Sunday, November 19, 2006

Teach Your Children
The "BoHo" apartment complex in which C and I cohabit is cutting edge by Shenzhen standards. Cosmopolitan, even, with its parking garage, fake mini-Venetian "canals," swanky outdoor pool, badmitton and hoops courts and (inexplicably, as I believe the odds are high that he never lived or slept here) a three-times lifesize bronze bust of Albert Einstein complete with a short Chinese language bio and "E=MC2" inscription greeting occupants and visitors at the south entrance.

Our fellow BoHo-ites are mostly Chinese yuppies with kids, some singles, Hong Kong retirees and a plethora of grandparents -- some of whom look as though they just got off the 38-hour bus or train from the hinterlands of Henan province, one of China's poorest and remotest areas. Think Beverly Hillbillies and you're in the general vicinity.

It's a mini-village of China's upper middle class, urbane sophisticates who presumably mix only the finest Sprite with their 39 yuan (US$5) bottle of Great Wall red. Which is why it's not uncommon to see parents and grandparents alike encouraging their toddlers to relieve themselves from either end in the lush shrubbery or on the polished faux marble walkways within our gated community, often as the bored 17-year-old security guards look impassivly on. The fact that there's also a public toilet about a 20 second walk away and adjacent to the badmitton court/yoga studio, is, of course, irrelevant.

Griping to the managment does nothing but there is a public Internet message board on which anonymous residents such as "Little Devil in Building 5" (that's C) can post on various concerns, like rude security guards, "black taxi" (gypsy cabs) prices and the ones to avoid ("I curse license no. 845 for 7 generations for cheating me on a ride to Shekou and urge fellow residents to do likewise") and lately about pet owners who don't clean up after their shitting Shar Peis. Nothing about children, however.

I urged C to weigh in with a new post. Something like "Control your dogs, what about your children?" She agreed, but was unsure about the subject title. "It isn't good to compare children with dogs in China," she said. "I might be, how do you say it, 'flamed?'"

"So ... I guess 'rug rats' is out of the question, too," I replied. "Not that I've seen a lot of rugs here ..."

She thought about it a little more and then decided to take the plunge. It's where I also got a lesson in Chinese writing styles versus my more heavy blunt instrument approach.

My imagined version: "Hey, Henan hillbillies! You're so frigging proud of your 5,000 years of "civilization" -- now how about discovering a basic concept like public hygene, buying some diapers and toilet training your 'Little Emperors' and 'Empresses!'"

Her's took a circuitous, polite, near poetic and only slightly arch approach that employed a couple of traditonal sayings ("I have crossed more bridges than roads you have walked" and "I have eaten more salt than rice") with a scolding and demand for action, sanitary BoHo courtyard conditions and a free Tibet.

Well, following the post she was just arrested this morning, and .... no, just joshing about the Tibet thing. Toilet training first. Small steps, long journeys, many bridges and lots of salt until then.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Cover Your Rig, Comrade

I've also been covering scintillating stories such as "Comrade Condom." Someone at AP apparently saw it at and/or at (warning, Mature Content Ahead, Not Safe for Work!) and managed to do an update that China Daily posted, here:

Sad to say, Lei Feng condoms are now verboten, despite what the company rep assured me last week. If you don't know who Lei Feng was and wonder what the connection is with condoms click one of the first two links. The content is the same on both, though the sites have, shall we say, er, different tones.
The Payback

What follows is an Asia Sentinel piece I just wrote about what Brit-oriented journalists might call a "kerfuffle" at the paper I used to nominally compete against while at The Standard, The South China Morning Post. Though not anymore. The SCMP editor in question, Mark Clifford, recently fired the two respected SCMP staffers for their very small parts in producing a tribute mock front page for an equally respected editor whom he had also canned. The joke page -- which had no danger of reaching the public in any form and which used the "c" word with astericks, offended his sensibilities. "It's not something you would show to your mother" was his moralistic summation.

