[chinese blood, irish heart] - DEFUNCT: September 2008

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The power of photography

I don't think my video skills have improved much since being in Beijing, but I can take solace that my venture in China - and Mongolia - has boosted my enthusiasm in photography. I've also discovered the beauty of black & white!

I've gotten good feedback from friends and strangers (i.e. Flickr, etc.) saying 'oh, how professional!' and telling me I should enter some competitions. I'm too humble so I usually deflect these compliments into thin air. Sorry if I sound disingenous!

But after watching this video with David Griffin (below), photo editor at National Geographic, I'm quite convinced that although I've long been a proponent of video, the power and attraction of awesome photography is undeniable, and eternal. Photos like McCurry's 'Afghan refugee' or MuCullin's 'Shellshocked' oozes with so much emotion. Photos like these would stick more easily in people's minds that say, a really good documentary. Both have their pro's and con's but I'm determined the make the best of both mediums. I've also created a new gallery at Nat Geo's 'Your Shot' site.

While I've been assessing my career predicament, whether or not to leave Hong Kong and debating the worth of my existence, the quest to become a better photographer (and storyteller) has begun. I've started to research potential photo essays or multimedia slideshows to do. Good thing is I've always got SCMP as a platform... while I'm still there. This also reflects my waning passion in creating video, especially at my job. I no longer feel the excitement when starting a new project. I'm also to blame: I've just been doing assignments given to me and not being proactive enough in doing the subjects I'm interested in. Another reason for that is because of the lack of feedback from the work we've done. Hell, most of our reporters have never even seen our material. The only closure we get are the inane comments on YouTube. Even 'bad' feedback or criticisms would be good. I feel I'm getting too comfy, not challenged enough and my routine too... regimented. That's why I always envy the freedom of freelancers. Though some I know aren't too keen on their independence either, citing a lack of stability.

To end things before I blabber on: I received this email today from a certain someone and it went like this:

"Hi Ed,

How are things going? You're life is looking more and more like I wish mine did! You're definitely the most interesting facebork friend I've got, and your photos are getting better and better!...

...Cheers, hope you're as happy and stimulated by the world as you appear!"

I was flattered by her opening statement.

As for the closer, well, I just half-heartedly chuckled at the irony of it all. It's not that I'm unhappy but, man, this sinking feeling has yet to be rectified. It's no-one's fault, certainly not Hong Kong's either as some have suggested. The SAR has been good to me, there's no denying that. I've done so much here, met so many great people and I DO NOT take it for granted. But amid all the work and achievements I've done, there's always been that element missing. Someone to really share it with.

I finished off my reply to the above recipient by: "thanks, but hey, at least you got someone to love."


Friday, September 19, 2008

"A summer of Olympic revelry"

I know it seems a bit disingenuous to my very own blog but this post is actually from our SCMP website where I discuss my experiences working in Beijing during the Olympics.

A summer of Olympic revelry.

So now that the Summer Games are officially over and the reins have been handed to London authorities for 2012, I thought I'd reflect on my experiences working in Beijing throughout the Olympics as a multimedia producer and photographer.

My first day at work was May 12 - a day of tragedy when the Sichuan earthquake occurred. I remember sipping noodles at a food court opposite our Beijing bureau when I suddenly felt an unusual movement coupled by what seemed to be a head rush. It was only later that day I realised it was in fact the massive temblor that has now claimed over 30,000 lives.

It was a giant blow to the psyche of the Chinese people who were busily readying themselves for the Olympic Games. A three-minute silence was held at Tiananmen Square one week after the quake to honour the deceased. May 19 was an unprecedented showing of mass mourning that got the attention of the world.

The media got its first look inside the iconic National Stadium or the "Bird's Nest" during the China Athletics Open. However there was a problem with my accreditation for the event. Our Olympics editor, Peter Simpson, suggested I use his press pass instead. If you thought it would be difficult enough for me to get past security, it also had his photo on it! Despite my initial concern, he assured me it would be no problem, citing the lack of credible security measures. And sure enough I strolled through. Still to this day I don't understand how I managed to pull it off.

One of the most interesting people I came across was a delightful police officer called Liu Liwen. I was impressed with his English (which he learned from watching various Hollywood films), but he also has a grasp of other languages such as Spanish, Swedish and Japanese. As you'll see in the video below, his New York accent and mannerisms are legendary.

Speaking of English skills, I attended a free language course taught by volunteer teacher Dana Ding. Her students were not only Olympic volunteers but also ordinary Beijing residents who wish to improve their English in time for the Games. Many were elderly people, and I was amazed by their linguistic ability and the enthusiasm they showed.

