Looking back, at 77, I must agree with my brother Joel's last coherent deathbed utterance: "Life is a mystery," he hoarsely shouted as he thrashed at his bedclothes in the plush San Jose hospital with 48 hours to live.
People around him, his daughter and his business partner, each said aloud in turn: "Life is a misery?" "No, he said life is a mystery," I insisted.
To which Joel repeated more clearly, as if in agreement: "Life is a mystery." This brought me back to our early childhood in Montreal when was I was 4 and he was not quite 2 as we played together with him caged in his crib, with its bars, and me playing the part of the lion tamer, having the diapered creature inside the bars growl and romp about playfully like a wild animal, the dangerous heffallump called Mayonnaise.
What I recall of those times was that I understood him plainly when others could not. Something of the same thing happened that day. What seemed plain to me eluded their understanding, and I wondered if something had been transmitted over the 65 intervening years.
At 77, I follow Wee Bro on death row, where I learn from a YouTube video the average stay is 20 years. I am unable to walk more than five minutes these days because my clogged arteries will not allow enough oxygenated blood to get to my leg muscles to carry me farther without a three-minute rest for a five-minute re-supply.
Looking through this professional memoir, which in its present form is nearly as long as War and Peace, I realise I did not climb the heights of my profession. First, I am not that talented, nor am I that energetic or driven enough to get to the top. Nor did I appreciate the nature of obstacles in my way to achieve greatness, or what I would have to become to get to the top of what I now see as deeply corrupted by leftist ideologues with few if any role models I would emulate.
My mother, lingering three years in her deathbed in an old folks’ home, said: "Except for the booze, we were a pretty good family." There was something in that. We all spent too much time having fun and getting drunk. Throughout all our twenties, thirties, forties, fifties and sixties. We were much the same, but different. My father was a maudlin drunk, my mother a vicious drunk, my brother a violent drunk and I was an argumentative drunk. We were all enamoured of cigarettes, whiskey and wild, wild women, or men if that were the case.
At the same time, we were all good troopers and advanced decently in our professions, showing dash and daring, getting into scrapes that landed us in jail at times, but never for anything dishonorable or dishonest. Without exception we were always on deck the next day, ready for duty.
The memoir project began at the age of 65, when I had lived in China for more than 20 years and had to establish my working history to secure a Canadian old age pension. Many old employers had ceased to exist and those still in operation had lost my records long ago. What came to my rescue was newspapers’ habit of putting their past issues online.
Thus, I was able to call up and reprint stories I had written in the Montreal Star, the Vancouver Sun, Calendar Magazine, plus clippings that had survived in tattered scrapbooks with my name and dates attached. So I managed to get a fair chunk of my pension despite my mostly overseas jobs.
Seeing my checkered career tracked out on a spreadsheet, I thought it might make for an interesting memoir. My first thematic title was "Life of Reilly," as I thought of my life as a cheerful roistering adventure. Then doubts arose because those who wrote memoirs were invariably famous, with much public interest having been generated about their lives prior to the publication of their memoirs. And there were too many Life of Rileys/Reillys about on the internet.
So I settled for the alliterative title "Journeyman's Journey in Journalism." I thought this to be an honest summation of what I had traversed in my threescore and ten plus 7 years on five continents. What's more, there were thousands, perhaps millions, of other fellow journeymen, competent old hands who never made it to master—ending their days on the sub's tables of the New York Post, the Sacramento Bee, the Liverpool Echo, the Times of India, the Cape Town Argus and the Winnipeg Free Press—and who would be interested in the more travelled and adventurous life in the same trade as well as in how trade practices differed from palm to pine in what amounts to the ex-British Empire.
Having a mind never too far from the market, I also thought there well might be sons, daughters, even grandchildren of such folk for whom such a book might provide a Christmas or birthday present. I was an incurable romantic. That's what one high school teacher, Donald Peacock, said of me. He was a leftist, eventually the head of the Quebec Protestant teachers union. He was a romantic too, but his romantic yearnings lay in leftist revolution while I was more into British Empire building.
My first role model was Roy Rogers. He was a good guy against the bad guys. When I was very young, six, seven and eight, I genuinely marvelled at how bad kids could do bad things that Roy Rogers would not like. It was a source of amazement to me that they must have known that, yet they persisted in doing bad things. I disapproved of the Lone Ranger's harsh radio show-endings, in which he typically assured Tonto that the culprit would die at the end of a rope.
I preferred cowboy heroes like Hopalong Cassidy and the Cisco Kid, who made no mention of capital punishment. Cub scouts introduced British heroes from the stories of Rudyard Kipling, which hold me to this day. I loved characters like Mowgli in the Jungle Book or later fun heroes like Daniel Dravot and Peachey Carnehan, two ex-army sergeants in "The Man Who Would Be King." I most envied the role of Rusty, a 9-year-old honourary corporal in the US Cavalry in the "Rin Tin Tin" 1950s TV show. How I wished I could have a life like his.
There were also tons of Kipling lore of a more edifying sort for a 10- year-old imbued largely by the discovery of old Chums and Boys' Own annuals in our apartment's basement locker from my late Uncle Frank's estate. These I showed to a friend's father, an ex-Gurkha Rifle major who had retired to Montreal after Indian independence. Much of my pro-British attitude and positive reflections on the British Empire can be blamed on him and the exciting stories he told about India and the Gurkhas.
Also derived from the Boys' Own and Chums thick leather-bound volumes were stories of China, South Africa and the Malay States. More grown up, at age 12 and 13, came a serious fascination with an unrelated fictional character, that of Sidney Carton, drunken lawyer who ends up doing a "far better thing" in "A Tale of Two Cities."
If I turned out to be like any character from the fictional cast I had accumulated, I confess there was something in me of that drunken wretch of a lawyer Sidney Carton in Dickens, but more of Barry Lyndon, in the Kubrick film or the Thackeray novel, which I never read.
In this, I confess to being something of a nogoodnik with bags of charm who moves through life with one foot in the gutter and one on the curb, extricating himself from one scrape after another—in what others might call an adventurous life. Militarily I longed to be a 19th century dragoon, going into battle on horseback, but dismounting and fighting on foot.
When the army wouldn’t take me in because of my poor eyesight when I applied to Soldier Apprentice Plan at the age of 15, a former colonel of the Black Watch got me a job as a messenger for a printing firm. Six months later I got job as a copyboy at the Gazette. After that, I was on my way. I was loyal to the noble spirit of journalism, as exemplified by my father and mother.
As parents they were disappointing, Wee Bro and I agreed, but we did not fault them as professionals, another of the few examples of accord between us. So I was determined to be a credit to the craft's highest traditions.
But over the years, I found myself at odds with those who came to dominate the trade. In the mid-'60s, objectivity was almost a fetish among cub reporters, and even after 65 years, I still seek stories with a two-side minimum. And if that is not possible in one story, then give the other side a hearing in the next, or at the very least, a right of reply.
But that has been long since discarded in the English-speaking world. The media turned left politically starting in the 1970s, firming up in the '80s and having a vice-grip in the '90s and thereafter. In the late '90s, J-schools formally jettisoned objectivity as a goal in favour of "truth," as if journalists had a monopoly on it.
There were exceptions, such as Fox News, the New York Post and London's Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail, which took a rightist tilt if it had not already done so. Even normally objective news agencies, Associated Press and Reuters, became leftist, freezing out and minimizing rightist views, or shamelessly quoting their weakest and most laughable arguments as representative of their views, while protecting leftist sources and personalities, accepting their charges against the right as fact and dismissing the charges against the left as baseless conspiracy theories.
I have long been distressed that journalists do not weigh evidence if it leads to conclusions they do not want to face, even if such conclusions would make a better story. This is the main ingredient of political correctness that turns newspapers into something akin to compliant political organs.
Rather than news arising willy-nilly from the streets, it must be filtered and certified by an editorial collective of ever more judgmental journalists. No longer do they convey something new the public cares about, but instead focus on a narrow range of subjects and treatments that contribute to an established narrative they themselves prefer.
This has always been true to some extent, but in the last 40 years it became the ruling ethos in which subjectivity, and an increasingly leftwing subjectivity, is favoured while ignoring and even denouncing rightist perspectives embraced by 50 per cent of the readership, if electoral results are anything to go by.
Overall, the growing dominance of women, more pronounced in the last decade, has had the greatest effect in fostering this PC spirit and has contributed to the decline of journalism's integrity as it has ceased to question the leftist reigning orthodoxy. Most will agree with me about the importance of the feminist impact without ascribing any blame to it.
In fact, the subject is deliberately avoided and simply not discussed beyond saying that it is a good thing, long overdue, simple justice etc., etc. Yet nothing could be further from the truth, at least in journalism. Suggesting it is a good thing does not bear the most cursory glance, much less close scrutiny.
It is rather like insisting men run dress shops and perfume counters because gender balance is a good thing in and of itself, regardless of whether it is in terms of customer service or sales. Well before the feminist phenomenon began to take hold in the 1970s, there were other factors that converged to bolster women's role in what had been a thriving and prosperous man's newspaper world.
First, there was, and still is, natural leftism endemic among journalists, who are far more communitarian than libertarian. Time magazine founder Henry Luce, in response to testy questions about why he hired so many Democrats, replied: "Damnedest thing! Republicans can't write."
True enough. Rightist Republicans, apart from the odd virtuoso performer, are not writers by volume. Republicans tend to be doers, not observers, while leftist Democrats tend to be observers not doers. More writers are drawn from the more reflective, observer camp.
What counterbalanced this back in the day was the presence of a publisher or proprietor, typically a doer, who wanted to make money and a name for himself. He and his business managers tended to come from the same rightist ilk.
Massive social reforms of the 1870s, which brought about compulsory education, resulted in the exponential growth in newspaper readership from the 1890s till the 1920s. This massive enlargement of literacy led to a drive to increase circulation. News agencies such as the Associated Press and Reuters introduced objectivity from the 1850s to sell news to papers of opposing political opinions. Newspapers engaged in circulation wars and found objectivity in news reporting to be useful in attracting new readers from outside their traditional political camps.
But by the end of World War I, these founding fathers were dying off. The excellent movie "Deadline-USA" with Humphrey Bogart illustrates the phenomenon wherein adult children of the great man, sharing neither his beliefs nor any beliefs with each other, sell the paper they owned to the rival newspaper. It in turn could boast that the merger spared advertisers the expense of advertising in two newspapers. This trend towards local monopoly was reported by the New Yorker in AJ Liebling’s "Toward a One Newspaper Town."
Throughout North America, the heirs' sale of newspapers accelerated— not only to local rivals, but increasingly to national newspaper chains with new money managers who cared little about editorial content so long as it was cheap or did not hurt the bottom line. These money men were beholden to stockholders, leaving leftist journalists to develop into self-perpetuating editorial collectives from the 1960s to the present day. The counterbalancing rightist element was absent.
Feminism, being a leftist concept bent on sharing what others had produced, was readily embraced. While such attitudes did great harm in the long run, it was not evident in the short run. Money managers were chiefly interested in selling retail advertising space or time slots, so they welcomed women because they were natural shoppers.
Men bought only cars, booze and tobacco. The latter two commodities had become illegal to advertise in the 1970s, thus weakening men as a desirable demographic despite the fact they represented 85-90 per cent of newspaper purchasers. Because more men made their living on the road, that is driving, they had an edge in radio, particularly talk radio.
Otherwise, media was becoming a girl's world. What's more, women's tastes in news and entertainment were so attractively inexpensive. Their favourite dramas were confined to the house and garden. Film producers loved them, too. They were indoor creatures happy with indoor movies. No need for expensive war coverage and costly outdoor adventures. And when wars were covered, they tended to be covered at the diplomatic level or from hospital wards. Winning and losing armed conflicts was quite forgotten. It was like covering a football game from the first aid station, having little or no interest in the score.
As well, women could be frightened by almost anything. All that was needed to produce a new fashionable fear was to have an expert say it existed. This spawned more regulations, and more inspectors. And who better to man the growing number of regulatory agencies but women, who did well in school and were natural critics of everyone's behaviour. Smaller and smaller infractions became more and more fussworthy, thus newsworthy.
This also produced the one-sided story. Women sought to avoid conflict. They do not like competitive games, as shown by the gender breakdown of crowds attending professional sports. Therefore, women were instinctively against free speech because it produced debate, the very soul of conflict. The practical negative impact of these trends on journalism was that mainstream or legacy media felt comfortable with their oligopolies, if not monopoly situations, and were never much aware of their ever-weakening market penetration.
In short, targeting women mostly with feminist themes did not attract enough of them to compensate for the loss of men, who now turned to the internet to find what they wanted. Increasingly, what was said of Russia's Pravda and Izvestia, that "our truth has no news and our news has no truth"—reflecting the meaning of Pravda, "truth," and Izvestia, "news"—became increasingly the case with all legacy media.
As females were thought to be interchangeable components with men, at least in the ever-strengthening academic community, no one appreciated that women didn't like newspapers as a medium unless they were free or bought by their men and left there for them to read when hubby and kids were pursuing their lives outside. Thus, both male and female readership shrank. The medium itself became obsolete with one folding after another.
Electronically, it was similar but different. As female TV presenters began to dominate the airwaves, there was a greater emphasis on how they looked rather than what they said. Ditto newspapers, which now took on a more magazine-like look in style and substance. Important news might be reduced to one of a set of column briefs if it could not be lengthened to fit a predetermined layout module dictated by the design concept.
The unexpected development as we advance closer to the second quarter of the 21st century is the role of social media and its tendency to eclipse legacy media for eyeballs.
This, against a growing irrelevance of print media or even broadcast and cable television as more people, rich and poor, get news from their cell phones, increasingly provided by algorithms that supply news and commentary in line with what users desired before.
I end this memoir trapped in Hong Kong and ready to resume life in the Philippines, where my pension will go further. I don't think the Red Chinese who have taken over Hong Kong will stop me from leaving, but the Philippines now stops me from entering unless I foot a hefty quarantine hotel bill. I don't think the Reds are to going to interfere with what we are doing locally with the Covid crisis, which is to make a great public fuss while sensibly doing as little as possible.
The Reds have enough trouble with Covid on the mainland, acting and over-reacting the way Communists always do. Imagine shutting down the Port of Yantian because a crane driver got the flu! But one official doesn't want to be blamed by another who wants to blame him so his friend or relative can get his job. So one does the max, however stupid. It is a bureaucratic form of "cover-your-ass“ medicine, pandemic in communist states. This will come to Hong Kong in a few years, but so far the Reds are shutting newspapers, banning organisations and rigging elections here, and haven't got down to the detailed work of wrecking the joint.
As I close, there are the geopolitical threats afoot as China imposes its version of the Monroe Doctrine over the Eastern Pacific into the Indian Ocean. In this, the Biden and Trump administrations are one and have forged stronger ties with India, and actively cultivated closer relations with Japan and South Korea. Also brought into this new alignment to a lesser extent are Pakistan and Malaysia.
There is much talk of the Ukraine, but it is doubtful the West will go to war over that old Russian duchy, which was only made a state in 1954 to give the Soviet bloc another vote in the UN General Assembly. We attacked the Ukraine as Russia in the 1850s Crimean War, and it’s where the Russians have their navy. What is needed is a Finlandization of the Ukraine, or at least to set up a neutral buffer state and let NATO rust away, as I hoped it would with the fall of communism in Russia. This anti-Russian posture is treasured by Democrats solely as a part of their anti-Trump narrative, and they are loath to let it go in an appeal to Millennials who, even at the college level, have no memory of the Berlin Wall and the state of affairs when communists ruled much of the world and threatened to rule more. Russia's interests are aligned with the West's and will likely remain that way for some time.
My greatest regret is that I was unable to raise children and grandchildren so they would not be the enemies of liberty they have become. But my cause, though beleaguered, is still worth fighting for even if they are not. All in all, it's been a life of Reilly and still is.
At this point of writing, shipping is about to move into a new, potentially revolutionary mode, though there have been many false dawns in this industry, and this could well be one of them. Nonetheless, it started in earnest in 2018, became a competitive force in 2020, and thus perhaps represents a fitting final development to round out a professional memoir covering the years 1960 to 2020.
Stated simply, this mode involved ocean carriers not only deploying air cargo and buying aircraft, but also entering the door-to-door forwarder's domain. As this was only dawning in 2020, it is good to remember that such bright ideas under the rubric of "diversification" have come a cropper in the past.
One casts one's mind back to Coca-Cola putting a wrong foot into the wine business and hastily retreating. While there are success stories—General Electric, Disney and 3M—there have been costly failures such as Quaker Oats’ entry into the fruit juice business with Snapple, and RCA’s forays into computers, carpets and car rentals.
The Covid crisis was the core of the stampede into forwarding and suggested a more comprehensive move into dream engineering of a more ambitious thrust into D2D service. However, while Covid was the log that broke the camel's back, it was a heavily overburdened camel to start with.
Left to its own devices, Covid might have come and gone much the way the Hong Kong flu did in 1968-69, when it killed one million in the US and four million worldwide. True, Covid killed many more than Hong Kong flu did, but as Covid chiefly kills the very old and the very sick, it seems hardly worth the fuss we have made of it.
Yet experts refused to engage in any discussion of such doubts except with those who already agreed that draconian measures were needed. Numbers issued were meant to scare people into compliance to accept vaccine mandates rather than inform them on what was going on and what to do about it. Statistics were doctored to make them more scarifying than they were. Normal flu deaths were lumped in with Covid deaths to make the Covid threat bigger than it was. All were urged to get vaccinations that did not vaccinate but needed re-vaccination injections called boosters.
When the global Covid crisis hit in 2020, initial economic uncertainty and localised lockdowns led to reduced consumer demand for many goods. But what was once spent on social nights out now went to products obtained through burgeoning e-commerce channels. Thus, spending on domestic services was redirected to spending on foreign goods. Add to that, rampant inflation soared when the US Government increased the national debt to US$6 trillion in giveaway spending raising money in the bond market. To a lesser extent, such measures were copied elsewhere.
This increase in sales of products rather than services sent shipping rates soaring, up 547 per cent more than the seasonal average over the previous five years. London's Drewry Maritime Research warned: “More than 80 per cent of shippers reported serious issues with lack of shipping capacity, poor schedule reliability, and high freight rates." Hence, crippling worldwide supply chain congestion.
Overlooked here are other factors not directly linked to Covid but aggravated by official response to what may fairly be called a man-made crisis: a collection of new rules and regulations that did more harm than good.
So Covid brought an existing and rapidly building problem to the breaking point. Put simply, the core of this trouble was the arrival of mega ships that continually dumped 5,000 containers all at once on docks where the space and the workforce were insufficient to clear the pileups. Individual containers were to be picked up by trucks or transferred to trains. And behind the ships unloading were scores of other ships waiting to unload at major ports and tens of ships waiting offshore at secondary ports.
Then there was the problem of trucks and trains. Imagine, if you will, 5,000 taxis coming to an airport to pick up 5,000 passengers. But unlike the taxis able to pick up any passenger, each truck had to pick up only that container it was sent to fetch. Imagine the chaos if such applied to airport taxis.
As often as not, the container in question might be at the bottom of a distant stack of containers that must be dismantled to get at it and then put back together again. And while waiting for his box, the trucker and his truck are obstructing thousands of other trucks. None of whom are getting paid while they wait because they are only paid for pickup and delivery, however long it takes.
And that was just one of the reasons so many were leaving trucking. Federally mandated Hours of Service rules with awkwardly placed compulsory rest periods oblige drivers to drive when they would not want to drive. From a regulatory point of view, he is driving even when waiting, so his legal driving time is wasted while he waits. This leaves him turning down jobs if it looks like taking them will lead him to legal liability if caught "driving" when he ought to be resting.
And we get the same problem at railyards across a vast hinterland, where waiting truckers linger for unpaid hours for the boxes they were sent to collect and deliver in cities and towns large and small.
Picture, if you will, a double-stacked train from LA-Long Beach—or another from Rotterdam and Duisburg—as giant pythons that have swallowed whole a large animal like a deer. In the wild, pythons lie about for the better part of a year digesting the huge meal. That's fine for pythons, but the railway python is forced to swallow deer after deer as each mega ship dumps indigestible clumps of containers one after the other. All of which keeps ships piling up at anchorages outside of ports, adding to the price of retail goods already pursued by rising inflation.
