a Foreign Correspondent in China

Update:18 Apr 2007

From 1979-84, Victoria Graham frequently roared up to the Great Hall of the People on her Chang Jiang motorcycle plus sidecar, writes Douglas Williams.

As a senior international correspondent for The Associated Press, Victoria Graham was at the very top of her game.

Victoria Graham enjoys a quiet moment at Beijing's Tian'anmen Square.



The time was the 1970s and Graham, based out of the New York headquarters, was spending most of her time on the road chasing the biggest stories of the day. From the Patty Hearst kidnapping to the Jim Jones People's Temple mass suicide in Guyana, Graham was on it.

The call that was to change her life irreversibly came in 1979 from the group president. AP's late great Edwin Keith Fuller was planning a new Beijing bureau and he wanted Graham to head it up with veteran China hand John Rodderick.

"My heart leapt," says San Franciscan Graham. "I was over the moon; writing features was good but ultimately it wasn't satisfying enough. I just had to go."

Touching down at Beijing International Airport on April 12, 1979, Graham was greeted by a whole new world - China. "I was astonished, delighted and happy, it was an amazing new chapter in my life and I had no idea how it would pan out," reveals Graham.

Graham and AP Foreign Editor Nate Polowetzky in early 1980s.



Now, 28 years later, Graham is back in China, back in newspapers and she has been working as a foreign expert with Shanghai Daily for the last year and a half.

In the Chinese capital she was tasked with stories about the basics. "There was a huge appetite for stories about simple things like how people lived, what their apartments were like, what were the stores like," says Graham. "It was fairly black and white then though.

"The 'cultural revolution' (1966-76) had ended, people were wary of foreigners. Most wore very similar clothes. It was all pretty gray but fascinating nonetheless."

Her stories went round the globe syndicated to thousands of media outlets. With all the major news providers setting up shop in Beijing, the competition to break the biggest story was intense. "We would all socialize together, there'd be the Reuters guy, the guy from The New York Times and the London Times' correspondent, but we'd all be watching what we said about the stories we were working on," she says.

"One of the 'biggest' stories was the opening of the first privately owned restaurant in Beijing, until then all restaurants had been state-owned," she recalls.


Graham holding a gun with young militia.

 Graham traveled extensively at that time and her travels brought her to Shanghai on a number of occasions. She describes the city then as "dark and gloomy." Returning in 2004 she was "astonished" at the transformation.

Back during her first sojourn in the Middle Kingdom Graham was riding around on a Chang Jiang motorbike and sidecar. Although her Mandarin was limited, it did extend to: "Would you please help me to restart my motorbike," a phrase that came in handy on numerous occasions. She was usually in the sidecar.

After four and a half years in China, Graham was transferred to the AP bureau in New Delhi, India. In her first year there she covered three enormous stories: The massacre at the Golden Temple, Amritsar, in which nearly 1,000 people died; the subsequent assassination of former Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi; and finally one of the worst industrial accidents ever, the Bhopal Disaster at the Union Carbide plant that killed around 3,000 people at the time -- the actual eventual death toll was to be much higher.

Again Graham spent most of her time on the road. "It was constant work and I loved it," says Graham. "I never rode any camels or saw any tigers and if I ever went to Sri Lanka it was because there had been another massacre, not to lie on the beach." It was however, she says, a "total blast."

Graham returned to New York where she worked at the United Nations headquarters. "There was a lot of wringing of hands into the night as the UN struggled to make a decision, but of course there were larger issues and it was fascinating to see the inner working of such an important organization," she says.

In November 1994, having joined UNICEF as a senior communications officer, Graham was posted to Nairobi, Kenya, and to East Africa reeling in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide six months earlier. "I mainly tried to encourage international correspondents to write stories about women and children, I was on the other side of the press fence then, poacher turned gamekeeper," says Graham.

The refugee camps in Zaire were "biblical" in scale, according to Graham. "I felt very privileged to have been there. They stretched as far as the eye could see, about 800,000 displaced people in Goma, Zaire, in the shadows of volcanoes, smoggy with cooking fires, not a tree to be seen anywhere, they'd all been chopped down for firewood. No picture could convey the enormity of the suffering." 

Graham describes the Rwanda genocide as an "international disgrace." Later, with the UN High Commission for Refugees, Graham was posted to Croatia and Bosnia which were at that time putting the pieces back together after a bloody civil war. "There were so many false hopes going around at that time," says Graham. "I don't really know why I wanted to go to these places, I guess I just wanted to know it."

Graham landed back in Shanghai in 2004 and was overwhelmed by the changes. "There's a lot more openness now, but there's also a great deal of superficiality. I just hope that all this advancement allows the people to truly be themselves and not just chase after money all the time," she says.


Graham and a Tibetan friend, Tashi, in New Delhi.


So far, says Graham, it's too early for her to get a proper "handle" on Shanghai but the quiet-spoken, hardworking woman wonders if there's enough "self-cultivation" going on. "I often ask people what they read, but people here don't seem to be reading much, and that's too bad -- reading is such a pleasure, there should always be time for a good book." she says.

Graham also thinks it's unfair to put so much family pressure on young women to find a husband and marry. "But that's just my opinion, from a different culture," says the worldly pragmatist.

Life in Shanghai is good. "I am enjoying it more and more. I find it warm and its people are friendly, and engaging. More importantly, of all the places to be in all the world right now, Shanghai is most definitely it," she concludes.

Victoria Graham

Nationality: USA

Age: 58

Profession: Journalist

Picks and hates

Watching sunset on the Bund, the lights on the Bund, the city lights are great any time.


Favorite way to spend a weekend?

Wandering around the city, there's a lot to explore and savor, it changes so fast.

What can be done to improve Shanghai?

Leave that to Shanghai

SOURCE: Shanghai Daily


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