Telling our own stories

In 1997, we were reporters, published by Hong Kong Citizen News

This is a short essay I wrote for the book 1997 我們都是記者 (In 1997, we were reporters) published by the independent news site Hong Kong Citizen News 眾新聞

Nineteen ninety seven was a big year for news, and a busy year for journalists. In February, I sat in a TV studio and read out news of the death of China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping. In May, I stood on a London rooftop across from Britain’s parliament building and reported that the Labour Party had ended 18 years of Conservative rule. For people in Hong Kong, this meant it would be Tony Blair coming to Hong Kong for Britain’s handover of and retreat from Hong Kong after 155 years of colonial rule.

Two months later, on June 30th 1997, I stood at the back of the Grand Hall of the Convention and Exhibition Centre in Wan Chai and watched as a well-rehearsed piece of political theatre played out.

Earlier, I’d been disappointed to learn that my assignment that day would be to cover the handover ceremony itself. I had wanted to be at the Legislative Council, at Tamar, or on the streets. I thought the ceremony, with its dignitaries and speeches and pomp would be a huge anti-climax. Well, it didn’t disappoint.

When I was asked to contribute a piece to this anthology, my mind raced back to another anthology — one whose publication I’d coordinated 20 years ago. I found the book and looked up the words I’d used to describe the ceremony back then.

“The whole thing seemed strangely devoid of passion. The players just went through the motions. Some soldiers marched, some bands played. One important man made a speech, flags where lowered, flags were raised and an IMPORTANT man made a speech.
Everyone clapped.
The territory of Hong Kong and 6.5 million people were handed over from one sovereign power to another.
It left me cold.”

I flipped through the pages and re-read what my peers had written all those years ago. Like me, they had spent June 30th and July 1stcovering the handover — from the Grand Hall, from the Legislative Council, staking out the hotel where President Jiang Zemin was staying, cooped up with demonstrators in the protest areas, counting down in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, and on The Bund in Shanghai.

It’s hard to imagine that our reports from that night would have deviated much from the accepted narratives — history in the making, an unprecedented experiment, the end of empire. But what struck me was how many of us were unmoved by the ritual of the handover.

We were Hong Kong people, and we were journalists who had been following the events of the transition period and reporting on them day by day, blow by blow. We published the anthology 20 years ago so that we could share our thoughts and feelings about the story, rather than just report on facts. Like many Hong Kong people, our feelings were mixed, ambiguous, nuanced. But there wasn’t always room for nuance in the way our story — Hong Kong’s story — was told in most of the international media.

The narrative of the authoritarian communist power taking over a freewheeling capitalist playground was too ‘sexy’ to resist. The images of Tiananmen and Tank Man loomed large over the bright neon of a money-obsessed, politically apathetic outpost of the British Empire.

Listening to some of those who flew in to cover what Britain’s Prince Charles described as the “Great Chinese Takeaway”, you’d think that a giant switch would be turned on at the stroke of midnight, after which the People’s Liberation Army would be marching on the streets and dissidents rounded up and thrown into jail.

We knew any changes wouldn’t be so dramatic, that they would come but they would be gradual. By and large, they wouldn’t attract the attention of the international media who would deem the news to be “too local”. In the end, it would fall upon us, the Hong Kong media to keep telling our stories.

While reporting on the transition and the handover, we saw very clearly that as Hong Kong people, and as Hong Kong journalists, we didn’t have a seat at the table. Often, Chinese state media and the British press were given better access to events. Sometimes we were stuck waiting outside.

In my 1997 article, I wrote that the status of Hong Kong’s media sadly reflected the position of Hong Kong’s people:

“Hong Kong people should be the players in this story, we auditioned for the leading parts, we were cast as bystanders.”

Since the Umbrella Movement, people have been talking about how Hongkongers need to be “deciding our own fate”. Deciding our own fate means owning and telling our own stories, to ourselves and to the world. It means supporting our fact-seekers and storytellers. It means defending our press freedom and editorial independence.

The world’s press descended on Hong Kong again in 2014 to report on the Umbrella Movement — in the biggest numbers I’d seen since the SARS outbreak in 2003. They found a city that could no longer be described as indifferent to politics.

By this time I was no longer a front-line journalist. Instead I was working at the School of Journalism and Communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, helping to train future journalists. When the Umbrella Movement was born in a hail of tear-gas, our students were reporting on the frontline, telling a story of Hong Kong, in English, to Hong Kong and to the world.

This was a very different Hong Kong to the one in 1997. The erosions that had been feared long ago had already begun to materialize, and were particularly noticeable in terms of the media landscape. Mainstream media organizations were losing their dominant positions, some bought out by pro-Beijing investors and others losing out to the growth of social media.

The changes have been huge. In the dying moments of April Fools’ Day 2016, ATV, Hong Kong’s oldest television station went off the air. When I reported on the transfer of Hong Kong’s sovereignty for the station, nobody imagined it would come to such a sorry end.

My late colleague Kelvin Tang King-fai and I reported from the Handover Ceremony in 1997

As I rifled through old photographs of my days at ATV, I found one of myself and a colleague standing in the Grand Hall of the Convention and Exhibition Centre in the early hours of July 1st 1997.

The photo is back-lit and our faces are over-exposed. The background is slightly blurry but you can very clearly see the Chinese flag blowing proudly on the stage, next to it and at a lower height is the bauhinia flag of the Hong Kong S.A.R. The stage is empty, the dignitaries have exited.

The big show is over and the show must go on.

This picture stirs memories, sadness and complex feelings. The threatened Armageddon with tanks on the streets never arrived but we continue to fight against death by a thousand cuts. My colleague, Kelvin Tang, ever the consummate professional is looking straight into the camera with a broad smile across his face. My own expression seems to my eyes, more awkward. I know that my feelings on the day of the big anti-climax were complicated.

Looking at the photo 20 years on, they are no less so. Kelvin passed away on Christmas Eve two years ago. The TV station we worked for is no more. And in ATV’s demise, there is a metaphor and a warning for Hong Kong journalism and for Hong Kong itself. For it was a once dynamic underdog who dared to innovate and take risks. The news department was under-resourced but enjoyed a reputation for dogged persistence, camaraderie and a can-do spirit that evoked Lion Rock.

Then through successive and perhaps willful mismanagement and intervention from mainland interests, it lost its way. It stopped speaking to a Hong Kong audience, instead catering to mainland tastes, and made itself irrelevant. The end was long-overdue and ignominious.

The ATV story has ended, but Hong Kong’s carries on. It has never been more important for us to tell our own stories.

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