in was one of his characteristics,” Mr. Shiu said.
The younger Mr Ho would ask questions or discuss a story’s presentation with the editorial staff, not what it should say. General Ho would issue orders with regard to administrative work, but none when he was discussing news stories. “Today, everyone is talking about freedom of the press and editorial independence,” Mr Shiu said. “It is said that all bosses intervene. I want to say that the two Mr Hos never intervened in our news-making. They would talk about the editorials for sure. But editorials are separate from news reporting and editing. Editorials represent the newspaper’s own opinion.”
Even when Robert Hung Ngai moved to a more managerial role to look after the administrative and business side of the paper, he would still spend part of the day sitting in the editorial department, according to Mr Shiu. “He really liked news and would often go to the teleprinters to take a look.”
The Ho team
The younger Mr Ho would start work early, around 7am. With his desk opposite the entrance, he could see everyone coming in for their Evening News shift and say “Good morning”, worrying some of the staff, especially newcomers, who felt uncomfortable arriving at work later than the boss. But no demands were ever made for others to start so early, Mr Shiu said.
In the afternoon, when the shift for the Evening News was over and before most of the daily paper staff came to work, Mr Ho would go and sit at the manager’s desk, Mr Shiu recalled. In the evening, Mr Ho senior would come in to oversee publication of the daily paper. While the Ho family lived on the Peak, Mr Ho senior had an apartment in the nearby Shing Yip Building, where he could sleep instead of returning home. There was also a unit on the top floor of the Tung Shing Building close by that could be used for resting or private movie screening, where the younger Mr Ho would decide which films to screen at the cinemas owned by the family.
Tidiness and professionalism
Stories abounded about the regime under Mr Ho senior, who brought elements of his disciplined army background to the office and liked the staff to call him “General Ho”. On the day that new editorial staff first reported for duty, they were told all desk lamps had to be turned off at the end of shift or there would be a fine. They were reminded of the dress code whereby reporters would need to look clean and tidy as representatives of the organisation and other employees were expected to dress soberly. Written into staff contracts were the terms that men could not have long hair or beards. Transgression would lead to a deduction in their attendance bonus, Mr Yeung recalled. While the younger Mr Ho was not so concerned about appearance, the handling of a story mattered greatly. “If there were big mistakes in news stories or headlines, then you would be hauled up for sure,” Mr Shiu said.
While different in approach in the office, the two Hos were similar in their thrifty ways and simple lifestyles. General Ho was famous for being seen in the same military-style leather coat year round. Neither would drive a luxury car. Both also had strong characters and tempers, which meant working for the Ho team could be tough. Robert Hung Ngai himself admits that he could easily lose his cool in the heat of handling deadline pressures. Later, after becoming a practising Buddhist, his overall approach to life became much calmer.
Consistency in reporting and editorial viewpoint drove the newspaper group throughout the post-war period, with Kung Sheung’s political stance always clear, Mr Shiu said. “We recognised the government of the Republic of China, not the People’s Republic of China government in Beijing. This position continued until the paper closed. In the Kung Sheung Daily News, ‘China’ was the Republic of China.”
However, Kung Sheung did not shy away from criticising what appeared to its editorial group - comprising the two Mr Hos, several famous intellectuals and political commentators, and Kung Sheung senior writers - to need or deserve such comment. Mr Yeung pointed out that this gave the paper a special place in Hong Kong’s newspaper industry. General Ho’s high standing with the government in Taiwan and work at the United Nations, and the family’s good relationship with the UK administration in Hong Kong and US government, meant the paper had the contacts and insight to publish more accurate information, building up the credibility of its reports with readers. “It was not possible for other papers to know more than the Ho family regarding Taiwan’s situation and Hong Kong’s social circle. Yet we were not a ‘party paper’. We truly spoke for the industrial and commercial sectors.”
Even so, that sector also had to put up with the Kung Sheung’s dedication to journalism professional gold standards. To illustrate the Ho family’s willingness to stand up to external pressure, Mr Yeung recalled the time that a representative of Kowloon Motor Bus rang the younger Mr Ho to ask him to stop reporting on the company at a sensitive time. “Mr Ho continued to do so because those were the facts,” Mr Yeung said.
“Kung Sheung could accurately reveal many facets of society at that time because the Ho family really knew about these matters,” he noted. Most importantly, both Mr Hos insisted that the papers should be objective in their reporting and neither were afraid of displeasing or offending other people. “The ‘right-wing’ label was simply that the paper recognised the Kuomintang government. But if there were problems in the KMT government, we would still say so,” Mr Yeung said.
