Essentially worldly columns
There come terrible periods in the lives of newspaper columnists when all ideas seem to dry up, and the hideous thought comes that there may never be another idea again. There are awful dead periods that come in cycles. Sometimes it is because of the season. Maybe it is January, the courts are not sitting, Parliament is in recess and everybody is out of own. Or maybe the football season is just over, cricket has yet to get under way and even the sporting editor is looking grey and frightened.
On the other hand dead periods can come for no reason whatever and last for weeks at a time. When that happens, there is only one choice — get out of town, go anywhere, new scenery and new faces are essential.
Yet travel brings other problems. The column still has to be produced every day and often there is so little time. I have always followed the same principle — there is some person in the town who knows more about it than anyone else — let him do the talking.
One time I arrived in Darwin, and already it was after dark. There had been delays all the way from Sydney and I had just half an hour to get a column. Mercifully my old colleague, the well known Darwin correspondent, Douglas Lockwood, was there. He sat there by the typewriter, giving out ideas and the column still made it the next day.
The arrival in a small out of the way town always causes difficulties. The local newspaperman or correspondent is usually a help, but sometimes he resents the intrusion. The local Mayor or Shire Clerk always has to be seen but almost inevitably they provide more propaganda than information. After long experience I discovered that the best people to see were the local bank managers. Bank managers are never local boys. They have been sent there for a term, perhaps four or five years. So they have been able to look at the town as an outsider. Then nobody knows a town like a bank manager, except, of course, the clergy and they won't talk anyway.
Communications, too, can be a worry. The column has gone by ship's radio, by radio from aircraft, by pedal wireless, by messenger, by teleprinter, by telegram and I am still looking for the day when it will be possible to put it in a bottle and drop it over the side of a boat.
One of the earliest columns on the move was a visit to Washington, where after much pleading with the U.S. Air Force they agreed to fly me to Fort Worth, Texas, and show me the bombers of Strategic Air Command. First I was put through a most careful security check. References had to come from the Embassy. No I wasn't, nor had I ever been in the U.S.S.R., Red China or behind the Iron Curtain. I even wondered if it would improve my chances if I pointed out that I was a Liberal voter of ten years standing and a devoted supporter of Robert Gordon Menzies.
Eventually, checked, cross-examined, security-cleared, with a bundle of permits, I was ready to go.
I took off in a dear old vintage DC3, the property of the USAAF. and I was just a little surprised that they still had one in service. It had no luxuries, nothing but the hard, cruel, bottom-deadening steel benches down the sides as used in World War Two.
The passengers were a curious mixture: GIs, sailors, and maybe a dozen of the U.S. Women's Army Corps, one of whom was a major. | was the only passenger in civilian clothes and must have been considered a remarkably important VIP. The aircraft's destination was San Antonio, Texas, but the instructions were that it could land at the S.A.C,, Carswell Air Base, Fort Worth, but I would be the only person permitted to leave the aircraft.
You must appreciate that this was a very long flight in an elderly aeroplane. It was designed for an era when it was really unnecessary to provide fancy lavatory facilities. We became more and more strained and tense as we approached the Texas border. There was sulfering on all faces, both male and female.
At last we landed at Carswell Air Base, the door of the DC3 opened and we all rushed out. But wait — two jeeps were there with Browning .50 calibre machine guns on the back.
I was the only one with a permit, hence I was the only one allowed to proceed. The pilot and co-pilot had permission to walk to the control tower to complete their flight plan, that's all — the others were not allowed to move more than twenty feet from the DC3. Then to make sure that they did not, the jeep covered them with the Browning machine guns.
The W.A.C. major could only be described as livid. She protested, she complained and one time she even mentioned that she would call on the President of the United States, but it made no difference. Had they been all boys, or all girls maybe they would have been tempted to ease their problems behind the under-carriage somewhere, but they did not. The plane was re-fuelled and off they went, on to San Antonio. I often wondered how they got on.
As for me, I was taken on a guided tour and it was pointed out very bluntly that I would be allowed in no operational building, nor would I be allowed inside any aircraft. It was a great privilege for a foreigner to be allowed on the base at all.
Carswell was just one of a great string of S.A.C. bases in a semicircle around the lower half of the U.S. From here bombers could fly direct to attack such cities as Moscow, Leningrad, Kuibyshev, Kharkov, or Kiev, then maybe finish their runs at bases in England, the Middle East or the Pacific.
I noticed that pilots, aircrew, groundstaff, all carried Colt .45s or carbines; helmets and gas masks were at their sides. One squadron was always at the ready, other aircrews were under instruction never to go more than one hour's driving time from the base.
There was an atmosphere of war and real business, utterly different from anywhere else. All around the base and off into the distance were the great shapes of the B36 bombers and it had to be presumed that many of them were already loaded with nuclear weapons.
I asked formally to see over a B36 and permission was formally refused. I could walk around one under escort, that was all. The escort was a jeep with a .50 calibre machine gun on the back once again. The B36, now outdated, was a very big aeroplane. Somehow they were like a praying mantis, all out of proportion. Their nose was too long, their tail too high, and it was not easy to tell which way they were heading. Their wings hung down slightly as if it were too great a strain to support the weight of their ten engines. When they started up in the morning the six 3,500 horsepower propeller engines shook the buildings way off in Fort Worth; when the other four jets came in with their treble shriek the combination was terrifying.
So I had my walk slowly around a B36 nucear bomber and as I walked the jeep followed in first gear. When I paused the jeep paused and all the time a negro corporal had his Browning trained straight at me. One appreciated this enthusiasm for the security of United States war weapons, but it was quite difficult to concentrate on the matter in hand. Indeed when another DC3 took me back to Washington the next day I had difficulty in trying to remember what a B36 looked like. But, nevertheless, 'it made a column'.
After this I was in favour with the USAAF. I mean, a week went by and no vital secrets about S.A.C. and the B36 leaked out to the U.S.S.R. No longer was I such a security risk, so they took me down to McGuire Air Force Base, New Jersey, and offered me a ride in a Lockheed F94 night fighter. The F94s were in charge of U.S. defences on the Atlantic seaboard, they could get to 40,000 feet in a matter of minutes and they were loaded with very sophisticated radar equipment.
My pilot was Lieutenant Ernest Harley who had run up 100 or so combat missions on jets in Korea. He gave me a flying suit, helmet, oxygen mask, Mae West, parachute, then strapped me down so securely in the rear seat that I couldn't move. I think he was rather frightened that I might try to escape.
