Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Drunk in Pyongyang, sober in Beijing

With North Korea dominating global news headlines again, I can’t help but think of the North Koreans I have met.

Mr. Kang was the foreign ministry “minder” assigned to us during a reporting trip to Pyongyang a few years ago. He was a slim and rather pale young man – in his mid-20s back then – who had followed his diplomat father’s footstep when it came to choosing a career.

Having lived and studied in Europe and China, Mr. Kang is fluent in English and Chinese – a perfect choice to mind nosy journalists’ business. Thanks to the rather innocuous agenda of the trip (a few weeks before North Korea revealed its secret nuclear program to the world), Mr. Kang seemed to have spent less time supervising us and more time socializing with us.

Even this privileged North Korean was eager to learn more about the West, particularly his nation’s sworn enemy. We talked about quite a bit about America, mostly on the cultural front – and he was well-versed in the Western pop culture. Although I noticed he wore the same shirt, tie and suit for a week, he was always articulate and relaxed during our conversations – quite a sharp contrast to the image of Communist dinosaurs in most people’s minds.

On our last night in Pyongyang, Mr. Kang was trying to take us to a “secret” karaoke parlor. Crossing the wide and silent downtown street in nearly total darkness, I was looking forward to the rare opportunity of seeing a North Korean official belt out some cheesy pop songs (this being the pre-“Team America” days – we had no idea we would hear the Dear Leader himself sing “I’m so ronery, so ronery” with such tenderness only a few years later).

But alas, we were a little too late. The karaoke parlor closed at 10 p.m. We ended up at the revolving restaurant on the top floor of our hotel. The view outside was – well, pitch-black. But with alcohol flowing, Mr. Kang became even more friendly – toasting to each of us repeatedly while promising to call us next time he would visit Beijing.

We paid the exorbitant bill (even by New York standard) and bid farewell to Mr. Kang – and that was the last time I saw him.

Then there were some of his fellow countrymen I met in their hideaways in Beijing. For a while, North Koreans were literally crashing the gates of different embassies in the capital – seeking refuge and highlighting their plight. Sometimes we would be tipped off about their action the night before – and would go see and talk to them.

It was usually somewhere far out in the suburbs – in one of those “ghetto” areas. There would be children, couples, the elderly – often the whole family was there – all crammed into one or two small rooms.

Much has been said about the North Korean refugees’ escape from their homeland. Seeing them in person and talking to the few Chinese-speakers among them, however, still made me understand a little better why they would risk everything to make the dash or jump the next day – despite the barbwires and armed guards in front of the embassies. There was simply no going back.

One scene has stuck to my mind. Dressed as construction workers, a group of North Koreans caught the security personnel of the Canadian embassy off-guard – when the refugees started climbing two ladders into the embassy.

Just when it seemed to be a mission accomplished, several guards rushed to the spot and pulled the ladders down – felling the last remaining Korean on one ladder.

As the guards grabbed the old man in the bushes and dragged him away, you could hear the gut-wrenching scream from those already inside as they witnessed the horror so helplessly through the fences.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Sexy Accountant 101

I got this assignment from my head office in a Southeast Asian state that we shall never name here (well, for now). They were like, oh, we want to promote our country's accountant association by making the profession look cool and sexy. So here's the name to contact, place to meet and questions to ask -- go film and give us enough material for a 7-minute profile (which, for those of you not in the TV news industry, is like eternity).

I was like, uh, if you say so. Seeing that this guy is with the same global banking giant for which a good friend of mine works, I called the friend to test the idea.

"You want to make an accountant in my company look sexy?" My friend the banker was in mild shock.

"Yes. What do you think?" I asked cautiously.

"Oh, the mere thought of an accountant on TV makes me titillate," he said earnestly.


Fast forward to yesterday morning -- my cameraman and I arrived at the gleaming tower that houses this guy's office. A very pleasant young man -- enjoying crunching numbers and articulate about his attraction to the job.

We spent two hours filming him engaging in such exciting activities as checking the markets in front of computer terminals, walking through countless corridors on several floors in those huge offices and chatting with colleagues about the latest investment trends.

After the lunch break, the shoot resumed at Hong Kong's famous harbor front. As the seasoned cameraman diligently zoomed, tilted and panned, our nice accountant cat-walked with many of the city's landmark skyscrapers in the backdrop. Somehow he never seemed to have considered loosening his tie, let alone taking off the jacket and, god forbid, the shirt.

