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Hong Kong handover anniversary: Veteran reporter Poon Fu-yim recalls two decades of journalism and citizenship

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As we look ahead to this weekend’s landmark handover anniversary, we speak to the retired Kennedy Town journalist on covering more than 30 years of bilateral preparations, broadcasting the historic event live and seeing Margaret Thatcher trip up right next to him

Ahead of commemorating the 20th anniversary of the handover, an influx of words like ‘sovereignty’, ‘rule of law’ and ‘independence’ saturate the airwaves, as cameras and recorders aim at those in dissent, power, fear or impatience. And for the large majority of citizens who aren’t directly involved in the often hermetic world of politics, one of the only ways through which society can gain a glimpse of what happens behind closed doors is to simply watch as closely as they possibly can. Often, it is as if the government is on one side of the door and private citizens are on the other, waiting to hear or be heard. But there is a select group of people who have the important job of bridging that gap: the press. And, as individuals, their positions are difficult, straddling their interests and sentiments as private citizens with their roles as public servants, in full service of the people while categorically apart from hard power.

We speak to Poon Fu-yim, a 67-year-old retired veteran journalist of 29 years who used to live on Victoria Road in Kennedy Town, which is just a stone’s throw away from theDesk co-working and events space in Sai Wan, about his experiences as both citizen and TV journalist, pre and post-handover. During his tenure as a well-respected local reporter and anchor, Poon covered the historic Sino-British talks in the 80s and co-anchored the live broadcast of the handover ceremony 20 years ago, making a deep impact on Hong Kong journalism and society.

“Journalism is the ‘fourth estate’,” Poon tells us, explaining that while not an official power, the press is the final pillar that upholds the success and stability of a society, aside from the three branches of government – the legislature, the judiciary and the executive. And he’s lived by that core ethos from the beginning of his career as a young journalist in 1980, five years after returning home from studying English literature at the University of Oregon. Having worked in PR and advertising, he was recruited by an old boss to join the news department of Rediffusion Television, the first TV station in Hong Kong, later becoming ATV.

Not long after, with only two years of experience, Poon was sent to Beijing to cover the beginning of the historic Sino-British talks in 1982. “In those days,” he says, “you didn’t get a lot of opportunities to travel abroad for stories. That was only my second story abroad and it was the start of both sides trying to solve the issue of Hong Kong’s future.” This opportunity was in no doubt facilitated by that fact that ‘in those days, there weren’t as many reporters’. “There was only a skeleton staff of four or five and you covered any assignment – unlike now,” he adds.

Poon recalls being just steps away from former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher while she was descending the Great Hall of the People after meeting Deng Xiaoping, then-president and chief-architect of ‘One Country Two Systems’. “I was just steps away from her when she tripped,” he tells us, referring to Thatcher stumbling down the steps of the building. “I didn’t think much of it then,” he says. “I just thought it was some accident.” It was later revealed that Thatcher had been ‘a little upset and preoccupied’ on Deng’s ‘categoric’ insistence on sovereignty over the city. Since then, the footage of the incident has burned itself into the collective visual memory of the gradual transfer of sovereignty.

It was on this assignment that Poon was able to personally pose a question to Zhao Ziyang, then-premier and a key figure in the Tiananmen Incident of 1989, in the front of the Great Hall in anticipation of Thatcher’s arrival. He is the only Hong Kong journalist to have personally asked him anything, he claims. “In those days, the atmosphere was more relaxed,” he says. “Now, all the press are cordoned off and you just have to shout.” But Poon, behind a velvet rope with his team, saw the opportunity and spoke directly to him in his ‘then not-so-good’ Mandarin. He tells us: “I think the question was ‘isn’t it contradictory for a socialist country to run a capitalist city?’ That was the only question I managed to ask.” To his recollection, the response of the Premier roughly translated as ‘don’t worry, we will have reasonable preparations’. “I remember it quite well,” he says.

No frameworks had been released then but in retrospect it was highly likely Zhao was referring to some early shadow of what would later become the Basic Law and the ‘One Country Two Systems’ policy. Then, Poon would go on to cover about half of the 22 rounds of talks between China and Britain, as well cover live the signing of the Joint Declaration itself in 1984 from Beijing. “In those days, going live was a big event, not like now when it happens three or five times a day,” he tells us. And from two small rooms in a Beijing hotel, they hooked up with the signal from CCTV, the state-run television network and broadcast it live to Hong Kong. “I didn’t sleep the previous night,” he recalls. “I was very excited and nervous about it all. It was a monumental event.”

As both a journalist and a private individual, personal sentiments don’t come across in Poon’s official capacity as a pressman. There’s instead a conscious ‘focus on getting the story across to the viewers’. Perhaps, over the years, such focus becomes increasingly familiar and rehearsed. These individual sentiments don’t get picked up by a mic or ever cross the barrier of the camera lens. The fourth wall never breaks. Recalling another assignment to Cambodia in the mid-80s, he reflects on how he once thought the film The Killing Fields, on the Pol Pot massacre, was, in his words, ‘bullshit’. But upon arriving, witnessing the ‘hundred and thousands of skulls’ and speaking to the people, Poon tells us about one thing that really affected him. “Whoever I talked to, it seemed that they were the surviving member of the family,” he says.“But they didn’t tell the stories with much sadness. Perhaps it was because it was so common. Everyone went through the same thing. That really struck me.”

