pork chops and battleships...

a biography over ten years in the making

Capturing Asia, the book on Willie Phua and the Phua dynasty of cameramen, has been over a decade in production with some extended delays along the way.

The research began in a casual kind of manner as I was passing through Singapore on an overseas trip around 1999 and Willie was reminiscing about his youth in our old haunt, ‘Our Makan’, the famous 'fish head curry' place.  The green tile-lined café to which correspondents and cameramen in Asia had always gathered, alas, has long closed down. I think this is when the research started although Willie says it was maybe a couple of years earlier.

Willie was talking about the war years in his youth. How he had picked up a piece of one of the first bombs dropped by the Japanese on Singapore, how he been chased up Orchard Road by a Japanese soldier and how he and his mother had worked in the kitchen of a Japanese brothel housing Korean ‘comfort women’.

I was enthralled, even though I had heard some of the stories before. This time I asked Willie Phua, then retired, if I could write the book on his life. He casually agreed and I began taking initial scratchy notes as the Phua stories flooded out. Back in Queensland, I followed these up with a stream of questions via email.

Nothing happened for about five years. Then an email arrived from Willie, saying: “Here are the answers to your questions.” My first reaction was to think “What questions?” When I contacted Willie again, he said he had been thinking about the idea of a book on his life.

At first, he said, he didn’t want all the attention. But on later reflection, he thought, maybe the story should be told because it involved so many more people than just himself.

In fact I wrote two other books – Saving Australia and 1942, Australia’s greatest peril - after Willie had given me the official nod in the ‘Our Makan’ café to write his life story.

 For the story, we visited each other often with me going to Singapore and Willie coming to Queensland. I remember once we pounded the oval near my then home at Indooroopilly and he scratched an outline of his village house in Hainan, China, in the dust. He had left the humble village with his mother for Singapore as a boy of five. Subsequently, I visited that village – Bai Siew Swee – on two separate trips to Hainan, the last time in the company of some 24 friends of “the master.”

I probably visited Willie in Singapore at least five or six times after the ‘Our Makan’ lunch. The story telling happened anywhere and everywhere. Willie even accompanied me as I travelled Japan researching another book, 1942, published before Capturing Asia.

We travelled down to Kure, which had been a large Japanese naval headquarters which still exists (above), in 2007 and took trips out on the stunning Seto Inland Sea of Japan. Willie nonchalantly put up with my many author’s whims. I was keen to travel to a remote and tiny island in the inland sea of Japan called Hashirajima in the Bay of Hiroshima. It took an hour by fast launch. I wrote the opening pages of 1942 there with Willie looking on.

It was the Obon summer holiday season and it was incredibly hot.I had been told that there was no accommodation on the island and no shops and certainly no cold ‘pork chops’, so I cleverly devised a backpack with a heavy duty freezer bag inside and stocked up with food, ice and loads of beer cans.

When we got off the ferry, me lugging the portable ‘fridge on my back, Willie almost fell over laughing. “What is it?” I demanded. Pointing to a large sign in Japanese on a building in the boat harbour, he said: “See that sign. It says ‘Beer and wine here!’”

Pork chops and the Imperial Navy on the Inland Sea of Japan

Here’s a little of what I wrote then in my search to find the remote anchorage of the Imperial fleet way out in the Seto Inland Sea of Japan involving a boat trip to the little island of Hashirajima. This is rather heavily edited, with references to Willie Phua, for the opening pages of 1942 Australia's greatest peril (Pan Macmillan), which has now been reprinted three times:

“Is it far to the other side of the island?” the old man is asked.

“Twenty minutes, more or less.”

“Can you walk there?”

He looks at my heavy backpack and laughs “you can”, and turns back to stacking cartons on to his trolley from the ferry boat, which is impatient to leave.

My companion is a Chinese Singaporean (that’s Willie Phua) who knows Japan and the Japanese and is not judgemental, even after seeing as a youth the bloodied heads of his countrymen on stakes in the streets of Singapore.

We set off to trek across the island to the place of the great ships. I really don’t know what I expect to see, but I feel I must; perhaps a small piece of a great jigsaw puzzle.

