China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2020/Jul

A vision of Catholic communication

The Chinese Catholic weekly, Kung Kao Po (公教報) is one of the oldest Chinese newspapers in Hong Kong, while English Catholic weekly, the Sunday Examiner, is also a long-lasting publication in the city. Both were established by priests of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Mission (PIME) in 1928 and 1947 respectively.

Catholic periodicals in the early years of Hong Kong

The first Catholic periodical in Hong Kong was an English bi-weekly, The Hong Kong Catholic Register (香港天主教紀錄報), which was founded on 22 September 1877. It was another 37 years before another Catholic paper came into being. This was a Portuguese publication established in 1914, the Religiao e Patria (religion and the country).

In 1920, the Catholic Church in Hong Kong published another periodical in English. It was called the The Rock. However, it was not directly managed by the Catholic Church. Its chief editor, of The Rock, Lieutenant Colonel F. Bowen, was an active member of the British Forces and an exemplary Catholic. The publishers were the Catholic Union and the Catholic Men’s Club. On 1 May 1925, The Rock suspended publication, resuming in January 1928 with a new format under the management of Jesuit priests.

In addition, two more small publications also served the Catholic Mission of Hong Kong. One was the Leaflet of the Apostleship of Prayer which was published monthly in three languages: Chinese, Portuguese and English. It was an internal publication for members of the Apostleship of Prayer. Another was the English publication, Reveille, a monthly, eight-page leaflet. 

Kung Kao Po a significant breakthrough

The Kung Kao Po (公教報, Catholic Post) was first published in August 1928. The founding editor, Father A. Granelli PIME (顏思回) arrived from Italy in Hong Kong in 1920. On establishing this new Chinese monthly, he relied greatly on the assistance of a local priest, Father Philip Lo (盧履中), but unfortunately, Father Lo was re-assigned to Danshui (淡水鎮) in Huiyang County (惠陽縣) in 1929. According to the Catholic jurisdictional boundaries, Huiyang, Bao’an (寶安) and Haifeng (海豐) were part of the Hong Kong Catholic Mission.

Ever since its establishment in 1928, all the editors-in-chief were priests with the brief exception of Mary Seung in 1996, who served as the acting editor-in-chief. It was not until 2005 that Sister Teresa Yuen Sau-mei (阮秀美修女) was appointed the first-ever non-cleric and female editor-in-chief of both the KKP and the SE. She has been the longest-serving editor-in-chief of the two papers so far.

Sister Yuen was born in 1944 and baptised at St. Teresa’s Church in 1957. She joined the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary in 1966 in Macau and studied Chinese Literature at the Fujen Catholic University in Taiwan in the 1970s. She later received a master’s degree from the University of Hong Kong, studying the history of missionaries in China.

She worked at various Catholic media in Hong Kong and also pioneered several pastoral services such as CHOICE for Catholic youth development, as well as marriage formation for young Catholic couples. Her strong insights in media evangelisation helped lead Catholic newspapers in Hong Kong in the 21st century, into the age of digital communications. The format and structure of Catholic media in Hong Kong also encouraged contemporary developments of Catholic media in mainland China. 

I am glad to have had the chance to interview Sister Yuen twice: in 2006 and 2019, to discuss the relations between Kung Kao Po and the development of the Catholic Church in Hong Kong. The following is an abstract of the interviews, which outlined quite a clear direction for the Catholic newspaper in face of cultural and technological shifts.

Sister Yuen gave this example in 2006: In the past, when the rector of the Chapel of Kowloon Wah Yan College paid for the subscription and gave the Kung Kao Po to the parishioners for free, every copy would be taken. But in November 2006, when people had to pay, half of the copies were left.

On promoting the KKP, she noted that frontline priests could play a critical role. Some would promote it once a month and usually people responded positively. 

As to promoting the newspaper to Christians outside the Catholic circle, Sister Yuen commented: “Basically individual contact is most effective. KKP should help elevate life and extend social value.”  