Politics in China
Ever since I left Montreal in 1999 because of laws that were designed to deny freedom in the interests of preserving the French language in Quebec, I saw Hong Kong as a safe haven. My brother, having escaped there in the mid-'80s, confirmed this time and time again. True, Hong Kong had been taken over by Red China in 1997, but under terms that were quite acceptable. It had internal independence and the right to run its own affairs. So the king was Beijing and not London. But if China left Hong Kong alone as it had promised to do in the Joint Declaration, Beijing would control the territory to the same extent London did—that is, not at all. We'd be fine until 2047 when the Reds would take over in earnest, which would give us enough time to fashion exit strategies if there were any need.
In that first decade of the new century, the more naive among us—and I count myself among them—had every reason to believe that if the Chinese Communist state had not withered away, then its objectionable features might well have done, given the way things were going at the time. Fondest hopes held that liberal democracy in some watered-down form would accompany the galloping growth of free markets, and at the time that trend seemed unstoppable.
The laissez-faire regime of Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin was clearly making China richer and more middle- class. When I lived in Wuhan this outcome seemed almost obvious. In my naive moments, it would not be Hong Kong being absorbed by China in 2047, but China being absorbed by Hong Kong, or more properly Taiwan, which shared our preference for rule of law and free markets. I saw the Communist Party fading away the way the Church of England had in 18th- and 19th-century England and rule of law worming its way in through robust commercial arbitration.
Even in these happy times. I did not favour local demands for democracy and independence as so many young people did. I had already suffered the perils of democracy as a member of the Anglo-Quebec minority, with the majority of the Quebecois voting to discriminate against me and my people fully and faultlessly democratically. What I sought to maintain was rule of law, a system under which an independent judiciary could restrain the state if it were not playing by the rules.
But apart from that caveat, I knew that full democracy would soon get us into trouble with Red China. It wouldn't be long before some bright spark among us would win a pro-independence majority in a fully democratic Legislative Council, or Legco. To my mind that would be disastrous. We would only bring on Beijing's intrusion, if not complete annexation. So I was dead against pulling the tiger's tail and thought it foolish to do so.
Much the same must have been worrying the incoming Chinese leader Xi Jinping in 2013, as he saw his totalitarian Communist state withering away in the face of rampant capitalism. At first, I was not alarmed. When Mr Xi took over, he did the usual thing new dictators do when they take power. They jail or shoot those who pose a danger to them. I remember Franco and Pinochet—not to mention Castro—did the same. It seems to be a natural dynamic of despotic power politics. And China was still a dictatorship despite its improvement and my fond hopes regarding its prospects.
But it didn't end there, I was soon to learn. Mr Xi was clearly out to do more. Even in pre-Xi days, the West had tolerated China's unfair trading practices, its clinging to third-world status to retain a pauper’s licence to cheat. China wanted to retain its joint-venture requirement for foreign companies entering the domestic market, or the need for licences to sell anything new, which required applicants, for example, to take entire licensing departments to dinner to make a pitch about why they might want to withdraw one brand of lipstick and introduce another. Under Xi, foreign companies had to hire a representative of the Communist Party to keep an eye on things.
Worryingly, Mr Xi also started to build up the People's Liberation Army, particularly its navy. Then in 2016 he took over the Spratly Islands, which lay between the Philippines and Vietnam. These had been in dispute but were once part of French Indochina. The Chinese military seized them, stationed a surface-to-air missile battery and then built an airbase. The Philippines took the case to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, but Beijing ignored the summons and rejected the court when it ruled China had no legal claim to the islands.
Soon President Donald Trump ramped up the anti-China rhetoric. I remember attending a shipping conference in Shenzhen and finding Americans who were against Trump backing him on his aggressive China policy. That ended up being the only thing the Trump and Biden administrations agreed on.
At the same time, we were dealing with Mr Xi's Belt and Road Initiative, which I had backed at first before re-categorising him as a bad guy. On its face, Belt and Road was marketed picturesquely as a figurative reincarnation of Marco Polo's Silk Road, the 13th-century trade route to Europe.
But it was more than that—for good and ill. What attracted me was not its macro-plan of global reach, but its incremental step-by-step approach of joint financing of small-scale projects, putting in a bridge here and a tunnel there. So much productivity is lost in the developing world by an inability to get products to the other side of a mountain or a torrential river. Of course, there were mega projects too, such as laying the 300-mile Standard Gauge Railway between Mombasa and Nairobi in Kenya and the 500-mile railway between Addis Ababa, the capital of landlocked Ethiopia, and Djibouti's port facilities, where a PLA naval base has been established manned by 1,000 to 2,000 naval personnel.
That was worrying. As were clusters of Chinese fishing boats in the eastern Pacific around Papua New Guinea, where there are few fish. This fleet was—and still is—escorted by armed PLA coast guard cutters. These get close to the territorial waters of Australia and challenge its traditional and widely accepted sphere of influence over the South Sea Islands, whose relations with China have been cold.
So suspicions of strategic ulterior motives on the part of China have grown and tainted the Belt and Road project. Beijing, cash-rich because of the hard currency earned from Western trade, made it easy to bully poor developing countries. Malaysia called a halt to Chinese sponsored schemes as did Pakistan, though they modified their stands in China's favour when they realised their own weakness and the strength of their contractual obligations. But by this time countries around the world had become wary of Chinese bearing gifts.
Suspicions were most keenly felt in Muslim lands with news of Uyghur concentration camps, in which, so Wikipedia tells us, "at least 120,000 (and possibly over one million) Muslims are detained in ‘re-education camps’ aimed at changing the political thinking of detainees, their identities, and their religious beliefs to ensure adherence to Chinese Communist Party ideology."
Then came big trouble in Hong Kong in 2014, when Joshua Wong and his Scholarism student movement organised Occupy Central to take over the city's central business district. The students, demanding democracy, did not achieve this aim but instead occupied the adjacent commercial district of Admiralty—for 78 days.
At first, I was dismissive. I did not favour democracy for Hong Kong, because if it were granted we would all want to be independent from China, and that would have been a violation of the 1997 Handover treaty, prompting the Reds to invade legally. Legco was divided between the "pan democrats" and the "pro-Beijing" parties. But the pro-Beijing parties were not pro-Beijing in any sense that they favoured communism. They simply wanted to obey Beijing in order to stave off its interference in Hong Kong affairs. Which was my position.
But I was won over by the quality of the young protesters in what became known as the "Yellow Revolution" or the "Umbrella Revolution" because of the yellow ribbons they wore and the umbrellas they carried. The umbrellas were partly because of the rain, but also used at high points to ward off pepper spray attacks by the police as the protesters encamped, blocking off main thoroughfares of multi-lane highways and major roads connecting the east and west end of Hong Kong Island.
When I visited the area, I could see that the only thing they shared with the motley Occupy Wall Street crowd in the US was their youth. They were not destructive and were arrayed in neat compounds of tents, sometimes grouped together in study halls as many were boning up for coming exams. They formed cleanup crews and avoided litter. There was widespread sympathy for them at my office, even among the police, who were as gentle as they could be. I found that left-wing friends and acquaintances backed them too, even though this was a right-wing movement in that they wanted to be free of Red China's intrusion into Hong Kong affairs.
I was proud of them. Proud of Hong Kong for producing such determined upstanding young people. They were decent, hardworking kids and I sported my yellow ribbon as proudly as I wore my Remembrance Day poppy. Hearing their anthem still brings a tear to my eye.
The English version is less impressive.
Like hearing Men of Harlech at Rork's Drift
Then came more disturbing signs that China was breaking the rules regarding Hong Kong, which Mao Tse Tung called the "pimple on the arse of China." First, there were border violations. Under the treaty Hong Kong decided who came and went to and from the territory, but the Reds would seize people on occasion.
Beijing also wanted Legco to pass National Security Law (Article 23) that would outlaw "subversion," which could be interpreted as "free speech" that had long been allowed. Legco delayed passing this despite being obliged to do so under the Handover treaty. The schools had long delayed or sidestepped Beijing's demand for "patriotic education," with demands becoming more fervent when Hong Kong football crowds booed the Chinese national anthem. Chinese officials said children educated in Hong Kong must not be individuals who have a "Chinese face but not a Chinese heart."
We tried to console ourselves with the assurance that the term limit of Chinese presidents was 10 years. In 2023, we would be free of Mr Xi and that wasn't too far away. But in 2018, Mr Xi had the Chinese People's Congress abolish term limits, making him president for life. So this nightmare was to continue. Many were thankful that they had taken out British National (Overseas) passports and grateful that Prime Minister Boris Johnson had taken steps to enlarge the welcome mat.
In 2019 came the Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill Movement, which brought millions out on the streets to protest Beijing-sponsored legislation that would allow China to arrest and extradite Hong Kongers to face charges in mainland courts, where accusations are tantamount to convictions.
I have been an old hand at demonstrations, protests and riots in several countries since the 1960s but have never seen the likes of the millions passing by my front door, huge crowds on the street weekend after weekend, and walls daubed with pro-democratic slogans.
Then came the Covid scare in January 2020. We had been through the SARS pandemic in 2002, and Covid seemed no worse to me, though we were told by the authorities that it was. By this time, I was fully webbed up, an active FaceBook debater, engaged in my old hobby of intellectual skeet shooting, blasting the turds of BS as they arced through cyberspace. There was one difference between SARS and Covid. In the SARS case, officialdom did what they could to relieve one's fears, issuing warnings about this and that, but presented data in an informative manner. But with Covid, officialdom fanned fears, and presented meaningless data that defied analysis and was meant to scare people into compliance.
Early on, there was an Englishman in his late 20s, who had been laid low by Covid and described his experience in detail on YouTube. He said it was bad, the worst he had ever experienced. What struck me was that it sounded so much like the Hong Kong flu I got in 1968, which came in various stages, the very stages he described. My Hong Kong flu, which killed between one and four million people, had me laid low for three weeks. I have never been so sick before or since. I am sure that if such a disease struck me today at the age of 77, it would kill me. The Wikipedia entry on Hong Kong flu said that most deaths occurred in people 65 plus. It seems the average age of Covid death is about 70, the higher age of mortality undoubtedly due to the increase in US longevity between 1968 (70) and 2019 (78).
Covid has become a such a big deal, one begins to entertain suspicions that there was a move afoot by the Elders of Davos at the World Economic Forum to orchestrate a global crisis that was susceptible to bureaucratic control in the Great Reset. One takes to heart the former Mayor of Chicago Rahm Emanuel's saying, "Never let a crisis go to waste."
But this where I leave the narrative of the journeyman's journey in journalism while still the editor of the Hong Kong Shipping Gazette.
Social and Personal
In what has been a largely professional memoir, little has been said about the social and personal aspects of my 77 years, which included a score of significant others and a few furtive carnal adventures, as well as four platonic relationships that have stayed afloat longer than the rest and sail on to this day.
I had two daughters by my first marriage in 1967 and a daughter and a son by my second in 1991. A combination of distance, politics and genuine enmity for deeds done or not done separates us more or less permanently.
I am closest to No. 2 daughter Aislinn, now in her 40s. There have been times when she worked for me at the HK Shipping Gazette with little enthusiasm, and an earlier time when I worked for her when she was commissioning work for UK Bookseller and I covered the Beijing Book Fair. But when she posted a Black Lives Matter black blob on Facebook, I could no longer tolerate the Trump-hating Boris Johnson antipathy that had become de rigueur for women of her generation. Her opposition to Brexit, her refusal to even listen to my arguments made the alienation complete.
My relationship with her older sister, Jenny, then age 12, came a cropper in Dublin in 1980, not that she was keen on me anyway. I remember back in the '70s when I suggested that my first wife and I get back together, Jenny, then age 8, said they were quite happy without me and would like to keep it that way.
My sin in Dublin, and sin it truly was, was to leave Jenny and her sister Aislinn in the hands of my mother, their constantly complaining, hypercritical grandmother. After a difficult day with them, I negligently sought shelter in a pub, reasoning that if I had to put up with her for 14 years, they could take her for a night.
What I failed to appreciate was that I had told my mother that her present of a 40-ounce bottle of vodka for my friend and associate Rorie Smith—in appreciation of his lending us his flat while he visited relatives in Donegal—was inappropriate because he had given up drinking. She solved the problem by drinking the vodka herself, and laid into Jenny mercilessly in my absence, criticising her "buck teeth," which didn't seem buck to me. Well, No. 1 daughter never forgave me for that. I since tried to make amends but received no reply to emails. Yet she pleases me by fulfilling familial diplomatic niceties, kissing me in public and introducing me to her children as their grandfather. She too was on the Remain side in the Brexit debate.
One positive aspect of this is that I did very well in the sons-in-law department. Far better than my first wife's parents did with me. Aislinn married well, got a handsome, noble and brave cartoon animator, and they live in pleasant surroundings in Surrey. Jenny did just as well, having snagged a former airline pilot who moved into managing a chain of pubs and restaurants in the English Midlands, and lives in Stratford-Upon-Avon.
The breakup in Vancouver of my first marriage seemed to be mutual in retrospect. Certainly, she did nothing to fix it when it was fixable. It was a case of me wanting a few things from her, like putting the kids to bed on time. But in the face of such demands, she became hysterical, saying everything was her fault, and all conversation ended. We went to a marriage counsellor, but she refused to continue when he sided with me on one occasion.
Nonetheless, as we both found life together intolerable, both were content to part, and I moved out. It was curious that when we met after 20 years at Aislinn's wedding, my first wife, Jill, seemed quite alien to me, as if she were a nice lady I had met on a bus a few weeks before. Odder still was when at Aislinn’s wedding I met Jill’s mother, with whom I had been friendly from the first. Such was the ebullient ease and warmth of our relationship, it resumed as if I had only momentarily left the room. It was uncanny. I was also lucky in the man my ex-wife had taken up with since. He was a decent fellow whom I genuinely liked, and I was glad to see her in good hands.
He approached me gingerly at the wedding, and I put him at his ease, saying "To you from failing hands I throw the torch, Be yours to hold it high." He was dead pleased with that, and we parted on very good terms. It was one of the more gratifying things that happened that day.
Less pleasant to recall was my next marriage that ended in all-round hostility. I had met Miriam when I was 41 and she was 18, and we were married three years later. She was on course to become a professor like her father.
Things were idyllic through good times and bad for nine years. First Hannah was born in 1991, then Joseph three years later with a severe cleft palate. It took me a little time before I could take him on emotionally, but after a time I did with good heart.
We resolved that Miriam would be the primary breadwinner as she hunted for a university teaching job after she got her PhD in philosophy from McGill in Montreal. Most academics you never hear about make their lives wherever they find a tenure track job. Canada, the US, UK and New Zealand were all possibilities at one time or another. I would resume my journalism as best I could wherever we landed.
There was a one-year appointment at Grinnell College, Grinnell, Iowa. It was a shitty billet for me as I could not work legally. I was a househusband. I discovered that once I trained the children, then ages 5 and 8, housewifery only took two to three hours a day. I could not even be paid for what I did for the college alumni magazine. All was going well until it was discovered that she was having an affair with the classics chairman, at which point she wanted me gone. We went to the marriage counsellor, but she showed no interest in resolving the matter in any other way than facilitating my departure.
I approached Hannah with the prospect of hitting the road and making a life for ourselves back in Canada, where I could work. She found the prospect unappealing and said so. Joseph, age 5, was in no position to make such a decision as he could not understand what was happening. It was popularly supposed that Hannah could not either. But I held that anyone who could understand the movie Pollyanna, which was a pretty emotionally bruising story, could understand what was happening. I also pointed out that the age at which right and wrong could be determined was 7 in English law, or so it was when I covered courts in England and Ireland. While Joseph could not be expected to understand the situation, Hannah could. So I departed and left Joseph to his mother and would reconnect with him later, as well as re-extending the invitation to Hannah, when I was settled, whenever or wherever that might be.
That Christmas Miriam took the kids back to Montreal, while I waited for the movers to move most of the furniture out and into storage, as it was my mother's stuff. The only request I made was that Miriam drop the name McCormick before she ended her one-year appointment at Grinnell College and moved on to the University of Richmond in Virginia. This, she has refused to do.
I sent an email to her every three months, asking that she drop my name, saying that the children could retain it if they chose to join me. Three years later when Joseph turned 8, an age of knowing right from wrong, I asked to be put in touch with him but was refused.
There was an email exchange with Hannah that was cordial for a time, but she showed no inclination to condemn her mother or join me in China. So that ended further contact.
I remember on a flight back from London, a man beside me told the sad tale of him going to see his daughter in Hong Kong. He was bitter his ex-wife refused to allow him in to see his daughter's room and insisted a housemaid accompany them on excursions to McDonalds and shopping malls.
I was now a member of a legion of such men in Hong Kong, though blind to the benefits of sending love and money to children who sided with their mother who had wronged me. I seemed to be quite different from the ones I overheard at the office in snitty phone conversations with exes about custody and money. Or indeed, my friend Brian in Montreal, who phoned every six months to rage about the same thing. Often money in exchange for access was the issue. I had no wish to join this Unhappy Gang.
Before I left for Hong Kong I was in ground zero of the religious right in Edmonton where I was advised by Ted Byfield, founder of the Alberta Report, that I should forgive Miriam because not forgiving her placed a greater burden on me than on her—and so it was widely supposed. Whether that was true, I still had a moral objection to forgiving someone who was not sorry for what they had done. To my mind, it was like forgiving a bank robber who regretted the loss and pain he had caused but still refused to give up his swag.
When I told the man beside me on the plane of my attitude, he was shocked and said: "I guess I am not that bitter."
I laughed incredulously. "You have spent an hour or two telling me how you feel about the limited access you have with your daughter. It's a bitter tale and I suspect it weighs on your mind often. Not me. I have told you my tale with an air of triumph. Yes, I am bitter about the way I was treated, but I cannot complain of the results of my response. Other than this talk with you, I hardly ever think about these people at all except when writing my quarterly emails,” which were now virtual form letters on which the only change I made was the date. "What's more, my solution, unlike yours, was refreshingly inexpensive," I told him.
"But they're your children," he and many others before and since have said. Apart from misgivings of not settling affairs with Joseph despite my efforts to make contact through his mother, I honestly didn't care. She was right in assuming, as I suspected myself, that it would result in much the same outcome as it did in the case of Hannah.
In the end, Joseph came to Hong Kong at my expense when he was 21 and we talked of many things. But after a cagey time of it, there was an impasse over something in which I was an immoral right-winger. He demanded to go home early and was taken to the airport, where he filmed me with his ubiquitous video camera in front of a number of waiting passengers, who served as an impromptu studio audience. He interviewed me in that ambushy way favoured by today's gotcha press.
Joseph asked whether I liked him, and I said: "Aspects."
After saying I liked his go-ahead confidence, he asked me if I loved him and I said: "No." That shocked him and the waiting passengers, who by now were fully aware of what was afoot and who was who. My answer took the wind out of his sails at a time when he thought he had me cornered with his gotcha question.
What really made it impossible to continue with even a friendly relationship after his otherwise uneventful departure was the later discovery of his and his sister's behaviour towards me in the course of his visit.
Before that, I was quite prepared to make a documentary of the miles of video footage he took of the many conversations we had, not to mention great Hong Kong scenes, which was about the only love we shared. The discovery came when he returned the cell phone we lent him, there to find a slew of mean-spirited text messages with his sister Hannah plotting how to get money out of me.
I have mentioned at length in previous chapters Sandra Pang, who was both friend and business associate. But after my brother's death from cancer in 2012, I saw little of her and Lamma Island, having moved to Hong Kong Island's Kennedy Town after a prolonged intense encounter with her in my brother Joel's final months fighting cancer. Contact seriously dried up with the Covid crisis and its unpleasant masked world.
Wee Bro died in the presence of Sandra, his wife Ginny, his daughter Jessie and me in hospital in San Jose. Jessie had phoned me at my office in Hong Kong, and I was on the next flight via Taipei to San Francisco. Ginny picked me up at the airport and drove me to the hospital about an hour away.
I had seen Joel in June, then a shrivelled old man. He was now a skeletal heap. Jessie said: "Christy's here," and Joel looked up from his almost fetal position. He smiled broadly and made an effort to shake hands, but his hand fell away in exhaustion. Thereafter he slept, or lost consciousness, occasionally thrashing at his bedclothes as if they were an irritation, occasionally erupting into incomprehensible speech, once saying life is a "mystery," though people around the bed took it as "misery." He said "mystery" more clearly, and I reflected that it was one of the few times we agreed on anything.
