Like so many journalists, Ernest stumbled into the field by accident. He has always loved to write. As a student at South Island School he did his A-Levels in economics, English literature and media studies. So when he took a gap year after graduating in 2008, he was intrigued by a job opening as a writer for a local garment trade magazine. “I knew nothing about the garment industry, nothing about working in journalism. I don’t know why I was hired,” he jokes.
It was a steep learning curve. “In a very short time I had to have a grasp on the industry,” says Ernest. The magazine’s editor introduced him to sources and he began to learn about the tight-knit world of Hong Kong’s garment manufacturing. The following year, Ernest decided to study journalism at The University of Hong Kong, where he also majored in politics. “I was reinforcing the skills I had already picked up,” he says. He continued to work at the trade magazine part time.
When he graduated, Ernest saw an opening for a graveyard shift as a night editor for the South China Morning Post’s (SCMP) website. “It was a lot of grunt work,” he says. Most of his duties involved copying and pasting content from the print edition to the website and making sure there were no errors. Of the five people who were hired with Ernest, two quit after the first month.Ernest was finally promoted to the day shift when the SCMP revamped its website and began producing more web-only content. Every day, he monitored breaking news and stories from China. After a year, one of his editors suggested him to apply for a job as a city news reporter. “The transition was pretty big,” he says. “You’re always on the run, barely at the office — there’s no sitting at a desk from nine to five.”
That rush is exactly what made the new job so exciting. As with the garment magazine, Ernest had to learn the ropes by himself. “I started off not knowing a lot,” he says. “I didn’t have the phone number of a single lawmaker. I wasn’t even able to differentiate a government bureau from a department.” He was assigned to the environment beat and worked with Cheung Chi-fai, a senior reporter. “He took me under his wing and I learnt a lot from him” he says. Ernest had been on the job for just over a year when Occupy Central took the city by surprise. “It was the highlight of my career,” he says. “I’ve covered a lot of protests, too many to name,” and most of them had begun to feel routine and predictable. “It was so dull — and suddenly the Occupy Central broke out. I would have never imagined that there would be kids of my age with plastic shields and helmets in a line in front of policemen.”Ernest describes Occupy Central as “an awakening for Hong Kong.” For the first time, the decades-old democracy debate felt fresh. He spent much of the time walking around the occupied zones, talking to protesters. They were eager to share their thoughts. “I don’t think that would have been the case without Occupy Central. Hongkongers are normally very private, conservative people.”