'Now don't touch anything, get me, not anything. And particularly don't touch that red knob unless I tell you to. That's the ejector seat. If you touch that you'll get an almighty kick in the backside which will send you seventy feet into the air.
'Get It?' 'Oh yes, I get it.'
I was taken as a passenger because Lieutenant Harley's plane had to tow a drogue so that the rest of the squadron could have target practice at sea off Atlantic City.
This in itself was an awe-inspiring experience. The other aircraft would make passes at us by turn. They would peel off, perhaps 3,000 feet above, dive down at 600 m.p.h. then open fire on the target drogue trailing behind us by steel cable. As they screamed down it was difficult to get rid of the idea that they were not diving and shooting straight at us. As they dived away and climbed up for another pass there was always the joy of still being alive.
We flew back to McGuire Base, dropped the drogue from the air, and Licutenant Harley said: 'Say, we got a bit of gas left; would you like me to throw her around a bit?'
'Oh yes, please do,' I said, 'I've had a lot of experience of that sort of thing.'
It was one of those brave remarks that one regrets even before they are out. My experience had been long before, training on Tiger Moths and Wirraways. I hadn't quite realized how aeroplanes had come on since then.
He started with a series of continuous slow rolls, then a barrel roll, then a loop, then a loop with a roll off the top. I sat in the back quite numb. He had only to go round a bend, the blood drained out of my face and everything went grey.
'You there, everything O.K.?' he shouted over the intercom, 'let's do something interesting.” Before I had a chance to reply he climbed to 20,000 feet, rolled the F94 on its back and went straight down. At almost ground level he pulled out of the dive. Eyes, face, somach, everything flattened down and I couldn't even raise an arm. My head seemed to sink right down into my shoulder blades and all went utterly black. Shooting along close to the speed of sound, he let in the after burner, a device which pours fuel into the jet stream and vastly increases the power. He pulled back the sick and the F94 went straight up like a rocket back to 20,000 with the altimeter spinning like a propeller.
'Man I'm sorry that I can't give you more. If we don't go back we'll be out of juice.' 'O, please don't apologize,' I replied, 'it's quite all right, really.'
After we landed he took one look. 'Gee, I'm sorry; are you all right?',
After that it seemed wise to abandon the USAAF and keep to inaugural flights on airlines. The grandest inaugural I remember was the flight across the North Pole by Canadian Pacific Airlines. We flew from Sydney to Hawaii to Vancouver to Sondrestrom, Greenland to Amsterdam. This flight is remembered with such love because we had aboard the top columnists of the U.S. and Canada, leading Mayors, including Alderman Hills, Mayor of Sydney, and the president of Canadian Pacific. When one has the president of the Airline aboard it gives one just that little extra confidence in operations,
Never was a tour laid on with such luxury. The transcontinental flight finished at Amsterdam, but C.P.A. laid on feeder flights to London and Paris. At every city large black Cadillacs were at our disposal. Always a line of Cadillacs was at the hotel front door and if one wanted to drive to Les Halles for a feed of snails or to Versailles to see the spot where Marie Antoinette stood for the last time before they took her away, one had only to signal. Beautiful Cadillacs they were, all with push-button electric windows.
Only the very best hotels were chosen, like the Royal Hawaiian in Honolulu, the George Cinq in Paris or the Savoy in London. Curiously enough the Savoy was voted the best hotel by the American columnists. I think it gained the edge because of its somewhat titanic plumbing and always there was a telephone right beside the toilet, a refinement unthought of even in the United States.
The most spectacular sections of the journeys were, of course, between Vancouver and Amsterdam. The only stop between the two was at Sondrestrom in Greenland. This piece of Danish territory was pretty much like the last place on earth. To approach the strip we had to come right down into an icy fjord. Look out the left window and there was sheer rock; look out the right window and there was sheer rock. All the passengers were a little unnerved, until one of the Australians down aft went into action.
Not so long ago every Australian country town had a sign for Rexona soap on the road leading in and the road leading out. It read, say,
WELCOME TO BIRRUMGUMBI — ANOTHER GOOD REXONA TOWN.
Just at that frightening moment when were approaching this Arctic airport, an Australian voice called out,
WELCOME TO SONDRESTROM — ANOTHER GOOD REXONA TOWN.
Sondrestrom was actually a U.S. leased base. We were taken by car to the refreshment room. We were not allowed to walk about and we were not allowed to take photographs. To the north of Sondrestrom was the legendary U.S. base Thule, which reportedly had cost $350 million. Here the Americans had interceptor squadrons which operated in heated hangars. Both ends of the hangars would open and the jets could fly to the attack in ninety-four seconds.
At Thule the ground was frozen to a depth of 1,000 feet and we were told that the troops had every possible luxury except women and modern sewerage arrangements. The lack of women was not so casy to explain, but the other item was impossible because of the lack of water and bad ground.
We flew north from Sondrestrom out over the great ice cap of Greenland, over immense glaciers where the ice in places was 8,000 feet deep. Then further and further north we went across endless tracts of ice until just before midnight, when the sun had sunk to a red ball on the summer horizon and the whole icy scene was covered with a soft glow of pink.
It was then that we began to feel very much like rugged explorers. Alter all, we had consumed filet de boeuf, Chateau Lafite, Mumm's champagne Brut, Russia caviar, and we were on the cognac and cigars. Cabin temperature could have been described as slightly cxcessive, at seventy-five degrees. Someone had the smart idea, why not send a cable to the Australians on Mawson in the Antarctic and we worded it:
WE THE MOST NORTHERN AUSTRALIANS ON INAUGURAL FLIGHT ACROSS THE NORTH POLE SEND GREETINGS TO YOU THE MOST SOUTHERN AUSTRALIANS, and it was signed by Alderman Hills, the Lord Mayor of Sydney.
Several days later in London we daring explorers received the reply from the Antarctic:
GREETINGS HEARTILY RECIPROCATED GRATEFUL YOUR REMEMBERING US AT MAWSON ANTARCTIC FROM JOHN BECHERVAISE.
Quite the most rewarding country for writing columns was Japan, and at Christmas 1963 I went there with Barry Woodhouse, a TV cameraman. Until then always I had worked on the premise that enlightened foreigners spoke English.
