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Goodbye Gilbert: The FCC bids farewell to its very memorable general manager

General Manager Gilbert Cheng is retiring in August and for many the club will never be quite the same. Sue Brattle went along for a chat.

Gilbert Cheng. Photo: Gilbert Cheng. Photo:

The FCC will lose its memory this summer as it says goodbye to General Manager Gilbert “Tiger” Cheng, who is retiring after working at the club for 46 years.

For a man whose recall of names, faces, places and even membership numbers is legendary, getting information out of Gilbert isn’t easy. The blend of modesty and discretion that has made him such a great asset at the club all these years means he is uncomfortable when the spotlight is turned on him.

However, his trademark broad grin and explosive laugh soon shone through as he chatted about his childhood in Kowloon Tong and I innocently asked him whether he was a born-and-bred Hongkonger. “I am absolutely a Hong Kong boy,” he said. “School in Oxford Road, Kowloon Tong, a Boy Scout leader and influenced by my teacher, Tiger Wong.”

The young Gilbert aspired to be a policeman until someone pointed out that perhaps his personality wouldn’t suit the job. He tried his hand at several jobs before a neighbourhood friend, Mr Teddy Lai, introduced him to the FCC in 1972.

“Mr Lai had become the floor manager at the FCC in 1969. I started as a busboy as a summer job and never thought I would stay for decades. It was difficult to get a good job; everyone wanted to work in European hotels, but there weren’t so many of them then. My first bar manager and trainer was Papa Liao who made sure that I was taught housekeeping, stock control, purchasing, and so on. I also spent hours in a local supermarket to learn what things like tomato ketchup were – and to know that ketchup is different from sauce!

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“My first 10 years were a happy time. It was a happy atmosphere, more like a big family. Senior staff and club members taught me everything. I also spent two years studying at night school, one year full-time at Caritas College of Careers, and four years part-time at Poly U.”

Gilbert moved from busboy to waiter, bartender, restaurant manager and kept moving upwards “just working hard” as presidents came and went. In fact, climbing the career ladder to become General Manager in 2000 rates as one of his best memories.

A simple question – Who gave you the best career advice ever? – triggered a long list of colleagues, friends and FCC members. “They all brightened my career goals and broadened my mind.”

Going back to his phenomenal memory, Gilbert said: “That came from the years when I was serving people in person; I knew their names and membership numbers because I was interacting with them. In recent years, I have spent most of my time in the back rooms.” Also the club has grown, with membership doubling since 2000 and a workforce now of 96 full-time and 10 casual staff.

He recalled wild Friday nights at the FCC, when the default was to call 999 to break up a fight. “When I was a bartender there could be 200 men around the bar, four or five deep. Members used to drink more.” However, if you like gossip, Gilbert is not the man for you. “I never ask members personal questions, I don’t ask what they do or where they live,” he said.

As for his favourite moment looking back, Gilbert listed “the extraordinary excitement and emotions of the 1997 Handover Party led by [then club manager] Bob Sanders”. He added: “That week, journalists from practically all over the world descended upon the FCC.” And his worst moment? “The thought of having to leave my job at the FCC, which has been my life for the last 46 years.”

However, this summer sees the start of a new chapter in Gilbert’s life. He is contemplating going back to “school” – “just to keep the brain working”. What would he say to his successor? “Trust the Board to make the right decisions as they only want what is best for the club and, most of all, treat and respect the FCC as your home. Every day is a new day; enjoy and have fun while giving your best.”

Gilbert gets talking about work

“The FCC team was one of the best in town, hardworking, loyal, friendly and willing to learn. However, the labour market is changing and shifting. People don’t mind quitting their job now. They are not wrong; the world has changed and young people can’t pay their rent on the wages they earn. This is a social problem and it creates the current job-hopping and labour shortages. You can see ‘job vacancy’ stickers everywhere. However, at the FCC we still have members of staff who have a good spirit and good sense of teamwork; they are sincere and accept challenges. If you work at a club like the FCC you have to learn its culture. I was so lucky to have had the chance to work with them and learn from them.”

Tiger Tributes

When The Correspondent asked for tributes to Gilbert Cheng, they came pouring in. So here are a few quotes.

Gilbert Cheng: Photo:

Gilbert has been an essential part of the Club for decades, pre- and post-handover. His bonhomie and his talent as a team leader will be equally missed by members and staff.

FCC President Florence de Changy

Gilbert will forever guide our way as he has all the years at the Club. We have ensured it. His voice, after all, is enshrined in an audio file link on the “Contact Us” page on our FCC website, where he tells Hong Kong taxi drivers where the correspondent expat sitting in their backseat is trying to tell them to go. It was the one brilliant thing we did updating the FCC website. One click of the blue box “Click here to hear location in Chinese” — and the dulcet tones of Gilbert Cheng will lead one and all to FCC. Forever.

Angie Lau, member since 2011

Over the more than 50 years I have been a member, we have recruited a large number of people to attend to various operations of the Club. Among them, only Gilbert can claim the distinction of reaching the pinnacle of his career—starting as a junior waiter and finishing as general manager. That is something which both he and the Club can be proud of. There is an adage in my native tongue, Malayalam: “A performer should retire after the best performance”. Gilbert has long been the best performer as our manager. Gilbert, like his mentor Mr Liao, is a Club legend, too good to let go easily.

Viswa Nathan

When things got tough, the Tiger side of Gilbert’s personality came through. One of the most memorable times was the controversial decision taken by the board while I was president: Redo the main bar.

Gilbert felt that the bar should run across the width of the room rather than its location along the left wall. A small but vocal portion of the membership threatened to “come with baseball bats” to defend their bar staying put.

That is when Tiger showed his stripes: Renovation works started a week earlier than announced, with the old bar gone one Sunday before anyone could protest. To ease the pain, Gilbert diplomatically distributed souvenir slices of wood from the old bar.

Former President Tom Crampton

I first met Gilbert on his third night at Sutherland House where the Club had set up after moving out of the Hilton Hotel. He had a mass of jet-black hair and a broad ready smile as he worked under the watchful eye of Papa Liao, the FCC’s bar manager from Chongqing days. Liao Chien-Ping, famed for his phenomenal memory of members’ names, likes and dislikes, was not to be disappointed. Gilbert proved a worthy protégé and had apparently done his research on members. Unasked, he poured me a glass of my favourite ginger beer. My respect for him has increased over the years and not too many are aware of the Good Samaritan in our midst: Gilbert is known to have helped out not a few who found themselves in difficult straits.

CP Ho (Member 00025)

Tiger quickly became Gilbert as he stepped into the shoes of the General Manager in 2000. He was the first local GM of the Club. The Club was experiencing a downturn and difficult decisions had to be made – increasing the subscription – as well as a successful membership drive was launched. With the improved finances, Gilbert then had the foresight to propose and complete a plan to purchase the Club’s Accounts Office in Universal Trade Centre – a sorely needed office space that turned out to be a tremendous investment! His tireless work in managing the Club, accepting the sometimes-questionable decisions of governors stoically, and improving the quality of the F&B outlets have now led to a demand for membership with a waiting list of over 3 years. We will miss Tiger’s smiles and laughter, as well as his growls.

Steve Ushiyama

As treasurer of the FCC for five years there were a number of occasions on which I found myself biting my nails about some decision I had made, realising that I had probably got it wrong, that there was no obvious way out of my dilemma and no way to avoid looking a fool or worse. But there was a remedy. I would go to Gilbert’s office, close the door, and say, “Gilbert, I’ve got a problem. Help!” And he always did. Invariably he came up with a way out. Thank you, Gilbert. I shall miss his presence in the Club, his cheery greetings to me at the Club table in the morning, his great knowledge of the Club’s affairs, his thorough organisation of its operations, his wide acquaintance with the members, his ways of diffusing tensions and his evident joy in his work.

Jake van der Kamp

The late Hugh Van Es and I were at the bar at the FCC on Gilbert’s first day of work, 46 years ago, and we watched him grow with the Club and advance up the FCC management ladder. Hugh was one of several Board members who recommended Gilbert as GM. The regulars were his family and there’s nothing he wouldn’t do for them. Gilbert instilled through example a great sense of care and loyalty among the staff. A feeble member needed assistance to get home? You needed something fixed at home? You needed assistance in some other personal matter? Ask Gilbert, and he will find something or someone to help. When Hugh was in a coma, Gilbert visited him every night and the day he died, I saw him tearfully and reverently hanging up his portrait at the Main Bar.

Annie Van Es

I had the privilege to work with Mr Cheng for 15 years. He is no ordinary general manger, in a way that he gave not only guidelines to achieve tasks at work, but also tutorials on becoming a responsible person in the family, as well as a better person as a whole. In the 1990s, while handwriting chits were commonly used in the F&B industry, he saw the trend of data digitization hence introduced computerized Point of Sales (POS) system to the FCC. It made the FCC the first private club in HK adopting POS. I witnessed numerous occasions when he took the lead to care about the members. He offered comfort when it was required; he cheered up members when they were at downturns; he quietly encouraged members by preparing their favourite dishes or drinks in advance. Mr Cheng, no one will argue that your retirement marks a loss of a dear friend and a remarkable leader. I wish you happy retirement and all the best when you turn your book of life to another chapter.

Hoi Lo Chan, ex-Office Manager

One Saturday in 1997 I was enjoying a liquid lunch at a somewhat quiet main bar when an elderly couple came into the Club. I saw Gilbert checking out the couple, and you could tell he was thinking to himself he might know them. After a few minutes, he walked over and said, “Ah, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, it’s been a long time, how are you?” The couple looked somewhat stunned; as I overheard in their conversation, it had been something like 20 years since they had been at the club. Gilbert promptly ordered the couple’s favourite drinks that he had remembered for 20 years. The Club will never be the same without him.

Matt Driskill, 2004-2005 President

All of us know Gilbert is a tough and smart guy, who has high expectations of daily operations and service standards. Every morning when he arrived at the office, he had already checked up various markets from Kowloon, Central and Wanchai. One of his habits was to walk around the Club a dozen times daily, from the roof to the members’ facilities, kitchens and linen room. Even though some say he has a quick temper, Gilbert is the most considerate person I have ever known. He could remember the birthdays of most staff including every little detail of our family circumstances. He always went extra mile to help out, never asked for anything in return. I am still impressed that he attended the funerals of my grandparents within his busy schedule. Not one boss has ever cared about my family like that. This does mark the end of an era. I sincerely wish Gilbert a happy retirement and do always come back to the FCC. We will miss you lots!

