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Covering the China beat

CHINA is a huge story today, but British author Paul French observers that it's a tamer, far more stable and an altogether safer beat than it was in the swashbuckling days of the old China press. Sam Riley reports.

They have seen bloody wars, occupation and revolts. Since the 1820s, foreign journalists have had a front-row seat to witness and record the tumults of Chinese history.

Some of them were drunks, scoundrels or philanderers - or all three. All were adventurers, like Jack London and Ernest Hemingway, and many were "war junkies," among the world's first war correspondents.

Their stories and the colorful history of 150 years of the old China press from the 1820s to 1949 is captured in Shanghai-based British author Paul French's new book.

The Londoner's fourth work, "Through the Looking Glass: China's Foreign Journalists from Opium Wars to Mao," begins with a duel between two editors of English-language newspapers started in the 1820s by opium traders in the Guangzhou (Canton) factories.

"I wanted this book to be about the characters of the drunks, philanderers," says French.

The Briton says the book is the result of years of reading and was originally inspired by his previous work on American adman, journalist and adventurer Carl Crow.

Scouring journalists' memoirs, newspapers and other historical sources, French has documented the various characters who interpreted China to the rest of the world for 150 years.

French first came to China in 1987 as a student. He completed his Asian Studies during stints at universities in London and Glasgow and previously worked as a journalist for Time Out in London.

French has been in China for more than a decade and is the founder and chief China representative of the research consultancy Access Asia. Established in 1997, Access Asia has offices in Beijing, Shanghai and Malaysia and provides independent market advice for companies and institutions looking to set up in China.

A widely published analyst, writer and commentator, French's first book "One Billion Shoppers - Accessing Asia's Consuming Passions" was written with Matthew Crabbe.

French makes the point in the opening chapter of "Through the Looking Glass" that despite the current fascination with China, many more columns in newspapers were devoted to the country during much of this 150-year history he delved into.

While foreign newspapers were fascinated by the compelling stories coming out of China, there was also a plethora of China-focused journals and a lively and competitive domestic newspaper industry that employed some of the best journalists of their age.

"Of course, there are stories in China now - massive and significant ones," he writes. "But in historical terms, it is tamer, far more stable and an altogether safer beat than it was from 1827 to the 1950s."

But maybe that's why China became an essential and appealing posting on the global beat for many foreign correspondents who wanted to make their mark.

The chance for adventure drew a cast of characters from around world.

"They were a mixed bunch - from long-timers such as George 'Morrison of Peking,' glamorous journalist-sojourners such as Peter Fleming and Emily Hahn, and reporter-tourists such as Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn, along with numerous less celebrated, but no less interesting, members of the old China press corps," French writes.

The author says Hemingway was, in fact, spying for the American government and was a reluctant visitor to China.

Away from his famed hunting, drinking and womanizing pursuits, the renowned hedonist didn't enjoy his time in China, describing his experience as "the hangover that refused to go."

The coverage of China also marked some key points in the development of journalism and the communication of information around the globe.

The modern war correspondent was in part born out of the coverage of China, particularly the 1905 Russo-Japanese War, says French.

Coverage included not just writers but photographers as well as some of the first news reel footage. One British journalist, Lionel James of the Times of London, even hired a ship that was moored off northeastern China and had a direct link to the cable link to Shanghai. It was the first time a journalist had cabled information from a war.

As today, the conflict also attracted that unusual breed of reporters, the so-called "war junkie." In the case of the Russo-Japanese War, it was a band of reporters who called themselves "The Vultures" and whose number of hard-bitten hacks included the writer Jack London.

The 28-year-old author had recently come to the world's attention for his acclaimed novel "The Call of the Wild" and was on his first assignment, with no previous experience as a reporter.

"If you look at it from a war-reporting point of view, there were a large number of journalists on both sides," French says.

"These were on a number of levels, illegally running behind trying to work out what they could see, accredited and traveling where they wanted. Some were embedded, which, of course, had all of the problems then that it has now."

Paul French will launch "Through the Looking Glass" at the Glamour Bar on June 7 at 4pm. Check for details.


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