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Fear and loathing on the Mekong: A tribute to The Cambodia Daily

In September muckraking English-language newspaper The Cambodia Daily was forcibly shuttered by the small Southeast Asian nation’s increasingly dictatorial regime. Its closure received international press coverage, with the New York Times calling the paper “widely respected”. Many of the Daily’s Cambodian reporters have received international awards and fellowships, while most of its foreign reporters have gone on to work for prestigious international newspapers and wire services. After 23 years in print, the paper’s demise was a sad blow to the country’s nominal democracy, and to all who had worked there. Here Kate Bartlett, who was a reporter and deputy managing editor at the paper from 2010 – 2014, remembers the dysfunction, fun, and straight-out chutzpah that was the Daily.

Former Editor in Chief Kevin Doyle, 2nd left, anxiously overseeing the editorial process. Former Editor-in-Chief Kevin Doyle, 2nd left, anxiously overseeing the editorial process.

“Don’t walk through minefields,” the scrap of paper hanging on the wall of the Cambodia Daily newsroom advised.  It was pretty much the only rule at the small, anarchic but gutsy English language newspaper in Phnom Penh.

Legend had it that a few years previously a blind drunk foreign reporter had done just this and, though he had survived to tell the tale, the editor hung this cautionary note on the grubby wall for the rest of us.

Shortly after arriving to work at the paper in 2010, aged in my twenties and desperate to cut my teeth in journalism, I did in fact walk through a mine field – quite literally – but in full protective gear and stone cold sober.

But it was the paper’s Khmer reporters who walked through minefields daily in the post-conflict, poor, and desperately corrupt country that is Cambodia.

Figuratively of course.

With a dedicated but volatile Irishman at its helm as editor-in-chief, and a foul-mouthed, chain smoking Brit as his deputy, the paper was no place for fragile egos – though there were still many – and most of us learned by omission. It really was a baptism of fire for young journalists, many of us in our first jobs.

I remember being asked by a lanky young editor after writing my very first story, with absolutely no guidance whatsoever: “Are you the worst fucking journalist ever? No really, answer me, are you?” My crime- no nutgraph. Not that I knew what that was.

Standards were high, which is what made the Daily by far the most fervent and exciting newsroom I’ve ever worked in.  In size and impact we were hardly the New York Times, but we’d be damned if we didn’t hold ourselves to the same ethical and editorial standards.

There were no false idols, we pissed off everyone at one time or another: the government, the US Embassy, the NGOs, visiting dignitaries.

Many of the foreign staff were young, bright Americans who modelled themselves on Hunter S. Thompson – which was easy enough to do in a place where drugs and hookers were plentiful and even in 2010 when I arrived there was still an atmosphere of “anything goes.”

Want to throw a grenade at a cow? Sure, for a price.

I was paid about US$800 a month when I arrived – which actually never left me short – but the small salaries were the reason the paper accepted people like myself with virtually no journalistic experience. They could hardly expect an established mid-career reporter to work for that kind of money. And money was always tight at the Daily.

Kate Bartlett interviews opposition leader Sam Rainsy. Photo: Robert Carmichael Kate Bartlett interviews opposition leader Sam Rainsy. Photo: Robert Carmichael

The paper had been the dream of founder and publisher Bernard Krisher, a German-born New Yorker who as a longtime Newsweek correspondent in Asia had fallen in love with the region.

Bernie, as he was known, set up the Daily – motto “All the news without fear or favour” – in 1993 as a non-profit dedicated to training a new post-war generation of young Khmer journalists in a free press.

When I arrived, the paper had already been running 17 years, and some of its local staff had been there the whole time. They were dogged and determined and exceedingly tolerant of us foolish foreigners. Most stories shared a byline between a foreign and Khmer reporter and team work was vital to your survival at the paper.

Some humid and sticky Phnom Penh afternoons, you would walk into the newsroom after lunch to find a bunch of Khmer reporters snoring soundly on spread-out old newspapers as they siesta-ed, or offering you a bite of a favourite office snack – green mango and chili, and there were as many eccentric characters among the local journalists as the foreigners.

Kate Bartlett hitches a ride with opposition supporters during 2013 elections. Kate Bartlett hitches a ride with opposition
supporters during 2013 elections.

One Daily stalwart who had suffered terribly under the Khmer Rouge, losing his entire family, had an undiagnosed case of PTSD and a wild temper. He could often be found, flip-flopped feet on desk, watching Japanese porn during a quiet workday. Once, interrupted in this pleasurable pastime by a phonecall from the US Embassy spokesman, he unleashed such a torrent of obscene abuse over the phone that I believe the poor diplomat must still been in shock.

The daily seemed to attract talented oddballs, and as excellent as its output was, it was also highly dysfunctional.

In large part this was due to its eccentric publisher, Bernie.

There are many stories I could tell you about Bernie, but here’s one of my all-time favourites.

The office supplied us scribes with cheap, ballpoint pens. But getting your hands on one was about as easy as getting a Big Mac in North Korea. You had to take your old, inkless pen to our ruthless Khmer office manager for examination. If it was really used up, he would take the old pen and give you a new one. If, god forbid, you had left your ballpoint at a presser, well then, in true Soup Nazi style “No pen for you!!”

