Chapter 3 – Discovering China


Into China – via Hong Kong and Taiwan, and Japan

1. Suez Canal Lessons
2. Journalist Spies
3. Chinese Reality
4. Learning the Language
5. Into Taiwan
6. Hospitality, KMT Style
7. Gently into Japan

The two years in Hong Kong (December 59-February 62) were to be crucial, and not just for improving my capacity to drink expensive French brandy at endless Chinese dinner parties.

They taught me much about China and the Chinese. They also made me rethink my conservative political beliefs.

I was forced to take a much closer look at the sorry record of Western colonialism and cruelty in Asia.

I was forced also to reconsider my religious beliefs. 

I had had a typical Brisbane, Catholic upbringing, influenced also by my father’s strong Catholic conservatism.

But if our Western religions were so universal, as they claimed, how come God had ignored the millions in China? A handful of missionaries was not the answer. 

I also shared the crude conservatism and anti-foreigner prejudices of a 1950’s Queensland upbringing.

1. Suez Canal Lessons

The boat carrying me back to Australia from England in 1956 had been just two days from the Suez Canal when the October attack on Egypt by the UK, France, Israel cabal had broken out. 

Together with the British migrants I remember standing on the deck to cheer the broadcast of Anthony Eden’s speech justifying that attack. 

The fact that the fighting and some sunken ships closed the canal immediately, which meant that our boat had to make a two week detour around the Cape of Good Hope via Malta, did little to shake our chauvinistic pride.

But it did give me an introduction to media mendacity (fake news). 

A Melbourne Argus journalist on the ship had a call from headquarters to send a story from Malta.   But the only ‘news’ was a religious parade and a few US and UK soldiers waiting for orders.

With a few taps on his typewriter he had invented a brawl between those Malta-based UK and US soldiers arguing over the rights and wrongs of the Suez attack (the US had opposed the attack). The brawl was broken up by the religious parade. 

The next blow to establishment beliefs came while working in Canberra soon after. 

The main justification for the October 1956 attack had been the alleged inability of those backward Egyptians to run the canal they had nationalised away from us civilised Westerners. 

But on my desk before me were the reluctant reports admitting that Egyptian engineers had skilfully removed the sunken ships and brought the canal back into service much more quickly than expected.

One report even suggested that the canal was being run better than when it was under Western control.

Hong Kong hastened the collapse of more prejudices.

Daily I was thrown into contact with Chinese a lot smarter and better informed than the average Australian.

During a visit to Hongkong by Canberra’s then Defense Minister, Alan Fairhall I drove with him back from the airport. We were caught in queues of cars filled with middle-class families returning from weekend outings. 

Looking out at them with amazement he blurted: “But they look just like your ordinary Australians coming back from a weekend on the beach.” 

Meanwhile I was also supposed to be learning more Chinese.

Mornings would be spent with some British Foreign Office types taking the allegedly intensive course in Chinese language at the Hong Kong University (one of my fellow students was a fairly dour and not so bright Scot called David Wilson who ended up years later as Governor of Hong Kong).

Our ‘teachers’ were mainly refugee intellectuals from the mainland. Their idea of teaching was to have us try to listen to them rambling on nostalgically about the life and culture of the nation they had left behind.

Afternoons or evenings I would work in the Australian Commission. 

That too was less than inspiring. The then Commissioner, another non-Chinese speaker, had just discovered that Beijing spoke of only ten percent of the population being opposed to its revolutionary policies.

In an urgent memo to Canberra he revealed that even Beijing had admitted it had 60 million counter-revolutionaries in its midst.

Surely there was some way they could be used to overthrow the communist regime.

Later he was to warn me of the dangers of becoming a China-specialist. 

Early in his career he had been sent to learn Arabic. He had carefully avoided the Middle East, and the language, for the rest of his career. 

He was to end up as head of our External Affairs department.

But the Hong Kong experience taught me a good language learning technique. 

Beijing was threatening severe action over some Taiwan/US insult. I was called in to listen and interpret immediately; Beijing had  pre-warned a chungyao happyio – important announcement.

As I ploughed through the recording with the help of a dictionary, I found that for years later I could remember most of the key words in the announcement.

Lesson: the need to create real situations, real or imaginary, as a technique for remembering languages.