Indeed, this idea works amazingly well until one arrives in Japan. Outside Tokyo, curiously enough, the Japanese speak almost entirely in Japanese. Barry and I discovered this at Hiroshima airport. As comes to all men, we needed to find a lavatory. There was no point in asking any of the airline officials; they did not speak English. We looked for signs — even Hommes and Femmes or Signors and Signoras would have been good enough. But they did not have these either, only places with Japanese characters above.
Barry had the right idea. He suggested we pick a place where a lot of men were coming in and out in rapid succession. This was a very good scheme and it worked amazingly well, except that what we saw inside was rather alarming. Later our Tokyo correspondent explained it all to our satisfaction. How naive we were to expect that in Japan there would be separate toilets for men and women. That sort of thing was provided only at fancy hotels to soothe the strange foreigners.
Of course, this was only the beginning of our problems. We had vast difficulty in catching trains, reading platform numbers and, worst of all, trying to discover which station was which. The night we were travelling from Osaka to Tokyo was interesting. We were flying by an A.N.A. Lockheed Electra. This A.N.A. was not to be confused with any other A.N.A. such as Australian National Airlines. Mr Ansett had made no take-over bids. A.N.A. stood for All Nippon Airlines. Nobody could explain to us in English how we should catch this aircraft but, as I said to Barry, it was perfectly simple. It was most unlikely that any other aircraft would be departing at 6.30 p.m. All we had to do was to wait until somebody announced things in Japanese, then board the nearest A.N.A. aircraft.
This we did. Seats in the Electra were on a first-come-first-served basis, so we sat down front. The aircraft taxied off, warmed up at the end of the runway. Then suddenly there was much talk down aft. Maybe the air hostess discovered she had more than the expected number of passengers. Anyway a small man came running up, and 'with great courtesy, said: 'Please, I think your ticket says you are going to Tokyo. Very, very sorry, sir. This aeroplane is going to Hokkaido.'
So we had to start all over again, lining up in queues and next time we managed to find the right aircraft. Dinner, of course, was served aboard, and no doubt other airline operators would have been interested in the catering. It was simplicity itself. The air hostess, very pretty, very Japanese, gave each of us a carton. We opened our cartons and inside was a piece of bamboo with two ridiculously short chop sticks and a plastic bubble of soya sauce. Inside the bamboo was a mess of cold rice and raw fish. It can be awkward coping with rice and chop sticks even in the comfort of a Chinese restaurant, but when one is in a bumpy aircraft it's like trying to push camels through needles. It was a situation where a visiting Australian could not afford to lose face, but finding my face was difficult and most of the rice and raw fish landed on my trousers.
There were other occasions when one badly felt the need for a knowledge of Japanese. In Hiroshima a pipe smoker was something of a curiosity. Very few Japanese smoke pipes, so I was followed by Japanese children down the street. They would point and giggle. It was bad enough trying to buy pipe tobacco in such a town, but can you imagine the problem of getting pipe cleaners? Naturally, first I tried the most touristy place in town, the Hiroshima Grand Hotel. The girl in the shop there did appear to speak English. I asked for pipe cleaners. She looked blank.
I held up my pipe and my last pipe cleaner and then went into an claborate explanation as to what it did.
She smiled: 'Clean pipe. Ah, of course.'
I smiled, too. At last we were getting somewhere.
Whereupon she took my pipe, put it under a tap and started to clean it with a piece of paper.
Actually the fellow to watch in Japan is the one who believes he understands English. I was shown over the Olympic Games venues by a gentleman from the Public Relations Department. He was most amiable. To every question I asked he replied: 'Yes.' 'Will you have French, Italian, Greek, and Russian interpreters?' — Yes. 'Will you have different cooking for all the various nationalities?' — Yes. 'Will the Emperor attend all events?'— Yes.
Finally, I became suspicious and said: 'Is it true that Japan has invited 5,200,000 overseas newspapermen to the Games?'
He beamed and said: 'Yes.'
Fortunately a great deal of trouble and embarrassment was saved by meeting Peter Temm. Peter, a New Zealander and a freelance correspondent, could read, write and speak fluent Japanese. He was married to a Japanese girl and at home lived Japanese style.
Peter gave me the opportunity to watch Japanese TV and I became a devoted fan of Japanese war films. They were on every night and I presumed that here, very smartly, I would see the entire destruction of the U.S. Navy. But no, they stuck to historical facts. The Japanese servicemen were always immensely brave, doing heroic things against overwhelming odds. The film always ended in deep tragedy, grim music, servicemen being blown up, machine gunned, sunk. Apparently it was all most satisfying.
Then one had to admire the brilliance of the Japanese dubbing of voices. The Japanese Ben Casey was so perfectly matched it was almost uncanny. His dubbed voice was equally truculent and unbearable. Doctor Kildare again had the same purity of innocence.
Lucille Ball had the same air raid siren quality and the Japanese Matt Dillon was kinda slow, kinda laconic.
It was explained to me that they went even further than this. Say the character in the movie was a real, slick New Yorker. Then he had a slick Tokyo accent. Say he was a Southerner, then he had a southern Kyushu accent. On the other hand, if he was a pidgin-talking native in a Tarzan film, 'Me M'Bongo, plenty bad native — want kill'. Well, they put that into a sort of pidgin Korean. This suited because there was little love lost between Japanese and Koreans. The only trouble was it took twice as long to say anything in Japanese and the unfortunate Japanese Matt Dillons and Ben Caseys had to go like the devil to get through their speeches in time.
Yet television was nothing. Peter Temm insisted that if I wanted a column about the real Japan then it was essential that I should go to a bath house. Actually I had already been to a bath house and I remembered the experience with great pleasure. There was a private room, a hot box, a Japanese flower arrangement, shaving gear, perfumed ointments and such, all supplied. The grand climax came as I stretched face down on the massage table ...the famous walking treatment.
The masseuse stood on the insteps of my feet, then with the balance of a tight-rope walker, walked up the backs of my legs, then on to my spine. It wasn't any namby pamby stuff, either. As she promenaded she sank in her toes, pushing back any discs that might have slipped lately. The effect was sensational and one couldn't help but think it was high time that our own women learned to walk on our spines. Except, of course, it is wise to have a well-dieted walker. This one was, maybe, nine stone.
'How much did it all cost you?' asked Peter Temm.
