Annie van Es was a sassy young secretary in 1968, when she lunched at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club with a friend working at the BBC. In those days the club – a small bar and restaurant – occupied a corner of the Hilton Hotel in Central, where the Cheung Kong Center now stands. Photographer Hugh van Es spotted her from the bar and invited her to join him for a drink. Seven years later, the Dutch cameraman would capture the iconic image of Americans leaving Saigon, on one of the last helicopters out, the day before the city was captured by the North Vietnamese army. The picture would become one of the most iconic images of that war, but on this particular afternoon, Hubert (Hugh) van Es was in Hong Kong taking time out from covering the conflict. For him, it was love at first sight. For Annie, a local girl who knew little about the war, it was her first glimpse into a different world. “Before dinner elsewhere we would always meet at the club for drinks,” she says, “and after dinner always led to the FCC for a ‘yat for the doh’ [one for the road].” The FCC is tight knit, complete with petty squabbles and sibling rivalries, but it has always looked out for its own. And in many ways the heritage building is the family home. More than half a century after the couple’s first meeting at the Hilton, this year marks the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club’s 40th anniversary at its current location. And the FCC is not exclusively a club for the press. Its membership is a mix of correspondents and journalists and non-media members known as “associates”. These are the bankers, lawyers, PR executives and business folk who enjoy – or at least don’t mind – rubbing shoulders with journos who are, sometimes, a little rough around the edges. Hong Kong offers eerie echoes of Calcutta’s retreat from global importance This mix contributes to the club’s magic. At its best, it is a symbiotic relationship – journalists are rarely short of a good story, which makes for entertaining company, and the associates sometimes serve as contacts, occasionally dropping leads for juicy stories, which all adds to the buzz on a Friday night, “zoo night”, the liveliest evening of the week. Having spent over half its existence at 2 Lower Albert Road, the walls are covered with pictures of its wild and crazy past and the Peter Seidlitz Bunker – named after the foreign correspondent – on the ground floor is a shrine to the Vietnam war, with iconic images snapped by FCC members. In many ways it was that tumultuous period in the 1960s and 70s that helped forge the club’s character and reputation. “There was a lot of boozing, a lot of alcoholic days and nights, because that’s what war did to people,” says Annie. “They went to the front, where the battles were. They had a brief one or two weeks to unwind and that’s where the alcohol came in, they got very drunk and intense in their emotions.” Against this backdrop, the couple’s romance flourished and they married the following year. The club had also moved on in that time, from the Hilton Hotel to Sutherland House, an office block on the Central waterfront. Much like its core membership of roving correspondents, the FCC was accustomed to a nomadic existence. In fact, its roots lie outside Hong Kong altogether. Founded in Japanese-occupied China during World War II, the FCC’s first base was opened in 1943, in Chongqing, a city controlled by nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek. After the Japanese surrendered, in 1945, a military struggle for control of China ensued between the Nationalists and Mao Zedong’s Communists, and the club and its correspondents followed the news to Mao’s Nanjing, and onwards to Broadway Mansions, in Shanghai. With the Communist assumption of power, in 1949, the club left mainland China and moved to Hong Kong, taking up residence in a two-storey house on Kotewall Road. A couple of years later it moved again, this time to a grand mansion on Conduit Road. Built of Italian marble and overlooking the harbour, the house featured in the 1955 movie Love is a Many-Splendored Thing . For newlyweds Annie and Hugh van Es, when they weren’t in Vietnam, they spent much of their time at the Sutherland House location, and the club became more their living room than their actual living room. That iteration of the club was spread over several floors, with casual dining on the 14th floor, formal dining on the 15th and a workroom-cum-games room on the 18th. The Godown – a popular bar and restaurant founded by Bill Nash in 1967 – was in the basement and RTHK also had its Central newsroom in the building. “All the correspondents were there,” recalls Annie, “sharing their work experiences, their fears, anger, frustrations and embellishments – it’s what made the FCC tick.” The wars were always elsewhere, which made the club in Hong Kong a safe haven, a place to unwind, share stories and process what they had witnessed. It was also the era of the “China watcher” – with Mao in power and the mainland closed to outsiders, those writing commentary and news about China found Hong Kong, just across the border, an ideal base from which to gain a sense of events. Clare Hollingworth, the journalist who famously broke the story of the outbreak of World War II, and who was the FCC’s celebrated doyenne until her passing in 2017, would often talk of correspondents coming to Hong Kong to “sniff the breeze” before going into China. When Sarah Monks arrived in Hong Kong in 1978, to work for the South China Morning Post , she was primed for a life in journalism. Her father had been