Recalling the preparations leading up to the handover in 1997, he tells us about how the ‘focus of the newsroom was to be able to provide the entire story from head to tail’. It was then, working for Cable TV News, that his team set up live-points by the PLA building, the governor’s house, HMS Tamar… and the list goes on. But ‘the real story would be on the streets, with people thinking about what it’s like to wake up in a Chinese territory’. Instead of the flux of emotions that many expected, Poon tells us it was ‘calm, quiet’. “People saw it coming,” he says, “and everything went according to the agenda of the day.”

“Somehow it touched me, seeing the British leaving on a ship in the middle of the night, sailing out Victoria Harbour. It was a symbolic leaving.”

On rainy June 30, 1997, Poon co-anchored from a studio set up atop Ocean Terminal in Tsim Sha Tsui. Behind him were sweeping views of the city’s iconic skyline, as well as key locations of the ceremony: the harbour and the exhibition centre. And after the routine marches, podiums and lowering and raising of flags, Poon experienced moments of nostalgia at midnight, as he, along with the rest of the city, watched Chris Patten, the last governor, and the Prince of Wales sail off on the HMY Britannia. “Somehow it touched me, seeing the British leaving on a ship in the middle of the night, sailing out Victoria Harbour,” he recalls. “It was a symbolic leaving.”

And at that moment, the leaving of the British, symbolically and politically, would lay the foundation upon which Hong Kong would renew itself in the coming years. “We should be thankful that Hong Kong is now a modern city, has the rule of law and a relatively clean civil service,” he reflects. “That was the work of the British. I did feel a little nostalgia.”

There were also times in Poon’s life where his journalistic instincts fed into his more personal, political views. Recalling whether or not he felt any anxiety towards the handover in 1997, he tells us that he ‘wasn’t afraid at all’. “There was already a run-up of 13 years,” he says, “and I knew more about China than the average populace. I didn’t even apply for BNO after Tiananmen,” referring to ‘British National Overseas’ passports offered to local intelligentsia as a safety net in case any political unrest spilled over the border. He tells us: “The handover itself was already such a big thing, changing the course of Hong Kong’s history. But at the end, it’s a rite of formality. What’s important is what comes after. It’s how ‘One Country Two Systems’ is implemented.”

While Poon cites that many of those who fled to Hong Kong during the revolution ‘remembered the communists as being ruthless’, he has confidence that that the grand experiment of ‘One Country Two Systems’ has been largely successful. “China is not going to throw One Country Two Systems out of the window,” he says. “If they do, Hong Kong will become just another Chinese city.” Looking back over the past two decades, he thinks that the unique system has been successful overall and it wasn’t until 2012, when issues of suffrage arose, that the policy has ‘come into serious question’. But he maintains that the city’s political foundation is strong.

Poon believes that despite growing controversy over increasingly vocal complaints on Hong Kong’s degree of press freedom, ‘the press has never been freer’. He asks: “Is there any subject you can’t touch?” Elaborating, he says: “When you talk about press freedom in Hong Kong, I think self-censorship plays a much stronger role than pressure from China. People choose what to talk about. You must understand that TV stations and newspapers have business interests in China.” Even Poon believes that he has not ‘seen a dramatic change’ before and after the handover within society and on the subject of press freedom. And amid the growing conversations surrounding democracy, localism and independence, Poon maintains that the youth need to understand that Hong Kong has always been under China’s sovereign rule – and always will be. But while Poon expresses reservations about the growing localist and independence movements, he also believes that ‘China still has a lot to do to win hearts over’.

Poon retired in 2004 and has since started a small company that waxes luxury cars before retail. He loves retired life, telling us that it’s ‘much more relaxed’. Sitting in a Kennedy Town café, he says that while Hong Kong itself hasn’t changed much, the area most definitely has. Telling us how years ago he used to come into town to go to the wet market, he describes the area as having changed from being ‘thoroughly local’ to being ‘fascinating’. “It’s really interesting,” he says. “I think I’ll take a walk around afterwards.”

Reflecting on the near three decades as a journalist, Poon believes he’s fulfilled a duty. “I believe that the function of the press is to address the injustices in society, to protect the interests of the public,” he tells us. “I think I’ve done my part.” However, he’s not quite optimistic about the future of journalism in Hong Kong, saying that ‘people shouldn’t get into journalism’ and that ‘it’s no longer balanced and impartial’. He adds: “People don’t distance themselves from the story.”

The distance Poon speaks of has been and will continue to be contentious. Enshrined in stark independence while carrying out its undeniably public roles, journalists like him continue to straddle the line between the private and public in an evolving Hong Kong context. Twenty years on, the roles and realities of the press have changed drastically, as Hong Kong continues to further transform. To paraphrase the famous anchorman, Walter Cronkite – that’s just the way it is…

By Grace Fung

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