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Obituary: Anthony Paul, distinguished foreign correspondent and editor who remained a roving reporter at heart

By Brodie Paul and William Mellor

One of Asia Pacific’s most distinguished foreign correspondents, two-time FCC President and life member Anthony Paul, passed away in Brisbane on July 14, aged 81.

Partially obscured, Tony Paul in the shadow of Ambassador Graham Martin as the press crowd around the last US envoy to South Vietnam aboard the USS Blue Ridge following the fall of Saigon in 1975. Partially obscured, Tony Paul in the shadow of Ambassador Graham Martin as the press crowd around the last US envoy to South Vietnam aboard the USS Blue Ridge following the fall of Saigon in 1975.

Even among the pantheon of FCC greats, Tony’s career was unique. As a war correspondent for the Reader’s Digest – at the time the world’s largest selling magazine with a circulation of 23 million – he covered the 1975 fall of Saigon and Phnom Penh. Then, having reinvented himself as a business writer and editor, he went on to chronicle the rise of numerous other Asian cities and economies as the region boomed, most recently as an influential columnist with Fortune Magazine.

A 1977 book Tony co-wrote, Murder of a Gentle Land, exposed Pol Pot’s genocide in Cambodia at a time when many Asia-watchers remained in denial. Subsequent scoops included discovering that the leader of the post-war Malayan communist insurgency against British rule, Chin Peng, had not died in exile in China as many journalists believed, but was indeed alive and well and living just across the Thai border in Hatyai. In 1997, Tony tracked Chin Peng down and interviewed him over lunch at the British Club in Bangkok – an irony both of them enjoyed.

Based in Hong Kong for much of the period between 1972 and 1998, Tony was elected FCC President in 1977-78, then re-elected for a second term the following year. He was an honorary life member not only of the FCC, but also of the FCCT in Thailand and the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan. During years covering conflict in the region, Tony had also acquired an enviable list of military and intelligence contacts, as a result of which he became the only journalist we know to have enjoyed membership of both the FCC and the Special Forces Club in London.

Tony Paul's FCC membership card. Tony Paul’s FCC membership card.

Indeed, when recent changes to the Special Forces Club membership rules were proposed limiting membership to only ex-services types, it was pointed out by a senior member who knew Tony in Asia that Tony would qualify for more campaign medals than many current members.

Apart from covering the Indochina conflict, he also reported on the Soviet-Afghan War (1978-82), and communist insurgencies in Thailand, Malaya, and the Philippines. After the 2002 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Tony, by then well into his 60s, returned to the fray with a reporting trip to Baghdad. Denied insurance and expenses for body armour by the Straits Times, for whom in semi-retirement he them wrote columns, Tony grew a bushy beard for protection to pass more easily as a local. He used to same ruse while visiting Pakistan to interview the then military dictator, Pervez Musharraf.

Tony faced his own last battle as courageously as he reported wars. After learning on June 29 that he had stage 4 oesophagal cancer, he instructed that he be allowed to die as speedily as possible with no visitors except close family, no chemotherapy, no fuss and no memorial service.

Never a dull moment spent with Tony, and many of those ‘moments’ were long lunches.

To many FCC correspondent and journalist members a generation younger, the tall, handsome and avuncular Tony Paul was a friend and mentor, often delving into his vast contacts book to help those less well connected. He also worked closely with them. During his spell as Asia correspondent for the Reader’s Digest and frustrated by the monthly publication’s long lead times, he persuaded his bosses to buy the financially struggling Hong Kong-based Asiaweek magazine and allow him to join the Asiaweek team as a roving writer, feeding his need for more frequent scoops.

Then, after leaving the Digest, he became the founding editor of two other high-quality Asian publications, Business Tokyo, which he edited both out of Japan and New York, and Asia Inc., which he launched in Hong Kong in 1992. Asia Inc. subsequently won the Citibank Pan Asia Journalism Award three years in succession.

Journalists Tony hired or encouraged during those years were among many who paid tribute to him on social media. “Never a dull moment spent with Tony, and many of those ‘moments’ were long lunches,” former FCC and FCCT President Thomas Crampton wrote. “He helped me a great deal at the start of my career.”

Veteran AFP correspondent Ian Timberlake commented: “Tony graciously helped me when I was a green and impoverished stringer in Jakarta.”

Tony Paul in the Sichuan earthquake zone in 2011. Tony Paul in the Sichuan earthquake zone in 2011.

Tony’s beneficence extended way beyond assisting colleagues. Amid the turmoil of the fall of Saigon, he succeeded against the odds in getting his interpreter Son Van Nguyen and the Nguyen family on a plane to the U.S. “The Nguyen clan owe everything to Tony and the Paul family,” Gigi Nguyen wrote from New York. “We are so grateful to you and love you dearly.”

Typically, Tony self-deprecatingly played down his role in the Nguyen drama. As Saigon evacuated, he recalled how he had used his bulk to leap on a bus besieged by fleeing Americans leaving for the airport and used his 6’ 2” (188 cm) frame to brace himself at the door of the bus. “This bus goes nowhere without Son and his family,” Tony declared, amid protests that the vehicle was exclusively for Americans. Only after much pushing and shoving did he hear a voice from the back of the bus yelling: “Tony, Tony it’s OK…we are already on board.” During the commotion and unnoticed by Tony, the diminutive family members had slipped in under his arms.