The shady part of the beach under the cliff is a lure in the heatwave, but we bypass it and head upwards over the island. Passing the ramshackle houses of fishermen, which have seen better days, tangled nets piled up against the wall, the climb on a narrow road takes us up through a riot of green foliage, where forest fir, bamboo and vines fight for the sun. Multi-coloured birds swoop through the undergrowth and brown butterflies as big as small bats flitter past on erratic journeys.

The hot air is throbbing with cicadas, the all-embracing sound rising and falling in unison. Climbing upwards, we pass a few poor dry fields of melon and yam. Perhaps the season has passed. Now walking down hill and can see welcoming glimpses of the Inland Sea and ever more islands through the foliage.

Perspiration flows freely and there are frequent stops for water. We have now reached the level ground of the other side of the island… The heat is intense. We are walking in the open sun, and after another ten minutes, we now can’t see the sea.

“It doesn’t matter” I say defeated, “maybe we should go back”, remembering the idyllic beach on the other side. “No, you wanted to see it” Willie says firmly and presses on. “But I’m not even sure what I wanted to see or why. It was just a feeling…”

“Then we have come to look and you must do it”, he says. The coast is hidden by a long parallel sandhill covered by grass. We trudge on. “Let’s head in that direction” and veers off at right angles through a dry rice paddy, heading towards the hidden sea.

My friend, 20 years my senior, climbs the sandhill and calls out: “You have found it. This is what you are looking for!”

The top of the little hill overlooking the beach reveals another breathtaking panorama. We overlook a long, white sandy beach of a brightness that makes you squint. Offshore and beyond, the goal - the Hashirajima anchorage, the place of Japan’s great warships. This is where they set out for Pearl Harbor and their battles.

Overwhelmingly it is a landscape of absolute serenity. A soft, calm seascape of peace, Not war. In this beauty the senses relax, the soft sea breeze in the heat encourages the mind into a trance-like atmosphere…

Turning to the right, the remains of an old concrete jetty and a grand set of rounded steps rising up in a semi circle from the long stretch of beach to nowhere, all in the middle of nothing. The officers in their whites came here amusing themselves on their shooting parties while ratings set out canvas chairs and picnic baskets and cold sake under the shade of a tree above the beach. The conversation in early 1942, when things were going so well, invariably turned on where to go next. Should we capture India after Burma, Hawaii, or perhaps Australia?

Standing here decades earlier, you would have heard from across the water the gentility of the Imperial Navy born of British tradition; the ship’s band on the flagship’s afterdeck practising as it did each day for half an hour from 1205 hours playing a repertoire appreciated by the much-loved commander-in-chief of the Combined Fleet, the Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto.

Drenched in perspiration, for the heat is about 37 degrees, we make our way back up the twisting little road over the wooded hill and across the island to the oasis of the shady beach on the other side. As we trudge suddenly the air is rent by the wailing of an old wartime air raid siren. My companion says, simply, “noon”.

A farmer comes past in a tiny truck and politely offers us a ride. My companion, independent as ever, pleasantly declines for us.

At last, descending quickly through the forest, the birds and the butterflies, here is the crystal clear water at the now deserted crescent-shaped beach (above). It is totally alluring. (That’s where we had our lunch and cold beers.)


Well, that was for the book 1942, Australia's greatest peril . The latest book, Capturing Asia, on Willie Phua's life story, soon began embracing the lives of many of his former friends, family and colleagues. For a start there were five other members of the Phua dynasty of cameramen from Singapore and there were wonderful stories to tell. Willie Phua trained them all. There was his ‘brother cousin’ Phua Tin Loon and then Loon’s two sons, Sebastian Phua and Joe Phua.

Sebastian Phua, who became an excellent cameraman, had been the ABC’s cameraman in Hong Kong, Tokyo and Beijing. A heavy smoker, he died tragically of lung cancer in March 2003. Sebastian adored Australia and his ashes were scattered at the Sydney Heads.

Joe Phua, Sebastian’s younger brother, is chief of a major TV agency Infocus Asia with offices in Singapore, Bangkok and Beijing. He recently covered the Bangkok riots and shootings, along with another of the old Phua dynasty, Jone Chang, who is a relative of Willie’s wife, Cindy.

Finally there is Tan Suan Ann, still working as a Singapore stills photographer, who in the ‘sixties worked with Willie Phua as a cameraman and sound recordist for the ABC and Visnews.

