Members Area

Introducing the FCC’s New Members: May 2021

An Everest mountaineer, a feng shui expert, a guidebook publisher and a raft of other “usual suspects” comprise the latest batch of new FCC faces.

 

Erika Behrens

I have been a consul at the German Consulate General in Hong Kong since last July and head of the Consular Section there. Together with my husband, Wolfhard, who is now retired, we have served in German embassies in Thailand, Zaire, India, Egypt, China and Switzerland. Our common hobby is travelling to learn more about political, economic and social issues worldwide. We hope to meet club members with the same interests and to better understand the environment in Hong Kong and beyond.

 


Isabel Lijun Cao

I’ve been in various roles with the media industry for more than 20 years, most recently as regional director at The Economist Group’s Hong Kong office. Previously, I worked as the head of editorial and programmes APAC at EuroFinance. I spent the first part of my career with Xinhua, as a foreign correspondent and senior editor in Beijing, Afghanistan and London. I’ve lived in Hong Kong for more than a decade with my husband and two sons. In my free time, I practice yoga. 

 


David Wan Chang

I was born and bred in Hong Kong and went to high school and college in Washington, DC. I am CEO of Franklin Templeton Investments and my career has included working at global banks and trust companies. I have also volunteered for special educational needs schools. I enjoy a cigar (okay, not at the FCC) with some single malts over a good chat with friends or, even better, journalists.

 


Blake Evans-Pritchard

I run the editorial team at Asia Risk, covering the derivatives markets, financial regulation and risk management at banks. I have been in Hong Kong for six years, and previously reported on international war crimes trials in The Hague. Originally from England, I have also spent time as a journalist in Africa and Europe. I also run City Trail Publishing together with my wife. We wrote the first guidebook to an independent South Sudan in 2011, and have published an expat guidebook to Hong Kong. We’re now compiling a Hong Kong for Kids guidebook.

 


Neil Gardner

I was born and schooled in the UK, but as an expat child, my father exposed me to African jungles and Arabian deserts. That lit my spirit of wanderlust, which brought me to Hong Kong – where I am the chief customer officer for Generali – via Australia, China, Korea, Indonesia and Thailand. I love Hong Kong. I don’t call it home, even though my children do, as they have lived most of their lives here. Instead, as the FCC has such an amazing atmosphere, I think I’ll call the club my second home.

 


Adam Harper

Like a lot of expats, I came to Hong Kong for a couple of years to get some international experience. That was in 2004. At the start of 2020, with an impeccable sense of timing, I started my own communications consultancy, Ashbury. I’m from the UK and married with two children – and another on the way. I started out as a journalist with EuroWeek and have also worked as a capital markets banker and corporate communications specialist. When I’m not working, I have a passion for rugby, skiing and the novels of John le Carré.

 


Mark Hayden

I was a military brat living between Taiwan and Washington, DC in the 1960s. After graduate studies in 1981, I went into banking in Taiwan and later supply chain management. I’ve been in Hong Kong since 1999 and love being a bridge builder between Eastern and Western cultures and business practices as the regional managing director for Cato Overseas. Mandarin is my first language (having attended Taiwanese schools from kindergarten) and my wife, Susan, is Taiwanese.

 


Klaus Koehler

I am a representative at Woodburn Accountants & Advisors, which specialises in inbound investment to China and Hong Kong. We offer companies a one-stop-shop approach to their corporate service needs. I arrived in Hong Kong in 1970 from my native Germany and worked in a trading company just as China was opening up to the world and when Shenzhen was a village. My travels have taken me throughout Asia, and in my 50 years here I have seen change at a speed that was unimaginable in my early days. 

 


Heidi Lee Oi Yee

I am a partner at Howse Williams focusing on mergers and acquisitions, public takeovers, and regulatory and compliance work for Hong Kong-listed companies. Born, bred and educated in Hong Kong, I am also the past president of Rotary Club of Hong Kong Northeast where I enjoyed devoting my spare time to charitable work and socialising with fellow Rotarians. I like hiking, baking and drinking, as it gives me time to mingle with friends. 

 


Justin Li

I am an aspiring architect raised in Hong Kong and Canada. After graduating from the University of Toronto, and having returned to Hong Kong to be closer to my family and look for new opportunities, I became one of the key designers in the Ma Wan Old Village revitalisation project, which won the Silver Award in the Hong Kong Institute of Planners Awards 2020. In my spare time, I enjoy sketching, hiking and playing basketball.

 


Quentin Li

I was born in Canada, grew up in Hong Kong and returned to Canada to pursue my undergraduate degree. Four years in Montreal taught me not to mess with Canada’s winter, so I eventually returned to Hong Kong to pursue a career in finance. I’m currently a financial investment professional at Goldman Sachs Investment Management Division covering clients in Greater China. Outside of work, I enjoy playing basketball and collecting modern sports cards, in particular Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Luka Doncic rookie cards.

 


Jeremy Lightfoot

Having evacuated the British Virgin Islands as Hurricanes Irma and Maria approached in 2017, I lived out of a suitcase in New York, Cayman, London and Cyprus before finally arriving in Hong Kong. Originally a barrister, I run a litigation team for an offshore firm, Carey Olson, spending my days on disputes involving Asia and the Caribbean. My goal for 2021 is to learn to surf. If I declare that in writing here, I’ll have to learn in order to avoid embarrassment – peer pressure has its advantages, so please do remind me.

 


Patricia O’Rorke

I was born in Hong Kong and this is my fourth time living here. There’s obviously something pulling me back. I have been frequenting the club for 30 years with my generous friends and always felt at home here, so decided it was finally time to join myself. Originally from a nursing background in London, real estate has kept me busy from the late 1980s. I have been with Habitat Property for the last 11 years, and am now a senior consultant.  

 


Peter Parks

I am a staff photographer for Agence France-Presse and I see myself coming full circle, returning to Hong Kong after 16 years away as bureau photographer in Beijing, Shanghai and Sydney. I first arrived in Hong Kong in 1993 working as a freelancer, then joined the Hong Kong Standard before AFP in 1996. I covered the handover, bird flu, the economic crisis and SARS before leaving and now find myself returning to an even more serious pandemic and a whole new political climate.

 


Vasavi Seethepalli

I am thrilled to be part of the FCC. And even happier to have been in Hong Kong for the last 13 years, I couldn’t have chosen a better place. I started my editorial journey as a freelance writer. Later, I worked as an editor at Hong Kong Living and now I’m the publishing chair at the American Women’s Association, one of the oldest women’s communities in Hong Kong, where women from all walks of life inspire each other.

 


Priya Subberwal

I am a classical feng shui consultant with a background in interior design. My journey into this unusual field began with a glance at a zodiac coffee table book in 2006. Since then I have received formal Chinese metaphysics training in Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia, China and Hong Kong. I started my own company, Disha Limited, in 2016. Disha comes from the Sanskrit word dishadhara, which means ‘direction’. I am also a yoga enthusiast, bridge player and an avid reader. I love the FCC’s vibrant atmosphere and enjoy socialising with friends and family there.

