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Obituary: Paul Baran, journalist and champion pool player

Paul Baran, 1949 – 2019

Paul Baran, retired journalist, former FCC member, and champion pool player, has died in Ladysmith, Vancouver Island, Canada, at the age of 69 of brain cancer.

Paul Baran reads the SCMP on the Cheung Chau ferry in the 1980s Paul Baran reads the SCMP on the Cheung Chau ferry in the 1980s.

Paul was initially a reporter and copy editor at the Vancouver Sun. Arriving in Hong Kong in 1980, he was a feature writer at South China Morning Post’s Sunday Magazine, and then freelanced for a variety of local and international publications, including the Asian edition of Business Traveller, Asia Travel Trade and Reader’s Digest. He returned to SCMP from 1983-1985 as the senior trade and finance reporter.

Paul also spent many hours hustling all comers in the FCC basement pool hall. In 1988, he was the Club’s 8 Ball Champion.

Paul also tried his hand at public relations with a brief foray into financial PR with start-up Media Dynamics Ltd before it was taken over by Edelman. Dealing with demanding PR clients, it seemed, wasn’t well suited to Paul’s freewheeling, independent approach to life. 

He returned to his native Canada in 1999, where he continued working as a freelance business writer and was active as a volunteer in community projects. For a number of years, he helped organise the Kaslo Jazz & Blues Festival in British Columbia. Moving to Ladysmith, he was an avid boater and nature lover.

Paul’s conversations were always interesting, weird, stimulating. Sometimes all of those within the same story. He loved music, from Franz Schubert to Frank Zappa, and among favourite authors were Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, John Updike, John Cheever, and Patrick O’Brian.

One of Paul’s all-time favorite movies was It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World — and, knowing Paul, this made perfect sense. He could quote many lines from it. 

Paul Baran. Paul Baran.

He was deeply intelligent, a trait that often surfaced in his sense of humour. Quips that initially appeared to have come out of left field were later found to have been delivered with the precision of a surgeon. 

He cared deeply about people, inquiring about his friends’ fortunes every time he saw them. He asked often and, when they responded, he listened.

Paul Baran was an übermensch, huge-hearted, and a terrific journalist. He was passionate and playful, loyal and loving — to be Paul’s friend was a blessing, a gift. The world was brighter, lighter around him.

Paul is survived by his wife, Sue, a landscape architect who he loved with all his heart; he filled their life together with laughter and happiness. He was a very special person who touched the hearts of those around him and he will be truly missed by all his friends.


The Greening of the FCC

General manager Didier Saugy has made it his mission to reduce the club’s carbon footprint and has launched a series of initiatives towards that goal. Morgan M. Davis talked to him about the FCC going green.

It’s not easy being green, but the FCC’s new sustainability initiatives have helped to make at least one part of its members’ lives a bit more sustainable. 

The FCC has launched sustainability initiatives. The FCC has launched sustainability initiatives.

Since becoming the FCC’s first new general manager in almost two decades last summer, Didier Saugy has made it his mission to cut down on the FCC’s carbon footprint and give back to the Hong Kong community at the same time.

“I think it’s very important. We’re big wasters of anything,” said Saugy of his efforts. “We need to look after our planet.”

Prior to Saugy’s efforts, the FCC did not have any green initiatives in place; this created its own challenges but also left a lot of room for easy improvements. “It’s never been on the agenda,” said Saugy, admitting he was a bit surprised by the lack of sustainability efforts at the FCC when he arrived. “Just an eye opening is good for the staff, for the members,” he said.

Saugy began by modeling his green plan after his experiences working in hotels, most of which have some sustainability efforts in place. He started with quick fixes, meeting with club managers once a month to focus on green changes. Initial club efforts likely fell below the radar of most members. The kitchen, for instance, began recycling its cooking oil, selling it to a local company that repurposes it into biodiesel. He also switched the club’s electricity to LED lights.

“It’s a little bit easier for me to come in and put it in place…because it was normal practice for me until now,” said Saugy of his sustainable practice experiences in hotels. “What we’re doing in our daily routine is important. We’re diminishing our footprint as much as we can.”

Since then, the initiative has become more apparent in the front of the house. Members will notice a battery recycling box in the club lobby. The FCC is recycling its batteries and electronics through a local programme, and members are welcome to drop off their own from home for the club to recycle.

All cleaning chemicals used in the club have been changed to biodegradable – something that extends to the soap being used in the club’s toilets. The laundry is now being done by a green certified company.

Takeaway boxes have been switched to biodegradable material, and the club is making a transition to paper bags for takeaway as well. Any food left over at the club is being donated to the Foodlink Foundation in the city (see box below). The Hong Kong charity reduces food waste, while also providing healthy meals to the city’s most needy citizens. “Being part of the community is important as well,” said Saugy.

The FCC’s paper has also been given a makeover, with the letterhead being switched to a more sustainable paper option. This magazine is now printed on paper from responsible sources. The club office has two recycling bins for paper and has encouraged a policy of recycled paper use and double-sided printing. Previously waste paper was thrown away.

