Out in the Field With Hong Kong’s Radio Pirates

The view from the transmitter site

“Stand here, and don’t move,” the taxi driver—let’s call him Chan—orders me in Cantonese. I don’t have to think twice about obeying. It’s around 10 on Saturday night, and I’m balanced precariously on a 3-foot-wide strip of dry, slippery underbrush that’s on top of one of the tallest mountain ridges in Hong Kong. Tonight is cold, about 48 degrees Fahrenheit, and the wind is whooshing across the ridge, which drops off steeply on both sides. It’s scary, but the view is stunning. If I turn around—carefully—I can see the dimly lit street grids of Shatin and the New Territories and the electric glow of Shenzhen, China, across the border. In front, city lights spread out in a sequined carpet. I can make out the famous Hong Kong skyline in the distance, twinkling like a string of miniature Christmas bulbs.

Chan and his partner, the engineer—a young, energetic guy nicknamed “Monkey”—scramble over to a tall tree, then Monkey quickly shimmies up a hanging branch that looks way too slender to carry his weight. In the full moonlight, I can see him clinging to the branch as it sways and threatens to break in two. It occurs to me that what I’m watching is either a supremely courageous action in defense of free speech or a reckless adventure—maybe a bit of both.

The illegal Chinese-made transmitter for Citizen’s Radio

Chan and Monkey are climbing up branches on a mountain in the dark of night in order to set up a transmitter and antenna for Man Gaan Dihn Toi, or Citizen’s Radio, a pirate underground FM radio station that broadcasts, once a week, a one-hour talk show hosted by Hong Kong district councilor and pro-democracy activist Tsang Kin Shing. What they are doing tonight is completely illegal. In Hong Kong, possession of an unlicensed broadcast transmitter is punishable by a jail term of up to five years and a fine of up to U.S.$13,000.

When I’d met Tsang the day before for an interview, I’d asked him if I could come and watch the preparations for his broadcast. I wanted to know how a handful of Hong Kongers with very little money were managing to put a pirate radio station on the air in one of the most mountainous, difficult cities for radio reception in Asia. Citizen’s Radio has been broadcasting since September, once a week, operating on a shoestring. (The 1-watt transmitters Tsang uses are Chinese-made and cost HK$2,000, or U.S.$260, each—the group has bought 10.) Tsang said I could go, no problem, as long as I agreed not to take pictures of his crew or to learn their names.

Then the preparations took on a Mission: Impossible feel. We left his office and dove into an off-duty taxi that was waiting by the curb. The taxi drove around for a while and we talked. “Better not to discuss this on the phone, it could be tapped,” Tsang advised. The taxi driver turned out to be Chan, one of the two guys who assembles the transmitter each week, then takes it up to its mountainous location.

“The Bull,” Tsang Kin Shing, in his office in Chai Wan last Friday

Tsang Kin-Shing is a short, scrappy 49-year-old ex-construction foreman with a hearty laugh; he always wears suspenders and he has a reputation as a steadfast, even pugnacious, fighter for populist causes. His nickname, in Cantonese, is “Ah Ngau”—The Bull. He’s also a talented puppet-maker—his giant portrayal of Hong Kong’s current chief executive, Donald Tsang, having his strings pulled by Chinese President Hu Jintao was a big hit at last summer’s July 1 democracy march. The Bull is one of the most famous characters in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy community; you’ll find him whenever there’s a street protest in Hong Kong (and in this city of protests, where people are still fighting for universal suffrage, there are demonstrations pretty much every day), fist in the air, alongside “Long Hair” Leung Kwok Hung, and other regulars in Hong Kong’s indefatigable band of political activists.

Media self-censorship has made Hong Kong’s lively press tamer and tamer since the 1997 handover. When I was following Leung Kwok Hung around earlier this year to write a magazine profile, I began to notice something odd. Although Long Hair was always trailed by a video-camera-toting pack of Hong Kong reporters, his level-headed press conferences and stand-ups seldom appeared on Hong Kong’s evening news broadcasts. I asked one of the local reporters why this was, and she unabashedly replied: “I’m not allowed to write anything about him unless it is bad. My boss is pro-government and pro-Beijing.” Hong Kong’s media, owned by wealthy businessmen who also have interests and/or holdings in mainland China, has a huge incentive to play nice with the mainland government and support its policies in Hong Kong. And right now, the mainland policy toward Hong Kong is basically: Democracy? Universal suffrage? Forgettaboutit.

