Sunday, October 14, 2012

Heading out for I.H.T. education conferences

After I returned to work from maternity leave less than a year ago, I took on a new role as the I.H.T.'s education editor.
I've had a new beat to follow, a new range of responsibilities, a new roster of writers to handle - and a whole new set of things to do, which go beyond the writing and editing that have made up my career so far.
Tomorrow, I'll fly to Singapore to speak at the I.H.T.'s first education conference. (If I had any sense, I'd get off my computer and go to bed, as I have to be up at 6 a.m. to catch my flight there.)
This will be the first of four events in four cities, in what will probably be one exhilarating, exhausting week for me and the people I'm working with.
After a scant 24 hours in the Lion City, we'll fly to Taipei for a conference at the Shangri-La on Oct. 16. 
The next day, I'm back home in Hong Kong doing a conference on Oct. 17 at the Harbour Grand in North Point. (Incidentally, the sister hotel of the one my husband works at). 
I get to rest for two nights back home (Ha. Rest. I'll be in the office editing) before heading to Shanghai to do our final conference on Oct. 20 at the Hyatt on the Bund. (Again, incidentally, where my parents and I stayed during the World Expo in 2010). 
The main attraction will be my New York Times colleague Jacques Steinberg, who's an expert in U.S. college admissions. We, and various guest speakers, will be giving advice to Asian high school kids looking to study overseas.
All the talks are free and open to the public, though attendees have to register in advance. If you  know has teens  (or parents) who'd be interested, the link with info is here. You can also go to that page to watch the live stream on the afternoon of Oct. 17. (I'm not a TV / broadcast person by training, so be kind!)
I don't mind public speaking, learning new skills or an increased workload. But this is untested ground for me.
And, while I'm happy to blog, Tweet and otherwise communicate my thoughts, self-promotion is kinda weird. While my business colleagues often schmooze with advertisers and sponsors, and are used to selling themselves, I definitely am not. I was even embarrassed when I had my photo and bio put onto the flyers that went out with the paper.

Really off the bed now. Wish me luck.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Happy Birthday, Clare Hollingworth

