They’re a safe haven for journalists away from whatever turmoil is going on in the region. Sadly, they’ve also gone out of fashion in most corners of the world. We visit three foreign correspondents’ clubs that still hold their own.
The journalists who entered Tokyo after the end of the war in 1945 found a city bombed to rubble and quickly realised that they needed a roof over their heads away from the watchful eyes of the US Occupation forces. Fifty-eight of them formed the first Tokyo Correspondents’ Club in a five-storey redbrick building, a short walk from General MacArthur’s office. Several changes of premises and 69 years later, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, as it became, has never left the Yurakucho district.
The original Club – informally known as No 1 Shimbun Alley (“Shimbun” means newspaper) – was legendary: a working press centre, a chaotic billet for homeless correspondents and a social magnet for a motley assortment of westerners, famous for its food, bar and overcrowding. Richard Hughes, a journalist who managed the club in the early days, described the membership as being made up of “war-weary correspondents, the world’s best reporters and combat photographers, liberal, conservative and radical commentators and some of the world’s most plausible rogues and magisterial scoundrels”.
Its home since 1976 has been the 20th floor of the Yurakucho Denki Building, a grey block with little architectural merit but plenty of history. Generations of correspondents have come and gone as Japan emerged from the ruins, surged to recovery and, recently, navigated its way uncertainly around the rise of its neighbours. Club numbers have always reflected Japan’s importance as a story – membership boomed during the Korean War, and reached an all-time peak of 493 journalist members in 1992 at the end of the “Bubble” economy. The Club has seen it all: the Tokyo war crimes trials, the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, imperial funerals, coronations and weddings. In recent years, as long-established bureaux relocated to Beijing, Japan sometimes wondered if it was being left behind. Not any more. The aftermath of the 2011 tsunami, the Fukushima disaster, Abenomics and fraught relations with China keep Tokyo in the news. Today there are 300 regular members and 1,700 all-important associates, the non-journalists whose membership fees subsidise the hacks. The oldest member, and still an fccj regular, is 99-year-old Chuck Lingam who came to Japan from Singapore in 1935.
The fccj has long had a reputation for offering a livelier crowd for visiting speakers than the average Japanese press conference. Serving prime ministers (the fearless Junichiro Koizumi being the exception) have not dared return after the then PM, Kakuei Tanaka, was famously insulted by the moderator of an fccj press conference in 1974. But the speakers keep coming, a parade of politicians, academics, activists, authors, athletes, economists, sumo wrestlers and film stars. International guests have ranged from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Benjamin Netanyahu. Apart from the professional events, the club hosts saké tastings, film premieres and, recently, a Japanese tattoo night, complete with live tattooing.
The best stories about the club are as extravagant as they are unverifiable. There was the night a handful of inebriated correspondents decided the club needed a pet and headed off to Ueno zoo to liberate a wallaby. Sometimes riven with infighting, politics and financial headaches, the fccj continues to thrive, both loved and at times deplored by its members.
Next year, the club enters its eighth decade, with the prospect of a move to new premises opposite the Imperial Palace, and still within striking distance of MacArthur’s former HQ. Old hands say that regardless of the location, any correspondence addressed to “No 1 Shimbun Alley” will eventually find its way to the right place.
The dry martinis and five-star riverside clubhouse of the mid-1970s have morphed into cut-price mojitos and spicy curries at the top of an ageing, 16-storey office building in central Bangkok. But the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (fcct) still generates buzz – whether in a heated lunchtime debate, an evening panel discussion or regular live jazz sessions.
From 1956, when several correspondents founded the club in a restaurant in the Patpong entertainment district, the fcct grew into one of the largest – and at the height of the Vietnam War, most important – press clubs in Asia. With its wood-panelled premises in the elegant Oriental Hotel, it was also among Asia’s most glamorous “hack hangouts”.
There are now nearly 800 members, among them the odd Pulitzer-prize winner and big names in regional politics and business, although times have changed along with the club’s location; it moved to the distinctly unstylish Maneeya Centre in 1997. In its heydey, colourful regulars included property and hotel tycoon Bill Heinecke (still a life member), Derek Davies, editor for 25 years of the Far Eastern Economic Review, and TV war correspondent Neil Davis.
On the club’s visitors’ book were names such as Pakistan’s Zia ul-Haq, Cambodia’s King Sihanouk, novelist James Michener, foreign and finance ministers, army commanders, ambassadors, artists, the Dalai Lama, Nobel laureates and more. When the club moved in 1981 to the smart new Oriental Plaza next to the hotel, Thailand’s revered Crown Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn opened the premises. In that year, the fcct launched its tradition of hosting the incumbent Thai prime minister to an annual dinner and question session. Bangkok’s expat community back then was relatively small, everyone knew everybody, and like the spies from western and Soviet blocs seen quizzing each other at the well-stocked bar, people came for news, gossip and high-profile events.