While the list of Saugy’s changes is extensive, it’s only just the beginning. The club recently contacted HK Energy for an audit, to look further into the club’s current energy use, and how green energy can be better incorporated. Some of the related changes will involve updating old equipment, particularly in the kitchen, to cut down on energy waste.

In the dining room, the FCC is encouraging members to try meatless Mondays by introducing a vegetarian menu with vegan options. Every Monday, the club offers a new variety of vegetable-friendly courses. Saugy tries to buy as much local produce as possible and hopes to incorporate more home gardening efforts into the menu. He’s looking into options of what herbs and vegetables could be easily grown at the club, down to the possibility of planted herbs as centrepieces on the club’s tables. Future menus will include more sustainable seafood options as well.

For me, it’s really to be proud of the club for doing something.

For coffee drinkers, the FCC is switching to Nespresso pods, which can be collected for recycling. Already, the club has contributed 15,000 pods to recycle. All drinking straws have been switched from plastic to paper. Glass bottles, which were previously thrown out, are now being recycled.

While some of the initial projects came easily for a club starting from zero, a complete overhaul of FCC does have its challenges, namely the cost. “It’s a shame,” said Saugy. “Anything we do for recycling is expensive.”

But his initiatives have also helped balance the books. Using new printers and cutting down on printing, for instance, has saved the club HK$10,000 per month. Selling the cooking oil has also brought in a few hundred dollars.

Other challenges come down to how the club was set up. Air conditioner use, for instance, sucks up large quantities of energy, while offering little option for the FCC to reduce the use. Like many other places in Hong Kong, the AC is either on full blast or off. That makes it impossible to cut down on electricity by adjusting the temperature. Saugy is hoping to find an AC alternative that will allow more control. 

“The way the club was made has not always been the best practice,” said Saugy. Short term answers to long term problems are a reality for the FCC and other such operations in Hong Kong, striving to pay the bills while providing for members in the near term. “Being in an old building as well can be difficult,” he added.

But as the FCC makes its changes, Saugy hopes that the club’s staff and members at least feel inspired to incorporate more sustainability in their lives. “For me, it’s really to be proud of the club for doing something,” he said. 

Fast Facts from Foodlink, one of FCC’s new partners

  • Founded in 2001, Foodlink is a registered charity.
  • Foodlink acts as a bridge between food and beverage outlets in Hong Kong to provide safe-to-eat surplus food to those in need.
  • The initiative aims to both reduce hunger and reduce pressure on Hong Kong’s landfills.
  • 3,600 tons of food waste is disposed of in landfills every day in Hong Kong.
  • Food waste accounts for 35% of all municipal solid waste in the city.
  • One in five children live in low-income households and do not get three meals a day.
  • One in three elderly live in poverty and struggle to meet their nutritional needs.
  • Low-income families spend over 50% of their income on food.

Morgan M. Davis is a finance reporter at Euromoney’s GlobalCapital. The Illinois-transplant moved to Hong Kong two years ago by way of New York City, accompanied by her trusty sidekick Gizmo the Yorkie. Morgan has reported on multiple sectors of finance, and holds a Master’s degree from Columbia University.


Jeannie Cho Lee: What wine has taught me about life

Whether it’s the way a bottle of wine slows down how we eat or feeling wonder at the beauty human beings can create, Master of Wine Jeannie Cho Lee knows we can all learn lessons from wine.

Jeannie Cho Lee Jeannie Cho Lee

Wine appeared in my life as a saviour after university, giving me direction and focus. Up until then, I hopped from one passion or interest to another with total disregard for what I had studied as an undergraduate and graduate student: international relations and public policy. Moving into the world of wine was effortless since I had spent all of my free time since my childhood obsessing about food. I dove in and did what all good Korean students do: Take classes, learn, study and rack up the certificates, diplomas and awards. All of my efforts culminated in 2008 when I received my Master of Wine (MW) title.

The MW took me longer than I expected because I had four children while also working as a journalist and eventually a wine writer. And like many working mothers, life was a constant juggling act. There were about a dozen balls in the air and I dropped a ball or two, sometimes unintentionally and sometimes intentionally. Wine was always one of the balls in the air and it started to move from a hobby to something in the shape of a profession, fuelled by having the MW credentials and Hong Kong eliminating its wine duty.

After 30 years of enjoying wine, I feel intensely grateful. Not for the obvious reason that I love what I do, but because of what wine has taught me about life. Who would have thought that wine would one day make me a little bit wiser or a better mother? Below are some unexpected self-revelations during my wine journey.

Why stress is essential for greatness

I’ve always tried to understand what makes great wine great. Over the years I realised that there is one common thread across all great wines from anywhere in the world. The grape vines from top vineyards are quite stressed – for water, for nutrients, for warmth and for basic sustenance. In a stressful environment where grape vines are forced to struggle, the vine creates a deeper root system that seeks out water reserves and nutrients and limits yield (high quantity and larger grapes usually mean diluted flavours and concentration). There is a limit on the amount of stress that vines can tolerate and insufficient water, nutrients or sunlight can have detrimental effects on quality. However, there is a narrow band of desirable stress that all good viticulturalists understand instinctively – turn on the tap at the right time with just the right amount of water to allow the grapes to survive but not so much that it gets lazy and doesn’t establish deep roots.

