The first stop on the road to Hong Kong was Edmonton, Alberta, to work on a project jokingly called "How Alberta Won the War." It was to be a coffee table book on Alberta's contribution to World War II. The editorial director was the nationally famous Ted Byfield, who had founded the rightist Alberta Report, which was then being run by his son Link, while Ted focused on the war book.
During the six weeks of knowing that I was to be expelled from my wife's life in Grinnell, Iowa, where she taught ethics at Grinnell College, I had cast around to various places for work in Canada. I had my Boer War work to show, and a CV rich with experience in journalism. Among the documents I had with me at the time were the Canadian Senate Hansards, transcripts of the hearings into "The Valour and the Horror"—a "docudrama" that was something of a Vietnamization of Canada's role in World War II, in which the soldiers were portrayed as dupes and the officers as criminals.
This film series was produced by the National Film Board, founded in the war years by Communist John Grierson, who was suspected of being involved with the Soviet atomic spy ring that arose from the arrest and imprisonment of Montreal Communist MP Fred Rose. Grierson resigned his post as the head of the National Film Board in 1945.
My involvement, as the editor of the Suburban, hinged on the fact that the series was written and directed by the McKenna brothers, Brian and Terrence. They were Westmounters and fell within our newspaper's rules of engagement, that is, any newsworthy event that happened on or involved anyone from our turf was a legitimate subject of coverage. I was no friend of the McKennas, having caught them urging the French mob to throw stones at the windows of the Montreal Men's Press Club, as mobs raged through the Anglo quarter during the 1969 Montreal Police strike, which, of all the public disorders I experienced, was the worst by far.
World War II veterans were furious, and the government managed to deflect the anger by holding Senate hearings so the veterans could blow off steam. Which they did. But their stories were not the empty fulminations one might have expected. Not at all. Soldiers are famous for not talking about their real battlefield experiences and do so only in special circumstances. And these circumstances were deemed sufficiently special for them to tell all. For once, Hansard stenographers were taking notes and producing a fund of pure gold war stories. And because the media wasn't listening, being protective of the handsome McKenna brothers, I had exclusive coverage of these war stories by default.
For example, grisly battlefield facts came to light—such as the issue of when one must shoot prisoners of war who have surrendered, which the McKennas accused Canadian soldiers of doing.
One soldier told the senators that when the objective one must take is beyond the point where the enemy surrenders, one must shoot them if one is to move on and take the objective. If one stops to take prisoners, the objective will not be taken and must be taken the next day at greater cost to one's men. Moreover, if one passes the enemy by, the enemy are duty-bound to pick up their weapons and shoot those who have just spared them to prevent them from killing their comrades who are defending the objective. So the best thing to do is to shoot the enemy regardless of whether they had surrendered, so that one only faces danger to the front.
Or, why you can't have precision bombing of military targets, as the McKennas recommended, to minimize harm to civilians. Well, take a munitions factory. It looks small from the air, and to have any chance of hitting it, one must fly low, be vulnerable to heavy antiaircraft fire and face swarming enemy fighters. One must imagine several lumbering bomber squadrons over the target, dropping bomb loads all at once. That leaves them stacked over one another. So one is now forced over a small area for the shortest time possible dropping bombs not only on the munitions factory but on each other. And why should the civilian munitions workers be spared, anyway? They were all part of the war effort, making the very bullets that were trying to kill you.
As these Hansard transcripts came in, I wrote story after story, together with pictures of Canadians at war from books at the Cote St Luc Public Library. There was one delicious moment at the launch of a Canada Post stamp honouring Canadian war correspondents with a picture of former Gazette publisher Ross Munro, who was one of the best. At the launch ceremony at the Press Club, there was a gathering of veteran Canadian war correspondents. To my mind the obvious story was to canvas the war correspondents for their views on "The Valour and the Horror," it still being a topic of conversation.
Under normal circumstances, surrounded as I was by journalists attending the launch, I would have canvassed their opinions surreptitiously. It is the curse of being a weekly that one cannot hold on to a good story for several days before one is scooped by more immediate media. But as most, if not all, of the working reporters that day were women, who were especially protective of the McKenna brothers, I felt free to ask my questions openly. It was a delight to me that the docudramatists were being judged by their peers, truly expert witnesses.