Rosalia Ho, ex-Office Manager

When fresh out of Vietnam, I joined the FCC at Sutherland House in the 1970s, and Gilbert was already there. A quiet presence, just setting out on his path to make the Club a better place: an essential home for hundreds of reporters either covering war or Mao across the border. With the move to Ice House Street, it seemed to me, the biggest challenge of an FCC general manager was dealing with the many over-the-top personalities that either drank at the Club, served on the board, or both. I won’t embarrass any of my esteemed colleagues by naming names, but Gilbert was always effective in diffusing the most cantankerous among us. Although a relative old timer, I never called Gilbert “Tiger” – but that nickname certainly made clear the tenacity and dedication that Gilbert devoted to the Club over 46 years. I have not returned to the Club often in recent years as I am usually travelling. But when I have, Gilbert was always there with the kind of greeting that always made me feel very much at home. So General Manager Cheng – wherever your next adventure takes you, you must know that we will miss you and your dedicated service. We wish you well.

Jim Laurie, President 2001-2002

In the next issue, we meet Gilbert’s successor, Didier Saugy. If you have a question you’d like to ask him, send it to the Editor at [email protected]


A river runs through it: Why we must save the Ganges

Pollution and over-use of the Ganges is seeing one of the world’s great rivers heading in the direction of other East Asian rivers that have been made unusable at a time when water quality and shortages are becoming critical — unless something is done about it.

A Hindu devotee takes a holy dip in the polluted river Ganga (Ganges) in Allahabad. A Hindu devotee takes a holy dip in the polluted river Ganga (Ganges) in Allahabad.

The Indian government is aware of the Ganges pollution problem and wants to do something about it, but the impetus to do so is not there yet. In the meantime, “Indians are killing the Ganges and, in turn, the Ganges is killing Indians,” said journalist and author Victor Mallet during a Club lunch to talk about his new book, “River of Life, River of Death: The Ganges and India’s Future”.

“The Ganges, I argue in the book, is the world’s most important river,” said Mallet, who is the FT’s Asia News Editor. “We all know that rivers are crucial for life and civilisation and almost all the great cities of the world are built at river mouths, river confluences or river banks.

“Fresh water and the fate of the world’s rivers are really among the most important issues of the day.”

Mallet said although the book is a celebration of the Ganges, it is also a lament. “I think the Ganges is the most important as it has a place in culture and history — from the great works of literature to Bollywood movies, but also in Western literature.

Indian scavengers look for coins and other valuable items from among the offerings of devotees in the Ganges at Varanasi Indian scavengers look for coins and other valuable items from among the offerings of devotees in the Ganges at Varanasi.

“So while the book is a celebration it is also a plea for help and a call to save the river and to stop the Ganges — or the Ganga as it is called in India — from suffering the same fate as the Thames in London did or the Chicago River in the US or the countless rivers in East Asia and the great rivers in China.”

The Ganges is the most important because of two main intertwined reasons: the spiritual and the practical. “The Ganges is holy to more than a billion Hindus in India and around the world,” he said. “Ganga is a goddess, she purifies the waters so that as a Hindu you want your ashes scattered on the river — particularly at Varanasi. The word India itself derives from the Sanskrit for a large river and to be an Indian is to be a river person.

“The other reason is that hundreds of millions of people live along it or on the floodplains, they are nourished by the waters and the rich silt the river brings down from the Himalaya foothills.”

Mallet said this was why India has been one of the most populous places in the world and one of the richest. That wealth — and pre-historic wealth — attracted the Moghul and British empires. And, if you look back at the statistical calculations, India once accounted for a quarter of the world’s GDP, a larger share even than China a thousand years ago.

“Even Hong Kong is connected to the Ganges, the river that transported the opium from northern India for the East India Company to China, which contributed to the establishment of Hong Kong.”

Flowing from the eastern Himalayas, through the Plain of North India and into Bangladesh, the river is now under serious threat from human sewage, toxic waste, antibiotics, fertiliser and pesticides, he said. A series of dams along its course means that, in places, it can sometimes run dry outside of monsoon season. And a lack of accountability within successive Indian governments has played a large part in the decline of the river, Mallet added.

However, Mallet is optimistic that the river can be saved. He draws comparisons with other rivers such as the Thames and the Rhine, once both heavily polluted but now home to thriving ecosystems. He was also hopeful that India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, would deliver on his promise of cleaning up the river.

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (centre L) and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi (centre R) take part in the evening ‘Aarti’ ritual on the banks of the River Ganges at Varanasi Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (centre L) and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi (centre R) take part in the evening ‘Aarti’ ritual on the banks of the River Ganges at Varanasi.

“He’s very much committed verbally to doing this,” Mallet said, “but there’s a debate as to whether he could have done more.”

Mallet noted a further problem: that the campaigners he had spoken to in India during his extensive research for the book had turned out to be the same people who had spoken to writers decades before – indicating that “a lot of young Indians are not really engaged in what should be an important mission”.

He concluded: “There are small signs of progress but the biggest push has not started yet.”

Mallet said he didn’t want to be pessimistic. “You can save rivers. When I was growing up in London my mother said don’t fall into the Thames you will go to hospital and have your stomach pumped because the water is poisonous.

“These days from the FT headquarters on the banks of the Thames — you can see a clean river with fish and cormorants and even wayward whales sometimes.

“The Chicago River used to be disgusting. When President Obama met with Modi in 2014 when discussing environmental issues, Obama mentioned you can now fish in the river and even eat them. And Modi said that was what he wanted for the Ganga.

“You can hope something can be done when you look at how some of the states stage those massive religious festivals. In 2013 I went to a festival in Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh, probably the world’s largest gathering of human beings — some 70 million gathered over a two-month period, although some 10 million bathed in the river on the first day. The point of this is that the state authorities actually build a temporary city for two million people on the sandbanks in the middle of the Ganges with roads, electricity, toilets, law and order, clean water and everything works… and it’s not very expensive. So it can be done.

“On the negative side Indians will say, ‘Oh, that’s the Indian wedding syndrome’, which means that when you want to really pull together for one event you can do it, ‘but for everyday life we just cannot do it’.” That attitude needs to be changed, he said.

“When I was doing my research a lot of Indians I met told me that ‘pollution is no problem for the Ganga because the Ganga is very pure, she’s a holy goddess and nothing we do makes any difference at all’ — as he threw a plastic bag of garbage into the river.

“And of course I say, environmentalists say, and smart holy men will say that this is nonsense because the very spiritual strength of a river — in this case the Ganges — derives not from some sort of remote, weird spiritual thing but from its very physical properties. The reason we worship rivers — as we did in Britain centuries ago — is that they are life givers, they provide life through water and fertility. And once you take that away when you poison the river, it is no longer a life giver and therefore the reason for the spiritual strength disappears.”

If most of the great cities of the world were built on rivers, why have the people who depend on those rivers so often poisoned their own water sources? How much pollution is enough to kill a river? And what is needed to bring one back to life?

“As I grew up and began to travel, I saw, sailed on, walked along, and read about many more waterways, from streams and canals to the great rivers of the world. Some – the Nile, the Zambezi, the Essequibo, the Mekong – were remarkably clean, because of the absence of large cities along most of their lengths. Others, like the Rhine and the Seine, were so-so. And still others, particularly the waterways of densely populated Asian cities undergoing their high-speed industrial revolutions, were filthy. The Malaysian writer Rehman Rashid’s description of the Sungai Segget as a ‘rank, black, stagnant, noisome ditch, filling the town centre of Johor Baru with the aroma of raw sewage and rotting carcasses’ reminded me of Charles Dickens’s description in ‘Hard Times’ of a fictional town in the north of England that was probably Preston: ‘Down upon the river that was black and thick with dye, some Coketown boys who were at large – a rare sight there – rowed a crazy boat, which made a spumous track upon the water as it jogged along, while every dip of an oar stirred up vile smells’.

Indian Hindu devotees perform rituals after taking a holy bath in the Bay of Bengal at the mouth of the river Ganges in Sagar Island, around 150 km south of Kolkata Indian Hindu devotees perform rituals after taking a holy bath in the Bay of Bengal at the mouth of the river Ganges in Sagar Island, around 150 km south of Kolkata.

“Spumous? If you’re looking for spumous, I can recommend the Yamuna River below the Okhla barrage in Delhi, after the city and the farmers around it have taken most of the clean water for irrigation and drinking and replaced it with a mixture of industrial waste and the untreated sewage of one of the world’s largest cities.

“At dawn, the great mounds of white foam thrown up by the barrage are tinged with pink as they float gently across the oily, black surface of a holy river once celebrated in ancient Indian literature as a paradise of turtles, birds, fish, deer and the gopis or female cowherds who tended to the playful god Krishna. So disgusting is this water that the latest official measurements I could find from Okhla show it to contain half a million times the number of faecal bacteria allowed under the Indian standard for bathing.

“The abuse of the Yamuna, and the Ganges or Ganga of which it is a major tributary, is particularly puzzling because both rivers are worshipped as goddesses by hundreds of millions of Hindus, and because they are so important as sources of water and fertile silt to the vast populations of north India, from the lower slopes of the western Himalayas all the way to Calcutta and Dhaka and the Bay of Bengal in the east.”

The Yamuna just below Delhi is already dead, but the Ganges itself, while gravely threatened by pollution and over-extraction of water, is very much alive… you can see fresh-water dolphins far up the river in Allahabad, Varanasi, and Patna.

“While Modi has made saving the Ganges one of his policy priorities, he does seem to have the political will to save the Yamuna and the Ganges, and he would certainly win the backing of the majority of Indians for the improved sanitation and pollution control that will be necessary. There is money there too, including US$1 billion from the World Bank in what would be among its largest ever projects.

“Three years into Modi’s five-year mandate, however, surprisingly little has been achieved to restore India’s rivers. It looks as if I’ll have a long wait before I can jump into the Yamuna at Okhla and go for a swim without needing my stomach pumped afterwards.”

Ganges clean-up lost in politics

Ed Gargan, also a river writer, on Victor Mallet’s catalogue of environmental horror

Unfortunately for Victor Mallet, the distinguished correspondent and now Asia news editor for the Financial Times, Hinduism’s greatest religious festival, the Kumbh Mela, during which as many as 100 million people gather to wade into India’s holiest river, occurred on his watch. The river, known by many names but most commonly as the Ganges, is no pristine water course. Instead, it is a creeping cesspool of human waste, chemical and industrial effluents, plastic and styrofoam rubbish, human remains both ash and not, animal carcasses, household garbage, and poisonous run-off from fertilised fields. But, it is sacred in Hindu tradition and immersion in its waters during the Kumbh Mela spiritually redeeming. On the river bank, notebook and pen in hand, Mallet, the most meticulous of reporters, knew there was no choice. In he jumped.

