The FCC’s longest serving member Marvin Farkas (No 004) died in April after a short illness. The 89-year-old American was an author, photographer, cameraman, Broadway and film actor, sailor in the US navy, traveller and news correspondent. Fortunately for all of us, he liked a good story and told them well and left many of them through his memoir An Eastern Saga, published in 2011.
Marvin also wrote many of those stories for The Correspondent in recent years. On the magazine’s celebrated Timeline (on the wall as you go to Bert’s) first produced in 1999 and updated in 2013, Marvin is pictured in 1956 getting arrested for trying to film the infamous Two Gun Cohen, then Sun Yat-sen’s personal bodyguard and a general in the Chinese army.
On Marvin’s 60th anniversary of his joining the Club, Marty Merz wrote, Among the hard-drinking, hard-living foreign correspondents who have gravitated to the FCC over the years, Marvin always stood out. More likely to have a ukulele in hand than a beer hes a teetotaller Marvin has been a fixture ever since he moved into one of the rooms in the Clubs erstwhile premises on Conduit Road in April 1954.
While the hacks at the bar pounded their livers, Marvin, bounded up to the Peak at least three times a week, rain or shine, starting in 1954.
Marvin first came to Hong Kong in 1946 when he was with the US Navy. ‘I fell in love with Hong Kong then and vowed to come back and stay.
In 1954, he returned on a cargo ship called the Eastern Saga which became the title of his memoirs. We took five days to make the journey from Osaka. In those days, big ships weren’t permitted to come ashore and we were ferried over in walla-wallas. I marvelled at the houses that hung precariously from the hills over Lei Yue Mun Gap as we entered the harbour. There were junks, great ships and sampans in the harbour. I remember the mix of colonial buildings, with their arches, and, although they were five or six storeys tall, each one was an individual with its own style. The squatter areas were spread all over every hill.
Someone in Tokyo had told Marvin that the place to go in Hong Kong was the FCC. I stayed at the FCC for more than two years; the main reason was I couldn’t settle my account! I ran up a bill of more than US$7,000 and didn’t have the money to pay it. The FCC was a lively place, although the rooms left something to be desired.
Marvin worked as a foreign correspondent for about 40 years and covered the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia, the Indo-Pak war, an earthquake in Bali, a student uprising in Japan and one in Korea. It all started because my father had given me a Rolleiflex camera and a cheque for US$500 and told me to go and ‘get some experience’.
At the Marvin’s first job at Tiger Standard [the original name for The Standard], the general manager offered me HK$600 a month and when I asked why they paid such low salaries she answered that it was a Chinese custom. I was hired as a sub-editor and erroneously thought this meant ‘assistant to the editor’.
After five or six years in the wars, Marvin turned to others stories in Asia. The story he was proudest of was his work with Dayak headhunters in Borneo. He was shooting for NBC with Ron Nessen. Even though they were without military escort, they managed to shoot the pillaging and burning of a Chinese village, where the Dyaks killed all the inhabitants. They saw headless bodies beside the road and in every stream.
One time I was interviewing Zhou Enlai [the first premier of the People’s Republic of China] when my camera broke down. He waited patiently for 45 minutes until we got a new camera. I expected him to leave in a huff when I started tinkering around. Instead, he just stayed there and made jokes with the correspondent. He didn’t have any airs about him. He belonged to the family of common man. Right there I started to think that communism had something to it.
Marty Merz continues his story: I joined Marvin in the early 1990s on his almost daily power walks up to the Peak. I made phone calls while he ran the 3.6km Lugard Road circuit with Jagjit Dhillon, one time Reuters scribe who first met Marvin during the Cultural Revolution madness on Garden Road when the angry mob turned its violent attention to Jagjit as Marvin filmed the whole scene including the later notorious policeman Mr Godber.
Every time I walked with Marvin back down to Central hed laugh to himself and tell me a story from his colourful past his brief stint as a teenage radio star working with Burl Ives; then as a Broadway actor; the most seasick sailor in the US Navy (he still blanches on the Star Ferry, but takes it anyway because pensioners travel for free); his time with the graves commission on the China coast when he first saw and fell in love with Hong Kong. Then there was his circuitous return to the scene of the crime in 1954, working under formidable Sally Aw at the Tiger Standard, then borrowing a movie camera to capture interviews of escapees from China at Lowu. And finally finding himself in Vietnam for 13 years as a war correspondent for the TV networks.
After 10 years walking with Marvin I realised that he had recounted a new story every time we wended down Old Peak Road. I was having trouble remembering it all so I pestered him to write them down. After initial reluctance he became an unstoppable memorialist: nine books at a steady trot.
In the words of Marvin: The wars were my favourite beat, but I covered many stories all through Asia. At that time there was a certain laissez-faire, letting you get on with your work. In other words, you knew best how to do your job.