As the writing of the Willie Phua story went on, it became clear that I was in fact writing a history of the ABC in Asia from the ‘sixties onwards. Astounding stories came out from many former ABC foreign correspondents.

Willie Phua had been in a fairly unique position to speak of Asia’s modern history. Apart from the Japanese invasion of Singapore, he and ABC correspondents told the stories of the murderous race riots in Singapore and Malaysia, genocide in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), of being under attack in Vietnam, bloody coups in Thailand, the assassination of Indira Gandhi in India and the genocide that followed, the rise of People’s Power in the Philippines and the war in Afghanistan.

Willie Phua was on the spot for the revolution that overthrew Marcos in the Philippines, and his video record of a young protestor challenging the tanks in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, is legendary.

I found myself writing a potted history of modern Asia...

In effect in following the Willie Phua story I found myself writing a potted history of modern Asia. Capturing Asia runs to 436 pages with many photos.

During my research, what became abundantly clear was that in the course of more than 30 years at work Willie had earned the admiration of most of the correspondents who worked in Asia because he was their teacher.

As current European correspondent Philip Williams said: “Willy Phua was my teacher, my guide, my friend. He taught me about humility, about face, about Asia. He was the buffer between two cultures and he saved many a brash young Australian reporter from themselves. Willie Phua is an artist, a diplomat, a teacher and a friend who gently guided generations of ABC journalists through the pitfalls and pleasures of Asia.”

Philip’s words are echoed by many former correspondents. He was the last correspondent to work with Willie Phua (they climbed Mt Fuji and Willie’s back gave up on him.)  

ABC managing director Mark Scott will launch Capturing Asia at the ABC in Sydney on Friday, July 9. 

He wrote in the book’s foreword: “From 1963 on, so much of what Australians learnt and understood about Asia came to them through the lens of an unseen yet unforgettable Chinese-born cameraman called Willie Phua. Long regarded as one of the finest news cameramen in Asia, it’s easy to overlook that Willie was also a pioneer.”

Scott wrote that within the ABC, there was a persistent belief that there was an Australian audience that was intelligent, educated and avidly interested in what was happening in Asia and it was up to the ABC to provide that analysis and perspective. “And today, through our foreign bureaus, Radio Australia and Australia Network, this important work goes on.”

Many former foreign correspondents and ABC friends will be gathering with Willie and Cindy Phua for the book’s launch on July 9, retiring afterwards for an informal dinner at Chinatown. Willie's trips to Sydney always include a Sunday lunch at the Sydney fish markets. He's pictured here below with the ABC's legendary archivist, Wendy Borchers (left), and Chris Parks (right), enjoying another Sydney seafood lunch. Bottom: ABC staff in Sydney sending the Phuas a New Year's greeting.



Willie Phua at Hashirajima island on the Inland Sea of Japan 2007. This is the anchorage of the great Imperial Navy ships at the start of WW2.


Willie Phua in 2007 off River Valley Road in Singapore on the spot where in December 1941 he picked up a fragment of one of the first Japanese bombs to fall on Singapore. The still-warm fragment was similar in size to the stone he is holding.

Sebastian and Willie Phua with cameras on the streets of Manila for the start of an anti-Marcos rally, c 1983.

Dressed in barongs and ready for a night out, from left Bob Wurth, Sebastian Phua and Willie Phua in the Holiday Inn, Manila, c 1982.

Willie Phua hiking (with the author, behind the camera) on Manazuru Peninsula, Japan.

The three ABC Amigos. Tony Hill, Willie Phua and Paul Lockyer.

Tammy Pinkstone, who once managed the ABC office in Hong Kong, celebrates with Willie Phua and friends in December 2009 at Sanya Beach, Hainan island, China, after visiting Willie's village.

A feast on Sanya beach December 2009 with Ian and Denise Macintosh and friends after visiting Willie's village on Hainan island.

Willie and Cindy Phua, One Finger Mountain, Hainan island, December 2009.

Willie Phua with 'pork chop' at his home village on Hainan island, 2009.

Willie Phua (left) at Sanya, Hainan, with some of  the Australians he took to Hainan in December 2009 to see his ancestral village, Dai Siew Swee.

With David Hill at the Chinese Cultural Club in Sydney in 2008.


Willie the chef, at home in anyone's kitchen.

For a full range of photos about  the life of Willie Phua, click the gallery on the Capturing Asia page.