The extraordinary and unique career of Bangkok-based cameraman Derek Williams
I was good at physics so I joined the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation working at Radio 4ZA, Invercargill. I loved radio and had a ball! But eventually I made my way to Wellington and television where I worked in Film & Sound. It was the early days of TV in New Zealand and we sort of made it up as we went along. But it was great training, as I worked on TV dramas, news, and documentaries.
Every young Kiwi plans some overseas experience, and I was no different. I planned to go to London and work for the BBC, but before that could come about, I heard about a job as a film soundman for CBS News, based in Hong Kong. I snapped up that job and arrived in Hong Kong in June of 1971. I was a wide-eyed country boy and loved the excitement and hustle and bustle of Hong Kong, so there I stayed, covering Indochina, India, and Japan. In fact almost everywhere, but I spent the most amount of time in Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia & Laos).
"I was in Bangkok for one of the most memorable events on October 6, 1976 at Thammasat University. Quite frankly, I had never before witnessed such brutality and couldn’t believe I was seeing Thais inflict such cruelty on fellow Thais."
My now wife, Tran Thi Thu Ha, was the chief stewardess with Air Vietnam & we actually met in Hong Kong. Because the US Congress severely cut back on aid to Vietnam, there was a lull in the war, and my travels out of Hong Kong were reduced meaning I had more of a social life in Hong Kong and I made the most of it, before we headed to Cambodia for the dry season offensive and what was to be, eventually, the fall of Phnom Penh.
I asked my boss if I could head over to Saigon, as the fall of Vietnam was imminent and I wanted to ensure that Thu Ha and her family were able to leave. Once there, I had to convince a doubting future wife that Vietnam was truly going to fall (I had had many briefings from Western intelligence officers and diplomats confirming that the end was nigh). Ha and I were married on April 20. Saigon fell on April 30, so we cut it a bit fine.
We rode out of Saigon on the last Australian C-130 aircraft (thanks to some friends at ABC Australia). We transited U Tapao in Thailand and stayed one night in the Montien Hotel in Bangkok before leaving on a commercial flight to Hong Kong the next day.
As we settled into life in Hong Kong, CBS announced that they were going to open a Bangkok bureau. I volunteered immediately, and we moved to Bangkok in late 1975 and stayed until 1978 (CBS News was never truly sure on how to cover Asia).
It was all go after that, and in 1982 the Israelis invaded Lebanon and I was sent to Beirut to cover events there. I loved Beirut and the Lebanese people. I feel sorry for them and all that they have endured over the years.
In December 1979 we were in India to cover the elections there, when the Soviets chose to invade Afghanistan on Christmas Eve. It’s a short flight from Delhi to Kabul and we were at the Delhi airport every morning trying to get on the daily Kabul flight without any luck. Suddenly, one morning, the Indian Airlines manager announced that the flight would leave that morning.
There was a mad scramble for seats and one hour later we had landed in an extremely busy Kabul airport. So, an airplane full of journalists lands in Kabul. I had written on my landing card that I was a technician for CBS Inc. and was planning to visit Afghan TV. Apparently, the other hacks on the plane wrote their full job descriptions on the card.
In 1982 the Israelis invaded Lebanon and I was sent to Beirut to cover events there. I loved Beirut and the Lebanese people. I feel sorry for them and all that they have endured over the years.
I caught a taxi to the Intercontinental Hotel, our pre-arranged meeting point and waited there for about 30 minutes. When the others didn’t show up I went out filming Soviet troops on the street and in the market place. On my return to the hotel I met a very friendly Bob Reid from AP who had just flown in from Frankfurt. He was kind enough to give me a briefing on the political changes, and told me that the group of journalists was still being held at the airport.
So I rushed to the airport with my videotapes. I found the lads being held in the transit lounge and was able to squeeze the tapes through a partially opened window. My ‘World Exclusive’ was on its way to Delhi to be transmitted to New York. On my return to the hotel, the Soviets arrested me and got me to check out and go to the airport with two burly security chaps to be expelled from the country.
With a bit of continuing luck the plane has already taken off, so we returned to the Intercon with the two security guys grumbling loudly. When I returned to Delhi about five days later I received a phone call from the V.P. of Operations (my boss) telling me I had been promoted to ‘Staff Cameraman’!