As I was on Hong Kong time, it made sense that I should do the night shift from about midnight till the next morning. Sandra was there too. Not much happened overnight. I tried talking to him, but as I only got grunts and thinking I was disturbing him, I stopped talking about his son Ted's impressive book, "Political Arithmetic," a biography of the father of demography, William Petty, which enjoyed rave reviews from historians. Joel hadn't read it yet, and I read two chapters as a sound file and sent it to him via email, hoping that he would be able to listen to it. But even that was too much of a slog, especially for a guy who had little background in Cromwellian and Restoration England and Ireland—and for me too, reading words like "corpuscularianism" (a precursor to atomic theory) that brought out my stammer in full force so that my reading was halting and hard to take. I talked about it instead, but that only brought on more irritated grunts.
Ginny and Jessie were back in the morning and another day was spent by his bedside, with me being taken away for a nap, gratefully received at this point. Again, the night shift and more of the same.
The next morning the doctor came in, a young Dr Liu from Hong Kong, accompanied by a Nurse Chang from Dalian, both with flawless American accents. The doctor said we were talking about days not weeks, and that the treatment was now entirely palliative. He was put on a morphine drip with remedial steroid injections being withdrawn.
Sandra still seemed to think that there was hope, repeating the last prognosis that he was supposed to decline more slowly, but then rise again once the whacks of radiation had passed. There was an emotional outburst at the news, but Ginny, Jessie and I seemed to have the same understanding of the situation. I felt close to my family at that moment. We were the no-fuss no-muss McCormicks, shorn of euphemism and false hope.
Joel's breathing became loud and laboured. I remember seeing Frances Goltman, the old Montreal Gazette chamber music critic, sounding much the same in the Royal Victoria Hospital just before she died. Joel on his side with his back to me and Sandra and Jessie on the other formed a teary tableau, Jessie sitting holding her father's hand with her other hand on his chest, tears all over her reddened face and with Sandra standing behind her, with a face swollen with days of constant weeping. I joined them for what I suspected was a last look, and the breathing became louder, almost wholly voluntary as if he would only breathe if his body demanded fresh air. I stood and watched from behind unable to get closer. Tears welled up in me and for the first time since childhood, I recited the Lord's Prayer.
Then Jessie said: "He's dead now." Ginny was by his side. I went to feel a pulse, but Ginny said, "He's quite cold now."
I closed his eyes with my thumbs. But one popped open again as if he did not wish to miss anything. I looked at the grey eye completely glazed over. Wee Bro was no more.
Sometime before that, in 2006, I was taking the Lamma ferry to Hong Kong Island. On the pier I had spotted someone who I thought was an Indian or Spanish girl. While she was pretty enough, what struck me more was that she was tastefully dressed. So I sat down beside her and started a conversation for the half hour trip to Hong Kong Island. She turned out to be a Filipina, and I told her about my job opportunity with the Shipping Gazette and that I was going to the interview. Liza told me she was a committed Christian, a Baptist I later found out. I even went to her church and met and befriended and was favourably impressed with her pastor.
On our brief ocean voyage, she questioned me about God. I said I gravitated towards good, which I thought of as God, and shunned evil, which I thought of as the devil. This was about as close to God as I could get. This did not satisfy her, and we parted at the ferry terminal. Not that I worried much. As she was a Lamma person, I would catch up with her sooner or later as everyone else did on Lamma, Hong Kong's southernmost island of substance.
After a day or two of keeping my eyes open, it occurred to me that this was the first time I was pursuing a girl. Usually they pursued me. This was the first one I wanted. And wanted for no reason other than a feeling she was right. I realised that she was a devout Christian, but I had been with so many leftists, animal rightists and feminists, at times two- or three-in-one combinations.
While I could take the animal rights in small doses, it became difficult when the girl was madly committed and begrudged me my Sausage Egg McMuffin, which I had long regarded as the diamond of McDonald's culinary art. Leftist-feminists were ubiquitous; there was hardly a woman that wasn't.
So I was willing to give Christianity a go. After all, it was something I grew up with, always ending a job well done on my part by saying "I did my duty for God and the Queen," the old Boy Scout mantra.
But in one respect, these comforting assurances contained a false assumption. She was not a Lamma person, but an occasional Lamma visitor. Even that was not discovered for a month or two of searching in vain. I could not find her anywhere or anyone who had heard of her on Lamma, and at last gave up.
But one day, as I waited for the Lamma ferry to cast off from the Hong Kong Island pier, I was leaning on a pillar reading the late, and much lamented, International Herald Tribune. She tapped me on the shoulder, paused to smile but quickly walked on, soon to get lost in the throng boarding the ferry. I lost sight of her, but not for long. As I saw her, beaming that wonderful smile, she indicated there was a vacant seat next to her. In the 15 years since, I don't think we have ever not known when we would next see each other.
Apart from the passive-aggressive atmosphere in the editorial department—with the exception of Henry Leung, with whom I had no quarrel—my situation as editor of the Hong Kong Shipping Gazette was something like my time at Euromoney, except in reverse.
Twenty years earlier in London, I greatly admired the staff, even though I experienced the new and unpleasant feeling of being the intellectual inferior to all but two of my colleagues. While I liked all of them, and they liked me, I hated the work. I could not rouse the slightest interest in floating rate notes and how much above or below Libor (London interbank offer rate) a sovereign borrowing was.
At the Shipping Gazette, I was disappointed in the people, and they disliked me, yet the work was fascinating.
Casey Seaton, (aka McSkiver) had the intellectual equipment, and I had to admit that he knew more about national flags than I did, owing to his interest in sports. But not one of them knew how locks worked in the functioning of canals, which was relevant at the time because there was talk about expanding the Panama Canal. More depressing still was that they did not care.
I naively thought I could do more than I actually could, though that realisation did not come for years. Shipping had changed so much since the 1970s, when I only knew transatlantic general cargo traffic and bulk cargo on the transpacific. Now my sphere was truly global. The only thing I had was my universal faith in cost cutting and that land transit was far more expensive than shipping at sea.
I had no problem getting the boss to agree with my wastage reduction schemes. I saw no need to have Chinese staff reports rewritten into proper news style, as I could see from their good command of English that this was a matter of training. The boss had no trouble with my going to Shenzhen to retrain the mainland crew. In fact, when I wistfully recalled my happy days in Wuhan, he even suggested I live in Shenzhen if I found the prospect agreeable.
Going to Shenzhen was a bigger deal than what I remember going to Wuhan. It reminded me of Cold War Berlin. Having arrived at Luo Wu station, I began the long trudge through a wide tunnel-like viaduct with hundreds of others, encountering a similar throng trudging in the other direction back to Hong Kong. We queued for Hong Kong immigration, where passports were stamped. Then we crossed Sham Chun River though another enclosed tunnel-like viaduct with windows looking on the river, a seemingly stagnant stream 30 yards wide.
Next we encountered unarmed police, either old men or youngish women sitting on high stools in front of elevated lecterns, passively observing the constant flow of pedestrians dragging bags. Then came a fenced-off electronic baggage scan section, which in my experience always seemed perfunctory to the point of lackadaisical, with several police lolling about at or on desks as we trickled by.
The only slowdown was passport control, where one had to fill out a form stating the reason for the visit, the destination and, for overnight stays, one's place of residence. Each foreigner's papers were carefully examined not only for a current visa, but also to check visas for other places and dates. One dreaded getting behind a Muslim extended family.
Once through, there was a labyrinth of shops, and pretty, importuning girls emerging port and starboard selling Viagra, women's handbags, toys and gadgets, or smiling men behind counters selling booze. At last, free of this maze, we burst into the sunlight to be assailed by touts selling taxi services into town.
I had written instructions of what to do, with a card in Chinese to show the driver where I wanted to go. One first faced a broad concourse 50 yards wide and several hundred yards long with a mass of high-rise buildings in the distance. These were massive blocks, not at all like slim Hong Kong high-rises that look like patches of asparagus.
The huge open concourse was speckled with people, nothing like the density in Hong Kong. Some looked homeless, wandering aimlessly, or sitting or lying on bench-like concrete slabs set in rectangles at intervals.
There were shabby police golf-cart-like vehicles that were motionless, though one would spot clumps of police, with black and white checkered cap bands like the Chicago or Scottish cops. They appeared to be going somewhere as they walked briskly, taking no notice of their surroundings.
To get to taxis and buses as the pictogram signs indicated, I took an escalator down to a similar concourse—this one without the homeless and including shops. Here I spotted a 7-Eleven store, with the same sign as the ones in Hong Kong. But beyond that it was nothing like Hong Kong's, and what it did have was unappetising.
I had to queue for a taxi, but they came thick and fast. The driver had a smaller car than the Toyota Crown Comforts in Hong Kong. But it was a late model—they all were— unlike the Wuhan taxis, which were old, small, battered Citroens. The driver had no trouble with the Chinese on the card I gave him. He soon got me to a rundown high-rise office block in what I was told was Shenzhen's "old downtown," not 10 minutes from the railway station.
It was early so there was no need to enter. I instinctively looked behind the building and adjacent ones, hoping to find China's wonderful backstreet eats that so sustained me in Wuhan: noodles, dumplings and heaps of fried rice from street braziers cooked on old oil drums burning bits of coal and yesterday's used chopsticks. I found one such vendor, with inferior dumplings—of course everything was inferior to Wuhan, which served food on a par with Montreal's in my estimation. But I was pleased to find something edible in an unlikely non-residential area, as I was still considering whether I could live in Shenzhen.
At last, it was time to go into the shabby building with its absolutely disgusting communal toilets in the Parisian style open-porcelain pit. I was to contact Wendy Yun, the senior editorial staffer at the time. At first there was a bit of confusion as no one knew me, but soon Wendy arrived.
Wendy Yun was to be the closest thing to a professional soulmate I would have, though I came to appreciate that only years later. She was a plainly dressed, severe woman, though not unattractive, in her late 20s. I was quick to learn she was the leader of the two males who were there, soon to be reduced to one as HKSG entered its first stages of decline.
I also discovered to my great pleasure that I had my own windowed private office, another reason to look well on the prospect of permanent residence. What I did was receive their stories and sit down with them individually. Wendy caught on in a flash. The guys, whose faces and names I forget, were slower to catch on but did not take long. Unlike the Hong Kong staff, foot-draggers all, these guys were ready and willing and soon able to do the job.
What made Wendy special was her personal fascination with the least important trade—intra-Asia—and the role and potential of the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) trading bloc.
I remembered my old flat mate Steve did a paper at university on ASEAN, and he trumpeted its virtues loud and long, but that was the extent of my knowledge and interest. Wendy and I were a bit like Manchester United and Arsenal football fans, with me developing an enthusiasm for the US East Coast all-water route via Panama. I may have dismissed—albeit gently—her intra-Asian enthusiasm as being 90 per cent dependent on its China component, but I was plainly delighted that at long last someone was interested in the game being played.
I went up a month or two later for another session, and that ended any thought of moving to Shenzhen. I confess to being deeply disappointed. My Chinese studies would have taken a serious turn as what Mandarin I had learned could be used, and I loved the prospect of working with Wendy and her boys. I was already joking to friends in Hong Kong that Wendy and I would one day rule the world.
What ended such hopes of moving to Shenzhen was its restricted internet access. Whatever one wanted, and we wanted lots over short spans of time, took forever to retrieve, if it could be retrieved at all. Sometimes it came up quickly, sometimes it would come up after a minute or three. It was if one's request had to go through a hierarchy of approvers, and if four minutes had passed a still higher ranked approver was needed.
All this was alien to me. Of course, it was not as free and efficient as Hong Kong. Nothing was—not Canada, not the US, not the UK. But Shenzhen's internet was far worse than in Wuhan, deep in central China as it was. Of course, this was long before the authoritarian, if not totalitarian, rule of Xi Jinping came to pass after 2013.
Perhaps because Wuhan was the educational centre for three surrounding provinces, its internet was relatively free of interference. One could not get the tendentious Wikipedia entry on the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy riot, but that was about it. True, my brother complained of blockages in Shanghai, but they were occasional.
There were other blockages in Wuhan no doubt, but I got the BBC and Western media outlets easily enough. I was also feeding my legislativenews.com site at the time and had no trouble getting to the legislative proceedings of Canada, Australia, the UK and the US. So Shenzhen was out.
As mentioned, I was fast becoming a fan of the recently touted Asia-US East Coast route via Panama. I was easily sold when an ex-Montrealer, Tom Wheeler from the Georgia Port Authority, came to sell it to Hong Kong's shipping community. But the boss wasn't much impressed. It was becoming clear that he wasn't interested in any idea unless it came from someone important or was a currently fashionable talking point in the industry.
Ron Widdows, a shipping Hall of Famer, was president of APL (once known as American President Lines), then owned by Singapore's Neptune Orient Lines, later bought by French shipping giant CMA CGM. When he fretted about a possible cargo jam-up at Los Angeles and Long Beach, we all got to grieving about that. To avoid this, Widdows was big on the coming development at Lazaro Cardenas, down the west coast of Mexico. It was 400 miles from Mexico City and 300 miles from Guadalajara, a fact that may have saved its bacon as Plan B, when Plan A didn't work. Hong Kong's Hutchison Ports would open the terminal, so that was another point of HKSG interest, which was fair enough.
Widdows reasoned that a major port at Lazaro Cardenas would relieve the pressure on LA-Long Beach when the crunch came. The idea was that the Kansas City Southern Railway would bypass the LA-Long Beach bottlenecks and take the boxes north as far Chicago for Midwest dispersal. Trouble was, the crunch never came.
The looming threat to the West Coast ports was not an overabundance of cargo, but a drain from north and south. Facts showed that 95 per cent of Vancouver's imports were Canada-bound and did not affect US volumes. Of course, that was not true of tiny Prince Rupert, 450 miles north, with its small, busy port and its obstruction-free Canadian National Railway line to Chicago, delivering boxes for Windy City dispersal three days faster than LA-Long Beach could. That hurt.
But not LA or Long Beach so much. Damage was done to Seattle, Tacoma and Portland, Oregon, trade and to a lesser extent Oakland, serving the San Francisco Bay area. But the Canada diversion was nothing compared to the drain of the "all water route" via Panama. And that threat would grow much bigger after the canal was expanded in 2016 to transit 13,000-TEU ships compared to the 4,500-TEUers it could accommodate before.
California's traditional role as Asia's gateway to the whole of America by rail and road was at risk. That's because a single highly paid American trucker must drive a single container from LA to Philly, while 20 lowly-paid Ukrainian or Filipino sailors on a 10,000-TEU ship move 250 containers from Hong Kong to Savannah. Trains were cheaper than trucks over the long haul, but eventually a truck gets into the picture from the railyards to the consignee's loading bay, involving another costly intermodal transfer.
So went the argument from the Port of Savannah which, unlike West Coast ports, boasted a balanced trade; that is, it had many high-value laden export boxes as well as import boxes. From the West Coast, what few laden export boxes there were, were filled with waste paper and discarded PCs, laptops and mobile phones from which affordable Asian labour could profitably extract bits and pieces to recycle. Leftist environmental lobbies, chiefly BAN (Basel Action Network), pressured governments to bring this trade to an end and eventually did.
But my big cause until then was having Asia-Europe ships discharge cargo and turn around in the Mediterranean rather than circumnavigate the Iberian Peninsula and cross the Bay of Biscay to serve the UK-North Continent via the English Channel. When I first arrived in Hong Kong, I had dismissed this suggestion at a press conference when the Port of Barcelona was promoting such a scheme. But that was in 2000, when European and Spanish railway gauges were different, requiring intermodal transfers from one railway to another, which made the idea uneconomical. What's more, Barcelona and Spain as a whole were less than optimal locations for Med-turnarounds, being too far west. There were no serious consumer-rich population centres other than Barcelona, Madrid and Valencia.
Better by far would be ports near Genoa like La Spezia, nearer the French-Italian border with easy road and rail access to Marseilles, Lyon, Geneva, Turin and Milan. Even ports around Venice, like Trieste on the other side of the Italian boot, had Vienna and Budapest within reach.
It wasn't long before I discovered my error, why most shipping kept faith with the “Blue Banana.” This was a highly urbanised area over western and central Europe, with a population of 11 million, stretching from northwest England to northern Italy.
Still, a turnaround in the Med would save ships the expense of that Iberian circumnavigation. Road and rail facilities were good from La Spezia, dredged to 55 feet alongside to take all but the biggest ships afloat. My idea had more and more merit as time went on.
Returning to the Savannah argument, its most compelling point involved drawing a curved line from Chicago to New Orleans with a westward bulge to take in St Louis and Dallas. If one casts an eye eastward, one finds a consumer-rich hinterland with almost a "Blue Banana" density as it thickens up east of the Mississippi Valley.
But looking west of that line one finds vast, sparsely populated badlands with few urban centres beyond Phoenix, Arizona and Las Vegas, Nevada, which are almost local delivery from California.
Thus, taking a truck eastward across most of the Lower 48, one encounters the roughest, most mountainous and dangerous terrain from the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the eastern edge of the Rockies at Denver 1,000 miles way.
And after those 1,000 miles, it's still a long way before cargo gets to where it wants to go. The Port of Savannah thought it had a monopoly on "their" all-water route via Panama. That's because they had fought 13 years to develop it, fighting environmentalists in fierce court battles, as greenies questioned the dire fate of every catfish and fruit fly that would be affected. The Georgia Port Authority confidently held that it would take rival ports even longer to tread the same litigious road, so the market would be Savannah's for a long time.
But the Georgia Port Authority was wrong, like a big brother who wins a later bedtime from parents after a hard fight only to see younger brothers win the same bedtime automatically. And now, boosted by TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grants from the Democratic Obama administration, rival ports like Charleston, South Carolina, were offering the same thing, as was Jacksonville, Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Tampa in Florida.
Big beneficiaries were the southern union-free right-to-work states. Not only did they boast butter-smooth roads and solid railway—Norfolk Southern and CSX—they were able to fan out, providing three-day delivery in a 1,000-mile radius.
These ports also exported poultry and forest products to Asia. Of course, when the Panama Canal more than doubled its capacity in 2016, LA-Long Beach continued to grow as global volumes increased, but the cargo drain was felt in northern US ports--Seattle, Tacoma, Portland and Oakland—with Canada's ports of Vancouver and Prince Rupert continuing to prosper.
With oil prices going up and down drastically, there were times when "slow steaming" was in vogue to save fuel, and other times when the price dropped. When it was high, sometimes the bureaucrats felt it was impossible to impose clean low-sulphur fuel rules that would inadvertently price certain trades out of business. Then, as if by magic, the price fell in 2014 because of the US shale revolution, so what looked catastrophic was no longer so.
Before the fall, there was consternation in Gothenburg, Sweden's principal port on the Atlantic. The EU had demanded costly low-sulphur fuel use on the Baltic, which would end voyages to northern sawmills to collect cut lumber to be shipped back to Ikea's works in Gothenburg.
The problem was that the ships had no cargo to bring to the rough and ready sawmills, that would justify burning pricy low-sulphur fuel to take out cheap lumber south. But as I said, oil prices fell like magic.
By 2015, there was also talk of developing a Northern Sea Route over Russia, a waterway beloved of its Russian proponents and starry-eyed environmentalists. Rather like wind and solar power, it depended on warmer weather and was only conducive to shipping for a three- to four-month summer navigation season, with ships having to be rescued by icebreakers from time to time, adding to the cost.
Maersk tested the route but said no after the voyage of the 3,500-TEU Venta Maersk in 2018. Still, it enjoyed some success with ice-strengthened bulk ships, mostly gas tankers, servicing the Yamal Peninsula's natural gas fields in western Siberia, which was more reliably served by a pipeline to Germany. So now we were talking about a comparatively short 900-mile Yamal-Murmansk run rather than the 4,500 miles from Yamal to Vladivostok, the first substantial port to the east. This far more arduous eastern passage involves the circumnavigation of the Taymyr Peninsula, the northernmost land in Eurasia, whose coastal islands nearly touch the North Pole. Global warming will have to get cracking if anything more is to come of the Russian route.