That he survived his plunge into these stygian waters is in itself miraculous. But he emerged to write a wide-ranging and thoughtful account of India’s most important river. Its importance, however, stems not from its riverine qualities, but from its environmental degradation on the one hand and its hot button religious symbolism on the other; indeed, what other river in the world lures hundreds of thousands of naked sadhus to its banks as an exercise fraught with religious as well as political fervour.

For Hindus the sacred nature of the Ganges is a bedrock belief. “We do believe that anyone who takes a dip in this water, he becomes pure also, because it is always pure, though it looks like it is impure,” an elderly pilgrim told Mallet. It is the centrality of that belief and the rituals that surround it that have fuelled the rise, and now the dominance, of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. With a deftness that some might describe as shameless, the party’s leader, Narendra Modi, the virulently anti-Muslim chief minister of Gujarat, steamrolled the Congress Party by accusing it of doing nothing to clean up the sacred Ganges. The BJP, Modi thundered, was the only party capable of restoring the river to its historic purity.

Wielding religious symbols as political cudgels is hardly confined to India, but in a nation sharply divided on sectarian grounds, and where religious passion can, and often has, ignited waves of bloody violence, these symbols become culturally defining. For the BJP, the rise to power began 25 years ago with the destruction of a disused 16th-century mosque by mobs of Hindu zealots whipped to a frenzy by BJP politicians screaming that Hinduism was under attack.

While the BJP hesitated then in its pursuit of power, in 2014 Modi swept to power and the Ganges and everything it symbolised was at the centre of his victory. “Ma Ganga has decided some responsibilities for me,” Modi declared. Among them, cleaning up the river. Two years and a few cosmetic projects later, the Ganges remained unchanged. Now ensconced as prime minister, Modi’s attention had shifted.

As thoroughly as Mallet describes the interweaving of religious belief and political practice, he is alarmed by the critical state of the river itself. But so degraded is the Ganges by pollution, damming, and draining by upstream agriculture that it is difficult to catalogue the full extent of this cataclysm. For Mallet it is a catalogue of horror, and it starts in the foothills of the Himalayas, in a major tributary, the Ramganga. At first there are just discarded cigarette packs and a scattering of plastic bags. As he moves on, the river becomes edged with paper mills, sugar plants, brass foundries and plastics factories, all disgorging waste into the waters. “Downstream,” he writes, “the sandy banks and the exposed riverbed present an apocalyptic scene of filth and garbage, of dead dogs, plastic bags, nullahs (drains) spewing pink dye, and pigs rootling through the muck.” Toxic chemicals, including heavy metals mercury and arsenic, pour out of thousands of home business “e-waste” recycling work sites. Even the oxygen level of the water has decreased so much that fish cannot survive in sections of the river.

The impact of this destruction of the river on people’s health is unsurprising. Skin disease is widespread and cancer rates seem correlated to the increase in heavy metals in the water. But even more alarming, Mallet points out, are “bacterial genes exposing water-users to the risk of infections that resist modern antibiotics…superbugs.” Every day, 1,200 to 1,500 children die of cholera, hepatitis or other waterborne diseases.

Mallet’s enormously wide-ranging curiosity about the river leads him to an extended essay on India’s relentlessly growing population – soon to surpass China’s – and its impact on the country’s diminishing water resources, some of which, of course, include the Ganges. He rummages through old Bollywood films that mention the Ganges. As in all Bollywood productions, song and dance try to pump energy into lacklustre melodramas, including such box office flops as Gangaa Jamunaa Saraswathi, which ends with the lead character crooning, “Ganga will carry away Saraswathi in his arms.”

An accomplished sailor, Mallet writes as well of boats on the Ganges but is reduced to historical accounts of river navigation. “You could spend days on the Ganges,” he writes, “without seeing a single vessel of any sort under sail.” Where in the 1970s some 5,000 large commercial vessels travelled inland waterways, at best 150 do today.

In the end, of course, what matters is the fate of the Ganges itself. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been allocated by successive governments to clean up the Ganges, most of it squandered, misallocated, or simply stolen. Even so, Mallet contends, what happens to the Ganges after all Modi’s promises to clean up the river will be the most fundamental measure of the government’s performance. If it fails, not only will the BJP fail but India itself will stumble. Just before leaving his assignment in India Mallet visited a revered swami who daily leads prayers on the Ganges shoreline. “If Ganga dies, India dies,” he told Mallet. “If Ganga thrives, India thrives. The lives of 500 million people is no small thing.”

Ed Gargan, former New York Times Hong Kong bureau chief and Beijing correspondent, is another FCC member who has written about a river. His river is the Mekong, and the book: “The River’s Tale: A Year on the Mekong”.

Ed spent a year travelling along the Mekong from Tibet to the delta in Vietnam, exploring the many cultures along it as well as fulfilling a need to “weave together my passion for Asia with a longing to travel at my own speed, to wander as I wished, to find a river that would pull me through Asia… That river is the Mekong.’’


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.”

Article 23: Is Hong Kong’s anti-subversion legislation upon us under Carrie Lam?

In 2003, Article 23 of the Basic Law was withdrawn after it became clear the Legislative Council would not pass it. Fourteen years on, a new government in Hong Kong, new directives from China and a change in mood generally mean the law could be back on the table. Stephen Vines looks at the implications.

One thing is really clear – the government in Beijing is fed up with waiting for Hong Kong to enact Article 23 of the Basic Law and introduce sweeping anti-subversion legislation.

This is why, despite routine denials, the central government will be putting the heaviest of pressure on new Chief Executive Carrie Lam to ensure that her administration will make this a priority. It remains unclear how enthusiastic she is to go forward with this plan, but Ms Lam has no track record of being bold enough to say no to Beijing.

Photo: AFP/Peter Parks Photo: AFP/Peter Parks

While Ms Lam’s personal views on this matter remains unknown we do know that Tung Chee Hwa, the HKSAR’s first Chief Executive, was an enthusiast for this legislation and needed little encouragement from Beijing to bring in an anti-subversion bill during his fifth year of office.

He failed. But what has changed since 2002 when he tried to get this legislation on the statute books following massive opposition? The answer is that the atmosphere of political confrontation has deepened; tolerance of the opposition has diminished and its legitimacy has been increasingly questioned as both civil society organisations and the media have found themselves in the firing line.

China’s President Xi Jinping, centre, with outgoing Chief Executive CY Leung, left, and incoming CE Carrie Lam, right, at a variety show in Hong Kong on June 28 worry over what form the pending anti-subversion bill will take. Photo: AFP/Anthony Wallace China’s President Xi Jinping, centre, with outgoing Chief Executive CY Leung, left, and incoming CE Carrie Lam, right, at a variety show in Hong Kong on June 28 worry over what form the pending anti-subversion bill will take. Photo: AFP/Anthony Wallace

As journalists we are only too well aware of this, not least because of the vicious attack on one of our colleagues, Kevin Lau in 2014. More generally we have seen our industry come increasingly under the control of pro-Beijing bosses, while newsrooms have felt the heavy hand of both censorship in its brutal form and self-censorship. No wonder Hong Kong is sliding down the global press freedom list.

What all this means is that the environment for introducing a very tough version of anti-subversion legislation is more profound today than it was more than fifteen years ago.

Back then the FCC joined other opponents of the proposed anti-subversion bill. We did so because the fear then, as now, was that the law would bring the mainland’s broad notion of national security and state secrets to Hong Kong. This in turn paves the way for the prosecution of reporters undertaking normal journalistic activities. The FCC statement said that the proposed law would damage “Hong Kong’s reputation for free-flowing information and possibly spark an exodus of journalists and news organisations.” As it turned out cost pressures were primarily responsible for the exodus but there is still scope for further departures.

Hong Kong Secretary for Security Regina Ip speaks to the media about the controversial Article 23 at the Central Government offices in Hong Kong 28 January 2003. The press conference was held ahead of the government's release of an amended draft anti-subversion law after a three-month public consultation ended last month. AFP PHOTO/Peter PARKS Hong Kong Secretary for Security Regina Ip speaks to the media about the controversial Article 23 in 2003. AFP PHOTO/Peter Parks

Memories are short and people have forgotten the extent to which the proposed law was draconian. It was a direct attack on freedom of speech in as much as writing or speaking about matters that could be deemed to be subversive was put on par with physical action to undermine the local or central governments. The previous bill made it clear that (vaguely defined) interests of national security would override considerations of civil liberties and freedom of speech.

As the FCC pointed out, the law could increase “government’s power to restrict the flow of information without a corresponding statutory right to access information,” while at the same time “placing the onus on reporters to determine whether or not information they obtain has been legally disseminated.”

Moreover Hong Kong permanent residents were liable to prosecution for anything written or said outside the jurisdiction of the SAR.

Shortly before the Hong Kong government introduced its anti-subversion legislation in 2002 a new law was enacted in the Mainland dealing with the “theft of state secrets” and publishing of “unauthorised” news. The law was aimed at preventing publication of more or less any material that the state had not authorised as fit for publication. It added to the chill in the atmosphere of the time, as it was clear that this edict could affect both Hong Kong and overseas reporters.

And, just in case anyone missed the implications for the SAR Regina Ip, the Secretary for Security who was mainly responsible for the new legislation and pursued it with vigour right up to the time when she was forced to resign, made it clear that the views of Chinese officials would be taken into account when deciding whether to prosecute the media.

With the hardline came her assurances, as expressed in an Asian Wall Street Journal opinion piece, saying: that the new law would “not have any adverse impact on freedom of expression, or freedom of the press, as they are currently enjoyed.” Her assurances might have been that bit more reassuring had they not come hard on the heels of her now infamous remark that democracy was overrated, using as evidence the mendacious claim that Hitler came to power in Germany as a result of elections.

However, the government propaganda machine, backed by the usual suspects, trundled on peddling the line that opponents of the law were being unnecessarily alarmist and had failed to understand that the legislation did little more than provide a highly necessary backstop in case things got out of hand.

The hollow nature of these claims was laid bare by the behaviour of Chinese officials when, and this was unusual for them, they encountered reporters who did not belong to state run outlets. Famously at a 2000 press conference President Jiang Zemin blew up at a Hong Kong reporter asking a mildly challenging question: “I’m addressing you as an elder,” he said, “I’m not a reporter. But I have seen too much and it’s necessary to tell you: In reporting, if there are errors you must be responsible.”