Tony lost all his luggage in the evacuation, arriving on the U.S.S. Blue Ridge with only a typewriter, two opium pipes, a South Vietnamese general’s hat, one boot (he had lost the other under a helicopter skid) and the Nguyens. On arrival at the ship’s registration desk for evacuees, a marine officer looked at the one shoed man carrying opium pipes and wearing a general’s hat and observed: “Who the fuck are they sending us now?”

Tony also delighted in telling of his first failed attempt to return to a besieged Phnom Penh days before it fell to Pol Pot’s forces in April 1975. Arriving at Bangkok airport on March 31 with what he though was a confirmed reservation on an Air Cambodge Caravelle, Tony was told by a check-in clerk, giggling in embarrassment, that the flight has been cancelled. When Tony demanded to know why, the clerk offered two reasons: Firstly, the Khmer Rouge were shelling the runway. Secondly, the pilot was having a nervous breakdown.

Armed with a Reader’s Digest expense account lavish beyond the dreams of avarice, Tony retreated to the comfort of Bangkok’s Oriental Hotel, where he booked into the Jim Thompson suite and wined and dined extravagantly with a diplomat contact at the Normandie Grill, knowing that if he eventually made it into Phnom Penh, accounting for expenses would be the least of his problems. The following day, he returned to the airport to be told that the pilot’s nerves had calmed sufficiently for the flight to take off into the rocket barrage, although the counter clerk cautioned: “It’s one-way. No return ticket.”

Tony took the flight anyway, wrote a beautiful feature on the despair, corruption and heroism on display during the death throes of the doomed city, then at the last minute decided to join the final evacuation so as to head back to Saigon to witness the  fall of the South Vietnamese capital some two weeks later.

A page from a 1979 edition of The Correspondent in which Tony Paul can be seen on the right. A page from a 1979 edition of The Correspondent in which Tony Paul can be seen on the right.

Anthony Marcus Paul was born in Brisbane, Australia, in 1937 and began his career on the local daily, The Courier Mail, in 1955. Proudly descended from convicts transported from England on the First Fleet of prison ships that arrived in Sydney in 1788 – one for stealing “a golden sixpence”, another for purloining 10 yards of cloth – Tony nevertheless decided his career prospects were better elsewhere. Arriving in the U.S. in the early 1960s, he met and married Anne, his wife of 53 years, and got a job at the Digest.

In 1972, the Digest posted him to Hong Kong, where his adventures really began. Asked once by an envious colleague how he acquired so many contacts in the region so quickly – especially amongst military brass and spooks – Tony replied that although he worked for an American publication, his Australian nationality had denied him the sort of access to CIA intelligence that U.S.-born reporters could expect. To compensate, he focused on wooing the intelligence services of U.S. allies in the region who were getting much of their information from the CIA anyway. In countries such as Thailand and South Korea, the young officers he cultivated in the Vietnam war years subsequently became powerful figures. Perhaps that was why Tony twice gained audiences with Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej and also interviewed the South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee.

Still, he didn’t give those contacts an easy ride. One of his first cover stories after he launched Asia Inc was on the business dealings of the Thai military, titled Khaki Commerce. The cover image was a sinister illustration of a hard-faced general.

Even when he was supposed to be sitting in an editor’s chair in Hong Kong, Tony couldn’t resist going back on the road. When one of his reporters, Bill Mellor, and a photographer, traveling under cover in northern Burma for Asia, Inc in 1993, discovered and photographed a starving chain gang of political prisoners digging a road from Kengtung to the Thai border, Tony realised he had a great cover story – Burma’s Road of Shame. But he also realised that more reporting was needed in the then capital, Rangoon – a city closed in those days to foreign reporters. With his news crew headed in the opposite direction for another urgent assignment across the border in China, Tony promptly jumped on a plane and flew to Rangoon to do the additional reporting himself.

Tony with wife Anne at their son Bruce's wedding Tony with wife Anne at their son Bruce’s wedding.

In countries that weren’t U.S. allies, Tony’s engaging personality served him well. In Hanoi and Beijing, for example, he could easily trade war stories with high-ranking government media minders even though they had been on the opposite sides of the front lines. When he received an invitation from Cambodia’s Prince Norodom Sihanouk to a party the then exiled monarch was throwing in Pyongyang, Tony woke up the North Korean ambassador to Beijing at 11pm the night before to obtain the necessary visa to attend. He got it.

Indeed, he could get almost anyone to open up. One of his more, shall we say, colourful contacts was an Asian intelligence agent operating under diplomatic cover who wasn’t averse to using force to extract confessions. “Extract” being the operative word. Tony nicknamed him Fingernails.

Tony is survived by his wife, Anne, a distinguished gemmologist who loves Asia and, particularly, Hong Kong, as much as Tony did. Their two sons are, Brodie, a Mandarin-speaking entrepreneur who has worked both in Shanghai and Australia, and Bruce, a pilot with Cathay Dragon. Between them, Bruce and Brodie and their wives have five children.

This obituary could go on forever. There are so many more anecdotes about Tony to tell. Most, though, are best retold, not here, but over drinks at the FCC bar or over the sort of long lunches Tony so much enjoyed.

Anne Paul would love that. In her announcement of Tony’s death, she noted that he didn’t want a memorial service because enough had been written and little more needed to be said.  “He would be pleased if you raised a glass to good memories,” she wrote. “In lieu of flowers, contributions to your favourite charity – or a good bottle of wine for yourselves.”

Tony Paul, RIP.

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