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A singaporean comments on capturing asia...

Dear Bob,

I read your book Capturing Asia. As a Singaporean and now settled in Melbourne since 1987 the book did strike a chord with me. I had lived not far from Soo Chow Gardens and in fact I had a good friend living there between 1973-80. My Chinese mother had lived in River Valley Rd during the Japanese occupation. My Pakistani father was a Naval Base Police under the British and fought the Japanese. He became Asst Superintendent of Police (ADP) under the British and retired when they withdrew from Singapore in 1971. I am 62 years old now and your reports of Confrontasi by the Indonesian, the hanging of Bhutto and creation of Bangladesh, Marcos and his downfall and of course the Vietnam War are all too familiar for me. Also the racial riots in Singapore. I envy the bonding you guys have with the Singaporean cameramen and with Willie in particular. I must say that ABC tv and ABC online articles are my favourite news media unlike the tabloid nature of other news media. Now that i have lived about 25 years in Australia and getting on in years I do feel sentimental about Singapore. I tell my Australian friends the good things and positive policies of the Singapore government and they sometime wonder why did i migrated to OZ. I suppose the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. I love the space and easy going nature of Australians in general but saddened by our under achieving politicians and leaders. Congratulation for an inspiring book.

Mal Shah.

click to See the ABC 7.30 Report video on willie phua,

COVERING ASIA'S turbulent history.

Cameraman Willie Phua unflinchingly stood beside a bevy of correspondents covering events in Asia for decades for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). Some of those correspondents are featured in this video prepared by Tony Eastley (now host of ABC's AM programme) for the 7.30 Report with Kerry O'Brien, which was aired on November 29, 1996, the day Willie Phua received the honorary Medal of the Order of Australia for his work.

Click on the video...



By Eunice Quek, Singapore Straits Times, Sept. 14, 2010:

Cameras and photos for future generations

Now semi-retired, Willie Phua has donated five of his film cameras and 41 photographs to the National Museum of Singapore.

Willie Phua fired shots in the thick of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 and at Khmer Rouge soldiers in Phnom Penh in 1983. His shots did not kill anyone but were in the line of his duty as a film cameraman.

After 30 years working for broadcast corporations such as Radio Television Singapore; Visnews, which is now known as Reuters TV; and Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the 82-year-old has donated five film cameras and 41 photographs to the National Museum of Singapore.

His donations, which will be part of the permanent collection in the Singapore Living Galleries - Photography Section, will be on display there from Sept 23.

He used his equipment to record interviews with politicians such as the late Labour Front chief David Marshall and Mr Lim Yew Hock, Singapore's second Chief Minister, as well as shoot major news events.

His most iconic image is of a man facing down a column of tanks during the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, which he shot from a hotel room. The image has come to define that moment in history as it was picked up by newspapers and TV stations around the world.

Now semi-retired, he is donating his sound camera, which cost about $20,000 in the 1960s, as he wants the younger generation to understand the laborious nature of news gathering.

'We had to carry our equipment everywhere. We used rolls of film and the equipment was battery-operated. I am an old-fashioned cameraman,' he adds.

He will share his experiences at a public talk at the National Museum's Salon on Oct 9 at 2pm, together with former foreign correspondent Bob Wurth. Mr Wurth wrote Capturing Asia, which chronicles Mr Phua's life behind the lens.

New additions to the gallery include a display sponsored by Standard Chartered Bank, which pays tribute to families and philanthropists who contributed to the growth of Singapore and Malaya from the early 1900s to the 1970s.

They include people such as the late rubber magnate Lim Nee Soon, from whom the town of Yishun got its name. He was nicknamed 'Pineapple King' for his pineapple plantations in the region and he had three sons and six daughters.

His great-granddaughter, Ms Joanna Tan, 50, a secretary at Standard Chartered, submitted 18 photographs that she had kept since her foster grandmother Lim Chek Geck's death in 1992.

One photograph shows her grandmother with a five-year-old girl - Ms Tan's mother, Eva See, now 78 - on board the Conti Verde ship in 1937. Another is a family photograph taken at Marsiling Villa in 1930.

Ms Tan says: 'I've never met my great-granddad but have heard many stories about him. These photographs are all I have to remember him by. I want people to see my family's history too.'

National Museum director Lee Chor Lin says: 'The photograph gallery reconstructs Singapore's social landscape through individual and family portraits, and the photo display fits aptly with its objective of operating at the intersection of personal memory and social history.'

Mr Willie Phua's footage of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. --PHOTOS: NATIONAL MUSEUM OF SINGAPORE

australian high commission honour

In a separate honour for Willie Phua, the Australian High Commission In Singapore featured a photographic exhibition on the Phua family of cameramen in the atrium foyer of the High Commission in November 2011..


Sydney book launch:

Significant moment as tradition and

innovation come together...

ABC MD Mark Scott launching Capturing Asia:

Getting rid of the BBC's services 'would be a tragedy for the world' "This is one of those significant moments for the ABC when its past and its future come together.  Tradition and innovation – the two forces that when combined have always created great opportunities for the ABC."

The ABC's managing director Mark Scott was speaking on July 9 2010 to some 80 people, including many former foreign ABC foreign correspondents in Asia, at the launch of Bob Wurth's book Capturing Asia on the life of Singaporean cameraman Willie Phua at the ABC Centre in Sydney.

"Tonight, down that end of the corridor, you can see the new ABC News24 studio.  Countdown to the service has begun, and it’s likely that within the fortnight the ABC’s journalism will be available round the clock on tv, online, and on mobile.

"Yet those journalists working at ABC News24 today stand on the shoulders of those gone before.  People like you, people like Chester Wilmot, (pictured in wartime below recording interviews) who embodied the enduring values of ABC journalism - fierce independence, inquisitiveness, a determination to report without fear and without favour.

"Wilmot knew that those in power don’t always appreciate being held to account – but the public they serve does.  Wilmot understood the trust that Australians placed in him during WW2, and he was determined to live up to it, no matter what the personal cost – and there would be one - no matter what the risk to his name or career. 


"Journalism to him was not just a job but a duty and he was not going to be dissuaded or deterred from it. 


"The foreign correspondents here tonight came after Wilmot, who died too young at the age of 42, and today’s crew are coming after you.  A tradition lives on. 

Famous faces


"There are many famous faces here tonight, but there are also many of the unsung heroes who were the locally based staff in the places in which you served.  Many have never been to Australia, never seen the ABC to which they have given so much.


"Special recognition to Joseph Madan and his wife Celine who worked alongside our correspondents in India for more than three decades.


"I am delighted they could make their first trip on a plane and their first trip outside India to be here tonight.


"Bob pays special tribute to the families of all those involved in getting the stories back to the ABC and to Australia, the wives and partners of those whose passion has been news. 


"For a lot of the time Bob reflects upon in his book, the work of foreign news reporting was very much a Boys Own Adventure – while today, ABC News is run by a woman, Kate Torney.


"Families were often left behind, and yet often endured the same demands of the network and the erratic timetable of news. So I offer our thanks to them, and specifically to Cindy Phua who is here tonight. And so to Willy Phua. 

Why do they gather for Willie Phua?

"Why are we here?  Why have so many of the ABC’s legendary correspondents gathered in his name?  Why the book? The celebration of a life?


"I spent some time today looking at some of Willie’s footage – which I note was often taken standing up while our correspondents like Max Uechtritz and Tony Eastly were lying flat on the ground. You can see some of this now at ABC News Online.


"Willy was a master craftsman. He had a journalist’s sense of the moment, and an artist’s ability to capture the essence in an instant.  From Vietnam to Tiananmen Square.  Coups, genocide, assassinations – often, when the worst that humanity had to offer was on display, our best man was there behind the lens.


"He had courage, tirelessness, and extraordinary professionalism – that sense of duty. 


"And through him we Australians, here in our safe homes and living rooms, got journalism that was informed by remarkable cultural understanding and insight. 


"He belonged everywhere – everyone thought he was a local. 


"And he had a winning way with all – people on the streets, to the princes and the Presidents and Prime Ministers.


"A great journalist – but we often produce great journalists.  So it was far more than that.  Everyone is really here tonight to celebrate a leader, a teacher, a friend.

A cameraman's humility


"His is an example made all the more powerful by his own humility - “Too much of the book is about me” he told Bob at one stage!


"A pattern was established over many years.  He too so many young, brash, ill-prepared Australian journalists under his wing.  He kept them out of trouble (most of the time).  He showed them what generosity of spirit really meant.


"He helped them understand the story they were covering, what they were seeing, what they were hearing, what it meant.


"He was their guide and shepherd through uncertain, difficult and sometimes terrifying terrain.  And he did it in a way that generated undying respect: for his kindness, gentleness, and generosity.


"In opened their eyes to a new world, he  helped them explain that world to a nation that did not really understand its neighbours.


"In recent years, we have developed a set of ABC Values. As an organisation we want to exhibit them – it’s how we want to work.


"But decades before a committee came up with this set of values, the life and work of Willie Phua embodied them.