A less perceptible but more profitable development was "wayporting." That is, having the mega ships too big to dock at shallow East Coast US ports transfer boxes bound for American harbours to smaller ships needing less water depth. Big ships would drop boxes off at "wayports" along the Asia-Europe trade lane and continue to the deep-water ports of Le Havre, Antwerp, Rotterdam and Hamburg as well as Felixstowe and Southampton. This did not exist when I joined HKSG in 2006. But by 2012, there was greater cargo volume seeking an all-water route to the consumer-rich US Eastern seaboard via Suez.
At first, volumes were small. Singapore, the first wayport, exported little of its own manufacture but handled volumes of US- and European-bound goods to and from neighbouring Malaysia and Indonesia, whose port and transport facilities were second-rate. While Singapore was efficient, it was not cheap. Nor was it located optimally to benefit from the full potential of westbound transshipments.
One of the biggest operations of this nature was at the Port of Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital, whose operation was bought and paid for by Chinese state-owned interests—a fact that made India antsy militarily. Colombo's big advantage was its proximity to the manufacturing output of India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, cursed as their harbours were with less than 11 metres of water compared to Colombo’s 15 metres. Colombo's other trump card was its location hard by the main Asia-Europe trade lane.
Colombo could also accept boxes from mega ships, some of whose cargo was bound for Karachi, Chennai, Mumbai, Calcutta, Chittagong and many other smaller but still substantial feedership-fed ports with shallow harbours typical of the subcontinent.
It's important to keep in mind that people we regard as impoverished third-worlders have been getting richer. Global poverty rates had been cut by more than half since 2000. Which means, from a capitalist point of view, these people, including those in sub-Saharan Africa, are a rapidly growing consumer market.
There were other ports along the way that were favoured by various carriers because they either owned or had alliances with the terminal operators that ran them.
Harbours that doubled as wayports are scattered throughout the Med. There is the Chinese-owned Greek Port of Piraeus near Athens; at the other end of the Med, the Spanish ports of Valencia, Barcelona and Algeciras; and across the Strait of Gibraltar the port of Tangiers in Morocco.
At the same time, American federal TIGER grants authorised dredging, which environmentalists thought they were unlikely to prevent after their Savannah defeat following 13 years of litigation. With the Obama administration in the saddle, and those East Coast ports reliably voting Democrat, dredging was approved and funded up and down the Dixie shore.
These ports were dredged to 13 metres, now that 13,000-TEU ships started to arrive via Panama after the 2016 canal expansion. While this has diminished wayporting’s role, it still has its uses, especially when new mega ships, now in the 24,000-TEU range, needed 15 or 16 metres alongside.
As ships got bigger, they were starting to be more trouble than they were worth, dumping 10,000 containers on a port within a day or two, resulting in slowdowns that erased financial gains made by the economies of scale elsewhere. Invariably, the box a trucker wanted to pick up was at the bottom of the stack that was hardest to reach. Imagine 1,000 taxis arriving at an airport to pick up 1,000 passengers, but not just any passenger—only the one each taxi was assigned to collect.
The next major development was the sudden acceleration of mergers and acquisitions in ocean shipping. It was truly dizzying. Already, there was not a company name I recognised from my 1970s waterfront days in Montreal and Vancouver. Long gone were those 19th-century shipping giants like Manchester Liners, which put the first containerships into Montreal.
The biggest container shipping line, Denmark's Maersk, bought Safmarine Container Lines, P&O Nedlloyd, Sea-land (the first container line founded by Malcolm McLean), Hamburg Sud and European short-sea carriers like Seago and MCC.
Curiously, the No. 2 line, the Italian-Swiss Geneva-based MSC (Mediterranean Shipping Company) has not been an M&A player. It is still family owned and not listed, therefore it need not reveal its activities to the extent listed carriers do. Yet MSC has kept pace by growing organically, that is, increasing the size of its fleet through the purchase of ships or through charters.
No. 3 is CMA CGM, the Marseilles-based French shipping giant of Lebanese origin (Lebanon being a former French colony), which, having purchased Australian National Lines (ANL) and Delmas Shipping, bought Singapore's NOL (Neptune Orient Lines) and its major holding, the container line APL, formerly known as American President Lines.
Germany's Hapag-Lloyd has been active too. It bought CP Ships Limited as well as Chile's Compania Sud Americana de Vapores (CSAV), and in a surprise move acquired United Arab Shipping Company (UASC) and NileDutch Transport & Shipping.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of all was the orchestral manoeuvres in the dark that seem to be the hallmark of Korea, always atop the world's inscrutability league tables. Hanjin Shipping, by all appearances the top dog in South Korea's shipping world, suddenly ran into trouble with its lenders, and next we heard in 2017, it was bankrupt.
Suddenly, its weak sister who all thought ready for the chop, Hyundai Merchant Marine, henceforth determinedly refashioned as "HMM," took over as the country's flag carrier in a near seamless move.
Not far down the inscrutability league tables was Japan, which pulled off a surprise move of its own. Its big three shipping giants, MOL (Mitsui OSL Lines), NYK (Nippon Yusen Kabushiki Kaisha) and "K" Line (Kawasaki Kisen Kaisha), decided in 2017 to unite their container operations into single company called Ocean Network Express, undoubtedly so named to create the catchier acronym "ONE" that is highlighted on all their brightly coloured magenta boxes. They also moved out of Tokyo and based themselves in Singapore.
Cosco (China Ocean Shipping Company) was also active, taking over state-owned China Shipping Container Line in 2016 and then Hong Kong's OOCL in 2018.
Little has been said of African and South American trade; their prospects have brightened in recent decades. Prosperity is driven by the rise of incomes worldwide, and the greater use of refrigeration, or reefer, cargo that has made manufactures and commodities cheaper and more widely available.
Always there is change, and what was true yesterday is no longer true today. After World War II, short-sea banana boats, the first early Caribbean island-hopping cruise ships, were replaced by purpose-built long range reefer ships capable of delivering fresh fruit to Europe.
In the 1990s, new refrigerated containers rolled out, with carbon dioxide and oxygen sensors that can balance the amount of the two gases to slow fruit ripening. After 2000, large-hold reefer ships began to disappear, replaced by containerships with reefer plugs. This allowed a wider dispersal of refrigerated product more cheaply and thus more profitably.
This widened trading opportunities for Latin America. East African horticulturalists developed a thriving European market in cut flowers. South Africa reefer exports consisted mostly of citrus and deciduous fruit.
South America has a significant share of global reefer trade, accounting for 30 per cent of global cool/cold chain exports by volume. The main exports from its west coast are bananas, grapes, fresh and frozen fish, tropical fruit, crustaceans and mollusks. The east coast recorded the highest reefer export. Export volumes were the same for the two, but values from the east coast were 40 per cent higher, mainly because of the meat from Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay.
Export destinations for South American reefer exports are mostly northern European. On the west coast, Peru and Ecuador rely mainly on the European market. Fifty per cent of reefer exports from these countries are to Europe. Chile’s main export destination is Asia and it has the highest South American share.
At the Shipping Gazette, we stuck to containers. The one exception was marine casualties that befell a non-containership but might well befall containerships. They include war risk, collisions, oil spills—and pirates.
The most talked about between 2008 and 2012 were Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden. For the most part containerships were not much bothered because they had speed, high freeboard (that is, lots of hull space) and stacks of weather deck containers that pirates had to surmount when boarding from small speedy skiffs launched from substantial fishing boats called motherships.
One exception was the tiny US-flagged 1,100-TEU Maersk Alabama. This was an oddity in the containership world when it was captured by Somali pirates, but it was soon rescued after US Navy Seal snipers killed three pirates from the fantail of the destroyer USS Bainbridge.
The Maersk Alabama was an odd duck for several reasons. First, Maersk's big ships fly the flags of Hong Kong, Brazil, Netherlands and Singapore as a rule. There are very few US-flagged containerships because one must hire expensive American sailors to man them and comply with fussy US Jones Act rules. But Maersk finds it profitable to operate a small AP Moller Maersk subsidiary called Maersk Line, Limited, USA, to access foreign aid shipments that must be shipped in US-flagged and crewed American bottoms. There isn't much cargo of this nature, hence the Maersk Alabama was a diminutive size and could do only 18 knots, making it vulnerable to pirates. Most containerships can do 24 knots.
But once the US and the European powers sent out task forces and showed a willingness to kill pirates without compunction, the problem disappeared. This was debated by the "pirates-are-people-too" party amid spasms of pearl-clutching fuss-pottery, with people insisting on stringing 200 to 300 yards of razor wire along the gunwales of low and slow bulkers and tankers, and/or directing completely ineffective sound guns to drive them off or having crews huddle in "citadel" panic rooms and await rescue.
The idea of having armed guards aboard—even training the crew to defend the ship—was anathema to officials and shipping executives. But when Anglo Eastern, a Hong Kong ship management company, had a crew kidnapped and had to pay a US$7 million ransom to get them home, they put armed guards aboard and were spared further trouble.
While there has been piracy in the Malacca Straits off Singapore for decades, joint patrols between Malaysia and Indonesia and Singapore have largely suppressed it. And once naval patrols started to function and armed guards showed a willingness to kill pirates, maritime piracy lost its charm for its perpetrators. It has been rekindled in West African off Nigeria, where measures to suppress it have been clearly inadequate, though at the same time it is petty compared to what went on before.
These trends, particularly the M&A activity, have meant greater consolidation and less competition in the industry worldwide. The internet’s various applications combined with the growth and size of forwarders, now largely indistinguishable from integrators (express delivery companies like FedEx and DHL), have diminished the need for the shipping press and, from the shipping community's point of view, the need to advertise.
Just as the banana boat gave way to the reefer ship, which in turn gave way to the reefer container, the shipping press, once confined to the daily newspaper in the age of the breakbulk freighter, gave way to the specialist journal such as the Shipping Gazette. So too did that stage of development end, no longer needed on the voyage.
When I was at Concordia University in Montreal editing the university administration newspaper, "Issues & Events," I realised that such publications ranged across campuses in the 1970s because student newspapers had become so hostile to administrations that administrators published their own. I could see that function would no longer obtain when student hostility waned.
What useful role could such publications play when their reason for being no longer existed? The answer I came up with then might well serve now. Experts are laymen in fields not their own. A supply chain journal might be used to tell one expert of developments in a different but related field, as well as to keep all abreast of industry news in general.
I did suggest something of this nature, even gave it a catchy name—“D2D,” door to door—but the boss looked at me incredulously and I don't think he even replied. I saw his green book, "The Container Shipping Manager," faltering with little hope of success. He was attempting a company action with an infantry section. And not a very good section at that.
My new sources of advertising would be regulatory agencies. It was clear that very few companies needed to advertise and only did so to keep their names at the very, very top. Or newcomers or new service providers could advertise to make a debut, after which they would disappear.
Rather than fighting back, the HK Shipping Gazette cut back every time revenue shrunk. Given the state of affairs, I cannot say positively that that wasn't the best option.
I now fall back on my own personal rearguard action I call "Operation Bren Gun." It's a Canadian army trick—and we came up with lots of them—using the Bren light machine gun to make a force seem larger to an enemy than it is, like an infantry section if not a platoon. One appears to have both a machine gun and several rifles, using interchangeable Bren gun barrels. One can more easily maintain a presence than one could with, for example, a BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle), as it has no interchangeable barrels and with its much higher rate of fire would overheat and jam.
In this way, I managed to make HKSG appear much bigger than it really was. But it can't go on much longer unless there is a change in strategy, which I have at last come to realise is well above my pay grade.
Little did I know it, but the Hong Kong Shipping Gazette was to begin a period of steady decline from the date of my arrival. To be fair, the shrinkage was general throughout the worldwide shipping press. And to HKSG's credit, we were one of the few to survive. While still shrinking in 2021, at the time of writing, we were yet among the few left standing. Long gone is Cargo News Asia; Lloyd's List closed its Hong Kong office; London's International Freighting Weekly and Containerisation International have disappeared. Then American Shipper and many others folded, with a number of air freight publications.
I have blamed our inability to take timely advantage of exploitable trends, but this fault also resulted in our virtuous behavior of not living beyond our means and keeping steady while others invested in costly innovations that didn't work out. So while I might have been right in my criticism, I just as well might have been wrong.
Looking back through the retrospectoscope, I attribute the decline to change in the ever-changing industry. When I started on the Montreal waterfront in 1968, most everything that made money in shipping consumer goods, termed general cargo, flowed across the Atlantic between Europe and North America. The transpacific shipping world was small beer. Yes, the Japanese had triumphed over Germany in cameras and were making serious moves in the area of photocopiers and cars, but nothing like the volumes that were to come in the '70s and '80s. Taiwan and Hong Kong were doing a brisk but small trade in plastic flowers and toys, while Korea was exporting textiles and plywood model airplanes.
When working at the Vancouver Sun, I remember an importer who was importing facecloths from China in the early '70s. These he discarded or gave away to all who would have them, because what interested him were the handsome, well-crafted wooden boxes in which they were packed.
The biggest trade back then wasn't really trade at all: it was the supply of materiel to the war in Vietnam. Despite its one-way nature, it nonetheless introduced the container revolution to Asia, resulting in a comedy of errors starting with the Pentagon's failure to appreciate the true nature of what was to come.
SeaLand Corporation, long since a Maersk subsidiary, started the container revolution as we know it. SeaLand's founding owner, Malcom McLean, found the Pentagon receptive to containerisation as a vast improvement over costly, dangerous and theft-prone breakbulk shipping—that is, bunging smaller cubic-metre boxes of everything from boots to bombs into nets, hoisting them with deck and shore cranes, then taking these boxes from the nets and stowing them helter-skelter anywhere one could find space in the hold.
Breakbulk dominated shipping into the '70s and '80s, and loading and unloading were labour-intensive at a rate of 20 tons an hour. Containerisation increased that rate to 20 tons every three minutes. And that pleased the military.
Because there was no expected backhaul cargo to fill ships from Vietnam to California, the Pentagon cheerfully paid for the return trip as well. But SeaLand was quick to discover that Asia was rich with eastbound transpacific cargo. True, Vietnam had little to export, but not so Hong Kong, the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Korea and Japan, which had, jointly and severally, lots: rattan furniture, toys, tin whistles, plastic flowers, model airplanes and soon cameras, cars and photocopiers. Nothing like the volumes of recent years, but more than enough to fill home-bound returning boxes in SeaLand ships.
Alarmed to see their rapidly growing exports leaving in modern American containerships, the Japanese impetuously launched a massive shipbuilding programme of their own. Japan was feeling its oats back then, having already become the world's biggest shipbuilder. Its supertankers were rounding South Africa's Cape of Good Hope in response to the eight-year 1967-1975 closure of the Suez Canal after Egypt's defeat in the Six-Day War.
But they failed to appreciate that the backhaul was all there was, because westbound containerised headhaul was entirely war materiel.
What made this part of a comedy of errors was that the once lucrative westbound trade ended with the American defeat in Vietnam in 1975. After that, there was almost no headhaul to speak of. In fact, backhaul became headhaul and would be an enduring feature of transpacific trade for decades to come.
While the North American West Coast had lots to export, it was almost all non-containerable bulk—potash, wheat, copper ore, wood pulp, lumber, petroleum products. Most of which could be thrown together more cheaply in an open hold and not put in separate containers. While some of it—logs, lumber and distillers grain—has been containerised since, westbound freight rates were depressed because there was so little cargo to take back to Asia.
In the end, Japan had to send spanking new containerships to retrieve the contents of rapidly filling container yards, only to return with shiploads of empty boxes. Similar stories were told from Vancouver to Los Angeles.
Yet much was to change with the arrival of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping and his "opening up" of China, which started with designation of an area adjacent to Hong Kong as the "Shekou Industrial Zone of Shenzhen." Both its border with Hong Kong and barbed wire strung around it kept out the non-participating Red Chinese most anxious to get in. This would be a zone operated under special rules from 1978, in which free markets could operate. My brother Joel came here in 1985 to find it a village with a few highrises. Today, it is a huge conurbation larger than Hong Kong itself.
In the shipping press there came a revolution as profound as the one that hit shipping. And what happened in Hong Kong happened in Montreal and elsewhere.
Typically, the morning daily newspaper carried shipping pages Mondays and Wednesdays, just as HKSG did. Apart from shipping news, there was advertising from shipping agents listing vessels’ comings and goings as they lingered hopefully for two to three weeks, waiting for cargo going to their destinations. A clothing manufacturer in Montreal or a plastic flower maker in Hong Kong would call an agent, book passage on a ship listed in the newspaper, and call his trucker, who then took his consignment to the pier where the ship was docked. At which point dockers loaded it on the ship and stowed it where they could.
What changed in maritime publishing had little to do with containerisation. Instead, the cause was a simultaneous upheaval in all publishing, which occasioned printer's strikes the world over. This was the advent of "cold type," or "offset printing," which meant it was no longer necessary to have a large publishing house to produce a big publication. Four-colour printing was no longer the big deal it had been. There was no longer any need for linotype machines, scores of compositors and pressmen. No need for turtles, stones, phorms, galleys, mat making, page proofs, stereotypes, plate making photoengravers, stereotype departments, liquefied molten lead and zinc bubbling away in fiery cauldrons in dark satanic back shops with hell boxes scattered hither and yon. Apart from dropping this needless drama, publishing no longer faced the enormous expense of these things.
But the changes were not brought about without furious and often violent opposition from the powerful International Typographical Union and the International Printing Pressmen and Assistants' Union, who wanted to keep things exactly the way they were.
Resulting strikes in the 1970s caused newspaper closures, among them the Toronto Telegram, the Ottawa Journal, the Winnipeg Tribune and even the once mighty Montreal Star. It also ended London's Fleet Street role as a world centre of journalism, because unbreakable union contracts specifically covered the street and its precincts. In response, the British national press re-established itself beyond these contractual clutches, miles downstream on the River Thames at the Isle of Dogs, Canary Wharf and Canada Water in the London docklands, now largely abandoned as new containerships, in a completely unrelated move, sought berthing facilities far away from these densely populated areas.
Again, this was a worldwide trend, as New York abandoned the finger piers that ringed Manhattan for the long-neglected shores of New Jersey, with its quick road and rail access.
While legacy, or established, print media was constrained by union contracts to provide jobs for life for those who did little or nothing in exchange for guaranteeing labour peace, new publications that had no history with print and press unions were exempt. Equipped with new, simpler "cold type" technology, these publishers could produce sizable publications with a fraction of the space needed and at a fraction of the cost. What's more, hot type demanded a range of skills that cold type did not. Anyone who could type could produce a camera-ready page for publication. That meant the desktop labour of a journalist and an editor was all a publisher needed before he was ready for the printing press, typically run by another company that employed three men during a single press run, as end-product technology had been similarly modernised and minimised.
In a very short time, these publications scooped up all the sailings advertisements from the daily newspapers, which had had them for more than a century, and produced them far more cheaply than before.
What's more, with containerisation steadily displacing breakbulk cargo handling, it became outmoded for shippers, aka "beneficial cargo owners" or BCOs, to wrestle with different and independent parties on the waterfront. It was better to call a freight forwarder who would do it all. A forwarder, often called an integrator or an NVOCC (non-vessel owning common carrier), might have a lot of cargo going to one place, and with that greater volume could secure better rates than an individual shipper with a single consignment. Soon this practice became general throughout the industry.
This was accompanied by the appearance of publications like Vancouver's Canadian Forwarder, Montreal's Canadian Sailings and HK's Hong Kong Shipping Gazette.
I had now re-entered a much-changed world than the one I left in the 1970s. And as what I described above took place, the new world was itself changed as manufacturing decamped from North America and Europe to Asia, mostly China. When I joined the Hong Kong Shipping Gazette in 2006, China-US West Coast trade was the big thing. Next came Asia-Europe trade that was creeping up fast to rival then eclipse it by volume and value. There was also the much smaller intra-Asia trade, which all agreed was promising but hadn't yet shown much clout.
Players had changed too. Copenhagen-based Maersk was now the biggest shipping line, with the Swiss-Italian Mediterranean Shipping Co (MSC) of Geneva in second place and Marseilles-based CMA CGM (Compagnie Maritime d'Affrètement and Compagnie Générale Maritime), with its deep familial links to Christian Lebanon, making up the big three. Then came Germany's Hapag-Lloyd (Hamburg-Amerikanische Packetfahrt-Aktien-Gesellschaft and Norddeutscher Lloyd), China's Cosco (China Ocean Shipping Company), Hong Kong's own Orient Overseas Container Line (OOCL) and dozens more.