With film director and winemaker Francis Ford Coppola With film director and winemaker Francis Ford Coppola

As a mother raising four children in Hong Kong, a nagging concern was how much pressure to put on my kids. In an era when parents swing from over-indulging their children to hovering over them as guilt-laden helicopter parents, I was torn. Should I follow my traditional, strict Korean upbringing or be more liberal and follow my American and European friends who granted much more freedom and choice to their children? What I learned from wine told me I needed “acceptable stress” – somewhere between Amy Chua’s Tiger Mom and the laid-back mothers that offered extreme independence. How do you provide just enough stress to instill self-motivation and discipline yet not stifle self-expression or creativity? I haven’t found the answer but my middle way was to send my children to local Chinese schools during their younger years, then switch them to international school; similarly at home, I evolved from a traditional Asian parent to a more liberal one as my children matured.

Time and timing is everything

Another key element to producing great wine is understanding the role of timing. While a hundred small decisions are involved in making wine, getting the timing right makes the difference between good and great wine. In the vineyard, timing of preventative measures is key to keeping rot, disease and pests at bay; in the cellar, timing decisions involving date of harvest, maceration length, and length of barrel aging are all critical to the wine’s style and ultimate quality.

The concept of time by the estate and winemaker often contributes to the wine’s quality: Are the wines for early enjoyment or are they made to lay down in your cellar and pass on to your children? Is the winery most concerned about short-term profits and sales or is it a family business to be preserved for generations?

In life, timing is not something we can always control, but understanding the importance of time is something I have learned to always keep in mind. Great wines are made for multiple generations and the ability to defy time (as a timeless classic possessing long aging potential) is a defining feature of quality wines. Thus when I am confronted with important choices, I try to consider whether the timing is right and how my decision may be judged by my children or my grandchildren.

I’ve noticed too that when I open a bottle of wine with a meal, the pace and rhythm changes. As time-strapped Hong Kong residents, we often eat far too quickly and the super-efficient Chinese service in most restaurants propels us to eat faster. Adding wine to a meal slows down the pace and I find our meals are longer, our conversations more open and our discussions more interesting.

Beauty is everywhere

Even after 30 years of exploring and tasting wine, I find myself stumbling across wines with such astounding beauty that it leaves me breathless and sometimes in tears. My most recent experience was at the cellar of Domaine Etienne Sauzet while tasting the 2017 Montrachet grand cru from barrel at the end of 2018. It was pure, intricate and delicate and at the same time, persistent and complex. It was a symphony of flavours that stayed on my palate long after I tasted it. Words could not do justice to this experience; instead, I scribbled “perfection”.

We don’t need to taste a grand cru Burgundy to have such epiphanies and marvel at what we as human beings are able to create – destruction and chaos but equally, beauty and magic. In the face of beauty, of great art, a realm that I feel great wine falls under, it is impossible not to be humbled and in awe. Even after all these years, great wine moves me. It reminds me to be hopeful, that despite the mess we are making of the environment and a mockery of democracy, magic can be found in a simple bottle of wine. It reminds me to be grateful that I am part of a world that can produce such beauty, and that life is full of unexpected, wondrous surprises. It reminds me to be humble, that life is a journey of discovery and there is much more we don’t know than we do know. 

Jeannie Cho Lee is the first Asian Master of Wine, author of three books, consultant and educator. Jeannie is a Professor of Practice at the HK Polytechnic University and a Wine Consultant for Singapore Airlines. She holds a BA from Smith College and a Master’s degree from Harvard University.



Paul Gunnell, the pilot whose legacy is a lifetime of adventure

A UK coroner’s inquest has failed to find the cause of the light aircraft accident on July 13, 2017, which claimed the lives of two experienced pilots, including FCC member and Cathay Pacific Deputy Chief Pilot, Paul Gunnell. After two years commuting from the Channel Islands, Paul died two weeks before he was due to return to Hong Kong and four weeks before his second wedding anniversary. His widow, Kirsty Boazman, writes that he left a legacy of adventure, not an obituary.

Paul Gunnell in his beloved Cirrus SR22, en route from Guernsey to Normandy for lunch. Paul Gunnell in his beloved Cirrus SR22, en route from Guernsey to Normandy for lunch.

Paul Gunnell was born 50 years too late and he fell from the sky at least 25 years too early. He wasn’t a natural child of the 1960s but was better suited to the earlier decades of dash and dare. An aviator, an adventurer, a sportsman, a wit, a scoundrel, and an intellect. He was an exceptional, yet gentle and humble, modern mold of a man.

Sharing a wild expatriate childhood with his brother Jerry, in Nigeria and later Bahrain, cultivated an awe of freedom, and stirred a passion for nature’s engineering. Anyone can marvel at the sky, Paul loved its weather. Anyone can admire a bird of prey, Paul coveted its wing structure. Returning to Britain as a nine-year-old he developed a state school playground obsession with trains and planes. As a teenager, he inter-railed across Europe, hiked the Pennine Way, and flew solo at 16 – anything to avoid his mum Shirley’s driving.