"Integrity, Respect, Collegiality and Innovation. That is why we are all here tonight. To celebrate this life  - the way he has led it and the way he led us – and the way it is captured in this book", Mark Scott said.

'They didn't behave like they were white men'

Bob Wurth paid tribute to the six members of the "Phua dynasty" of cameramen including Willie Phua, as well as their partners and the partners of correspondents who always had the burden of waiting.  He revealed that the book took more than 10 years to complete, such was Willie Phua's modesty.

"An organisation's rich history of achievement - and that's what the ABC's coverage has been for decades in Asia -

is important for future generations. Corporate history, the keeping of archives and celebrating achievements like the work and life of Willie Phua, is essential if younger staff coming through the ranks are to know that the ABC really does have somethoing to be proud of in Asia and has made a difference", he said.

"One of the quotes from Willie Phua in the book that really takes my fancy is at the very end when he says: 'But the Australians, they didn't behave like they were white men.' No greater tribute could be paid, in my mind, to ABC correspondents over the decades."

Friends of Willie Phua gather at the Emperor's Garden restaurant at Chinatown in Sydney after the launch of Capturing Asia.


Click on any of the stories about Willie Phua below, and also scroll down to the three essays below...


SINGAPORE'S PHUA dynasty of news cameramen



TEACHING AUSTRALIANS ABOUT our northern neighbours




At the July 9 2010 launch of Capturing Asia at the ABC in Sydney, from left, Bob Wurth, Peter Munckton, Willie Phua, Tammy Pinkstone, Ann Munckton and Tony Eastley.

Willie Phua with ABC managing director Mark Scott at the launch of Capturing Asia at the ABC in Sydney.

Willie Phua at the launch before video screens showing him as a cameraman filming Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi.

Willie Phua recounts a story at the book launch to journalist Hamish McDonald and former ABC correspondent Warwick Beutler.

Willie Phua at the ABC launch with a backdrop of Sebastian Phua and Jone Chang at Tiananmen Square, Beijing, during the pro-democracy protests in 1989.

Book signing with old friends Paul Duffy and Geoff Starkey.

Willie Phua and ABC journalist Paul Lockyer at the photo exhibition of Willie Phua's work at the ABC in Sydney.

Old friends. Willie Phua and ABC archivist Wendy Borchers at the ABC photo exhibition in Sydney.

Willie Phua with his old Bolex camera on which he used to train himself as a cameraman in the 1950s.

Willie and Cindy Phua at the ABC's photographic exhibition in Sydney on his life's work.

Outside the launch of Capturing Asia in Sydney are the ABC's long-time driver in New Delhi Joseph Madan and Singaporean Willie Phua.








Holed up in the old Beijing Hotel in 1989, Willie Phua’s iconic images of the famous ‘tank man’ went around the world.

The ABC’s Phua and CNN’s cameraman Jonathon Schaer appear to be the only two television cameraman who captured the scene, although a number of photographers shot still images of the extraordinary event.  

Willie Phua’s hotel room was a dangerous place, as he recalled in Capturing Asia: “There was firing going on. One bullet went into the wall of my room and after that there were others as well.”

ABC correspondent Max Uechtritz recalled being in Willie’s room:

“I was filing an unscripted ‘live’ account of what was unfolding… talking about bullets thudding into the wall of the hotel … and at one stage Willie yelled out that another bullet had hit and I added it into my account on the run.

“But the next night people were being slaughtered…Battlefield weapons were turned on civilians in a city. Tanks fired directly into crowds. Machine guns mounted on armoured personnel carriers and tanks raked indiscriminately across rows of people and buildings. Children and old folk died. So did nurses and ambulance drivers trying to help. Perhaps most wrenching and confronting were accounts of tanks and APCs simply driving over and crushing people.”

Willie Phua remembers filming the students from his hotel balcony as they ran through the streets with the injured and dead. “They ran right past us on the way to the hospital that was close by.”

Asia bureau chief and correspondent Tony Eastley in Beijing with a protest underway below his hotel balcony before the violence at nearby Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Max Uechtritz from Phua’s hotel balcony next day witnessed the iconic stand of the lone protester halting the column of tanks. “‘Look at this!’ an incredulous Willie whispered urgently as he focused his lens.”

Paul Lockyer in Tiananamen Square 1989.

Phua was astounded at what he saw: “Outside on the balcony I can see all the tanks coming up and this one single student standing in front of it. I think he is thinking, ‘Run me down if you can!’ And the first tank stopped exactly in front of him and there was some talking going on. And the next thing, he is climbing on top of the tank and he is speaking with the driver. Later on he climbed down and he’s still standing in front of the tank.