2. Journalist Spies

Contacts developed with other Western officials and journalists involved with China. 

Most were rigidly anti-Peking, the Alsop brothers especially. Their writings later were to play such a poisonous role in justifying US intervention in Vietnam. 

Quite a few were covert intelligence operatives.

Years later, while working as a correspondent in Tokyo, I was to run constantly into calls by fellow correspondents demanding something called Freedom of the Press, and freedom for imprisoned colleagues.

I often thought of suggesting they should first do more to expose the spies in their midst. Only then should they begin to worry about the fate of colleagues in trouble.

At the very least they should be made aware that our side, and not just the others, engaged in sot activity.My own causal estimate says that almost all the British and Australian journalists working in Asia have their backgrounds screened for recruitment by UK and Australian spy agencies. 

Half are approached, sometimes without their knowing (a favourite sounding-out technique is being invited by the local embassy to provide paid reports on local conditions and personalities). 

Half of those selected then collaborate, either actively or otherwise.

And not necessarily for money. Fed with information tidbits and contacts from their spy handlers, they can often score their scoops against less favoured but more honest journalists trying hard to get established by honest means. 

Before long the collaborators can come to dominate the scene as alleged experts on their area of operation, often despite their lack of language or any other conspicuous ability.

Australian journalists are especially vulnerable mainly due to lack of background.

One such operative in Hong Kong was the Australian journalist, Richard Hughes. 

When he died suddenly in 1983 he was found to be carrying a large sum of money. 

Few tried hard to deny that for most his career he had been in the pay of UK and Australian intelligence services.

But for much of that career he was regarded as the doyen of the Hong Kong press corps, an expert on China, and a ‘must’ for visiting Western journalists and others who wanted to be briefed about China.

His trademark journalism was always to refer to Chinese as communist running dogs.

I had some run-ins with him, years later, when I had come out against the Vietnam War and was trying to get established as a writer. 

It was not a nice feeling – my taxes going to pay the spy fees that allowed him to try to mess up my career.

3. Chinese Reality

For my own briefings on China the most I had to do was listen to what my refugee friends and contacts in Hong Kong were saying – namely, that while they themselves would have suffered under communism, by 1949 the emergence of a communist regime to replace the corrupt, incompetent Nationalist regime of Chiang Kai-shek was inevitable. 

Many welcomed it. My apartment maid had a typical story. 

Married to a Shanghai shop-keeper who had fled the country in 1949 fearing bourgeois charges, they had left their five children behind.

Under the Communist regime she had fled, she said, all her children had all gone to university and were employed as doctors, engineers. 

If they had come to Hong Kong they probably would have ended up assembling plastic flowers for a pittance by the side of a squalid street.

But the enthusiasm and progress in the early years of the Communist revolution were soon to be ended by a piece of Maoist insanity called the Great Leap Forward. 

Reliable reports of thousands dying of hunger and even cannibalism began to trickle out to our Hong Kong office. 

Making sense of it all was not easy, though later in the Cultural Revolution years I began to understand how China’s tradition of strong central control could be abused by an unbalanced but entrenched leader.

4. Learning the Language

Meanwhile I was still trying to learn Chinese. 

After a year of Hong Kong University study, I still could not speak much. I was a typical victim of the textbook approach to language learning.

Chinese, I was discovering, does not fall into the Teach Yourself variety of language.

Fortunately I fell in with two boozy British military intelligence types who seemed to speak the language brilliantly. 

In fact their Chinese was far from perfect. But when one is struggling to learn a difficult language, even less than fluent speakers seem to have some super-human ability.

They let me join their weekly dinner parties with their Chinese friends and contacts. 

There I would strain to catch the tones and sounds of rapid dinner table conversation.

With Hong Kong friends – 1971

Gradually I began to understand occasional sentences and stammer a few remarks. 

Finally I was embarked on the very long and distant journey that anyone who wants to learn a difficult foreign language must follow.

Grammar in Chinese is easier than in Japanese or Korean.

But unfortunately in addition to having to remember a pile of ideographs, there is a monster called tones (four in Mandarin Chinese). 

They seem a quite abnormal way to have to learn and speak a language. But they must be mastered.

They are crucial to speaking and  understanding. Listening to a foreigner trying to speak Chinese out of tone is agonising.