There’s only one pro-democracy newspaper among Hong Kong’s 12 or 13 dailies: Apple Daily is owned by maverick entrepreneur Jimmy Lai, who sold off his successful business (Giordano, The Gap of Hong Kong) in order to be able to publish without looking over his shoulder. (Apple is currently the No. 2 newspaper in town, sales-wise.) Hong Kong’s three radio stations—two are commercial, and one is government-run—toe a careful line, striving to avoid controversy. Last year, two well-known pro-democracy radio talk-show hosts received threats and ended up quitting their shows. This year another outspoken host, Wong Yuk-man, was sidelined by management to a graveyard slot; he subsequently quit.

In Hong Kong, talk radio is as popular as it is in the United States, maybe even more so. Ride a taxi in the city and the driver will almost always be tuned into some rollicking Cantonese-language chat-and-call-in program where a gaggle of guests, hosts, and callers trade puns, banter, and talk fast and loud as if they were having dim sum on a Sunday afternoon in a crowded restaurant. In Cantonese Hong Kong culture, that beloved bustle is called “yit lau,” and it’s what the talk shows strive for. But with the most outspoken talk-show hosts on the regular radio stations sidelined, the most “yit lau” radio is now happening on pirate broadcasts like Tsang’s, and on a couple of upstart Internet radio stations, like People’s Radio of Hong Kong, which broadcasts every weekday evening.

PRHK is very, very yit lau—so much so that occasionally guests threaten to throw a punch and stomp out. It features, among other things, a soccer show hosted by Long Hair and district councilor Andrew To, and live coverage of all the big Hong Kong democracy protest marches. Shiu Yeuk Yeun, a Hong Kong millionaire businessman (he used to produce Hong Kong B movies like The King of Debt Collecting Agent and now owns a string of beauty and weight-loss salons) founded and bankrolls the all-volunteer PRHK. Shiu told me that since the station started up about 18 months ago, they’ve built an audience of about 700 listeners a night, mainly Cantonese-speaking Hong Kongers and Chinese living abroad, some logging in to listen from as far away as Nigeria.

Long Hair, with People’s Radio of Hong Kong director Siu Yeuk Yeun, broadcasting his weekly program Fung Siu Siu over the Internet

But you can’t listen to Internet radio from a Hong Kong taxicab, which is why the Bull (who also appears on PRHK) and his group of supporters decided to apply for a license for Citizen’s Radio last September. “Of course they will never give it to me,” he says. The Hong Kong government maintains that the area’s FM band is completely full (the three radio stations each broadcast on multiple frequencies). But there’s another, unspoken problem with giving a license to a bunch of yit lau pro-democracy advocates, as someone who works for government station RTHK pointed out to me. “The last thing the Chinese want is some independent, freewheeling Hong Kong station broadcasting pro-democracy political talk that can be picked up on the mainland.” The Chinese government’s comfort level with Hong Kong’s freedom of expression is so low that even the Web site of the even-handed, BBC-like government radio RTHK is blocked on the mainland.

And so, Citizen’s Radio climbs the mountain. High above Hong Kong, on Saturday night, Chan and Monkey successfully attach the antenna, battery, and transmitter to the swaying treetop with black electrical tape (they wear gloves, so as not to leave prints). Mission accomplished, we carefully grope our way back down the path in the dark. At the bottom, Chan uses his cell phone to call the transmitter high above for one final test (the transmitter is controlled remotely by cell phone—just like a terrorist’s bomb). When it works, the two guys jump up and do a high-five. The total time spent building, setting up, and placing the transmitter is five and a half hours—for a one-hour broadcast.

“Yes, it’s worth the effort,” says Chan. “Because if I go out and protest in the street, I’m just one voice. Only a few people can hear me. But with this transmitter, one voice has the power to reach thousands.”