Mr Shiu agreed. “I need to emphasis that our newspaper was not run by Taiwan. Even today some people in Hong Kong say that the Kung Sheung Daily News was run by Taiwan, which is absolutely wrong. All the way through, the Ho father-and-son team kept the newspaper independent. It is true that General Ho was very loyal to the Republic of China, but my experience showed it was not blind loyalty. He often went to Taiwan and would meet President Chiang and later his son. When General Ho returned, he would grab me and ask me to write editorials about what he had seen.”
Issues ranged from airline operations and attitudes to Taiwan’s bureaucracy, Mr. Shiu recollected. “Many were things the Taiwan government didn’t want to hear. They would say: ‘Can you not write like this?’ But General Ho would still go ahead.”
Salaries vs professional satisfaction
The Ho family’s careful approach to finances meant pay at the Kung Sheung papers was comparatively low within the media industry. However, there were several highly regarded benefits that helped make up for this. One was a much-cherished canteen that was the envy of colleagues at other papers. During the day, staff members could order meals at reasonable prices. At supper time, noodles or congee would be provided by the company. Both elder and younger Mr Ho would sometimes eat in the staff canteen, though the rumour was the cook always knew when either had put in an order and made their meals a little differently. “I heard from other colleagues that the kitchen would do some magic on their dishes compared with ours. Maybe they didn’t know about this, but we did!” Mr Yeung said.
Free staff quarters, offering bunk beds and showers, were also available on the fifth floor of the Kung Sheung Daily News Building, enabling employees to save a great deal on accommodation and transport, as well as have no excuse for not being on time for work. The quarters catered for male staff only from a variety of departments, including printing and typesetting, as well as editorial. No women were employed as reporters until the paper’s final days, though some worked in administrative and accounting roles at the company before this time.
At festivals such as Christmas, some of the Kung Sheung staff would be asked up to Ho Tung Gardens, the Ho family home on the Peak. There, they would dutifully munch their way through large portions of Christmas pudding – described as tasting “really awful” by one interviewee – to see if they would be lucky enough to get the gold coin hidden inside.
“Other papers and industries offered higher salaries. However, when you started at Kung Sheung, you already knew this. That meant you joined because you were happy to work there,” Mr Yeung said. “Becoming a reporter or an editor was about your interest and satisfaction. And Kung Sheung could really provide these. I learned a lot there, not only about journalism but also personally. You had to report the facts and reveal certain dark sides of society. If you weren’t upright enough or were afraid, or tried to take advantages, you could not do this.”
The papers’ “beat” system, whereby reporters would cover a certain field, such as education or transport, and be rotated around to different beats, meant there was always fresh information to learn and new people to meet from the community. Days could be lengthy but clock-watching was rare. Mr Yeung said: “Sometimes you needed to work long hours so it was all about working because you really wanted to do the job.” And due professional recognition was given when stories that were done well. Mr Yeung recalled his exhilaration at receiving a HK$50 bonus for his first feature story, which was then more than 10% of his salary.
“Shaolin Monastery” for journalists
The adherence to high professional standards was an important reason why staff came to work at the Kung Sheung group. Mr Yeung remembered being instructed directly by the younger Mr Ho on use of the “inverted pyramid” style of writing news stories, where the most important facts are always placed upfront to enable editors to lop off the final paragraphs if a story proved too long for the layout; and on writing feature stories that not only offered a main story but included shorter sidebars and information boxes to add further interest and attract readers’ interest to the piece overall.
From the early 1960s, the Kung Sheung group raised the bar by hiring university and college graduates as editorial staff – at a time when higher education was available to very few. Reporters were encouraged to read established journalists’ stories to gain insights into different writing styles and perspectives on issues and pushed by Mr Ho to strive for quality of writing that was at least equal to and preferably much higher than that of other newspapers. There was an insistence on writing both sides of the story and strict objectivity, with none of the writer’s personal opinions allowed into news reports.
One generation would teach the next. Mr Shiu, a National Taiwan University graduate, recalled how Mr Yeung had come under his wing when learning about the paper’s unique schools’ sports section. But outside professional development was available, too, with opportunities to attend tertiary institute lectures or even to go overseas to countries such as the US and Germany.
Having been trained in this way, Kung Sheung staff found themselves in demand and moved on into writing and communication work of all kinds. Apple Daily, Sing Pao, TVB, Commercial Radio, RTHK, and the Government Information Services were some of the media organisations to benefit from hiring Kung Sheung employees. “There was a period when Hong Kong’s important news media, both electronic and print, were run by people from Kung Sheung,” Mr Shiu said.
By the 1980s, the local and global environment in which the Kung Sheung was publishing had altered dramatically. The Mainland had emerged from the chaos of the Cultural Revolution decade and started its headlong rush to modernisation through paramount leader Deng Xiaoping’s “open door” economic policy. Taiwan had become more isolated in the geopolitical sphere while Mainland China was being courted by countries around the world.