No, it's not. But, as an SCMP staffer noted, that's not the point. I should add that Clifford also previously hired -- and fired -- the two editors whom I am now freelancing for, but I think it's fair treatment overall. Clifford's obviously clueless, but, no, you can't put that in a story...

No Joking Please, We’re Journalists
Justin Mitchell
13 November 2006

South China Morning Post Editor Mark Clifford fired staff members for producing an in-house spoof. “It’s not something that you would show to your mother,” he complained. Now newspaper staffers have taken their case against Clifford to the owners.

In an unprecedented action, an estimated 80-plus newsroom staffers – male, female, Chinese and western alike – have signed what amounts to a no-confidence vote in Mark Clifford, the editor-in-chief of Hong Kong’s largest English language newspaper, after he fired two senior editors for their small roles in a mock front page farewell gift for another editor whom Clifford had fired.

The incident, which began as a traditional office ritual for a departing employee, has uncovered a sharp divide in the newsroom of one of Asia’s oldest newspapers, essentially pitting a new chief editor against many of the paper’s long-time employees.

“Leaving pages” as British-oriented journalists call them, are a tradition in western journalism across the globe, typically a gentle satiric poke full of inside jokes delivered at the exiting employee’s expense during a farewell office party.

In the case of former Sunday Morning Post editor Niall Fraser, a Scotsman given to the kind of colorful language common in many newsrooms, it was the headline “You’re a c**t, but you’re a good c**t” (written with the asterisks intact on the mock page) that drew Clifford’s wrath when he happened upon a copy of the fake page in the SCMP newsroom following Fraser’s departure.

“Clifford took great exception to the use of the language,’’ said one of five SCMP employees who agreed to talk anonymously about the incident. “He went on a witch hunt, and looked at the page’s history [on the SCMP computer system] and called in every single person who had touched the page, about 10, and with the head of Human Resources sitting beside him, told them that it was totally offensive to the women in the office and would not be tolerated.

“He actually said: ‘It’s not something that you would show to your mother.’ Of course it’s not. He totally missed the point. And at that point everyone was mostly bemused, thinking ‘what a clown.’”

After sacking the two employees on Friday for their role in the mock page, Clifford sent an email to the editorial staff which provoked “fury”, according to a source and led directly to the petition, which will be sent to the Post’s owners.

“If we at the South China Morning Post are to keep society's trust, to keep our reader's belief in our quality and integrity, we must ensure that what we do meets those expectations. We must strive for excellence in everything we do in our professional lives, both inside and outside of the news room every phone call, every photo, every press conference and, yes, everything we do internally,” Clifford wrote in the email.

Clifford referred questions and comments on the matter to Irene Ho, assistant marketing director for the SCMP. “The Post's position is that [Paul Ruffini and Trevor Willison] violated the work ethic,” Ho said. She called Clifford's sackings and his office-wide e-mail “a careful decision for the benefit of the staff and to reinforce the purpose of the work ethic.”

As of Monday morning Ho had not seen the petition and she said she did not know if Clifford had seen it. “I am not sure if Mark will respond further,” she said.

Clifford, an American, has been at the helm of the Post for seven months after his departure from the Standard, Hong Kong’s second remaining English language daily, where he served as editor and publisher for two years. Prior to that he was Business Week’s Asia editor and also worked for the Far Eastern Economic Review. The Standard was his first job in a newspaper.

The irony in what has become a bitter row over a newsroom joke was that Clifford was powerless to lecture anyone who had written the page, which also contained jibes such as a mock ad for the “Amazing Fraser-Fone: Buy It and Lose It!” and a reference to a non-existent story “Why Alcohol and Scotsmen Don’t Mix,” as the page was written by old friends and co-workers of Fraser who were no longer at the SCMP.