 


Lee Sullivan

I am a lead educator at the English Schools Foundation and the International Baccalaureate Organisation for Asia-Pacific. Egypt, Kazakhstan, United Arab Emirates and the UK are among my previous work locations. Having married into the local Cantonese culture, I now consider Hong Kong my home. My wife, Daisy, and I are delighted to join the FCC, as we are attracted by its history, culture and heritage. Most of all, we look forward to connecting with the FCC intelligentsia and engaging with fellow members.

 


Michael Tomordy

After a brief spell in the British Army, I moved to Hong Kong from London in 1997 to work on Chek Lap Kok Airport with a consulting engineering and architecture practice. I am currently the managing director of Engage Asia, a resilience and technology consultancy, and am a technical expert at international arbitrations. My hobbies include mountaineering and I summited Mount Everest in 2018. I am currently training for a one-month self-supported expedition to Alaska in May and may be seen dragging a tyre to the Peak.

 


Robert Wrixon

Like many Irish people, I have spent years abroad. After eight years in US universities, I lived in Japan, Malaysia, Australia, England and Mongolia before settling down for the past nine years and getting married in Hong Kong. As managing director of Starboard Global, I invest venture capital in critical mineral exploration and normally travel to project sites around the world. I make time for Ireland/Munster rugby, Arsenal football, and the wife and two kids (not necessarily in that order). Looking forward to meeting and boring the pants off many FCC members in future.

Recipe: How to Cook Singapore Noodles

Born and bred in Hong Kong, Executive Chef Johnny Ma knows a thing or two about Cantonese cuisine. Ma shares his recipe for Singapore noodles, so you can recreate this popular FCC dish at home.

A staple at Cantonese restaurants around Hong Kong, Singapore noodles don’t actually come from Singapore. Despite the name, these noodles were invented right here in the city after the British introduced curry powder.

The combination of rice noodles and curry powder felt like a nod to the Indian-Chinese fusion dishes in Singapore, so they named it after the city-state. Today, Singapore noodles can be found in Cantonese communities across Australia, Canada, the US and India.

Typically made with springy vermicelli noodles, Chinese char siu, scrambled eggs, prawns, bell peppers, soy sauce and a dash of curry powder, these humble noodles hit the spot when we’re craving a quick yet satisfying meal after a long day.


Chef Ma’s Singapore Noodles Recipe:

Ingredients:

30gm shelled prawns (submerge in ice water with 2 tbsp sugar for 30 min)

1 tsp canola oil

2½ tsp Asian fish sauce

150g dried rice stick noodles

2pcs cloves garlic, minced

1 tsp soy sauce

1 tsp Shaoxing wine

¼ tsp ground white pepper

¼ tsp sugar

2½ tbsp vegetable oil

2 eggs, beaten with two pinches salt

30g char siu (Chinese roast pork)

¼ medium onion, thinly sliced

½ medium red bell pepper, julienned

10g carrot, julienned

1 tbsp curry powder

30g ham, thinly sliced

30g squid

10g scallions, thinly sliced 

2 tsp sesame oil

salt to taste

Instructions:

  1. Drain and pat shrimp dry with paper towels and place in a bowl. Add 1 tsp canola oil and 1/2 tsp fish sauce. Mix well and set aside in the refrigerator.
  2. Place rice noodles in a large bowl and cover with boiling water. Let stand for 5 minutes.
  3. Drain noodles in a colander, rinse with cold running water, then drain until dry. Using scissors, cut the bundle of noodles in half.
  4. Place garlic in a small bowl and add soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, white pepper, sugar, and 2 tsp fish sauce. Mix well and set sauce aside.
  5. Heat 1 tsp vegetable oil in a wok or nonstick skillet over high heat, tilting to swirl oil, until smoking.
  6. Add eggs, cook undisturbed for about 10 seconds, and then gently move the eggs with a spatula until they start to firm. Break the eggs into small pieces, then set aside in a large bowl.
  7. Add shrimp and stir-fry for 30 seconds. Add roast pork and onion. Stir-fry for another 30 seconds.
  8. Add red bell pepper and stir for 30 seconds, then add carrots. Add 1 tsp curry powder, season with salt. Cook, tossing, until evenly distributed. Scrape wok contents into bowl with eggs.
  9. Wipe wok clean. Heat 2 tbsp vegetable oil on high until smoking. Add noodles. Stir-fry for 30 seconds.
  10. Add sauce and remaining curry powder. Stir until evenly distributed. Add eggs, shrimp, roast pork, squid, ham, and vegetables. Stir-fry for 30 seconds.
  11. Season with salt and remove from heat.
  12. Add scallions, drizzle with sesame oil, mix well, and transfer to a large serving bowl.
  13. Enjoy!

Meet Alex Lee Shu Yeung, FCC Financial Controller

Alex Lee, 53, has been a friendly face in the finance department over the past three decades.

Tell us a little about yourself. How did you find your way to the FCC?

Alex Lee: I was born here in Hong Kong, then later studied in the UK. In 1986, I became a cost controller – planning and controlling the budget – at the Hong Kong Hilton. That’s where I met a financial controller from the FCC, who invited me to join her team. That was 1992, almost 29 years ago.

 

What does your current role entail?

AL: Our department covers audits, purchasing, cost control and members’ accounts. I am very interested in the fluctuations in our numbers because it shows our progress and challenges.

To control prices, you need to consider the cost of the ingredients, how the chef designs the menu, and how they use the ingredients. If the price is too high, members won’t order it.

 

Which events have been the most significant during your years at the FCC?

AL: Apart from the Handover and the New Millennium party, one that really sticks in my mind is the Po Leung Kuk Charity Ball in 2002. We hosted 1,000 guests and had to make all the arrangements, including selling raffle tickets, auction items, and working with many different agencies. It was a brilliant success, and I learned a lot.

 

How has the pandemic affected your work?

AL: The biggest impact has been the group restrictions – no evening dining or events, like the New Year’s Eve party. We anticipated some of the holiday events might be restricted and, luckily, saved on costs.

Overall, COVID-19 restrictions are tough to plan around but we admire the leadership from General Manager Didier Saugy, who has kept a tight rein on costs and identified opportunities to generate new revenue. This has kept us on track – as well as newly inspired – during the crisis.

 

Anything else you’d care to add?

AL: I’d like to thank the Board, especially Treasurer Tim Huxley, who has given me so much support. And I’d like to thank all nine of my staff, a couple of whom have been with us for more than 20 years. The back office is a wonderful place to work.

 

Put your calculator down for a second. Where do you go to relax?