The man, PG, was born to fly. His father Hugh thought so, the Royal Airforce knew so, and Oxford University gambled so. But he stumbled: mostly into campus bars after rowing or playing rugby, leaving his premature exit from Oxford the single regret in a life lived in full and open throttle. There was, somehow, a second RAF scholarship, a double-first in Engineering from Leicester and, then, eyes only for a fighter jet pilot career.

As a Flight Lieutenant with the RAF Harrier Group. As a Flight Lieutenant with the RAF Harrier Group.

Training on the Hawks ultimately led to selection as a British “Top Gun” on the Harrier fast, or jump, jets. Before that, as a student officer, PG was banished by the RAF alongside best mate Rick Offord to distant parts for flying too fancy as well as warned, penalised and court-martialled for playing too fast. There was no punishment, however, for the violation of a bombing range with his re-conditioned Volvo, probably because he and Rick collected all of RAF Cranwell’s flying awards at their 1985 graduation. The RAF made a special note that these two pilots never be posted to the same squadron, for their own good and for safekeeping of the RAF’s reputation.

After five years in Germany with the Harrier 3(F) Squadron, PG returned a Qualified Weapons Instructor to fly from Belize and Boscombe Down, then into Afghanistan with the Operational Evaluation Unit to test equipment, including the early night vision goggles. PG was at one with an aircraft. He flew with the sort of calm that comes only through an innate understanding of aeronautical machinery and movement.

There was no desire to fly the “mahogany bomber” so, in 1994, he traded the prospect of an RAF desk job for a commercial passenger flying career with Cathay Pacific, based in Hong Kong. Twenty-three years followed, on the big birds of Airbus and Boeing, as a Captain, Senior Training Captain and in management as the airline’s Deputy Chief Pilot.

Blue-sky flying around Greek’s Cyclades islands, Paul Gunnell and Kirsty Boazman. Blue-sky flying around Greek’s Cyclades islands, Paul Gunnell and Kirsty Boazman.

Those two decades were dedicated to travel and adventure. He scaled Himalayan mountains; haggled over taxi prices in the Khyber Pass; swam with turtles in the Galapagos; skied Swiss and Austrian Alps; saw sunrise over Machu Picchu; watched sunset over Petra; drove the great American highways; dived in the Philippines and Middle East; set dynamite in Bolivian mines; ran marathons in France and Scotland; peered into Ecuadorian volcanoes; slept on Caribbean beaches; para-glided in outback Australia; encouraged a stampede from a microlight in the Serengeti; crashed scooters in Italy; chased snakes in Indonesia; drank dodgy beer in most every Asian nation; ate way too many curries; and flew small planes at every opportunity. More than 18,200 total flying hours.

A natural storyteller, who was usually first to the bar and therefore an obvious candidate for FCC membership, PG could debate anything – for the intellectual gymnastics. With a brain that needed constant feeding, he tired of “wasting” time in hotels between the long-haul Cathay flights, so squeezed in a first-class Law degree. He studied, and genuinely understood: quantum physics; computer coding; machinery; grammar; bread baking; even Excel.

PG lived his 57 years with an intensity that refused to be constrained by what was considered normal, enough or expected. He caused the environment to bend around him, rather than vice versa. His was the ability to fathom a difficulty, to unravel a conundrum, and to out-think, out-plan and out-fly any predicament. He was, in thought and action, forever one step ahead of most of us. But particularly in an aircraft.

Argentina - the ice climbing phase. Argentina – the ice climbing phase.

We moved to Guernsey in the Channel Islands in 2015, where it wasn’t enough for Paul to spend his rostered time-off flying to France for lunch, Spain for an overnight or Belgium for a weekend. There was a three-week self-fly odyssey, with oxygen cannulas shoved up our noses, over the Italian then Macedonian Alps to eight remote Greek islands. His writing about the tour remains one of the most-read articles in global aviation’s The Flyer magazine. He was also a volunteer pilot for the Channel Islands Air Search Rescue and became a Qualified Flying Instructor in 2017.

He cherished flying students from a grassy UK farm strip, with two great “humps” on it, because that was how everyone should learn to fly. Early on the perfect summer evening of 13 July, 2017, PG was asked to join an experienced pilot, who was flying his own plane, for a routine check-ride. Less than 20 minutes later, both men perished in an unfathomable crash in a picturesque Wiltshire barley field. Life was an adventure and a riddle to Paul’s very last breath. We will never know what caused the crash.

Paul and I were soulmates, with a deep and occasionally dangerous connection. We took almost half a lifetime to meet but didn’t waste a moment on our serendipitous joint adventure. Paul has, unknowingly, left the indelible imprint of inspiration on so many lives and aviation careers around the world. He has also, knowingly, left me with a butchered heart, a locked laptop, and a bittersweet flying legacy.

