In face of changes the craft survives.
When I first went to Vietnam in 1985, I lugged around an Olympia portable manual so heavy I returned from assignments with my right arm two inches longer than my left. It took a good 10 minutes to pry open the misaligned jaws of the hard case. And if that didn't finish off my fingers, the keys were so resistant it was painful to write more than two stories a day.
Thankfully, the clunker contained the seeds of its own destruction. We finally ditched it because we could no longer clean off the greasy grime that tangled the keys, and Olympia no longer made the spools for the ribbons. I pounded out a few more stories until the ink forever faded, then bought a smaller portable in Hong Kong. We still have the newer machine, but I hardly carry it around anymore.
Some evenings, as grateful fingers glide over a Toshiba laptop computer and from my Hanoi hotel room I watch farmers pedaling vegetables to market on bicycles, I think about the old Olympia. I miss it, and not just because I once owned it. I miss the labor, the care, the deliberation that working it required. I'm not sure today we're doing our jobs better, even with all the fancy gadgets now at our disposal. The new technology and the culture it has spawned often has meant reporting driven by immediacy, capsule summary and visual impact. Even in Thailand, you can now order adaptors making it possible to use a cellular telephone to transmit copy from a laptop. Instant filing, from anywhere. Thank God my office cannot afford the cost of the adaptor.
I never thought I would say that. Based in the Associated Press Bureau in Bangkok much of the past decade, I've experienced the evolution of the new technology from Genesis 1:1 on. Typically, new communications gadgets would be available there a few years behind the industrialized countries. Much further behind were the other countries on my beat: Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, which war and socialist rulers had driven to the world's economic cellar.
In Hanoi, the Vietnamese capital, filing a story often took longer than reporting and writing it. In the 1980s, the government herded all correspondents visiting Hanoi into the $20-a-day Thong Nhat Hotel, a sorry, peeling remnant of French colonialism. The hotel's army of overgrown rats brazenly ruled the tables in the cafeteria and Withdrew only after we threw soda cans at them.
For years, the old telex machine in the hotel lobby was the only way to file. Manning it was a surly Vietnamese woman who firmly rejected the notion that any telex could be urgent. On lucky days, I would hand over my copy and sit in the lobby with a thick book waiting for her to punch and send it. Usually, the wait seemed forever. First of all, the woman often was not even there, but on siesta. Or she had to repunch the telex repeatedly to correct typos. Or the single telex line routed to the outside world via the Soviet satellite system wouldn't connect for hours. Sometimes, there was no line at all, so a whole day's work went into the waste-basket.
Phone and telex lines improved dramatically after the Vietnamese parted ways with their Soviet patrons and turned to the Australians and others for communications links. The Thong Nhat underwent an $11-million renovation and reopened as the luxury Hotel Pullman Metropole, with $300-a-night room rates. The rat army was vanquished. The telex lady was nowhere to be found, and would probably be promptly kicked out if she did appear.
Now there's no need to go to the hotel to file. The AP opened a bureau in Hanoi in November 1993, the first U.S. news organization to base in the capital since the Vietnam War. We now file news and photos by direct high-speed circuit to New York and Tokyo, in the same way as other bureaus in Asia. Frequent power outages present the only filing problem. The bureau recently relocated to a grander location that includes heat in the winter.
Modem filing is dicey outside Hanoi and the major commercial center, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), but it's possible. One big improvement was the recent establishment of a Hanoi-Ho Chi Minh City high-quality transmission link that AP Television used to relay images up to Hanoi and on to London.
The situation was even more trying in Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital. Overseas phone lines there also were routed through Moscow. The country was even more severely ruined by war and international isolation than Vietnam.
The hallway of our favorite hotel, the Monorom, offered a splendid view of dozens of old toilet bowls strewn over the bottom of the stairwell - for easy storage, I guess. The single phone, in the lobby, hardly reached across the street, much less the outside world. The only way to file was the single line at the dilapidated central post office, where we competed with all of the city's humanity anxiously waiting to speak with relatives and friends in the countryside or abroad. There was no telex, so we shouted dictation over the din, as dozens of Cambodians stared mouth agape. That was when the line worked.
Annus mirabulus was 1989. That September, the Vietnamese army gave up a no-win battle against a guerrilla resistance and pulled out of Cambodia. We knew it was the biggest competitive story in Cambodia since the Vietnamese invaded the country in 1978. The prospect of filing at the post office, with scores of other correspondents there vying for the line, was too horrible to face. Besides, Bangkok bureau chief Denis Gray told our New York headquarters, the other news agencies were planning to bring in portable satellites.