AL: While the beaches are closed, I have been cycling with my wife and children in the New Territories. My son is 10 and showing signs of becoming a mathematician; my daughter, who prefers painting, is two years younger.

I’m thrilled because she’s learned to ride her bike without stabilisers, so we can go further and faster now. My favourite cycling trail is Sha Tin to Ma On Shan because of the water, fresh air and nature.


Did you know?

The FCC has a spacious back office on Arbuthnot Road, where the club’s finance, HR and IT teams work. The office used to be in the basement but was relocated in 1998 to make more room for member facilities.

 

Meet Alex Lee Shu Yeung, FCC Financial Controller

Alex Lee, 53, has been a friendly face in the finance department over the past three decades.

Alex Lee Alex Lee, the FCC’s Financial Controller. (Photo: Lakshmi Harilela)

Tell us a little about yourself. How did you find your way to the FCC?

Alex Lee: I was born here in Hong Kong, then later studied in the UK. In 1986, I became a cost controller – planning and controlling the budget – at the Hong Kong Hilton. That’s where I met a financial controller from the FCC, who invited me to join her team. That was 1992, almost 29 years ago.

 

What does your current role entail?

AL: Our department covers audits, purchasing, cost control and members’ accounts. I am very interested in the fluctuations in our numbers because it shows our progress and challenges.

To control prices, you need to consider the cost of the ingredients, how the chef designs the menu, and how they use the ingredients. If the price is too high, members won’t order it.

 

Which events have been the most significant during your years at the FCC?

AL: Apart from the Handover and the New Millennium party, one that really sticks in my mind is the Po Leung Kuk Charity Ball in 2002. We hosted 1,000 guests and had to make all the arrangements, including selling raffle tickets, auction items, and working with many different agencies. It was a brilliant success, and I learned a lot.

 

How has the pandemic affected your work?

AL: The biggest impact has been the group restrictions – no evening dining or events, like the New Year’s Eve party. We anticipated some of the holiday events might be restricted and, luckily, saved on costs.

Overall, COVID-19 restrictions are tough to plan around but we admire the leadership from General Manager Didier Saugy, who has kept a tight rein on costs and identified opportunities to generate new revenue. This has kept us on track – as well as newly inspired – during the crisis.

 

Anything else you’d care to add?

AL: I’d like to thank the Board, especially Treasurer Tim Huxley, who has given me so much support. And I’d like to thank all nine of my staff, a couple of whom have been with us for more than 20 years. The back office is a wonderful place to work.

 

Put your calculator down for a second. Where do you go to relax?

AL: While the beaches are closed, I have been cycling with my wife and children in the New Territories. My son is 10 and showing signs of becoming a mathematician; my daughter, who prefers painting, is two years younger.

I’m thrilled because she’s learned to ride her bike without stabilisers, so we can go further and faster now. My favourite cycling trail is Sha Tin to Ma On Shan because of the water, fresh air and nature.


Did you know?

The FCC has a spacious back office on Arbuthnot Road, where the club’s finance, HR and IT teams work. The office used to be in the basement but was relocated in 1998 to make more room for member facilities.

 

50 Years On: The Table Tennis Match That Changed the World

Ping-Pong Diplomacy signalled the first step towards normalising US-China relations back in 1971. A youthful Jonathan Sharp was on hand to watch events unfold.

A ping-pong exhibition match in Beijing in 1972, which Nixon attended. A ping-pong exhibition match in Beijing in 1972, which Nixon attended. (Photo: US National Archives and Records Administration)

As an increasingly anxious world watches the growing rivalry between the United States and an ascendant China, this April marks the 50th anniversary of an event in Beijing (then Peking) that changed the world.

Dubbed ‘Ping-Pong Diplomacy’, a surprise Chinese invitation to a US table tennis team to visit the People’s Republic of China paved the way to mending long-severed ties between the world’s most powerful nation and its most populous.

This Chinese initiative, a classic example of Beijing using sport to further its political and strategic goals, was hailed as one of the key developments of the late 20th century. One could also argue that Ping-Pong Diplomacy sowed a seed for the tensions that strain China-US relations today.

It was my good luck to cover the match for Reuters. The global landscape then was far removed from today, with China slowly emerging from the grimmest days of the Cultural Revolution, one of the deadly political storms unleashed by Mao Zedong. The economy was blighted, and the horrors of famine were recent. Today’s glittering modernity was a distant dream.

China also faced an increasingly hostile Soviet Union, formerly an ally, with clashes erupting along their mutual border. Beijing needed better relations with the US as a counterweight to the Soviets.

An American table tennis player (right) trains with a Chinese player in April 1971 in Beijing An American table tennis player (right) trains with a Chinese player in April 1971 in Beijing. (Photo: AFP)

For its part, the US was still mired in the Vietnam conflict. President Richard Nixon had pledged to bring his country out of Vietnam with honour. Improving relations with China, which strongly supported North Vietnam, might help to achieve that goal. And Nixon, too, sought to use Beijing to counterbalance Moscow – or to “play the China card”, as was said at the time.

Both China and the US had motives to thaw their relations, which had been in near deep freeze since the Communists took power. As a symbol of that enmity, American passports were marked “not valid for travel into or through mainland China”.  

The curtain rose on the diplomatic breakthrough in Nagoya, Japan, host to the 31st World Table Tennis Championship in March 1971. Following an encounter between the flamboyant American player, Glenn Cowan, and China’s star Zhuang Zedong, Mao approved an invitation for the Americans to visit China.

The US accepted. Diplomats in Japan blacked out the not-valid-for-China line in the Americans’ passports. But how to get to Beijing? Such was China’s isolation, there were no flights from Japan, or indeed from virtually anywhere.

The American delegation of players poses with Chinese communist leaders in April 1971. The American delegation of players poses with Chinese communist leaders in April 1971. (Photo: AFP)

The Americans flew to one of the few entry points, Hong Kong, and walked across a diminutive railway bridge at Lo Wu which marked the border. From there, they took the train to Guangzhou and flew to Beijing.

Ping-Pong Diplomacy was also a turning point for Reuters, and for me personally. At that time the news agency had no reporters in the Chinese capital. Its last China correspondent, Anthony Grey, had endured 27 months of vindictive and humiliating house arrest between 1967 and 1969.

His ‘crime’? British authorities in Hong Kong had arrested pro-China media workers during the 1967 unrest, and Grey’s confinement served as retaliation. His books about the ordeal, Hostage in Peking and The Hostage Handbook, remain riveting reading.

Famous American caricaturist Mort Drucker depicts Mao Zedong and Richard Nixon playing ping pong. Famous American caricaturist Mort Drucker depicts Mao Zedong and Richard Nixon playing ping pong. (Photo: © Mort Drucker)

Reuters was offered a reporter’s visa to cover the table tennis drama, and, as I came off an overnight shift at the 24-7 China-watching Hong Kong bureau, I was told to collect the precious document from the China Travel Service office in Kowloon. The next morning, carrying my typewriter and £300 (which would be roughly HK$20,600 today) from the Hong Kong bureau chief, I crossed the Lo Wu bridge for my first, long-sought glimpse of Mao’s China.