After putting the paper to bed around midnight, my colleagues and I used to hit the city’s many dive bars, complaining about Bernie and our editors and wondering whether we’d scooped loathed opposition paper The Phnom Penh Post.

Journalist Saing Soenthrith behind his desk, 2014. Journalist Saing Soenthrith behind his desk, 2014.

Although my colleagues and I were getting our start in the business in an age of churnalism, PR, and pick-ups, this was not yet the case in Cambodia where you could still get ministers directly on their cellphones without going through a spokesman, and could doorstep people avoiding your calls at their various government offices. The access we had was amazing.

We worked 12-hour days, were often phoned at home by the editors, and when we travelled to other parts of the country, it was on the tightest possible budgets – flea-ridden hotels and long, sweaty bus rides.

With no real rules – bar the minefields one – it was up to us to decide where we drew the line on such trips.

I remember during one reporting excursion to a wild-West Cambodian province, the hire car my Khmer colleague and myself were travelling in broke down. As we were standing on the road in the middle of nowhere a passerby stopped and offered us a lift. With a jewelled pinky ring and a gun on his belt he had all the appearance of a typical Khmer gangster. I hesitated and looked to my Cambodian colleague, he was a better judge than I, I figured, and if he said it was fine to hitch a ride with this guy, then I trusted him.

Journalist Khuon Narim looks through his notes in the Cambodia Daily office, 2013. Journalist Khuon Narim looks through his notes in the Cambodia Daily office, 2013. Photo: Kate Bartlett

We did take the ride and it was thankfully uneventful. However, after Mr. Pinky Ring dropped us off, my male colleague turned to me wide-eyed and said “Thanks god that went ok. It was a dangerous thing to do, that guy could have killed me!”

“Killed you?!” I replied, enraged, “What about ME!”

Then we both burst out laughing.

I can’t imagine a better place to get a start in journalism than the Daily. I interviewed people from all walks of life; from murderers to prostitutes to princes to ministers to monks to soldiers to film directors to farmers.

Not many readers in the wider world paid much attention to Cambodia, synonymous to most only with the murderous Khmer Rouge regime several decades before. But we cared greatly and that’s what mattered. Sometimes I thought we thought too much of ourselves – “speaking truth to power”, being a voice of accountability in a kleptocracy bla bla bla — when in fact, our readership was largely limited to city folk and intellectuals and didn’t reach the huge number of people, many illiterate, in the countryside.

Until its recent sad closure, I believed this was the reason why the Daily was allowed to keep printing, no matter the damning truths about the government it unearthed and published.

I have been proved wrong. The Hun Sen regime is scared, very scared it seems. With still months to go until 2018 elections, I think we may only have seen the tip of the iceberg as Cambodia gives up any pretense of being a democracy.

For those of us that worked there however, foreign and Khmer, our years at the crazy little-paper-that-could permanently changed us. And I’d like to believe that 23 years of the Daily changed Cambodia too. This next year will test that theory.

 

New 18-hour Vietnam War documentary and its errors of omission

A new 18-hour documentary on the Vietnam War, which has rekindled old debates about its legacy, falls short with some important omissions, says former war correspondent and former FCC president Jim Laurie.

The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick

In September in America, the Vietnam War came back to television screens (as well as online portals) in one gigantic, jarring barrage in the form of a massive 18-hour documentary film series by Ken Burns, available through the American Public Broadcasting System.

For those who don’t know his work, Burns has been directing American historical films for PBS since 1982. He has tackled the American Civil War, the Jazz Era, Baseball, US National Parks, The Roosevelts: Teddy, FDR and Eleanor, and a half dozen other topics.

As might be expected, the Vietnam film, 10 years in the making, has rekindled old debates about the war and its legacy in 2017 America.

No recounting of the American war in Vietnam will satisfy everyone. The subject is too vast, too complex, and too divisive.

Burns and his co-director Lynn Novick portray Vietnam as the most destabilising war in US history apart from the American Civil War (1860-1865). The filmmakers say that the Vietnam War’s lasting legacy lies in the bitterly polarised politics and mistrust of government that characterises the US today.

As a young reporter, I covered the war in Vietnam and Cambodia between 1970 and 1975. I was among a very few American journalists to witness the Communist victory when I remained in Vietnam for a month after the fall of Saigon. I have visited the country numerous times in the 42 years since.

The 10-part documentary attempts to cover a vast swathe of history from the French colonisation of Indochina in 1858 to the close of the American war in 1973.

The last time PBS backed a documentary on the subject was in 1983 when it aired the 13-part “Vietnam: A Television History”. It was developed by widely respected journalist and author Stanley Karnow and directed by Richard Ellison. Each of its 13 parts was carefully researched and produced by a different documentary team; a number of them veteran producers who covered the war as young reporters. The New York Times praised the series as “delicately balanced and determinedly even-handed”.

Still, in an era before normalised US diplomatic relations with Hanoi, the American right wing branded the film as “pro-Communist”. Reed Irvine, head of the organisation Accuracy in Media denounced the series as containing ‘’serious errors and distortions”. In 1985, PBS buckled to pressure and aired a two-hour “rebuttal” narrated by actor Charlton Heston.