Learning what I could about my maritime world absorbed my thoughts. But at the office I found that no one but myself was interested in shipping. It was just a job to them. The most useful was Henry Leung, as he knew something about the actual Hong Kong waterfront, how the river trade worked with barges loading and unloading ships from lighters, and we could talk about it. The editor, Dave Friedenrich, was on a work-to-rule campaign, claiming he was at home "conceptualising" or some such on Saturday mornings, when he was supposed to be in at work.
To me, having worked Saturdays in England in the 1960s and at the iMail/Singtao in Hong Kong, this was not as much an outrage as it was to Dave. At Singtao, we did so much evening work in the course of our duties that we were excused weekends unless there were tasks to be done.
Soon life changed at HKSG. The Hopewell Centre raised the rent intolerably, and we were to move down the hill from Queens Road East to the East Town Building on Lockhart Road and Fenwick Street, where we would occupy a smaller, cheaper floor in the heart of the red-light district. It was a block east of Hong Kong Police Headquarters and two blocks west of Luk Kwok Hotel, where The World of Suzie Wong had unfolded in the 1950s in a book made into a movie. Those days were no longer, but the venue is still famous for that reason.
Without doubt the only one displeased with the move was the boss, Mr Scofield, who lost the status conferred by Hopewell Centre occupancy, the high point of HKSG's peripatetic, but ever ascending, moves from one spot to another around town. There was nothing nautical about the office itself. The boss favoured inoffensive abstract paintings, which I once characterised as Ruritanian flags. As mentioned, the boss had no interest in the sea as such. He was interested in shipping strictly as a business and once asked me with an air of uncomprehending curiosity why I liked it so much. After our talk in the privacy of his car, I thought he would rather have been a star in finance. This proved to be true, as he opened up a stock brokerage in later years and increasingly divorced himself from his wharf rats.
Of course, the rest of us were quite content if not delighted with our new home in the heart of the Wanchai action. There was nothing fun or even useful near the Hopewell Centre—only one nearby bar-restaurant, which we rarely patronised as it was deserted most of the time and justly so. I surmised that the posh Hopewell Centre denizens did not chose to be seen drinking there by their fellow inmates. As it was lightly festooned with tiny Canadian flags, it was presumably a Canadian establishment, though there was little other evidence of Canadiana that caught my eye and I was ambivalent about them anyway, being a Tory and regarding our new red maple leaf flag as a Liberal Party pennant.
I was asked whether this or that aspect of the place was authentically Canadian, which I supposed it was, as almost anything and everything is. Unlike Australians, who have an identifiable corporate personality, Canadians do not. We sound like Americans. I rather think we share the plight of New Zealanders, who as Antipodeans appear to outsiders as barely distinguishable—just decaffeinated Aussies the way Canadians are decaffeinated Yanks. "Mashed potatoes without the gravy," as American comedian Billy Bob Thornton once described us.
So while the boss put a brave face on the move, consoling himself that CMA CGM, the world's No. 3 container shipping line, started off in Hong Kong from the humble East Town Building, we were delighted. This part of Wanchai had everything—pubs, clubs, and throngs of bar girls and sailors and marines when the US 7th Fleet came to town. That's when it was universally proclaimed that "all leaves were cancelled" and the bar girls had to "stand to for the duration." I remember having a great singalong with Canadian sailors from the frigate HMCS Ottawa belting out all we could remember of "Hearts of Oak," the navy's anthem.
On Friday nights a half dozen of us would muster for our weekly bacchanal at Joe Bananas, with girls from advertising peeling off after an hour to more elegant establishments nearby for fancy cocktails and girl talk. We would occasionally join them in their fancier haunts, dotted about in much the same way they were in Montreal.
The Wanchai bar district was really two places, depending on the time of day. From noon till nine it was a collection of places catering to the office crowd. It was only after 9 p.m. that the bar girls appeared, dressed alluringly for a party, looking like fireflies swarming at dusk, all smiles and come-hither winks and looks. In truth, they were for the most part decent girls down on their luck, living three or four to a bed in tiny rooms. They were mostly from the Philippines, Thailand, Russia, Ecuador and Indonesia. Chinese girls were no longer in the trade. They had moved up into office jobs since the 1970s. Suzie Wong was very much a thing of the past.
When I say they were decent girls, they were not much different from girls one might meet in singles bars in America. If you took one home, they were more like freelance wives than what one normally thinks of as a prostitute, a term seldom used by us. Which is to say, if you held on to one, housed her, fed her and eventually clothed her, chances are she would be true to you for the duration.
A fellow journalist with whom I am still in touch took a Thai bar girl home, paid her off the next morning and went off to work. When he returned, he found her still there, his place cleaned, his laundry done, his food bought and his meal prepared. And so it went, day after day, month after month, till she got pregnant. They married and had two girls, one of whom went to law school in England. While such an outcome was not typical, it was not unique.
It was clear that the editor Dave Friedenrich and I were at odds politically, as indeed I was at odds with most everyone else on the staff, and with journalists in general. I gravitated to Casey Seaton, our resident think piece writer for the new green book, The Container Shipping Manager. I thought of him as the son the boss never had, as he was coddled and forgiven for all his skiving sins and minor drunken lapses on Saturday mornings. But at least over beers I was able to discuss shipping with him beyond the easy cliché level offered by Reggie—who only uttered what everyone else said—to signal a change of subject from tiresome workaday matters that in his view ought to be left at the office. Henry never took part in any of this or any part of our social circle. In fact, the Chinese side of HKSG had little to do with the English side, so I confined myself to discussions with him on Saturday mornings when Dave was away conceptualising.
We were not in the East Town Building more than a few weeks before everything changed for the worse and for the better simultaneously. Dave sidled up to me in the bar one Friday night to tell me that I was to take over as editor from him. At first I thought he had quit, but no. He was to take over my role as deckhand and I was to take his as editor. I eventually figured it out. The boss would no longer tolerate Dave's Saturday morning conceptualising and he would have to step down as editor if he did not come to work Saturday mornings. Dave was obdurate, refused to change his ways and accepted the demotion.
But it seemed to Dave—and everyone else but me—that we could frustrate the boss's intention by making the change entirely cosmetic. While I would appear to have the authority under this regime, Dave would retain it. This was framed by Dave and the rest, principally, Reggie and Casey. (Henry, for whose department I was also now responsible, was not part of this initial opposition but soon became resentful when I insisted on knowing how his department ran itself so I would have a contingency plan to run it in his absence. In fact that happened two years later when he suffered a prolonged absence during his liver transplant.)
Being a chain-of-command guy, I refused outright Dave's arrangement in which I would have the responsibility but no authority. That's what Churchill faced at Gallipoli in 1915, having responsibility but no authority to reshape the command he inherited, and being saddled with deadwood commanders and a plan of action in which he had little faith. He was only fully in charge when Plan A failed. Only then was he free to devise his own Plan B. At that point he become fully in command and responsible for the result. So I said No, to intense resentment. If I were to be in charge, I would be in charge, free to implement my ideas subject to the boss's approval, but no other. I was already anxious to drop a lot of senseless rules and end time- and resource-wasting methods that reduced output, practices that were probably preserved for that purpose. The more easy-to-do time-wasting tasks one did, the less time there was to take innovative challenging initiatives. But the place was dominated by a work-to-rule mentality. In a moment of exasperation, I recycled my mother's Dorothy Parker line to her CBC colleagues: "You can't work to rule—if you did, you'd triple productivity!"
Not firing or re-assigning Dave went against all army rules. Of course, in the high-casualty 1944 Scheldt campaign, a corporal might well leapfrog over a sergeant in extremis to become a platoon commander, as happened to Stan Matulis at the Black Watch, because in the continuing bloody battle to open Antwerp to the sea, that seemed like the best idea at the time. A company commander might well want to preserve a good platoon sergeant to keep the men bucked up and respectful while seriously risking the life of a boshy corporal who as platoon commander would drive the men forward and lead from the front. But that was not the case here. I also began to suspect there was an element of the boss's "whips-n-chains" sadism in the manoeuvre, some exquisite charge he got from seeing his wharf rats squirm.
While the work-to-rule, do-as-little-you-can mentality dominated, the attitude was arguably justified by the punch-clock mentality of Mr Scofield's management style, with his fines for lateness and absences. Yet, it was hard to criticise this, given the prevailing work-to-rule attitude by all hands. Although Casey complained that these punch-clock measures were unjust, I told him not in his case, because he was always the first to moan and groan the moment a new task presented itself.
Yet I wondered if such management techniques had brought about this work-to-rule mentality and was done deliberately. As long as the money was coming in, the mission was to keep it that way, making today the same as yesterday and making clones of all tomorrows to come. Given that, would it not be better to impose a steady state operation, deliberately dampening creativity in the ranks, insisting on minimum standards, but demanding little more? These points I pondered, especially when Casey remarked that the place was "pretty slack." I hadn’t thought of it that way but had to agree. Penalties were severe at the newspapers; people were fired for substandard performance. HKSG was severe in petty things like lateness, but only responded with petty fines. Few were fired and fewer quit. If you fit in, you fit in for a long time, and there were several 20-year men or women, scads more with 10 years of service.
I had long divided reporters into "ferrets" and "retrievers." I now began to think of staff as either "oxen" or "horses." In the first case, "ferrets" searched and found new material on their own initiative, while "retrievers" merely fetched what was in plain sight or nearly so. Similarly, with "horses”, one could engage in the spirit of an enterprise, while "oxen" could only be motivated by a whip behind or fodder in front.
Returning to my military metaphors, there is the sad-sack Bergen soldiery of the Royal Blankshires, who can be whipped into shape to do their duty, while at the other end of the food chain there is the go-anywhere, do-anything anytime special forces. I had clearly lazy Blankshires and a commander above me who did not appear to care much beyond his current, but fading enthusiasm for his green book (The Container Shipping Manager) and his enormous passion for Italian opera, which was genuine—though some thought it was a ruse to insinuate himself into the upper rungs of HK society, having fallen during his whips-and-chains courtroom days.
So I was left to wonder if I were in the Blankshires, destined to remain third rate, or could do something to move up the food chain. Or was it all like Chinese boxes, one inside the other? And wherever one started out as, one was bound to end up as. Such appeared to be the fate of the protagonist in Brian Moore's "Luck of Ginger Coffey." Would it be mine?
There was a year of waiting, and irregular freelance work and odd jobs for Sandra's Pronto Communications, as well as active job hunting, before I landed the longest job I have ever had, at the Hong Kong Shipping Gazette (HKSG). My hard landing exiting China Economic Review prompted me to ask myself when I was last happy in journalism.
The answer came almost without pause: When I covered shipping in Montreal and Vancouver, when I mingled with the wharf rats who people the docks the world over. They are of the same consistency everywhere. With the exception of the labour that is universally locally hired and ethnically homogeneous, the shipping community is much the same, a heterogeneous cosmopolitan collection of rogues and rascals—Brits, Norwegians, Belgians, Chinese and many more—who run waterfronts from one port to another. All seemed to share a faintly lawless character I loved from the time my father took me to my first Gold Headed Cane ceremony in Montreal, when the first ship came through the ice to open the summer navigation season in the early 1950s.
And here I was in what was the largest container port in the world—sadly, no longer so. Surely I could get a job in shipping journalism, however long it took.
I had turned to financial journalism in the 1980s when I sought a high-paying job in London. I had been attached to the financial section at the Vancouver Sun while establishing a waterfront beat, so I could read a balance sheet. Typically journalists made a name for themselves in the provinces and then hit the big time in London. It was a peculiarity of Britain that because London was the only financial centre in the country, it was the only source of financial journalists. That made it easier to get a job if one had any financial experience at all.
But my heart was never in it. Unlike my brother with his flocks and tents, who enjoyed buying this and that, I really had an aversion to spending money. I regarded my bank account as a fuel tank, enabling me to be free to leave and set up elsewhere. I was always at my best when landing in new terrain and engaging in the local economy.
Reporting on the two dimensions possessed by money, shares, stocks and bonds—up and down—held no interest. Shipping had its ups and down, to be sure, but it had much more than that: new techniques, technology, the freedom of the high seas, real pirates and fierce debates how to deal with them, and of course the impact of containerisation and the centrality of the China trade with both Europe and America. It was exciting: planes, trains and automobiles.
So I made a special effort to canvass all media outlets for shipping jobs. In those days there was much more to choose from. Its very nature meant that one port or one part of the world was of interest to other parts. What mattered was the trade that could be generated through various stratagems. Whether a shipyard's new ice-strengthening technology made shipping iron ore from Baffin Island worthwhile; or whether Mozambique's Port of Maputo could make permanent its export of the bulk of South Africa's citrus crop after the strike-prone Port of Durban disappointed growers once again; or whether drone delivery in Nigeria could deliver on promises to get a cubic metre within nine square metres anywhere in the country to serve online shoppers. Such problems engaged one's imagination in ways that the fate of floating rate notes, real estate investment trusts and syndicated borrowings never could.
My efforts were crowned with failure, though I did get a call from Lloyd's List bureau chief Sam Chambers to say that had I applied two weeks earlier, I could have had the job now gone to another. While disappointing, that call did wonders for my morale, and I pulled myself away from the brink of despair. There were several interviews, one with the Wall Street Journal (Dow Jones) in which I did a test but did not pass. I had been a longtime admirer of the Journal's editorial page in Montreal, which sadly did not appear in the Asian Wall Street Journal, which in consequence I never read. There was certainly no sign of any sympathy for the rightist views expressed on the editorial page I so enjoyed years before.
At that very moment, during my test, I received a call on my mobile from Cosco, the mainland shipping giant, as I had blanketed applications with shipping companies as well, hoping to get a job in their public relations departments. But I could not talk then, and my attempts to reach them later came to naught. Answering Cosco's questions within earshot of my Wall Street Journal testers made me sound like a squirming John Cleese in an embarrassing moment on TV’s Fawlty Towers.
One day I arrived unannounced at the Hong Kong Shipping Gazette during its lunch hour, and nobody was there except the editor, Dave Friedenrich. We spoke for a while. We knew each other, as we had been sub-editors at the iMail some years before. He said there were no jobs then, but I could leave an application, which I did.
There was an equally unsuccessful interview with the semi-beautiful editor of Cargo News Asia. Pretty as she was, she didn't impress me as having any knowledge or interest in shipping. She was not a wharf rat and would have been insulted had she been called one.
Weeks turned into months of doing this and that, keeping the bank account above the Plimsoll line. Nearly a year later I received a call from Friedenrich, who told me there was an opening and that I could try out for it. There would be a test.
I was greatly heartened. If all worked out, I would be on my way dealing with subject matter in which I had confidence—too much, I soon learned, as much had changed in shipping between my time in Canada in the 1960s and '70s to 2006 when I got the job. And while enormous changes had occurred in that quarter century, it is fair to say that the changes in the 15 years since are perhaps three times greater still.
I settled down to my test, which was to turn out an article on a Japanese Big Three vice president's views on the state of play from a recorded interview with the Shipping Gazette's proprietor, Laurence Scofield. It was not easy, because proprietors interviewing executives from whom they crave good vibes and advertising tend to steer away from areas which might embarrass or put interview subjects on the spot, which is precisely what journalists hope to do to keep the interview interesting.
It was difficult pulling anything worthwhile from the interview, partly because of the banality of Mr. Scofield's questions and the blandness of the subject's answers. Still, I turned out something publishable, though judgment on that question would have to wait.
I was then introduced to Mr. Scofield, who looked remarkably like Max Headroom, the 1985 computer-generated TV personality. From high up in the circular Hopewell Centre, where the Hong Kong Shipping Gazette occupied the better part of a floor, I was then invited into Mr. Scofield's office with its view of Victoria Harbour, 20 storeys below and a half mile in the distance.
But that was the very moment a real East Indiaman came into view, moving east across the path of a picturesque Star Ferry. It was, I later learned, the visit of the Gothenburg, a replica of Sweden's 18th-19th century square rigger that long ago took tea, furniture, silk and crockery to Europe and opium back from India. I was so transfixed by the sight, it was all I could do to stop looking and pretend to be listening to Mr. Scofield. I was rescued by a tower in the asparagus patch of Hong Kong high-rises when the ship slipped behind one and disappeared.
Mr. Scofield, known as "Boss" or "the Boss" by all at Shipping Gazette, seemed pleased enough with me, as I must have been one of the only editorial job applicants to know about his principal business focus—containerisation—which was for so long my focus in Montreal, and a strong secondary focus in Vancouver.
I told him I had been to Felixstowe, where Hong Kong's Orient Overseas Container Line had set up a container terminal that had already surpassed the throughput achieved at London's Tilbury docks. I admitted I had not been there when these great works were in place, as it had been the mid-1960s when I worked for the East Anglian Daily Times in nearby Ipswich. Felixstowe was a sleepy Suffolk village back then, and shipping was done at Harwich on the other side of the confluence of the rivers Stour and Orwell and the North Sea.
Back then containerisation was in its infancy if not embryonic. Only Sealand was running boxes in the holds of converted tankers from Port Elizabeth, New Jersey, to Houston, Texas.
While he was friendly and civil, never for a moment did Scofield drop his quarterdeck manner. He was never to be addressed as "Larry," as one of my Lamma Island friends, Marilyn Hood, once did months later in the Foreign Correspondent's Club. It astonished me, so accustomed had I become to the deference he was universally accorded at the office.
Chicago-born Scofield was noteworthy for other reasons. First, he had opted to renounce his US passport for Chinese citizenship. Not Hong Kong citizenship, but full-blown Red Chinese citizenship. He always elevated his usual superior tone a notch when we crossed the border together to attend a trade fair. He peeled off to join the Chinese at customs and immigration while I was consigned to the visitor's queue.
Scofield had gained much notoriety some years earlier, when he and his wife were charged with running a bawdy house by the Hong Kong Police. He handily beat the rap, but not without public humiliation. A tsunami of titters swept Hong Kong at the time, and from time to time after that when newcomers were told the story. It concerned his Fetish Fashion shop in Wanchai, which was really a costume shop for the whips-and-chains crowd. Its appearance upset the Dudley Do-Rights of the strait-laced Royal Hong Kong Constabulary, and they vainly tried to depict Scofield's operation as a house of prostitution, which it plainly was not.
Another noteworthy aspect of his life was his wife, Brenda, the life and soul of Fetish Fashion. In fact, she granted the South China Morning Post permission to explore these sexual proclivities in detail in an expansive magazine article. It was not nearly as outlandish as it seems today. I remember an episode of CSI-Las Vegas in which there was a case involving such an establishment, and the topic was handled with surprising sympathy, stressing that such practices were for the rich and powerful. Yet another noteworthy feature was that Brenda taught my nephew Ted, when he attended Island School, and he recalled her as being strict.
Scofield must have been impressed with my knowledge, and he paid me more than what I had asked. I asked for HK$20,000 a month; he immediately offered HK$24,000. It was a comedown from the HK$36,000 I had achieved at the iMail, but it was at least in an area of journalism in which I had every chance to excel. At the iMail, one had to choose which stupid option would be the most pleasing to the powers that be. Only the Montreal Daily News rivalled the stupidity of the HK iMail—and, uncannily, in nearly identical ways.
Best of all, for some accounting reason, I was not to start for three weeks. This was a real treat, because I usually was at work and too busy to relax, or unemployed and too busy job hunting to relax. Even on annual leaves, I was expected to go somewhere to please someone, involving vast expenditures of money for air fares, restaurants, having to say nice things about food I had no feelings for, then to eat slowly in company so as not to attract attention. Now I had three weeks off in which no one expected anything of me. It was even one of those periods when Sandra was away in Shanghai and Wee Bro was spending his three months in San Jose, California. So Cosco, the chow-husky mix, and I had Lamma Island to ourselves, going for morning swims at Power Station Beach, smoking dope and lazing away the days knowing I had a job to go to and one I looked forward to doing.
I was getting bored when this idyllic life came to an end and was anxious to get started as a deckhand at HKSG, which all told might have employed 200 hands, given the staffing of offices in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Beijing. At the time, there were five editorial people in the Hong Kong office, three more in Shenzhen and two in Singapore. The publication came in 250 perfect bound A4, or Time-sized, pages 90 per cent filled with sailing schedules, which appeared twice a week. I found it reassuring that publication days were Mondays and Wednesdays, the same as my marine pages at the Montreal Gazette.