When the UK and Mainland China concluded negotiations over Hong Kong’s future in 1984, and determined that the city as a whole would return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 at the end of the historical lease period for the New Territories, a newspaper with a solid pro-Taiwan stance, such as Kung Sheung, found itself becoming an anachronism. More people in Hong Kong turned their attention to the Mainland, in particular the business community. Advertising and readership became harder to attract, and the Ho family decided that rather than change the papers’ long-held line, they preferred to close them.
Mr Shiu had already moved on to work in the electronic media but Mr Yeung was there for the paper’s final edition. Although rumours of the papers’ closure had been circulating since 1983, it was not until the final night of 30 November 1984 that staff were informed it was to be their final shift. On 1 December, the Kung Sheung Daily hit the streets for the last time with the news of the papers’ demise. “When people came to interview (the younger) Mr Ho, he said: ‘Of course, we kept that exclusive to ourselves!’”
The timing of the closure and the respect for the Kung Sheung newspapers kept reporters on other newspapers busy filing stories on and analysing the development. Mr Shiu said: “Several of the so-called major newspapers initially saw the Republic of China as the official Chinese government and did not follow the UK government in recognising the People’s Republic of China. Gradually, most stopped refusing to contact people related to Beijing. General Ho and Robert Hung Ngai were not like that. Only in the 1990s did they slowly come to adopt a relatively accepting attitude towards Mainland China. During the Kung Sheung days, there was no contact, to my knowledge.”
The sadness at the papers’ closure was cushioned by the psychological preparation provided by the earlier rumours and a generous financial settlement for staff by the Ho family. The fact that other job opportunities in Hong Kong were readily available at the time also helped, Mr Yeung recalled.
Those were the days…
The departure of the Kung Sheung papers illustrated the changing social attitudes and macro relationships and influences in Hong Kong and globally. It also heralded the end of an era in local journalism, with the arrival of industry-disrupting communications technology such as cable television and computers, and fierce competition to maintain readership and advertising as new media opened up. This in turn saw reporting turn more towards sensational stories and those with entertainment value rather than concise, factual articles.
“I think there has been a very big change since the 1980s,” Mr Yeung, said. Previously a bond of trust existed between newspapers and those who read them, he noted. This included the belief among both reporters and readers that journalism represented a way of speaking up for improvements in society, not for individual interests. “Newspapers reported the facts. And readers made their own judgement.”
Mr Shiu felt likewise. “Kung Sheung editorials and the proposals they contained were very much valued at the time by both Hong Kong and Taiwan governments,” he said. “For example, we were concerned about the efficiency and work attitude of the civil service from the papers’ earliest days and often made critical comments about these matters.”
The difference was that the aim of the editorial was not simply to find fault but to propose how efficiency could be improved, he said. “It was not a case of blaming and pointing fingers. It was expressed more indirectly. We still stated our opinion but in a way that others could accept.”
The commitment felt by those working at Kung Sheung led to a team spirit that survives more than three decades later. Old colleagues still meet up in Hong Kong for an annual dinner around Chinese New Year and the younger Mr Ho, now in his eighties, has joined them when his visits to Hong Kong coincide.
“Newspaper people in the past felt a responsibility for the community and its advancement,” Mr Shiu said. “We felt this when we reported news. If there was a dark side to report on, we hoped it could be improved. Today, it seems the media is happy to report negative things to increase sales. Sales are, of course, very important for survival. But even if sales weren’t good, we would not sensationalise news to attract readers. You do have to move with the times but it does not have to be as it is today, encouraging consumption and materialism. We also took care of the soul.”
* Lo Sin Shiu worked at the Kung Sheung newspaper group from 1967-1981. He started as a reporter and feature writer at the Kung Sheung Evening News before moving on to become special assistant to the chief editor, international news editor, managing editor, associate chief editor and chief editor of the Kung Sheung Daily News. He now lives between Hong Kong and Seattle.
# Raymond Chi Leung Yeung held the posts of reporter, school sports editor, head of translation, and international news editor at the Kung Sheung newspaper group from 1977-1984. He immigrated to Vancouver in the early 1990s.
Raymond Chi Leung Yeung, interview, November 2015 (conducted and translated by Janice Leung)
Lo Sin Shiu, interview, November 2015 (conducted and translated by Janice Leung)
Robert Hung Ngai Ho, interviews, October 2015
Edge of Empires, John M Carroll, Hong Kong University Press edition, 2007
Kung Sheung Daily News archive, Central Library, Hong Kong
South China Morning Post, digital archive