Chan would work for a year in order to save money for travelling. She would then quit the job to experience life abroad and then find another similar job when she got back. This had been her lifestyle until the summer of 2012, when she returned from a half-year trip through the Balkans to Slovenia. This time, she abruptly resigned from her job in a fund house after just three days.
“When you have reached a critical point, everything you see [at work] is hateful. I asked myself, is it crazy to quit a job you have only worked at for three days? But I couldn’t hold on,” she says.
“It was only then that I realised you can’t leave the thing you want for too long,” she says. Having spent five years on “the wrong path”, Chan finally decided to follow her own interest: travelling, politics and reporting. In November, she started a blog to share her travelling experience.
At around this time, the TVB series Pilgrimage of Hope was being broadcast. In the programmes, Hong Kong artistes visited conflict ridden regions such as Lebanon, Iran, Turkey, Iraq and Chechnya to look at the lives of ordinary people living there.
Chan, who had visited some of the regions including Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey and the Balkans, found the programme superficial and sensationalist. She wrote a few articles criticising the programme which won her online popularity and a column in the online news site House News. In June 2013, she began writing as a freelance columnist for Ming Pao and went to observe the elections in Iran as her first assignment.
Chan says her interest in the Middle East began in secondary school. Although not religious, she found Bible stories fascinating. The tales inspired her to ponder over the long-lasting Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For reasons she finds “bizarre” she found herself curious and sympathetic to Muslims and felt they were discriminated against.
She also suspected the mainstream media had exggerated the violence and chaos in the region. This motivated her to go and experience and report on the real situation in the Middle East.
She was surprised to find that what made the biggest impression on her was not the chaos, but the hospitality of the local people. Muslim beliefs and Arab customs require that people be friendly to outsiders. Chan recalls an encounter with a Kurdish refugee in Turkey who, though he only had little food himself, was willing to share all he had with her.
She discovered the stereotypes of the Middle East, such as cruel punishments like chopping somebody’s hand off or hanging a criminal from the city wall, are rare acts only carried out in a few fundamentalist and conservative places. She says she also found that Syrians do not welcome U.S. humanitarian intervention.
Chan says people find the Middle East scary because they do not know about real life there. “Sometimes I think your fear is because of your ignorance. You could only not be afraid if you find out about it personally,” she says.
During her travels to find out, she has encountered bumps along the way. Off the beaten track, it can be tricky to explain her identity as a Hong Konger. Holding a Hong Kong passport, she has on occasion been questioned for hours by local immigration and customs officers who insist it is impossible for a city to issue a passport which can only be issued by a country.
She has also had brushes with danger. Chan recalls she travelled on a creaking, seriously overloaded minibus on a narrow road along the edge of a mountain in Albania. She was terrified the driver would lose control of the minibus or that it would break down, but all the other passengers were completely calm; she was shocked by how steep the ascent of the aircraft was when taking off in Iran. And she feels lucky to have dodged possible death after a mosque and a car park that she had visited in the Lebanon were bombed shortly after she left.
“It’s a bit perverse, sometimes you miss the feeling of fear of being on the verge of death,” says Chan. “Maybe I want to test death. Actually, it’s very easy to die, and everytime you find you didn’t die, then you know you should do something with your life. It’s like you’ve gained a second life.”