I was not in the least apprehensive about being the first Reuters staffer in China following Grey. I was just excited. The situation in 1971 had changed since 1967 when the Cultural Revolution mayhem was at its height.

So it was that in the afternoon of 14 April, in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, Premier Zhou Enlai told the Americans that they had “opened a new page in the relations of the Chinese and American people”.

Zhou also took a question about the hippie movement from shaggy-haired Cowan. Wearing a floppy yellow hat, a T-shirt emblazoned with “Let It Be” and purple, bell-bottomed trousers, Cowan cut an incongruous figure amid the almost universal drabness of 1971 China.

The Premier said he didn’t know a lot about it, but “youth wants to seek the truth and out of this search, various forms of change are bound to come forth… when we were young, it was the same too.”

To my alarm, Zhou also remarked on the presence of a Reuters correspondent, and that he had read my reports about China. I asked Zhou what he thought of them. He said some reflected the reality, and some didn’t. ‘I’ll take that,’ I thought.

The actual ping-pong matches seemed fairly routine. The Chinese players far outclassed the nine Americans, who were handed a few games for the sake of face. But ultimately this wasn’t really a sports event.

Glenn Cowan (right) shakes hands with China’s Zhuang Zedong after catching a ride with the Chinese ping-pong team in Nagoya, Japan on 4 April 1971. Glenn Cowan (right) shakes hands with China’s Zhuang Zedong after catching a ride with the Chinese ping-pong team in Nagoya, Japan on 4 April 1971. (Photo: The Asahi Shimbun)

Filing copy in those days of primitive communications – even telephone calls from China to the outside world were an on-off possibility – was a numbingly slow process. It involved handing in my typed stories at a post office where the words were counted and paid for on a per-word basis. Hours would elapse before my prose – doubtless well-examined by censors – reached Reuters in Hong Kong.

Speaking of surveillance, I made a point of giving my minders the slip to see the house where Grey had been incarcerated.

I repeated this token gesture of remembrance regularly when I was based in Beijing with Reuters in the 1970s and ‘80s. What Grey endured must not be forgotten.

After Ping-Pong Diplomacy, events moved rapidly. US National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger paid a secret visit to Beijing in July in 1971 and Nixon made his historic visit to China in February the following year.

Jonathan Sharp covering Sino-US Ping-Pong Diplomacy in 1971. Jonathan Sharp (right) covering Sino-US Ping-Pong Diplomacy in 1971.

Full diplomatic relations between China and the US followed in 1979, just as China was opening to the world and gearing up to become the economic – and geopolitically assertive – powerhouse that it is today.

Few could have imagined 50 years ago during Ping-Pong Diplomacy that China is now better known for its aggressive “wolf warrior” diplomacy.


A Dispatch from 1970s China

“Breathlessly describing everything I saw during my visit – as first-time reporters to China tended to do – I mentioned in an article, written in Shanghai while on my way home from the capital, that I had seen two Chinese airforce jets take off at the airport.

Being an aviation buff, I recognised them as a Chinese-manufactured version of the Russian MiG-19. About an hour after filing, and clearly, before the story had been transmitted, an official approached me and said, deadpan, that there was one sentence in my report that was “not in the best interests of Sino-British relations”, terming Reuters as a British government organ.

He indicated the few words about the jets. Hastily, I deleted the offending reference and heard nothing more. International relations remained undisturbed.”

– Jonathan Sharp


Jonathan SharpIn 30 years at Reuters, apart from Ping-Pong Diplomacy and three years based in Beijing, Jonathan Sharp covered wars in Vietnam, Lebanon and Angola, the release of US hostages in Iran (1981), Steve Jobs’ launch of Macintosh (1984) and the release of Nelson Mandela (1990).

50 Years On: The Table Tennis Match That Changed the World

Ping-Pong Diplomacy signalled the first step towards normalising US-China relations back in 1971. A youthful Jonathan Sharp was on hand to watch events unfold.

A ping-pong exhibition match in Beijing in 1972, which Nixon attended. A ping-pong exhibition match in Beijing in 1972, which Nixon attended. (Photo: US National Archives and Records Administration)

As an increasingly anxious world watches the growing rivalry between the United States and an ascendant China, this April marks the 50th anniversary of an event in Beijing (then Peking) that changed the world.

Dubbed ‘Ping-Pong Diplomacy’, a surprise Chinese invitation to a US table tennis team to visit the People’s Republic of China paved the way to mending long-severed ties between the world’s most powerful nation and its most populous.

This Chinese initiative, a classic example of Beijing using sport to further its political and strategic goals, was hailed as one of the key developments of the late 20th century. One could also argue that Ping-Pong Diplomacy sowed a seed for the tensions that strain China-US relations today.

It was my good luck to cover the match for Reuters. The global landscape then was far removed from today, with China slowly emerging from the grimmest days of the Cultural Revolution, one of the deadly political storms unleashed by Mao Zedong. The economy was blighted, and the horrors of famine were recent. Today’s glittering modernity was a distant dream.

China also faced an increasingly hostile Soviet Union, formerly an ally, with clashes erupting along their mutual border. Beijing needed better relations with the US as a counterweight to the Soviets.

An American table tennis player (right) trains with a Chinese player in April 1971 in Beijing An American table tennis player (right) trains with a Chinese player in April 1971 in Beijing. (Photo: AFP)

For its part, the US was still mired in the Vietnam conflict. President Richard Nixon had pledged to bring his country out of Vietnam with honour. Improving relations with China, which strongly supported North Vietnam, might help to achieve that goal. And Nixon, too, sought to use Beijing to counterbalance Moscow – or to “play the China card”, as was said at the time.

Both China and the US had motives to thaw their relations, which had been in near deep freeze since the Communists took power. As a symbol of that enmity, American passports were marked “not valid for travel into or through mainland China”.  

The curtain rose on the diplomatic breakthrough in Nagoya, Japan, host to the 31st World Table Tennis Championship in March 1971. Following an encounter between the flamboyant American player, Glenn Cowan, and China’s star Zhuang Zedong, Mao approved an invitation for the Americans to visit China.

The US accepted. Diplomats in Japan blacked out the not-valid-for-China line in the Americans’ passports. But how to get to Beijing? Such was China’s isolation, there were no flights from Japan, or indeed from virtually anywhere.

The American delegation of players poses with Chinese communist leaders in April 1971. The American delegation of players poses with Chinese communist leaders in April 1971. (Photo: AFP)

The Americans flew to one of the few entry points, Hong Kong, and walked across a diminutive railway bridge at Lo Wu which marked the border. From there, they took the train to Guangzhou and flew to Beijing.