I told him that it was reasonably cheap, around $1.75.
He was contemptuous. 'That's the nonsense that they turn on for the tourists. How about going to a real Japanese bath house, the sort 'they use themselves? I can tell you it won't cost $1.75. You'll get out of it for about five cents.'
'Will they let me in?'
'I'd better go with you,'” he said. 'They mightn't appreciate the invasion of foreigners and it's best to have someone around who speaks Japanese.”
So we went down the street and Peter explained that this was part of the life. Not many of the houses had their own bathrooms and there was a public bath house on every street corner. The Japanese were probably the cleanest people in the world.
Our bath house was typical, very pretty with upturned eaves, so that it looked like a temple. Outside was the traditional bath house sign, as famous as the striped barber's pole in the West. It was a Neon light and it had vertical wavy lines, symbolizing the rising of steam.
We paid twenty-eight yen each at the door, a bored looking girl told us to take off our clothes and indicated a place to put them in a locker. There was a partition down the centre, men on the right and women on the left. The bored looking girl had a seat up aloft so that she could observe both naked males and females.
We went into a tiled room and sat down on stools in front of buckets of water. Other bathers, Japanese men with almost shaved heads were looking at us with undisguised curiosity. 'What are foreigners doing in our bath?' I felt distinctly out of place.
'Just carry on as if you do this every day,' said Peter. 'What you have to do now is scrub yourself all over until it hurts. You've got to get yourself clean, really clean and when you've done that you must get rid of every trace of soap. This is so that when you get into the public bath with everyone else — you're perfectly clean.'
So I scrubbed and washed all over and a rather charming part of the service was the fact that a muscular Japanese with a big scrubbing brush came over and did my back.
When we had gained the right degree of purity Peter Temm indicated the public bath. It had raised edges about two feet six inches high and it was the size of a small swimming pool. However, much care had been taken to make it pleasing to the eye. It was very pretty with a Japanese garden grotto in the corner. Already a dozen men were sitting in the bath, water up to their necks.
Peter said this type of separate bathing was a new trend in Japan. Outside of Tokyo the sexes still mixed in together. Shortly after he married he went for a public bath at Beppu. To his profound astonishment he found himself sitting in the water next to his mother-in-law. 'Of course she wasn't embarrassed, but it startled me', he said.
You have no idea of the heat of that water. As we stepped into the bath it seemed hotter than anything I had ever experienced. We crouched with the water around our necks and the heat seemed to well up in volumes, so that one's face became the colour of a stop light. It was important to remain utterly still; any waves and the rest of one's neck would be scalded.
After five minutes normal consciousness began to return and it was possible to look around at our bath mates. Frankly, they were a pretty rugged, fierce-looking bunch, the type you wouldn't want to meet on the Kokoda Trail. Almost every one of them had tattoos on their arms and bodies, not hearts with arrows through or anything like that, but Japanese characters.
Peter said these tattoos were like badges. They indicated that the gentlemen concerned belonged to various gangster gangs in Tokyo. The marks were a sign of manliness. Some, also, had incredible scars on their backs. Stabbings, razor slashings, I thought.
But Peter was unworried. He knew a great deal about his subject and talked on. Guns were hard to get in Tokyo, he said, so there was a novel type of fighting. Often rival gangster groups fought it out with Samurai swords. What's more, even swords, like pistols, had to be officially registered.
There was a special code. If a gangster failed in a mission he suffered fearful loss of face. Often he could restore his position only by cutting off a finger and delivering it to his gang leader. Although he felt that gangsters were softening up considerably. He was. ashamed to say that many of them now went to the hospital and had their gift finger cut off under anaesthetic.
As he spoke I became more and more nervous. I looked around. These fellows had all their fingers. Obviously they were highly efficient gangsters. We were the only non-Japanese in the place. How easy it would be to carve us up and take our wallets. Nobody had been advised that we were here. We would simply disappear for ever, without trace.
'Let's get out of here,' I said. We dried ourselves, went to our lockers and quickly dressed. We hurried out the door, but not quickly enough — a man came running. He took Peter Temm aside and talked excitedly to him.
You see, Peter had left his watch behind in one of the lockers and this man was making sure that Peter got it back: The man was one of the gangsters.
Some of the columns were far from light-hearted and in this category I put the visit to Kure and the visit to Saigon. Kure could be described as the Portsmouth of Japan. It was the traditional centre for the Navy and for shipbuilding. Immediately after the war it was home for the Australians and the British Commonwealth Occupational Forces.
Of course, when the war ended and the Japanese Navy ceased to exist, Kure lost its main industry and it became a poverty-stricken, tragic place. We don't know precisely the number of illegitimate children left behind in Japan by the Australian occupation forces. It happens wherever soldiers go to fight, in every garrison city. However Kure gathered all the publicity and it became special because of the wretched conditions in which the half-Australians lived. It became even more special because of colour prejudice. It comes as a shock when prejudice works the other way.
The man who had done most to spread the word was Mr Alex Ferguson who had an electrical business in Melbourne. After a trip to Japan he was so shocked by the sight of the Kure waifs he decided to devote the rest of his life to helping them. He appeared repeatedly on television and radio, he pleaded with all the newspapers, and he was just in the process of calling rallies in the Melbourne and Sydney Town Halls when he died.
Before I went to Kure there was still a good deal of scepticism about the waifs. One Australian resident in Japan even suggested that the whole thing was a sweet little racket. No more than half a dozen of them had ever appeared in public at the one time. He said: 'Do me a favour, will you? Demand to see all the records, all the case histories and count every one of those orphans, physically.” It seemed a pretty tall order. For one thing I had no Japanese and how could I ever tell the waifs from other Japanese children.
At Hiroshima Airport I was met by Miss Yone Ito, the local representative of International Social Service. She had cared for the Australian waifs during the past three years and Mr Ferguson had called her 'The Angel of Kure'.
At first I did not know what to make of Miss Ito. At thirty-three she was quite a good-looking woman and a graduate social worker from Louisville University, Kentucky. She was infinitely courteous - and considerate, but never warm. Always on her bland face there was this half smile, but never a whole smile.
She told of the last visit by Mr Ferguson, how even then he knew that he had not long to live. She said that when staying at the Hiroshima Grand Hotel he had heart attack after heart attack. He ran out of his special pills and even had to borrow some from an American. Yet he insisted on coming to Kure to see the waifs.
