2003, 355 p
It’s odd how companionable one comes to feel with an ABC foreign correspondent who has been chatting to you from the television over many years. ‘Jane Hutcheon, ABC, Beijing’ sounds very familiar, as does ‘Barbara Miller, ABC, London’ or ‘Martin Cuddihy, ABC, Nairobi’ (and will I ever forgive my son for not introducing me to him when he was right there? Probably not.) I can remember feeling quite upset for Eric Campbell, seeing him so visibly distraught after the death of his camera man in Iraq in 2003.
Jane Hutcheon, with her cheeky smile, and respectful curiosity (on full display at the moment in her current program One Plus One) has long been one of my favourite foreign correspondents. I’ve been aware that this book was available some years ago, and I’m surprised (and rather disconcerted) to find that it was published thirteen years ago!
Jane was born and grew up in Hong Kong, the daughter of a Eurasian mother and an Anglo-Celtic father whose family had been involved in colonial trade in Asia since 1851. Both parents were journalists. As a young Asia Television (Hong Kong) reporter, she covered the handover of a captured Taiwanese China Airlines crew in 1986 and the first visit of a British sovereign to China later in 1986. By the mid 1990s she was the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s China Correspondent, covering the return of Hong Kong to China, the rise of Falun Gong and the Tenth Anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre.
Her appointment as the China Correspondent for the ABC, then, combined personal and professional curiosity and in the early chapters of the book she combs over her family history ties as a way of integrating her own family story with the larger narrative of Chinese history from the mid 19th century on. As she says near the end of the book:
When I went to China as a correspondent I hoped to discover what the essence of ‘being Chinese’ was all about, to understand why my ancestors had been drawn to its shores more than one hundred and fifty years ago…Though the world is now a different, much more convenient place, I tried to live the adventures of my ancestors. Eventually, I began to love living in china for less deep-rooted reasons. It was like discovering a rare, antique carpet. The first time you look at it, it appears old and dusty. But after brushing off some of the dust, you notice amid the wear-and-tear the incredible colours that have stayed vibrant, despite the passage of time. After admiring the colours, you notice intricate patterns that tell a story about where the carpet was made, the life of its owner, and how it came to survive to the present day. Soon, the carpet doesn’t look so old and dusty anymore; it becomes intriguing. (p. 354)
Hutcheon has organized her book by food: Pig’s Face, Slippery Noodles, Shanghai Stir-Fry. The names are a (very) little pun on the more serious theme of each chapter. For example, she deals with her own family history, the Opium Wars and the history of Hong Kong in her chapter ‘Colonial Chop Suey’. She deals with China’s strained relationship with both Taiwan and Tibet in the ‘Renegade Dumplings’. In ‘Spiritual Dim Sim’ she examines Christianity, the Zhao Tianjun temple, Falun Gong and Qigong, while the ‘Big River, Little Fish’ chapter deals with the Three Gorges Dam and its influence on the villagers who used to live on its boundaries.
Each chapter introduces us to many informants, just as an extended ‘Foreign Correspondent’ episode might do. Interviewing people who have a different perspective to the ‘official’ line often involves deceit and disobedience, and recent events with Peter Greste and the emergence of Reporters Without Borders and PEN remind us that writing and reporting can be dangerous in a way that might not have been so much the case in 2003. She is often tailed by not-very-intelligent intelligence, and the Cultural Revolution and Tienanmen Square are palpable presences in the background amongst her interview subjects. She speaks to many people, and in this regard the book has the feeling of being an extended documentary feature, with people speaking their piece before the interviewer moves onto the next angle. Fortunately, where she refers back to a character she has mentioned before, she explicitly names the chapter where the character previously appeared. There’s also an index, a generous and unexpected feature in a book of this type.
Overwhelmingly, though, I found myself wishing that I was reading it thirteen months after it had been written rather than thirteen years later. She foreshadows the insistence on ‘one China’ which is still asserted today and writes of the burgeoning and aspirational Chinese middle class that fueled the resources boom here in Australia in the decade after the book was published. Less visible to her then was the military assertiveness of 21st century China, Muslim unrest in China in the context of a terrorist-nervous world, and the recent slowdown of growth in China that Australia seemed so blithely oblivious to. None of this is Hutcheon’s fault, of course, but it does toss the ball back into my own court to find out what happened next.
I have counted this towards my tally for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge.