In 1995 Eliot Cohen, a native New Yorker, moved to Hong Kong with the masses to try and catch some of the excitement and buzz that was taking over the city.
As Cohen explains, the entire world was watching Hong Kong. It truly was the place to be and the time to be here. This was before the Asian Financial Crisis and SARS. The buildup to the eve of the handover was brewing for years and the media was there, perfectly positioned in the centre of it all.
Prior to his move east, Cohen boasted an extremely diversified resume. He had passed the United States Foreign Service exams and served briefly as a US diplomat in Tanzania with the United States Information Agency.
Following his stint in the Foreign Service, he authored books on US Baseball and was a sportswriter in Washington, D.C. There, for five years, he wrote a regular column for the Washington CityPaper and was a press box reporter for UPI and Reuters.
His sports writing appeared in Sports Illustrated, USA Today Baseball Weekly, The New York Times, Washington Post and Newsday.
Cohen then considered seeking a second posting with the Foreign Service. Finding that his certification had lapsed, he again sat for the competitive Foreign Service exam. In 1995, on the eve of the first Gulf War, he became a writer for CNN’s Washington Bureau. It was at this time that the interesting opportunity to come to Asia presented itself.
Cohen initially arrived in Hong Kong to help establish CNBC Asia. It was a six-month assignment and the perfect position to occupy his time while he awaited his new assignment from the US Foreign Service.
This six-month assignment however spiraled into an entire new direction for his career and his life. In 2004 he became a permanent resident of Hong Kong. He admits that he didn’t really like living in Washington, but quickly felt at home in Asia.
Upon arrival in Hong Kong, he was immediately struck by the beauty of the Ohel Leah Synagogue and the diversity of its membership. He became a regular at the Jewish Community Centre and a member of a congregation.
The Jewish Community Centre, he reveals was a refuge, a great place to get all the familiar flavors of home. He also jokes that access to one of the city’s only indoor, air conditioned tennis courts made him a very key social contact to have, the secret to his popularity. He indicated that he was an active member of the Hong Kong Jewish Community in his early years in Hong Kong and can still be found there from time to time.
In 2007, now called Muhammad Cohen, he announced the publication of Hong Kong On Air, published by Blacksmith Books. It is a truly hilarious satirical novel that reveals many of the mysteries that take place behind the set in the fast paced world of television news reporting. He hopes to “debunk many of the widely held myths that the public has about the media.” Cohen explains that even within the media, the world of live television reporting differs vastly from the world of print, newspapers and journals.
While in Hong Kong he has also worked for Bloomberg, the South China Morning Post and the Hong Kong Standard and has been a contributor to Time, The Columbia Review of Journalism, Asiaweek, Slate, Salon and Asia Times Online.
He is on the advisory board of the New Foundations for Peace, a registered non-profit, in the United States, that seeks to resolve the ‘clash of civilizations’ and modern day conflicts. The aim of the foundation is to end intolerance by educating people as to the values of the Golden Age of the Muslim world where tolerance was the norm and accomplishments in science, art and architecture flourished. He explains that Maimonidies was a clear product of this tolerant Islamic society.
In 2002, Cohen married an Indonesian, Muslim woman. He was married in Indonesia by an Imam who was also the uncle of his wife. When asked how they reacted to his being Jewish, he indicated that the main concern was that he was circumcised and being a Jew insured that this was not an obstacle. Cohen uses this anecdote to prove his point that Muslims and Jews are not all that different. He insists that his Judaism did not present a problem for the local community there or his wife’s family.
The couple gave birth to their first child in early 2007. It was around this time period that he adopted the name Muhammad and explains that it proves that the “Muhammads” and the “Cohens” are not all that different. Can’t we all just get along?
He is now residing in Indonesia and currently working on the first edition of the Lonely Planet Borneo Guide to be released in 2008.
At the well attended Hong Kong book release for Hong Kong on Air, the room was a buzz. His old colleagues from his days with CNBC Asia, had rapidly devoured the newly released text in search for clues as to where they could be found in this fictional novel. Glancing around the room some seemed to even leap from the incredible cartoon that adorns the books cover.
There was much confusion as to how to address him, Muhammad or Eliot but most of his old friends and colleagues found it difficult to address him with his new name, so Muhammad again became Eliot for the evening.
Within the novel, much of Cohen’s real world is certainly infused into the story. The Hong Kong Jewish Community Centre is a focal point of the novel.
One of the book’s main characters, Jeff Golden, often retreats there to escape his lonely shoebox of an apartment. There he meets Yogi, a Japanese banker, with a ‘yen for Jew food’ and apparently Jewish men as well.
Jeff Golden also becomes acquainted with Avi and Moishe, two Israeli businessmen who are quite well versed in how to conduct business in China. After reading their antics, it leaves one wondering if they actually met them over the holidays. Jeff’s wife, Laura, is a bit of a stereotypical workaholic.
Jeff begins to attend religious services and in the chaos of Hong Kong manages to find himself. Ultimately, he not only is able to walk away from his marriage but he is able to break away from the hold that his Long Island Jewish mother manages to have over him from across the world. Jeff Golden is perhaps the strongest and most developed of the characters in the book.
The book is truly hilarious, though explicit at times, and has the reader laughing as they pass people on the streets of Hong Kong.
Cohen’s descriptions of people jump off the pages and come to life. Well, many of them may actually be real, or composites of several real people, we pass daily. Hong Kong On Air makes you wonder where the line is between the news and fiction.
Other current projects include a number of freelance assignments and writing for Macau Business Magazine. When talking about Macau, he chuckled at the comment that there are also a few good books waiting to be written there. Given the rapid change, old juxtaposed against the new, the old churches and the new casinos, this is truly the start of a novel and Cohen indicated that he definitely plans on writing another fictional novel.
When asked whether this story could have been written in another city, like New York or Washington, Muhammad indicted that the background of the Handover is a core part of the plot, but the behind the set antics of the media world are universal ‘truths’. The concept of truth is a bit amusing when his main character Laura constantly uses the phrase “television is my lie” as her personal mantra.
As for the question, could this story be written without the ‘Jew food’, the Hong Kong Jewish Community Centre, the Israeli businessmen and the Long Island Jewish mother, the ‘truth’ of the matter is that we all tend to write what we know the best.