Miss Ito had no car, so we used taxis and went to Kure by train. She talked quite frankly about the waifs. At school they were called 'specials' or Nisei (mixed bloods) or even 'Gaijin' (foreigner). Being a Nisei at a Japanese school was not easy to live down. Children would not usually forgive that sort of thing. It went much deeper than that. They knew these children were even more different. They had no respectable ancestors, they could not account for their father; a matter for great shame in Japan. Miss Ito was utterly correct in everything she said. She never commented, she never condemned. The only time she came close to censure was when asked if she ever heard from the parents. That half smile almost disappeared. 'Only one,' she said. 'He came to Japan, visited his daughter and her mother. They prayed together. But the father could not do anything. He received only a pension in Australia.'
Then another time a cheque came from one of the fathers. He lived in northern New South Wales and he regretted it was quite impossible for him to reveal his name. There was only one flaw in his reasoning. The cheque was signed with his name and drawn on the local trading bank.
We went to Miss Ito's little office and here I did get a chance to inspect the records, all as clear as could be, and all in English. She had been caring for ninety-two orphans of mixed parentage around Kure and of these at least fifty-two had Australian servicemen for fathers.
So we started the rounds of the schools to visit the waifs one by one. There was no point in expecting them to be little Australians. They had been brought up as Japanese, spoke very little English and the boys wore those ugly, black, military school uniforms. They clipped right up to the neck, completely unornamented like school cadet uniforms of the 1930s. Yet it was obvious that the children were almost Australian. One could pick them immediately in every class. Miss Ito did not have to say a word. They were taller, their skin was paler, their hair not jet black and they were wide-eyed. There was one little kid I will never forget, Yoshio Shimizu, aged twelve. He was a real little devil, into more trouble than Ginger Meggs. His face was covered in freckles. Freckles in Japan are extraordinary, an object of real curiosity.
At one high school we met Masaaki Usui, aged sixteen. His father was in the AIF. His mother worked as a waitress in a Hiroshima hotel for $20 a month. She saw Masaaki only once a month and she paid $16 out of her wages to keep him at high school. Masaaki lived in two rooms with his grandmother, who took in needlework. Their biggest luxury was electric light, their water came from a communal tap.
When we arrived at the high school Masaaki was pounding the track in a green track suit. He had the leanness, the style and stride of Herb Elliott written all over him. His coach Nobuhisa Mitsuta said early on he had been branded as a Nisei, but Masaaki had been such a phenomenal success all this had been forgiven. Masaaki startled the Hiroshima High School by making the track team for 800 metres and 150 metres in his first year and now he had been chosen to go to Okinawa for an international meeting between American, Okinawa and Japanese High Schools.
Mitsuta asked if I knew Percy Cerutty. He said they were both carefully following Cerutty's training methods. It was Masaaki's dream to become another Herb Elliott and the way he was shaping he had a very good chance. Before we left there was a gathering of the teachers and with tremendous courtesy and much bowing we were presented with exquisite ashtrays made by students of the school as a memento of our visit.
We went on. We met Yumiko Hori, sixteen, who was training as a hairdresser in a beauty school at Iwakuni. This girl was beautiful, soft brown hair and big brown eyes. All her expenses were being paid by International Social Service. Her mother was very poor; she worked in a Hiroshima bar. Miss Ito said that Yumiko knew only one thing — her father's surname. It was her plan to visit Australia to find him.
When this happens one can only hope that Yumiko gives her father a little advanced warning. She could create a small sensation if she knocked at the front door-one morning and said: 'I'm here to see Dad.'
At a primary school we met Karumi, aged nine, one of the youngest of the Australians. She was extremely shy and terrified of being photographed. She was so tall that her teacher had to put her in the back seat of the class. Life was hard for Karumi. Her mother married a Japanese and the man refused to suffer the shame of having her in the house. Karumi had never seen where her mother lived. Her mother's visits were extremely rare. So she lived alone with her great-grandmother who was deaf, over eighty and senile. Their room with its peeling paper walls was utterly wretched and they lived on public assistance from the Kure Welfare Department.
We went on and on and I made it clear to Miss Ito that I wanted to see all the children and by the time I had done so I had a great feeling of guilt for having been so insistent. She was indeed the Angel of Kure. But as it turned out, the task of seeing the last of the children was not so difficult. An Australian warship was visiting Kure and the sailors gave them a mighty Christmas party. The ship was decorated with balloons and streamers. The cooks turned on cakes, sandwiches, ice cream, jam tarts. There were little kids swinging on the guns, working the pom poms and sailors dressed as clowns and pirates even walked the plank into the icy water. I have rarely seen children laugh so much.
As we left the ship and returned to the wharf we noticed some taxis lined up. Inside were Japanese prostitutes and the Japanese madam was walking up and down the wharf, rounding up Australian sailors and putting them in the cabs with the girls.
Miss Ito said nothing and we said nothing, but there was real irony in the situation. If we had taken a photograph of the boys, the girls and the tough-looking madam the caption could have been: 'This is where we came in.'
Soon afterwards Miss Ito flew to Australia on a fund-raising campaign. Much money was needed because education was extremely competitive in Japan. It was vital that the Kure waifs should have above-average education to help them overcome their Nisei shame. They needed to go to universities. At Kure Miss Ito said she wanted £100,000 ($200,000) and she picked out two of the Kure waifs. She showed me the two she had in mind. Beautiful children they were, and the temptation for anyone would have been to adopt them at once.
Miss Ito arrived in Melbourne, terribly ill after a bumpy flight from Sydney. For the first time I saw her in Japanese dress, not just the ordinary kimono, but the formal homongi of heavy silk completwith obi. Nothing could have been worse than having to face a formal reception. Not only did she feel ill but for the first time in many a year, she had to wear this strange restricting dress.
Alas, she did not bring the children with her. International Social Service did not approve. It felt that the travel, the subjection to all kinds of publicity would not be good for them. Others did not agree and there is no doubt that Australian immigration restrictions would eventually have been overcome for the adoption of the children in Australia.
Miss Ito did not say much, but she was disappointed at the decision. It was like taking away the six-guns from a cowboy. She was bereft of firepower. The children would have been a sensation on every television programme. By herself Miss Ito did not have the personality or appeal to put it over.
So the campaign all around Australia was not the success it could have been. The final result was £21,600 ($43,200) and with donations from the Federal Government there has been just enough money for the waifs of Kure to get by.
