Free or Equal: Following Milton Friedman’s Footsteps in China

Free To Choose Network is recirculating this Field Report from 2010-2011, to demonstrate the significance of freedom and Milton Friedman’s journey as we celebrate the Fourth of July.

Report from the Field by Barbara Potter, Field Producer

Every production has its challenges, but this was one we never expected. A long-dormant volcano in Iceland erupted in 2010, and threatened to shut down Free or Equal before filming had even begun.

Jim and I flew to Hong Kong in April, five days before our program host, Johan Norberg, was to arrive. Part of our mission as director and field producer was to find the exact location where Milton had stood in Free To Choose to describe the powerful Hong Kong economy of 1980. We were armed with still frames captured from the then thirty-year-old public television series. That meant taking Johan to some of the most interesting places Milton presented in 1980. Well, if we could get Johan to us. Hong Kong, you see, was our first location. Those first few days, Jim and I worked with a local production assistant named Ho. Ho was himself a producer, who was very familiar with the city and would help us on our search. The most important matching location was an overview of the impressive Hong Kong skyline. The idea was to position Johan just where Milton had been, so that the angle and size of the buildings matched the old footage, and we could see the changes. We knew that we needed to be positioned across Victoria Harbor, shooting from the Kowloon side, but we had no idea how many of the original structures would still be there.

Once we had ridden the Star Ferry across the bay, it took a couple of hours to figure out where we needed to be, and to determine that we could walk through a large parking garage to access the second story of a cruise ship dock and get our angle. Milton had been right here. We would dissolve from Milton to Johan, standing in the same spot, with the twenty-first century version of Hong Kong appearing behind him at dusk. The new International Commerce Center would appear over his left shoulder. At 108 stories, it is the fourth tallest building in the world, and would illustrate the city’s growth.

For the next couple of days, we continued with our preproduction location scouting. With Ho, we toured the city with our camera and script, deciding on what to shoot, as well as where, (and when) the daylight would be most advantageous.

In the meantime, Europe’s busiest airports were in complete chaos under the giant, slow-moving ash cloud. We realized that Johan probably wouldn’t arrive from Stockholm on time, or maybe even at all that week. We watched CNN, checked our iPhone weather and news apps constantly, called Sweden, and tried to figure out how to get Johan out of there and to Hong Kong. If he didn’t arrive, it would be weeks before his super-busy schedule would allow him to travel to China for five days again. And we had booked other locations to go to after Hong Kong. Newspaper headlines screamed, “Ash cloud expected to linger for several days” and, “Airlines consider using buses to transport passengers to other airports.” But nobody could tell in what direction the ash was moving, or which airports were likely to open. I found out online that Heathrow Airport was closed, (his flight connected there), and Johan’s ticket would be refunded. British Airways was not optimistic. Trains were fully booked and there was no way out of Sweden on public transportation.

It was now Wednesday, two days after Johan’s expected arrival and six days since Jim and I had arrived in Hong Kong. We decided to start shooting scenic shots of the ferry, rush hour, Victoria Peak, and other background material. I was unable to book any new airline tickets for Johan online.

Finally, I called the American Express international travel agency number. It seemed that Arlanda Airport in Stockholm might open at 4 p.m. that day for a short time. It looked like there was a clear spot in the cloud of ash. There was one seat left on Qatar Airways, connecting in Doha, Qatar. It was our only option. I booked the reservation, and asked Johan to go to the airport. He was skeptical, but he did. He soon emailed us a photo of the huge Arlanda schedule board with every flight listed as cancelled. All but one: Qatar was still expecting to go, and it actually did. It was one of the only flights that left Stockholm during the hour that the airport opened that afternoon. We were thrilled.

Now we only had three days with Johan in Hong Kong out of the expected five. We had chosen all of our locations, but there was a lot of material to cover. Johan and Jim had worked many hours in advance of the shoot to get the script into a “final” form, but there are always changes on location. We were thoroughly impressed by Johan. He was amazingly adept at memorizing and personalizing the script segments on the spot. After the first hectic day, we knew that we would be able to squeeze five days worth of on-camera scenes into three, with a few minor changes. The skyline shot was one of many, as we raced around the city, back and forth on the Star Ferry, from one side of Victoria Harbor to the other.

One of the most memorable things about our shoot in Hong Kong was the man we met on Ladder Street. Ladder Street is a cobblestone, pedestrian thoroughfare that has broad, shallow steps, gradually climbing through four or five blocks in the middle of Hong Kong Island. It was one of the locations that Milton appeared in for Free To Choose, and we had rediscovered it during our scouting. There are small businesses along Ladder Street, and a number of vendors with tiny stalls of clothing, paintings, and tourist items. One older man, whose sign read “Cheung Kee Copper and Iron,” sold metal goods like mailboxes and pails. As we were carrying our equipment up Ladder Street with Johan, it struck Jim that this man looked very familiar. He asked Ho to find out whether the man had been around in 1980, in the same spot. It turned out that this Mr. Cheung had been profiled by Milton as he welded metal water containers in his shop. Over the footage of Mr. Cheung, Milton had narrated, “Only the businessmen who can adapt, who are flexible and adjustable survive.” Today, Mr. Cheung survives, and now makes smaller products that appeal to visitors and locals. We thought that Milton would be pleased to know that he had adapted to the market’s demands. We interviewed Mr. Cheung, with the aid of our translator, and bought a little red mailbox that now hangs in Johan’s home in Sweden. It was sweet ending to our adventure in Hong Kong. And Johan was able to fly back to Stockholm without any problems.

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