Interestingly, this time around Burns’ telling of the war has received a harsher verdict from the political left than from the right.

While the series clearly provides varied perspectives, (more than 80 interviews), the filmmakers at times skirt the edge of becoming apologists for a senseless war.

Geoffrey Ward, who has written a carefully crafted script narrated by Peter Coyote, writes early in the film: “The American involvement in Vietnam began in secrecy. It ended 30 years later in failure. It was begun in good faith, by decent people out of fateful misunderstanding, American overconfidence and Cold War miscalculation.”

Really?

The film is remarkable in its liberal use of the secret recordings of White House conversations. We hear the voices of President Lyndon Johnson, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. These recordings reveal cynicism, paranoia and deception that have little in common with “good faith” or “decent people”.

South Vietnamese troops, who Burns often portrays as corrupt and inept. South Vietnamese troops, who Burns often portrays as corrupt and inept.

Conscious of their mostly American audience, the filmmakers are reluctant to be too harsh in any condemnation of US intentions.   The theme, in effect, is that the American war in Vietnam was a bi-partisan, well-intended, accumulation of monumental mistakes made by six Presidents over 30 years.

The principal failings of this film are not errors of commission but, ironically for an 18-hour epic, errors of omission — particularly when profiling the principal victims of the war in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.

In an interview with the New York Times, Burns made a startling admission when he said that he had to be persuaded by his co-director Lynn Novick to send a team to Vietnam and capture the voices of the Vietnamese. He saw his Vietnam as an “American story”.

The series displays a serious weakness in not recounting with depth and nuance, compelling stories of the peoples of Indochina, both  combatants and civilians.

Apart from Duong Van Mai Elliott, author of the book “Sacred Willows: Four Generations of a Vietnamese Family”, nearly all the Vietnamese family portraits are shallow. We get little real feeling for the lives of those who suffered the most from the American war.

More than a million North Vietnamese and a quarter million South Vietnamese combatants died in the long war. Among civilians, as many as two million Vietnamese, 300,000 Cambodians and 100,000 Lao perished. Millions more were left homeless. In the war’s aftermath between 1975 and 1997, 1.6 million refugees fled Vietnam, more than half of whom were “boat people” who embarked on treacherous journeys that make the current-day tragedy in the Mediterranean seem minor by comparison.

It is particularly disappointing that despite the film’s extraordinary 18-hour length, Burns-Novick have little time for Cambodia.

In 1983, the Karnow-Ellis “Vietnam: A Television History” devoted a full hour to the war in Cambodia, which was written and produced by British journalist Bruce Palling. Burns-Novick determined that the wider war precipitated by President Richard Nixon’s “Cambodia incursion” on April 30, 1970 is worth less than three minutes in Episode Eight.

Images from the war in Cambodia, which was largely ignored in the documentary. Images from the war in Cambodia, which was largely ignored in the documentary.

 

This is despite the scale of the “incursion” where some 30,000 US troops and 50,000 South Vietnamese forces had plunged across the Cambodia border. (I covered the First Air Cavalry’s early sweep through the old French rubber plantations at Chup in May.)

We hear a short clip from Army veteran James Gillam who reached a “hot Landing Zone” on the western edge of the operation. There is a brief mention of Cambodia’s deposed Prince Norodom Sihanouk and the coup d’etat by General Lon Nol. And little else. Not a single Khmer witness is interviewed for the film.

In the phrase used by author William Shawcross, Cambodia was very much a “Sideshow”— certainly to the filmmakers.

The consequences to Cambodia of Nixon’s invasion and the South Vietnamese operations that followed were enormous. It pushed, for example, the North Vietnamese who had been using the eastern regions for weapons and troop infiltration deeper into Cambodia.

Arguably the Cambodian invasion was far more devastating in the long run to the local population than to any actions in Vietnam.  The wider war in Cambodia unleashed the genocidal Khmer Rouge forces. From 1975 to 1979, as many as two million people died in the world’s worst holocaust since that of the Nazis during World War Two.

Burns-Novick use the Cambodia story as a brief transition to another American tragedy: the killing by national guardsmen of student war protestors at Kent State University Ohio on May 4, 1970.

Burns-Novick favour soldiers-turned-writers to help tell their story. Tim O’Brien — who while in the Army visited the area of the notorious My Lai massacre a year after US troops killed Vietnamese civilians in March 1968 — reads from his book “Things They Carried”.

On the North Vietnamese side, soldier-turned-writer Bảo Ninh is heard. We never really get a full profile of his life, and, unlike O’Brien, Bảo Ninh does not share with us readings from his remarkable 1990 novel, “Sorrow of War”.

One of the striking features of the series is its sound-track. In addition to the voices, helicopters, explosions, the remarkable sound mix includes virtually every music track popular in America in the period 1960 to 1975.

Again I would have wished for the filmmakers to capture some of the remarkable music from Vietnam in the period. In the Saigon I came to know, music and poetry shaped Vietnamese sensitivities. I remember well the wonderful writing and music of Trinh Cong Son,  who Joan Baez once called “the Bob Dylan of Vietnam”, who wrote nearly 600 ballads of love and war. He died in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) in 2001.

Some of the nearly two million Vietnamese-Americans who form a vibrant and successful part of the fabric of today’s American society may feel the stories of their families go under-represented.