So in full sight of the lot of them, I interviewed the old sweats, and they all condemned "The Valour and the Horror" out of hand in the full hearing of all who cared to listen. It was an age, probably continuing still, of sending out women to cover war and sending men out to cover nurse’s strikes.
But the most pleasing part of the experience was triggered by the publication of a collection of news coverage of the Senate hearings, which, with the exception of the opening salvos and concluding stories, was largely ignored by the mainstream media. While it was pleasing to have that book with our Suburban clippings dominating and neatly arrayed, it was even more pleasing to see what our work inspired. That was two books, by a Royal Canadian Artillery forward observation officer, George G. Blackburn, MC. He first wrote the "Guns of Normandy" and then a sequel, the "Guns of Victory," which my then wife read with as much interest and fascination as I did. I still rate it the best of nonfiction on Canada's involvement in World War II.
As far as my new employer was concerned, I seemed to be the real deal. I had great material from the Senate hearings, and we could track down witnesses to get their accounts. I was also suitably right-wing, and I was familiar with military matters. So it was to my new life in Alberta I fled, all too ready to leave my loathsome ex-family behind in an ever distancing vapor trail.
I was grateful at first to be welcomed into the Byfield home but soon found life there to be confining, particularly when one never knew when work was to start or stop. This was entirely up to the whim of Ted Byfield himself. I liked him a great deal. Like me, he was an ex-copyboy. His start was at the Washington Post, but he returned to join the Timmins Daily Press and became a reporter on the Ottawa Journal, the paper that welcomed submissions of my Mississippi sojourn 36 years earlier—or would do if my mother ever got around to delivering them.
Like me, Byfield was a rarity among ex-copyboys, as he had an interest in learning without benefit of schooling. And unlike most journalists, he and I tended toward old-fashioned values. He, like me, started off in the Liberal Party of Canada camp in the age of 1940s' Prime Minister Louis St-Laurent and only later became a Conservative. (My journey was punctuated by a three-year stopover with the socialists, after which I was a Tory.) We joked about my saying the rot set in with the Liberals under Pierre Elliot Trudeau, but he showed me how the rot set in earlier, though less obviously, under Lester Pearson, his predecessor. Ted was a fund of knowledge, from which I benefited greatly.
My recent marital breakup continued to have a devastating impact. I became skeletal, with weight falling from 220 pounds to 170. I was plied with copious amounts of Alberta Spring whisky, to which Byfield was partial, but took too much, though I was still on parade for the working day in reasonable shape.
Still, it didn't work out. I was in his house all the time in the dead of winter, and except for trips under guard from one suburban setting to another, where I went to see the West Edmonton Mall, the world's biggest, there was little to do. I had to reflect that I never found Canada—Belleville, Toronto, Winnipeg, Vancouver and now Edmonton—comfortable. I don't think I was the first Montrealer to find Upper and Outer Canada disappointing. It was all like Montreal's West Island's suburban sprawl of houses and lawns crisscrossed by roads and shopping malls. There was no downtown density, no place one could comfortably walk to. Everything was car-borne, and to live there comfortably, one would have to get a starter home and join that way of life.
There was a co-worker on the project, Colby Cosh, who enjoyed some success in journalism in the years since but, like me, suffered on account of his conservative views, which were at odds with those of mainstream journalism. He was a fan of Austrian philosopher Friedrich Hayek, and we had many a discussion about his famous work "The Road to Serfdom." We spoke favourably of individualism and classical liberalism and how it was being undermined in Canada.
There was also the daughter of the house, Philippa, who was of a suitable age, and while parents didn't encourage a liaison, nor did they discourage it. Under different circumstances such might have been possible, but I was pretty messed at the time, and not at all myself, consumed with hatred, anxious to escape into military matters, or Hayek, or even discussions of religion, to which the Byfields were greatly attached. They now adhered to the Orthodox Church in America, philosophically attached to the Greek and Russian strains. He had started with the Anglicans, a church my brother and I were most familiar with, but abandoned it as it moved weirdward.
