by Anthony Chan
That's exactly what the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation wanted in 1983 when it received more than 850 applicants in response to a Globe and Mail ad searching for new journalists of colour. I was one of the anointed eight: 3 Chinese, 3 Blacks, 1 East Indian, and 1 Native (5 men, 3 women). It started the initiation of one Asian man's journey into that peculiar global culture known as broadcast journalism. It was the first step to the new world of film and video creativity that would take me to the ice rink streets of Saskatoon, the Chinook blown city of Calgary, big shot bag men in Hong Kong and California tales of internment camp horrors in Tule Lake and triage in Vietnam.
Saskatoon, Calgary and Edmonton might seem like endless daily cycles of snow drifts for most Victorians and Haligonians. But the weather isn't the only thing that's predictable. Working at the CBC in television news had its many moments of routine and obviousness. Being the only Chinese reporter in those prairie newsrooms brought the expected culinary and racial comments. Some were good, most were bad.
In those newsrooms was an attitude of "let those effete Eastern bastards freeze in the dark". After all, the network was based in Toronto. Prairie television news was different. There was a definite attitude of community togetherness mixed with a cowboy brand of rugged individualism bordering on a depraved sense of racial humour. We developed a subtle strength and bravery. When you've gone through fourteen straight days of -32F with a grin, you're either extremely courageous or just plain bent.
Although my contract didn't get extended in Calgary, I did my best work there. That was partly because of encouragement from the current affairs producer who later became executive producer. I got to meet and tell the stories of: the best chicken in town (at the St. Louis Hotel where the folksy mayor held court); Don and Honey Ray, a circus sharp shooter and his target; a whiz kid who knew how to make cement; a Jews for Jesus side show; and an Eritrean who longed to make the world aware of his people's tragedy in Ethiopia.
I learned to write with precision, focus on one simple story and make ends meet with twenty frames of background footage. I could tell the entire life stories of people in ninety seconds or three minutes if the pictures were varied and compelling. I felt like an abbreviated version of Warhol who said that people are entitled to 15 minutes of fame. I loved the camera and what it could do: it made ordinary people famous.
After CBC, I wanted to do a longer piece celebrating the Chinese women and men who lived and worked in cafes. I wanted to pay tribute to my family and the Panama Cafe in Victoria. That cafe was part of my boyhood. It sustained and nurtured all of us: grandparents, mom and pop, uncles, aunts, siblings. It was the economic foundation that gave us strength to go and live in non-Chinese Canada.
Chinese Cafes took us to small town Saskatchewan. We heard tales from the first Chinese mayor on the prairies, young women angry about having to work in the cafes while their brothers played baseball, a cafe owner who raised money to build a community skating rink and the custom of matched marriages.
As an independent television producer, I now tasted the freedom of being able to call all the shots. No one could rag us on this gig. Working on Chinese Cafes, I soon realized there were lots of Noisy Jim, Wayne Mah, and Pearl Tang stories throughout Canada. These people are the real people; they and ordinary people like them are the heart and soul of this country, not the CBC with all its trappings of "relevant" news and the "information conscience of Canadian unity."
Chinese Cafes was edited in Toronto. Although it was a trip being back in the big city, I couldn't shake that newsroom drug. I was hooked on television news and needed to get another fix.
One winter's night, I got that call from Hong Kong. I arrived just in time to cover the Corazon Aquino story. While some might skip off to Hong Kong for some philosophical, or stereotypical notions like the meditative Zen fantasies of Asia, I didn't. As a television producer and anchor of two weekly public affairs shows in the English division of Television Broadcasts Ltd. (TVB), I was simply there to work. After several years of working for the CBC, I wanted my own show. TVB gave me that chance.
Working in Hong Kong wasn't like Calgary or New Orleans. It turned out to be the toughest place in the world for Western journalists, even for those that spoke Cantonese. While one anchor booth might have looked the same in Hong Kong as in San Jose, the way of doing television news wasn't.
The hierarchical structure of who gets what and who gets the most is based on Confucianism. The news director is God, reporters merely minions. Every Chinese knows his/her place, and he/she sticks to it. Western reporters and anchors, however, don't belong in this hierarchy. Not being part of that structure means they're exempt from any traditional rewards or punishments. They're in limbo. That means anything goes: like getting fired on a bet and being introduced again as a new employee once you're rehired or reassigned all in the same day. It's all a mind game.
