Steve Chao investigative journalist war correspondent Al-Jazeera, VICE BBC, CTV Canadian broadcast asia bureau chief so this is my why podcast interview ling yah kl podfest 2024 pjpac signal flare productions company founder alpha

Ep 138: I Don’t Believe in Prince & Princess Journalists – Steve Chao [x2 Emmy-nominated investigative journalist & Al-Jazeera Senior War Reporter]

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Welcome to Episode 138!

STIMY Episode 138 features Steve Chao.

Steve Chao is a 2 x Emmy-nominated and multiple award-winning investigative journalist and filmmaker.  He’s directed, hosted and produced documentary programs including ground-breaking series such as HBO’s Traffickers, Netflix’s Midnight Asia, and feature docs like Discovery Channels’ World’s Biggest Druglord. 

Over a course of 25 years, Chao has led programming for many of the world’s leading networks, including CNN, Al Jazeera, VICE, CTV (Canadian Television), CBC, ABC News, Tencent and Channel 4. 

In 2020, he founded Signal Flare Productions, a boutique studio that produces international documentaries aimed at inspiring social change.  

Over the course of his career, Chao has interviewed world leaders, crime syndicate bosses and reported on such historic moments as the 9/11 terror attacks in New York, the Arab spring, and the 2011 tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan.  He also spent many decades covering conflicts, including America’s longest war in Afghanistan.

To find out, you’ll just have to listen to Steve’s episode on the So This Is My Why podcast. 😎

P/S: This episode is available on YouTube too!


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    So This Is My Why podcast

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    Who is Steve Chao?

    Steve Chao was just a kid from Toronto who loved reading encyclopaedias. Who later chose a career that would lead him to the middle of opium fields during harvest time surrounded by hundreds of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.

    Just another “day in the life” of his career as a x2 Emmy-nominated and multiple award-winning investigative journalist and filmmaker who’s led programming for the likes of CNN, Al Jazeera, VICE, CTV (Canadian Television), CBC, ABC News, Tencent & Channel 4.

    Steve has also spent decades covering conflicts, including America’s longest war in Afghanistan, and produced programs and feature docs like HBO’s Traffickers, Netflix’s Midnight Asia, and Discovery Channels’ World’s Biggest Druglord.

    In STIMY Ep 138 – which was recorded in front of a live audience at KL Podfest last weekend! – we uncovered his journey as a war correspondent. Some things we talked about: 

    ✅ Going undercover to report on the Honduran drug cartel, human trafficking rings, selling of Nepali ancient artefacts & a Chinese spy

    ✅ Being nearly crushed in Egypt during the Arab Spring

    ✅ Uncovering the UNCHR “mafia” & notorious wildlife traffickers in Malaysia (his feet was stuck in a fire ant hill for 5 minutes!!)

    ✅ The sacrifices he’s made & friends he’s lost

    ✅ Why Steve doesn’t believe in Prince & Princess journalists

    ✅ Why journalism is dying & the impact of cancel culture

    ✅ How he wants to raise the next generation of journalists and the vision behind his new production house, Signal Flare

    It’s an exciting episode so get ready for a wild 1 hour ride with Steve Chao!

    If you’re looking for more inspirational stories, check out:

    • Michelle Toh: CNN Reporter
    • Justin Byam Shaw: Co-Owner of the Evening Standard & the Independent – on building the UK’s largest media empire
    • Karl Mak: Founder, Hepmil Media – Building a Viral Meme Business in Southeast Asia
    • Chen Chow Yeoh: Co-Founder, Fave – the Non-Charismatic Leader We All Need?!
    • Adrian Tan: The Late President of the Singapore Law Society & King of Singapore

    If you enjoyed this episode, you can: 

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    If you’d like to support STIMY as a patron, you can visit STIMY’s Patreon page here

    External Links

    Some of the things we talked about in this STIMY Episode can be found below:

    STIMY 138: Steve Chao [Founder, Signal Flare Productions & x2 Emmy-nominated investigative journalist/war reporter at Al-Jazeera, CNN, VICE etc. - recorded live at KL Podfest 2024]


    Steve Chao: Join us as we explore the intricacies of entering war zones, discovery, the meticulous story selection process, and credible journalism. Introducing, So This Is My Why, and their hosts, Ling Yah and Steve Chao, a seasoned, two time Emmy nominated investigative journalist and filmmaker.

    Ling Yah: Hello everyone, thank you for joining us today. So today we are going to be doing a very special episode for the So This My Why podcast with Steve Chao, who's an Emmy award winning investigative journalist who's worked with a number of reputable places like Al Jazeera, VICE, Channel 4, and many other places.

    And I thought what would be interesting, because your profession is storytelling, and you know the importance of videos and photos, and photos tell a thousand stories. So I want to show one photo. And I want you to give the context to that photo.

    Steve Chao: And before you do, you know, the context is I've been trying to get Ling Yah to tell me what the focus of this talk is going to be about and what questions she would ask, but she's refused to.

    So I'm really winging it today. He's bamboozled. I've been bamboozled, so I'm really curious to see what this picture is. It will come out now. Oh, okay. All right. So you're wondering what's happening in this moment? Yep. Okay. I think this is around 2016. We're in southern Afghanistan. To the right, this is one of my closest friends.

    He's a fearless cameraman that has worked for pretty much everyone. Uh, his name is Ben Foley. And this is a moment we got really stuck. We were trying to Showcase that the Afghanistan war was very much a narco war as well. Uh, the Taliban was making billions in heroin trafficking. So we decided a fun thing to do would be to, during harvest season, try to get into the middle of the fields where there are hundreds of thousands of harvesters harvesting the opium paste, surrounded by hundreds of armed Taliban gunmen protecting them.

    So, we convinced Uh, a middle level trafficker to, um, to take us into the fields, but as he was driving and we were in the middle of nowhere, no protection, very little backup, he realized the gravity of what he had agreed to do. And we could see his eyes getting larger and larger. And he was driving, and we're like, uh oh.

    And then at one moment, he just pulled to the side, beside a brick wall, and ran. And this is the moment we were just like, what do we do now? And, you know, Foley and I have been in a lot of situations, firefights, you know, um, you name it. So, you know, we often laugh during these moments because what else do you do?