Ping-Pong Diplomacy was also a turning point for Reuters, and for me personally. At that time the news agency had no reporters in the Chinese capital. Its last China correspondent, Anthony Grey, had endured 27 months of vindictive and humiliating house arrest between 1967 and 1969.

His ‘crime’? British authorities in Hong Kong had arrested pro-China media workers during the 1967 unrest, and Grey’s confinement served as retaliation. His books about the ordeal, Hostage in Peking and The Hostage Handbook, remain riveting reading.

Famous American caricaturist Mort Drucker depicts Mao Zedong and Richard Nixon playing ping pong. Famous American caricaturist Mort Drucker depicts Mao Zedong and Richard Nixon playing ping pong. (Photo: © Mort Drucker)

Reuters was offered a reporter’s visa to cover the table tennis drama, and, as I came off an overnight shift at the 24-7 China-watching Hong Kong bureau, I was told to collect the precious document from the China Travel Service office in Kowloon. The next morning, carrying my typewriter and £300 (which would be roughly HK$20,600 today) from the Hong Kong bureau chief, I crossed the Lo Wu bridge for my first, long-sought glimpse of Mao’s China.

I was not in the least apprehensive about being the first Reuters staffer in China following Grey. I was just excited. The situation in 1971 had changed since 1967 when the Cultural Revolution mayhem was at its height.

So it was that in the afternoon of 14 April, in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, Premier Zhou Enlai told the Americans that they had “opened a new page in the relations of the Chinese and American people”.

Zhou also took a question about the hippie movement from shaggy-haired Cowan. Wearing a floppy yellow hat, a T-shirt emblazoned with “Let It Be” and purple, bell-bottomed trousers, Cowan cut an incongruous figure amid the almost universal drabness of 1971 China.

The Premier said he didn’t know a lot about it, but “youth wants to seek the truth and out of this search, various forms of change are bound to come forth… when we were young, it was the same too.”

To my alarm, Zhou also remarked on the presence of a Reuters correspondent, and that he had read my reports about China. I asked Zhou what he thought of them. He said some reflected the reality, and some didn’t. ‘I’ll take that,’ I thought.

The actual ping-pong matches seemed fairly routine. The Chinese players far outclassed the nine Americans, who were handed a few games for the sake of face. But ultimately this wasn’t really a sports event.

Glenn Cowan (right) shakes hands with China’s Zhuang Zedong after catching a ride with the Chinese ping-pong team in Nagoya, Japan on 4 April 1971. Glenn Cowan (right) shakes hands with China’s Zhuang Zedong after catching a ride with the Chinese ping-pong team in Nagoya, Japan on 4 April 1971. (Photo: The Asahi Shimbun)

Filing copy in those days of primitive communications – even telephone calls from China to the outside world were an on-off possibility – was a numbingly slow process. It involved handing in my typed stories at a post office where the words were counted and paid for on a per-word basis. Hours would elapse before my prose – doubtless well-examined by censors – reached Reuters in Hong Kong.

Speaking of surveillance, I made a point of giving my minders the slip to see the house where Grey had been incarcerated.

I repeated this token gesture of remembrance regularly when I was based in Beijing with Reuters in the 1970s and ‘80s. What Grey endured must not be forgotten.

After Ping-Pong Diplomacy, events moved rapidly. US National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger paid a secret visit to Beijing in July in 1971 and Nixon made his historic visit to China in February the following year.

Jonathan Sharp covering Sino-US Ping-Pong Diplomacy in 1971. Jonathan Sharp (right) covering Sino-US Ping-Pong Diplomacy in 1971.

Full diplomatic relations between China and the US followed in 1979, just as China was opening to the world and gearing up to become the economic – and geopolitically assertive – powerhouse that it is today.

Few could have imagined 50 years ago during Ping-Pong Diplomacy that China is now better known for its aggressive “wolf warrior” diplomacy.


A Dispatch from 1970s China

“Breathlessly describing everything I saw during my visit – as first-time reporters to China tended to do – I mentioned in an article, written in Shanghai while on my way home from the capital, that I had seen two Chinese airforce jets take off at the airport.

Being an aviation buff, I recognised them as a Chinese-manufactured version of the Russian MiG-19. About an hour after filing, and clearly, before the story had been transmitted, an official approached me and said, deadpan, that there was one sentence in my report that was “not in the best interests of Sino-British relations”, terming Reuters as a British government organ.

He indicated the few words about the jets. Hastily, I deleted the offending reference and heard nothing more. International relations remained undisturbed.”

– Jonathan Sharp


Jonathan SharpIn 30 years at Reuters, apart from Ping-Pong Diplomacy and three years based in Beijing, Jonathan Sharp covered wars in Vietnam, Lebanon and Angola, the release of US hostages in Iran (1981), Steve Jobs’ launch of Macintosh (1984) and the release of Nelson Mandela (1990).

What Really Happened to Flight MH370?

Former FCC President Florence de Changy’s trenchant investigations point to a secret cargo, an abortive hijack and an insidious cover-up. By Kate Whitehead

Malaysian Airlines

Flight MH370 took off from Kuala Lumpur for Beijing on 8 March 2014 with 239 people on board. Halfway across the Gulf of Thailand, the Boeing 777-200ER vanished from air traffic controllers’ screens without a trace.

The plane’s mysterious disappearance captivated the world. And when French daily Le Monde despatched its Hong Kong-based correspondent, Florence de Changy, to Kuala Lumpur to report on the tragedy, the veteran journalist had no idea it would lead to an ongoing, seven-year investigation and two books on the subject. The first, Le Vol MH370 n’a pas disparu [‘Flight MH370 Did Not Simply Disappear’], was published in 2016 by Les Arènes, and has since been translated into three languages with updates in each edition.

This February, HarperCollins published her second book: The Disappearing Act: The Impossible Case of MH370, which connects the dots from de Changy’s earlier investigations to reach a bold conclusion that discredits the official narrative as a sophisticated, costly and clumsy fabrication.

To recap: Within days of flight MH370’s disappearance, authorities claimed the plane had made a U-turn, flown back over Malaysia, and eventually crashed in the southern Indian Ocean. This was the official narrative when de Changy began reporting in Kuala Lumpur. But when she returned a year later to revisit the story, she discovered many details that simply did not add up.

De Changy speaks with Malaysian Member of Parliament and Admiral Mohamad Imran bin Abdul Hamid.

“One year on, and there was not a shred of tangible evidence that the plane had crashed in the Indian Ocean – not a single piece of debris,” says de Changy, who served as FCC President from 2017 to 2019.

