Writing about foreign correspondents has got me into a fair bit of trouble at times. A couple of years ago, I was foolish enough to suggest that in the age of the internet, many of them were just blow ins, decked out in safari suits, delivering rehashed locals’ stories, as they were videoed in front of exotic locations.
Obviously, I was wrong.
Safari suits are rarely worn these days.
In fact the favoured attire more recently, was the combat photographer’s vest, which had lots of little pockets where one could stash passports, hangover cures, condoms and other paraphernalia required to explore the Orient.
I saw a lot of such gear when Hong Kong went back to China in 1997. I was there to write a book, Reporting Hong Kong, which considered how the foreign press covered the handover. I spent a fair amount of time, as you would, in the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC), where combat jacket attired visitors could be seen recording breathless voice to camera pieces in the main bar.
One bleary Sunday morning, I went in to the club for breakfast to find it filled with correspondents who were younger, better dressed and a good deal better looking than the regulars. A film crew was working under lights in a corner. Things seemed normal but somewhere, some how reality had slipped a cog. I felt I had entered a slightly altered but recognisable universe. In fact, the people at my table were actors, playing correspondents, making a movie about correspondents reporting on correspondents. It was called the Chinese Box; a reference to realities hidden within realities.
I had done field work myself at the club some years before, recording interviews with resident correspondents and writing much of my PhD thesis in the downstairs bar. I learned that hardly any of the regulars wore combat vests.
Except Hugh van Es.
He was entitled to.
You could impress your friends from Australia by bringing them into the Club. “Do you remember the photo of people being evacuated from a roof at the fall of Saigon in 1975?” If they were old or historically literate enough, they would remember this, one of the iconic images of the Vietnam war.
Then with a flourish, I could say,” See that bloke in the vest at the bar? That’s Hugh van Es. He took the photograph!”
I heard that Hugh van Es died this year at the age of 67. His wake was held at the FCC last week.
In a media world of made up macho men, van Es was the real thing.
Wherever he may be now, I hope he gets to share a beer with departed friends and colleagues whose photos and portraits grace the walls of the FCC.
Good bye Hugh.
Keep your camera with you.