Sir Edmund Hillary died yesterday morning.
For the past 24 hours the New Zealand media has been full of tributes, summaries of his achievements, reactions from around the world, various miscellaneous interest stories. Some might call it overdone, but it isn’t like he’s done this before, so lets let the media go to town. If talk-back radio is anything to go by the interest is out there. Since he passed away there has been little else on the airwaves besides people ringing in and sharing stories and thoughts. OK, there has been a little bit of silly stuff (replacing Waitangi Day with Hillary Day can only seem a good idea if harmonious race relations bore you), but mostly it’s been a feel-good media fest.
So far the New Zealand Chinese media is a glaring exception though.
This morning the newspapers got their big chance to run the story. Lets compare today’s New Zealand Herald (probably the closest thing New Zealand has to a national newspaper) with the New Zealand Chinese Herald (its Chinese language sister publication) [UPDATE: It appears the publications are not related. The story seems a bit complicated and I have not bothered to find out the truth. They may have been related initially, but the New Zealand Chinese Herald is now separate.].
The New Zealand Herald led with the headline story “Happy Ending to a Life of Heroic Feats and Care for Fellow Man”. That was supplemented by an editorial, two pieces by columnists, and something like 13 supplementary stories. This count was based on the paper’s website, and it is possible that one or two of the supplementary stories didn’t make it into print, or that they were put on the site later in the day – it is already Saturday evening now.
The New Zealand Chinese Herald led with the headline story “U.S. Sub-Prime Lending Storm Reaches New Zealand” (ç¾Žåœ‹æ¬¡è²¨é¢¨æš´é€²è¥²ç´è¥¿è˜). The story details the increased cost of borrowing facing home buyers. Honestly. . . What the fuck?
Today’s New Zealand Chinese Herald contains not a single news story on Sir Edmund Hillary. The local news stories are as follows: “Farmers are Prepared to Deal With La Nina”; “Teenage Girl Escapes Abductor”; “Adventure Cavers Criticized for Lack of Professionalism”; “Japanese Tourist Ordered to Pay NZ$10,000 to Family of Deceased”; “Almost 6,000 Dangerous Drivers Still on the Roads”; “Policeman and Superiors Accuse One Another of Neglecting Duties” (a bad translation on that one sorry); and finally and most unfortunately, “Is it Really Possible to get into New Zealand without a Passport?” (ä¸ç”¨è·ç…§å°±èƒ½é€²å…¥ç´è¥¿è˜ï¼Ÿ).
All of those stories are supposedly written by the publication’s own reporters, of which there are several judging by the various names that appear. This is not a publication that simply lifts the English news from the previous day and translates it into Chinese. Well maybe that is what they do, but it is not how they present themselves.
So the casual reader of the New Zealand Chinese Herald for Saturday 12 January 2008 would have no idea that Sir Edmund Hillary had died, though they may have decided that the rejection of Auntie Liu’s visa application is no biggie after all. More thorough readers would find an obituary for Hillary tucked away on the editorial page in Section D . The obituary took up about a quarter of a page and was a very standard piece, simply listing the main facts of Hillary’s life, without any real thoughts on his significance to New Zealand or other opinions from the editor.
The obituary did contain one detail that I don’t think the English language media picked up on despite devoting far more space to the story. Apparently, a Chinese sculptor named Chen Weiming (é™³ç¶æ˜Ž) was commissioned to produce a statue of Hillary over a decade ago. This detail was simply added as a sentence after the obituary. There were no details on where the statue was (it might be the Orewa statue since the one at Mt. Cook is only five years old). The editor hadn’t tried to track down the sculptor to get a comment, mentioned why they got the job, or expanded on who they were. Perhaps Chen Weiming is a household name in China, but I have never heard of him and wouldn’t have minded knowing more. There was nothing about whether the statue had started to attract wreaths or other tributes. By stretching the statue business a little more she could have created a Chinese angle on the whole story; but no, the statue detail just sat there like an incomplete afterthought.
