Journalist wants to draw back HK's curtain on the Middle East

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 October, 2007, 12:00am

Hiking around the Haraz Mountains in Yemen can be a bewildering experience. One minute you're enjoying the spectacular views of the rugged landscape, discovering a new village not on the map, the next you're ducking as rifle shots echo off the hillsides.

Describing the sound, Chong Hiu-yeung said, 'Just think of the scene from Babel,' referring to Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's award-winning 2006 film. 'The shots are usually fired in celebration of something, but still, your natural reaction is to duck.'

Then he adds: 'You'll never be satisfied with hiking in Hong Kong again, once you've seen something like this.'

Chong, 27, studied Arabic in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, for a month in August, and made the most of the long days struggling with the language and exploring the terrain. 'Prayers start ringing out at four in the morning. You try to get back to sleep afterwards, but it's hard, and you end up waking up and using the extra time,' he said.

Chong spent the last six years as a political reporter for a newspaper, but for the coming year at least, the likes of Donald Tsang Yam-kuen and Stanley Ho Hung-sun will be spared his often humorous, always direct interrogations. Yesterday Chong began studying for a master's degree in Near and Middle Eastern Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, on a Chevening scholarship funded by Britain's Foreign Office.

'I wasn't that interested [in the Middle East] until I started working,' said Chong, who graduated from Chinese University's school of journalism in 2001. 'It was then that I realised so much of world news revolves around events happening there, but there's so little interest in it in Hong Kong.'

In 2005 Chong attended a volunteer work camp organised in Jerusalem by the Youth Development Department, set up to educate young people about Palestinians in Jerusalem. The trip combined voluntary work to repair Palestinian community centres and a trip to see Yasser Arafat's mausoleum.

'That was only a two-week trip, but I realised that there was a lot of things I did not know about, and that Chinese people did not seem too interested in inquiring more about these issues,' he said. 'I wanted to find out more about the issue when I got home, but there just isn't the availability or the market for these kind of books,' said Chong, explaining why he felt he needed to study in Britain to fulfil his curiosity.

'From a journalist's point of view, we should try to explain these issues to Hong Kong readers from a Chinese perspective.'

He admits feeling a little daunted by the task of studying a topic so foreign to his upbringing and experience. But the memorable experiences the trip gave him have inspired him to put in some hard study.

'The people there aren't that used to tourists, so they are very welcoming. When you sit down in a taxi or bus, the driver will chat to you and then give you some bread to take with you on your travels.'