The Digital Journalist
The Hong Kong Kine
February 2007

by Ron Steinman

The cell phone movies of Saddam Hussein's hanging brought back memories of the story I am about to tell. A story of how journalism used to be, so those of you under 20, perhaps even not yet 30, who think the world begins and ends with the Internet, will think again. Maybe.

It is a story told many times before, but I am certain no one has heard it in years, especially since there are those of you reading this who were not yet born.

Recently my daughter Linda moved to London for a new job. After her arrival and a short nap, she sent me two e-mails and then she called me on her BlackBerry. The signal was better than some calls I get from the Upper Westside of Manhattan where I live. I half expected to see a slide show of her arrival at Heathrow and her hailing a cab for the trip into London, but no such luck.

It made me think of another place and another time in which new technology was stumbling around looking for a breakthrough, but where, as journalists, we still had to have all our learned skills and those we were born with to survive. Today with all our modern paraphernalia, including a cell phone that recorded the death of Saddam Hussein, and with the many technological changes that are happening faster than we can blink, here is an instructive tale from an era that I will never forget, an adventure in Hong Kong that I was a part of, starting in 1969.

My job in Hong Kong for NBC was Director of News for the Far East. I had recently finished a long tour in Saigon and in my new home in Hong Kong I was chief of all the bureaus that stretched from India to Japan. It sounds better and more important than it was, but it was a heady job, one in which I could pick and choose my assignments and where I generally stayed out of the way of the local bureaus, unless there was a crisis and New York needed me to help solve it.

Welles Hangen was the bureau chief in Hong Kong, and a good one. We each had corner offices separated by a long hallway. He covered Hong Kong, and went on assignments to other countries depending on the needs of the Nightly News. I rarely, if ever, served as his producer. Field producers in those days were a luxury. An experienced correspondent did not need one to get a story, to get it edited, and either fed by satellite or shipped.

Our joint effort was China, how to cover it during the plague of the Red Guard, how to get into China to report, and, because we were in TV, how to get pictures that would show the American people what China looked like from the inside. I went dutifully once a week to the China Trade Office on a quiet Hong Kong street off Queens Road to apply for a travel visa into China. I saw the same clerk each week. Each week he did not recognize me, or he pretended not to recognize me. I don't know how he thought about me or how he saw me. Nevertheless, each week I submitted a form with photos and left it in his office for processing. Each week nothing happened with my visa. I don't know if the dour clerk filed it or trashed it. As much as he ignored me, I was equally determined to mildly harass him just by showing up at the same time on the same day when I was in Hong Kong and not off on an assignment.

Welles and I talked about China when we were in the office together. One day we had a breakthrough. I am not sure who had it first, whether he or I, or one of our crews. We had a meeting and discussed if there was some way we could get a picture off Chinese TV from a high point in Hong Kong by direct line of sight. We named the project 'The Hong Kong Kine.' It was not really a kinescope, because we were not going to shoot the picture off a picture tube, that is, we were not making a picture of a TV picture. Our picture, if any, would come from a signal we would pick up many miles away from a tower on the Chinese mainland. The title we gave the mission had resonance, so that is what we called it. We knew that the quality would not be great. We did not know if what we considered would even be possible. However, we were willing to try. One problem we faced was almost constant fog on what we called The Peak, the highest part of the mountains in Hong Kong. It would be impossible to get any picture through the fog. We waited a few days for the fog to lessen in the hope it would clear. Then we, myself and a crew, piled into a van and started driving the circular, narrow roads to a high point where we could position the camera in the direction of China – actually the city then called Canton, now known as Guangzhou, the closest major city to Hong Kong.

On one of the highest points of the island, we found a location outside the fence that surrounded a government communication outpost. We set up the camera, moved it on its fluid head looking for a signal. Then, there it was the signal from Canton TV. We rolled film – yes, film because portable videotape was still a dream – and we had our first pictures from inside China. We wanted to jump with joy, but we had to contain ourselves because we were adjacent to restricted territory. After shooting for a half hour, we packed up and drove back to the office. The next morning after the film came out of the developer we screened it and were delighted to have footage of a peaceful demonstration with thousands of Red Guard waving in unison the famous little Red Book of Mao Tse Tung, the guardian, creator and leader of the Cultural Revolution. We had a story. A member of our Chinese staff translated the Canton TV narration and she told us what the huge crowd said. With that information, Welles Hangen wrote a script, we told the news desk for the first time what we had done and the film was on its way to New York. On its arrival, it made air for next show up and it played well throughout the news cycle that day.

The venture lasted for years. One of the best stories we captured took place at a Chinese submarine base. It showed for the first time a class of submarine that no one realized the Chinese had. For that story, the Red Book was incidental. Seeing the men on the sub's deck was an unexpected bonus.

We spent many nights roaming the mountain peaks of Hong Kong looking for spots where we could plant our camera for the best line of sight signal from China. More than once the police stopped us and told us to fold our equipment and be on our way. More than once we trespassed onto government land because we discovered it was the best place to set up our camera. More than once the guards chased us. More than once we bribed them with hard cash, United States dollars, instead of Hong Kong dollars, to let us stay and get our shots. As we, and eventually CBS News as well, became a fixture on the mountaintops, the police and other government officials ignored us, especially as our bribes more than satisfied their objections.

As with cell phones today and home-produced videos that land on You Tube and its ilk, our pictures back then were jumpy, and often fuzzy. They were always in black and white but because of what we were doing, we were able to show pictures of life inside China during one of its most turbulent eras. We had no other way of seeing behind the Red Curtain, so what we did proved fruitful.

The unexpected is one of the joys of journalism. That is what the Hong Kong Kine was for us in our bureau. Now with all the dire predictions of how journalism is changing, and more often for the worst right before our eyes, I rarely see anyone having a good time.

We had great fun doing what we did in Hong Kong. I would not change that for anything.

© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, a regular contributor to The Digital Journalist, is an award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions. Buy Ron Steinman's book: Inside Television's First War.