    Right? We're pretty much stuck. So, fortunately, with this one, uh, we called our local, uh, local contact, our producer, and said, this has turned bad. You gotta really help us. And he squeezed lots of other people to convince that trafficker to come back. And he eventually did. and rushed us to his safe house, pulled apart the brick wall, and showed us, like, the several, um, tons of opium paste that he was about to traffic up through Iran and into Europe.

    So we got our story, but it was dicey at that moment, because if he had abandoned us truly, we would have been found out, and that would have been a tricky situation.

    Ling Yah: And you've been in dicier situations. There was this incident with Suicide Alley.

    Steve Chao: Mmm, okay, yeah, so, Suicide Alley, huh. A lot of my stories are Afghan based because I spent about 20 years, you know, in Afghanistan from the fall of the Taliban in 2001 to their rise a few years back.

    Um, Suicide Alley, one moment in this war, America's longest war, there was a one kilometer stretch of highway, um, west of Kandahar City in the south, that was known as Suicide Alley, it was the most dangerous stretch. And one time after we had finished an operation embedded with Canadian troops at the time, uh, we had to go back to the main base, and it meant passing through Suicide Alley, and I, I jumped into a armored vehicle with, uh, with some mates of mine, soldiers, one guy named Gooch, this, This big Italian Canadian dude, and I'm like, Gooch, you're gonna keep me safe, right?

    And he's like, yep, we got it. And he's on the 50 cal gun, and we go into Suicide Alley in about a 7 8 convoy, you know, um, NATO convoy. And, you know, Gooch is scanning with his 50 cal, like this. And, you know, and they're counting down, 900 meters, 800 meters, 700 meters. When we got to 100 meters, I could see the soldiers sort of relax.

    Because, I mean, we were almost out. And I was rolling on a Handycam at the time, if you guys know Handycams. And, um, and then, I remember clicking off the record button, just as I heard Gooch yell into his comms, Look to the left! And he swung, he was swinging his 50 Cal and I looked through the window, the windows in the armored vehicles are like this thick, right?

    We were in a Nyala, a South African made armored vehicle. I remember peering through and I saw this minivan and its back tires and its springs were like this in the back. And I knew, uh oh, because that usually meant it's got a heavy load and it was all explosives. And at that moment I saw the driver turn his steering wheel and accelerate.

    and plowed right into the vehicle in front of us and detonated. And I still remember that explosion, that, that impact of that force. The vehicle in front of us just lit up. And just a cloud of smoke. Shrapnel came through the front, uh, the top gunwale. Gooch fell down beside me. I thought he was dead.

    Shrapnel cut me here. And, um, the driver is taught. These soldiers are so trained on what to do. I could hear, drive, drive, drive. And, uh, the smoke all around us. They drove through because the concern is always secondary fire. It's often a secondary attack. And, uh, so they have to drive through what's known as the kill zone.

    And then they circle back around because they had one vehicle down. Two guys had fallen out of the vehicle in flames. And they had to come back and get them and protect the area. So they came back around. And I just remember the soldiers piling out. Little bit of gunfire going on. And my hands were like this because I realized if it was five seconds later, that would have been our vehicle and our vehicle, the way it's built.

    We would have been like sardines in a can, and we would have been mush, our brains would have been mush, and we would have been done. But the vehicle in front of us, fortunately those two soldiers survived, because it was more built like a V, so the explosion went out that way. They had massive burns and injuries, but they survived.

    So that was Suicide Alley.

    Ling Yah: And straight after that experience, you still had to do reporting.

    Steve Chao: Yeah, I had to get out. So I had to force myself, slowly go, Okay, come on. Come on, Chao. Get out. Stop this, cause my hands are shaking. And I'm like, come on. And then eventually I was able to first go up to the gunwale.

    Fortunately, Gooch was alive. That was a great thing. He had actually dropped himself. Just in time to prevent his cuts and then eventually I managed to get the courage to step out And you know there was a hand of the suicide bomber ran from my vehicle Then I then I saw his body You know with with still live grenades on there and sadly then I saw the kids that were killed Because we had passed a market And that's a sad reality of war that the people that suffer the most and it it seems trite and you hear it often But it's really the civilians that suffer the most and it's heartbreaking a little kid that had died You know, from the blast.

    Ling Yah: Clearly these kind of stories are not normal. Most people don't go through it. And I remember when I first met you and it was the Ukraine war and you would say to me, I wish I was there and I thought, this is not normal either. So it made me think who are you? Because you grew up in Toronto. You parents ran a paper business.

    You loved reading encyclopedias. How does a kid from Toronto go from that to all this?

    Steve Chao: Hmm. I'd like to say that I do have a Malaysian connection. I am Canadian. I was born in the U. S. My stepfather was Canadian. So, you know, I would always have, you know, amazing, you know, chicken curry, you know, and nasi lemak and satay and stuff in Toronto.

    So when I eventually moved here, it's just like, oh, all the great food, the real food. Maybe that's it. Maybe that was my first taste of internationalism that made me interested in, uh, you know, the world. But I think in all seriousness. I, uh, my, not my stepdad, my, my, my biological dad was abusive towards my mom and he got away with it.

    And I think that he, at times he sent her to hospital and as little kids we would just watch. Um, and I think the fact that there was that injustice, that my mom stuck it out for us for a while until she had to run for her life, that injustice sort of was seeded in me. This need to find justice and at the time as a kid, I couldn't protect my mom.

    But then it's like, oh, you know what, if I could just help raise the issues that people are struggling with and the hurts that are happening in the world, maybe that's something that's worthy to do.

    And when you

    Ling Yah: first started this, one of your first big breaks was to break into this drug trafficking ring from Honduras.

    And at the end of it, the producer basically said, congratulations, you're now an investigative reporter. And I wonder how you felt when the producer said that to you.

    Steve Chao: You've really done your research, because that's like ancient history. Wow, okay. Um, yeah, so that was Vancouver. That was my first full time job as a local reporter.

    And we had come across the fact that there were 11 year olds and 14 year olds that were being taken from these small villages, these kampongs, kampongs, um, in Honduras. And they were forced to take crack cocaine and hide it inside their bodies. And then they were being put on planes and smuggled into Canada.