Her follow-up story for Le Monde revealed gaping holes in the official narrative, which got people talking. In May 2015, the paper sent de Changy to the Maldives, where people claimed they had seen the doomed plane. Such tips turned out to be red herrings, but her articles caught the attention of French publisher Les Arènes, which led to a book deal.

“I started moving at a different speed, slower and more thoroughly,” says de Changy of writing Le Vol MH370 n’a pas disparu, which was published on the second anniversary of the plane’s disappearance.

When official pronouncements didn’t add up, de Changy sought out insights from sources across Asia.

Step by step, interview after interview, de Changy discovered a wealth of intelligence and incongruencies. Among her interviews, the investigative reporter spoke with MH370 pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah’s friends and family members. They protested what they considered a smear campaign to ultimately blame him for the incident by questioning his mental health and fitness to fly. De Changy also gained access to confidential records, which convinced her the pilot had been okay to fly.

Her investigation concluded that MH370 made no U-turn; no one turned off the transponder and ACARS (Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting Systems), as claimed by then Prime Minister Najib Razak; the plane never crashed in the southern Indian Ocean; and the subsequent Australian search operation was either a deliberate or passive act of diversion.

During her investigations, she assembled new evidence that begins to tell a different story and raises new questions. “I identified a problematic [electronic] cargo on the plane that had not been X-rayed, which is a no-no in terms of aviation safety, that was delivered under armed escort to the airport,” says de Changy. The 2.5-tonne cargo was listed as “Motorola walkie-talkies and chargers”.

Flight MH370 Possible Flight Paths Click to enlarge. (Sources: BBC; Australian Transport Safety Bureau Flight Path Analysis; Florence de Changy)

She also learned two US AWACS (Airborne Warning And Control Systems) – mobile, long-range radar surveillance and control centres for air defence – had been operating in the area. At first, de Changy didn’t know what to make of this information. But after the Chinese edition of her first book came out in 2017, a military contact informed de Changy about AWACS’ jamming capabilities, which led her to a hypothetical conclusion.

“Plan A was likely a cargo ‘confiscation’ [hijack] operation to cloak the plane with two AWACS, force it to land, seize the problematic consignment and let it fly off again. The plane would have landed in Beijing with a slight delay, a non-event by Chinese aviation standards at the time,” says de Changy, who points out that the intercept was planned at the point where Vietnamese air traffic controllers would have assumed responsibility from their Malaysian counterparts.

She believes this scenario – based on a mix of sources, clues and confidential documents – failed because the experienced pilot refused to go along with Plan A. “Disaster happened when the plane was about to reach Chinese airspace at around 2:45 am off the northern coast of Vietnam,” she says. De Changy hypothesises that the plane was shot down accidentally or intentionally – most likely by a fighter jet, missile or a new laser-guided weapon system that the US had been testing in the region.

In The Disappearing Act, de Changy continues to untangle this complex web of information. It’s well worth reading to find out about the confidential documents and off-the-record conversations that led to her conclude the official narrative is a fabrication.

A recovered Boeing 777 wing flap identified to be part of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 on display during a memorial event in Kuala Lumpur on 3 March 2019.(Photo: Mohd Rasfan / AFP)

She admits there are still some gaps in the story but hopes that this book could motivate more people to come forward. De Changy has been trying to track down the two Cathay Pacific pilots who flew over the Vietnam coast the day after the incident and reported spotting a massive field of metallic debris to air traffic control. Although this report is in the official log, she hasn’t been able to identify the pilots. Perhaps this might be the time for them to speak up, says de Changy.

“With each [new book] deadline, you revisit documents, relaunch new leads, call people again – with every deadline, the story improves, and you push it further,” says de Changy.

Any book that dares to debunk the official narrative is bound to invite grilling, and de Changy has braced for criticism. However, she has already received many endorsements to date. Veteran investigative journalist Edward Jay Epstein says the book is a must-read for anyone wishing to understand one of the greatest mysteries of the 21st century.

A family member of a Chinese passenger from the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370
protests outside the Yonghegong Lama temple in Beijing. (Photo: Goh Chai Hin / AFP)

Clare Rewcastle-Brown, editor-in-chief of London-based Malaysian investigative news outlet Sarawak Report, adds that it “demystifies the world’s greatest aviation secret”, and the Financial Times’ Victor Mallet comments: “with ruthless forensic skill, Florence de Changy has dismantled and discredited the official versions of what happened to the ill-fated flight MH370”.

De Changy concludes: “As a senior journalist who has worked in this part of the world for some time, I could not let this nonsensical story go unexplained. I feel a duty to get to the bottom of it.”

Visit the FCC to purchase ‘The Disappearing Act: The Impossible Case of MH370’. Better yet, leave your book at the front desk and de Changy will swing by to sign it for you.


Screen Time

In 2018, de Changy’s French publisher sold the rights of Le Vol MH370 n’a Pas Disparu for an Anglo-French TV mini-series.

“It’s a five-figure deal [in euros], but don’t forget that in most of these deals, you share about half with the publisher, and your agent usually takes a cut as well,” says de Changy.

Looking ahead, de Changy may also have another TV project in the works in the US.

In 2019, when Harper-Collins announced the publication of her new book, Netflix expressed great interest. But the project remains under wraps for now.


Kate Whitehead is the author of two books about the Hong Kong underworld and has worked for the South China Morning Post and Discovery magazine. She contributes to local and international media outlets while also working as a psychotherapist.

What Really Happened to Flight MH370?

Former FCC President Florence de Changy’s trenchant investigations point to a secret cargo, an abortive hijack and an insidious cover-up. By Kate Whitehead

Malaysian Airlines

Flight MH370 took off from Kuala Lumpur for Beijing on 8 March 2014 with 239 people on board. Halfway across the Gulf of Thailand, the Boeing 777-200ER vanished from air traffic controllers’ screens without a trace. 

The plane’s mysterious disappearance captivated the world. And when French daily Le Monde despatched its Hong Kong-based correspondent, Florence de Changy, to Kuala Lumpur to report on the tragedy, the veteran journalist had no idea it would lead to an ongoing, seven-year investigation and two books on the subject. The first, Le Vol MH370 n’a pas disparu [‘Flight MH370 Did Not Simply Disappear’], was published in 2016 by Les Arènes, and has since been translated into three languages with updates in each edition.

This February, HarperCollins published her second book: The Disappearing Act: The Impossible Case of MH370, which connects the dots from de Changy’s earlier investigations to reach a bold conclusion that discredits the official narrative as a sophisticated, costly and clumsy fabrication.

To recap: Within days of flight MH370’s disappearance, authorities claimed the plane had made a U-turn, flown back over Malaysia, and eventually crashed in the southern Indian Ocean. This was the official narrative when de Changy began reporting in Kuala Lumpur. But when she returned a year later to revisit the story, she discovered many details that simply did not add up.

De Changy speaks with Malaysian Member of Parliament and Admiral Mohamad Imran bin Abdul Hamid.

