March 2023 | Obituary - Pio d'Emilia

D'Emilia and friends during a skiing trip to Aomori Prefecture. Photo courtesy of Christian Schmidt.

Pio was a gifted journalist and commentator, no doubt about that. But sometimes actions speak louder than words, and it is for some of those actions, among other things, that I will remember him with respect and admiration.

Pio was an avid skier until his final months, when Covid-related damage to his lungs tragically put mountains beyond his reach. It was during skiing trips to resorts in the northern Japanese Alps that I witnessed Pio in action. He would whizz off from the top of the piste, making dizzying swoops and loops across the snow, hurtling between trees, plunging into gullies and whooping with the joy of just being alive.

But he would stop frequently with a powdery whoosh to ensure that the more pedestrian among his skiing partners (myself included) were still on our feet. Pio noted that my skiing style was of less than Olympic standard but then restored my morale by praising the fact that I was ready to tackle the slopes despite my frequent falls.

His concern for the safety of others was paramount. On one trip, our group had returned to the Hakkoda Hotel in Aomori by different routes and at different times. Pio called my room to ask whether I had seen Joan Anderson (one of our party and a member of the FCCJ) as she had not returned to her room by the evening. I replied that I hadn’t, but assumed that she would show up soon.

Pio did not leave it at that. He put on his skiing gear and set off in the cold and dark, torch in hand, along a narrow track bordering a frozen river and leading to a piste. Repeatedly calling out Joan's name, he finally managed to locate her where she had plunged into a snow drift and lost one ski. They returned safely.

Pio's sons were even more spectacular skiers than their father - in the Italian Alps in their case. Pio would proudly show us videos of them flying down slopes and even skiing off the edge of mountains to complete their descent in full James Bond paragliding mode. Either that or tightrope walking from one rocky peak to another.

It was Pio's sheer presence that made those trips so memorable. Whether it was on the ski slopes or relaxing in the sulfurous haze of an outdoor onsen (some of them mixed), where a boisterous Pio would spring out and hurl snow at us, or drinking large quantities of grappa before a blazing log fire, these were celebrations of Pio’s making and a reflection of his character.

He wasn’t just a man of action in the physical sense. While I was president of the FCCJ, Pio was active in ensuring staff welfare. As one senior member of the FCCJ commented on hearing of Pio's passing: “It is really sad news. He was always stood by the staff, in good times and in bad.”

Or, as Joan Anderson noted in heartfelt recognition of Pio's compassion: “There are so many moving tributes being posted on his Facebook page. A common theme [of these] is, 'I was just an unknown journalist/student/person and Pio was the only person who helped/listened/introduced me to people.’” His capacity for kindness, she added, was “huge”.

Whether you speak of Pio's kindness, compassion, bonhomie or joie de vivre, the fact is that those characteristics, with which he was so liberally endowed, far outweigh his occasional outbursts against what he saw as self importance, hypocrisy or obstinate bureaucracy. He went too soon. Will there ever be another like him? Perhaps not in my lifetime.

Anthony Rowley is a columnist and contributor for the South China Morning Post.