Too often in the film the South Vietnamese are portrayed as hopelessly corrupt and inept, although the film does highlight the brave South Vietnamese defeat of North Vietnamese regulars at the battle for An Loc in 1972. Elsewhere, there seems a lack of balance.

We hear retired General Lam Quant Thi  (whose son is noted Vietnamese-American writer Andrew Lam) comment on the creation by some ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) commanders of “phantom soldiers”, where corrupt officers were paid the salaries of soldiers who did not exist. However, General Lam in I-Corp (the northern most military region) was one of the nation’s more effective commanders.  We hear little of his troops and their bravery.

We are reminded by US Marine Corp veteran Tom Vallely that, “We overstated South Vietnamese incompetence because we wanted to overstate our importance.”

Remarkably, the portrayal of the Communist north seems more fairly handled.

There is a complete account of North Vietnamese atrocities on civilians during the 1968 Tet offensive. There are strong testimonials to North Vietnamese brutality toward POWs and toward the losers in the war who were sentenced to long imprisonment in re-education camps.

The portrayal of Vietnam’s most famous patriot Ho Chi Minh is balanced. The film notes his increasing weakness and the battles he lost in the mid-1960s within the Communist politburo.

The less well-known story of North Vietnam Communist hardliner Le Duan who pushed aside Ho Chi Minh, General Vo Nguyen Giap and other revolutionaries is important.

From my personal experience, the Le Duan account is accurately told by Burns-Novick.

A North Vietnamese cadre who had been a translator at the Paris Peace Talks in 1972-73 became a friend of mine in Vietnam and Cambodia in 1979. He was very outspoken in his view of Le Duan. At a dinner with him in Saigon in late 1986: “I want to propose a toast,” he said, after we had had far too many glasses of wine. “To what,” I asked. “To a Vietnam free of that scoundrel — Le Duan.”   The much hated hardliner, who was blamed for many unnecessary deaths, had died in Hanoi in July 1986.

Because of Burns’ name, the series’ length, and its extensive publicity, this Vietnam television history will likely be the definitive educational tool for a new generation of Americans and others around the world learning about a war more than 40 years in the past — which is where the importance of the Public Television event lies.

Americans — especially now — need to take a step back. They should see their past, their wars, from a non-American perspective.   The world is not all about the US. It should never have been and never should be only “America First”.

“The Vietnam War” is available on Netflix and other online streaming platforms. A 10-hour international version of the film is scheduled for release later this year on television in Australia, South Korea, and other Asia territories. A version with Vietnamese subtitles is available on line at http://www.pbs.org/show/vietnam-war-vietnamese-language/

Jim Pringle: A canny Scot who wooed world leaders

Jim Pringle is a byline synonymous with foreign correspondents. For six decades he has covered conflicts, politics and economics from South America to the Middle East and across Asia, writes Luke Hunt.

Jim Pringle in Binh Dinh in South Vietnam in 1968. Jim Pringle in Binh Dinh in South Vietnam in 1968.

Looking a little weary, Jim Pringle’s soft demeanour has always stood in-kind with his reputation as a gentleman journalist abroad in a career marked by three eras at Reuters, Newsweek and The Times of London.

When at home, and that can be in Bangkok, Paris or Phnom Penh, he lives a quiet life with wife Milly as he approaches his 80th birthday. He has toned down his hell-raising drinking days but still writes occasionally, often about what’s left of the characters who dominated global politics during the Cold War.

Pringle knew many of those leaders, through good times and bad, personally.

Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Cambodia’s Norodom Sihanouk and Vietnam’s General Vo Nguyen Giap left as much a mark on his work as did Yasser Arafat, who “always spoke to you as if you were the most important correspondent in the world”, and Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi.

Pringle with Aung San Suu Kyi.

With Suu Kyi coming under increasing fire because of her mishandling of the Rohingya issue, Pringle is arguing that journalists should allow the Nobel laureate more time to find a resolution.

“I think we should give Aung San Suu Kyi the benefit of a doubt,” he said, speaking with his trademark whisper.

“Many journalists I respect have already given up on her but I think that is because the Muslim Rohingya are looked down upon by the population in Myanmar, it’s difficult for Aung San Suu Kyi to intervene but she knows she has to do it.

“They don’t need a homeland but they need a place where they can live in peace. We don’t want to see more people coming over from Bangladesh into Myanmar. But I think the Rohingya who have already been there for generations, I think they should be respected and be given a decent life.”

Pringle’s relationship with Suu Kyi dates back decades, as did his relationship with Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, for whom he hosted dinner parties alongside News Corp magnate Rupert Murdoch.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was a favourite.

Pringle with Yasser Arafat in Beijing in 1985. Pringle with Yasser Arafat in Beijing in 1985.

“I found him a very personal person and I got on well with him,” Pringle said of Arafat. “And he was a good leader for the Palestinians, unfortunately they don’t have leaders like that. That’s why the situation in the Middle East is so dangerous.”

Jim married Milly, a native Khmer, he met as the civil war erupted and Pol Pot was taking control of the Cambodian countryside before advancing on Phnom Penh.

But he proposed to her in the middle of another war in Sri Lanka, where young Tamil girls wore cyanide necklaces for easy suicide and he was machine-gunned and rocketed by a police plane at around the same time as Milly said yes.