Clifford finally acted on his outrage after a month had passed and most employees had likely forgotten about the incident. Around noon last Friday three employees were summarily dismissed for their part in the page: designer/artist Carl Bell-Jones, and two of Fraser’s top Sunday copy editors, long-time Hong Kong journalists Trevor Willison and Paul Ruffini.

According to two SCMP employees, Bell-Jones’ job was saved after veteran sports editor Noel Prentice stormed into Clifford’s office essentially saying, if you sack him, you sack me. Clifford reportedly backed down and a warning letter was issued to Bell-Jones.

“At the time, no one spoke up for Trevor and Paul,’’ another SCMP staffer said. “We were all in shock. What followed was disbelief. People were saying, ‘Is he mad? Doesn’t he get a joke?’ Then he sent out an e-mail that provoked absolute fury in newsroom’’

“The South China Morning Post name is one of our most valuable assets. Thousands of people have worked to build one of Asia's most prominent and powerful newspapers over the past century. The name symbolizes quality, trust and integrity. We are a good newspaper on our way to becoming a great one,” Clifford wrote.

“Unfortunately, not everyone understands what it takes for us to ratchet up to the next level. Some of this I understand. Change is hard. Newsrooms are conducive to grumbling. And excellence takes effort.

“But some behavior I cannot accept and will not tolerate. There is no room here for people who flout journalistic ethics of fairness and accuracy, no room for people who treat the company's name and property as if it were their own. And there are basic standards of decency that need to be respected in any modern company, standards that are enshrined in our code of ethics.”

One long-time staffer with more than 10 years of experience with the SCMP called Clifford’s e-mail “insulting” and “disgusting.”

The feelings were obviously shared by many newsroom employees and what resulted was blowback in the form of a restrained petition to SCMP chairman Kuok Khoon Ean, with a cc to Clifford, asking for Willison and Ruffini to be reinstated.

It was quickly written and circulated over the weekend with delivery scheduled for Monday. As of Sunday, between 65 and 80 staffers reportedly signed the letter as it took on “a life of its own,’’ the staffer said. “It’s unprecedented. I’ve seen the Post through different eras, many sackings but I’ve not seen anything like this.”

Dated November 10, 2006, it reads: “We, the undersigned, object strongly to the decision to sack Trevor Willison and Paul Ruffini, on the grounds of their involvement in Niall Fraser's leaving page.’’

“We personally and collectively strive for the excellence and professional integrity of the SCMP's products and brands. However, we believe that the sacking of high quality journalists is against the interest of the South China Morning Post and that any involvement in the leaving page does not have anything to do with their work for the paper and is not a sackable offence.

“We believe that more harm has been done to the core values of the SCMP by their dismissal without reference to our established code of verbal or written misconduct warnings.

“We would like the chairman to know that the action today has severely damaged morale of the staff. We call for their immediate reinstatement.”

“For Clifford to take the moral high ground and to treat us like children is really insulting,” said a staffer. “It’s the nature of leaving pages. They are simply a good-humored prank which goes on in any [journalism] office environment and it’s ridiculous to take a moral stand on something like a leaving page.”

Clifford, who resigned from The Standard in February 2006, has been an object of controversy since his arrival. Long-time SCMP staffers said that some “Clifford loyalists” brought into the paper were at odds with the SCMP’s existing newsroom environment and created what another staffer called “a divided culture” at the paper.

“The new people don’t mix with the old people and now there is a very divided culture within the Post between his people and the rest,” another long-time employee said. “It’s become a very unpleasant place to work where real professionalism and journalism isn’t understood and promoted. These people who were sacked are characters. Journalism needs characters and he doesn’t understand the character element of journalism. His words about the need for change and standards are really very empty. I don’t he think he understands what they really mean.”

Asia Sentinel Editor John Berthelsen and Senior Editor A. Lin Neumann, were Managing Editor and Executive Editor of the Standard, respectively, during Clifford’s tenure.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Catch a Fire
We interrupt our normally scheduled low-grade soap opera regarding unemployment, debt, taxes, self-pity and malaise in Hong Kong with a special report on civic action in Shenzhen.

