Veteran journalist Mark O’Neill, an Irishman born in London, has been covering the Greater China region since he came to Hong Kong in the ’70s.
His connection with the Orient can actually be traced further back to 1897, when his grandfather came to northeastern China as a missionary, stayed there for 45 years, and only left because of the war.
O’Neill has been living in Hong Kong for so long that he considers himself a Hongkonger.
Back in the ’60s when he graduated from college, Northern Ireland was in turmoil because of the independence movement, and nobody wanted to work there.
However, probably out of a desire to find out more about his roots, Mark decided to apply for the position of Belfast correspondent with the BBC in 1975, and got the job.
It was during his stay in Belfast that he came across several retired missionaries who had also spent years traveling around northeastern China, and their interesting stories ignited his curiosity about his grandfather’s adventures.
“The more I found out about his story, the more I admired his selfless devotion to religion, duty and humanitarianism,” he says.
Over the years he had collected extensive material about his grandfather’s life in China, and eventually he wrote a book about him, A Biography of Frederick William Scott O’Neill, which was published in 2012.
In 1978 O’Neill had an opportunity to come to work in Hong Kong with the RTHK, and, being an adventurous guy like his grandfather, he just jumped at it. After he finished his two-and-a-half year contract, he stayed briefly in Taiwan, and then in 1985 he became a Reuters correspondent in Beijing.
He continued to work in mainland China until 1989, when he witnessed the bloody June 4th crackdown on pro-democracy students in Tiananmen Square.
O’Neill says he can still recall every detail of that fateful night so clearly as if it only happened yesterday. “At that time we had nine people working 12-hour shifts. On June 3rd when I finished my work at 8:30, there were already a lot of soldiers and weapons on the main streets.”
When he went past the bridge of Jianguomen, he saw several military vehicles and soldiers armed with rifles. He asked one of them: “Premier Li Peng said the soldiers won’t open fire on the people. Will you shoot?”
The soldier didn’t want to answer, and when he was asked the same question again by some Beijingers, he seemed a bit embarrassed and finally said, “No.”
O’Neill returned to his apartment and went to bed. “When I woke up at 4 a.m., I rang up my boss, who said the soldiers had already opened fire, and many civilians were killed. He told me to check out the hospitals and find out how many people were killed,” he says.
That night O’Neill was running around different clinics and hospitals across Beijing to look for evidence that civilians were actually shot.
However, a news blackout was already imposed and nobody could enter Tiananmen Square. Rumors had it that all the bodies were piled up at the western side of the square which was heavily guarded. All the civilians he came across were too scared to talk.
O’Neill was rejected by almost every hospital and clinic that he visited, and saw no more than five or six bodies. Then eventually he ran into a tiny clinic, where he was eagerly welcomed by a doctor, who was treating an old man shot in the buttocks.
“That doctor took out the bullet and showed it to me, and said, ‘See, the PLA did open fire.’”
“After the June 4th Incident the political atmosphere was so tense on the mainland that it was almost impossible to do interviews,” he recalls. So he went to Japan to pursue his journalistic career.
He didn’t come back to Beijing until 1993, when people seemed to be a lot more relaxed than four years ago. He stayed in the capital for another 13 years.
In 2006 he was commissioned by a Taiwanese charity foundation to write a book in English, and since then he often had to travel to Taiwan.
Because of the proximity he finally decided to settle down in Hong Kong. “I also love Taiwan, but when it comes to living, I still prefer Hong Kong, because Taiwan is not truly cosmopolitan,” O’Neill says.
Another reason why he chose to settle in Hong Kong is his wife. They met back in 1979, when both of them worked for RTHK. O’Neill says it was either “fate or serendipity” that put them in the same place at the same time.
However, in those days interracial marriage was not as socially accepted as it is today, and his wife’s parents were concerned about their daughter marrying a gweilo. But it was O’Neill’s sincerity that finally broke the racial barrier and won their approval.
These days O’Neill returns to Ireland once every year to enjoy the tranquility of the place, but he admits that he is getting less and less emotionally attached to the land of his ancestors.
“Perhaps because I have been away for too long, the gap is just widening. I can still understand what people are chatting about, but I just don’t feel I am part of it.”
He describes Hong Kong as a great and convenient place to live in, and highly praises the city for its openness, hospitality, diversity and freedom.
“Hong Kong hasn’t changed much since the handover. People remain as friendly as before. It’s a great city. The fact that so many expatriates continue to live here after 1997 speaks volumes.”
Even though O’Neill has lived on the mainland for so long, he says he still doesn’t have any sense of belonging there.
He is concerned about whether Hong Kong can continue to retain its cultural uniqueness under the “one country, two systems” policy and won’t turn into just another Chinese city.
He hopes that Hong Kong will not undergo any big changes in the days ahead, so he can continue to live in the city he has called his home.
This article first appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on March 20.
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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