Saigon was also a good city for columns, but not the light-hearted variety. The premier Ngo Dinh Diem had just been murdered and all was in a state of chaos.
This was my first visit since 1945 and outwardly there had been little change. Saigon still looked a lovely piece of provincial France, the tree-lined boulevards, the exquisite little squares and the sidewalk cafés with their superb French cuisine were as before. It was the only city in all Asia where one could buy a cheap bottle of good wine. The dark-haired Vietnamese girls, as slender as lilies, were still the world's most beautiful. Everywhere they rode bicycles and one pondered what a miracle it was that the long panels of their national dress did not catch in the spokes.
In 1945 it was a war city. There was a military ruling that no person was to go beyond the city limits and it was unsafe to venture a anywhere after dark without sidearms. Nearly nine years later it was still forbidden to go beyond the city limits and still unsafe after dark.
But there were some changes. For the traveller there was now a somewhat luxurious hotel, the Caravelle. American troops had replaced French troops. Furthermore it had become the custom to sell postcards by the side of the footpath. Postcards? On close inspection one discovered that these were not send-home pictures of charming Saigon scenes, they were colour pictures of Buddhist priests incinerating themselves with petrol. Some gave the full story sequence from the early stages through to the finish.
It was a city uncomfortably full of intrigue. A Vietnamese journalist told me to expect it everywhere. He said there was barely a hotel, theatre or restaurant in Saigon that was not paying protection money to the Viet Cong. The money was handled through Hong Kong and reached the Communists via Cambodia. Failure to pay the money could mean a bomb through the window.
Several days before two Americans had been killed in a bomb outrage. The Australian military attaché, Lieutenant-Colonel Oxley, saw it all. He was eating in a cafe on the other side of the road. Immediately the bomb went off he knocked his wife to the floor to get her out of danger.
Brian Hill, the Australian Ambassador, was leading a difficult life. During the Diem uprising there was fighting all around the Australian Embassy with bullets cutting through the garden. He hid with his children under the dining room table. Because Australia was backing the U.S. in Vietnam his name was on the Viet Cong assassination list. There was a permanent guard outside the Embassy and he always travelled with a bodyguard. In the back of his car he had two thick woollen rugs. These were not to keep him warm in steamy Saigon; they were to smother bombs should they be thrown through the car window. This was a use for pure Australian wool that had yet to be mentioned by the Wool Board.
Saigon at this time was filled with international reporters and it was important to find a story that was different. A Vietnamese journalist, who had been our local correspondent, said that if I gave him a little time he might be able to organize an interview with the Venerable Quang Do. Already Quang Do was a legendary figure. He was the priest who had organized the Buddhists in their uprising against the Diem Government. He had led riots in the streets; he had been gaoled and tortured.
My friend managed to organize the interview in less than twenty-four hours, much faster than I had anticipated. We drove to a temple on the outskirts of the city and there we met Quang Do in a garden. I don't know what I really expected. The title 'Venerable' seemed an odd one. No doubt he would be a little, bent old man with a white beard, a sort of elderly rural dean with an Asian flavour.
Nothing in Vietnam ever turns out as expected, but I wasn't prepared for the shock of the Venerable Quang Do. He could have been a Harvard graduate. One could even have pictured him handling the P.R. account for a big American firm. He spoke perfect English with an American accent. His smile was warm and his handshake friendly. His first act was to pull out a packet from under his brown habit and offer me a cigarette — an American king size filter. He was the smoothest monk I had ever met, and at thirty-eight, the most handsome.
We had planned to put the interview on film for television in Australia and I was confused. ' What am I to call you?' 'Anything at all, I don't mind. If you want to be formal, call me "Venerable". 'Why Venerable?'
He was entitled to be called Venerable, he said, as he had burned an incense taper right down on to the top of his bare scalp every year for the past twenty. This, I presumed, must have been incredibly painful and I winced at the thought of it.
In a very matter of fact way he began to tell of his experiences. He said that under the Diem regime he spent three months in gaol. During this time he was tortured continuously. They pushed salt and soapy water into his mouth. His torturers made cunning use of electricity and they laid him out on a table to thrash him all over with bamboo rods.
'This way you learn to value freedom,' he said. 'We have a saying in Buddhism — one day in gaol is worth 3,000 days of freedom.'
I mentioned the coloured postcards of priests incinerating themselves with petrol and that this was something very difficult for the Western mind to understand.
'This was an important part of our campaign,' he replied. 'It brought our cause home to the people and impressed all the world.'
'But how could they do it?' I said. 'I wouldn't have the courage to burn my little finger let alone drench myself with petrol.'
Quang Do burst out laughing. He was being very charming and very Harvard again. Obviously I was being quite absurd. He explained carefully.
'It is written in the scriptures that when the Buddhist faith is threatened, this is something we must do. There was no shortage of volunteers. They wanted to do it and they were happy to do it. Two were only novices, seventeen and eighteen, in the flower of youth. So far seven monks and one nun have died. If necessary there will be more.
'They did not suffer. It was their opportunity to meet Buddha, you see. When the flames were burning they were perfectly cool because they were in a state of meditation.'
My expression must have betrayed my disbelief.
Quang Do smiled again patiently: 'You have seen photographs. These incidents were witnessed by as many as thirty people. In not one case did a priest move or cry out? They were happy. When I burn incense on my head I do not feel it.'
It was difficult to know what to say. He pointed out that the body of the first Buddhist to incinerate himself, the Venerable Quang Duc, had been preserved as a shrine and was being worshipped by the people in Vietnam. One nun, pretty, only twenty-four, tried to set herself alight in one of the most expensive suites of the Hotel Caravelle. Secret police found out about her exploit just in time. Indeed the nuns had played a big part in the uprising. Over 100 of 'them went out in the streets to gather information. And this was interesting. They shed their habit, bought expensive wigs to cover their shaved heads and dressed like taxi dancers, even down to their spike heels. This was the give-away for some girls — they had never worn high heels before.
Quang Do could not say exactly how many priests had died in the clashes with Diem's troops, but it was a fact that over 100 were still missing. Nobody knew what had happened to them.
Only once did the charm of the Venerable Quang Do disappear. I said that frequently it had been written in our newspapers that various sects of Buddhists showed Communist sympathies.