My brilliant husband was also my flying instructor and, about two weeks after his death, I managed the final skills test in 14 months of flight training. To have given up on my Private Pilot’s Licence at that last hurdle would have upset him greatly. We had planned to fly ourselves around the world in a small plane. I know Paul has followed through with that plan, in another dimension. But it should have been here, beside me, in this lifetime.

He still soars. 

Kirsty Boazman has been a news reporter with Australian Channels TEN and 7, CEO of the Australian Chamber of Commerce in HK, and Chief of Staff to the Australian Minister for Industry and Science. She is a resident of HK.

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On The Wall: Metamorpolis by Tim Franco

Tim Franco is a Paris-born photographer who was based in China for a little over 10 years, from the mid-2000s to the mid-2010s. Franco first arrived in Chongqing on assignment with The New York Times, to cover then-party secretary Bo Xilai’s running of the city.

[ngg src=”galleries” ids=”3″ display=”basic_thumbnail”]By some counts, Chongqing is the fastest growing city in the world. By the late 2000s about 30 million people lived in the wider municipality, but only a third of that number lived in a city. Chongqing’s population was still overwhelmingly rural, and that was something the government wanted to change.

So it set a goal: In the 10 years until 2020 it would grow 10 million urban residents into 20 million.

For residents of China’s poorer western regions, the city of Chongqing represents opportunities that are both big and closer to home than alternatives on China’s richer east coast. For the central government, the city represents a “Gateway to the West”, an anchor to invigorate the economy of western China, a region home to around 600 million people.

For more than six years, Franco documented the effects that those two factors – a growing population and massive investment – had on the livelihoods of the people in Chongqing.

Metamorpolis was published in 2015. Tim Franco is now based in Seoul. 

On The Wall: Siding With Humanity, by Steve Raymer

Steve Raymer’s Wall exhibition Siding With Humanity ran at the Club from January 22 – February 17. Raymer’s long-standing role at the National Geographic magazine has taken him all over the world, as shown by the selection on these pages. From abaya-clad women in a Dubai shopping mall to a Bangladeshi girl in the country’s 1974 famine, it is the human face of global news that catches his eye.

[ngg src=”galleries” ids=”2″ display=”basic_thumbnail”]Rickshaw pullers resting in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and an elderly beggar in the city are the result of Raymer’s fascination with the city that led to a book, Redeeming Calcutta, published in 2012.

Raymer joined the faculty of Indiana University more than 20 years ago, and is a Professor of Journalism. He has won numerous awards throughout his long career, and has immersed himself in diverse projects such as recording the nomadic Nentsy in Siberia, life in Hoi An, Vietnam, and opium addiction among the Lisu hill tribe in the Golden Triangle of South East Asia.

Sue Brattle

All photographs © Steve Raymer/National Geographic Creative

On The Wall: Basil Pao on the set of The Last Emperor

The name Bernardo Bertolucci first entered my consciousness when I was an 18-year-old art student in Los Angeles. I had to write an essay on The Conformist for my Film Aesthetics class, and my film-buff room-mate and I sneaked into the theatre through the exit to watch the film, as we were always broke.  It was the first “perfect” film I had ever seen and it quite literally opened my eyes and “showed me the light”. It changed the way I “see” the world and my place in it forever.

[ngg src=”galleries” ids=”1″ display=”basic_thumbnail”]We first met in the spring of 1985 through my wife (then fiancée), Pat. She had shown her friend Joana Merlin – Bertolucci’s casting director in New York – pictures of us from our engagement party and Joana wanted Bernardo to meet me while he was looking at actors in Hong Kong. The meeting took place at his suite in the Mandarin Hotel, I was awe-struck and he was kind and generous. At one point, I related the story how my room-mate and I stole into the theatre to watch The Conformist, and without missing a beat he smiled and said, “ You owe me $3.50…” I pretended to search my pockets for the money and he laughed when I pulled out some coins, soon we were laughing together. We came to share many such moments all over the world in the years that followed – moments that I shall now forever miss.

In July 1986 I flew into Beijing to join The Last Emperor circus of 100 Italians, 20 British and 150 Chinese technicians, along with some 60 actors from around the world.  My primary role there was to play Pu Yi’s father Prince Chun, for which I spent an inordinate amount of time either on horseback or on my knees kowtowing, and sweating buckets inside heavy dragon robes in the blistering heat of the Beijing summer. As one of half a dozen Third Assistant Directors, aka Bernardo’s Eunuchs, I had interesting assignments initially, such as finding the horses for the Imperial Guard (and for myself), and organising the Peking opera for the wedding party. But as the pressure of filming built, the job increasingly involved marshaling some of the 19,000 extras that appeared in the film’s crowd scenes – which explains why I have all these pictures of “extras in repose”. It was an extraordinary experience.

The last time I saw Bernardo was at the Venice Film Festival in 2013, where he was President of the Jury. I was stunned by the toll confinement to a wheelchair had taken. He never laughed during the reunion. I was meant to visit him in Rome last year, but regrettably the meeting never happened.

I do not claim to have any special relationship with or unique knowledge of the maestro and his work, nor do I even profess to like all of his films. I am simply a devoted admirer who had been granted the privilege to witness the creation of one of his masterpieces. Showing these photographs is my way of remembering, and honouring the memory of an extraordinary friend whose vision and generosity changed my life.

