Dori Jones Yang moved to Hong Kong in 1982 to run the BusinessWeek bureau. She was just 27 and the first woman to hold that position. In her memoir, When the Red Gates Opened, Jones Yang tells how she covered China during Deng’s ascent soon after China and the United States restored relations. She also reports on Hong Kong just as Britain and China began talks about the territory’s post-1997 future. But her book is more than just a trajectory of her career and these monumental events; it’s also a thrilling story of marriage and motherhood at a time when few women journalists juggled this much.
Although American publications like the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, UPI and the Associated Press set up bureau offices in Beijing, BusinessWeek operated theirs from Hong Kong. This neutral location allowed them to cover both China and Taiwan. But the bureau wasn’t located in a glitzy Central office building. Instead, BusinessWeek rented space in a rundown Wanchai building near the Canal Road public toilets.
Our Hong Kong bureau was a tiny room in an office shared with several random Chinese entrepreneurs. In it: a metal desk, a filing cabinet, an electric typewriter, and a telex machine. It stank of sweat and cigarette smoke. Through an unwashed window, I could see over the tops of grubby urban buildings to a sliver of Hong Kong harbor and the misty mountains of Kowloon. Not the glamour I had imagined.
If this environment seemed underwhelming, the outgoing bureau chief explained that in his day he needed to file his stories at the UPI office, located in another building. But the office had installed a new telex machine in the early 1980s and Jones (as she then was) simply had to walk to another desk in her office to file her stories.
It didn’t take long for her to find luxury. When she met another journalist for drinks at the Foreign Correspondents Club, her job suddenly seemed more glamorous.
When we entered the main bar of the fabled club, then in Sutherland House, I stopped to soak it in. I had arrived. It had high ceilings, tile floors, and a well-stocked, wood-paneled bar, surrounded by swiveling leather stools on metal posts. Lively, chatting foreigners occupied almost all the seats. Smelling of wood polish, wet carpet, and Scotch whiskey, the bar felt very colonial—in this British crown colony of Hong Kong.
Jones marveled at the framed magazine covers decorating the walls of the bar and wondered if she would ever write a cover story. The outgoing BusinessWeek bureau chief also took her to a bar at the Sheraton in Tsim Sha Tsui. There she met journalists who had covered Saigon and moved over to Hong Kong after the war. They met at the bar daily and traded fascinating stories of the old days and encounters with eccentric Chinese. Jones realized she was of a new generation of foreign correspondent—”some women, some with master’s degrees, many fluent in Mandarin”—and she would need to find her own sources. To learn about Hong Kong’s future and the feelings in China about the new reforms, Jones knew those sources would be found in the boardrooms of Hong Kong and on the streets in China.
Surprisingly, Jones confessed that rather the fearless and extroverted foreign correspondent of popular imagination, she felt shy and unsure when approaching subjects to interview. But these traits served her well and, because of them, she landed interviews with otherwise reclusive business leaders like Li Ka-shing. Soon after approaching Li, she saw him on a Pan Am flight to San Francisco for a staff conference back in the US. But that flight would prove life-changing for another reason. In a plane full of Cantonese speakers, a Mandarin-speaking man sat next to her and she felt fortunate that she could speak with him because she knew that dialect better than Cantonese. As it turned out, Paul Yang was a Chinese-American businessman living in Hong Kong and fluent in English. He and Jones Yang would date and eventually marry.
This part of her story is just as exciting as her reporting. Paul was not exactly single when they met and their relationship is touch and go for a good part of the book. Although her name includes his and the reader therefore deduces they eventually end up together, she nevertheless manages to relay this part of her story as if there could have been a different outcome.
Her struggles of juggling motherhood are also unusual in memoirs by foreign correspondents that cover China. Jones Yang traveled to Tibet, among other places, for work when her daughter was still a baby. Paul accompanied her while their daughter stayed back in Hong Kong with a nanny.
I discovered I could juggle my job and motherhood, with no harm to either, but the trade-off took more out of me than I had expected. I could babble with my baby but also continue to speak in intellectual and journalistic terms about controversial issues of the day, such as Tibet and China’s leadership. But the contrast was jarring. It was like playing a lullaby on a piano’s high keys and then switching to a Chopin nocturne without missing a beat.
She acknowledged she was fortunate to be able to have it all thanks to the affordable childcare in Hong Kong.
Jones Yang got her cover stories—several of them—and covered Tiananmen in 1989. But bureau chiefs don’t stay in one place for more than several years and, after Tiananmen, people in China were no longer willing to speak with foreign journalists. She knew it was time to move on. So in early 1990, she and her family departed for Seattle.
Even though her story took place more than thirty years ago, the lessons Jones Yang learned in Hong Kong and China could not be more timely for many in the United States.