Former newsman Patrick Wang Sai-yu might be described as a pioneer of tabloid publishing in Hong Kong.
He founded the Kam Yeh Pao newspaper at a time when there was no mobile phone, internet or powerful telephoto lenses. Nonetheless, Wang managed to get juicy scoops.
One, which the 76-year-old Wang still recalls with relish, involved the death in July 1973 of kung fu legend Bruce Lee. At the time rumours were rife that Lee died while having sex and that his lower body showed compelling evidence of that, Wang recalled recently.
“So I paid the morgue beautician HK$1,500 to let me take pictures of Lee’s corpse. There was a big swelling on the left of his neck.
“When I tried to photograph further down [his body], the woman shoved me aside and dragged me out of the morgue, saying that I would get her fired.”
During public viewing in the funeral parlour, Lee’s body was covered in a cloth up to the chin, Wang said.
“My picture is the only one in the world that shows him with a swollen neck.”
Wang published the image of the dead movie star on the front page of Kam Yeh Pao and immediately made his newspaper the hottest one in town – one person paid over HK$1,000, a fortune at the time (equivalent to more than US$1,000 at today’s exchange rate), for a copy of the paper, which had a cover price of 50 HK cents.
The lead story with the macabre photo had come hot on the heels of another exclusive report: that Lee had died in the apartment of actress Betty Ting Pei rather than his own home, as film producer Raymond Chow Man-wai initially told the press.
“I received a call from a reader saying that her boyfriend drove the ambulance that carried Lee and it had stopped at Ting Pei’s home in Waterloo Hill. I verified [with officials] that an ambulance had really stopped at that address at the time.”
Wang’s editorial predilections were unabashedly tabloid. Kam Yeh Pao, which he started in 1972, relied as much on horse racing tips and erotic short fiction as reports about the news of the day. As publisher, he introduced advertisements for prostitutes and even invited male readers to share nude pictures of their wives.
“The pictures only showed the women’s bodies, not their faces. It was my idea,” Wang says.
He believes the gimmick would not work today because pornography is so easily accessible.
The Shandong native came to Hong Kong in 1956 and joined Ming Pao as a proofreader in 1959 – the year the newspaper was established by Louis Cha Leung-yung, who wrote some of the most famous wuxia novels under the pen name Jin Yong.
“After three days, Cha asked me whether I had written anything before. I showed him my past articles in the student section of Hwa Chiao Jit Pao. He said I wrote well and made me an editor [on the sixth day],” Wang recalls. “He trusted me a lot.”
He became Cha’s first personal secretary, and worked on all the publications produced by Ming Pao.
His duties were those of a factotum: he came up with story ideas, set up interviews, wrote articles, edited and even did typesetting.
Wang was a prolific writer – “I produced [up to] 40,000 words per day,” he recalls. His columns ranged from tips on self-defence (he boxed and practised karate) and geomancy, to erotica and aphrodisiacs.
Superhuman powers was another interest and he happily debated their existence with scientists in the newspaper. It didn’t hurt that readers enjoyed the thrust and parry.
“Ni Cong [the Chinese science fiction writer better known by his pen name Ngai Hong] was not a staffer but he would come in the morning to write [articles]. Cha and Ni and I wrote about everything.”
During the mid-60s tensions rose in Hong Kong as leftist groups increasingly challenged British colonial rule; Cha fled to Singapore to avoid the chaos, leaving Wang in charge of his newspaper business – in the hot seat.
Ming Pao was vehemently anti-communist at the time and leftists would send parcel bombs to its offices, Wang says.
“I opened one [bomb]; luckily it was just spewed smoke and didn’t go off. At the peak of the 1967 riots, [anti-leftist radio host] Lam Bun was burned alive [agitators posing as maintenance workers stopped his car and set it alight].”
A day at the office was not unlike girding for battle. “We sharpened metal water pipes into points and placed them on our desks when working.”
A falling-out with Cha’s wife a few years later led him to join Hong Kong Daily News.
Although Wang did not stay long at Hong Kong Daily News, that was where he met his wife-to-be, and in remarkable circumstances. “I can read palms. One day, 20 people lined up for me to read theirs. My wife, who was working in the accounts department, was third in the queue.
“After reading her palm, I told her that she might become my future wife. And it came true in the end.”
The rise of Kam Yeh Pao was the real “miracle”, he says. He produced it with a staff of one, but it sold 100,000 copies – double the daily circulation of the established Ming Pao. Its content was sexually titillating but not obscene: there was nothing overt and audiences had to use their imagination, he says.
In 1983 Wang sold the newspaper and emigrated to the United States to join his siblings in Florida, but he was not to stay for long. When Cha invited him to return to Ming Pao in 1986 to revive the struggling newspaper (its circulation dropped considerably after business-oriented newspapers such as the Hong Kong Economic Journal came along), Wang quickly accepted.
One reason Wang jumped at the offer was his friendship with Cha, which had remained strong even after Wang’s departure from Ming Pao. The suburban life in Palm Beach, Florida didn’t suit him either: “There was no Chinatown there and I couldn’t even eat wonton noodles.”
Today, it’s a different era in the newspaper business, he says, lamenting a decline in Chinese language skills among the general population.
“Newspapers nowadays include many things. But when newspapers have everything, it means they have nothing, as they lack character. As Cha once said, the main part of a newspaper is not news because every newspaper does news. What is more important is the supplements. Newspaper supplements in the past were rich in content, with political commentary and literary articles.”
Political commentator Chip Tsao, a friend, reckons entrepreneur Jimmy Lai Chee-ying was greatly influenced by Kam Yeh Pao when he started Apple Daily in 1995: the brash daily quickly built up circulation by combining news stories with racy content featuring plenty of celebrities, gore and sex.
“Lai was about 16 or 17 years old then – a hot-blooded youth. He must have read Kam Yeh Pao and got the concept from Wang. Newspapers then were very free. On the day after Mao Zedong died, Kam Yeh Pao lead the front page with the headline ‘The devil is dead, ha ha ha ha ha ha’.”
Who would have the guts to write a headline like now that if a Chinese leader were to die, Tsao asks.
“Wang is a lively man. No matter how serious you are deep down, as a newspaperman you must be lively and avoid talking too much about high-sounding and difficult stuff. I can understand such matters, but the general public cannot,” Tsao says.
“Ming Pao was quite pro-British [when Wang was editor], but it transcended political factions. It just wanted to make Hong Kong people free and happy.”
After more than three decades in the newspaper business, Wang finally called it quits in 1990 and emigrated to Canada with his family.
He developed an interest in traditional Chinese medicine and after securing the Canadian licence to become a Chinese medicine practitioner in 2002, he opened a clinic in Vancouver providing free consultations.
Wang has published over 20 popular books on traditional Chinese medicine. His books were temporarily removed from Hong Kong public libraries recently after a woman fell ill from drinking a medicinal brew made using one of the prescriptions featured. They were returned to library shelves after an investigation revealed that the woman had not followed instructions properly.
Wang says: “The book has been out for over 20 years. It’s in the 36th edition. If there was problem with the prescription, more people should have come forward a long time ago.”
Although he suffered a heart attack and underwent angioplasty in 2003, Wang says his lifestyle is much the same as when he was working in a newsroom – he still enjoys late nights and drinking.
“Even now I sleep at 4am to 5am. I never pay much attention to my health. The most important thing is to be happy. If I am ill, I just brew some Chinese medicine and drink it.”
This article first appeared at The South China Morning Post.
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