    And then they'd end up on the streets, selling this crack cocaine. And I remember we were, we, you know, we had pulled all these sources, we had followed the lawyers that were trying to protect them, uh, to just allow them to sell their crack, hiding on rooftops. Yeah, and then I remember that moment. Um, it was my first big break as a local reporter.

    Like, we had dug and worked really hard. And, uh, we were top and tailing, which means we go live, so we're live in the Rough area of town, the downtown east side, and then we finished the live, it was top and tail. So after the story ran, you know, um, I would finish off with a talk with the anchor. And at the very end, I remember my mentor and producer saying in my ear, Congratulations, you're now an investigative reporter.

    And at that moment, I was like, Oh, great. That felt real, it feels really good. But I don't really think I understood what it meant and how much more. There could be. What do you mean by you didn't understand? I think it was just like, oh wow, that's a great investigation. Hopefully we raised something, but I think, you know, I never, I don't think I could see that far ahead that, you know, we could do this globally, or I could do this, I would have the opportunity to do this globally and perhaps have an even bigger impact.

    Ling Yah: How did that perspective change from you thinking that I should just focus on what's happening here to I can do this globally?

    Steve Chao: I think that came with the next story. So, uh, after that event, um, a rusty ship from China showed up on the shores of Canada. And, um, and this ship carried hundreds of desperate migrants from China.

    Fujian. Fujian province. And they had all raised 50, 000 to pay these smugglers known as snakeheads. for a chance to smuggle them into North America for a better life. They were told they were going to be put onto these simple cruise ships, but instead they got these rusty vessels where women were at times raped.

    Um, some of them when they died from malnutrition, it took them 30 plus days to come across. They would just be thrown overboard. And I think that, you know, we, um, because I spoke a bit of Mandarin at the time, it's improved a lot since then. Um, I was, you know, I was sent out. And I worked the police channels to get access to the boats before anyone else did.

    And, um, and then I followed, and then I managed to follow them as they were first put into a hotel, as they were, as the refugee claims were being processed, and then slowly as the snakeheads actually contacted them surreptitiously through phones and said, Hey, we know your relatives who owe us 50, 000 back in Fujian.

    If you don't come with us to where you agreed to go, then, you know, something's going to happen. And one by one, they got taken, and they ended up serving as indentured slaves for seven years in restaurants in New York City, in Toronto, in Philadelphia, and elsewhere. The women, unfortunately, were trafficked into massage parlors.

    where they had to work for seven years, you know, selling themselves. And for a lot of them, they thought they were going to do other kind of jobs, but they were forced into this. And we exposed it all. And some of the snakeheads got busted in Seattle, which was a great victory. And we went off to China as well, um, to try to tell that story in those villages also where these people were from.

    Ling Yah: And to put it in personal context, when you say exposed, you were undercover, and you were among this community of refugees.

    Steve Chao: Yes, correct. Yeah, we literally just decided to be undercover and stay in the Chinese communities in Vancouver and watch it happen, and then we would track them. And, you know, and then I saw them on Canal Street in New York, right, and realized they were, like, this whole system that was operating in North America that's supposed to be such a clean place of no corruption.

    And instead, there was these safe houses where, you know, a guy working in a restaurant would only be allowed to have six hours on a bed. And they would just sleep, like, twenty to a room. And then after the six hours sleep, they'd have to go to their restaurant, always being watched by the gangs who owned them.

    Snakeheads sold to the restaurants and to the gangs. And they'd have to do their 16 hour shift, 18 hour shift, whatever it is, and then it would just rotate like that. Someone else would take their place on those beds.

    I want to

    Ling Yah: cover in this story, is that where you realize, this is what I want to do.

    Because it's one thing to say, I want to bring justice to the world, and another to actually do the work and realize, this is the work in which I can bring justice to the world. And I mentioned to you earlier, I listened to Clarissa Ward, who's Chief International Correspondents at CNN, and she basically said, in the context of war correspondents, you don't know what it takes until you actually are covering the war.

    And I wonder if that's the case for you, and you realize that this is the path for you.

    Steve Chao: Yeah, very, I think, I think that's a, Clarissa explains it really, really well, described it really, really, really well. You don't know whether it's made for you. Because you talked earlier about, you know, Yeah, most of the time, people, if a disaster happens, war happens, people are running away.

    But as journalists, you're hired on to run towards whatever is happening and Clarissa does that day in day out in Ukraine, in Gaza, while being criticized of being biased at the same time, you know, and that's hard as well Yeah, so you don't know if you're made for that until you're really there.

    And I think there were some moments when you know, whether I was being crushed in Egypt outside Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring crushed by the crowds or rubber bullets flying that you realize Okay, this is horrible and worried for whether I'll get out alive But, this is what I'm made for.

    No regrets. No regrets at all. You lose a lot. You give up a lot. You lose friends.

    And, at times, also your personal life. I remember that I always had three bags packed. One bag for war, one bag for natural disasters, and one bag if you're gonna go interview presidents or prime ministers, you have your suit and that sort of thing, right? So, you know, and, and literally when you get back, you're only, you know, there for a few days before the phone rings.

    So you're never ever able to fully rest. You're just waiting for that phone call to say, hey, this is happening somewhere in the world, let's go. And then you fire into action.

    Ling Yah: You spoke about friends, and I wanted to talk about one particular friend, and this is in the context of the fact that we see you in front of the camera covering news, but there is a whole team behind that you don't see.

    The unsung heroes. One particular person, he's called Jawed Yazami, or Jojo. And he sounds like a really incredible person, cause, and you would tell us more, but he was basically the only person who was allowed free access to the entire It's like an Air Force landstrip where no one else was allowed to. He basically made his way.

    Tell us more about who he was.

    Steve Chao: Yeah, so JoJo, wow. The unsung heroes of news are fixers. We call them fixers because they fix everything for you. They're local producers, right? And they really do the hard work. They have the real sources. They help us out and, you know, they keep us safe oftentimes. Jojo was someone I met when he was 16, when we were developing contacts in southern Afghanistan.