“I think he’s one of the bravest guys. He is the only guy, the only student there, and he is in front of a whole column of tanks… I just kept shooting. It was a telephoto shot. The Beijing Hotel was the best angle. You could see everything that was happening.” The identity of the ‘tank man’ has never been disclosed and it is not known if he escaped punishment.

Willie Phua filming in Tiananmen Square.


Cameraman Willie Phua had often filmed President Ferdinand Marcos and first lady Imelda Marcos inside Malacañang Palace.

ABC manager for Asia at the time, Ian Macintosh, co-ordinated a big team reporting live for ABC TV and radio in 1986 when the Marcos regime finally collapsed:

"On the evening that the Marcos era ended, there was a big bunch of us having dinner... And somebody crept up and let us know quietly—I think somebody tipped Willie off first—that all hell had just broken loose."

Phua, photographed here in the palace in 1984, was one of the first cameramen inside after the regime crumbled. Getting there wasn't easy: "We were taking a shortcut through a back alley towards Malacañang Palace. As we were halfway we saw a group of soldiers at a distance marching towards us. We turned around and started walking back. The soldiers quickened their pace.

"We started running and I tripped and fell. Seb (Sebastian Phua, a nephew and then sound recordist) caught hold of my collar and pulled me up. We turned left into another alley and saw a door. We pushed it and it opened. We got inside and quickly closed the door. The owner of the house ... asked us what had happened. We told him the soldiers were after us.

"He said, ‘Don’t worry. I have a gun,’ and he pulled out his small pistol and said, ‘I’ll shoot them.’ Oh, what a shock! I was horrified. I said to this man, ‘Don’t! Please don’t! If you pull the gun on the soldiers, we’ll all be killed!’

Suddenly there were knocks on the door. I put my finger to my lips and said softly, ‘Don’t answer!’ There were more knocks and voices and then footsteps. After a while it was all quiet. We peeped through the door and then made our way to Malacañang Palace...

"We were told the Marcoses had left by helicopter. People were streaming into the building. The gates were open. People were everywhere inside. Some were looting the palace, taking what they wanted... We went into Imelda’s room. It was huge. We saw thousands of pairs of shoes. I filmed all this.

"Richard Carleton went into the president’s private room where there was all this medical equipment. It was like a private hospital room and was full of medications and equipment. Marcos had been on medications for his kidney problems. We just roamed about the huge palace, filming."


Willie Phua is pictured at at a rally with Corazon Aquino, who later became President, after the assassination of her husband Benigno.

Willie Phua in the southern Philippines with Australian ambassador Roy Fernandex, c 1984.



ABC managing director Mark Scott has written of the lessons Willie Phua gave ABC correspondents arriving in Asia, often for the first time - correspondents like Athol Meyer, pictured here with Willie Phua in Vietnam in 1971.L

In a foreword to Capturing Asia, Scott wrote:

"We may not yet be able to measure the influence of Willie’s work, but via these guardians of his story we come to appreciate that Willie’s place in history has been secured through his immense talent, his unflappable temperament, his generous nature and personality.

"Lessons he gave them in their youth would last them their whole lives.So many of these wide-eyed young reporters were new to television, having acquired most of their broadcasting experience through radio.It happened to be their good luck that, working alongside Willie, they found themselves in the hands of someone who could speak not just local languages but to whom the language of the lens came so effortlessly.

"With a combination of instinct, discipline and poetic sensibility, Willie rendered their stories powerfully for the dominant medium of the age, television" , according to Mark Scott.

"The young ABC correspondents often met Willie at the time when they were having their first experiences of life beyond Australia.

"They had left the familiar past behind, yet within minutes Willie would grant them the best gift someone who has just arrived in a new country or city can receive: inside knowledge, a sense of place, a local’s point of view; the best places to eat, drink and be entertained; where they might find the best currency exchange rate; how to get around streets, towns and airports; to negotiate the maze and confusion of cultures and customs they knew little of.

"These were skills that would otherwise have taken them years to acquire; information that, but for Willie, might always have eluded them or remained secret.He gave them a second passport, just as valuable as their paper ones, and it permitted them entry to a new way of life, helped them understand and enjoy Asia."

Paul Lockyer, now of the 7.30 Report, was an ABC correspondent in Asia in the late 'seventies and early 'eighties.He recalls Willie Phua’s patience:

" No sooner than he had taken some wet-behind-the-ears Australian journalist under his wing and shown him or her how to survive and operate in Asia, than another would arrive. Not only is he responsible for saving lives through his careful guidance, but correspondents often returned to Australia much better journalists, sharing Willie’s strong work ethic and
disciplined approach to film-making."