Scene: BoHo Apartments, Nanshen district. Time: 6.10 p.m., Monday. Camera pan of north horizon from 20th floor balcony. Clouds of noxious smelling smoke, a combination of sewage, garbage, solvent and wood, choke an already smogged up horizon and roll into the unit 20-D as well as any other north facing domicile foolish enough to have the windows open.

Below eight scattered fires blaze in two enormous vacant lots, one to the northeast with two fires, and six alight in the other lot -- which contains, not coincidentally, a temporary construction worker barracks unit with no apparent modern waste disposal ability -- directly below the mighty and trendy Boho complex.

Closeup: C scrambling daintily like a tiny dancer to drag the laundry rack inside before four days worth of clothes winds up smelling like a barbecue at a toxic waste dump. Cut to my clumsy, liver spotted hands throwing windows closed.

Various dialogue: Me swearing in English. C muttering irreverent comments in Chinese.

"Call somebody," I pleaded. "The fire department. Environmental control! Someone, please."

"It will not do any good," she replied. "No one will answer or if they do they will say it isn't their responsibility and give me another number who will say it isn't their problem either"

C was right. Though she did call every relevant department except the fire department ("If it isn't an emergency they know my information anyway and can make trouble for us") twenty minutes later she had been through six Shenzhen city government numbers, four of which answered and the best response she received was: "My surname is Wang and it is not my responsibility."

Then I heard sirens in the distance, held my breath, opened the balcony doors and peered thorough the filmy, oily black glop. Sure enough, someone -- probably someone with a high ranking relative or connection -- had called the fire department and they actually responded.

"Let's go down. This is wild," I said. "Shenzhen government efficiency in action and it doesn't involve breaking up a demonstration of eldery, disgruntled PLA pensioners or pissed off karaoke bar owners and prostitutes! Real life positive public service in action!"

We descended 20 floors, hit the north exit under the alert eye of the dozing 15-year-old security guard in cast-off Tajikistani Pirates of Penzanze rent-a-cop clothes two sizes too large for him and joined about 5 other onlookers as Shenzhen's smoke busters went to work in the construction crew lot like Larry, Curly and Moe spraying each other as much as the large trash fires.

I noted several shadowy figures fleeing from two of the fires in the direction of the construction barracks and asked C to ask a grim, stoic looking fire chief (who was smoking a cigarette in nice touch of unintended irony) if they were going to cite the construction company for publicly burning what must have been about a month's worth of sewage and debris

"You are kidding, right?" she said. "No one will be in trouble for this. We're lucky they came at all." I had a brainstorm. "Thank him for coming! Maybe he'll appreciate knowing that he did something good for the public. Creating a harmonious arson-free society and all that..."

She sidled up and said as much in Chinese, I think, although from his mute response, which involved looking resolutely away from her and dragging hard on his cigarette, I think the only response he wanted was a call back to the fire station so he and the crew could resume playing cards and watching pirated Taiwanese porno DVDs.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

With a Little Help from my Friends
If there's an upside to being jobless in Hong Kong, it's realizing how many good friends I've made since arriving here full of promise, hope, charity and optimism two years ago, mirthful warbling bluebirds and frisky chimpmunks on my shoulders under a minature rainbow.

Now nearly broke, under a noxious cloud with weasels ripping my flesh (nod to Mr Zappa) I have found some unexpected support from a lot of kind souls. One has offered financial assistance should it come to that. Another has offered me his home office while he's at work, complete with fax, Internet, two dogs and nearly every cinematic and musical offering of the 20th and early 21st century should I get too bored between crafting cover letters to the likes of East Asia Cylinder Boring Weekly. Others have forwarded freelance possibilities. And some have picked up the bar tab and just listened as I wept and moaned.

It's all good. Thank you.

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