Interviewing the Dalai Lama in the late 60s. Interviewing the Dalai Lama in the late 60s.

“I watched the stitches eat up on either side of my car like my mother’s old Singer machine. I ran for a house in a small village. An old lady with her grandchildren told me to come into her place with machine-gun bullets walloping the ground all around me.”

Guns and bombs provide headlines and are nasty to cover. Still, far worse – for any journalist worth their salt – are the dreadful cliches that dog the industry. Pringle says a tendency by novelists to romanticise opium dens and the colourful women who occupied them was wrong, as they were “more like a methadone clinic filled with trashy working girls and their gigolo drug dealers”.

Not so with Fidel Castro. Pringle met the Cuban revolutionary on several occasions including at a Communist bloc party in Havana where a troupe of 10 young Vietnamese female dancers were each charged with holding onto a Castro finger at the same time for the entire evening.

Pringle in Vietnam with the adult children of former Viet Cong fighters in 2005. Pringle in Vietnam with the adult children of former Viet Cong fighters in 2005.

But it is Phnom Penh that remains Pringle’s favourite destination, where, like in Bangkok and Paris, he owns an apartment. Antiques stand in contrast to the view from the balcony where modern skyscrapers are being erected at a rapid rate.

Recent paperbacks line the bookshelves and an old English clock chimes on the hour.

In Cambodia, Pringle has never been shy in standing up to the authorities who have a well-earned reputation for harassing journalists physically and through the courts when it suits them.

He backed The Phnom Penh Post when it was established by the American publisher Michael Hayes almost 25 years ago and was a part of a tight group, including Prime Minister Hun Sen, who were on hand for the lighting of the funeral casket of the King Father, Norodom Sihanouk following his death in 2012.

He said the Khmer Rouge Tribunal was important not only to find some kind of justice for the survivors of Pol Pot’s brutal regime but also to educate the younger generations about history and help to reconstruct a society that was smashed by three decades of war.

“The young generation, they don’t really understand what happened during the early wars here. What I am noticing in Asia is people don’t talk to their children about the hard lives they have had before.

“They try to put on a brave face about things. And the young people don’t really know how bad it’s been here, maybe one day they will find out,” Pringle, a long-standing member of the FCC, said.

Pringle with his wife Millie in Cambodian traditional dress in Mondulkiri, 2013. Pringle with his wife Millie in Cambodian traditional dress in Mondulkiri, 2013.

This is why the tribunal, often maligned by reporters with limited knowledge of Cambodia or its history, is significant with convictions registered against the three surviving senior cadre and further cases underway or pending.

“It was well worth having. Only three people have been put away but it was very important that they did,” he said.

But on a different note he warned national elections due next year could turn nasty as in 2013 when the nation’s post-war baby-boomers sided with the opposition, angering Hun Sen and the ruling party which was returned but with a sharply reduced majority.

“I think he and his cronies will do their best to make sure that they get back into power again, no matter how they do it. They control all the guns and but there are tens of thousands of young people who will stand up against the regime, which has been in power for too long, for 32 years.”

Chris Patten on Hong Kong’s fight for democracy, and his latest memoir

Chris Patten returned to Hong Kong and the FCC to promote his new book and to share his views on democracy in Hong Kong.

Chris Patten addresses the packed September 2017 club lunch. Chris Patten addresses the packed September 2017 club lunch.

Chris Patten, who first came to the FCC as a young MP in 1979, then in the early 90s as the last governor, and for three other book launches, was in town to promote his latest book which coincided with the aftermath of the jailing of Joshua Wong and the latest chapter of Hong Kong’s pro-independence tussle.

Patten’s book, “First Confession: A Sort of Memoir”, explores identity politics and the nature of community through the story of his own complicated identity through various political roles in the UK, Ireland, Europe and of course Hong Kong, which is going through the latest version of its own identity crisis.

Students clash in front of a wall of posters for and against independence for Hong Kong. Photo: SCMP Students clash in front of a wall of posters for and against independence for Hong Kong. Photo: SCMP

Patten, who is Chancellor of Oxford and who when he was governor was a chancellor of all Hong Kong universities, arrived in Hong Kong just days after a university row saw pro-independence students clash with their peers from the Mainland over posters advocating independence for Hong Kong. These were put up at the Chinese University campus, heightening simmering tensions in the city.

While Patten reiterated his view that the pro-independence movement dilutes the city’s drive for more democracy, he also said that both sides need to keep talking.

“What I hope is that people will start talking to one another again. I hope there’ll be a dialogue. You can’t simply expect people to accept your values or standards or political judgements without talking to them about it. You can’t trample ideas into the dust. You have to talk to people and listen to people,” he said.

People should be prepared to talk to one another, not fight one another, or not talk about killing one another, or not putting out posters welcoming people’s suicides.

“People should be prepared to talk to one another, not fight one another, or not talk about killing one another, or not put out posters welcoming people’s suicides,” he told the packed Club lunch on September 19, where guests included former Hong Kong Finance Secretary John Tsang and ex-Chief Secretary Anson Chan.

Patten said he hoped Hong Kong – “a city which I love as much as anywhere in the world” – would continue to thrive.