Basil Pao, Hong Kong, January 2019

The death of the Cambodia Daily – and an attack on press freedom

Go back two years and the media landscape in Cambodia was very different from the pared-down press corps that covers the country’s news today. Each clampdown on independent media has seen more journalists leave – or flee – the capital, Phnom Penh. Danielle Keeton-Olsen and Jodie DeJonge lost their jobs when The Cambodia Daily was closed. Here are their stories. 

A printout of a hashtag to save The Cambodia Daily, at the paper’s newsroom in Phnom Penh A printout of a hashtag to save The Cambodia Daily, at the paper’s newsroom in Phnom Penh

When I arrived in Phnom Penh two years ago, you could walk into Red Bar – the journalists’ bar – on any given Thursday to overhear the latest conspiracy theories and tales that couldn’t be verified for print, or just recaps of the latest birthday or going away party in the reporter community. Two years passed, and with Cambodia’s English language daily papers shuttered or restrained, independent media – and the oddball cast of foreign and Cambodian journalists who gathered to drink when their work week ended – has nearly evaporated.

I’d hardly call the end of Thursday night imbibing a loss, but the end of that scene underlies the bigger issue: there are very few reporters left in the capital, or Cambodia in general, who are shining regional and international light on the country, both for its flaws and developments. With that, the real rubble lays among Cambodian journalists, who receive fewer opportunities and face harsher punishments for their reporting.

Danielle Keeton Olsen Danielle Keeton-Olsen

Cambodia was once a unique media subject:  it’s small and underdeveloped enough to register as just a blip in the global economy. But the country received far more coverage than the vibrant economies and societies in Vietnam or Malaysia because it had an established routine of independent media. Before 2017, veteran journalists described “close calls”, when a journalist was charged and tried with egregious fines or publications were threatened with closure. But the media were able to power through, until the current regime lost its tolerance for independent media and willingness to respect donors’ human rights requirements.

Shortly after The Cambodia Daily print newspaper closed amid a highly publicised tax dispute, I feared my stay in Cambodia might come to an early end, and I know some other foreign reporters felt the same as visa conditions grew more ambiguous. Once an “uncontested” reelection of Prime Minister Hun Sen and his ruling party was assured, that tension among foreign reporters faded. Instead, the pressure is borne by local journalists.

The detention and charging of two Radio Free Asia reporters gained international attention for some time after they were arrested in November 2017. That media coverage has slowed after the reporters were released on bail, even though they still face charges of illegally collecting information for a foreign source. But in addition to this case were dozens of other attempts to repress the spread of information, as the government leans into a campaign against “fake news”. Environmental activists, former opposition representatives and union members have simultaneously felt increased pressure to conform to party rhetoric.

Reporters of The Cambodia Daily working in their newsroom in Phnom Penh Reporters of The Cambodia Daily working in their newsroom in Phnom Penh

Granted, Cambodia’s independent media wasn’t a perfect system. Some of the local reporters I worked alongside either feel their English is not strong enough to pitch on their own, or they simply lack the confidence to make audacious pitches like I do. The Daily was founded under the premise that, beyond reporting critical news and analyses, it would train and empower reporters to tell stories on their own, and now that it’s gone, it’s clear it did not live up to expectations in this goal.

The Cambodia Daily lives on as a website. I’m no longer affiliated, and to my knowledge, no reporters in Cambodia are either. The other English publications – The Phnom Penh Post and Khmer Times – retain a few of the standout Cambodian reporters who cut their teeth in independent media, but their platforms are limiting.

There are rumours that foreign development organisations are planning a new independent publication, but the reality is that anyone looking to revive journalism in Cambodia has to find a new model. The tense political environment in the past year-and-a-half might have been the death punch, but like newspapers throughout the world, the independent English newspapers haemorrhaged money as news went digital, and as a result could no longer withstand the government’s blows.

Flawed but independent media is far better than nothing. There are still independent activists and journalists who are researching and writing through an independent lens, but there are far fewer people doing this, and many of the former Daily/Post foreign reporters who attempted freelance journalism have left the country. I still meet a few foreign correspondents breezing into Cambodia for short-term reporting projects, but the vibrant media scene of the past will file down with fewer Daily news sources, and general knowledge and understanding of the country will surely decrease.

Unfortunately, I’m one of the few foreign reporters still in Cambodia. And if I’m being honest, I’m probably not qualified or prepared to tell Cambodia’s stories, at least not alone. But I’m stubborn enough to still be here, and I hope with time and energy, more stubborn reporters emerge to rebuild a new scene on the ground where the Post and Daily once stood.

Danielle Keeton-Olsen interned and worked for The Cambodia Daily for just nine months before it was closed. She is a freelance reporter based in Phnom Penh who covers economy, society and environmental issues. She is also an engagement editor for investigative news startup Tarbell.

The Daily’s Last Days

The first hint that something was very wrong came in a short story posted on a sweltering Friday night in August 2017 on Fresh News, the government-aligned website. It said The Cambodia Daily, the feisty independent Phnom Penh newspaper, owed more than $6 million in back taxes.