a respected journalist, having covered the Abyssinian war, Spanish civil war, Korean war and Malaysian insurgency – his obituary in the Daily Mail in 1960 observed that he was to be found “wherever there was a battle” – and her godfather was the Australian journalist Richard Hughes, who penned the 1976 book Borrowed Place, Borrowed Time: Hong Kong and Its Many Faces . There’s a room in the FCC named after “Dick” Hughes, who for 30 years wrote about Southeast Asia for The Sunday Times and The Economist . It was Hughes who introduced his goddaughter to the club. “The attire was strictly safari suits, influenced by the Vietnam war correspondents, and people were still sending cables and telexes,” says Monks. “Things could get quite exciting at the main bar.” Former United Press International newsman Mike Keats, who was based in Hong Kong from 1978 to 1990, recalls some raucous nights: “You’d have members fighting, being arrested and taken to jail, and having to be bailed out in the middle of the night.” For Terry Nealon, then a subeditor at RTHK, the club was almost too conveniently located. While RTHK’s main office was on Broadcast Drive, in Kowloon Tong, the Sutherland House newsroom meant easy access for on-air guests. The lift travelled directly from the office to the bar on the 14th floor. On one particularly riotous evening, he was drinking with Kevin Sinclair, among the city’s most well-known journalists. In rather high spirits, Nealon knocked the bust of Richard Hughes off its plinth and the pair watched it crash to the floor and bounce a couple of times. “I’d got it into my head that there shouldn’t be a statue of a living journalist so I pulled it off the plinth,” says Nealon. “I thought I might get expelled, but the club is pretty forgiving.” The bust of Hughes remains intact, and it’s hard to miss as you enter the club today. Riotous behaviour was par for the course at the FCC. John le Carré opened his 1977 Cold War spy novel The Honourable Schoolboy with a scene set at the Sutherland House location. As a typhoon rages outside, a 27-year-old Vietnam reporter is in the men’s toilet swilling blood out of his mouth after a bar brawl, trying to recall a juicy story his Chinese landlord let slip. When he remembers, he charges into the packed bar, jumps on a table, smashing glasses and cracking his head on the ceiling. No one bats an eyelid. Le Carré’s tale might be fictional, but real-life stories were no less wild. The “Naked Copper” episode is legendary among old-timers. On arriving at the club very much the worse for wear, one member, who also happened to be a serving policeman, thinking himself at home, stripped naked, helped himself to a beer, and sat down to watch television. This apparently happened on more than one occasion, and the policeman was so mortified that he resigned from the club. There were some cliques, rivalries and jealousies, but everyone took part in some way or another. The waiter always knew your membership number and what you were drinking Journalist Martin Evans In the midst of all the madness, love occasionally blossomed. Journalist Philip Bowring, who worked for the Far Eastern Economic Review from 1973 to 1992 and later became its editor, did a stint at the Financial Times in 1980. With a week off before returning to the Review , he was kicking around the Sutherland House club one afternoon when he met a young journalist on her first assignment for The Hong Kong Standard . That rookie reporter was Claudia Mo Man-ching. The relationship blossomed and the couple will celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary this year. Bowring is still a regular, but Mo, a former pro-democracy lawmaker, will not be joining him there. She was among the 47 politicians and activists charged with subversion under the national security law and jailed last year. Although the FCC had a big personality, Bowring recalls the Sutherland House club as not being especially large. The games room was just big enough to accommodate a pool table and a table for playing dice. Pre-internet, journalism was a different game and the world’s leading newspapers employed a small army of correspondents to roam the world chasing stories. “There were a lot of foreign correspondents in those days,” he says, “but many of them weren’t there most of the time, they used Hong Kong as a base.” China wants bananas. But why are Cambodia’s banana workers getting sick? Many remember Sutherland House for the knockout view from the gents’ loo. The windows directly above the urinal were said to offer one of the city’s finest vistas of Victoria Harbour. But in 1980, the club and its impressive men’s toilet were about to come to a crashing end – a massive rent increase meant the FCC urgently needed to find a new home. The then-club president and former war correspondent with the Daily Mirror , Donald Wise, briefly toyed with the idea of building a clubhouse, but that was soon ruled out. “Conservative estimates agreed we would need some HK$18 million to build our own club,” Wise wrote in an April 1992 edition of the club magazine, The Correspondent . “Even at that price it would probably be cheaper per member than if we started paying rents at the levels demanded of our chosen area. “But we had no money in the bank. The floating FCC membership could not, and would not, tolerate beefing up subscriptions, bar prices, or for that matter, any increase. Yet they expected me to find new premises for the club.” The “chosen area” that he refers to was the quadrilateral bounded by the Furama Hotel, the Hilton Hotel, Wyndham and Pedder streets – members wanted