When asked what he would do if he were the UK’s leader, Patten said: “First of all I’d be pleased that the last six-monthly report by the Foreign Office was a bit more honest and outspoken than some reports had been in the past. Secondly, I would begin from the assumption that we shouldn’t believe that you can only do business with China over Hong Kong or over anything else from a position of supine deference.

“The fact that the Chinese do it is because other countries allow them to. I don’t think it should be something we necessarily criticise them for if they can get away with it. If they can get away with weaponising trade, for example, they’ll go on doing it. But I don’t think they respect you for it and I don’t think it’s the only way you can do business.

“I would come to Hong Kong, I would make a speech saying that I thought Hong Kong was fantastic, that I thought it was a jewel in the crown for China potentially as we go forward; that it represented in the 21st century an issue which is going to be dominant – that is how you balance economic and political freedom and what sort of role China has in the world today, what sort of role it’s prepared to take in global governance, how it’s prepared to make more of the footprint that it should have because of its economic strength and power.

“And I would hope to go on to China and say similar things.”

Photo: HKFP Photo: HKFP

He added that he would also raise the issue of Liu Xiaobo’s wife. Liu Xia, who has been under house arrest since her husband, a prominent dissident since the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests, won the Nobel prize in 2010.  She was last seen in a video recorded in August and posted on social media in which she asks for time to grieve. Many of her supporters and friends, however, have expressed concern for her welfare.

Justice Secretary Rimsky Yuen also came in for criticism from Patten as he was asked for his thoughts on the upcoming trials of nine pro-democracy activists involved in Occupy Central. Patten said he was “loathe to comment on ongoing legal processes in Hong Kong”, and instead chose to speak specifically about Joshua Wong, Alex Chow and Nathan Law – jailed in August for their part in the 2014 protests.

He criticised the Justice Secretary’s decision to appeal their original non-custodial sentences, saying it was politically motivated. “He’s [a] grown-up. He must know, as I said earlier, that actions have consequences, and not to understand what signal that would send to the rest of the world, strikes me as being, to be frank, a little naive,” he said.

Referring to a Reuters report that Yuen had insisted on reviewing the sentences despite opposition from fellow prosecutors, Patten added: “Perhaps it would have been wise to take the advice which we were told he was receiving from someone in his department.”

The politics of identity

Chris Patten’s latest book, First Confession: A Sort of Memoir, looks at the concept of identity politics and the nature of community. Rather than write a another conceptual book on the subject, he chose to explore the issues through the story of his own rather complicated identity. In his lunch address he gave a potted version of his “obsession” with identity.

“I am from a family of Irish potato famine immigrants, lower middle class, scholarship boy and a Catholic. I was not only the first of my family to go to university, but also the first Catholic to become Chancellor of Oxford since 1560 — we’ve waited a long time…

“I am also an endangered species, a moderate Conservative who found myself in jobs where identity politics was the central issue.

“I spent two years as a government minister in Northern Ireland and went back later to reorganise the police service as part of the Belfast Agreement (1998) which bought peace to the province. I was dealing with a problem that was purported to be about religion, but was in fact about power.”

Later as a European Commissioner Patten spent time dealing with the alleged politics of ethnicity between Croats, Serbs and Muslims.

“When I found myself in Hong Kong I was dealing with another aspect of identity politics, the so-called clash of civilisations. A much-advocated concept by Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew. “When I was coming to Hong Kong I was advised to stop off in Singapore to talk to the then Prime Minister Lee, who said to me that first ‘you have to behave like a newly elected prime minister, you have got to have a programme, be clear what it is and stick to it. And secondly, you have to deal with the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law, which you can’t change but you want to fill in all the gaps and make the whole thing as democratic as possible”.

“So I came here and thought I did both things.”

I also had difficulty with the idea of cultural clash or civilisation clash and thought that people in Hong Kong wanted to be in control of their own lives as much as any other people around the world.

Anyway Lee — “who once sent a letter to me asking if we could be on ‘Harry’ and ‘Chris’ terms” — came to Hong Kong and said how much he disagreed with Patten about everything. Lee, of course, chose the most embarrassing moment to say this when he gave a lecture at HKU presided over by Patten in his role as the university’s Chancellor. In response to a question of whether Hong Kong deserved to be a democracy, he replied that it didn’t matter whether Hong Kong deserved a democracy because it wasn’t going to get it as Hong Kong is part of Asia and people in Asia did not care about human rights and civil liberties because they were Confucian.

“I had some difficulty with that argument as I always thought that human rights were universal,” Patten said. “I also had trouble with the idea that there was a political model which would comprehend everyone from Pyongyang to New Delhi. And I also had a problem with the notion that everyone in Chinese societies were Confucian.

“I also had difficulty with the idea of cultural clash or civilisation clash and thought that people in Hong Kong wanted to be in control of their own lives as much as any other people around the world.”

So now after all those experiences, Patten  said he is now witnessing the latest manifestations of identity politics with some concern: The first is Jihadist terrorism, “which we live with week by week in European cities, which I do not think has anything to do with the Koran or Islam”; secondly the growing ethno-nationalism, where individual countries seem to think that communities can only be defined by their nationality — a nationalism that defines itself as against others, which so often sentimentalises its own history, glamourises its institutions and xenophobia is given full rein.