I had long been an agnostic, unable to be convinced that there was sufficient reason to believe in God, while recognising there was a good and an evil, and one got closer to God if one got closer to good just as one got closer to the devil as one got closer to evil. Not that I spent too much time thinking about it. I had read books about and by 19th-century Tory Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli and was satisfied with his form of Anglicanism, that it was a useful function of the state to have a recognition of the need to gravitate to good and shun evil, and to have an agency to welcome new arrivals, send off departures and solemnize weddings and oaths.
Philippa and I shared a love of Tom Lehrer's comic songs and would often sing them in tandem, she remembering one verse and me another. I introduced her to Donald Swan and Michael Flanders, two British comic songsters. For the two months I stayed there, we became confidants, but no more. I also met her brother Link, who was running the Alberta Report magazine, where at one time I thought I might work once the book job was done.
But hopes of such an outcome were dashed when I realised that Link and the whole Alberta Report crew were entirely pro-Quebec simply because it stood up against Ottawa, and whoever stood against Ottawa was good in their books.
I could understand their feelings; it was a far more intense form of the same anti-Eastern sentiment I had experienced in the 1970s in Vancouver. But the Alberta crew was more virulent, seething with hatred. They had been depicted as "blue-eyed Arabs" by central and eastern Canadian newspaper cartoonists and had been robbed of their provincial control over natural resources—oil—by the Trudeau government. That made them think highly of Quebec for resisting such jurisdictional power grabs and be strangely blind to the fact that the federal French were not so federal when it came to tackling Quebec's natural resource jurisdictions.
That was one of the difficulties. Another was the sad fact that while my Senate "Valour and the Horror" transcripts were pure gold in terms of exciting war stories, none were from Alberta. Unnoticed by me was that all the veterans with tales to tell were from Quebec and Ontario, within driving distance of the Senate hearings themselves. I think there was one veteran whose sole claim to relevance for the project was that he served on the frigate HMCS Calgary—and he was not very interesting and not from Alberta anyway.
I also became aware of the evil effectiveness of Ottawa's Quebec filtration system when I dropped into replenish Byfield’s Alberta Spring whisky stock before I left town. I encountered a checkout clerk who wanted to sell me some three-for-one deal that would involve me staying on. I told her that I would be leaving shortly. She asked me where I was from and I said Montreal. The fellow waiting in line behind me remarked how well I spoke English. The fellow behind him concurred audibly with the same sense of surprise.
I said I wasn't French and there were a lot of English people who lived in Quebec. At which point the check-out girl confirmed this, saying she had a boyfriend from Quebec who spoke English just as well as I did in the same believe-it-or-not tone. I recalled how, when my then wife was being considered for a job at Northwestern University in Illinois, was told she would have to do an English proficiency test despite her McGill PhD on the works of David Hume, because Quebec was considered a foreign language jurisdiction.
All of which told me that the information filtration service had enhanced the notion that Quebec was solely French, and the English-speaking population was being deliberately marginalised.
My writing did not convey the excitement of battle he sought. I quite marveled at news that the tanks of the South Alberta Regiment machine-gunned each other to keep the Germans off at the Falaise Gap so they wouldn't climb aboard and stuff grenades through the apertures. Each tank's machine guns would likely do no harm to the others, and it struck me as another one of those Canadian battlefield innovations, like mouseholing, or swaddling tanks in tank treads for extra protection, that I treasured. But Byfield wanted me to convey the excitement, the terror of the moment, the conquest of panic and brave deeds done in spite of all. I found this difficult.
I was once paralyzed by fear as a child and behaved in the most cowardly and shameful manner, refusing to go on stage in a Christmas pageant as I had promised to do; and on another occasion I managed to conceal my panic when it was suddenly suggested I go on a super scary ride at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines. But I usually handle fear in dangerous situations by simply refusing to acknowledge it.
These experiences lent credibility to the widely believed notion that the same man can be cowardly in one circumstance and brave in another, entirely dependent on what mood takes him at the time, regardless of the danger. Once in Mississippi I had a gun resting on my nose at the hands of a state trooper who seemed to be itching to kill a civil rights worker that day. In this case I was calm, cool and collected. Then in two almost identical situations I had a blowout on the same stretch of highway north of Montreal when I was doing 80 miles per hour. In these cases, I was steady as rock and did the best I could. In such emergencies, calm befalls me, and I am fearless without the need to be brave.
