paul tse wai-chun
PAUL TSE Wai-chun is the lawyer who last month successfully sued radio-host Albert Cheng King-hon for libel. The case was complicated, there were a number of defendants, but eventually the court found that, in August 1996, Cheng and his co-host Lam Yuk-wah had illegally cast aspersions on Tse's professional integrity during Cheng's programme Teacup In A Storm. Cheng then added to his rap sheet by committing a contempt of court when he referred to the case on air while it was still in progress.
I would be as reluctant as any journalist to find myself in the dock so it seemed an excellent idea to discuss the demarcation lines for this interview at the outset. 'There are still threats of appeal from the other side,' explained Tse in his office. 'They have six weeks in which to do that from the sealing of the judgment. I did a search yesterday but it still hasn't been filed, so fingers crossed.' Which means what, exactly? 'It's all right to talk about the feelings of the case but not its merits.' So how does he feel? 'I haven't got over it yet. It was like hell. It was set down to last three days and it went on for 21 days. The Chinese papers have estimated the costs were $4,000 a minute. The tension, the time, the publicity ...' But here he put his finger (which he picked at unhappily for the next hour, smiling continuously) on the prickly crux of the issue. For Tse is not the sort of lawyer condemned to bloom unseen amidst the deserted air of some legal library. As Martin Lee Chu-ming, who was Cheng's counsel, pointed out in court, Tse's face is everywhere - advertising for business on the MTR, on minibuses, even on his business card which bears a drawing of him smirking in wig and gown.
Moreover, two years ago, when he was 37, he decided to run for the post of Chief Executive until it was pointed out that the Basic Law stipulates no one under the age of 40 need apply. Now he writes a legal column, complete with photo, for Sudden Weekly, sharing the page with his partner, agony aunt Pamela Pak. The pair used to be radio presenters on Metro but they were axed in January 1997 during a discussion about the late Cantonese opera singer Tang Wing-cheung, who was having some family problems at the time, and which may yet be - in a wonderful example of ironic symmetry - the subject of libel proceedings.
'The trouble with me is that I'm wearing too many hats at the same time and people find it hard to judge the difference,' sighed Tse. 'Albert attacked me on this: he said a radio host shouldn't attack another radio host. But if he criticises me as a lawyer, that's different.' I volunteered that I'd had lunch with Cheng several months ago and found him highly amusing, and Tse said, 'Oh, he is a character, and he does have his good points, but too much is too much.' Later, he added, 'A lot of people in Hong Kong are distributing the wrong messages. Albert, for instance, is stirring up wrong feelings, and I really resent that.' Tse's simple message, on the other hand, is about making legal services cheaper. For this analysis I am indebted to Pamela Pak who arrived in the office roughly 15 minutes into the conversation. (When I interviewed her last summer, Tse came along too. Their relationship is evidently one of deep symbiosis on the media front.) She handed him a copy of Apple Daily which had a photograph of Tse alongside an advertisement announcing that he charged $7,997 for divorces.
Is that cheap? Mindful of Law Society strictures on such matters, Tse replied primly, 'I can't comment.' Pak, however, leaned over and murmured encouragingly in my ear, 'It's easy to make a few phone calls and compare.' Doesn't he worry about criticism that he's out for glory? 'I hear that all the time, behind my back mostly. Or couched in frank, man-to-man advice. I say that I enjoy doing what I do, that I'm an ordinary person first before I'm a lawyer.' Pak interjected: 'Martin Lee said that Paul had too much publicity, but he's promoting a law service on every level, not just for the wealthy. He is saying that the law is not limited to the elite, and I like that.' Tse agreed: 'It's doing something for the common good. It's for justice, not money. It's almost like Robin Hood or the Musketeers.' Still, it's tough standing up for justice the Hong Kong way, and the court had to be cleared on one occasion when Tse, wearing a crystal which had been given to him by a friend, burst into tears while being cross-examined. 'I cried not because of the pressure or the tension. It was the recollection of the worst of human attributes. At that very moment I thought, 'Gee, I'm a human person myself, I could have all the potential for this nasty behaviour, the back side of human nature.' It depends on whether you learn to suppress dark human forces.' 'I think he is too sensitive,' Pak put in. I glanced over at Tse. 'It depends on what you're talking about,' he began, with forensic nicety. 'I always have vibes out to catch human moods and feelings. To that extent, it makes me a good lawyer, radio host and columnist because you need that sensitivity. But on the other hand it's depressing. Sometimes you see the body language and you think, 'This person doesn't like me,' and you shut down.' Is he happy? 'Good question ... I think I'm happier than before I met Pamela.' That was in 1989, when they were introduced by Daniel Fung Wah-kin, who is now the Solicitor-General. While I couldn't possibly begin to analyse the intimate synergy between them, Pak certainly acts as a public prod for Tse's ambitions. She had informed me, for instance, that he wanted to be the Larry King of Asia. When I brought it up, he hesitated, then said, 'Well, there's still a long road towards that, but I wouldn't mind doing it.' This attempt at self-deprecation was immediately scuppered by Pak exclaiming, 'Wouldn't mind? Or love to?' Tse's smile widened. 'Pamela's like that,' he said fondly. 'I use more lawyerly talk. The only experience I've had so far is Metro radio but certainly I'd love to do something which has an impact on people's thinking.' His own thinking, he adds, has been forever changed by his recent experiences. 'This case was the worst moment of my life. I was forced to really fight, claw and nail. I look very soft and yielding, and I try to be accommodating, but when it comes to the crunch, I can be a very stubborn, persistent fighter.' Naturally, as he couldn't resist pointing out, such a steep learning curve has to be good for business. 'Now I can stand in the shoes of my clients and be empathetic.'