“One year on, and there was not a shred of tangible evidence that the plane had crashed in the Indian Ocean – not a single piece of debris,” says de Changy, who served as FCC President from 2017 to 2019.

Her follow-up story for Le Monde revealed gaping holes in the official narrative, which got people talking. In May 2015, the paper sent de Changy to the Maldives, where people claimed they had seen the doomed plane. Such tips turned out to be red herrings, but her articles caught the attention of French publisher Les Arènes, which led to a book deal.  

“I started moving at a different speed, slower and more thoroughly,” says de Changy of writing Le Vol MH370 n’a pas disparu, which was published on the second anniversary of the plane’s disappearance.

When official pronouncements didn’t add up, de Changy sought out insights from sources across Asia.

Step by step, interview after interview, de Changy discovered a wealth of intelligence and incongruencies. Among her interviews, the investigative reporter spoke with MH370 pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah’s friends and family members. They protested what they considered a smear campaign to ultimately blame him for the incident by questioning his mental health and fitness to fly. De Changy also gained access to confidential records, which convinced her the pilot had been okay to fly.

Her investigation concluded that MH370 made no U-turn; no one turned off the transponder and ACARS (Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting Systems), as claimed by then Prime Minister Najib Razak; the plane never crashed in the southern Indian Ocean; and the subsequent Australian search operation was either a deliberate or passive act of diversion.  

During her investigations, she assembled new evidence that begins to tell a different story and raises new questions. “I identified a problematic [electronic] cargo on the plane that had not been X-rayed, which is a no-no in terms of aviation safety, that was delivered under armed escort to the airport,” says de Changy. The 2.5-tonne cargo was listed as “Motorola walkie-talkies and chargers”.

Flight MH370 Possible Flight Paths Click to enlarge. (Sources: BBC; Australian Transport Safety Bureau Flight Path Analysis; Florence de Changy)

She also learned two US AWACS (Airborne Warning And Control Systems) – mobile, long-range radar surveillance and control centres for air defence – had been operating in the area. At first, de Changy didn’t know what to make of this information. But after the Chinese edition of her first book came out in 2017, a military contact informed de Changy about AWACS’ jamming capabilities, which led her to a hypothetical conclusion.

“Plan A was likely a cargo ‘confiscation’ [hijack] operation to cloak the plane with two AWACS, force it to land, seize the problematic consignment and let it fly off again. The plane would have landed in Beijing with a slight delay, a non-event by Chinese aviation standards at the time,” says de Changy, who points out that the intercept was planned at the point where Vietnamese air traffic controllers would have assumed responsibility from their Malaysian counterparts.

She believes this scenario – based on a mix of sources, clues and confidential documents – failed because the experienced pilot refused to go along with Plan A. “Disaster happened when the plane was about to reach Chinese airspace at around 2:45 am off the northern coast of Vietnam,” she says. De Changy hypothesises that the plane was shot down accidentally or intentionally – most likely by a fighter jet, missile or a new laser-guided weapon system that the US had been testing in the region. 

In The Disappearing Act, de Changy continues to untangle this complex web of information. It’s well worth reading to find out about the confidential documents and off-the-record conversations that led to her conclude the official narrative is a fabrication.

A recovered Boeing 777 wing flap identified to be part of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 on display during a memorial event in Kuala Lumpur on 3 March 2019.(Photo: Mohd Rasfan / AFP)

She admits there are still some gaps in the story but hopes that this book could motivate more people to come forward. De Changy has been trying to track down the two Cathay Pacific pilots who flew over the Vietnam coast the day after the incident and reported spotting a massive field of metallic debris to air traffic control. Although this report is in the official log, she hasn’t been able to identify the pilots. Perhaps this might be the time for them to speak up, says de Changy.

“With each [new book] deadline, you revisit documents, relaunch new leads, call people again – with every deadline, the story improves, and you push it further,” says de Changy.

 Any book that dares to debunk the official narrative is bound to invite grilling, and de Changy has braced for criticism. However, she has already received many endorsements to date. Veteran investigative journalist Edward Jay Epstein says the book is a must-read for anyone wishing to understand one of the greatest mysteries of the 21st century. 

A family member of a Chinese passenger from the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370
protests outside the Yonghegong Lama temple in Beijing. (Photo: Goh Chai Hin / AFP)

Clare Rewcastle-Brown, editor-in-chief of London-based Malaysian investigative news outlet Sarawak Report, adds that it “demystifies the world’s greatest aviation secret”, and the Financial Times’ Victor Mallet comments: “with ruthless forensic skill, Florence de Changy has dismantled and discredited the official versions of what happened to the ill-fated flight MH370”.

De Changy concludes: “As a senior journalist who has worked in this part of the world for some time, I could not let this nonsensical story go unexplained. I feel a duty to get to the bottom of it.”

Visit the FCC to purchase ‘The Disappearing Act: The Impossible Case of MH370’. Better yet, leave your book at the front desk and de Changy will swing by to sign it for you.


Screen Time

In 2018, de Changy’s French publisher sold the rights of Le Vol MH370 n’a Pas Disparu for an Anglo-French TV mini-series. 

“It’s a five-figure deal [in euros], but don’t forget that in most of these deals, you share about half with the publisher, and your agent usually takes a cut as well,” says de Changy.

Looking ahead, de Changy may also have another TV project in the works in the US. 

In 2019, when Harper-Collins announced the publication of her new book, Netflix expressed great interest. But the project remains under wraps for now.


Kate Whitehead is the author of two books about the Hong Kong underworld and has worked for the South China Morning Post and Discovery magazine. She contributes to local and international media outlets while also working as a psychotherapist. 

How to Better Support Domestic Workers During COVID-19

Given new challenges posed by the pandemic, Enrich HK’s Esther Guevara shared advice for those who employ a foreign domestic worker. By Morgan M Davis

Domestic Helper in Hong Kong (Photo: May James / AFP)

Most people could use a financial refresher course in the best of times, let alone a pandemic. And financial planning is even more essential for those whose purse strings are stretched a bit tighter, such as Hong Kong’s foreign domestic workers (FDWs).

Esther Guevara, a financial planning trainer at Hong Kong charity Enrich HK, joined the FCC for a Zoom session on 17 January entitled “A Personal Finance Workshop for Domestic Helpers”, in which she outlined the major financial stressors impacting FDWs during the pandemic. 

Many migrant workers have come under increased pressure to send more funds home than usual, due to family members who are ill, unemployed or underemployed, says Guevara. On top of this, workers are also concerned about layoffs, isolation, mental health challenges and potential exposure to the virus.

During her FCC workshop, Guevara focused on the how-to of financial management for FDWs, but also shared a number of tips for employers as well. In a conversation after the webinar, Guevara emphasised the importance of a trustful, supportive employer-employee relationship where both parties acknowledge the new challenges posed by the pandemic and check in with each other regularly.