The upshot is that I am either paralyzed by fear or fearless, behaving like those phlegmatic officers on the bridge of HMS Hood as German shells rained down. There is no in-between. Which made it impossible to write in the way Byfield wanted and soon things came to an end between us.
I might have been saved had I made progress with either Philippa or religion, but apart from attending family church parades and engaging with good heart in many discussions on the topic morning, noon and night, it was no-go. He delivered me to the airport, saying that I already had a religion: the army. This was said in all seriousness, and the more I reflected on it, the more I thought it to be true. It was where I drew my moral code.
I didn't kill Miriam as I was inclined to do, simply because I would not do anything that would offend the Queen or those she was allied to. Whenever I am in trouble, my prayer is not so much a prayer but an order to "form squares," that is, put up one's best defences and prepare to do battle, or stage an orderly retreat. As far as God is concerned, I served God, Queen and Country, and that meant the British Empire or what was left of it. The Queen is head of the Church of England, so I left discussion of such matters to the Queen and her officers, who did not seem to require much more of me than that I attend church parades from time to time. I don’t mean the Queen as a person, though I think we were blessed with a good one, as we were with her dad, my first monarch, George VI. I do worry about Charles, who has not been a paragon of Royal virtue, but then nor was Henry V before he became king and shed his dissolute self at Agincourt "when men abed in England will hold their manhoods cheap that they did not stand with us, we band of brothers, on this St. Crispin’s Day." Or something like that. I can hardly believe Henry addressed his troops in iambic pentameter.
So now it was off to join Wee Bro to see if Hong Kong was the best next step.
While upset about coming off another failure in Edmonton, and still seething with hatred for my ex-family and wanting to escape these feelings, I remember little of my arrival in San Francisco or even the drive to Palo Alto, where Joel lived much of the time with his wife, Ginny, who was the deputy editor of Stanford University's alumni magazine, having previously been an editor at McGill. Joel had some ill-defined consultancy role at an up-and-coming, but soon down-and-going high-tech "Wired" magazine, only to get another similar post at a news portal called AsiaWise in Hong Kong, and then becoming vice president of another dotcom company called DealComposer. He seemed to live three months in Hong Kong and three months in Silicon Valley.
Silicon Valley seemed very glamourous until I got there. Like what the Irish rebel Wolfe Tone said of America, Silicon Valley looked "quite grand at a distance, but did not bear close scrutiny." It was Edmonton without snow. When we went out, it was to visit a shopping mall, indistinguishable from those in Edmonton. We might pass a high-tech company's "campus" where they had all the on-the-job luxuries. One could imagine gyms, free coffee, free health food, cafeterias, etc., but Joel was disparaging of such things as inducements to work there night and day.
When we had dinner at a restaurant in a mall, Joel's son Jeremy, then living in San Jose, and I went out into the parking lot for a smoke only to discover that neither of us had a light. We spotted three Chinese guys Jeremy's age smoking. Jeremy asked them for a light. When they looked a little slow on the uptake, Jeremy addressed them in Cantonese. Their astonishment—and mine—was plain to see; they quickly provided a light then fled, perhaps thinking that we were cops. Joel’s now adult children went to school in Hong Kong, and five years later I ended up working for the husband of a woman who taught at their school.
I was already kitted out for Hong Kong under Joel's close instruction. I was equipped with the care and attention Mother devoted at Howarths clothing store in Montreal to have the proper gear for Westmount mountaineering. In this case, I was togged out in what came to be called "senior Hong Kong journalism," that is, tan drill cotton trousers (pairs 3) and a cotton light blue open collar shirt (pairs 3).
I was then taken to the airport to be greeted on arrival by his business partner Sandra Pang.