If publication times were like the Montreal Gazette's of the 1960s and '70s, the copy handling was more like that of the Suburban of the 1990s. Instead of Montreal districts and municipalities, various editions went out to different cities and countries with different editorial content for each. And like the NDG Monitor near the end, the publications and/or editions were done in two languages, or three if you count traditional and Mandarin Chinese.
The company had another publication, something of a tail-end Charlie called Hong Kong Air Freight, which was languishing at the time. I had hopes of bolstering it into something when I got a handle on the job they wanted me to do. That was seaborne container shipping and little else, perhaps reflecting the bleak prospects of the air cargo publication, which no one cared about but Edith, its chief sales rep, who didn't care much about it either.
Overall story content for all publications was based on a six-day week's production of daily "faxes," each containing nine stories. HKSG stories originated for the most part from Google Alerts, tracking "air cargo," or "airfreight" or "air freight," or "TEU" (twenty-foot equivalent unit), the standard container unit of measurement. Supplementing this were our office subscriptions to London's Containerisation International, IFW (International Freighting Weekly), Lloyd's List, Singapore's Splash 247, Oslo's Trade Winds, Paris's Alphaliner, Newark's Journal of Commerce, Jacksonville's American Shipper, the UK's Transport Intelligence, as well as press releases from public relation departments of various shipping lines and maritime authorities.
From these sources we fashioned our stories, each between 150 and 350 words, and produced them in publishable form as daily faxable documents, one called the "north fax" destined for China clients, another called the "south fax" for Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia, and one for "air freight." While they were no longer sent out as faxes, as the practice had been long replaced by email delivery, the production of them in their formal full-dress fax attire with handsome headlines persisted. It reminded me of the time when vestiges of long-gone shrouds and rat lines on sailing ships survived in the age of steam with the presence of belaying pins in gunwales long after the need for them had gone. I wondered, but not aloud, why faxes survived, thinking of it as a Luddite job-saving device, like employing redundant firemen on locomotives when railways switched from steam to diesel in the '50s.
These publications included twice monthly lateral landscape China editions destined for Shenzhen and Guangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing. And then came the two editions of the Asian Shipper, one for Singapore and the other for Malaysia.
One of the reasons I was hired was to contribute to a new publication called Container Shipping Manager, two or three editions of which had already been published. I had read these thoroughly, that being my work-related activity during those three glorious weeks off with Cosco the dog.
Reading these “green books”—as they were called throughout their two years of paper existence before being consigned to online publication on the HKSG website—enlightened me on how much things had changed since I left the field, so I was reluctant to comment and did so only when questioned. I praised what I could, which was limited to what little I understood, or at least appreciated, which to an unschooled layman's eye looked like pretentious banality. Interestingly enough, I found that my findings were little different from others’ when I got to know them better and they were frank with me with their sub rosa thoughts.
The only first-class mind among the staff was an Australian twentysomething called Casey Seaton, whom I came to call McSkyver to his face, as he was always shirking duty and taking short cuts. Curious, because he was a devout Christian much consumed with doing good and filled with God-fearing thoughts. He had attended a Protestant religious school in Queensland and then converted to Catholicism in the half-dozen years we worked together. He broke up with a Singaporean girl I liked and had a baby with a Filipina girl called Annabelle, whom he married. He had a sickly son called Jerome who died before he was 2, which caused no end of trouble between us.
Then there was Reggie Rathour, who was in his mid-60s, a few years younger than I. He was a local Indian, a Rajput, who I cheerfully noted were the ones that stood and fought the Japanese on the Gin Drinkers Line in 1941 and covered our Canadian Winnipeg Grenadiers’ retreat from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island, while the First of Foot, aka "Fleet of Foot," broke and ran—later to redeem themselves, I might add. Reggie was fluent in Chinese, had studied economics at McGill in Montreal and completed his studies at Carlton University in Ottawa. So we had a lot to talk about and got on quite well for a time. He had done a stint at the South China Morning Post but settled into a 30-year career as a reporter with the state broadcaster RTHK and on leaving joined the HK Shipping Gazette.
Unseen except at Christmas parties was Sabine Borgia, a well-spoken, attractive English woman who had been full-time in the office until she became pregnant and bore a son. She was allowed to work from home thereafter, writing seven stories a day, which I thought was amazing until I started to do it myself a few months later. Another wrinkle in our departmental intramural life was that Sabine was Reggie's daughter-in-law, having married his son, who was doing rather well then as the top IT guy at Barclays Bank in Hong Kong. She knew the trade well, and for the longest time I treated her and her work as a model for my own. I always looked forward to meeting her at Christmas parties, and it was no surprise to discover she was one of the boss's favourites when she appeared at rare office functions.
There was the editor, thirtysomething Dave Friedenrich, who was very much in charge and directed us to do what had to be done. He was an American from the Seattle area, but most atypical of his breed in that he had lived most of his life with his family outside the US, first in Japan and then in Hong Kong. His family had returned to Washington State, and he was living with his English girlfriend. Like him, she had lived her life in the Far East, with her mother then residing in Bangkok. Though Dave spoke no Chinese, he was very much a local boy. I remember being somewhat astonished that he did not have the faintest idea what I meant when I used an American football metaphor suggesting we do an "end-run" around a problem. It was clear that he grew up completely devoid of the American boyhood experience. Such odd and unlikely gaps in his understanding appeared from time to time. There was little to be said of him other than he was a competent journalist who ran the department competently, though with a view to doing the minimum and greatly sensitive if asked to do more than he had bargained for.
Then there was Don Gaspar, a fortysomething Anglo-Indian. We had worked together at the Hong Kong Standard/HK iMail 12 years before. I owed my job to him because when Scofield needed a new man he reminded Dave that I had put in an application the year before. So it is stretching a point to say that my application got me the job, when it was Don who reminded Dave of my existence.
Sadly, Don was no longer wanted on the voyage. The fact that he was as close as one could be to being a card-carrying communist never counted against him. In journalistic circles in the western world my rightism was more objectionable than communism could ever be. Don had one talent that dazzled all. He could speak Chinese in a high-class accent that impressed Reggie, who was not easily impressed. Sadly, that was the limit of his contribution to journalism. His stratospheric linguistic skills got him top job after top job with astronomical levels of compensation. But never for long. Wondrous as his skill was, it had little to do with journalism per se. So his stint at top legal and accounting journals, not to mention newspapers, came to naught after these splendid moments of glory.
I remember at the iMail all the subs waiting for him to produce a story about a press conference he covered, him struggling to get a lead, and fellow sub Steve Beck sitting by him to wring out a story so we could all go home at 2-3 a.m. Don seemed to have a problem making up his mind on a course of action. Was that the appeal of communism, I wondered, decisions having already been made? Mercifully, I did not know at the time that Don was being shown the door and I was there to replace him. Which was too bad, as he was the only one I liked and trusted, despite our diametrically opposed political views.
Next was Henry Leung, the Chinese editor, still under Dave, though he ran a suzerain operation backed by the two-person Chinese staff in Shenzhen headed by Wendy Yun and Kelvin. Henry, a former court reporter for a Chinese newspaper and more recently a radio station, produced six stories a day, half of which he translated from the English material we produced, with the other half coming as original stories from Wendy and Kelvin in Shenzhen. But they were in rough "Chinglish" and were sent to Sabine to be made publishable. Henry and I got along well, though we were exceptional, as almost everyone outside of the department hated him, while those within the department had little to do with him.
And that, with a number of additions and subtractions, was my world for the next few years. Sadly, HKSG was at its peak in 2006, but the company itself was to shrink away in increments almost from the day I joined.
Reggie, in a challenging resentful tone, asked how much money I thought the operation made, as if to say he was more in the know than I was. It was easy to make an educated guess because the wildly overused photocopier serviced all departments. So one saw copies of billing orders, cheques and even scraps of financial printouts while waiting to collect printouts of documents from which we based our stories. I guessed HK$800,000 a week. He said it was HK$1 million. I was happy to see my guess tracked Reggie's estimates.
Although many objected to the cold-hearted practices of HKSG—the fingerprint time clocks, fines for lateness, strict one-hour lunches, the need to work Saturday mornings that many, including myself, found onerous—one had to admit that it was a well-run operation in the main, taking advantage of every fair wind, with all hands on duty doing what they ought to do when they ought to do it. Unlike the HK iMail and the Montreal Daily News, it was well positioned and competently run. Or so it seemed.
Wee Bro had managed to find himself a promising job as the editor of China Economic Review (CER). Both Sandra Pang and I were pleased, seeing his appointment as an opportunity for advancement not only for my brother Joel but for the rest of us. China Economic Review was founded in 1990 in the hopes it would take on the mantle of the dying but much lamented Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER), which reduced itself from biweekly to come out periodically until its last edition in 2009. It had been owned since its 1946 founding by local tycoon-philanthropists, the Kadoorie family, then the venerable Jardines, then the Hong Kong Bank, the South China Morning Post in Rupert Murdoch's day, and in the end, the last to hold the torch, Dow Jones, which owns the Wall Street Journal.
CER had no such illustrious past. It was owned by one Graham Earnshaw, an ex-Daily Telegraph man I mistakenly thought might have shared the political outlook of my favourite and only conservative newspaper in Fleet Street. But his attitudes were more aligned with the typical liberal left that had dominated journalism forever, it seemed. I contacted my old East Anglian Daily Times chum, David Twiston Davies, long ensconced on the Daily Telegraph supervising the obituaries, who told me that a number of his colleagues were most interested in Mr Earnshaw's venture in China.
Joel had a stable of regular contributors, one a former FEER man. But there was plenty of work to do and I was up for it. The first was a big cover story about the rising Chinese middle class, which involved a lot of Googling to acquire solid information that was not too out of date—always a problem when looking for free stuff on the Internet.
While I met him often enough, I never got to know Mr Earnshaw. He was a man who kept himself at a distance. He had a pronounced limp, despite which he had undertaken to walk across China and did a day's march on weekends when he could.
Sadly, Joel's ride at CER was short-lived and bumpy. He was plagued with meetings with Earnshaw at all hours, not at all unusual with publishers I have known in fact and fiction. They soon take on Lord Copper’s airs, as in Evelyn Waugh's novel Scoop. One publisher I had in Canada would go through the mail every day and insist that I attend him so he could consult with me about something that caught his interest. This had me to-ing and fro-ing from my office to his for an hour or two every morning. Another publisher had me in for long talks about how we were to cover an event like an election. There was no question but that we would do it in the usual way, giving fair coverage to each candidate. We had no differences on this or anything else of substance. He simply wanted to air his views on journalistic ethics at length. When I protested that these talks, which took an hour or two twice a week, were a waste of time and needlessly added to the length of my working day, he protested. He thought it entirely reasonable that if the publisher of the New York Times wanted to consult his editor, he would be perfectly entitled to do so. I replied that his analogy was imperfect, because I was not only the editor but also 90 per cent of the editorial staff.
Joel was more impatient than I; such things and various instructions with which he disagreed ended up in an impasse that resulted in him leaving within a few months.
During this period, I again scrambled about for work, with CER becoming a third to half of my income. Sandra was also able to supply the odd press release from Pronto Communications, which had accounts with a Dutch merchant bank, ABN AMRO, Absolut vodka, a major US shopping mall industry association and various one-off jobs as well as her longstanding consultancy with her old school chum, Carmen Yeung, owner of Together Expo, which organised booths at the Beijing Coal Fair.
As I recall, Joel's exit from CER was more gradual than his other sorties. In the process, he advanced my name as a replacement, and Earnshaw and I eventually met in the Foreign Correspondents Club. I cannot say we hit it off, but he was pleased that I had actual experience of life in China, with more than two years in Wuhan.
I was one of two candidates for the job, up against Tim Burroughs, a BA holder (Class of '98) from the University of York who had studied Mandarin and belittled others' skills in the language. When we met, he told me he was the son of an unsuccessful lawyer and that he didn't read books, which I thought odd for a fellow who majored in English at uni.
Later on, we had a curious disagreement. He insisted that the "Met," the London Metropolitan Police, policed the City of London, while I held that an independent force, the City of London Police, did so. He was quite cross when I was proved right and was not at all interested in my explanation of how this ancient right derived from the ascension of William the Conqueror back in 1066. Having worked at Euromoney, between Blackfriars Bridge and St Paul's Cathedral—apart from my fascination with history—I delighted in the quirks that the City's ancient rights conferred.
Pronto Communications—in which Joel was a director and I was now an associate, having a business card with my own Chinese name, Ma Guo Ming—had rented a luxury flat in Shanghai, a city whose heft, style and scale reminded me very much of New York. Although officially based in Hong Kong, lodged in a computer file of an accountant's office in Gloucester Road in Wanchai, CER's principal operations were in Shanghai. This was one of the many things that made Joel uneasy. CER occupied substantial space—the better part of a floor of a substantial office building in Shanghai's central business district. Joel was also worried that it had no standing with the Communist Party's Propaganda Committee, which meant the operation was technically illegal. But in those days so much more was tolerated than it is today.
I stayed in the flat for three weeks—one of many luxury buildings within a gated compound, with manicured shrubbery along neatly paved streets and roads separating the best quality apartment blocks I had seen in China. While there, I learned more of the operation and why Joel had come a cropper. His role was rather like mine as editor at Montreal Business Magazine, more of an editorial manager than the free-wheeling editor he expected to be.
In that job in the mid-'90s, I did not mind the publisher Mark Weller, who had no journalistic experience, taking the lead, as he knew the business community he wanted to reach and ordered this and that. After one such meeting, to which I invited Joel on one of his visits to Montreal, Joel took umbrage at Mark's attitude towards me. But I saw my tactic of carrying out his wishes and occasionally advising against a course I deemed inadvisable as the best way forward. At these points, he usually took my advice. My Montreal Business Magazine editorship was supposed to be a temporary arrangement, as I was simultaneously the editor of The Suburban multi-edition weekly. It nonetheless persisted for two years, during which we eventually parleyed the magazine into becoming a supplement in the national daily, the Toronto Globe and Mail.
I had been familiar with newspaper publishers as long as I could remember. The careers and antics of Lord Northcliffe, Hearst, Beaverbrook, Lord Thomson, the Whites, Peters and McConnells had been the stuff of after-dinner conversations throughout my childhood. My mother even won a few hundred dollars from a television quiz show for knowing the life of William Randolph Hearst back to front. Thus, I continued these interests into adulthood, following the careers of Rupert Murdoch and Conrad Black, reading whatever could be read about them. And positively delighting in Robert Morley playing Lord Northcliffe in "Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines."
Joel insisted the lines of command should be precisely defined: the publisher would take care of financial matters and the editor editorial matters, and between the two there should be fixed a great gulf. He evidently did not know what Rupert Murdoch told the editor of the Times or Sunday Times (forget which), when he bought them from Lord Thomson. When the editor made the usual pitch for editorial independence, Murdoch said: "Why should you have all the fun?"
Which is how I regarded Wee Bro's complaints at the time, somewhat unjustly. True, he combined them with criticisms that CER was being run like a pirate ship without standing with the Communist Party's Propaganda Committee. In the days of Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, when things were loosening up, I confidently—though foolishly—thought that the Communist Party itself would fade away rather like the Church of England. Unwisely, though not out of line with the optimism of the day, I expected the efficacy of commercial arbitration, already in widespread use, would morph itself into something approaching rule of law. But few foresaw what the ascendency of Xi Jinping would mean in those free-wheeling days.
I should have appreciated Joel's problem more than I did. Of course, he didn't help by peppering me with challenging questions on economic matters, which I fended off satisfactorily—much to his barely concealed annoyance. In some ways, it was good preparation, him saying that it was important to get the language right so one could respond to various economic questions with the jargon of the day. In business, buzz words are here today and gone tomorrow. I could understand basic principles well enough, but if one's expressions were out of date this would not do in business journalism, and I had to admit that my economic vocabulary—beyond stocks and bonds—went back to my Euromoney days in mid-'80s London.
Joel's problem was not being able to take advantage of favourable winds as they blew by, the way our father did in the days of the Montreal Herald, when he drove the daily circulation up from 15,000 to 50,000. Dad used to say that if you weren't going up, you're going down. Implicit in that was to avoid down drafts.
Once Dad saw the sports department discard a stunning photo of Rocky Marciano decking Johnny Greco. The sports department didn't want to use it because they had put their money on Greco and were disappointed with the result, so clearly evident in Dave Bier's spectacular photograph. Well, Dad just took the photo and covered the tabloid's front page with it, winning widespread disapproval for giving such prominence to a sports picture. That would have been forgivable if the Canadiens had won the Stanley Cup, but to give it to a low-brow boxing picture was too tasteless for words. But such voices were muted when the paper was sold out and the fight was the talk of the town.
Which is not to say one should fall to every passing temptation. These things are a matter of judgment. One's publication should stick to its core mission and not hare off into new directions willy-nilly. I always thought good writing and good editing were a bit like handling a troika, Russia's three-horse-drawn sleigh. It's matter of getting the best performance from the team without having them splay out too far and work against each other, and yet not having the horses so close they are getting in each other's way. Yet there is no one way of doing it, because changing terrain dictates having more of one and less of the other.
Both Earnshaw and Burroughs, when I was taken on staff, shared a blinkered approach bent on devising a plan and working through it no matter what. None of that cheekiness one might find in the Economist, with its cover showing Irish hooligans throwing petrol bombs under the head: "Playing Fields of Ulster." Exhibiting the same lack of humour and verve, both the Montreal Daily News and the Hong Kong iMail were prisoners of one idée fixe or another.
It was a different idea in each case, but both were obsessively fixated to an operational model that had worked elsewhere under circumstances that bore little resemblance to those that these publications faced. How I remember Bruce Taylor, then the editor of the Montreal Sunday Express, telling me with great pride that his edition that day was just what "your father would have done with the old Herald." I smiled wanly, realising that 1970 was a long way from the late 1940s. I felt certain that had Dad been in charge of Sunday Express that day, he would not have been living up to an ideal of the '40s.
They were all the same that way. The HK iMail wanted to become a born-again London Daily Mail and the Montreal Daily News wanted to combine the images of their two owners, something of Pierre Peladeau's irreverent and successful Journal de Montréal, and the tits-and-bums tea-tent tabloid the London Daily Mirror had become under Robert Maxwell. But without the tits and bums, of course, because that would have offended the sensibilities of the leftwing staff, whose opinions were unwisely considered important.
In each of these cases, they made no attempt to please the people to whom they were selling. They simply decided to please the readership they wished to please with no thought to whether it existed or not.
Earnshaw clearly had his heart in the venture and had taken great risks to make it a success. That had won my highest respect from the start and endures to this day. But it wasn't long before Joel came home looking increasingly unhappy, in a position that was no better than mine in some ways, submitting work for inspection by Earnshaw and not being heeded at all. That was okay with me at Montreal Business Magazine but not with Joel at CER. So things came sputtering to an end.
I stayed on as deputy editor as Burroughs became the editor, though nothing changed. There was no reason for us to stay in Shanghai, cut off from reliable internet service. Wuhan internet had been acceptable. There, apart from being denied access to Wikipedia's Tiananmen Square entry, and having satellite images of China blurred out here and there, most everything was accessible with sufficient speed to be useful. But Shanghai would block the BBC when they felt something critical was expected or refuse to let you read Hong Kong's South China Morning Post when they feared something untoward would be said.
Shenzhen, across from Hong Kong, was worse in many ways. One would key in a something usually of a commercial nature, and it would not come up or would come up after a long delay. I got the feeling that the request was being monitored for approval. There were times when it was denied. Although I would have liked to live on the mainland and would have happily returned to Wuhan where I had friends, Shenzhen and Shanghai were hopeless because of the lack of internet access. So Hong Kong is where Burroughs and I stayed, living not far from each other in Kennedy Town.
I was happy enough in Hong Kong, occasionally living on Lamma Island when Joel was in California on various jobs, and Sandra was off pursuing new business from London to Shanghai. At these times, I was needed for dog-sitting duties because Sandra's husky-chow mix Cosco needed to be fed and watered. But the CER job was demanding, and Burroughs was hypercritical of my efforts, most often with Earnshaw's approval.