'Yes, they say many things,' he said. 'They say we want to be the Government. This is not true. The Viet Cong is always trying to cause a split between the Buddhists and the Government. Before they called us the Communist Buddhists. It is very funny — now we are the Communist Americans.'
And so Barry Woodhouse, the TV cameraman, took a film of the Venerable Quang Do for Australian television. He knew exactly what to do and what to say. The Venerable Quang Do was a polished performer.
We all had to move on because the same day there was a Passion Memorial service for the late President Kennedy in the Xa Loi Pagoda. This was the same monastery where President Diem's troops went through the corridors shooting down monks with machine guns. All the diplomatic corps attended, including the American Ambassador, Henry Cabot Lodge; plus the full team of revolutionary generals, including General 'Big' Minh. There was no public advertisement, no official announcement of the service. One doesn't do such things for fear that the Viet Cong might attend also. So the word was spread around privately through the diplomatic corps.
At the back of the temple on a stage was a twenty foot high Buddha. At the Buddha's crossed feet was a photograph shrouded in black of President Kennedy. Gongs and drums were beaten, incense filled the air and the priests started their strange rhythmic chant. This was the first chapter in a service that was to go on for three days.
There was no evidence in the temple that this had been the scene of a bloody battle except for one thing: the diamonds that should have been over the huge Buddha's eyes were missing. These had been stolen when the troops invaded Xa Loi. As I looked at the Buddha towering above and its empty sockets where the jewels should have been, it all reminded me of a story that I once read in Boys' Own Paper — or was it Chums?
That evening when I returned to the Caravelle Hotel I discovered that most of the traveller's cheques had been removed from my locked case. Cases of traveller's cheques being forged were very rare indeed, I had been told back in Melbourne. But as it turned out a man entered a Chinese bank in Saigon, wrote my signature six times in front of the teller, and cashed them all without question. This was a good forging achievement when one considers that I write with my left hand. I was not sorry to leave Vietnam. Anyway I had no choice, my money was all gone.
However it is quite impossible to escape international politics in Asia. My next resting place was the Hong Kong Hilton hotel. Here there was every conceivable luxury, down to the genuine plastic bamboo decorations in every room. All needs were catered for, the Bible was in one drawer and the life story of Conrad Hilton in another, which no doubt gave a feeling of security in uncomfortable Asia. Furthermore two chocolate mints were placed beside the bed upon retiring every night. There was a bar called 'The Opium Den' which did not serve opium and an 'American Grill' which did serve American style charcoal steaks. In short it was the type of hotel which did everything to make the American tourist as comfortable as if he had never left home.
The most interesting, the cheapest and best gifts to be found in Hong Kong were all in the Chinese department store, where the goods came from Red China. It remained cheap because every U.S. tourist who arrived in Hong Kong received a pamphlet from the U.S. Consul pointing out that it was forbidden to buy goods from Communist China. Everything they bought had to have a 'certificate of origin'.
This was causing some wry thoughts at the Hong Kong Hilton. For example Hong Kong's water came from a reservoir in Communist China, piped in at the rate of thirty million gallons a day. Could a Goldwater Republican in all seriousness put Red Chinese water into his bourbon? Why, he couldn't even have bourbon on the rocks, the ice would also be suspect.
This certificate of origin business was more than just a joke. The Hong Kong Hilton had been opened only eight months. To get the Oriental flavour the architects decided it would be fine to decorate all the rooms with paints, panels and objets d'art from China. Being sound businessmen they went to the people who could best provide it. All the furnishings they purchased came originally from mainland China. But what was the harm in this, they said, none of it was going back to the U.S.? That was where they made their mistake. The U.S. Consul-General stepped in. They had to get rid of all their Chinese decorations. Some of it had been paid for, some of it was till on order. Reports at the time claimed it cost the hotel half a million Hong Kong dollars. Hilton representatives insist that it was no more than 100,000 dollars. The real cost was in the delay.
Now one was able to admire the new decorations and they looked very Oriental and very fine indeed. The Hong Kong Hilton people had the politically unclean decorations all copied by good politically clean Taiwan Chinese.
Yet the best place for column material is not in Hong Kong itself but upon the Chinese border, very close to politically unclean Chinese. To get there one must get a special permit from the Hong Kong police and travel twenty-two miles by car from Kowloon, the Hong Kong territory on the mainland.
I was escorted by Chief Inspector Devereaux, of the Hong Kong police. He looked magnificent, just like the police in that TV series. He wore splendid Bombay bloomer shorts, belt, revolver, and black boots that shone like Chinese lacquer.
As we approached the border the sensation was eerie. There was 'Red China ahead. From here on in a straight line it was 7,000 miles all the way to Leningrad. If one cared to make the trip one would cross no country that was not Communist and over the border there were at least 900 million people.
Hawks flew above. The country ahead looked forbidding, unwelcome. There were jagged, brown hills, without a mark of vegetation. On one hill huge Chinese characters were carved. Communist propaganda? No, said the Chief Inspector. They meant merely, 'Help Prevent Fires'.
He explained that some farmers had property on both sides of the border. They received permits to go back and forth every day. What they produced on the Red side had to go to the Chinese communes; what they produced on the British side was sold for good prices on the Hong Kong market.
The train had just arrived from Canton. There were Chinese returning after seeing relatives. Also aboard were several English businessmen. One as he came through the border gate was wearing a Burberry raincoat, a dark blue suit, Homburg hat and he was carrying a leather case. He looked exactly as if he were on his way to Whitehall.
The most impressive part about the border gate was the behaviour of the Red Chinese. Their public relations were in very good shape. On the Chinese side was a large red flag of the purest silk. The slightest of breezes forced it to stand out stiff and straight. On the British side the Union Jack, of good lasting Lancashire manufacture, hung limp.
On the Chinese side there was an amplifier which poured out homely traditional Chinese music; not martial music, you understand, but nostalgic stuff of an era. Padding up to the border came Chinese with huge bundles of food and clothing. They had special permits to go north to see relatives. Maybe they saved for years to do this. Maybe they came from as far as Malaya or North Borneo and this was their first trip home in thirty years. The sound of that sentimental music was all too much. Tears streamed down their wrinkled cheeks. Then there was an interruption to the amplified music. A sing-song Chinese voice was speaking. He was apologizing for the queue and the delay. It was not their fault. It was the fault of 'those black imperialists in Taiwan' who tried to smuggle in bombs, so all bundles had to be checked with mine detectors.