I wore my blue balmoral so Sandra Pang could spot me as I emerged from Customs and Immigration, the easiest I have traversed before or since. Sandra, an attractive thirtysomething, took me down a ramp to the bus terminal, where I instinctively bagged the upper deck front seat little boys crave. We soon were headed into town along a superhighway with great patches of apartment blocks then merging in a single mass, 20 to 30 stories high. But they were thin as they were tall. The scene reminded me of a vast asparagus patch. Sandra was on the phone much of the time, sometimes calling and sometimes being called, and receiving news or giving instructions in English and Chinese as I looked out on the grey day at about 7 a.m.
As soon as I was settled, she handed me a pile of bumpf about the Port of Barcelona. Sandra told me that Joel had told her that I knew something about shipping and said I could be of help in her current promotion of the Port of Barcelona as a gateway to Europe. As we rode by the Kwai Tsing container terminals, then the biggest box port in the world, I counted 36 gantry cranes and was amazed, never having seen such an array. I was soon talking to Joel on the phone who told me that he had spoken to his buddy, Sean Kennedy, recently appointed financial editor of the Hong Kong Standard, and said that I could represent the paper at a press conference at 11 a.m. at the Conrad Hilton Hotel.
What Sandra had in mind, Joel told me, was that I was to ask questions at the press conference to make it more interesting, as few if any journalists would know anything about the subject she was promoting. I was also to write a story myself, and that was to be the first thing I did before joining Sean at the Standard. I fell to the task, thrilled at my new life's promising prospects, and immediately buried myself in the printed material about the Port of Barcelona. I was not to write a promotional piece, Sandra said. First and foremost, I was to stir things up at the press conference to "make it interesting" and write an interesting story that would appear in the Hong Kong Standard.
We got off the bus at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, and I was instantly bundled into a taxi and headed for the Lamma ferry pier for the 40-minute voyage to Hong Kong's southernmost substantial island, which was as popular with gweilos (European whites) as it was unpopular with Chinese. It also served as a graveyard, which made it a less attractive place of residence for Chinese, 95 per cent of Hong Kong's population.
The ferry ride was the first time I had a chance to stretch my legs without dragging a bag. It was a real treat to go from port to starboard on the after deck watching the propeller churn up the wash astern. With the morning haze clearing, and the early March sun up, the Sea Splash churned up the Sulphur Channel. The noisy ferry went west along the north shore to reveal tall buildings, a mixture of office and apartment blocks, with piers and jetties jutting out, quickly giving way to untamed shrubbery running down to the water with little if any non-institutional human access. Immediately behind, there was the usual array of slender asparagus-like high-rise blocks, mixed with still thin but thicker commercial buildings and lower, broader-based industrial buildings that housed factories and warehouses. Beyond which rose steep mountains after less than a quarter mile of this jam-packed coastal plain. And scattered here and there on the middle and upper reaches of the mountains were the mansions and apartment blocks of the rich, signs of which were only occasionally evident as a thick carpet of greenery obscured many of them from view.
As we came to the west end of Hong Kong Island and the coast curved south, we headed out to open waters to see clusters of fishing boats and floating restaurants in the far distance at Aberdeen. Being fascinated by the nearby sights of Hong Kong Island leeward, I tended to neglect Kowloon to windward. It appeared much like the Hong Kong side, but hazier and farther away. But in that direction I saw the first containerships, either at anchor or steaming in and out of Hong Kong, occasionally catching our ferry in a bow wave, and causing us to pitch and roll dramatically for 20 seconds or so.
There was much to see: Aircraft streaking across the sky, helicopters buzzing about, a pilot boat with its red and white flag heading out to sea, a hydrofoil ferry zooming in from Macau, barges and lighters hoisting containers aboard or taking them off, an American warship's barge taking sailors back from liberty in Hong Kong. As one of my friends, Angela Leary, said later, the "sight of Hong Kong harbour is like a children's painting—everything's in it."
I did not notice what everyone first notices about Lamma Island, that there are no cars. No buses or any form of public transport, where bicycles are regarded as wheelchairs for the elderly and infirm. All I noticed was a blur of tiny shops that were in the early stages of opening and still closed restaurants and bars that would not open for hours. A footpath varied from three yards wide to scarcely a yard at times.