    And he was just incredibly resourceful. He had, at a young age, I think he was 11 or 12, knocked on the door of the former Mullah Omar's house, the head of the Taliban, and the U. S. Special Forces had just taken it over, and said, I want a job. And they're like, you're a punk kid, get out of here. And he's like, I want a job, and he did that for 30 days, until they invited him in.

    And he first swept the floors. He was so, so smart. They taught him English. And they taught him how to be, you know, how to ride with them. How to shoot with them. And he just learned so much.

    And then he came to us at 16 and said he wanted to get out of that. And we taught him how to shoot film, not fire.

    Film. And then, um, And then, and then, and then we taught him how to be a local journalist.

    And JoJo was the first on the scene to film attacks and battles between NATO forces and the Taliban for not only Canadians, but an international audience. And he was just incredible, so resourceful, so smart. A lot of the media, we would joke often that if he was not in Afghanistan, he would end up being, you know, the Prime Minister of Malaysia one day, or the Prime Minister of, you know, Canada.

    He was that smart. He was just, yeah, a great guy.

    You said he was

    Ling Yah: often first at a scene, which sounds like a plus point. But it actually caused his downfall, didn't it?

    Steve Chao: Yeah, um, so, right, the first time we sent him out with a camera, he was first on the scene, and NATO forces grabbed it and smashed it and pushed him to the ground, threw him to the ground, because they're like, who, who can get there before?

    You know, you must be Taliban.

    And I think he always, the NATO forces often looked at him that way. And that's the problem with journalism. Like, and people forget this sometimes, that no one wants a journalist around often. You know, especially in war. In war, soldiers have to kill people. And journalists are pests, because we're always there checking to see whether you're doing it right or wrong.

    Are you doing it humanely? Are you killing women and children? Which we know is happening now. And JoJo got the brunt of it. And fixers get the brunt of it. Because they live there. Where we as foreign correspondents parachute in, and we parachute out. But they live it. And Jojo, unfortunately, in the end, didn't make it.


    Ling Yah: What happened to him was that the U. S. forces actually caught him. And tortured him. And later released him. It makes me think of the word trust. Because clearly he trusted them a lot. They trusted him a lot. But when something like that happens, surely that trust is broken. What is it like working with someone

    Steve Chao: like that?

    Yeah, and you're right. He had a all-pass to the Kandahar Air Base because he had worked with U. S. Special Forces, but at some point that trust disappeared and he became suspected. And, uh, and one time I remember I just worked with him, flew out, and then I heard that he had been bagged by the U. S. and flown to Bagram.

    And it took 11 months for us working through the Red Cross to get him out of the Bagram. And he'd been soft tortured, you know, uh, stripped naked, forced to stand in the snow, uh, air conditioning and a metal box coming at him from all sides. When he came out, he was broken. Yeah. Cause his trust in the U S is broken.

    He loved the U S. Um, and I remember spending a few weeks with him when he finally got out. Um, we were still doing stories, but his heart wasn't into it. And I finally got him at a place where I think. He was back and I said, okay Jojo, let's start slow. Let's go interview this Taliban group up north. You set it up I'll be back in two weeks time. Let's you know Work this out Trying to get him to focus on that and he was so bitter inside.

    And unfortunately after I flew out a few days later, his brother called and said Jojo was gone and I remember Jojo had come out of his His working office and when it was in his car and a motorcycle pulled up and literally peppered the whole car, you know, with machine gun fire.

    And Jojo's a pretty good shot, but he couldn't reach his gun in time. And, uh, yeah, he died.

    Ling Yah: And that's not uncommon for you to lose people.

    And surely that must, especially when you almost lose your own life, cause an impact on you. PTSD.

    Steve Chao: Yeah. Um, yeah, definitely. I think, you know, you talked about Clarissa, um, and a whole bunch of others that sort of live this day in and day out, um, far more than I have.

    No matter what they say that, you know, the post traumatic stress disorder that journalists get is layered because it's just constant. And if you, and I believe you can't, you have to stay caring. People say as a journalist to protect yourself, you have to put a barrier and stop caring so much.

    But I think then, you can't tell a compelling story. You can't really ask someone who's lost a loved one to share their story if you don't care enough. But that comes also within personal pain. So there's times where I've, you know, I remember I was in, based in Beijing for a period and Chinese New Year's happened, which is happening shortly and the fireworks were going off and I was frozen in the, in the change room of a gym for half an hour and I lost half an hour.

    I was standing there and I realized my PTSD was really bad. And that's like after losing Jojo or covering the tsunami in 2004 in, in, in Phuket, seeing all these dead bodies in the water. It's just, there's so much trauma, I think. Um, yeah, and Jojo is someone that was really close to me. Would often sit somewhere and say, Hey, and I remind him, I'm like, you call yourself the meanest, baddest war machine because you're fearless, but let's not do anything too much because I want to be sitting on a porch with you someday when we're 80, you know, and, um, you know, just relaxing, drinking something and laughing at what we endured.

    Ling Yah: How do you handle that for yourself though? Because you are so clear that you still want to feel, but you see so much. So how have you managed to basically be here? Mm. And not feel crippled by everything you've gone through.

    Steve Chao: For me it's faith. So I have faith in God and for me that's a huge part. Of where I have hope and oftentimes at times, I've just like turned to him and said, Hey, I don't believe in anything at this point.

    You know, you look at all the misery that's happening in this world and all the hurt and where we are now in this world. It's so precarious, you know, we're all at each other, you know, and we, and we, we, we don't want to listen to each other and that's heartbreaking. Um, but you know, oftentimes in my cries, there's been glimmers of goodness that I've seen.

    And it could be just like in Afghanistan at one time when I lost another good friend of mine, this guy named Randy Payne, who was this special force Canadian soldier. And then, you know, all of a sudden, the Canadians do this amazing thing for a Mujahideen fighter's grandson and saves him from cancer, or at least tries to save him from cancer.

    And we raise enough money for a children's ward, you know, through this. And little stories and examples of hope, and there's peace for a moment in a district in Kandahar. So there's little glimmers of that that when I feel like, you know, I cry out to this greater being out there, the God, that, you know, he reminds me that there is goodness and you just have to sometimes look for it.

