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THE HAND-OVER

The 6,300 Journalists in Town Nearly Are the Story

Media: In the crush, reporters fight for a piece of turf. Hong Kong government's good-news suggestions go begging.

June 30, 1997|EVELYN IRITANI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HONG KONG — The voice on the answering machine was one of Italy's best-known television correspondents. She was doing some advance work in preparation for this week's visit to cover the final chapter of British colonial rule in Asia.

"Can you put me in touch with Suzie Wong? I hear she's a key figure in Hong Kong," she asked, apparently unaware that the legendary bar hostess was a Hollywood fantasy of East meeting West.

For the Hong Kong journalist, the spectacle of the immaculately coiffed correspondent chasing the fictional Chinese stereotype through the dark alleys of Wan Chai was both laughable and horrifying, yet another example of the level of ignorance that has descended on this cosmopolitan Asian city in recent days.

More than 6,300 journalists from across the globe have arrived here in recent days to put their spin on a moment in history that is both rich in symbolism and culturally complex.

One could certainly argue that the attention is justified by the story's geopolitical reach, wrapping together the end of the British colonial era in Asia and the marriage of the world's largest Communist country and its tiny capitalist neighbor.

But the media crush has highlighted the dangers of throwing thousands of competitive egos into one land-starved city, putting pressure on everything from phone lines and taxis to space at the horseshoe-shaped bar at the Foreign Correspondents Club.

The Hong Kong government's giant media machine has been a model of efficiency, from the digitally produced press badges to hourly press tours. The giant Press and Broadcast Center, which contains thousands of phones, a mini-restaurant, a photo-processing center and post office, is conveniently located in the newly completed Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center.

The press center will serve as command central for many of the journalists, who will be working all night to cover the midnight hand-over ceremony, pro-democracy protests, gala parties and fireworks--all occurring within a few miles of the center.

But no amount of money or planning by the Hong Kong government could overcome the chaos created by thousands of journalists scrambling to meet the expectations of news-starved editors thousands of miles away.

Inevitably, the journalists have ended up fighting for the same piece of turf while the good-news stories offered up by the government have fallen by the wayside.

Heading the media popularity chart were trips to the Chinese border and interviews with the colony's infamous cage men, who live in tiny wire-mesh homes stacked several stories high. Meanwhile, many of the briefings by government officials at the cavernous convention center drew sparse crowds.

Kalina Tsang Ka-wai, a spokeswoman for the Society for Community Organizations, told the South China Morning Post that her telephones were ringing off the hook with requests from the media to interview the cage men.

"I'm having problems facilitating so many of them all of a sudden," she said. "And I worry that their frequent visits will upset the lives of the cage men."

Supporters of mainland China, eager to write the final chapter of Britain's colonial rule, have focused their attention on what Ng Sing Fai, an editor at Wen Hui Bao, the largest pro-Beijing daily in Hong Kong, calls "the joyous event of reunification."

He said his paper is unlikely to cover any protests because "there will be too much going on, and we should remember the main story."

Fang Jiqing, an editor for China Central Television, the mainland's state broadcaster, said the most significant moment for Chinese viewers around the world will be the British flag coming down for the final time and the Chinese flag being raised.

"This is the most important and joyous news," he said.

But Fang said his station might cover the protests, "since we practice 'one country, two systems.' "

*

Meanwhile, the BBC, which has one of the largest foreign contingents, had less than 48 hours to turn four huge dance studios into a giant broadcasting center and erect a typhoon-proof TV studio on a rooftop overlooking Hong Kong's harbor.

Sue Martin, a BBC spokeswoman, said the technical arrangements were particularly difficult because of the short setup period, the hostile weather conditions and the long distance from home.

"The pressure comes because it is such a historic moment and you only get one chance to do it right," she said.

Sweltering heat, traffic gridlock on Hong Kong Island and the world's highest prices have taken the fun out of the story for some journalists, who are feeling pressure to justify their $450-a-night hotel rooms and $5 cups of coffee.

Paul Hardy, an assignment coordinator for WTN Broadcast Services, predicted that the actual event will be a bit anticlimactic after a buildup that began 13 years ago when China and Britain sealed Hong Kong's future.

"It's a bit of a white elephant," he said. "It's been too planned, too anticipated. If they catch [former Cambodian dictator] Pol Pot next week, probably no one will pay any more attention to this."

Silvia Cavallini of The Times' Hong Kong Bureau contributed to this report.

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