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Book Review - Jonathan Fenby: Dealing with the Dragon

Jonathan Fenby was editor of the South China Morning Post from (I think) 1995 to 1999. His book is ostensibly a diary of one year (1999), though actually it's about Hong Kong over a longer period, obviously including the handover. It starts with an interesting and quite entertaining chapter about Hong Kong. Reading this it becomes obvious that Fenby had spent long enough here to know Hong Kong better than many journalists who write about the city, though crucially he still comes across as an outsider.

The problem with this chapter is that Fenby seems a little too keen to show off how much he knows, and some of it doesn't quite ring true (for example he notes that many buildings don't have a 4th floor or a 14th, 24th or 34th floor, which is correct, but then claims that the apartment block opposite where he lived had Upper 3rd, Upper 13th & Upper 23rd floors, which seems unlikely. He also says that "holding a quota licence to export textile goods to the West remains a ticket to riches, but the sweaters and jeans and T-shirts do not have to been made in Hong Kong." Well, actually they do, otherwise the US authorities get very upset. However, it's true that many garment factories have been sold and the sites re-developed as offices or residential sites, thereby making the owners very rich. He alludes to one such individual, mentioning that "the last time we visited the leader of one major political group, he had a large Mercedes, a Porsche and a Ferrari in the driveway, and a Rolls inside the garage".

Strangely he doesn't say who he is talking about.  Unfortunately, most people reading this book (given that it was published in London) will have no idea, whereas most Hong Kong people will know that he must mean Liberal Party leader Tien Pei-chun.  Later he talks about Nury Vittachi but doesn't mention his name.  What's that all about, then? 

Chapter two is about China, and is less gossipy. Then we get on to the diary, starting naturally enough with January, which was when Fenby was told that his contract with the SCMP was not going to be renewed, though oddly he doesn't mention this in the book until he reaches the date when his contract ended (15 May). He carried on editing the paper until the end of July, and continued writing a weekly column until the end of the year.

Censorship and the influence of the paper's owner (Kuok Hock Nien) are covered fairly briefly. Fenby acknowledges that Robert Kuok wanted the paper to be more pro-Beijing but claims that he fought very hard against this, and that resigning on a point of principle would have allowed a more pliant editor to be installed. Fenby says that he he managed to prevent Kuok from getting rid of Willy Lo-Lap Lam (though his successor Robert Keatley sacked him a few months after he took over as editor).

Fenby writes about another journalist on the paper whom Kuok wanted rid of, and, although it's totally obvious who he is talking about, he doesn't mention his name.  The journalist was Nury Vittachi, and he wrote a book about it - the rather uneven "North Wind" - using this as proof that newspapers in Hong Kong practice self-censorship. Nury argues that he was taken off the "Lai See" column because of complaints by Robert Kuok. Fenby agrees that Kuok did want this, but claims that he had planned to make this change anyway, before he learned of Kuok's feelings on the matter. Although he decided to go ahead with the change, he was reluctant to fire him (as Kuok wanted). In the end, the compromise was that Nury was given a (fairly lucrative) freelance contract to write two columns (one was about the history of Hong Kong, as I recall), and then he left to join the new Hong Kong iMail. I'm not qualified to judge who is right or wrong, but I can't help feeling that both parties are being somewhat self-serving in their accounts.

Fenby also mentions that Robert Kuok was kind enough to provide him with a minder - Feng Xilang was appointed as a consultant to the newspaper and given an office on the editorial floor. Fenby is adamant that Feng was not give access to the editorial computer system and had minimal influence, and reports that he eventually retreated to the management floor.  Fenby obviously feels that he successfully fought off the attempts by the paper's owners to make editorial decisions, but then he would say that wouldn't he? 

George Adams claims that Fenby also fired Larry Feign (creator of "Lily Wong") but I fear he is wrong about that. It was David Armstrong (editor-in-chief before Fenby, and now editor once again) wot done it. Incidentally "Dr" Adams is mentioned a couple of times in the book, the first time over a couple of paragraphs summarising an unflattering portrait of Fenby from NTSCMP, which prompts him to ridicule all those who criticize the Post for being pro-Beijing, and then very briefly when it seems that NTSCMP was able to reveal the identity of the new editor who was replacing Fenby. I confess that I was expecting the book to feature the good Dr Adams more strongly, but it seems that what George describes as 'examples' are in fact the sole references to himself in this book. How disappointing.

The rest of the book is taken up with accounts of various news stories and political shenanigans from Hong Kong's recent history.  Fenby writes well enough, and summarizes the issues quite competently as well as giving his own perspective, but I do feel that the book suffers from the way it is organized.

For example, the material about censorship and other issues related to the Post deserves a separate chapter, but instead it is shoe-horned into the diary format. Many of the incidents described above appear in the entry for 15 May, a day of limited significance given that it was neither the date when Fenby learned his contract would not be renewed, nor his final day as editor. Needless to say, many of the incidents happened prior to 1999 (the year this book is supposed to be about).  This is typical of the book, and as it doesn't have an index it is hard to find anything.

This is not a diary, and I don't think Fenby would have wanted to write one, so why is it written as if it were one? In reality it is a series of essays on subjects related to Hong Kong, so why didn't they organize them by subject, rather than by the date when Fenby chose to write about them?

Perhaps readers outside Hong Kong will take the book at face value. After all, the editor of the leading English language newspaper in Hong Kong (or Asia) ought to be well-placed to write about the city. The problem is that the SCMP long ago ceased to have much influence in Hong Kong, and therefore Fenby has no particular insights or special knowledge. He's neither an outsider nor an insider, and he doesn't appear to have done very much research for this book, and as a consequence this book is interesting in parts but certainly isn't essential reading.

Having said that, Fenby writes well and has plenty of interesting things to write about. It's not a bad book, but it's not a particularly good one either.  I came away with the impression that the author wanted to write a book about his time in Hong Kong, but didn't quite know how to go about it. 

I assume the book is now out-of-print, but you can borrow it from the library should you so wish.

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