    And then when they happen, celebrate them. And I

    Ling Yah: believe, apart from God, who's there to support you always, there are also people around you who support you, your peers, your mentors. I believe Ted Huang was a very important

    Steve Chao: person for you. Yeah. Okay. One thing I encourage everybody is that, you know, don't believe the Hollywood movies that say, you know, you need to be an island.

    None of us should be islands because I think we all go through and COVID was an example of that, that, you know, we all go through so many stresses in life where in whatever, which way, and we should have community and, you know, you should make sure that you have community around you. Um, and for me, you know, sometimes that community was people who understood.

    And Ted Huang was one of them. Ted Huang, um, was this mean pain in the butt cameraman that I worked with, but he was legendary in his youth. He would be one of the cameramen that was sent into the Vietnam war when all the Caucasian cameramen were too afraid to go into a battle. He would be sent because he was Asian.

    He was Taiwanese.

    So there's two of them in the Vietnam War.

    And they'd be like, okay, send Ted. And so he would go into, with the, uh, Charlies, the helicopters into the firefight, poke his head up with a 60 millimeter film, film a few shots, put his head down. And he survived, and he was fearless. And, you know, when I met him, he was in Vancouver already.

    He had stopped doing that sort of thing, but he just guided me and walked me through things. He was the one I took to China as we tried to smuggle ourselves from Taiwan to Fujian to cover the Stowaways ever coming across and he would remind me at times. He'd be like Chao, you know No stories worth dying for.

    Chao, No stories worth getting yourself put in jail for several years for you still want a wife one day.

    All these sort of things he passed on wisdom. But boy, he had a temper too. If I was like, I remember the first time I met him We were just filming a simple Chinese New Year celebration with the lion dancers and, um, he accidentally stepped on the tail of the lion.

    Yeah, exactly, right? It's just like, and, and, and the young dancer went, Hey, you stepped on the tail. And I, I just, I had just met him that day. Um, and I was watching from over there and he just paused, turned around and there was a whole crowd right here, right? Like a hundreds of people during the celebration.

    And he goes, who in the world do you think you are, little punk, telling me I stepped on the tail? And the whole crowd was like silent, right? But he was legendary around Vancouver and people knew him. And the young boy realized he had just disrespected, uh, You know, a senior, you know, guy that was so well known and, but that was my first time I saw his anger and he would turn that on me if I wasn't performing well, what kind of stand up was that?

    Or what kind of question was that? You got it. And so yeah, so he was always reminding me, but he was also soft at times and helping me through some of the hardships of PTSD.

    Ling Yah: You said something interesting that no story is worth dying for. And you've repeated that before. And I wonder, has there been a story you've covered where you've regretted the sacrifices involved to make it?

    Steve Chao: Oh, that's a good question. I think there's always regrets because often when we do stories, people are risking their lives, you know, especially when we're doing investigative stories. And I've learned to do this more, which is not to say, let's get the story for the sake of the story. But really help interviewees first understand the gravity of saying yes to appear on camera.

    An example of that, I think, is, you know, a story I did on the Uyghurs in China. And for those of you who don't know, because it hasn't been covered as much, you know, Uyghurs are an ethnic Muslim minority in China. For a period, more than a million had been locked up in what some call concentration camps.

    They were called re education camps by the Chinese. And we decided to do a story on this. And we were, um, we had managed to find a gentleman, um, that was hiding in Turkey. And, um, he had been caught because he was going to Afghanistan to learn how to fight against the Chinese. And he was caught by the Chinese at the airport in China.

    And then they threatened him essentially and said, If you don't become a spy for us, We're going to go after your whole family. And so he turned and who knows how many people died or were tortured as a result of what he did. And we, when we met with him, this was a powerful story. Cause he was actually in a lot of the jails and concentration camps, reeducation camps.

    And he saw the torture where they would strip, you know, electrical cords, you know, of the rubber and take bare, bare wire and like thrash people with it till they were bloody. And he witnessed all this. And then he also realized that he sent so many of his friends and others to these places. And when I met him and interviewed him, I could tell he was broken from this.

    And I asked him, is this something you really want to do to share this story? Because as soon as you do, people are going to go after you. You're hiding here from the Chinese government. You're hiding here from Uyghurs who are so upset at what you've done. And they're going to be even more upset. And he said, yes, let's do this.

    And after we had done the story, um, he was in, um, the capital, and he was visiting a friend's place, and he was coming down the stairs, and someone shot him. And, did we make a difference with that story? I don't know. I really don't know. So was it worth

    Ling Yah: But did Turkey not open their doors up

    Steve Chao: again? They, they did, yes.

    Because they were thinking of closing it. Yeah, they were thinking of closing the doors to the Uyghurs at that time, because they had a relationship, the governments had a relationship with China, and they were getting a lot of pressure to push the Uyghurs out. So, yeah, that did stall things, and it has stayed open.

    Um, yeah. But you always sort of second guess yourself and say, Is it worth it?

    This man was called Yusuf Ahmad. Yusuf Ahmad.

    Ling Yah: Yes. I wonder, when you first met him, and he first met you, he didn't know if he could trust you. You could be from the Chinese government, and you didn't expect him to be who he was.

    You thought he would be some tattooed, buff person. How does one even begin to build trust at the start to get to that point where he's willing to share his story at risk

    Steve Chao: of his life? Hmm. That's a good question. Yeah, and you're right. I did expect him to be like someone from Narcos, right? This big, smooth, you know, like, you know, tattooed kind of guy.

    Um, but yeah, um, how do you gain trust? And you're right.

    Oftentimes when I went into a Uyghur community, like they would tense up thinking I was a Chinese government agent. So it takes a while to gain trust. And you have to really read the other person. How did I read him? I remember when he walked into the hotel.

    We had already, uh, been working with intermediaries who knew him so there was a degree of trust to even have this meeting because he was literally hiding in this small little town in, in Turkey. And when I looked at his eyes, as I mentioned, he was carrying so much guilt. He was broken. And I can read that.

    And he was working at a gas station so he still had his overalls. Pulled down, t shirt on. And the moment he spoke, I knew that he wasn't lying about all he had done. Because he was so broken. And you learn to read people pretty fast.