But that isn't the biggest crap shoot in town, China is. Everything Hong Kong breathes rides on the Beijing wind. But that doesn't mean Hong Kong or Asian stories aren't important. For a reporter who's covered the likes of drunk driving at Xmas, cat shows and the best chicken in town - telling stories like the Aquino revolution, the downfall of Hu Yaobang, American protectionism, China's nuclear power plant at Daya Bay and press censorship was a journalist's heaven.
The list could have been endless. But like everything else in Hong Kong, you've got to take off your roller skates before it's too late. Otherwise, you'd end up like the journalist from Melbourne who worked thirty days straight, lost his hair and died a slow death on vodka martinis.
Or you could become like the non-Asian who hated the sound of Cantonese so much he wore ear muffs in the newsroom. Then there was another American so unhinged after sixteen months that he went on camera slurring and weaving after a dozen San Miguels too many. Too long in Hong Kong for Westerners means death, insanity or simply not caring for the journalist's craft. Hong Kong is the "Dragon's Lair."
Working as a television reporter in Hong Kong is like working on another planet, a tiny one inhabited by six million people. The pace is brutally stressful, movements tight. Getting interviews can be a problem, sometimes taking months just to persuade camera shy Chinese people to appear and talk. But most people will if being interviewed means enhancing their status, prestige and savings account. This town is on the make for only one thing. While these people might talk about the sanctity of family, grandmothers have been sold for less.
For the serious reporter, this is the place to be 1997 is just around the corner. Breaking news stories in Beijing, Tokyo, Seoul, Singapore and Ho Chi Minh City is routine. The news action is in Asia.
While making money and more of it and living just to eat the many kinds of regional Chinese food could describe some Hong Kong people, "feelin' good" turns on Californians. There's work here and more than 150,000 people arrive in California every month. The state's population is already 28 million people. But while feeling good might be on most minds in sunny California, "feelin' bad" occupies more minds than you'd realize.
I figured that out, while producing the story of three Japanese-American women artists. While Another Day in America profiled two painters and a jazz saxophonist, it inevitably touched on the internment camp experience. "Feelin' bad" had to be exorcised.
In Asian Vets, "feelin' bad" was also on the minds of Asian Americans who served in Vietnam. At Fort Lewis, a Chinese American war correspondent told me that the white officer singled him out and told the recruits "this is how a gook, your enemy in Vietnam looks like!" Besides Asian American reporters, gunners and infantry, there were also nurses.
One was a New Yorker: her mother an Italian and father a first generation Toisan immigrant. Looking like the placid noblewoman in Rashomon, she knows that any nurse popping a Pepsi on a 4:00 a.m. shift means she's done triage in Vietnam.
The Vietnam story from Asian American minds and hearts hasn't been told yet. Maybe it's because the story's just too painful for the folks who could. Maybe, it's an American story needing a Canadian storyteller. After all, we don't have that arrogance of being Number One. We don't have an exaggerated sense of patriotism. Canadians can tell an American story without much cultural baggage or an axe to grind. Despite the longing of some Canadians to rush south across the 49th parallel, the motto, "Peace, Order and Good Government" rather than "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness" is what defines us.
Being an Asian in America has no special meaning for me. Being Canadian in America does. The internment, exclusion, matched marriages, Sun Yat-Sen, the Nationalist party and the railroad have both Canadian and American meanings. But how I view these stories is based on my upbringing in Victoria, British Columbia as a Canadian with a whole lot of Chinese values, quirks and a digestive system partial to laap cheung, salt fish, and bak jaam gaL
Asian American nurses, soldiers in Vietnam, Chinese cafes in rural Saskatchewan, Indians looking for a way out of Hong Kong and Japanese American women artists are just some of the stories that I have told on television, in schools, festivals and community gatherings.
As Asians, it is always a constant struggle to try to tell our stories. We are also a 'distinct culture' not unlike the French (Quebec) and our Native Peoples. Perhaps,
our task is more daunting because we have denied and have been denied our own histories in both Canada and the United States. By telling our stories we will begin to get to know ourselves, and to get to know each other. Telling our stories means we're alive, that we are here and that we are staying.
some of us damn well know where we have been so we damn well know where we are going