Within days, Prime Minister Hun Sen, facing a challenging general election, described the paper as the “Chief Thief” and said the payment was due in 30 days or the American-owned newspaper should pack its bags and go.

A Cambodian man reads the last edition of The Cambodia Daily in Phnom Penh A Cambodian man reads the last edition of The Cambodia Daily in Phnom Penh

Threats against the Daily were nothing new. It had built its reputation over 24 years on its tough coverage of the government, its investigative work on illegal logging and deforestation, its attention to human rights abuses, its willingness to cover LGBTQ issues.

But this was an ultimatum of a different sort and it came as the Hun Sen government quashed dissent of all sorts in the run-up to the following year’s poll. As the government hammered the case against the paper, positioning it as a simple tax delinquency issue, even though it was anything but, the staff continued its hard-hitting journalism.

Jodie DeJonge

Some of the old-timers thought it might blow over, as so many threats over the years had also quietly disappeared. They said perhaps Hun Sen would back down at the last minute and offer a solution that would save the paper and his reputation as someone who had allowed a free press to survive.

Instead, the climate worsened. Radio stations were shuttered, reporters were charged with incitement.

Thirty days after the initial Fresh News story, the Daily prepared to close. We planned a final edition that would look back on the paper’s best work, but like many best-laid plans, the news got in the way. On the same day, the government arrested opposition leader Kem Sokha and charged him with treason. It was the biggest news story of the year.

The final headline came from a quote in the main story: “Descent into Outright Dictatorship”.

It was crushing to be in the newsroom in those last days. Everyone who worked there was truly invested in the mission of the paper, to report the news without “fear or favour.” More than 60 people faced losing their jobs and the journalists knew it would be tough to find another job in journalism.

In the end, I was one of the lucky ones. A fateful New Year’s Eve cruise on the Mekong brought me to the Phnom Penh Post. As the Managing Editor for Digital, I was responsible for creating a digital-first news environment. We were transforming the paper when it was sold last May by its Australian businessman to a regime-friendly buyer. Seventeen journalists quit in two days. I was among them. News in Cambodia has never been the same.

Jodie DeJonge was the last editor-in-chief at The Cambodia Daily, then moved to The Phnom Penh Post. Previously at the China Daily in Beijing, most of Jodie’s earlier career was in domestic bureaus of the Associated Press. She is now is a regional editor in Sarajevo for the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.



FCC charity extravaganza: partying in a good cause

Tintin, in his navy jumper and tan breeches, was pulling a rickshaw. Emily Dickinson greeted guests in her classic black dress. And the BBC’s Kate Adie was running around with her microphone.

The FCC community turned out in full force – and full fancy dress – on March 16, 2019, for the Charity Fundraiser On Assignment: Yesteryear’s Foreign Correspondent. There was a profusion of retro cheongsam, trench coats, safari suits and fedoras, many with a “press card” tucked in the rim.

Even the FCC staff, who donated their time, dressed up, joined in the dancing and had a blast.  “Any member who hasn’t been to a Club-wide party like On Assignment missed the FCC at its best,” said Douglas Wong. “All thanks to the hard work of a volunteer committee and our fantastic staff, ably facilitated by our fantastic new general manager Didier.”

Doug explained his costume as Tintin, “the first journalist hero I followed before I really knew what journalism was about”. “The party was a celebration of yesteryear’s and tomorrow’s courageous correspondents,” Doug continued. “Glasses were raised to absent friends, and making new ones.”

Each venue of the Club was transformed into a different global hotspot. The Main Bar gave tribute to some of Asia’s old warzones, with street food from Korea to Vietnam. It rocked to the sounds of Crimes Against Pop.

At the “Latin” Main Dining Room, Chris Polanco, DJ Perez and salsa dancers led the crowd through seductive dance moves, while Cuban café snacks were served on The Verandah.

Sandbags lined the stairs down to Bert’s, which was turned into a Beirut dug-out bar, with waitresses in Middle-Eastern dress and chefs carving fresh shawarma. Sybil Thomas sang sultry old-school tunes, while the Don’t Panic Band was a big hit with dancers tightly packed in front of the stage.

“It was a great party. We really enjoyed it. Everyone involved did a tremendous job and the Club looked fantastic,” said Jim Gould, dressed like a 1930s BBC newsreader.

In total, more than $250,000 was raised via the raffle, auction, items sold on the night and personal sponsorship. Thanks to revelers’ generosity, 25 refugee or asylum-seeking children will be funded for three full years of early education in Hong Kong.

* FCC members who wish to sponsor a child from Keeping Kids in Kindergarten can still do so by contacting the Front Office on 852-2521 1511.

Farewell message from the Club President, Florence de Changy

Dear Fellow Members,

This is my last message to you all as the President, since late 2017, of this extraordinary club. And it comes at a time of vibrant activity and important discussions that need to be had here.

