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Clampdown on Apple Daily|Interview with associate publisher Chan Pui-man before arrest: No choice but to press on till the end

Junior journalists generally like to refer to Chan Pui-man as “Man Ze” (“older sis Man”). She is the associate publisher of Apple Daily and gatekeeper of the newspaper. Last year in August, when the police arrested Jimmy Lai, Man Ze made the call to print more than 500,000 newspapers, which were swiftly snatched up by the city the following day; last month, the Security Bureau evoked the National Security Law and froze Jimmy Lai’s assets, Man Ze published a message on social media, “Just finished our A1 meeting. Apple Daily will be published as usual tomorrow. Remember to support us,” aptly accompanied with a winking emoji blowing a kiss.

In less than a month, on the morning of June 17, Chan Pui-man was arrested for allegedly violating National Security Law, “the crime of conspiring to collude with foreign countries or foreign forces to endanger national security,” and can no longer be the gatekeeper to ensure that the newspaper will be published as usual. Two days before her arrest, she wrote a letter to the readers, nonetheless making it all about Apple Daily: “We hope that everyone will continue to buy and subscribe to Apple Daily, to spur us on.”

For the very first time, editors at Apple Daily were arrested for violations of the National Security Law. In contrast, the night the Security Bureau froze Jimmy Lai’s assets seems insignificant. At that time, the journalists joked among themselves and wondered if they’d get paid at the end of the month. One thought that did cross my mind at that moment was whether the HK$13,000 (US$1,675) paid out of my pocket in advance for a lab report would be reimbursed. The grassroots have their woes, the executives have their roles. Heck, we went ahead and knocked on Man Ze’s door to ask her if Apple Daily was operating as usual. She relayed group chief Cheung Kim-hung’s words that the news organization operations were not affected.

Whether Apple Daily would survive has been the elephant in the room for all staff. At the end of March this year, Man Ze paid a visit to Next Digital founder Jimmy Lai who was locked behind bars in Stanley Prison. She admitted that the prospect of the company was not optimistic, “Theoretically I shouldn’t tell my colleagues that things are pessimistic. Even if I do feel that way in my heart, I shouldn’t be so honest in admitting that. Yet Hong Kong is indeed in such a situation right now.” As the car entered the Eastern Harbour Crossing tunnel, under the dimmed, yellowish reflection of the tunnel lighting, her voice turned soft and low. “But no, there is no choice for us but to press on till the end. What choices? There’s no choice,” as if she was talking to herself.

Of course there’s always a choice — to leave or to stay. She chooses to stay, “When these things are happening around us, I am at Apple Daily, or rather, I am in journalism. Then I tell myself, since this is happening right now as you’re doing this, there’s no turning back.” She shared an old story of reporting. In 2011 when the Fukushima nuclear power plant leaked, rumors were all around that it was very dangerous to stay in Japan. The office called and demanded that she retreated, and yet she stayed, “I thought to myself. You’re a reporter, report then! (If) Japan had sunk, we’d not be coming back.”

Today, the same logic applies. “There’s this little occupational disease journalists have. Whenever there is a disaster or a major event, you want to get as close to the scene as possible. Hong Kong is the largest scene right now.” But the scene is getting exponentially more dangerous, especially for the Apple Daily executives. “The worst…the worst…the worst? Locked up behind bars? I have thought about it, but I try not to. There’s nothing to think about when you don’t know how to think about it.” She was glad that she has no children, at least the burden of family is lighter.

When Man Ze joined Apple Daily in 1996, she was in charge of reporting security news and is therefore no stranger to prisons; she had visited notorious criminal Yip Kai-foon in prison, yet last year, the “notorious criminal” she visited was Jimmy Lai. Even without the boss-employee relationship, she said that she would still support Jimmy Lai. “He is charged with speech crime. Freedom of speech for us in this industry is so important, it is beyond his position as the boss. Put it this way, as a joke, if he did something else, like rape, all those people would not be writing or visiting him. I’m kidding.”