I soon discovered that far from the Daily Telegraph mentality I was hoping for, the political mentality at CER was the usual ubiquitous leftist muddle that had captured anglospheric journalism worldwide. Such was not seen as leftism, of course, but as obvious decency and normality, the only possible attitude, with all else being kooky rightist wingnuttery. When I, trying to be co-operative, suggested that hydro-electric power replace coal where possible, outlining opportunities in the Three Gorges on the Yangtze and other sites of the Pearl and the Yellow rivers, Burroughs was at first interested but fell away when he discovered I had massive Hydro-Quebec dams in mind. What he wanted was more like a ma-and-pa, tie-dye operation, something cute and politically picturesque.
There was the odd interesting task, like finding back-street billions that were largely unregistered and untaxed. Such was fairly obvious to me as I walked to work in Wuhan between the gleaming streets. It was where the much of the people's business was done in a totally unsupervised way. The showy storefronts and restaurants on the main thoroughfares had very few people, while the back lanes were teeming with makeshift shops. Impromptu restaurants with trestle tables covered by plastic sheeting were supplied with noodle and rice concoctions from giant woks simmering on oil drum braziers burning coal and yesterday's chopsticks. In between stood micro-marts, which would be rigged for sleeping quarters to accommodate a family of four at night. And in obscure corners, there were barber-shop brothels, where one was shorn in public and other bodily needs attended to in thinly partitioned private sections.
During the day these back lanes took on a special charm with what looked like unofficial housing that resembled a village Geppetto might have lived in, in Disney's Pinocchio. So we at CER made a fuss about them being untaxed "back-street billions." But I wished them well and hoped that the emperors of regulation were far away and remained so.
Our course, every time I returned to Hong Kong for my three-month China visa renewals, I noted that there were always new rules in place. Motorcycle taxis disappeared, then came compulsory seat belt enforcement, and non-emergency honking of car horns ceased. I remember thinking that there was more freedom in Red China than there was anywhere else in the world I had been, and it was disappearing in an ever-tightening regulatory python.
If it weren't for the pressure of work, which was incessant, I would have enjoyed the one task that advanced my understanding of China on a regular basis. That was my obligation to read and review a book about China every month. Given that I was the only one on staff who seemed to read books, I was the obvious choice. Of course, of all the reviewing tasks, these are the most arduous, because one must spend hours reading a book quite apart from the time one spends reviewing it. This is quite unlike movies, restaurants, art exhibitions and concert reviewing, where one spends an hour or two on site and retires to write the review.
I had always reviewed nonfiction by telling the story the book had to tell, devoting no more than five per cent of the space to my assessment of the work's quality. As a long-time reader of the New York Times book review section, the New York Review of Books and The Times [of London] Literary Supplement, these were the expository reviews I most enjoyed.
So I emerged from reading a few works on the Tiananmen Square riot in 1989 with a more pro-Beijing attitude than when I started, after considering the numbers and the terrain involved. I concluded that if a million angry students appeared on Canada's Parliament Hill like that, Ottawa would have called in the tanks of the Royal Canadian Dragoons with no complaints from me.
I noticed that the Wikipedia entry today makes scant reference to the number of troops first deployed or very much of the early days of the demonstration, but I remember there were about 5,000 formed up with rifles, probably unloaded, strung in five ranks along one side of the square, which was the length of four football fields. Arrayed against them at that early point were 100,000 students, though Wikipedia says at its peak there were 1,000,000 there. Wikipedia also says there were 250,000 troops "deployed to Beijing," which doesn't mean they got to the square itself.
What struck me from the first was the initial mistake of having the troops in their "party hats," as I said at the time, looking non-threatening. Living in China, I had always been struck by the pleasant appearance of PLA soldiers I saw on the street. Presumably, there were killer dog units in the PLA, brutal licentious soldiery whoring their way through the fleshpots of Hainan Island, but I never saw them on the streets in China's major cities. They all looked like nice boys a girl could take home to her mother.
And these were the troops lining one side of the square about five days, having to urinate, defecate, eat and drink, all the while simpering to the truculent and ever encroaching crowd, wearing their nice walking out uniforms with their best forage caps. One picture even had flowers in the barrels of their rifles.
It was obvious that Beijing's first idea was to try to placate them with a charm offensive, but it was clear that that was not working as the students poured in, numbering about 100,000—against 5,000 of these nice PLA boys. I am not sure we can trust the Wikipedia numbers of one million—10 times the number of students that were there at first—and I have long lost the books in my nomadic life since.
Another key factor was that there were only four points of entry and exit from the square. Two were clogged with incoming students, one was held by the authorities, and one was congested with civilians and soldiers, a site of riotous skirmishing from time to time as military reinforcements and supplies tried to get through with sporadic success.
As anyone who has dealt with student riots knows, they are the most dangerous of all rioters as they are young, fearless, at the height of their physical powers and, in the presence of females, seek to impress and rival each other to gain their attention by performing acts of conspicuous daring. They are immune to official charm and refuse to be intimidated by the sheer—or should I say mere?—majesty of state.
It was my thinking that the 5,000 troops would have been enough had they been helmeted and in battledress, accompanied by armoured cars with machineguns they could test-fire from time to time, let loose smoke grenades and generally appear menacing, frightening girls and disheartening boys. It would also be good if they could have mustered 5,000 who looked at least as threatening as the Beefeaters at the Tower of London. Had they done that from the start, 5,000 might well have been enough to have more people exit than enter the square.
The televised "tankman" incident, which captured the world's attention, struck me as silly at the time. First of all, there was enough space on both sides of the tank for other tanks to pass by. What the incident revealed to me was indecision on the part of the authorities. I saw that tank commander contacting his troop leader for instructions, who undoubtedly contacted his squadron leader, who contacted his regimental commander—each officer contacting each rung all the way up the hierarchical ladder and no one being able to make a decision without consulting the guy above.
I would not have been surprised if the go-around tankman option had been omitted from the tank commander's initial report and wasn't appreciated as an option by those with sufficient rank to take advantage of it until the whole world saw the tankman show on TV hours later. One of those "for a want of a horseshoe nail" outcomes, I'll wager.
As for the rest of the disaster, the problem boiled down to the people not leaving the square any faster than they possibly could. There were only two points of egress for the rioters, the PLA having by now blocked the other two for their own use. The soldiers in their armoured vehicles, never known for their acuity even in broad daylight, were now blinded as twilight faded into night. Clutches of diehard students battled on while most of the crowd, said to run as high a million at this time, did their best to funnel out of the square. It was a bit like draining a large full bathtub through a clogged drain. The rate of egress was painfully slow.
But this was not visible to the soldiers ordered to clear the square soonest. They were battling what they took to be stubbornly resisting students, who were probably willing to fall back if they could, but they couldn't. I believe this was the main cause of the thousands of wrongful deaths in what many came to call a dragonade.
As the only new books I reviewed were about China, and in short supply, some turned out to be turkeys. One called "Sun Tzu and Project Battleground" was an example of what was being sold back then, and probably still is, to take advantage of the China craze that had befallen the world. One simply hooks up to a famous name, like Sun Tzu, the Warring States Chinese general of 300 BC, (Clausewitz of the East), and applies his strategic advice, however spuriously, to business dealings to sell one's book.
Military terms and analogies are so attractive to businessmen that they often seek to have themselves and their activities described in such a manner, so they can apply terms like "strategic" and "logistics" to imbue themselves with the life-and-death importance that military matters impose. As I was interested in military affairs long before I became interested in business, I had read Sun Tzu, where indeed I had found value, far more than in "Cloudy Clausewitz."
But while Sun Tzu is of greater use to business, and far more dramatic in his conclusions, his most dramatic moments are the least applicable to business, because rarely, if ever, do business ventures demand one put all at risk in one Gotterdammerung moment.
Sun Tzu is of greater value in his more prosaic moments, when he advises one to know one's strengths and weaknesses in detail. Not simply to be aware of them, but to have them measured and memorised. Few do, of course; thus, few can wield their powers as well as those who have an intimate acquaintance with the actual extent of their forces. But this is too unromantic to serve as a business book theme.
Among the book reviews, Brook Larmer's basketball saga, “Operation Yao Ming," was a real eye-opener, showing to what extent the Communist Party will go to be victorious in the class struggle.
In the 1960s, the Cultural Revolution swept China, just as the Great Leap Forward had in the 1950s. In those days, the West regarded China in much the same way we regard North Korea today, as a mysterious no-go zone, an Orwellian "Nineteen-Eighty Four" Eastasia we Oceanians loved to hate.
While my interest in sport can be lost in a thimble, I was aware with some pride as a Canadian that one of our number invented basketball. I also noted that the YMCA (Young Men's Christian Association) in Springfield, Massachusetts, where the game was first played in 1891, was a British institution that had first come to North America via my hometown of Montreal, then the second city in the biggest empire the world has ever known. So I was doubly pleased to read of the impact a Canadian invention had in the world's oldest empire.
In short, the Y's efforts to spread itself via basketball was one of the great success stories of late 19th/ early 20th-century China. First designed to be played indoors during inclement weather, it could be played on nearly any hardened flat surface with a ball and a basket. Thus, it spread throughout China.
It even turned out to be compatible with communist social theory, which was supervising life in detail down to how children arranged their pencils. Basketball also provided opportunities to demonstrate how socialist co-operation triumphed over capitalist competition—even if it didn't.
But in those days, Red China was an international pariah shunned by all but the Iron Curtain countries. Officialdom, craving international recognition denied to them diplomatically, planned to secure it through sport competitions.
China was already advanced in ping-pong, or table tennis, as it was formally called. It started as small after-dinner entertainment in upper-crust England, with a row of books acting as the net. Before World War I, it had come to India and the Far Eastern station as an after-dinner activity for officers in the Indian Army. In the 1930s, Edgar Snow commented in "Red Star Over China" that the Communist forces in the Chinese Civil War had a "passion for it," which he found "bizarre,” notes Wikipedia.
And so it spread. The Chinese excelled in this sport as no other. It was also one of those few games that men and women could play together sharing similar performance levels, thus extending its social range.
Trouble was, no one took ping pong seriously. What they wanted was to star in a "big ball sport." While baseball and soccer—unlike American football and rugby for example—offered opportunities for players of smaller physiques to excel, these games required playing fields that China found difficult to provide at a time when it led the poverty league tables.
And while China was excelling in basketball, their players were diminutive compared to Westerners, putting them at a permanent disadvantage.
So they simply set out to breed their way out of the problem. As this was a national diplomatic problem, it was given the highest priority, even designated as a matter of "national security." There were two principal groups that took on the project: the People's Liberation Army and the Shanghai Sharks basketball team.
The idea was to find tall basketball players, male and female, and have them breed. Basketball's natural selection process tended to gather the tallest players available. After that, this national eugenics programme became more focused. The authorities snatched tall children from their mothers' arms at the age of 14 and shipped them to an army camp for basketball training six days a week. In the end, the programme achieved its objectives. The PLA's Wang Zhizhi, who was the first to join America's NBA, grew to 7'1", while Yao Ming, who later joined the NBA, grew to 7'6". The average NBA player's height is 6'6", says Google. They both did well in the NBA, but Yao stuck with his Chinese roots while Wang defected. But Wang later recanted, returned home after apologising to officialdom and lived a life of respectability.
What struck me about the whole affair was the length to which the communists will go to achieve social engineering objectives, using ruthless wartime measures in peacetime. Even though I have little interest in sports, I found the Yao Ming tale the most profound experience of my time at China Economic Review.
Which was coming to an end.
One surviving connection with Wuhan was my friendship with Ilya Deng, who had replaced our one Chinese English speaker in the office when she left to take up a post teaching English at a local school. Ilya, who was quite a beauty, was also a model for an artist whose work I admired greatly and offered to market in Hong Kong. I was confident I would have many takers—silly me!—and spent some money on promotional literature, having it translated with full colour illustrations of the art.
Between doing odd jobs for Pronto Communications and sending out job applications, I kept myself busy. But now my 60 years on the planet were beginning work against me. And sadly, there were no takers at the galleries. It was one of those things where one was not part of the in-crowd, the same attitude I encountered at the weekly Kerryman in Tralee 25 years before, where submitted work would not even be considered because it had not been submitted by the right people with the proper introductions.
What makes this relevant to my leaving China Economic Review was CER’s similar refusal to use—or even consider—my suggested cover picture for a story on China's "one child policy." I imagined a knockout image by Ilya’s artist. It combined Norman Rockwell's warmth with Alex Colville's chill. A most arresting cover. What's more, I knew I could get it free because the artist could have used its publication in CER in his own promotional material, which I would have helped him produce.
But Burroughs just said no. And I knew Earnshaw would back him, as he backed him in everything else. It was time to go, and I went with the minimum of discussion.
Nicola Nightingale, an Englishwoman and fellow journalist, had been a profound disappointment for me since the day we met her 15 years before when I first came to Hong Kong. Back from my sojourn in Sri Lanka, she gave me a scolding on the footpath on Lamma Island for being an unauthorised war correspondent chasing Tamil Tigers. I was touched by what sounded like genuine concern for my welfare and also that my brother had characterised my paltry activities there in such an heroic light.
What made Nicola such a personal disappointment was that we both shared a passion that what we could not share. And as soon as we first met we greeted each other such joy of great expectations to come, only to collide like two lacrosse balls instantly repelling one another when we discovered that our attitudes to the objects of our passion differed so.
We shared a passion for the writings of Rudyard Kipling with me loving his work and she hating it. It always intrigued me why someone would spend her university years studying someone she loathed. While there was never any question of us becoming romantic, I always longed for someone who I could share such a profound interest in a positive way.
Kipling was the only author who could make me cry, particularly his "Daughter of the Regiment", though that was not the only one. As our social circles overlapped, there would be moments, in her Fabian socialist mode, when she would make a remark about Kipling having a change of heart about the justice of the British imperial mission, in his poem "Recessional", for example. At which point I would counter with an arcane point that would elude everyone's understanding and we were the only ones who knew what we are talking about. Despite their argumentative nature, I found these infrequent exchanges oddly gratifying.
About this time, while scratching about for any editorial job I could do, answering any advertised position that seemed suitable, I ran into one Angela Leary, soon to become my Tasmanian devil, immediately after a party on Lamma Island, where I was then staying with Wee Bro. It was pretty much love at first sight, or so we both imagined. There were warning signs even then. She was a vegetarian, an animal rights partisan, believed in feminism, technocratic authoritarianism and other unpalatable stuff.
She was a lively Australian. who grew up in Tasmania, and whose surviving family, now whittled down to an a married sister, a cousin or two, who lived in Melbourne except for a brother who was still in Tasmania, processing pre-cooked McDonalds french-fries for export to most of Asia.
Angela had a high-paying job - HK$45,000 a month - as writer for the Hong Kong Government Information Service and had been part of the Fairfax Media apparatus in Australia both in Hobart, the Tasmanian capital and in Canberra.
I soon moved in with her, in a large flat in Shek Tong Choi near Kennedy Town at the west end of Hong Kong Island. I had to overlook her leftism, her animal rights passion, something called Mindfulness that seemed to be a species of Buddhism, and a strong feminist streak, the wisdom of which she assured she could convince me one day. To tell the truth, I looked forward to her arguments on that point, but they soon petered out as they were unavailing and easily countered. All gweilo girls were infected with some sort of "edgy" meme in those days, and perhaps still are. But armed with my usual CCI - cheerful Canadian indifference - I carried on regardless in relative good humour.
She was glad to have me share her life, as she had absent-mindedly, perhaps under the influence of alcohol, taken on tasks that required much extra work and long hours and was happy to have me do them. This suited me too, and I took on what seemed to be menial tasks, but turned out to be richly rewarding in terms of the vast amount of information the work provided. The money wasn't bad either so savings resumed their happy northerly course.
One task was to transcribe voice recordings of a confidential gathering of highly-paid experts on just about everything that could interest Credit Lyonnais Securities Asia. Each expert gave papers and questioned one another over several days. One might have thought the task would be entirely donkey work, but I found myself Googling for the spelling of place names in the sands of Arabia or some information that would make a veiled reference or a passing reference intelligible. Never had I encountered a task that gave me such an overview of the current geo-political economic scene of the Asia Pacific region so I was as grateful what I learned from the work as I was getting paid for it. The fact that I had to type it out also assisted me in committing what I had learnt to memory.
Using my editing skills more, I jumped into a few masters degree papers, which were of varying quality; one that I remember was the Hong Kong system of recruiting, training and retaining housemaids from the Philippines, Indonesia and Sri Lanka. There was much of interest here, but the one thing that sticks in my mind about the task was that it pays to be unattractive if one is a housemaid if the woman of the house has anything to say about hiring. In most cases the most attractive woman - all things being equal - will get the job. But in the domestic helper business beauty is a definite liability lest the man of the house fall prey to temptation.
While the bloom was still on the rose, Angela and I decided to go to Australia for a holiday and to meet the folks as we were thinking of a permanent union. Our friends thought we were the perfect couple - we even looked alike. When times were good, they were very good. On our return from Australia, we would go directly to Wuhan for a few days as I was missing my old friends there and anxious to show Angela the town as I knew it.
We would first fly to Melbourne from Hong Kong, which I was surprised to learn was farther away than Vancouver was to St John's, Newfoundland, the entire breadth of Canada. That turned out to be not the last thing that brought Canada to mind.
It was a sweltering mid-January morning when we arrived in Melbourne, which was not surprising given the expected southern hemispheric seasonal inversion. Angela even poured a half glass of water on my head in a mischievous, playful gesture that marked the "line crossing" initiation as we flew over the equator, being my first time to do so. British soldiers going to the Falklands War were so dunked as they crossed the line.
I had once supposed it would be a brilliant idea to manufacture "Australian globes". As there is no up and down in space, there is no reason to think of the northern hemisphere as being on top any more of thinking of the southern end was on the bottom. I thought I was about to make a million selling upside-down globes, but it wasn't long before I discovered the problem. Conceptually, the idea was clever enough, but physically, there was too little going on in the southern hemisphere, and far, far too much water. All one is left with overturning the globe is South America, sub-Saharan Africa and Australia. A chunk of Indonesia and that's it.
Still it was interesting to see Australia. Even if the customs officer, with a disconcerting hoop earring questioned me with disturbing severity, thinking my arrival was a covert bid at immigration. I was only slightly comforted by the large Queen's crown on his polo shirt which looked too casual to be what it was, the uniform of HM Australian Customs, that might easily been mistaken for beach wear more suitable in a lifeguard.
Once out of the airport into a sweltering mid-January Melbourne morning, we bundled ourselves into a cab and headed into town. Nothing much to report here. It looked much like every other airport road I had travelled in Hong Kong, Singapore, Amsterdam or Toronto.
More striking was what was on the radio. Except for the Australian accents, it seemed I might have heard the same thing on morning radio in Canada with a hectoring feminist demanding this and that, then a professor yattering on about how the government wasn't do it all it could for aboriginal peoples. It sounded exactly what I would hear on the CBC morning show in Montreal except for the accents.
We were greeted by Angela's kindly older sister and given a cup of tea. When we reported there was no sleep on the plane and looked grateful for an offer of a bed, we were ushered into our bedroom.
Even then I was trying to make something of my surroundings culturally. I noticed from the air as we flew into Melbourne, it looked something like California, with orange terra cotta roofing arrayed about on suburban bungalows. Now inside the house, with its four poster bedstead and floral wall paper, it reminded of the seaside hotel in Somerset's Weston Super Mare where I went to every month for Euromoney as a stone sub. The interior had the look and feel of an English seaside home that stressed pastels.
As much as we craved sleep, we couldn't, so decided go for a walk along nearby Chapel Street, which was the chic shopping street a mile or two from downtown central business district. But no sooner had we risen the day, while still sunny, took on a surprising chill and Angela dove into bags to fetch sweaters, repeating of old saw that there are "four seasons a day in Melbourne".
We hit the streets with a nip in the air that hadn't been there on our way in. But now bundled, we cheerfully crossed a bridge over the Yarrow River, which seemed to be on a scale of the Liffey in Dublin. Chapel Street itself was an charming array of two- and three-storey ginger bread buildings of Victorian or Edwardian vintage. This too reminded me of Ireland.