Both the KKP and Sunday Examiner are sold at a fixed price. Following these examples, the Faith Press in Shijiazhuang, China, is now also for sale or available through subscription. 

Some might ask if Church publications should be for sale.

According to Sister Yuen, people usually expect to receive Church media products for free. Basically, once production is completed, it would be more meaningful if it can reach as many people as possible. On the other hand, Hong Kong Catholics can generally afford to pay. Having to pay helps people to take the product seriously. Payment is also a kind of education. For Catholics it is a kind of formation. 

Non-profit organisations can choose difference levels of payment. The first is free. The running costs have to be borne by the organisation—this is service by subvention. The second is charging a symbolic fee, weaning the service-user from a purely receiving mentality. The third is payment for service, basically a self-supporting programme. 

Take the case of Kung Kao Po, in 1928 when it was first published, the paper itself was free but readers had to pay the postal cost. So it was not in the first category but the second one. After a few years it was sold for a fee, including through subscription and through retail sales. Now it has been almost 90 years (publication was suspended for a few years during World War II). After so many decades, we can see that charging for the service of a non-profit organisation has a number of positive implications. 

First, the degree of market acceptance. The service, especially related to mass communication, could be easily abused if it were totally free. Without a market mechanism, distribution work and demand are disconnected. When the cost paid by the receiver (those who accept the service) is zero, the receiver will not stop accepting it even if they do not need it. There is a great deal of waste.

Paid service is different. As they have to pay for the service, limiting the audience to those who are really interested. The market mechanism will reflect the demand and avoid waste.

Secondly, an indicator for future development. With a paid service, the amount of income serves as an indicator of the audience and the degree of social appreciation. Those who fail to meet the needs of the audience will face a decrease in profit. This will push the service to change. The famous economist, Schumpete,r once said: “profits come from change.” If organisations would like to get back on track, they should try their best to find out the hidden problems. 

Third, generate funds for further development. Compared with free publications, paid periodicals serve as a regular channel of generating funding for sustainable development. For services that are free-of-charge, once the organisation fails to receive subvention, the service will be terminated. For non-profit organisations, even if the fees for service may not cover all the expenses, at least to a certain extent it can help the service survive. It also adds to the confidence of the donors too. 

Fourth, consolidate the morale of the workers and the clients.

Charging for the service will give the worker a great sense of achievement as the financial capital was not given but earned. It also gives the service-receivers a greater sense of participation as they have contributed something to the development of the service. Psychologically it enhances the justification of the service. 

On 2 September 2019, when I interviewed Sister Yuen again, she maintained the same attitude: “Of course it is good if more people can read Kung Kao Po, but the main problem is that modern people are no longer used to reading. Kung Kao Po also has an online version. We have repeatedly encouraged godparents to promote it to their godchildren.”

Propagating news or propagating faith: a dilemma

In reality, quite a lot of Christian periodicals tend to avoid using any names relating to Christianity. They worry that such a brand name will be rejected in the mass market. Even the Catholic periodical, the Yishi Bao (益世報), literally translated as: Beneficial to the World, in Tianjin, used this name to dilute the Catholic tone. 

The Church in Hong Kong, however, made Kung Kao Po the brand name, reflecting its decision to promote Catholicism. We can say that Kung Kao Po in this aspect was quite progressive. Though it faced severe market pressure, Kung Kao Po has survived until now. 

When asked about whether Church periodicals are helpful for evangelisation, Sister Yuen said, “In our Kung Kao Po, many feature stories are about the life of the interviewees. It is to praise love with life experience, not just praise by word.” She added that Catholic media should tell the story of human beings, this is the Fifth Gospel. 

As the editor-in-chief of Kung Kao Po Sister Yuen’s vision helped shape the newspaper. The value of the printed word is long-lasting. It will not be replaced in time or by electronic products. For those who aim at in-depth knowledge, verified contents of printed books and periodicals are always attractive.

Kung Kao Po had a wonderful editor-in-chief in Sister Teresa Yuen. For that we give thanks! 

Anthony S.K. Lam