In March, we hosted our second in-house charity fundraiser, On Assignment: Yesteryear’s Foreign Correspondent, in support of early education for the children of refugees in Hong Kong. Hats off to First Vice-President Jennifer Jett, former board member Elaine Pickering, the Charity Committee and the Club staff for their tremendous commitment to the success of this event.

L-R: Tim McLaughlin, moderator Eric Wishart, Kristie Lu Stout, and Sonny Swe. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC L-R: Tim McLaughlin, moderator Eric Wishart, Kristie Lu Stout, and Sonny Swe. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC

A week later, more than 120 journalists, students and friends of the club gathered for the Journalism Conference to hear about the Dangers of Being a Journalist in 2019. There were some pretty heroic figures on the stage, some of whom had been flown in by the Club from Myanmar, Turkey and the Philippines. Thanks, Enda Curran and Nan-Hie In, and your formidable A-team. You’ve done it again, even better and stronger than previous editions!

The next important FCC event is the Human Rights Press Awards, co-organised with Amnesty International and the Hong Kong Journalists Association, on May 16. The keynote speaker will be announced shortly. I would like to express my sincere thanks to Sarah Stewart, who has impeccably managed this important event on behalf of the Club since 2017.

Over the course of the last few weeks we also held an impressive string of events touching on the state of capitalism, living in the Gobi Desert during the Cultural Revolution, Russia as a declining power, religious freedom in China, Basil Pao’s iconic images of the Forbidden City from the filming of Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, Internet censorship in China, Formula E in Hong Kong, the relevance of the UN Security Council and more… Phew!

As I write these lines, I am half recovering, half reeling from an evening of jazz and New Zealand pinot noir (my favourite) at Bert’s after hosting a stimulating dinner with Alan Rusbridger, former editor-in-chief of The Guardian. He told a full dining room that journalism is entering a completely new age, one whose consequences have yet to be seen.

Former Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger, is interviewed by FCC President Florence de Changy on March 27. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC Former Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger, is interviewed by FCC President Florence de Changy on March 27. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC

I sincerely hope that the Club will soon have the opportunity to host the Chief Executive, Ms Carrie Lam, and the Chinese Commissioner, Mr Xie Feng, to whom we have renewed invitations to speak at the Club.

The Club has been through its own little revolution in a very short period of time too as our reborn and redesigned magazine is celebrating its first birthday with this issue (many thanks Sue Brattle for having brilliantly taken up the challenge) whilst our presence on social media has rocketed, mostly thanks to our smashing social media editor, Sarah Graham.

I would also like to bring to your attention a new Fellowship that the Club is launching to support young journalists whilst honouring one of our legendary members, Clare Hollingworth (1911-2017). As you may have noticed, in recent years the Club’s membership has become younger and more gender-balanced. The Clare Hollingworth Fellowship, detailed on the website, is another step to attract the next generation of journalists. If you know an early-career journalist or journalism student who would benefit from this fellowship, please encourage him or her to apply by May 31.

The master plan produced by Purcell has now been handed in. It is a reference document that will be used in the years to come. Different options to best share its outcome with all members are being considered. We have also received outstanding design suggestions by students from the InsightSchool of Design for a refit of the basement floor. Members interested in seeing these documents are welcome to borrow them from the Office.

Since my last message three months ago, the dialogue between members who opposed the introduction of anti-harassment guidelines has continued in an open and lively debate. The good news is that we all agree on both the importance of free speech and the importance of making the Club a comfortable and safe place for everyone. This is a responsibility that all members share. Whilst the Club cannot tolerate inappropriate behaviour, I believe most situations can be resolved on the spot before they escalate. To that end, please look out for each other and speak up if intervention is required. The staff is also being trained to better handle these situations.

We will shortly consult all members and spouses through an online survey. I wholeheartedly encourage you to take part, to help us steer the Club in accordance with your expectations.

It is good for them but a loss for the Club that several excellent correspondent members of the Board are being posted outside Hong Kong. Alex Stevenson (The New York Times) has already left for Beijing and has been replaced by Jennifer Hughes from Thomson Reuters. Sarah Stewart (AFP) is assigned to Dubai, Andrew Marszal (AFP, who spearheaded the survey with Genavieve Alexander) is off to Los Angeles, and Jennifer Jett has received a scholarship to study in China. I wish them all the very best in their new endeavours and thank them very sincerely for the precious time and energy they have given to the Club.

I have been extremely encouraged by the number of members willing to stand for the next board in all three categories (Correspondents, Journalists and Associates). The FCC needs and deserves skilled, dedicated and professional board members from all walks of life. I thank them in advance for their contributions to the Club.

They will be greatly assisted in all their projects by the amazing staff the Club is so lucky to have, headed by Didier Saugy, whose arrival at the Club has been the best news for the Club in a long time. Recruiting Didier is one achievement I feel particularly happy about. Of course, I still have a long and wishful “to do list” and leave some unfinished business on the table.

I shall therefore hand over the baton of the President with both a sense of pride for what we have accomplished and of high expectations for what is still to be achieved. But I am not leaving

Hong Kong yet and will continue to enjoy the Club on a very regular basis!

Yours sincerely,

Florence de Changy

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