The same year Wang Fengchao, a mainland official in Hong Kong, said that Hong Kong media should not be allowed to report on Taiwanese or Tibetan independence, even though Beijing has no constitutional right to interfere in matters of this kind which are supposed to be part of the SAR’s autonomous status.

Protesters carry a huge anti-Article 23 banner as they march through the streets of Hong Kong, 01 July 2003, to coincide with the sixth anniversary of the return to Chinese rule. More than 200,000 people marched here to protest an anti-subversion law, known as Article 23, which many in this former British colony fear could erode political freedom six years after its return to Chinese rule. AFP PHOTO/MIKE CLARKE / AFP PHOTO / MIKE CLARKE Protesters carry a huge anti-Article 23 banner as they march through the streets of Hong Kong, 01 July 2003, to coincide with the sixth anniversary of the return to Chinese rule. Photo: AFP PHOTO/MIKE CLARKE

Now that Beijing is increasingly dictating how Hong Kong should proceed in all significant areas of local policy formulation, including, of course, anti-subversion laws, it is worth reminding ourselves of the Communist Party mindset that moulds thinking on issues that are seen as challenging the party’s supremacy.

In the world of smoke and mirrors that governs freedom of expression on the Mainland, Article 35 of the 1982 Constitution guarantees citizens “freedom of speech, publishing, assembly and the right to establish organisations, movement and protests”.

That sounds reassuring but it is qualified by Article 38 stating that the reputation of PRC citizens cannot be compromised by humiliating or libellous statements; Article 51 states that citizens cannot, in the exercise of their freedoms, harm the collective interests of the nation, society, or the freedoms enjoyed by other citizens; Article 53 calls for all citizens to “protect state secrets, cherish public assets…respect public order and social morals”. Then there is the killer Article 54 stating that citizens have the duty to protect the “security, honour and interests of the motherland” and that to do otherwise is prohibited.

In other words the constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression is severely undermined by sweeping qualifications that render it meaningless. In practice we see that things have, if anything, become much worse as the Xi regime has been using legal means to jail journalists and place ever tighter controls on social media, now viewed by the Communist Party as the main challenge to its vice-like grip on the media as a whole.

The idea of freedom of expression is entirely alien to dictatorships who, in Mao’s famous words, expect the media ‘to serve the people’. The concept of the media as a monitor for government actions, a platform for the exchange of opinions and a reliable source of accurate information is simply nowhere in the minds of the grey men in Beijing who control everything.

More than 200,000 people marched here to protest an anti-subversion law, known as Article 23, which many in this former British colony fear could erode political freedom six years after its return to Chinese rule. Photo: AFP PHOTO/MIKE CLARKE More than 200,000 people marched here to protest an anti-subversion law, known as Article 23, which many in this former British colony fear could erode political freedom six years after its return to Chinese rule. Photo: AFP PHOTO/MIKE CLARKE

Therefore in many ways it is a miracle that Hong Kong continues to enjoy the level of free expression that still prevails. The Communist Party worries about this on two levels, first that this freedom contains the seeds of contagion that can spread to the Mainland and second that the free exchange of information in Hong Kong undermines a clear intention to make the SAR increasingly subservient to Beijing.

It will be noted that Hong Kong’s Basic Law also contains an unequivocal pledge to ‘freedom of speech, of the press and of publication’, as stated in Article 27, mirroring the PRC constitution’s similar pledge. However the Basic Law does not contain the get-out clauses that exist in the Chinese constitution.

This should be reassuring were we not in an era where the National People’s Congress Standing Committee seems so keen to ‘reinterpret’ the Basic Law and where China’s commitment to the pledges made prior to the creation of the HKSAR have been placed in question. This year Chinese officials have gone so far as to state that the Sino-British treaty for the handover of Hong Kong is nothing more than a historical document of no contemporary relevance. In other words even an agreement lodged at the United Nations can be airily tossed to one side when it no longer serves the Communist Party’s needs.

No wonder people are so worried about what the pending Article 23 legislation will contain.

Hong Kong Handover 20 years on: Mixed mood as city marked anniversary

The Club marked the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China with an evocative display of images curated by the Wall Committee, rounded off with a video display of the SCMP’s signature images of the past 20 years and a gathering of members and visiting media on the night that reflected a bittersweet occasion for some, no doubt matched by others as a moment of patriotic pride.

This mixed mood within 2 Lower Albert Road mirrored that of Hong Kong’s millions of residents as the anniversary encouraged the contemplation of the past two decades and the prospects for the now less than 30 years to come. If the past is said to be another country, then the future, at least in Hong Kong’s context, looks increasingly like another system.

For the Club’s members, but notably those remaining correspondents and journalists who had covered the events of 1997, the anniversary brought forth – as anniversaries are meant to do – old ‘war stories’ and shared camaraderie. For those new to Hong Kong and the Club it was a good excuse to celebrate and share those memories, as well as look towards Hong Kong’s future.

It was good to see a number of old friends returning for the occasion, others no longer with us remembered and the company of new friends enjoyed.

Hong Kong Remembers: An unforgettable night for a good cause

The FCC Charity Committee went into overdrive to plan and execute the first of many events aimed at benefitting smaller, lesser-known charities which can all too easily fall between the cracks in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong Remembers Hong Kong Remembers

A lot of people came up and said ‘You should do this at least twice a year’,” said FCC Second Vice President Tim Huxley a few days after the Hong Kong Remembers party. “Obviously they were people who weren’t on the Charity Committee.”

Indeed not. A lot of hard work went into the fun. The Charity Committee, of which Tim and Elaine Pickering are co-convenors, had only about two and a half months to put together, as it was billed, “An Evening of Music, Nostalgia & Entertainment in Aid of The China Coast Community”.

It required a transformation in the appearance of all the F&B venues and function rooms, as well as  laying on three separate buffets and an evening long entertainment programme running concurrently on all three levels.

The evening was an important event for the club. It brought members back together after a few difficult weeks during which the Main Bar had been closed for renovation. It also marked a resumption of active involvement in charity fundraising, following the decision of the organizers of the former FCC Charity Ball to make a change of address to the Hong Kong Rugby Union.

This however, Tim stressed, was something different and intended to mark the first step towards establishing a programme of community outreach initiatives in support of a raft of causes.

“There was a desire to have something not based so much on an individual event, but to develop a longer term sustainable approach to our role in the community and utilise all the talents that exist in the FCC,” he said.

“We were particularly keen to focus on areas where people risk falling between the cracks, and geriatric care is one of those – particularly for people who are not native Cantonese speakers, but who are going to be here long term. And that’s an increasing number of people. We went and looked at the China Coast Community when we were looking at how to start our initial fundraising for this year. Later on we’d like to expand this into other areas.”

As a first step though, rather than simply write a cheque to the charity, it was determined that an achievable target should be identified. This was to replace the home’s existing beds with surgical ones – a significant and tangible improvement in quality of life for both the residents and their care givers – and to provide occupational therapy services.

Scroll down for our photo gallery from the night

The way the second objective has been achieved, Tim said, is a model of the way the Charity Committee would like future FCC community outreach to work. Through a member of the committee’s connections, arrangements are being made for Hong Kong Polytechnic University final year Occupational Therapy students to take up placements with the China Coast Community.

“We were able to cover that one through connections of the club. Absolutely brilliant and absolutely what we wanted to do,” said Tim.

To raise money for the beds, the party was organised, in short order by, in Tim’s words, “that force of nature, Elaine Pickering”.

“It was all volunteers. She managed that committee with military precision, deciding who was delegated to do what, and they all went out and did it. Everybody was very enthusiastic about the cause and the event. There was a great team of people on the committee, and the staff were really behind it.”

To help establish a suitably nostalgic atmosphere Huxley recommended designer – and former FCC member, time you reapplied – Colin Tillyer, who set to work recreating iconic signs, logos and other paraphernalia of yesteryear.

Almost exactly 20 years after The Godown closed, the night’s jazzier performers recreated the atmosphere of its heyday. The Main Bar, with a Disco theme, became the 1970s Peninsula nightclub, The Scene, and the Verandah got a dai pai dong makeover as a hawker food area – although not all elements of decoration for that were Colin’s idea.

“The rubber mice and cockroaches that you saw in Hawker Street were Chef George’s idea. He turned up at a charity meeting with a plastic bag full of rubber mice and we thought ‘Yeah, that’s different’,” Tim recalls.

Members and the companies and organisations they work for or run were more than generous in donating goods and services, including all the prizes in  the raffle – for which all the tickets were sold – and lots for the silent auction. There isn’t space to name them all here, but you can find all 89 listed in the back of the programme and on page 32 of this magazine.

The musicians who perform regularly at the club also rallied round, and there were fine performances from The FCC All Stars, Miriam Ma & Hippogroove, Crimes Against Pop, and The Red Stripes, all in suitably nostalgic mode, not to mention  a pipa recital and very popular impromptu lessons in swing dancing. The dancers have also volunteered to perform at the China Coast Community, very much in the spirit of the evening.

There was some more poignant nostalgia as well. A screen in the Hughes Room – sorry, Luk Kwok Hotel – was playing a digital image gallery of photographs of FCC members accumulated by The Correspondent, and curated at Elaine’s suggestion by Terry Duckham.  Quite a few of us watching that were reminded not only of past times, other parties and of our younger selves, but of  many absent friends gone too soon – to reconvene, let us hope, at a celestial Main Bar.

Much of the success of the nostalgia theme can be attributed to so many members getting so much into the spirit of the evening in putting together their costumes.

We had rival air crews from Cathay Pacific and Pan Am, cheongsams and safari suits, hawkers and sampan ladies, all manner of colonial era headgear, and any number of ludicrous wigs.

The results? Apart from the enjoyment of the entertainment, the company and some great food from the kitchen, the evening raised more than HK$200,000. But that was not, as Tim – or for that night CX Captain Huxley – points out, the only important achievement.

“We threw open the club to a lot of members who maybe don’t come here that often, and to a lot of guests who came here and said ’Wow!’ At the same time we achieved our target of getting most of those beds sorted out, and the occupational therapy, and raising awareness. So it was a celebration of Hong Kong, and of the FCC, and of doing a bit of good. You can’t ask for more.”

