Kevin Sinclair: Hong Kong journalist and writer

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The Independent Online

Kevin Sinclair was probably the best known working hack (his own, preferred description) in the former British colony of Hong Kong. Bibulous, splenetic and formidably energetic, he was born in New Zealand but spent more than 40 years in Hong Kong working for The Star, The Hong Kong Standard and, most of all, for The South China Morning Post where his regular column was still appearing until shortly before his death.

He also wrote 24 books and managed to rise from his sick-bed to attend the launch of the last one, Tell Me a Story: forty years of newspapering in Hong Kong and China. This was held in his beloved Foreign Correspondents' Club and attended by many of his old friends, including the Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, Donald Tsang, as well as curious newer members.

Born on a farm in New Zealand in 1942, Sinclair left school at 16 and worked for different newspapers from messenger boy to reporter, before travelling to Hong Kong in 1968 "by ship, because my parents were very poor and couldn't afford to buy a plane ticket". He was one of the first modern Western journalists to visit mainland China after the death of Mao in 1976. An early encounter with the cancer that was eventually to kill him led to a tracheotomy in 1978 and a hole in his neck, through which he learned to hold forth as forcefully as ever. The Chinese, amazed, christened him "the mad gweilo journalist who talks through his throat". It was typical of Sinclair that he much enjoyed this description.

Always a passionate champion of his adopted home, he was particularly attached to the local police force, about which he wrote knowledgeably and with affection (publishing Asia's Finest, 1983; Royal Hong Kong Police 150th Anniversary, 1994; and Asia's Finest Marches On, 1997), but his net was all-encompassing and there was, effectively, nothing about which he could not turn out a trenchant column at speed and to length. Latterly he had acquired a considerable reputation as a wine buff and was an occasional drinking companion of another oenophile, the last British Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten.

Sinclair's recently published memoirs are replete with anecdotes of an often Münchhausen-like quality. One of the most typical concerns the outbreak of a mysterious disease called "koro" which caused the victim's penis to curl up and disappear inside the body. This could be prevented by tying a piece of string round the threatened member and knotting the other end to one's belt. This epidemic was almost entirely fictitious but news of it swept through the colony, enthusiastically encouraged by Sinclair and his colleagues at The Star. Sinclair wrote "Hospital emergency wards were packed as lines of anxious men, many of them holding tell-tale lengths of string disappearing into their trousers, waited for examinations."

The story was, of course, too good to last and before long Sinclair and his fellow-scribes went back to reporting such mundane matters as "men on the moon, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, Hong Kong's booming economy, bizarre new labour laws that insisted on workers having one day off a week and run-of-the-mill rapes, murders and bank robberies".

The koro story was largely a fabrication to liven a slow news day. On the other hand it was such a good yarn that if it hadn't existed you would have had to invent it. The same could, with some justice, be said of Sinclair himself.

Tim Heald

Kevin Sinclair, writer and journalist: born 12 December 1942; married (one son, one daughter); died Hong Kong 23 December 2007.