Ten years, and a lot of news later, my next major assignment was to China, where Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was about to visit. CBS News had decided that was the big story and had gotten visas for a swarm of correspondents and camera crews.
It is always flattering to be considered one of the ‘A Team’ on events such as these, when the Evening News anchor-man shows up, along with the anchors from the morning and weekend shows. While it is fun to hobnob with the big guns, I quite enjoy being away from the circus. With that in mind, we jetted off to Shanghai with correspondent Bruce Morton and an extremely smart young fixer, a tall blond American girl named Chelsea Honderich.
When we first saw the Grand Canal with its ancient stone bridges (straight out of a Chinese ‘Blue and White’) along with the ancient forms of canal traffic, Bruce started waxing lyrical. But eventually the Shanghai students started demonstrating in sympathy with their Beijing counterparts and we were compelled to concentrate on them, rather than the colourful canal.
I had to convince a doubting future wife that Vietnam was truly going to fall – I’d had many briefings from Western intelligence officers and diplomats confirming that the end was nigh. Ha and I were married on April 20. Saigon fell on April 30, so we cut it a bit fine. We rode out of Saigon on the last Australian C-130 aircraft.
April turned into May and I think the students realised it was time to get serious. There was definitely less smiling on the square when the students began their hunger strike around the middle of May, with Gorbachev due to arrive on May 15. The students had allies within the Chinese leadership and therein became the struggle between the hard-liners and the more liberal party membership.
I realized that the protests would have an unhappy ending when watching Chinese TV coverage of the students’ hunger-strike. One of the student leaders, Wu'er Kaixi, was dressed in hospital pyjamas and paid little respect to the high ranking politburo members who visited them, trying to convince them to end their hunger strike, which was gaining attention from the Chinese public and also overseas Chinese.
When I saw Wu'er Kaixi interrupt Premier Li Peng on live television, I just knew that the students faced a crackdown. The language Wu’er Kaixe used was quite rude and disrespectful. The Chinese leadership would not be able to handle such a public loss of face. It did not require me to be a China-watcher to realise this - just a knowledge of Asian manners and decorum. It wouldn’t have mattered if the leaders had been communist or capitalist, but I would not imagine any group of students in any Asian country showing such disrespect (and seemingly getting away with it).
So to my mind, at least, the die was cast. I am sure that the China-watchers and scholars have chosen another breaking point, but to me, that was it.
Rumours where swirling around Beijing. Various folk were reporting troop movements and you could tell that everybody was getting fatigued. As we entered the month of June and even higher temperatures the strain was starting to tell and I personally felt that the story was about to break. On the afternoon of June 3, there were reports of troops advancing on the square so Dexter, correspondent Richard Roth and myself were dispatched to check it out.
We found a position near the Great Hall of the People and found a safe spot where our driver could park the car and wait for us. I would not be overstating it if I said there was an air of inevitability and gloom in the Square that night. The rumours of troop movements in the suburbs had proved to be true and it was really a matter of waiting for the troops to arrive.
We had begun our evening in the centre of the square, but at around midnight an alert was broadcast over the square’s vast loudspeaker system advising all journalists and TV crews to vacate the square. We retreated to a position closer to The Great Hall of The People, on the southern side of the square. It felt safe enough. We could hear distant shouting and shots from along the major avenues leading to the square, but as we knew there was another CBS News crew there we elected to stay put.
As the night dragged on, we eventually heard the sounds of troops advancing into the square from our right, and when they came into view they were a menacing sight. They goose-stepped towards us, with their assault rifles at a 45 degree angle. It was dark but I was able to see some detail in my viewfinder. I was rolling video-tape as often as I could, and as soon as I had something reasonable on tape we would eject that tape and give it to our fixer to run it to the car which was safely parked in the dark a short distance away. (I was quite convinced that we could be arrested by the authorities and our tapes confiscated at any time during the evening).
At one point during the advance of the troops there was some shooting in our direction and we sought shelter behind a public toilet block, which was an imposing cement edifice. A burly NBC cameraman, Tony Wasserman, an easy-going South African joined us in our position. It was soon very apparent that the toilets had not been cleaned since the student occupation of the square. Tony said to me “mate, I’d rather die than hide in this stench” and he loped off into the darkness.
We moved back to our position close to the Great Hall, from where I did my best to get footage of the advancing troops. There was a fence around the Great Hall of the People and I found that if I stood on the cement base of the fence and looped my left arm through the railings, I could get sufficient elevation to see over the by-standers who were blocking my view.