“If you look at what’s been happening in Europe, or America’s drive to be great again — if it wasn’t already, or you look at some parts of Asia and closer to home here, all this represents something I thought we all learned about after the Second World War: namely individual countries cannot deal with their own problems without dealing with other countries and sharing or pooling sovereignty — which I think is extremely important lesson we must relearn.”

Beyond just funding: How generous FCC members have helped the China Coast Community

The Charity Committee’s goal is to go beyond simply providing funds for the good causes the Club supports. Club members are encouraged to give voluntary time, and to become actively involved in the cause. To benefit our current charity, China Coast Community, an elderly care home, the FCC organised a series of author talks, plus a visit for residents to the Club for tea.

General Manager Michele McGregor with some of the China Coast Community residents. General Manager Michele McGregor with some of the China Coast Community residents.

In September, residents heard from columnist and author, Philip Bowring, a long-time Club member who has lived in and written about Asia for 40 years. He spoke on his book, Free Trade’s First Missionary: Sir John Bowring in Europe and Asia, which details the life of his distant relative, a former Hong Kong governor. Sir John had an illustrious career in Europe and Asia, though is probably not widely known for some of his far-reaching achievements. Residents of the home were interested to learn of his exploits and expeditions and to see some of the rare books of his original writings, which Philip had collected.

Then in October, Club member Rachel Cartland shared some of her personal story, which is detailed in her book, Paper Tigress. Arriving in Hong Kong in 1972 as a fresh Oxford graduate to be one of the very few female expat civil servants in the Hong Kong government, she retired 34 years later after a career that spanned many government departments during crucial times in Hong Kong’s history. She was full of colourful stories about times residents could remember and be nostalgic about.

Guest author Philip Bowring. Guest author Philip Bowring.

Also in October, the FCC hosted residents for tea in the Club’s Bunker. Long-term member, Sarah Monks, who is a wealth of knowledge on FCC history, spoke on the careers of some of the illustrious correspondents we have been fortunate enough to have had as members, including Clare Hollingworth, Richard Hughes and Anthony Lawrence.

In November, Vaudine England, another long-term FCC correspondent member and author of a book on the legendary Hong Kong character, Noel Croucher, shared with residents the history of his fascinating life.

“Many thanks go to those who have both spoken and donated their books to the China Coast Community,” said Charity Committee convener Elaine Pickering.

If you would be willing to give a talk to China Coast Community residents, who are always very grateful for interaction with FCC members, please let the Charity Committee know via Joanne in the Club’s Office.

Through the Club’s March fundraising Club-wide party, Hong Kong Remembers, more than HK$200,000 was raised to help replace the Home’s existing beds with surgical ones, as well as providing additional physiotherapy.

A hard choice for a good cause

For the first time, the FCC asked all Club members to be a part of the process to nominate the charity the Club would support during 2018. By the deadline in September, the Charity Committee had received 19 deserving submissions. Their range showed the depth of need across the city.

Several entries came with heart-felt, personal stories of how a particular charity had helped a Club member, or a child or relative.

All nominees had to address one of “the Three E’s”: namely elderly care, early learning or educational special needs. The committee was particularly looking to support a cause which concerned itself with those children and adults who may “fall through the cracks” in society, and one which may not be in receipt of large institutional funding.

An announcement will be made soon as to the recipient of FCC charitable support during 2018.

Pictures: Hong Kong seen through the lens of Miguel Marina Rodriguez

Miguel Marina Rodriguez, better known in photographic circles as Miguelitor, has lived in Hong Kong since 2010. Le Calle is his first exhibition in the city that features in all of his work. His candid and quirky style of street photography is “locally-grown” and has been inspired by Hong Kong’s street scenes and the people he found in them.

Photo: Miguelitor Photo: Miguelitor

“I was interested in photography before I came to Hong Kong,“ Miguel explains. “ But it wasn’t until I arrived here that I started to take my hobby more seriously.”

In 2013 he quit his job in PR to become a Spanish teacher to give him more time to spend prowling Hong Kong streets, camera in hand.

“Armed with a small compact camera I quickly discovered how much this city has to offer to anyone who is willing to stop for a while and observe the city,” Miguel said. “ Everything seemed worth photographing to me and my walks in between Spanish classes became longer and longer.

“In my photos I try to be spontaneous, candid, without any preparation other than attentively observing my surroundings, always on the lookout for an angle, a contrast, a short story to tell in one image.

“I dream of taking photos in which humour, geometry and that one split moment combine into a perfect composition, and I always have my camera with me, because I believe that the best photo is the one I will be making today.”

Photo: Miguelitor Photo: Miguelitor
Photo: Miguelitor Photo: Miguelitor
Photo: Miguelitor Photo: Miguelitor

Harry’s rejects: President Xi’s speech minus the Harvey Weinstein gags

Pictures: North Korea – one party state machine

Vincent Yu was born and raised in Hong Kong, and has worked as a photojournalist for The Associated Press covering major news events across the Asia-Pacific region since 1989. He was first sent to North Korea on assignment in 1990 but didn’t visit again until 2011.