the club to be centrally located for easy access from their offices. How Hong Kong’s big, stinking, toxic waste problem is becoming a crisis Looking out the window of the club in search of an answer, John Airey, a banker and FCC regular, suggested the old Officers’ Mess across the road from the Hilton Hotel. That building, later known as Murray House, was dismantled in 1982 to make way for the Bank of China Tower and, in 2001, moved brick by brick to Stanley, but in those days it was little used and in poor shape. Wise wrote to the then governor of Hong Kong, Murray MacLehose, outlining the predicament and requesting that the FCC take over the old Officers’ Mess and keep it in good shape in return for a nominal rent. He included a supporting note from Derek Davies, the editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review , who sometimes had the governor’s ear. He heard nothing until six weeks later, when MacLehose called him. He poured cold water on Wise’s proposal – “I have read your letter and I take it to mean you want me to give you a building worth HK$600 million,” Wise recalled in The Correspondent . MacLehose was a governor known for getting things done, supervising the rapid growth of higher education, public housing and mass transport, and it seems he had a soft spot for the FCC. He told Wise he had an idea and would get back to him. In what turned out to be one of MacLehose’s last acts as governor – his 11-year stint ended in 1982 – he proposed that the club lease the old Dairy Farm building on Lower Albert Road. The premises were being used as a godown for Hong Kong Land’s old air conditioners, and as a car park by some of the company executives. Although it was in a sorry state of repair, for the Hong Kong Land folk it served a good purpose and they were not happy about being turfed out. But MacLehose had decreed it and so it happened. “We were offered a lease for five years at the going commercial rate – no favouritism over the rent,” Wise wrote in The Correspondent . “But the government gave us a handsome loan to support the conversion work that had to be done on the building.” The FCC moved into its new digs in 1982. For four decades the club has continued to pay its landlord, the government, the going commercial rate, which at present is HK$610,000 a month, plus HK$25,000 in rates a month. Keats, who led the FCC’s three-person Building Committee and oversaw the renovation, recalls the terrible state the building was in when the club received the keys. “It was totally derelict, there was unbelievable rubbish everywhere,” he says from his home in Australia, where he has lived since retiring. “There were pigeons roosting in the roof and upstairs, in what is now the fine dining room, and pigeon s*** everywhere. Downstairs, in what is now the kitchen, there were lots of rats.” The club hired architect Eddy Khoe, who oversaw the project with the Architectural Services Department. His brief was to clean up the building, get rid of the rubbish and restore the interiors, while remaining as faithful as possible to its original heritage elements. “It wasn’t done on the cheap,” says Keats. “We took out a loan to do the restoration well. Hugh [van Es] used to wander along Hollywood Road getting old lamps, antique lighting.” In its new home at 2 Lower Albert Road, the club was spread over four floors of the North Block (the Fringe Club occupies the South Block). The top floor was the fine dining room, the ground floor the main bar and reception, the basement was turned into a piano bar and the floor below that was the kitchen. A big party was thrown to celebrate the launch. “It was a huge party,” says Annie, “a typical all-night event, with the party covering all floors of the club.” For a good decade the FCC continued to serve as a comfortable home from home for the legion of foreign correspondents, a chance to be among their own kind and take a breather from covering the region. “The action was always elsewhere,” says Keats. “It was off to the Philippines to cover the fall of [Ferdinand] Marcos, to Afghanistan, to the Olympic Games in Korea, to cover a coup in Thailand – everything happened around Hong Kong.” The club’s reputation for big drinking sessions continued and it earned a nickname among some members as “the House of Self Destruction”. Given the reputation of journalists for drinking in those days it’s hardly surprising that some died early, and some even in the club itself. After one long afternoon in 1996, the legendary UPI newsman Charlie Smith got up unsteadily from the bar, staggered towards the gents and had a fatal heart attack. The day of the handover was mad. We’ve never before had that many hacks in town. Not only did you get the run-of-the-mill hacks, but all these high-profile TV presenters and the stars of the trade turned up Stephen Vines, journalist and FCC president from 1992 to 1993 But amid the revelry and letting off of steam, serious discussions were had and some of the world’s most respected news reporters crossed paths. Hollingworth might be at one end of the main bar and Hughes, who flushed out the story on the British spies and former diplomats Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, at the other. Journalist Martin Evans came to Hong Kong in 1975. The then South China Morning Post news editor Kevin Sinclair invited him to lunch at the FCC rather than interview him for the job in the office, and encouraged him to join. When the club moved to Lower Albert Road, it became a second home for him and his wife, Jeny. “There weren’t as many corporate types in those days, it was mostly