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Hong Kong's Foreign Correspondents' Club turns 60
22 June 2009
Agence France Presse

Hong Kong's Foreign Correspondents' Club this month celebrates 60 years in the southern Chinese city, and the institution remains a noisy bastion of free speech, gossip and hard drinking.

Set up on June 23 or June 25, 1949 -- there are conflicting records -- the FCC was a refuge for correspondents expelled from China after the Communist Party seized power and closed the Shanghai club.

Over the past six decades it has thrived -- despite shifting locations -- to establish itself as the prime stop-off point for photographers and reporters covering the region's big stories -- from the Korean War to China's economic juggernaut.

It is also one of Asia's prime forums for political leaders, tycoons and controversial figures to state their case, if they are prepared to face sharp questioning.

"We like to think, actually we know, it is the greatest press club in the world," said current president and Financial Times correspondent Tom Mitchell.

The club gained immortality in John Le Carre's spy novel "The Honourable Schoolboy," which celebrated the striking view from the club's 14th floor men's toilet at a previous location.

It was during the Vietnam War, when journalists used the then-British colony as a refuge from the frontline, that old hands still talk of as the club's heyday.

The current location of "The Eff," as some members affectionately refer to it, is a converted old ice house in the Central district.

It features a jazz club, restaurants and even a gym, but the beating heart is the colonial-style main bar.

Although the wild days of Vietnam may have faded, drinking remains a central part of club life. Hong Kong's chief executive Donald Tsang made a reference to it in a recent speech at the FCC about historical monuments.

"There are probably a few FCC members who have been propping up the bar for so long... they could qualify as well," he said, only half joking.

Among many of the self-created myth-makers, one true journalistic legend continues to use the bar. Clare Hollingworth, the former Daily Telegraph journalist who broke the story that World War Two had begun, has her own seat reserved.

The main bar is decorated with famous front pages -- The Economist's North Korea "Hello, Earthlings" cover of Kim Jong-il draws a chuckle from newcomers -- including the South China Morning Post's 1997 splash marking the transfer of Hong Kong to Chinese rule.

The period running up to the handover saw hacks flood into the city, as they tried to catch Hong Kong's last great international news story, said former club president Christopher Slaughter.

"I am not talking about one or two weeks beforehand, I am talking about journalists arriving five or six years beforehand to try and position themselves to cover this story," he said.

"And as a result, the FCC was thriving."

Although Hong Kong has since faded as an international story, the club has remained a defender of free speech in a region not always comfortable with a vigorous press, and in the past year has continued to spark controversy.

Ousted Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra had to cancel a planned visit under diplomatic pressure from the current Bangkok regime. He later appeared by videolink.

An appearance by leading Tibet activist Kate Saunders was also postponed after pressure from the Chinese authorities. She eventually spoke, but a hoped-for appearance from a pro-Beijing voice did not materialise.

To mark the 60th anniversary -- which fell around the time of the 20th anniversary of the bloody crackdown on Tiananmen protests in Beijing -- a number of high-profile speakers have addressed the club.

In addition to Tsang, longtime Beijing critic Cardinal Joseph Zen, the editor of ousted Chinese premier Zhao Ziyang's secretly-recorded memoirs, and media tycoon and fierce anti-Communist Jimmy Lai have all been booked.

While a large number of the club's 1,800 members remain correspondents -- the rest are made up of local reporters, lawyers, civil servants and others keen to tap into and supply the club's endless appetite for gossip -- Mitchell said Hong Kong's importance as a media hub was fading because of restrictions on travel to China.

At present, Hong Kong-based foreign correspondents are not allowed free entry to China. As a result, when a big story breaks, such as last year's Sichuan earthquake, correspondents based in Shanghai and Beijing can get to the scene faster.

"There has been progress on the visa issue, but the move (of media organisations) to Beijing and Shanghai will continue unless there is greater access from here," said Mitchell.

Behind the bravado of barflys, the club is run by a team of loyal staff.

One member who returned the club for the first time in 20 years recently was stunned to be welcomed back like an old friend by an eagle-eyed bar staffer, who even remembered his tipple of choice.
 

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I've been there once. I personally have no journalistic connections, so it felt like a socialite's private club.
 
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