Since 2001, when Beijing won the bid to host the Games, authorities have launched a fervent redevelopment campaign throughout the city. However, one of the drawbacks has been the mass relocation, and at times eviction, of Beijing residents from their homes.

The neighbourhood of Dazhalan, south of Tiananmen Square, is a prime example. The government will demolish all old buildings in the area to pave way for the new. I met with antique store owner Li Fengxian, one of the last remaining tenants clinging on to her property. At the time I met her, the fate of her store was still unknown. She will just have to wait it out until the developers come knocking.

During my stay in the capital, the Beijing Organising Committee of the Games (BOCOG) regularly scheduled media tours. I had previously attended their events in the form of bland press conferences, i.e. those where "sensitive" questions, usually asked by foreign journalists, are always brushed aside. The first BOCOG outing I experienced was a trip to the spectacular Olympic Forest that boasted an equally spectacular view of the Olympic Green from its hilltop. It sounded like it would be a grand day out, but once we got off the coach the problems began.

The police kept us waiting at the entrance for 30 minutes despite the presence of BOCOG officials, and a game of "let me call my superiors" started. First of all, let me elaborate just how hot it was that day. Not only was the sky unusually clear, the mercury topped 35 degrees celsius. That equalled a lot of frustrated and sweaty journalists.

Once we finally got in, our indelible tour guides told us they didn't have enough cars to transport us to the hill top. So we had to take turns while the rest waited out in the open. Then there was the problem of arranging transport to go back down again. It was all a messy logistical affair. Not only that, the lack of English press releases really steamed some foreign reporters.

In the first case of a terror alert in Beijing, reporter Al Guo was on the scene when bomb disposal squads investigated a mysterious unattended bag on a street near the Forbidden City. Al took several photos of the incident but was brought aside by police and they questioned his intentions. Had Al told them he was a reporter they would've certainly deleted his photos.

With the stress of being the sole SCMP multimedia producer in town piling up, I took the opportunity for a quick getaway to Mongolia before the Games began. I was adamant I wouldn't do any work while I was there but I was so fascinated by the Naadam Festival, I couldn't resist! It's often referred to as the Mongolian Olympics and so it was an interesting opportunity to not only showcase this 2,000-year-old sporting spectacle but also to compare it to the Games.

I was fortunate enough to find an English-speaking wrestler to talk to me. In this video he said he has hopes for his compatriots, who up to this day have never won gold. His dreams came true when two Mongolians won gold at judo and boxing this August.

Back on the job again and refreshed from my Mongolian adventure, our very own paper made headline news on July 25. One South China Morning Post photographer, Felix Wong, was arrested when covering the chaos at Olympic ticket queues. Several other Hong Kong reporters were also manhandled by police. We tried to call him several times that day but to no avail. Felix eventually showed up back at the office frazzled but still in good spirits.

When I spoke to Felix for the video below, he wasn't allowed to discuss the fact that police charged him with assaulting an officer. What occurred that day is still disputed: police allege Felix kicked an officer in the groin and he was made to apologise. But the charges have since been dropped.

One Olympic highlight for me was meeting legendary sprinter Linford Christie. But first let me explain the background: Christie was in Beijing as an ambassador for the lingerie brand Triumph. The company held a fashion show at the 798 arts district and, as much as I'd like to ask a sporting celebrity about the latest underwear trends, I unabashedly delved straight into Olympic-related questions. Here's what he had to say.

My last assignment in Hong Kong before I left for Beijing was when the Olympic torch came to town. Seeing the flame again in Beijing in all its fiery grandeur was bit of a déjà vu. The atmosphere was just as electric, and hell of a lot more Chinese flags. The last leg of the relay kicked off at the Meridian Gate of the Forbidden City, the spot where previous dynasties beheaded all sorts of bad people. One funny moment was when Yao Ming returned from his short run and was chased by legions of fans half his size, including me. Well, I'm not really a fan but I wanted to get some sort of sound bite from him.

Protests by the Students for a Free Tibet got off to an elaborate start when one activist scaled a lamp post near the Olympic Green to unfold a free Tibet banner. I narrowly missed another daring protest at Tiananmen Square but was lucky enough to redeem myself by acquiring the footage from the group's founder. You might also want to visit our YouTube version which has been bombarded by pro-China comments.

Corporate parties were all the rage during the Games. Sponsors went all out to bring the hottest celebrities and wherever possible, the latest medal winners. Budweiser hosted a huge party and boasted swimmer Michael Phelps would be attending. It was the night he won his eighth medal so I was primed and ready for his arrival, waiting outside by the stage all night while occasionally nipping off for a free pint of Bud.