    Um, I think I was telling you backstage that, sure there are always con people that are really good, and you do get conned once in a while, but you do, after all these years, get to read people really quickly, and that's part of something you learn.

    And I, and I think that when I shared with him, Myself, he trusted me enough to say, okay, let's do this.

    I thought it'd be nice

    Ling Yah: before we move on to how you even think about storytelling to touch on some of the things you've covered in Malaysia as well. Because you've done some pretty big reporting uncovering what was happening at UNHCR.

    The wildlife, you know, seller that was released from a Malaysian prison. Can you tell us a bit about your work here?

    Steve Chao: Yeah, we've had some fun here that I think have upset a few people at times. Um, so I used to, I used to host this program called 101 East on Al Jazeera. And I think, you know, it's caused at times a lot of feathers to be ruffled.

    At one time, I posed as a Catholic priest to get into a holding center for refugees. Because we had heard that there was a degree of mistreatment. And we were not only looking at the Malaysian side, but the fact that the UNHCR at the time, there were some people working in there that were charging for UN refugee cards.

    And basically exploiting refugees. And people had come to us from, uh, sources had come to us with this. And so, you know, all this undercover stuff. And we knew that going into these would risk possible, you know, possible trouble with the government, but we still went ahead and, and, you know, did it. And, um, unfortunately, the, the kickback there, and we'd always talk about this danger, we had two refugees from the Rohingya community who agreed to wear wires, you know, under, um, hidden cameras to expose this transaction from the UNHCR.

    And, um, afterwards, um, as soon as the story aired, I got a desperate phone call from one of them saying that they, that they were being hunted and then they got really beaten up in, in, in a market in Purdue. And right away we, we managed to get them to a safe house, but they were being hunted by this UNHCR mafia.

    Essentially it was a mafia that was, had infiltrated the UNHCR. And we then worked as many diplomatic channels as we could to get their refugee application process quicker. And they ended up in Canada, which was great. We can't always do that, right? You know, we, you know, but fortunately, you know. We managed to do that.

    And then the UNHCR, in a great way, sent a whole team from Geneva to investigate what was going on here and managed to clean up the situation, which was fantastic.

    Another one was, yeah, chasing Anson Wong in Penang. That was quite fun. Yeah, you talk about the risks, you know, no story is worth dying for. Um, Anson Wong, some of you might know, at one point was one of the most prolific wildlife traffickers in the world.

    And he was operating out of Penang, and the back hills were this good durian. And, um, you know, we, we, we found out that he had this wildlife sanctuary there. And so we snuck through the jungle to, uh, to, to try to get shots of whatever, whatever crazy African animals and, you know, reptiles he had in there.

    And we had just gotten to the edge, and we had, saw these, you know, civic, uh, not civic cats. There were these African cats and others, and we were filming them. We were so excited we had gotten there. No one had found us. Then Attack dog saws. And these attack dogs started barking like crazy and rushed at us.

    My cameraman and I, Tom Bannigan, was an Aussie. And so we ran back into the jungle. And then the guards all came out armed. And I remember, I remember just dropping onto the floor of the jungle. And Tom was fine. But I had landed on a fire ant hill. And I remember the fire ants were just pouring out over my body and biting. But there was this dog right on the edge.

    Fortunately, the dog didn't rush into the jungle because then we would have been found out. We were literally just ten feet in. But it was at the edge, like, barking like mad. The armed guard was looking this way, trying to find out what was going on.

    And these fire ants were just biting me and I couldn't move. And it was like that for five minutes. And then the guy just pulled the dog away, fortunately, and the other guards just went away.

    And we got up and two days later I had to be hospitalized because my whole body went into shock and even today like, my immune system now goes into hyperdrive every time I get a weird sting from something. My whole body breaks out in rashes.

    So even today I've got a small one here and I you know have to take medicine.

    So there are repercussions of all you do.

    But the great thing is that we exposed Anson Wong. His wife got put it, you know got They got hauled up in, uh, in court. They got only a slap on the wrist, unfortunately. Um, and I understand they're still operating and selling wildlife legally, so they say.

    Um, but yeah, it was just you know, an incredible story. And there's, yeah, Malaysia's been fantastic for great stories, but so has the world. So, yeah.

    Ling Yah: You've covered the most varied and interesting stories in the world, and you happen to have worked at Al Jazeera, where basically the philosophy is to give a voice to those who are normally unheard.

    Voices and places where most other media outlets would not bother to send anyone. How do you, even despite the liberty you're given, decide what stories that you do want to spend your time on? Because you don't spend one day or a week, you can spend years working on one story.

    Steve Chao: Hmm. Yeah, and I think for me, I'm directed by that childhood experience of my dad beating my mom.

    I'm always directed more towards justice. And so I think I'm always inclined to, and this is where Al Jazeera was fantastic. Their focus, as you said, was to be the voice of the voiceless and to give a voice to the global south. Because too long it's been the global north that has had more coverage. Um, and so, you know, it's, it was fantastic that I had free reign to sort of chase wildlife traffickers, drug traffickers in the, in the Golden Triangle and, you know, Laos, Myanmar, and elsewhere, and also go, you know, to Africa and expose things going on there, too, and elsewhere.

    I think it's often, the stories come from the sources. And for journalists, you live or die on your sources. And so I always had a network, and I still have a network of people I talk to on occasion say, What is on your hearts?

    And if I feel at that moment it's the right time to do a story, then we'll pitch. And now I've gone freelance, right? I, you know, I, I run a production company here called Signal Flare. And we still try to continue that, whether it's with the Netflix, or with Warner Media, HBO's, we still try to continue that.

    And the motto is really, for us, illuminating stories that inspire change.

    And that sort of helps us then decide, is it a story that could possibly do good in society? Is it a story that can possibly spur discussion, you know, and bring change.

    So that that's always been something that's I've sort of been driven by and I think we're trying to continue that now at signal flare with this huge young generation we're trying to bring up.

    Ling Yah: I wonder when you say yes to the answer off. Yes, it does bring change. What becomes the next step? How do you craft that story? Because you don't go around and ask for the entire life story. You're very clear on why you have that person in front of you.

    Steve Chao: Focus, focus, focus is always, you know, important, right?