Clare Hollingworth: Larger than life pioneer of journalism

What a life. What a larger than life character. In order to get to grips with the immense scale of the life and times of Clare Hollingworth and the earth-shaking events that punctuated her 105 years of life, it is worth recalling that she was born on October 10, 1911.

That was the very day a revolt broke out that led to the downfall of China’s last imperial dynasty. It was also only eight years after the Wright brothers’ first flight. Clare died on January 10, 2017, just 10 days before a blustering, damn-your-eyes businessman and reality TV host was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States.

And for a remarkable amount of what happened in between those bookend dates – or more particularly the war-torn and otherwise violent and tumultuous events that took place during that time – foreign correspondent and FCC legend Clare Hollingworth was there.

Clare on assignment in Palestine in the mid-1960s. Clare on assignment in Palestine in the mid-1960s.

She is most remembered, of course, for the amazing news coup she pulled off, literally in her first few days as a working journalist: the massing of German tanks and troops on the Polish border in readiness for the opening bludgeon blows of World War II.

But that was merely an opening salvo in an extraordinary career that took her to the war-racked Balkans, Greece, North Africa, Middle East, India, Pakistan, Vietnam and then to the rather more peaceful, if still fraught, Middle Kingdom of Mao Zedong. As chronicled in “Of Fortunes and War”, the superb new biography by Clare’s great-nephew Patrick Garrett, Clare managed to be in the right place at the right time to bear witness to a succession of seismic and often violent events. And she did so often by putting herself in harm’s way with an apparent fearlessness and even insouciance that made many of her male journalistic peers break out in a cold sweat.

Before she walked into the Fleet Street offices of the Daily Telegraph in August 1939 and got a job, Clare was rushing around East Europe assisting literally thousands of vulnerable people to escape from the growing menace of Nazi Germany.

It was, Garrett says, “manic story-chasing” and a “perverse pleasure in warfare”. Clare explained her apparent sang froid as she chased after the sound of guns as follows: “If I stopped to think about it, I would probably be terrified. It’s just that I don’t feel frightened under machine-gun fire. The excitement of the job overcomes it.”

But while the tales of Clare’s derring-do are always worth re-telling, as Garrett does with panache, there was much more to Clare than the endearing image of a doughty and slightly dotty Englishwoman roaming the world’s battlefields equipped with little more than a toothbrush, a typewriter and a pistol or two (she once had three, including a pearl-handled revolver tucked in her handbag).

For a start, she was remarkable because she not only survived, but thrived, in a line of work in which, in her early days at least, women were not supposed to get a look-in. We talk nowadays of mould-breakers, destroying gender barriers, smashing glass ceilings, abolishing stereotypes, and so on. Clare was doing all that before any of those terms came into common parlance.

A young Clare Hollingworth on the job in the early 40s. A young Clare Hollingworth on the job in the early 40s.

It was not just in her profession that Clare faced a daunting wall of sexist prejudice (in North Africa in World War II British General Bernard Montgomery, learning that Clare was present somewhere near the battlefield, said, “I’ll have no women correspondents in my army…Get rid of her”).

Her whole background, born and raised in bucolic, rural and deeply traditional England, militated against her pursuing any activity as hare-brained as journalism. In those days, most women didn’t even have their own passport, merely being listed as “Wife” in their husband’s travel documents.

“My mother thought journalism frightfully low, like trade,” Clare told the Daily Telegraph in 2011. “She didn’t believe anything journalists wrote and thought they were only fit for the tradesmen’s entrance.” There were few freelancers in those days, so just to get taken on by a newspaper was a challenge, let alone to be allowed to report a war.

But, even before Clare cut her teeth as a foreign correspondent in such spectacular fashion, she was exhibiting those qualities of determination, persistence, resourcefulness and sheer bloody mindedness that not only served her well as a journalist but also set her apart from almost all of her generation of women.

Even at night, before she would settle to sleep, Clare still insisted that her shoes be ready, right at her bedside, in case she had to leave in a hurry, and that her passport be always within reach on the dresser.

Before she walked into the Fleet Street offices of the Daily Telegraph in August 1939 and got a job, Clare was rushing around East Europe assisting literally thousands of vulnerable people to escape from the growing menace of Nazi Germany. By wily hook or by crook, Clare provided these frightened refugees on the Gestapo’s wanted list the documentation they needed to reach a relatively safe haven. While Clare was dubbed the Scarlet Pimpernel by the UK press, British officialdom looked askance at what she was doing, and may even have suspected she was part of a network of Communist agents. It was a typically dramatic episode in Clare’s life, but one that she gives only brief mention in her 1990 memoir “Front Line”. This is possibly because, Garrett suggests, Clare felt guilty that she had not been able to save even more lives.

When married, Clare retained her name, not taking those of her two husbands, Vandeleur Robinson and Geoffrey Hoare. (The latter was no marital paragon: Clare threatened to shoot one of his mistresses, but still spoke fondly of Geoffrey after his death.)

Clare and Tim Page in Saigon during the Vietnam War in the early 1970s. Clare and Tim Page in Saigon during the Vietnam War in the early 1970s.

Clare eschewed the terms Miss/Mrs/Ms. When she received her Order of the British Empire honour from the Queen, she asked to be referred to simply as Clare Hollingworth.

But if that makes Clare sound like a fervent feminist, that would be a mistaken conclusion, Garrett says. “I don’t think Clare really was a feminist. She was an ‘equalist’, if the term exists.” Because she strove to be seen on equal terms as her male peers in journalism, she was not in favour of any kind of special treatment on account of her gender. She believed that in the long term, any positive discrimination for women worked against their interests, particularly women journalists. Her thinking was that by having additional help in the field, women would be regarded by the powers that be as a nuisance, a liability, and therefore less likely to get the necessary access and facilities to do their work.

Janine di Giovanni, the award-winning foreign correspondent, wrote in the Spectator that Garrett’s book about Clare is “a tribute to all the great women who’ve made it possible for today’s female reporters to work in conflict zones.” However, she noted that Clare never gained the renown that her contemporary Martha Gellhorn did. Gellhorn’s life was “perhaps more bling”, wearing handmade Belgian shoes to the front line and marrying Ernest Hemingway. Clare’s standard working attire, in Asia at least, was a safari suit.

Clare would not have approved of the Daily Mail’s Ann Leslie, who during the Bosnian war was reported to be wearing a full-length mink coat and was advising her female colleagues: “Shake your bangles at the soldiers. It doesn’t do any harm for them to think you’re a birdbrain.” However, while Clare disapproved in principle of women using their femininity to get ahead, she herself did once throw off all her clothes to avoid being arrested by police in Bucharest, her theory being that police might strip her but could hardly force her to dress.

Clare Hollingworth. Clare Hollingworth.

Only once did I witness Clare threatening to deploy her perceived feminine weaknesses in an effort to get what she wanted. In the early 1980s, when China had started opening up to the world but was still bureaucratically hidebound, I was helping her to book a room in a Beijing hotel (Clare had next to no Chinese – she knew the word for “beer” but that was about it). However, the man at hotel reception was adamant. Yes, he said, the hotel had lots of empty rooms but Clare couldn’t have one because she didn’t have the official piece of paper authorizing him to allow her in. In a last-ditch bid to weaken the man’s idiotic obduracy, Clare whispered to me: “Should I start to cry now?” I advised against that as being pointless. Conceding defeat, we left.

While Clare was understandably pleased to be the first female defence correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, what really made her proud was to be first civilian to land the job. Her predecessors had been superannuated brigadiers. She was also scornful of men correspondents who she thought were not pulling their weight. In Saigon she was horrified about the men who topped their stories with datelines where they had never been. She reckoned that unlike conscripted or drafted soldiers, male hacks had volunteered be in conflict zones and should make the most of the opportunities presented to get as close as possible to combat.

She is most remembered, of course, for the amazing news coup she pulled off, literally in her first few days as a working journalist: the massing of German tanks and troops on the Polish border in readiness for the opening bludgeon blows of World War II.

Garrett says her great aunt could be catty about female rivals, but she was willing to help women as long as they were not a direct threat. She was also something of a snob and accused by some of being too close to senior establishment figures, particularly in the military. Robert Fisk, the much-garlanded British foreign correspondent, wrote: “Ms Hollingworth’s snobberies are very tiring, her cozy relations with British embassies irritating.” It was true that, in her imperious manner, Clare tended to regard any British diplomatic mission as some sort of support team, put there for her benefit. It was a British consulate car that she “borrowed” to cross the Polish-German border in 1939 and gain her greatest scoop. And once having acquired that habit, it died hard. A British diplomat who was in Beijing during Clare’s time there in the 1970s recalled – quite cheerfully – that “she latched on to me as a helpful young unmarried bag-carrier in the Embassy”.

While clearly relishing the company of the high and mighty, Clare was generous with her time and hospitality with young people. One such person was Isabel Hilton, the distinguished writer, journalist and broadcaster, who was a student in China in the early 1970s.

“The characteristic I most remember about Clare was her curiosity about everything, no matter how insignificant it seemed to us. She lived for journalism. She was always in pursuit of a story or writing one and she once said that she expected to write a story every day… She was definitely an inspiration. I was a hopeful, aspirant journalist but not what you would call firmly on the path.”

And as Hilton found out, Clare did not take kindly to being offered help she felt she didn’t need. “I do remember once making the mistake of taking her arm at the top of a staircase. Her eyesight was really terrible by then. She snatched it away and I never tried to help again.”

But Clare did need help in her final years, after a legal tangle over her finances left her struggling to make ends meet and relying on the support of friends. It was a sorry end for such a seemingly indomitable figure who, as Garrett recounts, persisted with her end-of-the-day foreign correspondent rituals even nearing the end of her many days: “Even at night, before she would settle to sleep, Clare still insisted that her shoes be ready, right at her bedside, in case she had to leave in a hurry, and that her passport be always within reach on the dresser.”

So where did Clare’s swashbuckling gene come from? Could it be from her great-great-great grandfather, who was a highway robber (and hanged for his pains 219 years ago)?


Clare’s Halcyon Hong Kong Years

By Sarah Monks

It’s a balmy southern California morning in July 1990 as Cathay Pacific’s inaugural service to Los Angeles touches down – completing the longest non-stop flight of its time – to kick-start a major Hong Kong promotion.

Striding out through the VIP channel with the official party is a diminutive figure of determination in a Vietnam War-era safari suit – Clare Hollingworth.

