Sinica extra: Q&A with Mei Fong on her Pulitzer win, meeting Queen Elizabeth and foreign correspondence
Mei Fong, the guest on this week’s Sinica Podcast about China’s one-child policy, is the first Malaysian-born journalist to have won a Pulitzer prize. In this Sinica extra, Jeremy Goldkorn delves into her fascinating background to learn more about her award-winning work, Queen Elizabeth’s role in her career and her rise through the white-male dominated field of foreign correspondence.
Jeremy: You grew up in Malaysia. Was being Chinese an important part of your identity growing up?
Mei Fong: It was definitely part of it in a sense that we celebrated all the festivals: Lunar New Year, Mid-Autumn, Qing Ming, we ate Chinese food, and spoke Cantonese and watched Chinese movies — particularly Cantonese soap operas. Being Chinese was just something that I never questioned. It was simply a part of who I was.
But at the same time, “China”— as in the People’s Republic of China — was seen as something less desirable, because of the fear of Communism spreading throughout Asia. (Malaysia had fought its own wars against Communism in the 1970s.) So in that sense we were discouraged from inclining to the east, from learning to read and write Chinese. Growing up, the accusation “You’re so Cheena!” (China) was a slur, meaning you’re so uncouth, so lacking in cool and class, too much a country bumpkin. We really should have known better.
Jeremy: How did you get into journalism?
Mei Fong: When I was 16, I won a prize in an essay competition, which resulted, in a roundabout way, in meeting Queen Elizabeth of England. Nothing so exciting had ever happened in my dull, humdrum life before, so I decided to see if I could earn a living with my pen, and if it could open doors for me.
Jeremy: Were you discriminated against as a young journalist because you were a woman? How was your career choice viewed by your friends, peers and family in Malaysia? You’ve talked about being mistaken for the assistant or translator to male colleagues when working in China. Would you have faced the same kind of reactions in Malaysia? How did/do you cope with this?
Mei Fong: There are different kinds of discrimination — in China, I think I faced it from a gender standpoint, because it is such a patriarchal society, but also from the ethnic side of things, because I was in foreign correspondence, where the common perception is it’s a white man in one of those photographer vests.
In Malaysia, the discrimination was institutionalized, making it more difficult for minorities, such as Chinese and Indians, to gain entry into the local universities. So if I’d stayed in Malaysia, there was a high probability that I might not have graduated from college, which is pretty much a career no-starter. Also, journalism isn’t seen as a desirable profession in my part of the world, since there is next to no free press. My father wasn’t willing to invest in my training — not like if I had the aptitude for something more “respectable,” like law or accounting.
So I, like many other ethnic Chinese Malaysians, made the long trek overseas for college and jobs, scrambling for scholarships and part-time jobs. (I once worked as a kennel maid, cleaning up dog poop in cages! I didn’t mind. I like dogs.)
I suppose having all these “strikes” against me taught me to push on, which is an invaluable trait to cultivate as a journalist.
Jeremy: What reporting did you do that became part of the series of work that earned your team a Pulitzer prize?
Mei Fong: I did a long feature about what it was like to be a construction worker living in Beijing, ahead of the big city buildup to the 2008 Olympics. I also co-wrote a story on a medical practitioner in Fujian who galvanized his village into instituting a major class action lawsuit against a polluting factory that had caused a spike in cancer rates. It was a little like the movie Erin Brockovich, except, this being China, the villagers never got the money despite winning the lawsuit, and the medical practitioner lost his license to practice. Both the stories were part of a package illustrating the costs of capitalism in China.
Jeremy: In 2007, when Rupert Murdoch was in the process of buying the the Wall Street Journal for News Corp, the Associated Press reported that “correspondent Mei Fong said… that she and six of her colleagues wrote a letter to the board of Dow Jones & Co. saying they fear that under Murdoch’s leadership, writers would be pressured to soften their reporting on China.”
Did this affect your career at the Journal after the sale went through? Do you think the Journal softened its coverage after the sale?
Mei Fong: I don’t think it affected my career — I stayed on for a few years after, in the Beijing bureau, before leaving the paper for personal reasons. As far as China coverage goes, I think a lot of media — not just the Journal — have been forced to consider the commercial implications of tough reporting. I’m thinking of Bloomberg, in particular, which famously killed some stories-in-progress on corruption among the political elite, in part, it is believed, for fear it would damage its core business selling terminals. Beijing has significantly upped the stakes for any media outlet running stories that damage its prestige. Looking back to my time in reporting in China [2006-2009], it seemed like such a golden period — so much more open — compared to what came after.
Jeremy: You created the Forbes magazine Top-Earning Dead Celebrities list. What inspired this excellent if slightly ghoulish idea?
Mei Fong: I was working in Forbes as an intern at the time, learning the ropes, figuring out business journalism. As a newbie wanting to do well, you have to figure out what your employer’s priorities are, and of course for Forbes, it was their rich list. So I figured, right, that’s what I’ll do. I really wanted to call the series “Sales from the Crypt,” but some prudent editor nixed it. It was a fascinating process learning the kind of research that goes into calculating people’s net worth, especially for individuals that don’t want you to know.
Jeremy: What are you working on now?
Mei Fong: Trying to get a Chinese-language edition of my book out. Because of the sensitivity of the topic, and censorship controls, it won’t be easy. In the past, books that were on the “sensitive” list in China would end up being published in places like Hong Kong, but of course that’s not possible now. The abduction of Hong Kong booksellers is a plot twist that even Kafka couldn’t dream up! But it’s absurd to have written a book about China that the majority of Chinese people can’t read or access. Something has to be done. So, stay tuned.
The Sinica Podcast interview with Mei Fong is here. A list of relevant reading materials is here. And don’t miss this podcast episode from 2012, featuring Evan Osnos and Alexa Olesen discussing the one-child policy.