Cold War movie

Marvin Farkas

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 January, 2011, 12:00am

RETURNING WITH A SAGA I was in the United States Navy in 1946 and we operated out of Hong Kong, Shanghai and Qingdao. I fell in love with Hong Kong then and vowed to come back and stay. I was in the deck crew of the USS Norris, which meant I had to sweep the deck and serve the crew their dinner.

In 1954, I returned on a cargo ship called the Eastern Saga - which is the name of my book. We took five days to make the journey from Osaka, Japan. In those days, big ships weren't permitted to come to shore and we were ferried over in walla-wallas, or water taxis. I marvelled at the houses that hung precariously from the hills over Lei Yue Mun Gap as we entered the harbour. There were junks, great ships and sampans in the harbour. I remember the mix of colonial buildings, with their arches, and, although they were five or six storeys tall, each one was an individual with its own style. The squatter areas were spread all over every hill.

I spent one night in Kowloon in the YMCA. Back in 1946, the British and American navies had had a punch up and Kowloon was out of bounds for US servicemen. But this was eight years later and I was determined to go there just to see it.

Someone in Tokyo had told me that the place to go in Hong Kong was the Foreign Correspondents' Club. When I got off the Star Ferry to come to the FCC, I was besieged by about 30 rickshaws trying to get my business. The building resembled an old castle. I stayed at the FCC for more than two years; the main reason was I couldn't settle my account! I ran up a bill of more than US$7,000 and didn't have the money to pay it. The FCC was a lively place, although the rooms left something to be desired. Lunch was US$5, dinner US$6 and it had a wonderful food bar.

TIGER SUB I worked as a foreign correspondent for about 40 years and covered the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia, the Indo-Pak war, an earthquake in Bali, a student uprising in Japan and one in Korea. It all started because my father had given me a Rolleiflex camera and a cheque for US$500 and told me to go and 'get some experience'. I went to all the news agencies but they didn't have jobs for me. I wasn't trained professionally as a journalist but I didn't tell them that. I 'made-believe' I had gone to Stanford University, which had the top journalism course in the US. At the Tiger Standard [the original name for The Standard], the general manager offered me HK$600 a month and when I asked why they paid such low salaries she answered that it was a Chinese custom. I was hired as a sub-editor and erroneously thought this meant 'assistant to the editor'.

EASTERN ENGLAND Hong Kong was poor but quite colourful. The streets were full of rickshaws. Most of the British or the very rich Chinese had chauffeur-driven cars. There weren't that many Europeans around back then, except for the English, who kept to themselves and had exclusive clubs like the Shek O Club, which didn't admit Chinese. The [British] ran all the big businesses but they had Chinese compradors to give them advice on doing business with the locals. The compradors made a great deal of money but most never attained their dream of being admitted to 'British high society'. My time at the Tiger Standard meant I made a lot of Chinese and Portuguese friends and often went with them to restaurants and dance halls.

My first wife was Korean, born and raised in Shanghai. She was the first to break the colour bar at the Ladies' Recreation Club. She's a very persuasive person but I could never get out of her what it took! I'd met her at the beach. A friend had a hut on Repulse Bay beach, where he entertained mostly stewardesses, and she was one of them. I dated her for six months or so and we got married at the Legco building - that's where the marriage registry office was.

THE THRILL OF THE KILL ZONE Several of us went to Cambodia at the beginning of the [Cambodian-Vietnamese] war to work for ITN [Britain's Independent Television News]. We got close to the enemy and were told if we were captured by the Khmer Rouge they would kill us right off, but if we were captured by the North Vietnamese army we would have a chance. We didn't take heed because there was so much going on around us; we just had to have close-up shots. We were told what to shoot by our correspondent but in the midst of battles they left us to do our thing. We covered much of the war with Michael Nicholson but we worked with other ITN guys through the four or five years of that war. I never got a scratch but we had a lot of close calls. Camaraderie with the other newsmen was a high point all through the Vietnam and Cambodia wars. They lasted so long I felt I had a career for life.

HEADY EXPERIENCE I'm proudest of my work among the fierce Dayak headhunters of the island of Kalimantan [Borneo], in Indonesia. We were shooting for [US television network] NBC with Ron Nessen. We entered the Dayak's territory without an army escort and actually saw them pillage and burn a Chinese village, killing all the inhabitants. That was retribution for the killing of one of their high chiefs. The Dayaks ate the livers of their victims and drank their blood, and we saw headless bodies beside the road and in every stream. Actually, it wasn't ordinary Chinese farmers who killed their leader but Chinese guerillas that President Sukarno had sent. The guerillas came out of the jungle searching for food and happened to come upon the Dayak chiefs. We were in Dayak country without any army or police protection - of course we were apprehensive but the story was too good to turn down.

TURNING RED One time I was interviewing Zhou Enlai [the first premier of the People's Republic of China] when my camera broke down. He waited patiently for 45 minutes until we got a new camera. I assumed an important personage like Zhou had his time mapped out for him and I expected him to leave in a huff when I started tinkering around. Instead, he just stayed there and made jokes with the correspondent. He didn't have any airs about him. He belonged to the family of common man. Right there I started to think that communism had something to it.

The wars were my favourite beat but I covered many stories all through Asia. At that time there was a certain laissez-faire, letting you get on with your work. In other words, you knew best how to do your job. Control of newsmen today is rampant. A news job today lacks the excitement and freedom enjoyed in days gone by. It has become just another job.