“Clare, why don’t you take the car?” offers mission leader and then Trade Development Council Chairman Baroness (Lydia) Dunn, pointing to a Hollywood-style stretch limousine, complete with fully-stocked bar. As the glamourous peer boards the coach with the rest of the Hong Kong group, including several FCC members, this writer is assigned as Clare’s escort.

All is cruisy until we approach the portico of the appointed five-star hotel in Beverly Hills. A brass band strikes up; the hotel manager and staff form a receiving line. A look of terror flashes across Clare’s face as she realises they think she is Baroness Dunn. Slumping below the rim of the smoked-glass window, she reaches for the door handle. While the limo is still moving Clare is out the door, darting behind pot plants and columns and disappearing into the hotel through a side entrance. As the band’s jaunty tune unravels, it remains only to explain that the lady who just vanished was not the baroness but the great and fearless war correspondent Clare Hollingworth.

By 1990, Clare had been residing in Hong Kong for nearly a decade since leaving London and her post as The Daily Telegraph’s defence correspondent.

By 1990, Clare had been residing in Hong Kong for nearly a decade since leaving London and her post as The
Daily Telegraph
’s defence correspondent. Woe betide anyone who assumed that Clare had retired here. Au contraire, as she would say. These were active and productive years. Aside from still “calling London” each evening, Clare wrote “Mao and the Men Against Him” (1985) and finished her 1990 memoir “Front Line”. She was also writing columns for The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Telegraph, International Herald Tribune and The Wall Street Journal, and held a research position at HKU’s Centre of Asian Studies.

Clare on the job in the Main Bar. Clare on the job in the Main Bar.

It surely helped that Clare’s next door neighbour in Upper Albert Road was the Governor. Sir Murray (later, Lord) MacLehose, was a particular friend from Saigon days, when he was British ambassador and, before that, Paris. Clare enjoyed weekends on the Governor’s yacht Lady Maurine in once-pristine waters at the colony’s marine edges. She also enjoyed swimming privileges “at the pool next door” in the grounds of Government House. Clare loved swimming. Indeed, the first words she uttered to this writer back in 1981 were: “I knew your father. We used to swim across the Bay of Beirut together during the war”.

When Clare began frequenting “the Club” at Sutherland House, she had to overcome an uncharacteristic fear of lifts to reach the dining room on the 15th floor. “Give me a restaurant that’s under fire, any day,” she would say.  “I will crouch under the table. But never trap me in a lift.”

Clare soon re-encountered Richard Hughes, whom she had first met in Cairo during the North African campaign, after he had taken to wearing a monocle (a whole other story). It was a cordial if respectfully distant reunion of two legends in each other’s lifetimes; doyen and doyenne. “His Grace”, holding court at his usual table, would smile benignly whenever Clare stepped out of the lift, raising his hand to dispense a blessing and greeting her as “Mother Superior”.  Clare would respond with equal noblesse to this unsolicited Vatican honour.

When Clare began frequenting “the Club” at Sutherland House, she had to overcome an uncharacteristic fear of lifts to reach the dining room on the 15th floor. “Give me a restaurant that’s under fire, any day,” she would say.  “I will crouch under the table. But never trap me in a lift.”

It doubtless helped that Clare’s arrival and friendship with Sir Murray coincided with the Club’s search for a new home, spearheaded by then Club President Donald Wise, another living journalistic legend.  Spiralling rents portended the end of the Club’s “borrowed time” at Sutherland House (with its famous “loo with a view”) and he had already written to the Governor. Just as Sir Murray was leaving office in 1982 came the happy news that the government would allow the FCC to lease the old Ice House.

An FCC evening with Clare was a ticket to the front row of some of the 20th century’s stranger moments, such as the drunken misdeeds of diplomat (and spy) Donald Maclean in Cairo when out carousing with journalist pal Philip Toynbee (“they urinated in front of Egyptian ladies-in-waiting during an official reception at King Farouk’s palace”), and how she ended up with Melinda Maclean’s fur coat after the defector’s wife joined him in Moscow.  She got on well with “the Shah” (of Iran), witnessed the spittle on the hands of “Charlie” (Charles De Gaullle) from the kisses of Arabs in Algiers who moments earlier had surrounded the French President with fists raised in menace, could offer a firsthand opinion of Wallis Simpson (“I never cared for her. But he was very charming”), and gave instructions on how to sleep in the desert (“you make a little hole for your hip”).

Clare with Sir Edward Heath at a Club function in 1987. Clare with Sir Edward Heath at a Club function in 1987.

But the lion’s share of Clare’s time in those earlier Hong Kong years was spent “smelling the breezes” to stay informed both for her work and the powerful who sought her out. Her classic opening line at dinner “a deux” was: “In deep confidence, tell me what you think is going on with…”

Smelling the breezes also meant travelling. Clare was still doing a lot of that, always with a small shortwave radio tuned to the BBC World Service. She went often to her old stamping ground in Beijing, where she was a welcome guest of successive British ambassadors. Summers took her on a circuit of visits in Europe and the US to a who’s who of global diplomacy, military and the secretive spaces in between.

She would stay at her strategically-located “pads” in Dorset Square and the Rue Saint Honore, where she met the ultra-connected at “the Travellers” (Club) in London and “the Cercle” (Cercle de l’Union Ineralliee) in Paris. If she holidayed at all, it was to see her great friend the remarkable Dowager Lady Egremont at her castle in Cumbria, or to the south of France where there was a veritable FCC colony in residence with the likes of Donald and Daphne Wise, Derek and Shizue Davies, and former Hong Kong solicitor Brian Tisdall.

And there was always former British Prime Minister Edward Heath, with whom Clare had another important, longstanding friendship. Returning from one UK sojourn, when both were into their 80s, Clare mentioned that “Ted”, ever a bachelor, had invited her to stay with him at his home in Salisbury.  “I said no,” she confided. “People might have talked”.

Clare’s ongoing connections across the Atlantic were just as illustrious. During her time as The Daily Telegraph’s first correspondent in Beijing she had befriended the first US emissary to the People’s Republic, David Bruce, and his wife Evangeline. Years after his death, she continued to visit the celebrated “Vangie” when in the US “catching up on gossip” and on latest military and geostrategic developments monitored at the Center for Strategic & International Studies.

Clare and Club President Diane Stormont welcome Chris Patten to the Club for the launch of his book “East and West” in 1999.
Clare and Club President Diane Stormont welcome Chris Patten to the Club for the launch of his book “East and West” in 1999. Photo by Kees Metselaar

On that score, Clare never lost her youthful gift of prescience. “Muslim fundamentalism is fast becoming the chief threat to global peace and security as well as a cause of national and local disturbance through terrorism,” she wrote in an article for the International Herald Tribune in 1993.  “So far there has been scant reaction from the Western world, but it is increasingly important that members of Nato sit up and pay attention to aggressive Islamic trends.”

At the Club’s reception to celebrate Clare’s 85th birthday, a message was read from a veteran war correspondent that went something like: “Clare, the tanks you saw entering Poland in 1939 have just arrived in Kabul. Wish you were here.” “Rather!” Clare responded loudly from the floor. “I’d much rather be there!”

With her passing, along with that of the unforgettable Anthony Lawrence and others of their generation, an era has truly come to an end for the Club, correspondents in general and war correspondents in particular. Peace at last, Clare.  Sorry.



Clare’s readers and helpers

By Joyce Lau

I met Clare when I was an editorial assistant, barely a rung up from unpaid intern on the journalism ladder. I was also a new member at the FCC, and settled quickly into my favourite spot in the far corner of the “quiet room,” also known as The Bunker.

Perched in the opposite corner was the wizened figure of Clare Hollingworth, wrapped in a shawl, listening to the BBC on giant headphones. I didn’t realise who she was at first, but soon noticed that anyone presuming to sit at her table incurred the wrath of the FCC staff, who were fiercely protective their “Po Joi” (little grandmother).  When I discovered her back story I became fascinated by her.

Cathy Hilborn Feng and Clare cut her birthday cake on the occasion of her 89th birthday. Cathy Hilborn Feng and Clare cut her birthday cake on the occasion of her 89th birthday.

I started reading to Clare by happenstance. I read the papers at the FCC anyway, and she was clearly struggling to do the same. She was in her 90s then, and I had never met anyone so old. Even my sole surviving grandparent was a generation younger than she was.

I soon leaned that hidden behind the frustrating barriers of deafness and blindness were a sharp intellect, dark humour, and keen news judgement. And that is how I spent a decade reading to a war correspondent more than 60 years my senior.

There were many friends who supported Clare, the most dedicated of which was Cathy Hilborn Feng, a Canadian working in Hong Kong as an editor. “Her legend had preceded her,” Hilborn remembered about meeting Clare in 1994. “I was somewhat wary of her, at first I thought, ‘Oh my God, she’s so famous’. And I thought she’d be very unapproachable. But I found that to be so far from the truth.

Clare never spoke of her situation – possibly out of pride, but more likely out of disinterest. This was a woman who bragged about sleeping in trenches, who trudged through war-torn Europe carrying little more than a pistol, a typewriter and a pillow-case of clothes.

“I think as people age, younger people especially tend to avoid them,” she said. “So she didn’t have too many younger people approaching her. Although she had lots of friends and lots of older people giving her respect. I noticed she was having trouble reading and using a great big magnifying glass.

“She needed human contact,” Hilborn said. “She needed someone who will read those stories with her and discuss those stories with her. She wanted to be engaged and interactive.” So she and the Women in Publishing Society arranged for a different reader each day. It was a joy to do. Well into her 90s, Clare was both a colourful storyteller and gossip.

Clare at the piano. Clare at the piano.

“There was a long period when Conrad Black, her former employer at The Telegraph, was in the news himself, so it was my job to find all the relevant articles and read them to Clare and she delighted in that because she knew Conrad,” she said. “And she had her own wonderful stories to tell about Conrad, so that was quite fun.

Patrick Garrett, Clare’s great-nephew who would later become her biographer, started checking in with her daily around 1997. Clare, then in her 80s, was still sprightly enough to get around or book a plane ticket without warning – but also in denial about her own failing eyesight and memory.

“That’s the period when I flew up to Beijing she would (without warning) just follow,” Garrett said.  “And the first I’d know, I’d get the 7am call at the hotel, checking to see what I was working on.”

When I met Clare, she was still living independently, with no live-in helper, in the elegantly decaying Ridley House on Upper Albert Road. She boasted that she was perfectly happy “rolling down the hill” to the FCC. But the reality was that she was a legally-blind nonagenarian, navigating the steep hill of Glenealy next to busy traffic.