But hey, tonight we're going to film him eating with friends at a food stall. I'm sure the story will be spiced up over there!

P.S. This is the first post of an occasional series that I'm likely to call "Stupid TV News Assignment of the Day" (yeah, I've come to realize that I'm too late in the game of "Chinese Idiom of the Day.")

Tuesday, October 3, 2006

Next job: teaching Chinese?

The Chinese say “what you think of during the day is what you dream about at night” (日有所思,夜有所梦). Hmm, shall I start a Chinese Idiom of the Day thing here?

But alas, I digress. Yesterday in my dream, I was watching a video with a remote control in hand. I kept fast-forwarding and rewinding in search of a desired scene – but never seemed to be able to find it. Eventually I was woken up by a phone call.

What an appropriate metaphor, I marveled – especially considering I work in the TV industry. I have indeed been contemplating my next career move for quite some time – and the hunt for a new job has been fruitless so far.

Which leads me to introducing today’s second Chinese idiom, “if you are really focused and determined, you can shoot your arrow into a hard rock” (精诚所至,金石为开). The hyperboles of the ancient Chinese are certainly comforting words during difficult times.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The Chinese are coming

One recent sunny and warm afternoon, my friend Ben and I were wandering around Lucerne, a quintessential Swiss town.

The old churches and houses, the cobbled streets, the cafes around the piazzas – everything just seemed picture-perfect as Lucerne exuded its quaint charm.

All of sudden, like a blaring siren – that familiar sound hit our eardrums!

You know, it was that throat-clearing, pre-spitting noise that you get used to on the crowded streets of China.

Before we could react, this middle-aged portly man emerged from a Chinese restaurant on the corner – along with a large delegation of visitors chatting loudly in Mandarin.

The Chinese man began letting out his phlegm right in the middle of the piazza.

One, two, three, four, five.

When all was (relatively) quiet again, he caught up with his fellow delegates – all flocking into the big shop selling the most exclusive Swiss watches just down the street.

Tofu with Swiss characteristics

Btw I will never ever pay 25 Swiss Francs (that's 20 U.S. dollars, folks) for a plate of braised tofu with soy sauce.

Chinese people sometimes joke about "going to buy a block of tofu and killing myself by slamming my head on it" (买块豆腐撞死). Well if you happen to become suicidal in Switzerland, that would be one expensive endeavor!

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Tanks in Bangkok and democracy in Hong Kong

I chatted with a Thai friend online today. He’s a news anchor in Bangkok at a TV network that used to have close ties with the ousted prime minister.

“They still let us do our newscasts,” he said of the military authorities. “But we need to be more careful now.”

That’s quite an understatement, especially since he went on to say, “There are soldiers in the newsroom.”

With that, a vibrant – albeit young and struggling – democracy in Southeast Asia has turned to just another authoritarian or totalitarian regime in the region.

“Now our news is just like yours,” my friend added, taking a shot at my employer, a media outlet based in a fellow ASEAN country known for its abundance of wealth and lack of freedoms.

So he's got a good point. Sadly, while my ordeal is almost over, his has just begun.

I realize how unpopular Thaksin was with Thai urbanites and southern Muslims. But instead of voting him out, many people appear satisfied to see ambitious generals topple a divisive but legitimately elected leader – even if it means the curtailing of civil liberties in the process.

“We will just have to wait and see,” my Thai friend concluded, disagreeing with the army’s action but feeling resigned to the current situation.

And then there were those pictures splashed across Hong Kong newspapers – showing local tourists happily posing with soldiers in front of tanks on the streets of Bangkok.

Many among those tourists must have repeatedly told pollsters that they want universal suffrage in Hong Kong now – since that has been the wish of the majority in the city for some time.

It’s rather ironic that they cheer for the loss of democracy abroad while demanding it back home. Maybe Beijing is right after all – some Hong Kongers are “too simple, sometimes naïve.”

Saturday, September 23, 2006

About time!

So I finally bit the bullet and decided to set up a real blog here. I gave it almost the identical title as my experimental, semi-secret blog elsewhere. Hopefully this dragon will have something fiery to post when he is more awake (yes, it really is 4 a.m. on a Saturday).