Unfortunately, Phelps was a no-show and we were all quite disappointed, I think we waited for five hours. However the night was not entirely lost: another Olympic legend, Carl Lewis, made a brief appearance and I was lucky enough to chat to him.

As you might be aware, there was a genuine lack of news stories during the Games. What I mean by that is that sport-related news reigned supreme. Audiences around the world were glued to their TV sets and reading up on who won what. So reporter Al Guo and I set off to do an investigative report on scalping. Of course, ticket touting is nothing new and is a staple of any major event.

But what was interesting this time was that, although the Public Security Bureau declared scalping illegal and offenders liable to fines and jail time, I still saw droves of touts lined up outside various venues waving their tickets about despite the police presence. You might think our mission was to assess the ridiculous prices they were offering – as many foreign TV crews did – but in fact I was more interested in how they operated, and why they weren't scared to do it in full view of police.

Forty-five videos later and it was time to produce my final report of a wrap-up of the 29th Olympic Games. You can watch the video below to assess the legacy of the Beijing Olympics.

On a more personal note, my stint in Beijing was eventful to say the least. It was quite exciting and daunting at the same time being in China during such a tumultuous period. As a journalist working behind-the-scenes I learned so much more about the Games and China than I would have as an ordinary bystander.

Overall I would say the Beijing Games have been a tremendous success. So successful in fact it seemed to pull a cover over various controversies that have dogged the Games: Air pollution, underage gymnasts, manhandling foreign journalists, censored internet access, the fickle lip-synching fiasco, to name a few. People love controversies but they're just as quick to forget them. Hence, the Beijing Games can be seen as a 'propaganda Olympics', a means to show the world how modern and powerful China has become. Coupled with the country's impressive medal tally it's a great source of national pride and unity for the Chinese people.

It will be interesting to see how China develops once it gets over its Olympic hangover. Though the Games are over, there is still a lot to talk about China: Will the Communist Party introduce political reforms? Will China become a greener country? Will its human rights track record improve? These are among the plethora of issues facing this rising superpower.

All in all, I was glad to be a part of it and I hope you enjoyed our coverage of this historic event.


Sunday, September 07, 2008

Sorry, I know I whine a lot. But I aim to do something about it. A friend once told me you either complain and live a lie, or you do something about it. Well my friend, I certainly aim to get things rolling. I've applied as a United Nations Volunteer, with emphasis on my media skills. I even added my military experience in the form...

I just need to bite my tongue and work a few more months with my present employer to even up my budget from my time in Beijing...

I also need to reorganise my equipment making me more mobile. So I'm selling my shoulder-mounted JVC camcorder, and buying a lighter, less conspicuous one. May also consider upgrading my DSLR. Oh, and buying a Mac too. We've traded our PC's for Macs at the office so I wouldn't mind getting more familiar with Final Cut.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

It's been a tough first week back in Hong Kong. I've somewhat recovered from the dreaded flu but still have enough mucus to fill a snot farm. And you know something's up when I'm staying up this late to blog despite my fatigued state.

The workflow and dynamics of my job description has changed and although I'm always one for change, this one is quite unsettling. Yes, perhaps I've still not settled in fully back into Hong Kong life or the normal work routine but I've begun detesting many things. All the familiar things to me that now seem so alien.

I thought I would come back a fresh man, boosted by my exploits on the mainland. Considering how much I wanted to leave Hong Kong in the first place, it seemed Beijing had done wonders in clearing my mind. Not the city or people itself rather, as I've begun to learn, but it was being away from here. I'm in no position to lambast this place or its people, but I've been struggling to keep afloat in HK and things seem to have went downhill late last year. This place is becoming less 'habitable' for me. I have less friends than before and I can't seem to 'improve' as an individual. I also feel my passion for doing what I do is waning. People say I'm lucky to find a job that suits me, and not to mention working for such a prestigious news organisation. I'm usually humble about it. But secretly inside I'm self-abased. I keep asking myself "is this the best I can do?"

All these problems are, as I've mentioned before, self-manifested. Therefore I feel it cannot be cured by anything tangible. It's time for a complete overhaul of my life and decide what's really best for myself. I've tried living the best I can. There's certainly been good times, I do not dispute that. In fact, life in general has been grand in HK. I've got no serious financial burdens, my skin condition has improved dramatically and I don't need to pay rent. I've got loving parents and family members. I've met wonderful and like-minded people whom I'm proud to call friends.