The visit was a short 15 minutes. Man Ze said that Jimmy Lai got tanned and thinner, but still standing tall. “He said his belly got bigger, but we didn’t quite see it.” She was worried that his age would not serve him well in prison, “He has diabetes. Didn’t someone say that his blood pressure was high one time, and then he suffered from a toothache another time? These things are bound to happen for old people. It’s just not convenient for him to get to a doctor.”

The one on the receiving end of the visit claimed to be very well. “He really wanted the colleagues outside not to worry, and kept repeating, ‘tell the colleagues outside that everything is okay, keep going, there’s no problem.’” Yet there was a moment when the performance did not hold up. When Yeung Wai-hong, retired former publisher of Next Magazine, visited with Man Ze, Jimmy Lai, on the other side of the acrylic panel, had tears in his eyes, “I’ve known you for decades, and had never imagined we’d be chatting this way.” Sitting across each other, the two elderlies were both at a loss for words.

At Apple Daily’s 25th anniversary celebration, Jimmy Lai once said to his employees that nobody would be forced to be martyrs, but each person should be responsible to themselves, their families, and society. Stepping out the Stanley Prison, Man Ze relayed what Jimmy Lai had said, “He said Hong Kong is completely over, but for his dignity or whatnot, he’d keep holding on. Yet he said another person visited him before and had asked him, ‘Would you ask those who’re outside to hold on?’ He said he wouldn’t tell people on the outside to hold on, because he wouldn’t dare to ask as much.”

She concluded, “I think, for him to say such a thing, he truly believes that Hong Kong’s situation is very dire.”

Other than visits to the prison, Man Ze also went to court hearings and occasionally tailed prison vehicles to show solidarity with Jimmy Lai. Once, dressed in a white top, a black skirt, and sunglasses, she stood outside West Kowloon Magistrates’ Courts in nothing that even remotely resembled a “vehicle-tailer”. Traditional journalism education taught that journalists should maintain neutral, balanced, and objective mentalities. So with what mentality does one tail vehicles? Calmly, she said, “one of a Hongkonger’s.”

On April 1, Jimmy Lai, Martin Lee, Margaret Ng and others were convicted of unlawful assembly. That day, Man Ze couldn’t stay to tail the vehicles before rushing back to the newsroom to get to work. Her office is next to that of Jimmy Lai. Both are fans of incense. In October last year, they exchanged treasured incense. Jimmy Lai gave her a box of Kyoto incense and included a note, “Pui-man, try this, it’s not bad.”

Despite many years of working alongside Jimmy Lai, Man Ze’s journalistic judgment was not biased. The headline of that day was focused on the first conviction of Martin Lee, the most experienced of the veteran barristers. After the meeting with editors, several stayed behind and discussed whose turn it was to visit Jimmy Lai next. Man Ze half-jokingly said to the supervisor of the court team, “I’m worried that you’d just be crying nonstop and not be able to get a word out. So you should ask Ah Kim to think of more things to say.”

Underneath the reflective journalist vest, everyone is a Hongkonger, one made up of blood, flesh, and tears. Quoting a colleague, Man Ze admitted that a day off is worse than work. On a day off, one is merely an ordinary citizen observing what is happening in Hong Kong. As a reporter, however, one could focus the energy on following the news development. “I feel that some colleagues are even more serious about doing news these days, because you feel that you’re recording a part of history. That means if you do not do well, it means you are not even doing a good job in your role, let alone anything else.”


In the afternoon before Man Ze’s arrest, I had asked Man Ze for some old photos of her time at Apple Daily because of reporting needs. I asked, “Any photo with Fatty Lai?” Bewildered, she said, “What, why would I take photos with the boss? Reporters rarely take photos with the boss.” A well-deserved cold shoulder, for the job of a reporter is to report. She pointed at a bulletin board on which plenty of old photos were pinned, including the 10th anniversary of June 4 commemoration and the Local Journalist Award by the Society of Publishers in Asia in 2007. As a journalist, the most worth-noting memories and pride are the news reported.

That same night, leaving work, I took the staff bus. Man Ze was on the same bus, sitting in the front, scrolling her phone. I did not go up to greet her, but went to the back to sit down. Looking back now, I keep feeling like I should have said something.

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