South China Morning Post. Photo: Google Maps
South China Morning Post. Photo: Google Maps

The life of a good Hong Kong journalist, I figure, is like going to a famous Chinese restaurant during rush hour: It is hard to find a seat and even harder to keep it.

In that aspect, there is still something special about Shirley Yam, a well-respected columnist who resigned last week from the South China Morning Post after an 11-year stint.

The “Money Matters” writer, famous for whistle-blowing, published her final column last Wednesday, a month after the paper retracted a piece she had written on President Xi Jinping’s right-hand man.

In an unusual move, the paper owned by Alibaba Group retracted her commentary piece because, it said, it included multiple unverifiable insinuations and did not meet its standards for publication.

Yam’s departure took place quietly, with both sides keeping mum on what actually happened in the past month, as did all the parties involved in the incident such as the company, the investors, and the powers that were said to be behind it all.

But Hong Kong’s biggest English-language daily has definitely lost a character who writes things others have rarely dared to write over the past decade.

Yam originally did a Saturday column, and she and I were paper neighbors, sharing the back page for more than four years when I also worked for the SCMP. While her columns might have been penetrating, my pieces were often cut tragically short because hers often went longer.

But I seldom complained, not only because we rarely bumped into each other in the office but also because I knew at the bottom of my heart that was what my readers wanted on the weekend.

If Hu Shuli, founder of Chinese financial magazine Caixin, is praised as a watchdog of mainland China’s stock-market regulators and players, Yam is definitely her counterpart in Hong Kong.

I remember one of her pieces, an open letter in 2008 in which she urged then Hong Kong chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen to fire Bank of East Asia chairman David Li Kwok-po – who had advised Yam for her master’s thesis – from the city’s Executive Council after he settled an insider-trading case with the US Securities and Exchange Commission.

Li, who quit Exco in 2008 after that high-profile Dow Jones case, had been an independent non-executive director of SCMP Group until 2016.

I had not met with Yam for a few years until last Monday, at a roundtable chat with government officials. About halfway through the 90-minute meeting, Yam – without apologizing for her tardiness – showed up and asked some clear and concise questions of the officials.

Have a nice little break, madam! I hope you will not forget your readers for too long and will share your insights in a press-free environment.

Meanwhile, I will get you seated in a nice restaurant and pour you a cup of puer to drink to your longevity.