Tonight, I went to Clare Hollingworth's champagne-fueled 101st birthday party at the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club.
I first met Clare in 1999, when I was a young editorial assistant at the now-defunct Boston Globe Hong Kong bureau, and Clare was a sprightly 88-year-old retiree.
She was far more active then -- rolling down the hill from her book-filled home on Upper Albert Road to the F.C.C., where she'd have a dry white wine and light lunch while listening to the BBC on the Club's headphones.
She was still willing to humor the odd journalist who wanted to interview the celebrated journalist who broke the story of the outbreak of World War II on the Polish-German border in 1939, as one of the few female war correspondents at that time. 
We became friends of sorts, as I volunteered to read the paper out loud to her. Her hearing was going, so I'd had to shout -- and sometimes she'd yell back that I'd pronounced something terribly wrong, and embarrass the hell out of me.
In 1999, her eyesight and hearing were beginning to fade, but her mind was still sharp.
As the years went on, I watched  the rest of her fade, too. Her short-term memory went -- though, oddly, she could remember distant events from her childhood and her early adulthood with startling clarity. 
It was almost as if the senile dementia was working backwards. The family's pet pony was still vividly there, as was her beloved and long-lost husband Geoffrey, who had died more than 30 years prior. Her greatest journalistic  exploits were firmly entrenched, but she had only fragmented fond memories of post-war Paris. The tales started to blur and tangle as she recounted later work in the Middle East, the Vietnam War, and the opening up of China.
As for the present -- it was a struggle. It was sad watching her great intellect trying to break through the fog. How frustrating it must be for an intelligent person not to remember who visited her yesterday, or whether she'd had lunch yet, or who the nice young lady was reading with the Canadian accent. 
She could still hold a conversation, though. She could respond to what you said, the news you reported to her, with great wit and energy.
She was -- and you must excuse my language here, as I don't think tough-talking Clare would mind -- a supremely good bullshitter. You could see the sneaky old reporter in there somewhere, nodding and smiling and prodding with questions, even if she couldn't totally understand what was going on. I wonder how many visitors she fooled.
Clare's greatest defender and supporter has always been her great-nephew Patrick Garrett, who has arranged everything in her life, from homes to helpers, and who continues to fly to see her even though he has long moved from Hong Kong to Moscow. He has also researched and written a book about her.
Clare and Patrick are now unfortunately embroiled in a financial mess, an unfitting end to Clare's extraordinary life.
As the South China Morning Post reports, Hong Kong's High Court ordered a PR executive, Ted Thomas, to repay a large sum to Clare, after he withdrew more than HK $2.2 million from her bank account  over a two-year period, including HK$1.4 million in one five-day period. He said had taken over the management of her finances, as she was unwell.
He has not repaid the moneys, and Clare is in no state to chase him again through the courts. 
Clare was never particularly rich -- though she was frugal in saving her salary and book revenues over the years. That money was for her retirement, including the help she now needs in her old age. I don't know what will happen next.
I remember attending Clare's 100th birthday at the F.C.C. last year, when Patrick showed a film about her life. I had given birth less than two months prior, and was still on maternity. I remember it was my first night out alone since having the baby. I winced a bit as I found a place to sit cross-legged on the floor -- that's how packed the screening was.
Patrick wanted to show the film again this year -- it's not a mass-marketed work, and would probably not be seen otherwise.
But Mr. Thomas, who is also an F.C.C. member, objected, as the film mentioned the court judgements against him. (Though his dealings are only a small part of a larger work that's mostly about her career).
I am not entirely proud to say that the F.C.C. seemed to bow to this pressure. The irony didn't escape me: If Clare were still young and active, this is exactly the sort of story she'd jump on and publicize herself. She was never one to tone down anything for anyone.
The film was discussed at at least two board meetings. They asked Patrick if he would cut the offending few minutes, which he rightly refused to do. They then issued a statement saying that the film couldn't be shown, since it was already shown once -- which is a reason I'd never heard in my 13 years as a member there. They also implied that it was not a fitting tribute to her. But if there's one person who knows what's fitting and what's not, that would be her closest relative. 
It seemed like a petty dispute to be having. And I'm disappointed that the Club didn't just come out and say that they refused to show something because of a member request, and made up excuses instead.
Patrick was there tonight, having flown in from Moscow, and looking very well after recovering from a serious illness. 
There was lots to drink and eat, and the usual throng of well-wishers, photographers and cameramen.  Clare was dolled up in a silk blouse with a striking dragonfly brooch -- her blind eyes closed, but still animated and talking to guests. I told her an amusing story of how scientists had recently dug up Richard III's bones in a car park in Leicestershire, where she is originally from, and she laughed.
There was strawberry cream cake and Champagne, caviar for Clare and very good mini roast beef sandwiches for the rest of us. There were balloons and flowers and a giant card that everyone signed. But there was no film, and nobody mentioned there was no film. And while it was an otherwise lovely celebration, it had a strange stilted feel to it for those of us in the know.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Happy birthday to us, happy birthday to us

At the ol' FCC in my retro New York Herald Tribune t-shirt.

Aside from posting my own articles here (something I've been lax at recently) I rarely use my personal blog to promote work stuff.
But I'm going to make an exception, since I think the International Herald Tribune's 125th birthday is pretty cool, and would probably still think so even if I didn't work there.
 I started reading it on and off when I was in my late teens / early 20s, when my brother and I would sometimes follow my dad on business trips through Asia. (I have to admit that it was a New York Times crossword addiction that first drove me to always seeking out the IHT when I traveled. Back then, it was still co-owned by the Washington Post).

But my real love was the NYT.  I would save up the money I made from my various part-time jobs (babysitter, dog-walker, waitress in a diner) and  buy the weekend Times -- which, back in the '90s, was as thick as a log of firewood when rolled up. This was before everything was on the Internet, and it was really the only publication nearby that offered a broader world view.
I'd sit on the living room rug with my Webster's Dictionary (the old one covered in red cloth) and read that entire monster of the paper, looking up words I didn't know. Everything. Even the wedding announcements, the book reviews, and the sports and business sections, which I could barely understand. I dreamed of attending the art openings and Broadway shows I'd only ever read about. I learned to cook Western food from Molly O'Neill columns.  That one issue would take me an entire week.
As a university student in Montreal, I had a ritual with a good friend. We'd splurge on an imported copy at the Maison de la Presse Internationale every Sunday morning and take it to a sidewalk cafe, where we'd eat brunch and try to do the crossword. (Even today, despite decades of practice, I am terrible at the crossword).
When I was student journalist at the McGill Tribune, my goal was to write for two publications: The New York Times and The New Yorker. (I've achieved only the former so far).

The I.H.T.'s 125th birthday was last week, and they've put up some pretty cool historic features on the Rendezvous blog.
Here's a slideshow of historic photos, including this one of De Gaulle and Eisenhower, by Agence France-Presse.

Here's a retrospective of fashion history by the IHT's fashion columnist Suzy Menkes. I love that we once used beautiful hand-drawn paintings and illustrations, instead of just quicky digital photos.