But with practice their use begins to make sense. Chinese uses tones; other languages use stress and intonations.

All are important.

Even so, for someone raised in mono-tonal Australia having get used to tonal differences takes time, a lot of it.

In addition to tones you have to master the ideographs, at least two thousand of them.

Another problem was simply finding people to talk to.

I had come to realise the need to use the language in everyday situations, to live the language. But Mandarin speakers were rare those days in Hong Kong.

The local Hong Kong population, both then and now, preferred to speak Cantonese. 

Mandarin-speakers were almost entirely refugees from the mainland or visitors from Taiwan. Meeting and making friends with them was not easy.

On the Star Ferry crossing between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon one would occasionally catch the lilting voices of Mandarin speakers nearby. I would rapidly change seats just to get closer and catch a few words.

Ironically, it was not till I got back to Canberra in 1962 that I finally began to live the language. I got to know C. at the Taiwan Embassy there. 

Thanks to her I was speaking the language almost daily and in everyday situations.

Finally I could begin to bury the language deep in the sub-conscious, where ultimately it has to go if one wants to learn any language.

I missed her badly when I left for my next posting, Moscow. And for a while things did not turn out well for her. 

But I will always be grateful to her, both as a close friend and teacher, even if she never gets to learn of that gratitude.

My other Hong Kong problem was being unable to get to the country whose language I was supposed to be learning.

In those Cold War days Australian diplomats were not even allowed to set foot in China. Canberra feared it might imply recognition of the dreaded Communist regime there.

But my British colleagues could go in and out to postings in their Beijing embassy. 

That they ended up with better Chinese and a more balanced view of China made little impression on our Canberra masters.

5. Into Taiwan

But I could go to Taiwan. 

There, far more than many realized, Mandarin had become not just the official but also the everyday language. 

Some visits there helped the language confidence somewhat.


The Taiwan visits also involved vague requests from Canberra to look into Taiwanese resistance to the Nationalist Chinese regime of Chiang Kai-shek embedded there.

Only a decade or so earlier some tens of thousands of better-educated Taiwanese from the Japanese occupation era were suspected of opposing the Nationalists and had been massacred – a detail our Cold War propagandists were trying hard to ignore. 

(In those days atrocities were supposed to be the monopoly of the mainland Communist Chinese regime.)

I was able to track down one or two from that older generation and listen to their stories.

For my pains I was constantly monitored by Taiwanese government agents. And Canberra never showed any reaction to my reports anyway. 

I should have saved my breath and joined the contingent of pro-Taiwan, US journalistic hacks in Taipei on their eating and womanizing expeditions.

Years later, when working as a correspondent, I found myself refused visas by both Taipei and Beijing. 

Visas to China were still reserved for ardent admirers of the regime there.

Rejection by both sides was something suffered by quite a few other China-watchers who had spent years learning the language and who tried to view both sides impartially.

6. Hospitality, KMT-Style.

Late in 1961, we received a message to get to Taiwan quickly: John Gorton, then External Affairs Minister, and his wife were coming on an official visit to the island.

Taiwan’s Nationalist officialdom wanted to go overboard to welcome and impress him.

In those days a favourite gambit with top Western visitors was to invite them to view some expensive display of Chinese artefacts in the museum of national treasures the KMT regime had smuggled in from the mainland. 

They were displayed with pride as a symbol of the Nationalist regime being the true protector of Chinese culture.

If the visitors lingered for more than a few seconds to admire something they would find themselves presented with a copy of the same artefact before leaving, carefully wrapped and with an inscription.

This kind of over-done hospitality did much to persuade naïve Westerners that Taiwan really was the true China, deserving of full support. 

The Gorton’s received the same treatment, though I suspect that Gorton himself (whom later I came to respect as an honest politician despite his hardline anti-communism) was less impressed.

A few days later we were sitting on top of a cliff with the Nationalist President, Chiang Kai-shek, watching airborne troops carrying heavy packs being parachuted into the Taiwan Straits below us.

The troops then had to swim ashore in a simulated version of the planned invasion against the Chinese mainland.

The senior External Affairs official with us, Keith Brennan, tried to tell Gorton it was not official Australian policy to approve this phoney belligerency.