Another more obvious Chinese angle could have been that Mt. Everest is sort of a Chinese mountain. The mountain’s Chinese name is ç ç©†æœ—ç‘ªå±±, and Everest Base Camp is located in Chinese territory.
Of course the most obvious Chinese angle of all would have been that Hillary’s climbing partner Tenzeng Norgay was not a Nepali, or a Sherpa, but an ethnic Tibetan from what is now China. Tenzeng grew up in a Sherpa region of Nepal after his family emigrated there, but he was an non-Sherpa outsider in that society, having been born in Tibet to Tibetan parents. Given that Tenzeng had grown up a cultural outsider, in a border region before the surrounding nations formalized their borders, he was in a sense stateless. Following the Everest success the Indian PM Nehru decided Tenzeng was the sort of hero who could be useful in building the Indian nation, and offered to formalize his hazy legal status by the grant of Indian citizenship together with generous patronage. Tenzeng thus gained the financial security he desperately wanted for his family, but also had plenty of reasons to keep his ‘Chinese’ origins quiet. He would raise his children (all to Sherpa women) as Sherpas rather than Tibetans.
Admittedly it’s a literal borderline case, given that Tenzeng was born in a remote border region of Tibet, at a time when Chinese control over Tibet was nonexistent, and back when national borders didn’t mean a great deal anyway. However, the Chinese rant endlessly about Tibet being an indelible part of the Glorious Chinese Motherland, the Tibetans being their brother race (subordinate of course), and so on, and therefore I can’t explain why this angle was overlooked in the New Zealand Chinese media. Most nations like to claim their heroes, and Tenzeng was a remarkable partner to Hillary who the Chinese have a claim to.
Much like Hillary, Tenzeng was an ordinary guy who overcame a humble background to achieve worldwide fame through his skills, determination, endurance, and perhaps a spot of luck with the weather. His story is very like that of Hillary, but sort of an Asian version.
The New Zealand Chinese Herald has embarrassed itself badly. After the papers came out this morning it was announced that Hillary would be getting a state funeral. So we now have a state funeral scheduled for Hillary, but the ‘news team’ at the New Zealand Chinese Herald has yet to report the guy dead!
This group of ‘journalists’ have assigned the most famous New Zealander (the only one who features on the currency – how did that one pass them by?) to the ‘irrelevant to our Asian readership’ category, despite his most celebrated achievement being done in partnership with one of the most famous Asians (and arguably ‘Chinese’) of the 20th Century. Incredible. Presumably these guys draw salaries. They don’t deserve them.
When I picked up the Chinese Herald I initially thought that their printing schedule must be too early to run the Hillary story. Or maybe the staff were so out of touch with the rest of society that they were unaware of the news? The journalists at the Chinese Herald can’t spell Dominion Rd. (they favor the more exotic ‘Domainion Rd.’) despite the fact that their readers either rent or own most of it, so nothing is impossible. But the editor was aware that Hillary had died and had sufficient time to write an obituary before she put the paper to press. Her editorial has a note attached saying it was written in the early evening, so the publication had at least half a day to react to the story.
Despite being aware of the news then, the editor was happy to let the Saturday paper go out with a headline on the cost of borrowing? Did she have no sense of her responsibility to inform her readers of the day’s big story? Didn’t she consider that by leading with interest rates when a national hero had just died she might be making the Chinese community look a little insensitive, ignorant, insular, and errr. . . money-obsessed?
Surely a major function (among others of course) of minority language media is to relay current news and help members of minorities understand the societies they live in? How could the New Zealand Chinese Herald treat a major news story, and a very easy one (i.e. uncontroversial and simple to research), so stupidly and unprofessionally? They didn’t even have the imagination to make the story directly relevant to the Chinese community, despite the enormous potential to do so.
I haven’t seen any of the other Chinese papers yet. Hopefully they have done better. You don’t expect blanket coverage, but surely this has to be front page news?