Ryan Lau Chun-kong
TV reporter-turned-animal welfare worker
Ryan Lau Chun-kong quit Hong Kong television station TVB on the last day of 2010, eight years after he became a news reporter. Nobody saw it coming. Lau was a rising star. But he said he could find ‘no good reason to stay any longer’ as he had achieved all he wanted and needed a new challenge. So, early last year, in a massive career shift, he joined animal welfare organisation SPCA and was put in charge of Mainland outreaching affairs, although, unlike most animal welfare workers, Lau is not a major animal lover.
“A lot of people thought I was crazy because they felt it was a mission impossible to promote animal welfare in the Mainland,” says the 31-year-old. “But that made me even more interested because it was so unheard of.”
Lau says he took up the job because he thought it would be challenging but it couldn’t be more different to his reporting post. His task now is to introduce a set of international animal protection standards to the Mainland and help different administrations in the country to understand those standards. And it’s going well, he says, with an increase in demand for his knowledge. So much so that he’s been frequently travelling to provinces and cities like Guangzhou, Shanxi, Hebei, Xiamen, Suzhou and Shanghai to spread the news.
Surprisingly, says Lau, good causes like animal welfare are being lapped up and supported in China. “In the Mainland, municipal governments care about their images very much,” he explains. “Everyone does pretty well in economic development, so many governments want to stand out and look more civilised.”
Lau tells Time Out that one of his major projects is advising Guangzhou’s police on the installation of a 12-hectare stray dog centre. He’s helping with anything from the vents, the inspection and quarantine area, the adoption area and how to create public education in the centre.
“They [Guangzhou police] invited me and other experts to have meetings,” says Lau. “Before, I always thought Mainland police were bureaucratic and rigid. But, during the meetings, I felt they wanted to hit the ground running to understand the importance of animal welfare.”
Lau feels this job has given him a new understanding of Mainland officials. He tells Time Out he needed to be extremely careful when talking with Mainland officials as a reporter covering political issues in China. “But now we can sit together and chat about anything over beers,” he says. “It makes me understand more about their ways of thinking, which I couldn’t do as a reporter. That’s why I like this job because I want to really explore the world and see its different faces.”
It seems almost amazing that Lau, with all his potential as a TV news reporter, would choose to leave abruptly and join an NGO on animal welfare. “Well,” he shrugs, “at TVB, I was a local news reporter, Mainland news reporter and anchor. I did difficult news and documentaries. I needed a good reason to stay any longer.”
But Lau couldn’t find a good reason. In fact, he got so disappointed at some of the editorial decisions which had been made that, just after he left, he fired off at the station’s decision makers, saying they ‘have made reporters into factory workers’.
Lau tells us the story of when he heard there was a Cantonese language protection movement which had been set up in Guangzhou. He felt it had the potential to be big news and suggested he did a documentary on it. But, he claims, just as he was about to start gathering the details, ‘someone higher up’ decided to abandon the story. “They thought Putonghua is China’s official language, so there is no need to protect Cantonese,” says Lau. Nevertheless, he claims, two weeks later protests broke out in Guangzhou and Hong Kong reporters were sent to cover the issue. “Self-censorship has become more serious in the Hong Kong media,” he says. “Sometimes there’s self-censorship not because anyone can get any benefit from it – but because various media make decisions according to their own values. It’s personal values against news values. Of course you can think Cantonese is not worth protecting – but it’s still a good story.”
Lau has not completely separated from the media just yet, he says. He hosts a current affairs programme on a local radio channel and keeps in touch with former colleagues. An adventurer, he says the SPCA won’t be his last stop on the career train. “There are still many new things I want to try,” he says. “The more confused I feel about my future, the more excited I get.” Shirley Zhao