journos, lawyers and some doctors,” says Evans. “There were little gangs of folks, Jeny and I would meet up with Arthur Hacker [artist, historian, author and creator of an endearing emblem of 1970s Hong Kong, the litterbug Lap Sap Chung]. “There were some cliques, rivalries and jealousies, but everyone took part in some way or another. The waiter always knew your membership number and what you were drinking.” As journalism changed, so did the vibe of the club. Through the 80s and 90s, Hong Kong became the centre for a number of regional publications, such as Business Week and Asia Week , whose many staffers would frequent the club, then “as those regional publications died or diminished, there was an influx of Bloomberg and Reuters business types”, says Bowring, “the sort of people you don’t usually see as they are always at desks doing stuff online and dealing with company results, the nitty gritty of financial journalism.” And then, after decades of Hong Kong being the ideal base for covering news elsewhere in the region, the colony itself became the story. In the years leading up to 1997, journalists began moving to the city to be well positioned to cover the territory’s handover from Britain to China, and in the weeks immediately before the event, a huge influx of reporters arrived. The FCC has always offered guest membership for visiting journalists and during the handover period it played host to the world’s press. Veteran journalist Stephen Vines, who was then reporting for The Independent , recalls the heady atmosphere in the club. “The day of the handover was mad,” he says. “We’ve never before had that many hacks in town. Not only did you get the run-of-the-mill hacks, but all these high-profile TV presenters and the stars of the trade turned up.” After a day attending the handover ceremonies, covering the action outside the Legislative Council and then heading up to the border to watch the steady stream of People’s Liberation Army tanks cross into Hong Kong amid torrential rain at midnight, he was dead on his feet and headed to the FCC to unwind. “We got to the club at 2am, soaking wet,” says Vines. “It was a place to come and sit down after all that. The club was open all night.” Vines had served as the club’s president from 1992 to 1993 and during his tenure oversaw one of the periodic renovations and restorations that have kept the historic building at its best. “The FCC has invested incredibly heavily in the building. In an old building like that, it is extremely expensive, particularly if you want to keep the character.” On his watch, the entire roof was extensively renovated, and so was the veranda. The many millions of dollars of renovation and restoration work have been paid for by the FCC, nothing came from public funds. “It’s a well-built building but it needs a lot of loving care and attention,” says Vines. “Windows, floors, drainage, electrical – every single part of that building has been at one stage or another modernised and renovated by the club. It’s a heritage building, so you always have to get materials that are compatible with the building itself.” Now advancing in age, the FCC’s heavy-drinking past is mostly the stuff of legend. It is better known today for hosting a wide variety of prominent speakers, from former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten to former chief executive Leung Chun-ying. In many ways it has reformed – the board is almost equally balanced between men and women, and while there’s plenty of fun still to be had, drunken debauchery raises eyebrows, and in keeping with the #metoo times the club has a sexual harassment policy to ensure all members feel safe and welcome. Membership drives with the aim of growing a younger and more ethnically diverse community are beginning to bear fruit. For many years the club has operated under a seven-year lease, which will be due for renewal at the end of this year. Each time the lease rolls around some members get the jitters, anxious that it won’t be renewed, and this is especially so now, with press freedom seemingly under threat. But others are confident that the club’s deep roots in the city, its connection with the community, the commitment it has shown as guardian of an iconic heritage building and the fact that it has always paid the market rate for rent will assure it remains in its current location. How ‘father of the fishermen’ made Hong Kong dragon boat racing famous Although the FCC is a members-only club, those who wish to peek inside and don’t have a friend who is a member can request to see the exhibition in the main bar. “The Wall” is open to the public from 10am to noon and 3pm to 5pm daily. The exhibition is changed monthly and access by the public is free. It’s not possible to order food or drink, but visitors can have a good look around, and make sure to put your head into the bunker to see those Vietnam war photos from the era that shaped the club’s personality. All grown-up and for the most part politically correct it might now be, but the FCC is proud of its raucous past and, social restrictions withstanding, it’s still one of the best bars in town on a Friday night, where Annie remains a regular. Hugh van Es died in 2009, but more than 50 years since she met her dashing young war photographer, the petite lady with her trademark locks still cuts as stylish a figure at the bar. “The club then was very different from today,” she says. “It was like watching a Clark Gable movie of the East, there were such wonderful characters around the bar, real Casablanca types.” If you squint you can almost make them out today.