In a haze, I blindly dragged my wheeled bag the length of the village main street till we got to Sandra's place at the end, a tiny standalone house in which she occupied the ground floor. It was really at the very end of the Yung Shue Wan village shoreline, except perhaps for two or three tiny houses beyond. Between Sandra's house and those of her immediate neighbours and a small Buddhist temple or shrine there was a paved playground that would have normally been filled with young people but was then thronged with construction workers building a temporary bamboo Chinese opera house for a coming performing arts festival.
Once inside Sandra's tiny flat, I found everything reassuringly chunkily British with big bulky electric plugs and sockets, and showers with separate water heaters, though happily American in that it had abundant and efficient air conditioning. That would be appreciated later as it was still early March and only beginning to get summery.
I showered and shaved and had Sandra iron my shirt and de-wrinkle my suit from my bag. Now with clothes scattered about, she handed me an Octopus debit card and HK$300. She told me to go to Dan's delicatessen for breakfast while she hurried off to catch the next ferry, which I soon discovered was the central Lamma drama that governed the lives of the 8,000 people who lived on the island. She had to get the day going for the Port of Barcelona promotion at the Conrad Hilton Hotel in Admiralty. I found the British name of the district and its nautical connection comforting. I was to catch the next ferry after breakfast, grab a cab and find her at the hotel.
Dan's was open as far as it would be that time in the morning, set up for little more than morning coffee and bacon and eggs. Blundering about asking questions I met Dan, a part-time schoolteacher who knew of me from Sandra as Joel's brother. He ran the morning coffee operation, while his wife took care of things when he was teaching. I was introduced to an Englishman in his mid-60s, with a small dog at his feet. He was called Jenks and had served in the 60th Rifles, King's Rifle Corps, a source of personal interest in that it had a history of being a British foreign legion, drawing many Americans. Canadians wanting to join the more active British Army took the shilling from the 100st Prince of Wales's Leinster Regiment (Royal Canadians) in Halifax, the last British regiment to garrison Canada—which Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier got rid of in 1902 as Canada's last contribution to the Boer War.
So enthralled was I by his story of the 60th Rifles that I almost missed the ferry. Dashing off to the pier was my debut role in the essential Lamma drama, psychologically marking me as a Lamma-ite thereafter.
Once aboard, I got down to Sandra's business, going through the Barcelona bumpf again. The pitch looked sound enough. It questioned the wisdom of the traditional Asia-Europe trade route, that is, emerging from Suez, then circumnavigating the Iberian Peninsula, crossing the stormy Bay of Biscay, and gingerly motoring through the congested English Channel to get to the northern range ports from Le Havre to Hamburg. That seemed pointless. Why not, said Barcelona, do a quick turnaround in the Med, truck and train your boxes north, and get back to China? The bumpf also pointed to the large quantity of high-value wine and spirt exports available on the backhaul.
But why then, I wondered, did not the same idea occur to Marseilles-based shipping giant CMA CGM. At the very least, Marseilles beat distant Barcelona on this score. Then it struck me. Railway gauges were different in Spain than in the EU, like Russia and Germany. And as there was no bumpful boast of intermodal transfer facilities in the promotional material Sandra gave me, I surmised Barcelona wanted to gloss over the flaw. That Eureka moment seized me all the way to the Conrad Hilton as the taxi swirled its way up to the gleaming tower on the hill.
I reported in to Sandra. Joel had called her "Sandra the Commander," and there she was looking very much the female executive, giving orders to people who approached or over the phone in Chinese and English. At last I managed to get her attention and warned her that I found a fatal flaw in Barcelona's pitch. But she said it wouldn't matter. My job was to make the press conference interesting, and if my question would do that, then my mission would have been accomplished.
I remember there was a half hour before the press conference started, during which coffee and expensive shrimp canapes were served in abundance, the like of which I had not seen since Montreal. Sandra handed me a phone. It was Joel calling from California, scolding me that I had scattered my clothes at Sandra's place, and saying that in Hong Kong, I had to keep everything close, even one's arms. Space was precious; surfaces were precious; so don't clutter. I stopped wolfing down the delicious shrimp canapes and, thus rebuked and chastened, headed for the press conference.