My first sight of Limerick came to mind as I walked through the high street with Alan Ritchie after arriving at Shannon Airport in 1966. My brother had long treasured his bon mot about Australia that it was a "country populated by one people from one district of one town - the east end London Irish. This is a gross exaggeration, of course but can be made more accurate if restated as "traditionally made up largely of the criminal classes of one district of one city". Of course, it was just that tribe that I had entered and expected to make my own family through marriage.
During my long lost and greatly lamented legislativenews.org days, I had formed comparative views of the four legislatures I covered and their respective members - Canada's, Britain's, America's and Australia's. The Australians were the most rambunctious of the four and had the shortest names for everyone and everything. The Brits were the wittiest and made the best speeches. What's more, they covered the widest area of public affairs. In Australia, the US and Canada, vast areas of legislative territory was undiscussed at the federal level because much was relegated to the states and provinces. Canadians were the most sophisticated and had the longest names, perhaps because the need of having to work in two languages. The Americans were the most sonorous, making long, deep and ringing speeches. What made them interesting was the amount of research they bought to bear in their fact-packed speeches. Each congressman and senator had research facilities that drawfed that of most daily newspapers.
While Australians were more like Britons than others in the Anglosphere, they had the greatest resentment towards the UK and the greater affection for Americans. A measure of Anglophobia stemmed from the fact that so many arrived as convicts, many of whom were Irish with the usual Irish antipathy towards England. This contrasted with Canadians, whose English majority led by Scots ended up sounding so much like Americans that no one could tell them apart. Yet this surface sameness masked a loyalty that manifested itself in the mimicking of Westminster forms and parliamentary procedures.
Angela and I walked along Chapel Street and decided to sample the fare at an outdoor sidewalk cafe, which except for the Aussie accents seemed indistinguishable from a sidewalk cafe in any western city. That is was in the hip and cool style I first saw in Burlington, Vermont, which became ubiquitous globally and perhaps most widely exemplified in Starbucks. But no sooner had our food arrived, a sandwich and coffee, that we were struck by a spattering of rain drops and determined gusts of wind that blew napkins hither and yon.
After wolfing down our sandwiches we caught a tram, which I found disappointing - not a patch on our charming double-deckers in Hong Kong, for which I had developed much affection. The Melbourne tram, a charmless, lumbering single-decker was devoid of all interest except for its complex payment system, which eluded my understanding despite Angela's spirited attempts to explain.
When we got back, we were ready for sleep and enjoyed a welcome two-hour nap. On rising, we discovered family plans to take us out to a Greek restaurant that evening, where we ate and drank heartedly into the night. They were surprised to hear me claim that I knew all the verses to Australia's unofficial anthem, "Waltzing Matilda". They were even more surprised to know that I learned it in school.
Back in the 1950s, when I delivered milk from a horse-drawn cart we still believed in the Empire and loved all those pink bits on the map in our classrooms as the Union Jack that hung there. Doubts were expressed about my claims so I obliged the jam-packed taxi with a full rendition of "Waltzing Matilda" on the way home - much to the astonishment of the driver who sounded Greek or Lebanese with an Aussie overlay, that included words and phrases like "crikey" and "fair dinkum".
The next morning Angela decided we would walk downtown on along the banks of the Yarrow, that was laid out like as an elongated parkland much like the Rideau Canal in Ottawa. It was pleasant enough until it started to rain. Angela, not one to complain, and I marched on regardless despite our drenching. Half mile on, it stopped and were immersed in a tropical heat wave that dried us enough so not arouse attention as we slipped into a pub either near or in the magnificent Flinders Street railway station.
Externally, Flinders Street station was clearly the most impressive public building I saw during my time in the country, with its khaki-coloured Victorian arches, porticos and massive dome, its sub-domes and a huge clock encased cupola. But to see what the interior designers had done to its innards was truly soul-crushing, with its crass modernity of sheer white walls, unsightly large Helvetica signage, dumbed down barriers and partitions, completely devoid of any quality that matched the buildings glorious exterior. I was so upset I wanted to leave the building immediately.
The pub we entered for a restorative pint, was of the old school. It seemed to combine decorations of an English pub with the vast expanse typical of a Canadian beer parlour designed for mass industrial drinking. As we arrived just past 11 o'clock in the morning, so it was mostly empty, barring a few dedicated drinkers.
What made it different from the Canadian beer parlour, which were universal in Canada, though not in the Province of Quebec, which had a range of bar-restaurants and men-only taverns, was the long bar. Neither the beer parlour nor tavern had long bars that served customers directly. All drinks had to be served at tables by waiters.
The presence of these enormously extended bars in Australian pubs and their total absence in Canadian beer parlours was the result of two sets of restrictive drinking laws. The extended bar in Australia was adopted to accommodate the long-gone "daily swill". Australia passed laws to restrict pub hours in World War I. This mirrored Britain's wartime Defence of the Realm Act (DORA), which closed British pubs from before 11am and after 2pm, re-opening them from 6-11pm. Conditions were more severe in truly unruly Australia. And until 1967, in Melbourne and much of the country, pubs had to close at 6pm.That meant that a man getting off work at 5pm had no more than an hour to drink before he had to stop.
The "six o'clock swill" resulted in a culture of heavy drinking, says Wikipedia. And the pubs, like the one we were in, stressed efficiency to get has much drink drunk and sold in the shortest possible time. This accounted for the enormously extended bar in the pub we were in where pints would be set up in anticipation of patrons who arrived with exact change and grabbed already poured beer. These laws were dropped in 1967 for the most part, as it was a state or provincial matter. But it older pubs the long bars remained.
That night we gathered in a newer and smaller local pub with friends and relatives, one of whom was said to be hard to talk as she was autistic. But apart from being quiet and shunning the noise and hubbub of the admittedly joyous and rowdy reunion of friends and family, all bursting with questions about what the prodigal daughter had brought home. Once they gave me the once-over, they clustered about Angela to learn her news as they had not seen her in years. The autistic girl and I found each other as a relief from the maddening crowd. There was another woman, with a few drinks in her, that broke into song about the "gardens" and how great they were. Then it struck me that it wasn't "gardens" she was referring to, but the "Gordons", namely the Gordon Highlanders Regiment, the ones with whom the Royal Canadian Regiment had a brief altercation at De Arr, South Africa in the Boer War, as they left the camp latrines in a filthy state. While I never got the denouement of that tiff, it probably did not end too badly. When Googling unsuccessfully for the lyrics of that song I did learn that the RCRs adopted the Gordon Highlanders march "Cock o the North" as their own official march.
A downpour broke out when we were at the pub, and the throng screamed and shouted alarm at a huge thunder clap. While it was very loud, I had heard louder in Hong Kong and in Canada. So while I was not surprised by the fuss it caused in the pub that night, I was astonished that it was the lead story in the daily Melbourne newspaper the next day making me wonder if mid-January was the equivalent of the northern hemisphere's summer silly season when almost anything can make the paper.
It was time to head south from Melbourne to Devonport on the northern coast of Tasmania 12 hours away on a ship slightly larger than the Empress of Canada that I took to Montreal from Liverpool in 1969. It turned out to be a rougher than normal crossing with waves showering promenade decks with spray with some pitching and rolling. I was a little miffed about the lack nautical flavour about the ship itself. There were floors not decks, walls not bulkheads, left and right, not port and starboard on the signage and all the usages aboard such as loud speaker announcements were entirely devoid of nautical flavour.
All of which put me off from the start, leaving me to speculate that Australians, having descended from convicts who survived arduous sea voyages and no love of the sea.
After a sleepless night on a deckchair - thankfully not on deck - we arrived at the Devonport ferry terminal in a light rain. We rented a car and drove to a relative in nearby Penguin, which seemed more of an area than a town. There we found a brother, who entertained us for an hour or two, before we headed off to a place where there was to be a big booze up 50, 60 miles away, with another brother and his mates, one of whom was housesitting, thus able to provide a mansion venue with all the mod cons.
The house was large and seemingly remote with lots of neighbourless bushland around. Much drinking made the experience tolerable, except that Angela got so drunk she was not fit to drive the next day, so I took the wheel for the first time in years, and without a licence I steered south on the five-hour trip to the state capital of Hobart.
With Angela curled up on the back seat, I drove down the two-lane national highway, with no stop lanes, which I found disconcerting. By this time, I had been an experienced driver, but my licence had not been renewed for five years since it had been stolen with my wallet from our house, when I was in Grinnell, Iowa. Having been thrown out by my wife, there was a brief stay Edmonton, Alberta, before an even briefer stopover in Palo Alto, California, and thence to Hong Kong, during which time I never renewed my licence.
Hong Kong was like Montreal with efficient public transit, so a car was superfluous to anyone who did not have to travel to the boondocks, quite apart from parking being a huge problem. Later I had a boss with a car, and I sought to duck his offers of a lift if I had to accompany him because he could only find parking far away from wherever we were going. This meant long walks to wherever he had found parking. I preferred to take cab at my own expense - they were reasonably cheap and rarely used - and brought one where one wanted to go.
Now driving south, I found the Tasmanian flora was a tapestry of russets with splashes of green, over gently rolling terrain that reminded me of the Eastern Townships south of Montreal. I had never driven British style on the left before, making left turns easy-peasy and right turns a terror. But they didn't come up most of the way. As I recall, there were no cars going in our direction and very few oncoming. Angela raised herself from the back seat to satisfy herself that my driving was adequate, but was happy to slumber on through her hangover. She roused herself in one town where she wanted something to eat. She had lived there, or went to school there as a girl. Then she spotted someone she knew, a man who had been a Labor MP when she was a reporter for the Fairfax Media in Hobart and Canberra.
I was au courant with the Australian parliamentary scene by virtue of my legislativenews.org experience, and so the man in his early 50s, who seemed to be happy to be out of politics, and I had an interesting chat - perhaps the most interesting exchange of the entire trip.
I regretted that it ended before I could find out about more about Richard Butler, the governor of Tasmania (equivalent to Lieutenant Governors of Canadian provinces, the Queen's representative, playing a largely ceremonial role). I had read Butler's book "Saddam Defiant", he had written as the UN arms inspector in Iraq, the UNSCOM chief. Butler's hawkish stance informed my positive view of the Iraq attack.
But I was rushed off before that could start, largely because we were discussing things that did not interest Angela, who viewed military discussions as bad and boring. Anyway, Angela would be against me, as she always upheld the leftist feminist orthodoxy shared by most every journalist in the Anglosphere then and now.
I has been against the Afghan attack from the start. It wasn't clear to me if Osama bin Laden had much more to do with the 9/11 Twin Towers strike than lead the Muslim cheerleaders. To me attacking Afghanistan in pursuit of Osama was like moving heaven and earth to attack a football star who had lost the ball, if he ever had it.
But I favoured the Iraq attack and thought President George W Bush's initial moves were good, until that tasteless "Mission Accomplished" display on the carrier USS Abraham Lincoln where he made his hubristic speech, declaring himself to be a "war president". Americans!!! They are their own worst enemies.
Still, Afghanistan was useful in that it got the war off to a good start. The Taliban and been stoning women to death in the sports palace, which put the hostile female anti-war faction onside supporting full mobilisation. After 9/11, even the sneering, jeering media and Hollywood celebs were clicking their heels like Prussian grenadiers. I thought the idea of activating the National Guard with army trucks to-ing and fro-ing through US cities and towns large and small, further enlivened the Excited States of America that there was a war on. Splendid touch, I thought at the time. That was before I found out that they were going to actually deploy them. This began the disastrous Vietnamisation of the war. This should have been a reg force operation from start to finish.
I could see that Afghanistan, as a military power had shot its bolt offensively. And apart from a number of killer dog special forces running about for the cameras to keep the women onside, the country could be policed from a distance by B-52 bombing. Harmlessly, if Kabul played ball and restricted itself to opium smuggling, but devastatingly - with World War II area bombing - if they returned to public stonings of women and the like. I am reasonably tolerant of domestic beastly behaviour within sovereign states, if as Mrs Patrick Campbell once said, "they don’t do it in the streets and frighten the horses".
I saw Iraq was the real international menace. Being a sovereign state, the size of Texas with decent oil reserves, and with a hostile regime in place, ready, willing and able to conquer its oil rich neighbours, it was a country - unlike Afghanistan - fully capable of replicating 9/11 operations like using commercial aircraft as artillery for instance, perhaps under remote drone control. Half a dozen containers deep amidships in a 10,000-TEU vessel containing nukes exploding simultaneously in the Suez and Panama canals could stymie world trade for a year. Afghanistan had no such capacity. People talked of bombing it to the stone age forgetting that it was mostly there.
I believed the weapons of mass destruction argument, though it was not what moved me. How difficult would it be to hide three or four nuclear warheads? They could be housed in a couple of Quonset huts. They could be disposed of just as easily.
A view I did hold but no longer do was the erroneous belief that rudimentary democracy and rule of law could be imposed on Muslim lands the way it had been imposed on postwar Germany and Japan. What I forgot was that we were willing to kill civilian populations without compunction and the Germans and Japanese knew it.
This was not the case in this instance. This is why the Iraq and Afghan wars can be likened to some aspects of World War I more than World War II. In World War I, Germany did not surrender, it signed and armistice, The allies had no thought slaughtering civilians en masse. Not so in World War II.
The reason I was interested in Richard Butler was that he was the last head of the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM), the UN weapons inspection organisation in Iraq. What's more he was a leftist, an Australian Labor Party luminary, whose pro-Iraq attack views were at odds with those of the parliamentary left worldwide, and so his views were handy to buttress my own pro-Bush/Blair arguments.
So to get him out of the way, the Labor brass gave him the sinecure of being the viceroy of Down Under's sinister sounding Van Diemen's Land, the old name of Tasmania.
Angela was in no mood to take over the wheel all the way to Hobart. When we finally got there, it seemed like a continuation of the main road that first plunged down a steep hill into the city itself and then rose up sharply. This involved much derring-do. To me it seemed like one of those death-defying near vertical skateboard runs, plunging down one side and scooting up another.
This, now in serious traffic, I found terrifying, particularly when asked to do a right turn around at the top of the hill all the while feeling like a Battle of Britain pilot, not in a Spitfire or Hurricane but in a lumbering Swordfish bi-plane fearing police cars that might zip out of nowhere like ME109s.
Angela got us into a pleasant seaside hotel with a room with a view on the picturesque harbour and the truly impressive Mount Wellington, more than twice the size (4,170 ft) of Hong Kong Island's Victoria Peak. Once we were settled in, we drove up to the top, but found the peak in cloud and only when we descended could we see the picturesque town below.
It reminded me of the views returning from the mountains of North Vancouver and seeing the idyllic seaside town encircling English Bay in the early 1970s. Hobart was prettier than Vancouver, which I remembered as a shack town under a fishnet of overhead electric, telephone and trolley bus cables. But I found myself being more interested in the name of the mountain rather than the mountain itself.
The Duke of Wellington was one of my heroes having read two of his biographies. I found the epithet hurled at him by Continental foes that he was a "lucky sergeant" to be less blameworthy than his critics meant it to be. He was faulted for not having the Cromwellian ambitions of Napoleon to become the head of state, when he might seized power. He was satisfied to be a sergeant in spirit, satisfied with limited authority he was assigned to exercise.
As a result he took over as prime minister twice to run his "little dictatorship", as he called it, but left office the moment proper politicians were ready to resume power. Yes, he was not a liberal, and stood against their sweeping reforms. If everyone had his proper place in the pecking order, so did he, and all changes would be made through the good offices of the King, Lords and Commons.
But few are for God, Queen and Country anymore, and fewer still in Australia. Few talk about in it Canada, and the Canadian government in its quest to frenchify what they can, have done its best to throttle that feeling. Yet it clings on regardless, though I fear it is a losing battle.
Driving down Mount Wellington, Angela, again at the wheel, screeched to a halt to avoid hitting a squirrel-like critter called an "eastern barred bandicoot" as best as I make out from a range of pictures that appeared on Google. She ooed and awed the way girls do over babies and cute things, and discussed these incidents at length. Was she going to advocate crossing guards next, I wondered. There was much talk of animal cruelty and the efficacy of vegetarianism in general. As I was not a foodie, I fell in with the vegetarianism without difficulty in her presence, never demanding anything more than that what was served. Of course, I didn't mind dropping in for a Big Mac or its equivalent. Meanwhile, Angela drank coffee or ate something she was assured had not been cooked in the dead bodies of "sentient animals".
There was a lone piper on the waterfront, a large marina with a fast array of light passenger and pleasure craft. I asked the piper to play Black Bear, which he did. It was then I noticed how clear the air was. It was as if one's eyesight had improved. At this latitude - next stop, Antarctica - there were so few impurities that acuity was clearly better. Distant clouds and mountain peaks came into sharp focus. But still, despite recognising the indisputable truth of these observations, I didn't really care.
It might have been at that point or a few hours before that a sea change occurred. Sometimes, I think of it like sex, when feels intensely one way one moment and then one doesn't the next. I found myself half listening to what was going on around me as we visited one thing after another. There was a psychologist being interviewed on the car radio on the way to some place called Paradise, who said that one could meet one's husband or wife if one met 37 eligible people long enough to say yea or nay. Not just anybody, but people who one's friends and relations thought were in the eligible range, and not simply 37 culturally remote passengers at an airport.
Increasingly, I began to withdraw into my own thoughts, thinking more along these lines. Here was Angela, perfectly suitable in many ways. We even looked alike, both were of Irish stock, our friends thought we were well suited. I could see why they were wrong. We both had a binge drinking problem and made each other worse not better. Then there was the political baggage. I was a conservative and not a follower left-liberalism that consumed 90 per cent of my fellow journalists. I was not too attracted to the craft the way most others were. I was born into it, Both parents were journalists. True, I had my youthful leftist period even three or four years of Marxism, but returned to first what I called Louis St Laurent Liberalism (Canada's wartime prime minister), then to find myself a Conservative when the Liberal Party increasingly adopted socialist, even Marxist policies, much the same as the openly socialist New Democratic Party in much the same way the US Democratic Party had done.
After doing the rounds of cute animal refuges and noisy pubs and quick look at a feeble war memorial before being rushed off to do something else, we headed north, there was a flash of the old camaraderie as we approached Queenstown one dark and stormy night. Queenstown, in remote western Tasmania, was once the world's richest gold and copper mining town was now stripped of trees from mass logging 100 year ago. It had become a surreal, rocky moonscape of bare mountainous undulating rock through which rough treacherous ill-marked roads were faintly carved, or so it seemed in the dark.
In retrospect, I see how we came together in adversity on that dangerous road into Queenstown, which except for a drive home in a blizzard in Quebec, where semis were spinning off the road every few miles, was the most perilous driving conditions I had ever experienced. At any moment we could plunge off the road and down a precipitous rocky slope to our deaths. With our heads stuck out the window as we wended our way round sharp turns combined with steep inclines until we arrived in town's neon stripe and put into a Best Western for the night.
That camaraderie on the darkened road and genuine fear of accidental death brought us together as nothing else could. On reflection, it put me in mind of heroic times when Australians and Canadians worked together with great effect. The Royal Canadian Regiment and the Queensland Mounted Infantry surprised and smashed a Boer commando in a surprise attack at Belmont in South Africa in 1900. It was the first time the Canadian and Australian army fought an overseas action, and success was credited to an easy comradeship between officers and men of the two dominion forces, so different from the airs of superiority one had to endure from our British betters. Feelings were so good after the Belmont action that the Canadians erected a memorial to the Australian dead who suffered the only serious casualties there.
And then again, the tricks Canucks and Aussies got up to fooling the Germans made the August 1918 Battle of Amiens, the beginning of end of World War I. That's when the Canadians pretended to move to the left flank of the Australian main attack, inducing the Germans to transfer their main force from the right to the left to meet the Canadians who weren't there. Fooled by the ruse, the Germans braced themselves for an attack that never came. The resulting confusion allowed the Aussies to bash their way in for three miles, while the Canadians, facing nothing but corporal's guard romped forward largely unopposed for 10 miles - unheard of back then. It was the "Black Day of the German Army" said General Ludendorff. That's about the time the Germans started to contemplate an armistice.
But those good feelings soon wore off. And we did not have to say that our planned trip to Wuhan, which I was to pay for, was off. The prospect of more time together than was necessary was no longer welcome. So as good a spirit of toleration as we could muster for the duration we got home to Hong Kong in good order, and went through a period of disengagement over six weeks, with me getting my own flat in Kennedy Town, to begin, after a difficult start, by far my happiest times in Hong Kong Island.