It Changed My Life

Writing her way to places - and prizes

An essay prize in her teens was just the start of a storied career for Pulitzer-winning ex-WSJ reporter

In 1989, Fong Foong Mei won third prize in The Queen's Commonwealth Essay Competition.

The triumph netted the Malaysian schoolgirl, then aged 16, an invitation to meet Queen Elizabeth II, who was in Kuala Lumpur for a Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting.

"I was allowed to bring my parents and it was the first time my father had bragging rights," she says. "More importantly, it made me realise that writing can take me places."

It sure has.

She became a journalist, a job which saw her traversing the globe.

Barely 10 years into her career, she - along with six other members of a team from the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) - bagged the ultimate award in journalism, a Pulitzer Prize, in 2007 for a series of reports on capitalism in China.


Former SPH journalist Fong Foong Mei, now living in the US, was in town recently as a judge of The Singapore Literature Prize (non-fiction). Ms Fong released her first book, One Child, earlier this year. A trenchant exploration of China’s one child-policy, it received glowing reviews from the international press. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Now a fellow at a think-tank in the United States, Ms Fong released her first book, One Child, earlier this year. A trenchant exploration of China's one child-policy, it received glowing reviews from the international press

The Guardian describes the book "as a harrowing account of the significance of decisions taken by a small coterie of men with too much faith in science and ideology, and too little faith in humanity".

The engaging and self-deprecating 44-year-old - who writes under the byline Mei Fong - was born in Kuala Lumpur, the youngest of five daughters of a deputy auditor-general and a homemaker.

"Because I was the fifth child, my parents didn't pay me much attention and nobody supervised me. I was s*** in school," she says with a guffaw. "The only saving grace was that I liked to read," adds Ms Fong who was in town recently as a judge of The Singapore Literature Prize (non-fiction).

But her choice of reading material was wildly inappropriate, comprising mostly trashy novels by the late romance writer Barbara Cartland and authors from the Mills & Boon stable.

Like her sisters before her, she was made to not only take piano lessons but also get a certificate teaching the instrument.

"The idea was if we didn't do well in school, we would have a back-up. But I really had zero talent," she says.

After her father died of a stroke when she was 18, she came to Singapore to live with one of her sisters, who was a lawyer working here.

She got into Raffles Junior College. "My results were just so-so lah, but they were interested in me because I took judo and they had a judo team."


Ms Fong and her husband, Associate Professor Andrew Lih, with their twin sons, now five, conceived through IVF.  PHOTO: MEI FONG

Singapore threw up opportunities which shaped her life.

Ms Fong enrolled in a government programme pairing young budding writers with established ones. Her mentor was the late author and neurosurgeon Gopal Baratham, who lent her books to read and introduced her to authors such as Ian Fleming and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

"He would invite all his mentees to parties and at these parties, you'd meet people like (writer) Catherine Lim and (the late lawyer and politician) David Marshall," she says, adding: "For an 18-year-old, that was a big deal. They were people not leading the usual Singapore corporate lifestyle, they were not straight and narrow boring, they had sparkle in their lives."

In 1993, she entered the National University of Singapore to read English literature and psychology.

For pocket money, she started writing for women's magazines, including Go and Her World.

"I was writing features like Is He Into You?, Should A Woman Pay On A Date?" she says, laughing.

Ms Tan Wang Joo, then editor of Her World, liked her enough to recommend her for a Singapore Press Holdings scholarship for her final year at university. That was how she ended up at The New Paper (TNP) after graduating in 1997.

She was thrown into the deep end, and assigned stories on the social and crime beats.

Interviewing bereaved relatives of accident or murder victims became par for the course.

"It was painful but you grew such a thick skin, which was really good because you really got to push sometimes if you want people to talk to you," she says.

Because of her facility with the Malay language, she was sent to cover the reformasi movements in Kuala Lumpur and the forest fires in Indonesia.

On these assignments, she would see international correspondents from the BBC and CNN in action.

"That's when I realised I wanted to be like them too. I wanted to be like Sydney Schanberg, the guy in The Killing Fields," she says, referring to the 1984 war movie and the American journalist who won a Pulitzer for his reports on war-torn Cambodia in the 1970s.

She quit TNP 21/2 years later because she wanted to "play in a bigger field".

With a grant from the Lee Foundation, she set off to do her master's degree at Columbia University's School of International Affairs.

To hone her reporting skills, she took on internships during her vacations. The famous news magazine television programme 60 Minutes offered her one but she turned it down. "I couldn't afford to take on an unpaid internship, one that didn't even pay for travel. They went, 'But this is 60 Minutes.' I didn't care if it was 60 minutes or 60 seconds. I had to eat."

Fortunately, one of her professors got her a stint on Forbes.com.

Knowing Forbes' penchant for lists about the wealthy, she came up with a unique one in 2001: Earnings From The Crypt, a list about the highest-paid dead celebrities.

"It's still around, and I'm quite proud of it," she says with a grin.

Her stint at Forbes.com helped her get into a competitive summer programme at WSJ, where she was put on the telco beat.

