Mr Raymond R Wong
Doctor of Social Sciences, honoris causa (2020)
When someone is known as the “Godfather” of something, it conjures up images of a formidable character who lords over a group of unruly but talented followers. If you share that notion, then Ray Wong is quite rightly, as he is known, the Godfather of Hong Kong journalism. He played a key role in transforming newsrooms filled with what he described as “a bunch of jeans wearing, and some of them, hard drinking” hacks into teams of college educated professionals. He was the missing link between intellect and journalism.
Ray Wong’s own path to success though was far from a straightforward one. Like many Hong Kong families, his father wanted him to become a doctor. He failed biology. Then he was told to try engineering. He flunked geometry. Instead, Ray followed his passion and studied journalism at the University of Missouri. In 1959, he began his career as a reporter in a small town in Kansas. Those early experiences ingrained in Ray that sense of news as public service. “You pick the industry”, he says, “and if you don’t have the courage and conviction, you don’t belong there”. In 1966, he became a Professional Journalism Fellow at Stanford University.
Remember…..this was during the height of the Vietnam War when Americans had to question their place in the world. “Journalism was intellectually demanding,” Ray recalls.
So when he returned to Hong Kong in 1968, and walked into the newsroom of an English language newspaper, he was alarmed that only a small fraction of the staff there went to college. Ray worked two jobs there….one pay cheque, two jobs. By day, he was their news editor, dishing out the assignments. By night, he was their chief sub-editor, getting ready to put the newspaper to bed before he himself got some rest.
In between those long hours at the newspaper, Ray Wong was a guest lecturer at what was then Hong Kong Baptist College, the only school in Hong Kong that offered journalism and communication education of its kind at the time. Two years later, Ray became a full time member of the faculty. In 1974, he became the Head of the Department of Communication. He helped to design a curriculum that not only educated journalists to understand the world they would serve, how to report and produce news stories, but also hands on experience in the form of a student newspaper which continues to run today.
Over the years, many of his graduates became leaders of journalism, communication industry in both Hong Kong and Greater China and other areas. Among them, to name but a few, the current Director of Broadcasting, news controller of the city’s major television stations, founder and partner of some multi-national public relations agencies, major government officials across the region and academics who now educate the next generation of the Fourth Estate.
Ray Wong’s contribution to journalism education earned him an Honorary University Fellowship from Hong Kong Baptist University in 2008 and an Honorary Professorship at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong. He was also a consultant professor at the School of Journalism at Fudan University in Shanghai and, in 1998, he was awarded the Silver Bauhinia Star by the Hong Kong SAR government for distinguished service to education and development of Journalism and mass communication in Hong Kong.
Ray Wong’s switch from academia to television news came almost by chance. When Mao Zedong passed away in 1976, an angry mob protested outside TVB’s studio after their news anchor claimed that “the whole Hong Kong is in tears”. Obviously, not everyone agreed. TVB was desperate for standards and professionalism. Ray was in hospital with a bad ulcer at the time. TVB’s general manager showed up by Ray’s hospital bed. Yes...she made him an offer he could not refuse…..to transform TV journalism, not only to salvage TVB’s reputation, but to better serve the Hong Kong public. Over the next couple of years, bedraggled reporters and cameramen became professionals in suits and uniforms. Silent black and white news film turned into technicolour videos with natural sound of the events that beamed into people’s living rooms every evening. Mere description of events became engaging and analytical news stories that the audience could relate to. TVB News’ ratings shot through the roof because they had earned the public’s trust.
Then, in 1978, love drew Ray back to the United States. He took up a job at a newspaper in Los Angeles and was a frequent flyer to Dallas where he rendezvoused with his girlfriend, Dorothy. She became his wife for 40 years. They returned to Hong Kong in 1980, when Ray became the controller of TVB News. They would welcome reporters into their home at Chinese New Year. Soon there were grandchildren in the newsroom. Those new-year photos really were about the love and respect Mr and Mrs Raymond Wong had earned.
For Ray, the high point of his time at TVB were the events at Tiananmen Square on June 4th 1989. Millions of people took to the streets of Hong Kong in protest at the brutality they saw in the evening news. When the troops rolled onto Changan Avenue, Ray spent 32 hours straight on the phone with his news manager in the capital. When the troops went on the streets of Beijing, he had to make the tough choice of bringing his reporters home. “I would not know how to face their families if any of them got hurt”, he said. And that’s the kind of boss he was. He cared. The newsroom that he led won numerous trophies and awards, among those, several Peabody Awards, Edward R Murrow Awards, plus countless accolades both local and international.
Upon retirement in 2004, Ray chaired the Committee on Review of Public Service Broadcasting. In its report, the Committee pointed out that “press freedom and the freedom of expression are part and parcel of Hong Kong people’s fundamental and constitutional rights”.
On the cars of TVB News are the words “TVB Cares”. That was Ray’s idea because he cared. But he said the one slogan he would really like to display in a newsroom would be: “No one said it’s going to be easy”. He recognizes the challenges Hong Kong media faces right now. His advice to anyone who wants to get into the business: “If you cannot sleep at night, you aren’t doing it right, but if there’s the will, there’s hope”.