Brennan was something of a progressive (as I was to discover later) and went on to warn Gorton that Chiang’s regime was also not renowned for honesty or gentleness. 

Gorton’s reply is worth quoting: “I know they are gangsters. But these gangsters are on our side. The ones over there (pointing to China) are not.”

Of the various justifications for the insane Cold War confrontation at the time, this one made a bit more sense than most.

(Years later I got someone to ask in Parliament whether External Affairs would protest this planned Chinese Nationalist ‘aggression’ in the same way as it protested Hanoi’s ‘aggression’ against Saigon.)

(EA came back saying it was unaware of the events we had witnessed.)

(Later I was to learn how unawareness of key facts, whether feigned or not, was to breed more Western militancy and bloodshed than I cared to know about.)

7. Gently Into Japan

I also got to discover Japan.

I had been invited to Korea by a colleague, Richard Gates, then with UNCURK and the Australian Embassy in Seoul.

If the poverty of Hong Kong and Taiwan had been bad, what I saw in Korea was horrible – hordes of unemployed men wandering the streets of Seoul and Pusan desperate for work, any kind of work.

But a week traveling in an UNCURK jeep along the east coast to Pusan in the late autumn also showed me the natural beauty of that harsh and uncompromising country.

(Our official guides were instructed to take care of our every need, including pushing young women into our beds at night.)

From Pusan I took the tiny, once-a-week ferry to Fukuoka, then the only way for travellers to get to Japan (today large hydroplanes and jet sea-craft make the trip several times a day).

Landing at Hakata port I began to realise I was completely alone in a totally foreign country, and that the Teach Yourself book could do little to help me.

But I had one thing going for me: The Chinese ideographs used by the Japanese – the kanji – have much the same shape and meaning as in Chinese. 

Place and shop names are often written in kanji. So I could usually know where I was, and how to find food.

A tape recording of useful words and expressions kindly prepared for me by a Japanese colleague in Hong Kong, Onoue Etsuzo of Ajia Keizai Kenkyusho (it now calls itself IDE – Institute of Developing Economies – in English), also gave me some help.

From Fukuoka I had planned to catch a train to Nagasaki and then go on to Tokyo. 

Somehow I got the platform announcements wrong and ended up on a train to Nagoya. 

One result was an unplanned night stop en route in Hiroshima.That first impression of the ‘real Japan’ is still fresh. 

The town had been nuclear bombed only 16 years earlier. Yet the dozens of small stalls around the Hiroshima railway station were a bustle of activity and excitement.

Because of the Nagasaki mix up I was well ahead of  schedule. So from Nagoya I decided to take the more mountainous Chuo line to Tokyo. It was a good decision.

Like most Australians who had been through the war years, and like most Westerners mixing with Chinese in Hong Kong in those days, I had my share of anti-Japan prejudices. 

But the attractiveness of the late autumn countryside lining the Chuo route – densely wooded slopes running forever along the railway tracks, the neat stacks of timber waiting for delivery under the rain in the station yards, the charm of the villages, the kindness of the people on the trains, the shy girl preparing my room at the local inn – all combined to make me realise that these were not an evil people living in an evil nation.

There was the station master who found me an inn to stay overnight in his village. 

He came the next morning to make sure I could handle payments, which was unnecessary since the inn owners had decided to let this stray foreigner stay for free anyway. 

He also wanted to make sure that I caught the right train for the next leg of my journey. Where else in the world could one find that kind of service?

Arriving eventually in Tokyo, the good impressions continued. 

One felt the raw energy of a nation struggling to emerge from defeat and destruction. 

Already I sensed  this was a country I would want to know better.

From Tokyo I decided to spend more time traveling around Japan by train.

By this time I was busy learning the kana (phonetic script the Japanese also use). That plus the kanji let me handle the very detailed train time-tables.

More impressions impacted – the deep green of the Tohoku (northern Honshu) countryside, the young Kyoto girl keen to practice her English while showing me around the temples (also without payment), a woman running a small yatai (eating stall) near Beppu Station and who generously took me in for the night, a random hike through the early winter frost along the Kirishima peaks of southern Kyushu, the boat trip past volcanic islands to Okinawa. 

By then I was certain that somehow, some time, I would come back to this unusual nation.