Photo: Vincent Yu/Associated Press Photo: Vincent Yu/Associated Press

“One day on that trip, I was sent to cover the biggest parade ever to mark the 65th anniversary of the country’s ruling Workers’ Party,” Vincent explains. “Kim Jong Il’s presence was nothing out of the unexpected but when he emerged on the stage with his grown-up son Kim Jong Un, I knew history was being made before us. Until then, the world had only seen black and white pictures of the young Kim when he was still a child.

“Since that time, I have visited Pyongyang a few more times. Its deepest impression to me was that everything was so neat and clinical; people’s movements were synchronised and I was always cautious with everything I did and said.”

Vincent’s work has been recognised with many honours, including the 2004 National Headliner Awards, 2010 World Press Photo Awards 3rd Prize “People in the News” singles category, 2013 Picture of the Year Awards, Award of Excellence “Photographer of the Year” and numerous Hong Kong Press Photographers Association Annual Awards. His works are collected by the Hong Kong Heritage Museum.

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The Correspondent Nov/Dec 2017

Profile: Lynn Grebstad – the Peninsula PR woman who made Hollywood stars feel welcome in Hong Kong

Lynn Grebstad joined the FCC in around 1990, and says she probably would have signed up earlier, but was a “Kowloon wallah”. She spent her first decade in Hong Kong’s hospitality business working mostly in TST.

The GHC team (left to right): Paul Hicks, Kiri Sinclair, Lynn and Gary Kitching at the Business Traveller Awards 2016 in London. The GHC team (left to
right): Paul Hicks, Kiri Sinclair, Lynn and Gary Kitching at the Business Traveller Awards 2016 in London.

“My first visit was in the seventies,” she recalls. “My father was here, with my mother, working for British Intelligence in Little Sai Wan. I came out to visit them, and absolutely loved it.  It was bewitching, the intensity of it. I loved that bustling energy.”

After several years travelling the world as a flight attendant with British Airways Lynn decided she wanted to settle somewhere other than England, and decided to give Hong Kong a try. She arrived in January 1982.

Contacts from her BA days led to a job as Assistant PR Manager with Le Meridien. A high point of her time with them was the opening, on the same day, of two hotels, one at Kai Tak Airport and one in TST East.

“I was thrown in at the deep end and I loved every minute of it. I didn’t have any training in communications, but I was allowed to learn as I went along. That was what Hong Kong was like at the time. There were opportunities. ‘If you’re here, give it a go’.”

She and Karl got married in June 1982, and although she says she loved working for Le Meridien, an offer in 1983 to take over the PR Manager’s job at The Peninsula was too tempting to resist.

“It was mind blowing to be in that lovely old place – which was very run down at the time. The next three years were quite life-changing. I had the opportunity to meet some of the most unbelievable people – kings, queens, emperors, movie stars.”

She recalls meeting, among many others, Elizabeth Taylor, Gene Hackman, and David Soul who was making a TV series called Harry’s Hong Kong. Footage of the hotel in the 1980s turned out to be the production’s only saving grace.

Three years with The Pen led to another six across Salisbury Road at what was then The Regent – now the InterContinental – considered at the time by many to be the best luxury hotel in the world.

“There were a lot of journalists coming down from China, which was a hardship posting then. They couldn’t wait to get to the hotel for steaks and burgers. There was this whole family of journalists that used to come,” she says.

Having joined the club from The Regent, she remembers coming in much more frequently after returning to the Peninsula Group, this time in the corporate office in Central at around the time of the construction of the Peninsula Tower – a project on which she worked with fellow FCC member Sian Griffiths, who had her old job at the hotel.

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“I did the topping out of the Peninsula Tower with three generations of Kadoories, and the opening was an extraordinary thing to do.  I was there during a period of expansion of the group, and then I went and started my own business. I was in my early 40s and I just thought ‘now’s the time’.”

Her friend, and, again, fellow FCC member Susan Field offered her some office space to start from.

“She did me a huge favour. I’ve never looked back. I’ve always loved being my own boss. It has been tough at times, but you have to have some hardship if you want your own company.”

After doing what she calls “the grunt work” of getting her own business off the ground, she decided to join forces with Paul Hicks, whose own company was at a similar stage of development. She recalls Stuart Wolfendale giving them a nudge on the road to partnership. FCC members all, and Grebstad Hicks Communications (GHC) is now one of Hong Kong’s leading communications agencies, with special expertise in the luxury hospitality business.

If I move on, one of the great things I’ll miss about Hong Kong is the Club. It’s the most comforting thing to walk in and feel that you know people.

“We were round the corner from the FCC so we used it a hell of a lot. There was hardly a day that went by when my friend KP wouldn’t call and say ‘Hi Lynn, fancy a sharpener at the FCC?’,”  Lynn says.

She served a stretch on the Board during Steve Vines’ presidency, and also served for several years on the Charity Ball Committees. The club remains a regular place to meet friends.

“If I move on, one of the great things I’ll miss about Hong Kong is the Club. It’s the most comforting thing to walk in and feel that you know people. The staff, the manager, some of the regulars. You feel ‘I belong in this place’ and it’s a beautiful feeling. That’s why people love it. It’s why a lot of people come back to Hong Kong. I think it does have a special significance. It’s a fantastic institution.”

 

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