And, from a slideshow of 13 decades of front pages, here's the one announcing the end of World War II in Europe.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

A city on the water mourns its dead

The sinking.

Photo by Tyrone Siu/Reuters
Mourners throwing symbolic paper offerings into the sea. 

The first thing I did when I heard about the Lamma ferry crash was look for a friend of mine -- a fellow journalist and single mom who lives on that island and who takes that very ferry twice a day. She wasn't answering her phone, email, or Facebook, and nobody from the office had seen her around. She isn't the kind of person who'd be on a Hong Kong Electric boat to watch the fireworks, but who knows? She often works till 8 or 9 p.m. on public holidays. I tried the hotline the police set up for the accident, but it was always busy. (And with good reason. This is no criticism of the police, rescuers or hospitals, which reacted as quickly and well as one could expect).
Mercifully, my friend got in touch. It turns out that she and her young daughter were out of town. But what a scare. I can only imagine how much worse it was for those trying to find out about legitimate victims.
Like everyone, I watched the death toll climbing on TV and online, and even did a tiny bit of reporting myself on this NYT article .
In the end, 38 people died in the city's worst maritime disaster in recent memory. (The last one was in 1971, before I was born). Among the dead were five children, heading out for what should have been an exciting holiday night out to watch the fireworks with their parents.
Like many other Hong Kongers, at that very moment, I was enjoying the fireworks myself. We saw them from a highway overpass while coming home with our daughter from a family Mid-Autumn Festival meal. How strange that we were celebrating while a tragedy was unfolding just under those beautiful lights, unknown to us.
Today, walking around Central, it was eerie seeing all the flags at half-mast. At noon, our busy metropolis stopped in its tracks -- from the brokers in the Hong Kong Stock Exchange to the shoppers in Causeway Bay -- to observe three minutes of silence.
My sister-in-law told me how strange she felt, looking out on the dark water when she took her own ferry home to another island. Many people  use ferries as their daily transport here.
Some victims are still fighting for their lives.  As of today, there are 22 in the hospital. One 9-year-old girl, who had stopped breathing and whose heart had stopped beating, is on life support.
We are a city of the sea. Our natural deep-water harbor was our lifeline to trade and travel long before any airport was built. Generations of Chinese refugees braved those waters. Our ancestors fished and sailed these waters. Both of my grandfathers, like most men of their generation, made their living from the harbor.
Like all seaside people, we both love the water and fear its wrath. This is why we pray to Tin Hau, the goddess of the sea, and Kuan-yi, the goddess of mercy. 
Hong Kongers are rightly upset and angry. This is normally a safe city, and an investigation will decide if this was human error or freak accident. (I don't think anyone believes there was malice, though there might have been negligence).
One thing I haven't agreed with is the politicization of this event. First, I have to say that for the grand, grand majority of Hong Kongers have not politicized this at all -- it is a personal, human tragedy. 
Yes, there was a report that a mainland media outlet erroneously gave credit to Chinese forces for the rescue, of which they had no part. Though, to give credit where it's due, state media like China Daily have been pretty even-handed in their treatment.
More prominently, some local media and online commenters complained about a Beijing official visiting victims in the hospital, and being photographed next to our own chief executive -- drawing criticism of interference in our local affairs.
I am as vocal as anyone about issues like patriotic education or social problems caused by the influx of mainland tourists and immigrants. I am as protective of our rights as anyone, and just as defensive about potential mainland interference in our politics, judiciary and media.
I understand what a high-stress time it has been, and how unhappy people were even before the ferry accident. But I think that sometimes we have to let politics go. National Day was not the cause of this accident. And if a government official, even one you don't like, extends condolences and a helping hand, then I think you just let him be. There are enough things to be genuinely sad about.

The Li family has extended financial help to the victims. And I believe that those grieving for lost loved ones know how much the rest of the city feels for them.  I have faith that any inquiry will be fair. And I have faith that our state hospitals are doing their best to help those who are still injured.

Speaking of faith -- the morning after the event, I parked myself outside the Lamma Ferry Pier to ask ordinary residents how they were feeling. All expressed shock and sorrow. Almost everyone was reading about it or looking for updates. All the newspapers were sold out at the local kiosk.
But all of these people also got on their ferries just as they always did. While it wasn't as happy a scene as it normally would be on a sunny holiday afternoon -- with kids eating ice creams and dogs running around -- if anyone felt fear or doubt, they didn't show it. Keep calm and carry on -- it should be our city's motto. It has gotten us through the ups and downs of the post-handover era. It got us through SARS and financial crises, and it will get us through this, too.