In earlier years, Bangkok was a seething hub of intrigue, thanks to the Vietnam War, Cambodia’s murderous Khmer Rouge regime, refugee crises on Thailand’s eastern and western borders, and the activities of opium “warlord” Khun Sa in the country’s Golden Triangle area. Added to the mix was the US-sponsored “secret war” in Laos and guerrilla insurgencies and brutal crackdowns in Burma in the late 1980s. But it was the communist victories in neighbouring Indochina in the mid-1970s that fuelled the club’s growth, as reporters who were once stationed in Saigon, Phnom Penh and Vientiane flocked to Bangkok – and to “the Club”, as it was simply known.
Over the decades, more than a few fcct members have become casualties of their jobs. Since 1985, six fcct members have been killed, including former president Davis and his soundman Bill Latch while filming a failed coup attempt in Bangkok in 1985.
These days, a key challenge for the fcct is to stay above the political fray and make clear the message that it is a neutral institution. Two-time president Nirmal Ghosh, of the Singapore Straits Times, says, “A Thai foreign minister once said the fcct is ‘a voice of conscience’ for Thailand.” Yet the Club has also been on the sharp end of politics, particularly of Thailand’s severe lèse majesté law. “A Thai cabinet minister lost his job over something he said at the fcct. As president, I was interrogated by police for three hours over that case.” Now, after months of mob protests, Thailand has again become its own story rather than just a watching post for neighbouring countries. For fcct members, especially veterans of Thai upheavals and those keen to focus on newly-opening Burma, that is a mixed blessing.
Walk into the main bar of Hong Kong’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club and it’s easy to forget news today can be delivered in 140 characters or less. The room’s wooden-shuttered windows, slowly whirling ceiling fans and well-stocked bar evoke a time when working on a story meant putting an actual pen to paper. While the foreign press corps working out of the fcc may be smaller today than it was during the R&R stints from the war in Vietnam or the last days of British rule, on a Friday night the bar is still raucous. Roving war photographers, news anchors and local journalists mix with the lawyers, bankers and other professionals who help to keep the club afloat. Sit in the wrong chair and the member who has been staking out that spot for the past few decades will be sure to let you know.
One of the most well-known clubs of its type, Hong Kong’s fcc grew from a group of foreign journalists in Chungking (modern-day Chongqing) who rallied together to try and gain greater access to Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang government in 1943. Having moved to Hong Kong in 1949 (via Nanjing and Shanghai) following the communist takeover of China, the club has had many homes in the city, from a grand mansion on Conduit Road to a suite at the old Hilton Hotel. In 1982 it set up shop in the former Ice House building that it still occupies today. The striking red-and-white brick building that occupies a hairpin corner in Hong Kong’s Central neighbourhood has become a landmark for a city where old structures are regularly razed to make way for the soaring steel and glass towers that now dominate the city’s skyline.
Inside the fcc itself, something of a defiant stand has been taken against the rapid modernity outside. Signs on tables warn members that mobile phone use won’t be tolerated, children under two years are only allowed on weekends and the use of cash is forsaken for payment by account. And while associate (non- journalist) members make up the bulk of the fcc’s membership, management power is held by the correspondent members in order to preserve the atmosphere and traditions of a press club.
As one would expect from a club run by and for journalists, there is no shortage of places to eat and drink. Alongside all-day dining in the club’s main bar there is also a more formal restaurant with a terrace on the upper floor. Serving both western and Asian comfort food dishes such as noodles and burgers as well as an expansive (and much loved) Indian menu, some members eat lunch at the club daily. Predictably less busy, but equally well-equipped, is the health club downstairs.
Across the club’s three floors, walls are adorned with photographs, newspaper clippings and memorabilia relating to decades worth of reporting from the fcc’s members. The elected board includes a “wall committee”, whose job is to negotiate the various sensitivities on who gets to hang where. While one corner might display work from a member who has recently died, another wall is dedicated to a regularly changing exhibition of photography. One controversial cover image of two topless New Caledonian women was so lambasted by the female members of the club that an image of a British soldier, whose kilt blew up during the 1997 handover of Hong Kong, was placed nearby.
For nearly two decades, the fcc has hosted the Human Rights Press Awards and, as press freedom appears under threat in Hong Kong, fcc members have taken to the streets in protest. Adjacent to Bert’s, the basement jazz club, journalists type away in a workroom and tucked into a corner of the main bar is a media hub where the wire feeds of Reuters, Bloomberg and afp can be accessed. A stronghold of journalism and an icon of old Hong Kong and old media, the fcc is much more than just a members’ club.