Typhoon Ying: intrepid Hong Kong reporter who became the story
As she prepares to leave the media studies centre she helped set up at HKU, outspoken journalist Professor Chan Yuen-ying, 69, reflects on a distinguished career
In June 1993, Golden Venture, a smuggling ship carrying nearly 300 undocumented Fujianese passengers, ran aground off the coast of Rockaway, Queens, in New York. Ten people drowned as they tried to get to shore.
Professor Chan Yuen-ying, then a reporter at the New York Daily News who had already written a series of investigative reports on the snakehead trade, vowed to track down whoever was responsible for the deadly voyage – which prompted gangsters to put a contract on her head.
Two bodyguards were hired by the paper to protect the petite reporter from Hong Kong before the culprit was eventually arrested and convicted.
This is just one of the fascinating tales from the career of the veteran journalist, who in September is set to leave the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong she founded 17 years ago.
“You are a journalist and you are not afraid of anything. You respect everybody – high and low – but you are not intimidated,” Chan said.
After receiving a bachelor’s degree in social sciences from HKU, Chan spent more than two decades working as a journalist in New York where she contributed to Chinese and English newspapers with a specific focus on the plight of Chinese immigrants.
Chan’s work brought her the prestigious George Polk Award for Excellence in Journalism and she was named as the Nieman Fellow of Harvard University in 1995.
She was also awarded the International Press Freedom Award by the Committee to Protect Journalists in 1997 alongside Shieh Chung-liang, the Taiwan bureau chief of Hong Kong-based magazine Yazhou Zhoukan, for a story in which the pair were sued for libel after revealing the business manager of the Kuomintang party Liu Tai-ying had offered US$15 million to the Bill Clinton re-election campaign.
The case led to a landmark judgment by a Taiwanese court, which ruled in favour of the journalists and acknowledged the constitutional right of free press.
Chan returned to Hong Kong in 1998 where she helped establish the HKU centre – starting out with only one assistant and two rooms –whose graduates now work in major news organisations all over the world.
“The [media] industry is being disrupted,” she said, referring to the rise of digitalisation and shrinking revenues which have seen two publications and one television station in the city close down within a month. “You can finally see the media [in Hong Kong] is adapting to technological changes [but it is] still slower than mainland China and many parts of the world for many reasons.”
Apart from requiring students to work on a second major based on their interests, Chan also adopted a convergent approach by including data mining and entrepreneurship in the curriculum.
A recently launched online course on data journalism attracted enrolments from all over the world, with applicants from as far afield as Sudan and Honduras.
“The ways you tell the stories have changed,” she said. “But the core skills of good journalism do not change. It’s about caring for the weak, speaking truth to power, being fair, independent and credible.”
She said “good journalism is needed more than ever”, adding Hong Kong has a strategic and very important role to play.
“The world wants to make sense of what’s happening in Hong Kong, China and Asia, and we should be that voice,” she said.
A member of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists which revealed through the so-called Panama Papers how world leaders used secretive offshore tax regimes, Chan has lamented the lack of in-depth reporting in Hong Kong.
“In general, there’s too much opinion,” she said. “Journalism is about getting the facts and the truth out. You can take positions but before you take that, you have got to figure out what is going on and what is the reality.”
Professor Keith Richburg, who will take over the reins from Chan in September, described her as legendary and well-respected.
“She started from scratch and managed to build that into a regionally recognised and world recognised centre for journalism training – with limited resources. She had to go out to find money, students and finally find the teachers to come in,” he said.
“She has also become a very well-known and outspoken voice for press freedom in Hong Kong.”
Chan, whose strong opinions earned her the affectionate nickname Typhoon Ying in the industry, has not been without controversy at HKU.
She was criticised for being “xenophobic” after questioning the suitability of Professor Peter Mathieson as the school’s president and vice-chancellor before his appointment 2013.
“We are not without worries about Hong Kong’s freedom of speech and academic freedom,” Chan wrote on her blog. “But if a medical professor from the British city of Bristol, with a population of 430,000, is to parachute into Hong Kong to ... safeguard our freedom, that’s a big joke.”
Chan, 69, said that although she had no detailed plans, she would stay in the media industry after leaving her post at the school. “Once you are a journalist, you are always a journalist, don’t you think?” Chan said.
Journalism had kept her young, she said, as she had never stopped learning.
“As a journalist you can write articles you don’t know anything about,” she laughed, recalling her epic interview with cellist Yo Yo Ma on a flight in the US, despite knowing nothing about music.
She urged reporters young and old to keep their spirits up.
“We still have free press. Everything is relative. In Pakistan, we have journalists being killed,” she said. “I am not saying it is easy but let’s be open-minded, innovative and take the challenge.”
Name: Chan Yuen-ying
● 1990-97: reporter at the New York Daily News
● 1995: Nieman Fellow at Harvard University
● 1996-97: field producer at NBC
● 1999-2016: director of the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at HKU
● 2003-11: founding dean of the journalism school at Shantou University
● 1993: George Polk Award for Excellence in Journalism
● 1997: International Press Freedom Award from Committee to Protect Journalists