I offered to pick her up at home one day, and I was dismayed at the state of her one-bedroom flat. There was a sagging single mattress and a kitchenette with a mostly empty refrigerator.

That day, I learned the hard truth that greatness from a half-century ago doesn’t pay the current-day bills. Even if Clare had (modest) sums in the bank – as well as friends and relatives with good intentions – it was not enough to secure the sort of 24/7 care needed for a person of her age.

Clare shares her 100th birthday party with a full house of family and friends in the Main Dining Room in 2011 Clare shares her 100th birthday party with a full house of family and friends in the Main Dining Room in 2011

Clare never spoke of her situation – possibly out of pride, but more likely out of disinterest. This was a woman who bragged about sleeping in trenches, who trudged through war-torn Europe carrying little more than a pistol, a typewriter and a pillow-case of clothes.

In time a move was organised, first to a modern serviced apartment right next to the FCC, and then to another space.

Susan Perez, a Filipina domestic helper, was hired in 2004 – and she stayed loyally with Clare for 13 years, until her death. Susan was joined by
her sister, Helen Penuranda, and the two became Clare’s family and constant companions. They would sit at Clare’s table in The Bunker, drizzling her food with honey to tempt her to eat, and watering down her daily glass of white wine.

They remembered blasting the BBC so loudly that everyone – even the neighbours – could hear the news. Clare would listen until the football came on, and then yell ‘No! Put it off! Put it off. I’m not interested in sport, it is rubbish!’”

Susan and Helen also remember taking Clare back home with them to the Philippines on vacation.

“She was able to walk at that time, still no wheelchair,” Susan said. “Caring for Clare, there was no other option. She would not be comfortable with anybody else. She couldn’t see, so she was insecure. We arranged between the two of us so one of us would always be with her. She would not complain as long as we were there. She could recognise our voices.

Photos: FCC Archive

Censorship and reporting in China: New survey reveals increased harassment and physical violence

The Special Police Units (SPU) have an increased role in civil unrest and political demonstrations, often blocking journalist’s access. Photo: The Special Police Units (SPU) have an increased role in civil unrest and political demonstrations, often blocking journalist’s access. Photo:

The reporting environment for foreign journalists is proving hostile for yet another year in China – a situation that correspondents judge to be distant from basic international standards. Intimidation of sources and local staff, growing harassment and obstruction are major challenges for journalists conducting their work.

The annual Working Conditions survey conducted by the Foreign Correspondents´ Club of China finds an alarming new form of harassment against reporters, some of whom have been called into unspecified meetings by the State Security Bureau.

Harassment and physical violence. Most respondents (57%) said they had been subjected to some form of interference, harassment or violence while attempting to report in China. 8% of respondents experienced manhandling or use of physical force, an increase from last year, while 26% said they had been obstructed from reporting at least once by unknown persons. One person reported the breaking of news gathering equipment.

Several secret police showed up unannounced at my apartment after waiting for me to get home “for several hours”, according to my terrified doormen. They forced me to speak with them and they tried to get me to sign a document saying I would follow the rules of being a journalist in China. – US broadcaster

In what appears to be an added form of pressure applied on foreign correspondents, 27% of respondents said they had been asked to meet with the Ministry of State Security. Respondents said the tone of those conversations has been friendly, although the questions have in some instances been of concern.

I was asked to spy and report on colleagues, and I could refuse in the same friendly way. – European broadcaster

Harassment of news assistants. 33% of respondents said their news assistants had been harassed or pressured by government officials in some way, a slight increase from last year. Some correspondents reported news assistants quitting over a perceived negative reporting bias against China and the Communist Party.

Officials often target the Chinese staff. They often attempt to separate them from us, attempt to warn them that their perceived “support” of the foreign media is “un-Chinese” and sometimes threaten and verbally insult them. – Western news organisation 

State Security police: constant harassment of reporters. Photo: State Security police: constant harassment of reporters. Photo:

Harassment of sources. Official harassment of Chinese citizens who speak to foreign reporters is a violation of these sources’ constitutional rights. It also violates Chinese government regulations governing foreign journalists’ work, and Chinese officials’ public statements that sources will not be harassed. However, 26% of respondents say their sources were harassed, detained, questioned or punished at least once for speaking to them. In other cases, fear of harassment has led sources to decline interviews.

In the most extreme case, a woman who talked to us about losing money to a P2P lending website was detained by police for a number of days. – Newsagency correspondent

Limits on travel in minority areas. The Tibet Autonomous Region remains unreachable for foreign correspondents outside formally-organised trips by the Foreign Ministry. However, respondents have also encountered troubles reporting in other sensitive border or ethnic minority areas.

Of those who tried to report from Tibetan-inhabited areas, 60% reported encountering problems, while 44% had trouble in Xinjiang. Correspondents have also been told reporting was restricted or prohibited in other sensitive areas, such as the North Korea border, areas around the Tianjin explosion site, and coal mining locations where protests had taken place. Restrictions have extended to officially-sanctioned trips into areas normally open for reporting.

I would have liked to go to the Larung Gar, but was told from sources that this would not be possible. It is in Sichuan and not Tibet, so should be open to foreign reporters. But it is not. – FCCC member

Pressure outside China by Chinese authorities. 18% of respondents said they had seen signs of Chinese pressure on editors at their headquarters, a slight decrease from last year. Such visits have included complaints about sensitive stories, attempts to secure more “balanced” coverage and formal notes of complaint.

Visit by the head of the press department of the Chinese embassy to my editor who delivered a nearly two-hour lecture on my “biased”, “not objective”, “negative” reporting. But the main line was: “Your correspondent is questioning the system.” – German correspondent

Surveillance and censorship. Correspondents have long doubted the security of their communications and privacy where they live and work in China. This year, 85% said they worried about violations of privacy in phone calls and SMS messages, while 89% said they worried about their ability to communicate privately over the Internet, through email and Chinese social messaging applications (WeChat). Another 69% expressed concern over listening devices installed at home and at the office.

My laptop was hacked by someone, and a story I was writing (about the CPC) was prefaced in a new typeface by the remark: “The glorious CPC, with you always.” – Western correspondent.

Censorship of foreign media organisations continues, with authorities blocking Internet access in China to The Economist and Time following cover articles about Xi Jinping. Media outlets that continue to be blocked in China include Wall Street Journal, South China Morning Post, Bloomberg, Reuters and New York Times.

Some respondents provided concerning examples of electronic intrusions.

AFP beachhead in North Korea

Hughes MD-500 helicopters perform a fly-by during the first Wonsan Friendship Air Festival in Wonsan on September 24, 2016. Hughes MD-500 helicopters perform a fly-by during the first Wonsan Friendship Air Festival in Wonsan on September 24, 2016. AFP PHOTO / Ed Jones

Agence France-Presse’s new bureau in Pyongyang, which opened in September, is already churning out the stories.

The bureau, which was officially opened by Emmanuel Hoog, the group’s chief executive and chairman, so far has been focusing on producing video and photographic content.

It was able to open following an agreement made earlier in the year between AFP and the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), following “about 10 rounds of negotiations that began in 2012”, said Philippe Massonnet, AFP’s Asia-Pacific regional director.

“Not that there was any resistance by the authorities, but it was only a matter of time as we were not only dealing with KCNA, but other government departments as well.”

The Pyongyang bureau will be staffed by a locally hired videographer and a photographer, who will work in conjunction with visiting foreign correspondents, which mirrors what other international news bureaux, including the Associated Press, Xinhua, Ria Novosti and Japan’s Kyodo News. AP opened the first foreign bureau in 2012.

As a big international newsagency “we have to be wherever we can”, Massonnet said. “For us, it is normal and natural to open an office in North Korea, as we open offices everywhere in the world – in some we cannot employ locals, in others it’s foreigners.”

With North Korea’s total media censorship and control it must be a struggle for the locally hired staff to function properly for foreign media – even with training.  “We brought the North Korean staff to Hong Kong in August for training sessions about how AFP works as well as going on shoots to take care of the practical aspects,” Massonnet said. “The two were competent and open and enthusiastic about the training and even though they were accompanied by an KCNA official the training was unsupervised.

The AFP team check out the work of local artists in a Pyongyang park. Photo: AFP The AFP team check out the work of local artists in a Pyongyang park. Photo: AFP

“We had worked with the same official before during the negotiations and got on well, so we took the opportunity to show him how we deal with photo and video stories from other countries – which he found interesting even though he acknowledged that many of those types of stories would not be done by KCNA.”

AFP’s Seoul bureau chief will run the bureau while teams from South Korea, Hong Kong or China will be sent every two months or so as part of the deal. “So far, we sent a team in July, again in September and another is planned for November,” he said. “There are no visa problems and now the visas are issued in Hong Kong rather than having to go via Beijing.”

The November mission we will try to get, among others, the August flood aftermath story, but it is difficult – or at least time consuming – to get approval. “Typically, we submit a list of say 20 potential stories in the hope of getting five or six to run with.”

So far the Pyongyang team has been involved in stock footage shoots of the capital as well as getting on the streets and train stations and the like; or reacting when someone noteworthy visits Pyongyang. “We did cover the 15th Pyongyang International Film festival [brainchild of the cinema-obsessed “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-ll in September.

“It’s really a way of showing as much as we can about what’s happening in Pyongyang. Many of our clients – particularly in South Korea and Japan – want as many images as they can get from the country.”

In this picture taken on September 29, 2016 commuters wait for a bus during the morning rush hour in Pyongyang. / AFP PHOTO / Ed Jones In this picture taken on September 29, 2016 commuters wait for a bus during the morning rush hour in Pyongyang. / AFP PHOTO / Ed Jones

One of the ways the AFP team gets around in North Korea is to work with NGOs, “often going to places that are normally difficult for journalists to get to”. A case in point is that they were able to cover the floods in North Hamgyong province, where some 140 people were killed and 35,000 homes destroyed, by being part of an NGO team. “It enabled us to get some great footage,” he said.

Everything produced by AFP in North Korea will be edited by AFP people, mainly at the  regional headquarters in Hong Kong. “There is no difference from anywhere else in the region where we have people taking photos or videos or writing stories. They send their material to Hong Kong, and it will be exactly the same for North Korean stories.”

As in other countries where AFP operates there is official monitoring. “But monitoring is not a problem. It would be a problem if we were censored. The big issue for us is to go there and to report or shoot what we see… and this job won’t be much different than the one we do in
other countries where it is difficult to work.”