But this one element has always evaded me for the past, 6 years is it now? In my archives I've written a lot about 'G'. Lifting myself out of that abyss was the hardest thing I had to do - by fucking miles. And as I moved away to this place, thousands of miles away, it manifested itself again in almost the same nature - which is why I was so adamant in taking a 'retreat' to Beijing. (despite having to pay my own rent in order to work for the company) The heavy workload plus excitement of working in a foreign environment did a lot to cleanse me. But now I feel it coming on again. So anyway that's a big STOP sign right there.

And just can't for the love of my life explain why... and why it keeps happening... and more frequently it seems. Sure I'll probably get over it like I had previously. Do I fall in love too easily? I can't say I fall out of love just as easily however. Each time it seems to tear something away from me, leaving me more vulnerable. Suffice to say I'm sick of it. I'm sick of needing to pick myself up each time and having nothing to show for it. But deep down I acknowledge these people were, and are still worth loving. They've been forever ingrained in my memory. They've secretly altered my course in life. And it looks like it's about to happen again. She's... someone I adore very much. A beautiful human being. A cradle of creativity. Purely amiable. Like-minded. We even share a similar story of how our ailments brought us to HK, and how this city has boosted our credentials. But I don't see anything happening. I don't even pretend. Don't bother asking how I know. But that's fine, just a li'l bit of history repeating.

I know, it sounds very fickle. But to me it's a curse. I've said before I'm strong on many fronts, but for some reason I'm very sensitive to this. Almost childish. I wish I wasn't. I don't know understand why and how 'G' spun me in this direction. I was such a different person before I met her. Hell, she didn't even do anything. Again I say, it's self-manifsted.

Tell you one thing though, this flu has inadvertantly given me a lot of clarity. At first I thought this urge to change was caused by my severe grogginess and low spirits, but it's allowed me to look into myself very deeply. What I really want is something that keeps me on the move. I like to be in dangerous situations and I love that adrenaline rush. Living in a big (yet teeny) cosmopolitan city doesn't quite cut it. Rejoining the military is out of the question, however. I'm going to start looking for opportunities elsewhere. And I only decided this coming back home today in my fatigued state. It's begun, and it's oh-so clear to me now. To not follow this path would be hypocritical. And there's nothing I hate more than hypocrites. The ideal job would be as a media worker for an NGO (doubt I'm skilled enough yet for agencies) - hopefully to some godforsaken, war-torn and desolate place. That ought to keep me focused.

I'd hate to say I'm taking it for granted but I'm prepared to leave it all behind. I'm I being too cold and indifferent perhaps? My life may be less complicated if I was indeed cold and indifferent. But then again that wouldn't be like me at all. And that's the problem.
Hopefully my next post will be some good news. In some ways I hope it'll be my last... I know I'm sounding bleak. But lately this blog, apart from my Olympic-related posts, has been nothing other than a channel of my own confusion and dejection. While it has been therapeutic, it has to stop some day.

Good night.
p.s: "Mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death"

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Yunnan pix are finally up...

Check it!

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

That sinking feeling already...

I know being away 4 months isn't that long but the journey home was most surreal. It was almost like a living deja-vu... the streets looked so familiar yet I felt detached.
I don't particularly miss Beijing nor am I excited being back. To be honest I didn't even miss anyone. Am I bad person? I know I'll be glad to see friends and family again but if any of them asked me if I missed them I'd say no... then they'd think I'm a complete dickhead! But it's sadly true. Perhaps because I was so engrossed in my work in BJ. But nevertheless I felt anxious coming home, it's like I felt I belonged here. It felt alien. Yet I never got that feeling when I was in Ireland.
I now officially am determined to look for opportunities elsewhere and most likely leave Hong Kong. There's nothing or no-one here to hold me down so I'll have no qualms in doing so. Sometimes I think I'll always walk down this path alone. Difference now is that I accept it, or rather I'm beginning to... I don't want to be bitter or melancholic about it anymore. I also think as if I've seen enough of Hong Kong and what it has to offer. It'd be great if I could be 'based' in HK but working around Asia most of the time.
What's changed I ask myself? Yes, it's due to recent events while I was away. I've been telling people "it's been emotional" during my time in Beijing - a vague but lovely line from Vinny Jones - but more so because I met someone who has indirectly shifted my mode of thought this way. It's almost that same old story again.. and as much as I want to fight it and pull through in the end - with each time seemingly losing a piece of myself - I know the desire to leave is just a cover, again. A sham really. I know I'm strong, disciplined, a soldier's soldier and an adrenaline junkie but I acknowledge there's this part of me that just wasn't designed properly to manage the whole love department. No-one's to blame but myself. I've also begun to learn that many of our problems are self-manifested. So it's time I did something about myself.