“This is the time when there shouldn’t be a barrier. Yes, you’re going through a crisis, but your employee is [also] going through a crisis and sometimes [you] don’t know about it,” says Guevara, alluding to the fact that many FDWs may not share any details about what’s going on behind the scenes – their family or financial situation – if an employer does not inquire. 

“The problem with employer-employee relationships is sometimes that [FDWs] are very shy or proud,” says Guevara, noting that many would not ask for help unsolicited. An FDW also may not be comfortable sharing, even if an employer asks about their personal struggles.

Even so, Guevara suggests that employers try to maintain an open, non-judgemental dialogue. Start by asking how the FDW is faring in light of the international health crisis. It’s likely they may be feeling isolated due to social restrictions, anxious about catching the virus, worried about family members back home, or facing greater financial pressures. By asking specific questions about family, friends or how the pandemic has impacted the worker, employers can get a better sense of their wellbeing. 

Guevara says such conversations are less about additional financial support, although that is an option if it is well thought out and discussed, and more about connecting with an employee as a person – offering an opportunity to voice concerns about an unemployed spouse, sick parent, or child at home without a laptop for virtual classes. 

Esther Guevarra Enrich HK’s financial planning trainer, Esther Guevara, shared her tips with FCC members on 17 January.

“As an employer, you can help them process it and break it down,” says Guevara. She also recommends mapping out short- and long-term financial goals together, which can help workers feel more in control. 

Have they made a plan to meet their family’s immediate needs? How much do they need to set aside for long-term goals, like sending a child to school or starting a business in their home country later in life? What about retirement? Talking about budgeting – how much money can be saved, sent home or spent – and timelines can empower workers and alleviate some stress. 

“Migrant domestic workers are vulnerable to financial scams and get trapped in a cycle of debt,” says Guevara. “We believe that financial and empowerment education is a life-changing solution to challenges faced widely by migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong.”  

Additionally, Guevara recommends giving FDWs plenty of space and time to be alone. If a worker lives in your home, it is easy to fall into an unhealthy pattern where he or she starts working longer hours while Covid-19 social restrictions remain in place. However, workers need time off – perhaps even more than usual – due to the unprecedented emotional, mental and financial strains caused by the pandemic.  

If as an employer you are concerned about an FDW seeing their friends in public and possibly exposing themselves to the virus, Guevara recommends clear communication around expectations while referring to Hong Kong’s latest guidelines.

“When you have an employer and employee living in the same household, trust and communication are key,” she says. “If difficult conversations need to be had, whether it’s about finances or social distancing, we always advise employers to adopt a calm, non-judgemental approach.” 

For more information or guidance, Enrich HK runs workshops for both employers and FDWs. The charity’s advisers can also answer questions about social security schemes and retirement planning for workers in Hong Kong.

How to Better Support Domestic Workers During COVID-19

Given new challenges posed by the pandemic, Enrich HK’s Esther Guevara shared advice for those who employ a foreign domestic worker. By Morgan M Davis

Domestic Helper in Hong Kong (Photo: May James / AFP)

Most people could use a financial refresher course in the best of times, let alone a pandemic. And financial planning is even more essential for those whose purse strings are stretched a bit tighter, such as Hong Kong’s foreign domestic workers (FDWs).

Esther Guevara, a financial planning trainer at Hong Kong charity Enrich HK, joined the FCC for a Zoom session on 17 January entitled “A Personal Finance Workshop for Domestic Helpers”, in which she outlined the major financial stressors impacting FDWs during the pandemic.

Many migrant workers have come under increased pressure to send more funds home than usual, due to family members who are ill, unemployed or underemployed, says Guevara. On top of this, workers are also concerned about layoffs, isolation, mental health challenges and potential exposure to the virus.

During her FCC workshop, Guevara focused on the how-to of financial management for FDWs, but also shared a number of tips for employers as well. In a conversation after the webinar, Guevara emphasised the importance of a trustful, supportive employer-employee relationship where both parties acknowledge the new challenges posed by the pandemic and check in with each other regularly.

“This is the time when there shouldn’t be a barrier. Yes, you’re going through a crisis, but your employee is [also] going through a crisis and sometimes [you] don’t know about it,” says Guevara, alluding to the fact that many FDWs may not share any details about what’s going on behind the scenes – their family or financial situation – if an employer does not inquire.

“The problem with employer-employee relationships is sometimes that [FDWs] are very shy or proud,” says Guevara, noting that many would not ask for help unsolicited. An FDW also may not be comfortable sharing, even if an employer asks about their personal struggles.

Even so, Guevara suggests that employers try to maintain an open, non-judgemental dialogue. Start by asking how the FDW is faring in light of the international health crisis. It’s likely they may be feeling isolated due to social restrictions, anxious about catching the virus, worried about family members back home, or facing greater financial pressures. By asking specific questions about family, friends or how the pandemic has impacted the worker, employers can get a better sense of their wellbeing.

Guevara says such conversations are less about additional financial support, although that is an option if it is well thought out and discussed, and more about connecting with an employee as a person – offering an opportunity to voice concerns about an unemployed spouse, sick parent, or child at home without a laptop for virtual classes.

Esther Guevarra Enrich HK’s financial planning trainer, Esther Guevara, shared her tips with FCC members on 17 January.

“As an employer, you can help them process it and break it down,” says Guevara. She also recommends mapping out short- and long-term financial goals together, which can help workers feel more in control.

Have they made a plan to meet their family’s immediate needs? How much do they need to set aside for long-term goals, like sending a child to school or starting a business in their home country later in life? What about retirement? Talking about budgeting – how much money can be saved, sent home or spent – and timelines can empower workers and alleviate some stress.

“Migrant domestic workers are vulnerable to financial scams and get trapped in a cycle of debt,” says Guevara. “We believe that financial and empowerment education is a life-changing solution to challenges faced widely by migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong.”

Additionally, Guevara recommends giving FDWs plenty of space and time to be alone. If a worker lives in your home, it is easy to fall into an unhealthy pattern where he or she starts working longer hours while Covid-19 social restrictions remain in place. However, workers need time off – perhaps even more than usual – due to the unprecedented emotional, mental and financial strains caused by the pandemic.

If as an employer you are concerned about an FDW seeing their friends in public and possibly exposing themselves to the virus, Guevara recommends clear communication around expectations while referring to Hong Kong’s latest guidelines.

“When you have an employer and employee living in the same household, trust and communication are key,” she says. “If difficult conversations need to be had, whether it’s about finances or social distancing, we always advise employers to adopt a calm, non-judgemental approach.”

For more information or guidance, Enrich HK runs workshops for both employers and FDWs. The charity’s advisers can also answer questions about social security schemes and retirement planning for workers in Hong Kong.

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