    There's one model that, uh, another model, I have a whole bunch of models. Um, one model is, uh, from a mentor saying make beauty necessary and the necessary beautiful and what she meant by that. And it took me some time to understand is just that. You try to make stories the most engaging, the most beautiful as possible, even if it's a tragedy.

    There's tragic beauty. So in that, because you're trying to grab people's attention, especially nowadays when people can scroll through so much video, whether on Instagram or elsewhere, you've got to capture them for a moment to say, this issue matters. What's happening in Gaza, what's happening in the West Bank matters, what, what's happening in Ukraine matters, what's happening in, in, in the Sahel, what's happening in Sudan matters.

    So you have to make it beautiful or have to make it compelling, and that's the necessary, the necessary parts of the story you have to tell, but you have to tell it in a compelling, beautiful way to grab the attention of people.

    And there's another

    Ling Yah: saying as well that the keyword in reporter is porter.

    Steve Chao: Yes, so I don't believe in prince or princess reporters who don't touch a thing and expect everyone in their crew to, you know, pick up all the gear and, and that's the But people think that journalism is very glorified and you're like, you know, a star in front of a camera. You have to be in the trenches with your, with your team and crew, partly because as, as all of you, any of you who are leaders know, you gain respect as a leader when you're in the trenches.

    And that's the philosophy that, you know, I've always tried to carry. I'll carry a tripod 20 kilometers on a night march. You know, just so my camera person doesn't have to carry everything. I'll carry batteries, you know, on horseback in Nepal. You know, because we have to share the load.

    Ling Yah: And I wonder, you were talking earlier about telling beautiful stories.

    That seems pretty difficult today. Especially with social media. You have a very large hearing, and people only take just that one 20 second snippet, and think that encompasses the entire conversation.

    And nobody, you told me earlier, really watches TV anymore.

    So what do you think of the state of journalism today?

    Steve Chao: My heart breaks over the state of journalism. I think, I've always seen journalism as one of the key pillars of democracy.

    If we want a healthy society, the powers that be need to be challenged. They need to be, you know, exposed if they're doing any wrongdoing. There needs to be accountability. And there are of course different layers of that.

    There's the opposition in government that does that. But another pillar is journalism. And journalism is dying. Local newsrooms have shut down to a large percentage. I think the figure is like 75 percent around the world. You know, and the number of journalists out there in the field covering firsthand what's going on is few and far between.

    And what we get, what we're getting now in the void as people stop watching, you know, uh, the news, whether it be Astro RTM here, whether it be CNN, BBC, so many, so, so few people are watching these. They're getting their news from social media. And the people replacing reporters that are perhaps less biased, because I'll never say there's no journalist without a bias, even myself are ones that are biased.

    They're social media influencers who are telling people what's going on and people are just getting one side. And this is causing that polarization, I believe. Or one of the big factors.

    In the old days, I'd say, people would Respect each other, even if they had different viewpoints.

    But now we're just shouting over each other, saying, I believe what I believe, and it's right. And if you don't believe it, I'll cancel you. And you're, you're the enemy. Whereas before, it wasn't like that.

    You know, I think, and that's happening on the macro level, between governments. That's happening on the micro level in communities where it's us and them, you know, uh, it's you guys and, and, and us and it's, it's heartbreaking.

    And I think we need that place in discussion again, a place where we can discuss universities have become that, you know, like you can't say this. You can't say that you have to believe this. And that I think is an example of the failure of society right now.

    And the fall of journalism, we don't have a new model yet. And that's worrying as we get closer and closer to, you know, war. Where people keep associating this time with the 1930s before World War II. And, and who, who knows, and hopefully we don't get there. But until we start dialoguing, conflict can't be resolved.

    When you spoke about

    Ling Yah: cancel culture, I wonder if, whether subconsciously or not, it impacts the way that you do your work as well.

    Because the reality is, if you do cover something, and you're cancelled, you can't be effective anymore in the future with the stories that you want to cover.

    Steve Chao: Yeah, and that's a really good point.

    So I've, in my older age, I've learned that sometimes I have to temper how hard I go in a story, you know, sometimes I used to approach it by going, you know, all oblivion, like show everything that's going on. And like, you know, the other side is so evil, right? And, and instead I've said, okay, you know what, maybe We, we do need to foster discussion.

    So I've collaborated with other production houses, you know, even for a film we did on orcas and the trafficking of killer whales. And instead we talked with the Chinese government as opposed to just expose the Chinese government and the aquarium owners and said, well, is this the model you want to go with?

    And do you want to consider legislation? We started the conversation early, you know, and we've had effectiveness is on some films, Chinese government, you know, banned the sale of certain kinds of wildlife when the story was released because we journeyed with them.

    And so I think, you know, that's where I've learned that sometimes, investigations, you have to decide when to cooperate, when to sort of bring along for more effective change, if that makes sense.

    I think it's

    Ling Yah: interesting you say you spoke to the Chinese government who is known for doing more than just shutting down stories.

    So, was it a risk you thought was worth taking to speak to the Chinese government given that they would probably take this story away and you

    can't share it at all?

    Steve Chao: Yeah, so it's always a measure of who and it's, it's again, finding the, the, the, the people that might be in positions to make decisions that would be open to it.

    An example would be Nepal.

    We waited for a long time until we knew somebody who was head of the CIB, which is like Nepal's version of the FBI. Was clean and capable.

    And then we began an investigation with that person. We said, hey, there are smuggling rings that for decades have been smuggling antiquities, your gods, basically out of, you know, um, out of Tibetan temples and elsewhere and selling them to Sotheby's and others and, and into museums worldwide. We can expose this, but will you work alongside us?

    And because we had known he was clean and we had a good introduction, he agreed. And we set up this incredible sting in Kathmandu and busted one of the biggest dealers.

    And they're his whole family. And that's sort of the cooperation that can bring more effective change sometimes.

    We've covered so

    Ling Yah: many stories and we also spoke about how you never know if you can be a war journalist until you actually do war journalism. I wonder though, you have gone through this. Are there some of those things, principles or traits that you can say will probably indicate that you might suit this field?

    Steve Chao: Are there some traits? Hmm, I think the biggest one is curiosity. You know, I think to be a journalist, period, you need to be curious about the world.