Once a story is finished and on the “wires” that might be another story. “So far we have had no negative feedback from government officials,” Massonnet said. “We will see where the limits are of what is possible to do and what is not. If we think it is worth doing and reporting about, then we will do it. It may be difficult sometimes, but that doesn’t prevent us from working and getting good material.”

Apart from a few big occasions such as mass rallies and big celebrations, foreign media don’t report from North Korea very often. “So we have a very rare opportunity to be there every month and to deliver content to our Asian clients who have big expectations about our North Korea coverage.”

Portraits of former North Korean leaders Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il are displayed on buildings of the Pyongyang skyline on July 27, 2013. North Korea mounted its largest ever military parade to mark the 60th anniversary of the armistice that ended fighting in the Korean War, displaying its long-range missiles at a ceremony presided over by leader Kim Jong-Un. AFP PHOTO / Ed Jones / AFP PHOTO / Ed Jones Portraits of former North Korean leaders Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il are displayed on buildings of the Pyongyang skyline on July 27, 2013.  AFP PHOTO / Ed Jones / AFP PHOTO / Ed Jones

Massonnet likened the Pyongyang experience with Beijing in the 70s and 80s when correspondents had no official contacts or news sources and had to rely on what they saw in the streets as reporting beyond the city was all but impossible. However, when the big story came – China opening up – the resident bureaux could move fast.

“It makes sense to be in Pyongyang, not only because we don’t have much competition from the few journalists who go there, but also there are some opportunities to make connections so that you are ready when the big story breaks,” he said.

Massonnet said that even today in China, how many sources are there within the Chinese Communist Party to cover real political stories? You are left with the economic stories and speculation.

“The opening of an AFP bureau in Pyongyang will further strengthen the agency’s international network,” said the AFP chief executive, Emmanuel Hoog at the opening ceremony. “AFP’s role is to be present everywhere in the world in order to fulfil its news mission as completely as possible, in particular through images.”

AFP – which is a public company but governed by a board of representatives from French news organisations and the government – has 200 bureaux across 150 countries.

Dying in the pursuit of news

PanelJournalists as targets in conflict zones is a relatively new thing as militias and some governments around the world seek to control the message by killing the messenger. The FCC’s Journalism Conference heard from those who have been there.

The FCC’s Roll of Honour lists those killed in Indochina and Korea while on the job: a case of wrong place, wrong time. However, a new name was added in 2014, Sky News cameraman and former member Mick Deane. In late 2013 he was filming in the Rabaa al-Adawiya protest camp in Egypt when he was shot and killed by a sniper.

“In the old days, a press card was like a protection, but now more and more journalists have been targeted and killed,” said Eric Wishart, a member of AFP’s global news management, who led a panel discussion on the increasingly dangerous world for journalists.

“The game and the stakes have changed tremendously,” according to Marc Lavine, AFP’s editor-in-chief for Asia. ”In the mid-90s when I went to Afghanistan as a war correspondent, I had very little training and was equipped with just a pen and notebook.

“There was always the danger of being hurt or killed if you happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, but you were not targeted so you weren’t always looking over your shoulder expecting to have someone come out at you.”

In the past 15 years we have seen a complete move away from that, with militants targeting journalists in a propaganda game. “Film of executions in Syria illustrate that incredibly well as killing a journalist stops the message and sends its own brutal message across the world,” he said.

“In Pakistan we saw protesting journalists attacked by police with live rounds and baton charges. While, closer to home journalists were targeted in the Mongkok riots earlier this year.”

The figures speak for themselves: the Committee to Protect Journalists said that 970 journalists have been killed in the past 20 years – two-thirds in the past 10 years alone. Of the 72 killed last year, two-thirds of them were targeted.

“One of my big fears is the kidnapping of journalists,” said Roger Clark, CNN’s vice-president for Asia and Hong Kong bureau chief. “If ISIS kidnapped a Western journalist from a big news organisation it would use that to maximum effect across social media – that scares the hell out of me.”

No press here

Always in the past journalists would identify themselves as journalists – not such a good idea
these days.

For AFP, Lavine said, “we have taken identification from our cars and some of our offices, although we mostly still have PRESS tags on our flak jackets. However, in some sensitive areas it’s more a liability than a protection.”

For Roger Clark there are some situations “where you do want to be identified as PRESS on your car, or on your flak jacket, but for other situations like when we recently sent one of our correspondents to Syria where she kept the lowest of the low profile and tried to blend in.

“When you talk to our security specialists the phrase they use all the time is ‘blend in’, which, thankfully, is easier these days with the cameras being very small. Unlike when we were in Iraq where we had to keep a low profile by using old cars to get around – we were constantly re-spraying them.”

CNN’s senior international correspondent Ivan Watson says the precautions journalists should take depend on the conflict. “If you are dealing with conventional armies then you do identify yourself as the military usually represents the government, and has a chain of command and responsibility.

“But when you are dealing with militias it’s all about blending in,” he said. “During the US occupation of Iraq we used to hide in the back of crappy old taxis – basically our best defence at that point.

“It is a very strange development that we think that the violence against journalists – most of it directed against local journalists – has grown even though the number of cellphones and distribution systems for pictures and information now in use has magnified.

“It kills me that some governments will go after me and my professional TV crew, yet all those people running around with cellphones taking pictures – and uploading them to Facebook – don’t appear to be targeted.”

Clark spoke about recent threats to major news organisations by the Taliban in Afghanistan for not properly presenting the Taliban’s views. “However, the people who take the brunt of these threats are not the guys who parachute in for a story, it’s the guys who have to stay behind in those worlds – and very often the least protected.”

Covering disasters and surviving

Photo: AFP

The CNN team led by Andrew Stevens was on Tacloban in the Philippines and faced the full force of Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013 as it devastated the island. Dramatic – and award-winning – footage was shown of the typhoon which killed more than 10,000 people.

“They were there before the storm hit,” Clark said. “With our good contacts in the country we got our reporters there very quickly.”

At the time Clark was director of international coverage in Atlanta and, like they always do with big stories, sat down and did a review.

“We knew we had let the front-line team down badly because we could not supply them with the support they needed,” he said. “Normally we pride ourselves in making sure our correspondents and producers can eat, sleep in reasonable conditions and drink clean water. Now, we had supplies but they were stuck on another island.”

Out of this experience CNN now has a different deployment procedure. “When we deploy – whether on disaster or high-security stories – someone has to hit the pause button and take stock.”

CNN has now put together what they call “grab bags” that are in every bureau designed to support a team of three for three to four days – everything from toothpaste to tampons, including first aid kits, tents, sleeping bags, floor liners, mosquito nets, water-purification tablets, matches, sun cream, walkie-talkies, satellite phones, batteries and even instant noodles.

“It’s a great asset and you don’t have to think about logistics as you race off to do a story,” Clark said. “You also need to ensure that your team is not bigger than the resources you have.”

Sometimes what they need to bring doesn’t fit into the grab bag. “Sometimes we need to bring a generator – and find fuel – to a disaster zone as part of the philosophy that we have to create all our own infrastructure to operate,” Watson said. “It means you don’t have a cameraman falling down from dehydration because he is carrying heavy equipment around.”

Having sufficient cash is another issue. “Keep in mind that ATMs often don’t work in disasters,” he said. “We have had to bail out other journalists many times.

“It’s all in the preparation: you may need body armour, gas masks or long underwear, but it’s the grab-bag idea that ensures survival.”

Watson, reflecting on his experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, said it’s absolutely essential to do specific hostile environment training. “And it’s not for just surviving war, conflict or disaster, you need to able to know how to begin surviving when the whole structure of the society has been ripped apart.”

Local riots

Marc Lavine’s advice to Hong Kong-based journalists thinking of diving into the next riot: don’t rush in when you don’t know the score.“All it takes is a big rock hitting your head, or finding yourself between the police and the rioters.”

“We are always trying to get to the scene to see what’s happening,” says Ivan Watson, “but at some point you have to assess what’s going on around you – the worst place you can be is between two groups shaping up for a fight.”

He suggests that you need to try and figure out which side you are safe on… “or the side with the better guns”.

“It’s also important to remember that the riot or conflict always evolves or degenerates during the course of the conflict. When I first started going into Syria from Turkey the government didn’t welcome us and we would need to hide among the rebels. However, in the course of a year, the rebels started kidnapping journalists so they became a bigger threat. We finished up going in with the same military which had horrified us before.”

Roger Clark says it is down to training. “We need to be trained well enough to know just what our limits are before it is too late to turn back.”

Lavine agrees and adds that “we need to look at the kind of training we are delivering to journalists these days.

“Some 10 to 15 years ago in the time of Afghanistan and Iraq, war-type training was needed,” he said. “Often these days it’s training around public order – riots and the like. The chances of you getting killed in a riot in Hong Kong or wherever is fairly small, but with the huge amount of stones and bottles flying around, serious injuries are likely.”

While body armour is useful, it appears reinforced glasses and hard hats are more the thing for riots.

“When you are in a country that is going through destructive changes or conflict, you need exceptional planning for your teams – with the expectation that nothing works according to plan,” Watson said.

A dramatic video was shown of an incident in Iraq in 2014 when Watson joined an Iraq air force relief helicopter to take aid to a religious group besieged on the top of a mountain by ISIS forces. In the end the helicopter crew had to fire machine guns to protect the craft coming and going. Besides dropping relief goods, they also picked as many terrified people people as they could. Inevitably families were split up with the ensuing emotional chaos.

Watson said “there was little advance warning of what we were getting into”.

“This sort of stuff isn’t a game and it messes you up for a while. After some of these types of incidents I have gone into counselling – it’s essential to do this and playing at being a tough guy is not on.”

Trauma and PTSD can also occur well away from the field. Clark said that on the CNN international desk they have Arabic speakers vetting all this horrific footage pouring in relentlessly from the Middle East – sometimes the footage is worse than what you see in the field.

“So as managers we have to keep a close eye on these people,” he said. “At CNN we are pretty good in making sure that people know what to do if they are struggling to cope. It is only in recent times that it has been recognised that PTSD affects journalists in the field and back in the newsroom.”

AFP_JHET#1C_web Photos: AFP

 RISC XII>Day 4_Final simulations_web From L to R: AFP's Cris Bouroncle, Peruvian based in Santiago, Chile, Eric Feferberg and Jack Guez both French based in Paris, US news reporter Charles Hoskinson from the English Desk in Washington DC and Romeo Gacad from the Phillipines based in Manila, part of the AFP staff in Kuwait to cover the US-led attack in Iraq. AFP PHOTO / AFP PHOTO

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