Quite a number of locals had ignored Government warnings and come out to watch the proceedings. Then the order was given. A security detail of about 6-8 soldiers came out from the Great Hall. They were shooting in the air in order to keep the crowds away. Dexter yelled out to me “You’d better get down. They are coming for your camera!” And they were. As I clumsily descended from my perch I only had a loose grip on the camera and before I realised it was gone off my shoulder.
At the same time the soldiers went for Dexter’s videotape recorder. Dex was able to slip out from the harness leaving the troops with their targeted prize, while Dexter was able to melt into the crowd. He later hitch-hiked back to the CBS News office in the Shangri-La Hotel and was able to report that he had seen us alive. Richard Roth was on a mobile phone describing the scene to New York. On his shoulder was a tan travel bag in which was Richard’s passport, a walkie-talkie and a spare battery for same.
"The Soviets arrested me and got me to check out of my hotel and go to the airport with two burly security chaps to be expelled from Afghanistan. With a bit of continuing luck the plane had already taken off, so we returned to the Intercon with the two security guys grumbling loudly. When I returned to Delhi about five days later I received a phone call from the V.P. of Operations (my boss) telling me I had been promoted to Staff Cameraman."
That phone call had made US the story. Both Richard and I realised this and we then started worrying about our families worrying about us. Many of the local gawkers had come by bicycle, which were parked in an area behind us. Many of the bikes had fallen over and Richard was dragged through a sea of bicycle wheels. An American woman from California, Valerie Sampson, was grabbed at about the same time as we were. Valerie was studying music in Beijing and spoke some Mandarin.
After we were seized, we were frog-marched up the stairs of the Great Hall to a position from where we could not see any of the square itself. Richard seemed to be hyperventilating and he was certainly out of breath. From the top of the stairs we could not bear witness to events in the square, but at around dawn, after all the chaos had stopped, we were bundled into two army jeeps (one for each of us). We were driven directly across the square and right under the huge portrait of Chair-man Mao, into the Forbidden City. It was the drive of a lifetime!
The sun was rising and there was a grey sky mixed with a little smoke. As we crossed the square we were ordered to look straight ahead and not to look around, but given that I had a soldier on each side of me, each armed with an electric cattle-prod, I was on my best behaviour. Although we did pass some piles of debris, which might well have been the students’ ‘tents’.
I remember sniffing for tear gas (the obvious weapon for crowd control) but smelt none. The PLA had put down a protest using live ammunition! (Dexter and I has spent the year previous covering the student uprising and riots in South Korea and were well used to tear gas and mayhem.) Once in the Forbidden City we were held in classroom of a school for the children of employees of the Forbidden City. I remember sitting at a child’s desk while the Public Security officers questioned us. It all felt quite bizarre.
Richard had recently quit smoking, but started again that morning. He was smoking my cigarettes so I was most concerned that I (we) would run out at some point. After a relatively light interrogation we were left alone under the guard of an elderly trustee. He was a very nice old man who spoke no English.
Using sign language and my very limited Mandarin vocabulary I dispatched our guard with some small US dollar bills with orders to return with some Marlboro and some cold beer. He returned successful so the immediate cigarette crisis had passed. After being accused of not leaving the square when ordered, I recall Richard and I writing long-hand confessions in which we confessed to not fully knowing the geography of the square, not really life or death stuff!
Valerie would occasionally translate what the soldiers were saying, which was occasionally helpful. But the troops looked like country boys and I suspected they knew little about the wider scheme of things.
"I realized that the protests would have an unhappy ending when watching Chinese TV coverage of the students’ hunger-strike. One of the student leaders, Wu'er Kaixi, was dressed in hospital pyjamas and paid little respect to the high ranking politburo members who visited them. When I saw Wu'er Kaixi interrupt Premier Li Peng on live television, I just knew that the students faced a crackdown. The language Wu’er Kaixe used was quite rude and disrespectful. The Chinese leadership would not be able to handle such a public loss of face. So to my mind, at least, the die was cast."
About mid-morning lunch boxes are delivered to us. We had no idea what was happening outside the Forbidden City so were looking at the source of the food, so that we could figure out which parts of Beijing the army controlled. The lunch came from a relatively well known hotel, which gave us a clue. It was only when I arrived back in Hong Kong that I realised what a huge story Tiananmen was for Hong Kong and the Hong Kong people!