    The second thing is willing to sacrifice. As I shared earlier, there is really, in this kind of profession, if you want to be sent to Ukraine or elsewhere, something gives.

    And Oprah said it as well, right? You know, you can't have it all. You can't have a great, you know, career and, uh, and then a great family life back home without some degree of sacrifice.

    You know, and I have a beautiful daughter. She's 28, interior designer. Interior designer, you know? Yes. In Toronto. And she learned to sacrifice.

    There were so many times when I was supposed to take her out for the weekend and I get the phone call right before we're supposed to go out and her face would fall, and then she'd be like, okay, dad, I know you have to go do this, you know, but sacrifice. And so it's a balance, and I think that if you, if you, it's what you're called to, and not everyone's called to it, and you can always do it in different degrees, but I think those are some, you know, big factors, yeah.

    Ling Yah: And just before we wrap up, you spoke earlier about the abuse that you witnessed your mom go through, and how that basically pushed you to do what you're doing today, and you have done a lot over the decades.

    I wonder, looking back, have you done enough?

    Have you really helped to bring justice to the world as you had hoped back then?

    Steve Chao: I don't know if it'll ever be enough. And I think partly of that is just, you know, I still have this childish dream of trying to help make the world better. And I think when you get to a certain age like I am, you realize The world will always be broken. Humanity, for some reason, will always find ways to hate on each other, and always find ways to destroy some things that are good.

    But I think where my hope lies is that there will always also be champions that will make a difference. And um, so I, have I done enough?

    I think my focus now is more on training the young generation through my production house, Signal Flare, um, but also through others, which we're, we're, uh, some of us journalists around the world are trying to, trying to create programs to teach the new generation of social media people to be better and fair journalists.

    So, So, you know, trying to find those that will carry the torch and there are some other incredible journalists are doing great things right now in Ukraine and, and, and, and Gaza and risking their lives. And it's just to sort of celebrate them while still doing, you know, I still have a little bit of zip left, but I want to get married this year, guys, and I think that's going to happen.

    So, you know, there's, there's sort of balances and choices to be, to be had. And, um, and my fiance is sitting in the crowd right now. Um, but yeah.

    She's the reason I have the photo. Thank you. Oh, okay. There we go. Um, yeah.

    So I think, you know, yeah, I think you do what we all should do what we can. And I think we all have a responsibility as, as people of this greater humanity community to care about the world, to engage in the world.

    And for journalism, don't believe any journalist ever read, absorb, watch wild widely, you know, and, and then from there, from all the different points, And perspectives, I think you get a semblance of truth, you know, and that's what I also hope to encourage among people.

    Just before

    Ling Yah: we wrap up, is there anything that we can help you with?

    Steve Chao: Support journalism. I know that, you know, how do you do that, right? But, yeah, like, you know, care about the world, like I just said.

    Be critical, but also be open to other ideas. and other opinions that you just are not comfortable with.

    I read things that are pure propaganda, from pure propaganda networks, just to understand how that view is.

    You know, um, I read things that I'm really against, you know, just to understand. I've sat in vehicles with pedophiles that have hurt children and had conversations with them, or serial killers. I think we have to just understand that people come from different places and sometimes those things are driven by so much hurt.

    But understand the different perspectives.

    And I think if you guys all do that and you share that on with your friends and, and engage and accept differing views, you don't have to love them, you don't have to appreciate them, but just be willing to engage. I think the world would be better for it.

    I love that.

    Ling Yah: I want to wrap up with questions I always end with.

    And this wouldn't be the So This is My Why podcast if I don't ask about your why. So do you feel like you found your why?

    Steve Chao: Hmm, I've definitely found my why, I'd say. Yeah, which is why I've stuck it out. I think a lot of people, I've seen so many layoffs throughout my career. The first day I got hired, there was layoffs.

    Yeah, and the reason I've stuck it out, I think, is because I found my why. I found the thing that has fulfilled that purpose, I think, that I've really desired as a young kid.


    Ling Yah: what kind of legacy do you want to leave behind?

    Steve Chao: I don't care much for legacy. I think, you know, it's just, it's been a, you know, not only it's been meaningful, but it's also been a lot of fun.

    Um, so I think, you know, the whole, I think if there's any legacy, it will be. Among the young generation that we're training up now and that's why we're just pouring into them I'm trying not to be Ted Wong and say how come your focus is not right you call that a shot You know, what kind of angle is that?

    I'm trying to be much more, you know, you know in a way that Gen Z's and Will be more receptive of so trying to be very very, you know Encouraging as much as possible, but really trying to teach them the skills and trying to bring on others that are colleagues of mine to teach them the skills. And if there's legacy, there's that.

    Are you accepting applications? Definitely. We're accepting applications. Yes.

    Ling Yah: And what do you think are the most important qualities of a successful person?

    Steve Chao: Important qualities of a successful person. I'll just leave one. Read. I think not most of us, me included, don't spend enough time. And in this day and age, I know that's such a geeky answer, right?

    But, you know, really, read. Yeah, there you go. Read, read, read, um, broadly.

    Ling Yah: And where can people go to find out about what you're doing and basically reach out?

    Steve Chao: Um, we have a website, signal flare productions, um, dot com. Um, yeah, and we're based in Kuala Lumpur. Um, we work, you know, my head of production is amazing.

    He came from BBC and Nat National Geographic executive producer there. We're trying to bring on some of the best talent. We're working with this guy right now who, um, is a designer that designed on Captain America and all the marvels for another production we're working on. We're trying to bring.

    international talent here to bring on, to teach the younger generation. Um, so yeah, just, you know, come find us.

    We've covered so

    Ling Yah: much. Is there anything we've missed?

    Steve Chao: You're such a good interviewer, Ling Yah, so I think we've covered quite a, quite a, quite a bit. Yeah. So yeah, I think that's, that might be it.

    Well, Steve,

    Ling Yah: so much. It's been a pleasure.

    Steve Chao: Thank you. It's been fun. Thanks guys.

    Steve Chao investigative journalist war correspondent Al-Jazeera, VICE BBC, CTV Canadian broadcast asia bureau chief so this is my why podcast interview ling yah kl podfest 2024 pjpac signal flare productions company founder alpha

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