But the dot.com bubble imploded in 2001, and the WSJ reporting job Ms Fong was hoping for proved elusive. However, the newspaper offered her a job reading proofs.

Then Sept 11 happened; her bosses fielded her as a writer.

"They wanted to see how the city was rebuilding, so they sent out the youngest and most junior reporters to City Hall. I had no office, my office was a broom closet in City Hall," says Ms Fong, who covered New York City's rebuilding efforts for the next one and a half years.

By then married to an American- born Chinese journalism professor, she moved to join WSJ's bureau in Hong Kong two years later, when her husband was offered a job at the University of Hong Kong.

"Sars happened just as I landed," she says with a grimace.

The three years she spent in Hong Kong were exciting ones.

"The 'one country, two systems' was falling apart. There were democracy marches and protests against Tung Chee Hwa," she says, referring to the city's first Chief Executive after the transfer of sovereignty from Britain to the People's Republic of China in 1997.

But the call of the siren that was China was louder.

"The country was changing so fast. The joke was that each year in China was a dog year, the equivalent of seven years... It's one-sixth of humanity changing at the speed of light. It was a great story," says Ms Fong, who joined WSJ's Beijing Bureau in 2006.

In the beginning, her lack of proficiency in Mandarin gave her a crisis of confidence. "But a colleague told me, 'No matter what you do, there are going to be a billion people who speak better Mandarin than you do. So are you going to sit on the sidelines or are you going to get in there?'" says Ms Fong, who worked with a researcher.

Her arrival dovetailed with the city's frenetic efforts to ready itself for the 2008 Olympics.

She decided to explore the lives of male construction workers in the big build-up to the Games.

"They were all men, out-of-towners. What was their story? What was life like inside these construction sites? I was curious," she says

Her strategy to gain entry into their world? Find people with grievances. "I looked for those who had filed legal cases, talked to them and, through them, find more. You have to find the right sort. It took a while," she says.

Persistence, coupled with street smarts and a high EQ, earned her the trust of a group of workers who smuggled her into their worksites.

"On one occasion, they smuggled me and my researcher into their dorm as well and cooked us a meal. We ate out of paint buckets."

The story she filed on their lives nabbed her, among other accolades, first prize in the 2006 Human Rights Press Awards given out by the Hong Kong Correspondents Club. Together with reports by six colleagues on the adverse effects of China's booming capitalism, it also led to WSJ's Pulitzer triumph.

Asked how the Pulitzer has changed her life, she laughs and says: "You know what will be in your obituary."

Life took an emotional turn the following year. Ms Fong had to cover the Sichuan earthquake - China's worst disaster in a generation - which killed 70,000 people.

While following migrant workers back to Sichuan, she found out she was pregnant, which was a surprise because she suffered from polycystic ovarian syndrome and had had trouble conceiving.

Unfortunately, she suffered a miscarriage a couple of months later.

"This part was mixed with me writing about people losing their children, so it was a very emotional time," she says, tearily adding that she tried but could not suppress the pain.

A change, she decided, was in order. "I thought to myself, 'Maybe there're more important things in life. Maybe I need to stand still and to stop for a while,'" says Ms Fong, who then sought IVF treatments in Beijing but failed to conceive.

In 2009, she went on a sabbatical and took up a position teaching journalism at the University of Southern California. She quit WSJ officially in 2013.

The more relaxed lifestyle - living by Venice Beach, doing yoga - helped, and another IVF attempt led to her giving birth to twin boys, now five years old.

In 2014, she moved to Washington to become a fellow at the New America Foundation, a think-tank which focuses on public policy issues from gender to technology.

By then, she had started work on One Child. The idea for the book started percolating after the Sichuan earthquake took her to Shifang, a testing ground for China's one-child policy. The disaster robbed many parents of their only child. Because of her miscarriage, their loss struck a deep chord.

It explains why she decided to weave in her personal struggles with fertility as she examines the impact of China's draconian attempts at social engineering.

Her timing - "I had a feeling that the one-child policy was coming to an end and I wanted to write the first definitive story about it" - was uncanny.

Late last year, as she was sending out media proofs of her book, China revoked the one-child policy.

The book opened new doors. There were invitations to events such as the Aspen Ideas Festival and the Hay Festival in Wales.

In March this year, she delivered the 34th Annual John Fisher Zeidman '79 Memorial Lecture at the Sidwell Friends School, a prestigious private school in Maryland, joining a list of former distinguished presenters, including playwright Arthur Miller and ex-US secretary of state Madeleine Albright. "I'm probably the only NUS alumnus in that group," she says, grinning.

Motherhood suits her, she adds, although she misses the adrenaline rush of journalism and does not rule out returning to its fold.

Meanwhile, she is thinking about her next book.

"I really don't have an idea in mind but I'm confident something will come along. It's just like the process when you're in a newspaper. You finish one story and something else comes along and you will have five ideas to pitch."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 24, 2016, with the headline 'Writing her way to places - and prizes'. Print Edition | Subscribe