There was a throng of Hong Kong TV crews and journalists awaiting my flight (they were obviously meeting all flights out of China). After passing through Immigration and Customs I was able to look out into the Arrival Hall and see all the Hong Kong press corps waiting there. I could also see Ha waiting there. She was accompanied by our old friends Hugh and Annie Van Es.
In the Kai Tak arrival area there were two ramps leading down into the main hall. The one on the left was little used and I elected to use that one, as it brought me into the hall behind Ha and our friends. When I approached them and said something Ha shrieked loudly. She was heard by an astute young reporter from a local Hong Kong TV Channel, TVB, who approached and asked if he could interview me.
There was an air of inevitability and gloom in Tiananmen Square. Around midnight an alert was broadcast advising all journalists and TV crews to vacate the square. We retreated to a position closer to The Great Hall of The People. Eventually we heard the sounds of troops advancing into the square from our right, and when they came into view they were a menacing sight. They goose-stepped towards us, with their assault rifles at a 45 degree angle.
As I got out of my taxi-cab, the technicians saw me, leaned out of their bus windows and applauded me. I had goose-bumps, as the importance of the events in Tiananmen Square to the Hong Kong populace hit me for the first time. It was extremely moving and sobering.
I wrapped the TVB interview as quickly as possible, and we all headed over to the Foreign Correspondents Club on Hong Kong Island, where the staff gave me a raucous welcome and we had a couple of unnecessary nightcaps. By the time Ha and I got home there were a bunch of messages on the answering machine, several of which were from TV New Zealand and also from Channel 9, Sydney.
Both TV channels were asking me to appear on live satellite interviews at around 9.00am our time the next morning. I felt compelled to do them, most importantly to let family and friends know that I was alive, well, and out of China. The satellite live shots were to take place in Telecom House (formerly the Cable & Wireless Building), which was also the home of the CBS News Hong Kong Bureau.
Cable and Wireless was an old British company which ran all international communications in and out of Hong Kong. I will never forget that morning when I arrived at the C&W building, a busload of C&W technicians were setting out on their daily maintenance run, servicing and checking all the microwave stations in the many hills of Hong Kong.
As I got out of my taxi-cab, the technicians saw me, leaned out of their bus windows and applauded me. I had goose-bumps, as the importance of the events in Tiananmen Square to the Hong Kong populace hit me for the first time. It was extremely moving and sobering. When the China story was truly over, CBS News wanted to move us to the Middle East, based in Israel. We even went as far as to check out schools for our youngest son, but our hearts were not in the move.
Ha reasoned that if I got in trouble in Asia I would be able to talk my way out of it, but not so in a world of kidnaps and terrorism. So I was able to negotiate a transfer back to Bangkok where we stayed until 2017. CBS News was going through a lot of changes and I got laid off in 1991 (around the time of the Lauda Air Crash). I had been a CBS News ‘lifer’ back from the days when we all worked for Walter Cronkite and was quite shattered at being unemployed, and many friends and former colleagues called me with career advice, but I decided to stay with what I knew, and sell myself along with my knowledge of Asia.
So, I worked on a freelance basis for a few years, doing a number of shoots for CBS’s ‘60 Minutes’ which is one of the most satisfying things a cameraman can do. As I started to get a number of calls for extra camera work, I learned of a younger Canadian cameraman based in Bangkok, Marc Laban, who was working with his business partner, Heather Kelly. They both were skilled TV producers and eventually we discussed working together. As we planned over beers in the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand (FCCT), a tech wizard named David McKaige from Reuters TV overheard us and asked if he could join any partnership. Lo and behold, the birth of AsiaWorks Television!
Initially we focused on satellite transmission, because that was David’s expertise. And very soon we needed to open a Jakarta office as the students there had begun their anti-Suharto demonstrations.’
UPDATE: Derek says he stays in touch with his tennis playing pals at the British Club Bangkok and also with the likes of fellow New Zealand journalist John McBeth who is living out his retirement in Jakarta together with his Indonesian journalist wife Yuli.
“Our two sons are doing fine. The youngest is an investment banker in Sydney, Australia, and the eldest recently left the California Highway Patrol to join the Close Protection Detail for the Governor of California. His son, our grandson, lives and attends school in San Francisco and he is our main reason for living in California.”