Still giving after 25 years

Operation Santa Claus hits its quarter-century this year, with more than HK$100 million raised for dozens of charities since it began back in 1988
Still giving after 25 years
Singers Elisa Chan Kit-ling and Alex To Tak-wai help launch the second Operation Santa Claus in 1989, the year the South China Morning Post came on board. Photos: SCMP Pictures

It started with popular DJs pulling crazy stunts to attract donations. Then it turned into a multimedia fund-raiser well before the internet age. 

Today, 25 years on, the spirit of giving is still growing from strength to strength at Operation Santa Claus (OSC). 

The charity drive, jointly organised by the South China Morning Post and Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), identifies the changing needs in the community, explains them to the public and channels help to where it is needed at Christmas. 

Year after year donations are collected, from schools, clubs, companies and generous individuals, in a series of fund-raising events that boost the season's festive atmosphere. With cash from OSC, small charitable organisations have expanded and thrived, helping more and more people in need. 

"Christmas is a time for giving, a slot in the calendar where people are feeling generous," says Alastair Monteith-Hodge, who organised the campaign in its first year, 1988. He was an RTHK radio presenter and producer at the time, and is now chief executive of the Children's Cancer Foundation. Operation Santa Claus' roots date back to the 1960s, Monteith-Hodge says. The tradition started with RTHK Radio 3 presenters performing public stunts to raise funds for charity. They dived into Victoria Harbour in the winter cold, read poetry on roofs and climbed flagpoles among other capers. 

RTHK's current deputy director of broadcasting, Tai Keen-man, recounts the stories with relish. "Our popular DJs and presenters gathered at Queen's Pier. When donations reached a certain amount, they would jump into the sea," he says. 

Santa Claus was played by the inspector of prisons, David Hampton. A fluent Cantonese speaker, he played the same part for the Children's Cancer Foundation in the 1990s, growing his beard from September to December just for his Santa role. 

The early campaigns stopped in the 1970s, when the launch of the Community Chest gave Hongkongers an official body to receive charitable donations. "Perhaps people were asking, 'Why did we have all these crazy gweilos doing these things when we have the Community Chest?'" Monteith-Hodge says with a chuckle. 

The late 1980s brought worries about the future of Hong Kong, after the Sino-British Joint Declaration was signed. 

"The mood in society was quite down," Tai says. "Maybe people thought it was time to conduct a charity project to cheer up society." 

Tony Baynes, the head of RTHK Radio 3 at the time, asked Monteith-Hodge to "resurrect" Operation Santa Claus in 1988. "Our aim was to raise awareness for small charities and their missions, and raise funds for them. The radio was a good way [to do it]," Monteith-Hodge says 

They identified Watchdog, a learning centre for children with special educational needs, as their target charity that year, and set out to raise HK$100,000. In the end they went slightly over the top, reaching HK$101,000. 

Fundraising events included the pantomime, a British Christmas tradition, which gave men a chance to do outrageous things, including dressing up as women. On one Christmas radio show, audiences donated money to sponsor the playing of a hit song from the year. "We had entertainment to make expats feel like it was Christmas back home," Monteith-Hodge recalled. 

Another event was the Battle of the Taipans, in which real taipans - bosses of big companies - were challenged in a general knowledge quiz. "It was fun, but the fundraising was serious," Monteith-Hodge says. 

In 1989, the campaign's target was increased to HK$150,000, with the chosen charity the Children's Cancer Fund (now called the Children's Cancer Foundation), which had been established that year. 

One day, Philip Crawley, the South China Morning Post's editor-in-chief at the time, gave Monteith-Hodge a call and says: "Let me know if there's anything I could do to help," to which the radio man replied: "Can you give us half a page on page three