The Hong Kong press conference is a sight to see. For sheer numbers, it's like one of those press conferences in the movies, bristling with cameras and microphones, but without the shouted questions and incivilities that mark the North American "wolf pack media" of unruly shoving and shouting journos.
Massive they may be, but they are also restrained and polite. I saw KK Chada, an old freelance shipping journalist whom I came to know later. He was out to get this story in the way it was told. He at least knew what was under discussion. The rest of them were spoon fed in areas in which they were ignorant, which was just about everything unrelated to the Hong Kong stock exchange and the players therein. In this restricted arena, they knew their ground, who was in and who was out. It was said that in Hong Kong, business was sports.
My plan was to stay quiet until things got dull. And in a very short time the tempo began to sag into desultory questions, when journalists asked questions so as to be seen by colleagues and rivals but were not much interested in the questions or the answers. It was unfolding just as Sandra feared. The Barcelona guy did his spiel competently enough. KK asked an amplifying question, which, when amplified, led to nothing more.
At this point I jumped in, first identifying myself as from the Hong Kong Standard, which I found pleasing, thinking about Auntie Joan's time with the Hong Kong Tiger Standard in 1947-48 after she mustered out of the Royal Canadian Navy with her tiny tattoo of two jacks on her hand. Auntie Joan, was Joan Barbaris, a CBC producer and one of my mother's oldest friends who frequently at our place in my childhood with thrilling stories to tell.
"The problem seems to be there are two rail gauges in Spain and France. Your material doesn't mention the need for intermodal transfer," I said suavely. How I luxuriated in using that waterfront language of 25 years earlier at the Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun when I covered shipping—my one true journalistic love.
Mr. Suavity from Barcelona looked shocked, dare I say terror-stricken, as if I torpedoed him between his boilers and engine room and his thesis was flooding and going down fast. The journos saw it too. Like piranha smelling blood, they perked up. Dormant cameras began whirring, sound men were stirring. Something was up.
"Yes, that is a problem," he said, plainly flustered. "We have plans to address it."
Then he quickly thanked us for coming, gathered his material and left the room. I pursued him into the hall, as I often do, wanting to get more than what is offered. I pressed him about what the intermodal plans were and where, France or Spain. He did not answer directly, but said almost proudly, and addressing me directly, "Yes, yes," he said. "That is the problem," as if he had told colleagues that very thing and they ignored him and told him to wing it. There was definitely an "I told you so" tone to his statement as he sped away to an elevator.
I reported back to Sandra. She asked me how it went, and I said only that I thought I made the press conference interesting. She told me to get back to Lamma, write the story and send it in via email. Rob McNab had been doing some editorial work for Sandra, something to do with the Spicy Island restaurant that she half-owned with an Indian called Kumar. But he was done with the computer when I arrived to do my story.
The story was never published. Not that I blamed them; it was a story of a scheme that was of doubtful value to begin with and turned out to have less value than expected, which amounted to a non-story except on the slowest of slow news days.
That night, I was to be reunited with a number of Montrealers I had known years before. I recalled that Lindsay Crysler, former Gazette managing editor and Concordia journalism professor, had said that of all the places Anglo-Quebecers might emigrate to, Hong Kong would be ideal. So it proved to be for many.
David Kerr was working as a subeditor at the Standard. Simon Twiston Davies had risen to astronomical heights as a lobbyist—the director general of the Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Association of Asia—and lived in a house he owned in Tai Peng. There were other Montrealers on Lamma, but even though we were aware of each other, they were not in our circle. Our group of five was probably the only Canadian contingent of any size that hung out together, but that was because we had been friends before coming to Hong Kong. One thing I have found to be universally true is that Canadians—unlike Australians, Brits, Americans, virtually everyone else—do not congregate. Americans gather in the Ghetto east of McGill University in Montreal, Australians congregate in Kangaroo Valley in London's Earl's Court, and Brits muster in their pubs worldwide. But there are no Canadian neighbourhoods. I also learned that Canadians were quite numerous: 300,000 in Hong Kong, according to the consulate, and together with the Americans, North Americans outnumbered the Brits.
I turned in early that night. It had been a big day.