Pioneer journalist Helene Chung broke racist and sexist barriers to become the first non-white reporter on Australian television and, as Beijing correspondent, the first female posted abroad by the ABC. The Hobart-born Chinese Australian is author of Shouting from China, Gentle John My Love My Loss, Lazy Man in China and Ching Chong China Girl: From Fruitshop to Foreign Correspondent. Helene is an honours graduate with a Master of Arts in history from the University of Tasmania and has reported from Australia, Hong Kong, Britain, Egypt and China plus freelanced for BBC, CBS, NPR, NZBC and Hong Kong radio.
Here the Media Speaker shares her story of racism, challenges and knock backs and how breaking down those barriers led her to a truly amazing and fulfilled career.
Don’t Put Your Head in the Oven
As a young freelancer from Down Under competing in London in the dark ages of last century, I interviewed John Cleese on Monty Python’s Big Red Book. Unlike Mao’sLittle Red Book, this was blue and marked ‘very urgent’. The inside cover made a ‘Special Offer: Free Gas Cooker given away with every other copy of this book*’, followed by ‘*See other copy’.
As a Tasmanian overseas for the first time, I didn’t assume success. Though I was prepared to wash dishes, I hoped to make my way through my Uher tape recorder. To cover costs I needed a commission a day. When I put an idea to one producer only to be knocked back, I steeled myself to phone another, and if necessary another, until I had an assignment and, preferably, the next week or so booked.
Never obliged to wash dishes, I sometimes saw a blank ahead, but not once was I tempted to put my head inside my flat’s gas cooker. That just wouldn’t have helped.
My mummy says I can’t play with you
My persistence and optimism began in childhood. I remember the moment in the school playground when another little five-year-old told me: ‘My mummy says I can’t play with you because you’re Chinese.’ She stunned me, but failed to stunt me. I don’t remember who the girl was: one of the 500 fair-haired blue-eyed pupils I was amongst, my sister and I being the only ‘Ching Chong Chinamen’ at St Mary’s College in white 1950s Hobart.
What I do remember about school is having fun: playing charades, reciting poetry, acting on stage, beating the drum at assembly. Even the regular sting of Mother Imelda’s strap – for talking in class – has receded now.
Perhaps the shame of being alone with my sister and us having a divorced mother, when the nuns condemned divorce – and not even knowing a single other divorced family – fostered a determination to make the best in life, no matter what the circumstances.
You’re only a girl
When I applied to be an ABC trainee, an official travelling around Australia interviewing hopefuls said: ‘You’re as good as some of the best boys.’ Then added ‘But if we have to choose between a boy and a girl, we’d have to choose the boy, because you’re only going to get married and all the training would be wasted.’
No girl was appointed. However, there happened to be a vacancy in Hobart for a Reporter Grade 1, and I was asked to act in the role. That meant I began at a level above a trainee. I didn’t know that this would set a pattern in which I would not once waltz through Auntie’s front door, only slip in through the side door.
Later, after my three years freelancing abroad, including working in Egypt, I applied for an overseas posting for the first time as a London correspondent who also covered the Middle East.
The pipe-puffing chair of the interviewing panel asked: ‘How would you, as a female, manage if you were stranded in the desert in a ten-ton truck?’
I replied with ‘I’d have a better chance than a male as I could ask men to move the truck.’
Rejected, I applied for overseas postings for nine more years until I applied for Japan, only to be rejected again. Then, out of the blue, I was told to pack my bags and get to China quickly. That bullet train to Beijing made me the first female the ABC ever posted abroad.
With the odds stacked against me. Being Chinese, female and a daughter of a divorcee I could have easily cowered. Yet something deep down compelled me – and continues to compel me whenever I get knocked down – I get up and go on.