Facts and Prejudices

(Next Magazine)  Facts and Prejudices.  By Jimmy Lai.  July 27, 2006, issue #855, pages 142-143.

[in translation]

Yeung Wei-Hong (note: the publisher of Next Magazine) forwarded to me a comment from Roland Soong's EastSouthWestNorth blog.  Although it was only a few sentences, it was a piece of genuine knowledge and penetrating insight which captured the essence of media work.  I feel the same way about what he said.  So let me share my thoughts with you here.

Roland Soong wrote thus:

(07/13/2006)   It is travel day again (16-hour direct fight from New York City to Hong Kong).  Blogging should return to normalcy after that.  This trip is a reminder that if I hold a regular day job in New York City, then this blog could not exist as it stands because I would not have the time and I could not feel the pulse of the people and place. 

Roland Soong's words should give people deep thoughts.  He means to say that once he is away from Hong Kong, he can no longer feel the pulse of current affairs, which meant that there was no way for him to keep up his blog on Hong Kong and China.  I believe that Roland Soong might have tried to write his blog in New York City, but felt that he was not emotionally engaged.  That is why he wrote those words.

A person is an animal of the environment.  Reporting on current affairs in a certain place is an active portrait.  In order to capture the spirit, this portrait must capture the special flavors, values and sentiments of the people and the place.  Only a portrait with these ingredients can have any sense of rhythm.  If I am not immersed in the swirling movements of the place, how can I write what I feel and create something that make others feel as if they are present there too and feel a resonant chord?  This is right, because a report that lacks a sense of presence is like an out-of-tune song which is unbearable to listen to, much less touch people.

Reporting on current affairs is different from writing novels.  A novelist can use imagination to override the limits of time and space and use fiction to describe good and evil, love and hate and so on.  Therefore, the novel is an ideal world of "I think therefore I am" which can satisfy the readers' desire to get to truth, goodness and beauty across time and space.

By contrast, current affairs commentary is the immediate realization of "I am therefore I think" - I am present at the place of the incident and I observe what is happening.  Therefore, I feel pity, happiness, anger, sorrow and joy.  I write what I feel.  All those who care about this affair can feel the resonance.  I care about what happened, I am moved and therefore I write a report that touches and echoes with the readers who care about this affair.

Current affairs is about the happenings in real life.  Different reporters may have different viewpoints and angles on certain as, and therefore current affairs reports are not the absolute truth.  The reporters cannot use precise formulae of mathematical calculations  to report current affairs.  Current affairs reporting involves blood, flesh and intelligent emotions.  Current affairs reporting entails appreciating the reality of the situation.  For those who care about the affair, a good report will touch them deeply in their hearts; for those who do not care about the affair, it has no meaning no matter how detailed the descriptions are.

It is for this reason that the reports that resonate among readers are not those that are based upon abstract inferences.  The touching news reports are those which tap into the sentiments of the people present at the scene and the emotional responses of the principals.  As soon as current affairs reporting becomes abstract, it loses the emotional tones and becomes colorless, tasteless, shapeless and meaningless symbols like a bunch of numbers without any impact.

A while ago, there were a few weekly and monthly pan-Asian publications based in Hong Kong, such as Asia Week, Asia Inc and Far Eastern Economic Review.  Today, only the Far Eastern Economic Review (which was turned from a weekly magazine into a monthly magazine) is still reporting and analyzing current affairs, politics and economics in the major Asian countries, as the rest of the regional publications which were the rage in the 1960's and 1970's have now disappeared.

I have contemplated this phenomenon.  I realized that those publications were able to exist back then because almost all of the Asian countries were closed societies in which the government restricted speech; there was not a lot of local news reporting, and even outside news was blocked so that very little was available.  In the state of scarcity, the publications with Anglo-American backgrounds found a space in Asia and became hot publications.

But from the middle 1980's, the Asian countries began to open up and relax their controls of internal news information.  As the information flow increased, people have more choices and they tend to choose the news that are close to their lives and relevant to their own interests.  Why do people choose that way?  That is because they not only want to read reports about things that they can relate to, but they also care about matters that resonate with them.  How can something that is not local resonate with them?  The aforementioned publications did not resonate with their readers and they became irrelevant, and therefore their circulation shrank.

In the 1990's, the people in charge of those publications can see the red lights flashing for their business.  They tried many times to re-organize their business without success.  Their management approached me.  Some of them sought a joint venture while others asked me for advice on how to revive their business.

No matter which publication it was, I poured cold water on them.  I told them frankly that their situation was helpless.  In my view, current affairs publications are "emotional products."  There is no such thing in the world known as the Asian emotion, so how can a weekly magazine with Asia as its market create resonance?  How can a current affairs magazine without resonance have a market?

People in Hong Kong do not care about what happens in Taiwan.  Similarly, people who live in Taiwan will not care about what happens in Indonesia -- except for the tsunami in which many people died.  But it is disastrous if a publication has to rely on huge disasters -- how often does a disaster like the tsunami happens?

If a publication can only make a cursory report on each county, then how could there be any reporting theme or volume?  Who wants to read detached and superficial reporting?  Therefore, I advised those publication managers not to waste their time and attempt to resurrect this hopeless case -- bankruptcy was the best plan!

Of course, none of the managers would listen to my piece of jarring good advice.  They all struggled on until the early 2000's before they finally shut down one after another (if they had listened to my advice earlier, their shareholders could have saved a lot of wasted money).  Today, the only regional magazine left seems to be Asia Weekly (Yazhou Zhoukan).  Their boss is not only extraordinarily wealthy, but he seems to be willing to lose money for the sake of promoting Chinese culture.  But how long can this sole remaining regional publication last?  Only the heavens know.

The other day, I was speaking to Tung Chiao about writing and the environment.  He told me that he writes his column in the study room of his own home.  Only then does he feel the companionship of the "book ghosts" and then he can write fluidly.  Sometimes, he closes his office door to write.  But that would only be to revise and decorate his essay.  He cannot write readily at the office.

Yeung Wei-hong is the opposite of Tung Chiao.  He cannot write anything at home and so he writes at the office.  His office has piles of books and even his office desk is walled with books.  Perhaps he can write only in a heavily-guarded state.

Last year, I was living in Paris and I found out that I wrote mostly about sentiments.  Perhaps because I did not have to work in Paris, I had to use my feelings to grasp the meaning of others and the environment.  The expression of sentiments became my mode of expression.  Just like Roland Soong, when I wanted to write about Hong Kong from Pairs, I often felt that I was not able to 'scratch the itch.'

I believe that most of the information that we get come from the interaction of our subconscious response with the environment.  Once we leave our familiar environment, we lose our ability to feel that environment.  Even things that used to be perfectly clear now have fuzzy contours.  So what can we write then?