So we hauled in our own portable satellite. It was the first time the AP had used it successfully anywhere in the world.
The United States had trade embargos against both Vietnam and Cambodia at the time, so it took several days to get Department of Commerce permission to take the portable satellite there.
The unit was packed in two metal cases, total weight about 85 pounds. The technology originally was designed for shipboard communications. By 1989 the equipment had been reduced in size and otherwise improved so that units were developed for portable land use.
There were no direct flights into Phnom Penh at the time, so Neal Ulevich, then the Asia Communications Chief, took the portable satellite to Vietnam. From Ho Chi Mirth City, Ulevich drove the eight hours along Highway No. 1 to Phnom Penh. To protect the portable satellite from the bumpy ride, he cushioned it with air mattresses and child's swimming tubes. So Western technology invaded Cambodia along the same road that the Vietnamese army had used to invade in 1978.
Ulevich hauled the portable satellite into a dilapidated room at the Monorom and spread out the dish. Using a simple map, he punched in his longitude and latitude and used a child's compass to align the dish to face the satellite hovering over the ocean. Setting it up and connecting with the satellite took 10 minutes.
The window was too small, so Ulevich and I tore out the frame. The incensed hotel manager nagged us daily, demanding compensation in the form of a bribe.
We filed through our Tokyo office. Moving copy at 1200 bits per second, few stories took more than two to four minutes, at a cost of 11 to 14 dollars a minute. Photo transmission also was of high quality. On its maiden voyage, the portable satellite performed flawlessly. I couldn't believe how easy Cambodia filing had become - and that I was filing through a big black box in a windowless hotel room.
Agence France Presse and Reuter also had portable satellites. Journalists who didn't work for any of the agencies paid to file through the portable satellite. Ulevich thus became gatekeeper to the outside world. By day he worked the dish's marvels; by night he slept alongside it.
Later, in other countries, Ulevich and a growing number of AP journalists and photographers used other portable satellites all over the world. Ulevich used them in places including Mongolia, where a yurt functioned as a press center, and in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait during the Gulf War. The unit we had used in Cambodia was the Inmarsat-A, an analog device. Now there are also among others the briefcase-size Inmarsat-M and the speedy, digital Inmarsat-B. The Cambodia unit was rented from Magnavox. Now the AP owns 13 units of various types.
In Bangkok, our office has seen changes as dramatic as the country's economic growth. Till the late 1980s, the AP office was a fire hazard a floor above a bra factory. We pounded away on heavy manual typewriters and filed by telex. All day the office rumbled with the clatter of ancient teletype printers. Now we're in one of Bangkok's best-known modern office buildings, the Charn Issara Tower. Now everything's too quiet, too quick.
One of the biggest innovations for us has been a technology old by American standards: the cellular phone. They are popular because Thailand's phone system is clumsy and demand for lines far surpasses supply. Units are quite expensive, but the expanding middle class can afford it.
In May 1992, middle class professionals in ties and loafers poured into the streets of Bangkok to join tens of thousands of people protesting military rule. Amid all the chaos, they used cellular phones to keep in touch with friends and family, and tell them what they saw on the streets. The military ordered a news blackout on the demonstrations, in which soldiers killed more than 50 people before the pro-democracy side won. But partly due to the cellular phone, citizens nationwide knew the truth. It also was the first time the AP Bangkok Bureau used the cellular phone to cover a major story.
If I carry one around, it's a lot easier to call the office when something comes up. So why don't I like to strap it around my waist and strut in the fashion of Thai professionals in the business district? Because I know that then my office, my New York headquarters - anyone - can call me anywhere, anytime. And then I have no excuses for not giving an immediate response. No time to think it over, check it out. This age, after all, belongs to real-time global television.
During the May uprising, virtually every major news organization buckled under the pressure and reported rumors, including a supposed battle raging by the airport, the supposed flight into exile of the military-backed prime minister. The AP bureau stayed away, but that was very difficult. You should see the stream of phone and wire messages from AP bureaus worldwide: CNN reporting, Reuter reporting...Kyodo reporting: Can we please match?
The new technology has made our jobs a lot easier, but you have to watch out lest it overwhelms you. During more cynical moments, I sit back and shut my eyes and think about the Hanoi hotel telex lady and her life philosophy: one thing at a time please. The woman irritated me in those days, and I feel guilty about that. I wonder what she's doing now, and I wish her a healthy, long life.
Peter Eng, News Editor of the Thailand Bureau of The Associated Press, just completed his Nieman year.
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|Date:||Jun 22, 1995|
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