We could walk to within fifteen feet of the gate. The Chinese Communist guards were pleased with themselves. That morning they all went into brand new winter uniforms; not the hideous quilted garb of old, but deep khaki serge with red tabs on the collar. One character was fondling a 30-shot, automatic Russian carbine. Another was taking photographs of us as we took photographs of him.
The Chief Inspector said that he had nothing whatever to do with the Chinese border guards. If he spoke to them they did not reply. Even though they were only six feet away he could only approach them exactly according to protocol. Say he wanted them to turn down their amplifier at a certain time of day. He would have to make an approach to the Chinese Travel Service in Hong Kong. They would pass on the message to some political body on the mainland, which in turn would pass it on to that Chinese guard six feet away. And usually, said the Chief Inspector, they were quite obliging.
He explained that the refugee problem was not what it used to be. Legally fifty were allowed in a day with permits, or 18,000 a year. Actually the real figure that slipped into Hong Kong was more like 140,000 a year, and they went back at the rate of only four a week. He had 400 police to patrol the 20-mile border, which was protected by a double fence of chicken and barbed wire. Not many got through that fence; there were far easier ways of escaping into Hong Kong.
The favourite method was to slip down into Portuguese Macao and from there pick up a pirate junk. These were painted all black, fitted out inside with bunks and secret compartments. Then they travelled on moonless nights and cruised silently into one of Hong Kong's many little harbours. The fare for these poverty-stricken Chinese was about £50 sterling. It was a case of nothing down and pay for ever.
Hong Kong is so wealthy the refugees are not interested in going elsewhere. The population is now over 4 million. Babies are being born at the rate of 112,000 a year, all in an area the size of a postage stamp. The more housing the Government provides the more refugees flow in. What is the future? Nobody knows. Hong Kong, as always, only lives for the present.
The real fun places for the tourist to the East are Bangkok and Manila. Thailand may be surrounded by such awkward places as Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, but I could find no evidence of a warlike world in Bangkok. Unshamedly it was a tourist town and upon leaving the airport one was confronted by a large sign:
PEPSI COLA WELCOMES YOU TO BANGKOK
There were tourists everywhere. At my hotel we had the California Camera Club, the Utah Lions and the American Widows' Club. There was a sign on the hotel noticeboard that Kodak organized an exhibition every Thursday morning of traditional Thai dancing. A gentleman was always there from the company to suggest the right filters and whether one should shoot at 3.5 or 4.5 and precisely how many frames a second. And so he beamed happily as the film whirred away at the rate of thousands of feet a minute.
For the tourist, Bangkok, the Venice of the East, was absolutely dream stuff. There were 350 Thai temples to be seen. The star attraction, of course, was the temple of the Golden Buddha. It weighed five tons and the gold was worth nigh on fourteen million dollars. Pilgrims came and went all the time. Very devoutly they knelt before the Buddha, burned incense and offered flowers. Just five yards to the right, inside the temple, there was a not so devout looking character who sold colour slides and miniature brass Buddhas to the tourists. Buddha was doing his bit for the Thai economy.
The Thais were warm, kind, friendly and generous. Unlike the French they really liked their tourists. On one of the canals there was an old Thai gentleman, an ex-Naval officer, quite wealthy. Every morning until 10 a.m., he would take up a position outside his house where he would wave and bow to every tourist boat saying: 'Good morning, sir. How are you, sir? Good luck to you, sir.' No doubt he would have said much more but that was all the English he knew.
My main objects in visiting Bangkok were to see a Siamese cat farm and to see the traditional Thai boxing. Before I left Melbourne my wife bought a Siamese kitten and I was told not to come back from Siam without a beautiful Siamese name for it. The representative of Cathay Pacific Airways, Mr Pakorn Charungcharoenvej, was at first a little startled at the thought of a Siamese cat farm in Siam. It was like inquiring after dim sims or chop suey in Shanghai. Yet eventually he did track down a Siamese cat stud at the home of Mr Chompoo Arthachinda, a leading Thai barrister and a distinguished Siamese cat breeder. I took a taxi out to his house and was met by his daughter, a very smooth English-speaking young lady in the tightest of two-way stretch slacks. She took me to the stud at the back of their house where the cats were very comfortably situated in cages.
Miss Cha Suri Arthachinda said that most of the legends about Siamese cats were true. They were indeed kept in the stately homes and at the Palace. In ancient times they were even used in battle. The idea was to carry the cat on the back of one's neck and at the appropriate moment hurl it at one's assailant. This the enemy apparently found most disconcerting.
At the stud there were 100 cats, all Siamese and varieties I had never seen. Apart from seal points and blue points there were Siamese of the purest chocolate. There were Siamese that were pure white and one beautiful creature that had the blue eyes, white fur with red tips on the tail, feet, ears and nose. Miss Arthachinda said that all their cats went to the U.S. and they received an average price of $21.50 each. And she added: “There are few cat studs of this size in Bangkok. We have sold our cats for dollars. There are many more Siamese cats in America than in Thailand.'
I nearly forgot my mission. I said: 'I have a Siamese kitten at home and I want to get a name for him. I would like to see your most valuable cat, your champion sire.'
Miss Arthachinda took me to another cage. There was the champion, a huge splendid seal point, and he was just having his main meal for the day, a mixture of fish and rice.
'They always eat fish and rice,” she said. 'We don't give them any red meat.'
'But,' I said, 'what's his name? That I must know.' Miss Arthachinda looked down at him with great affection. 'We call him Bill.'
That same night I went to Bangkok's Rajadamnern Stadium for the boxing. A gentleman at the hotel tried to put me off. He pointed out with great sadness that Thai boxing had become insufferably pansy. In the old days, he said, gloves were unknown. Boxers wore rope around the knuckles and they soaked it in water to make it tough. Then the really keen ones worked ground glass into the rope. And he said with a happy smile that someone died every other night. Now there were so many rules and regulations all the suspense had gone.
The stadium, like all stadiums, was big and ugly. The main bout was between Khwannarong Looglavo and Krathingthaung of the Thai Marine Corps. Just before they came on there was a high speed bout when the man in the blue corner knocked out the man in the red within two minutes of the first round. He gave him a superb left kick straight to the jaw. The red corner man had to be carried off on a stretcher and from what I could see he was still unconscious as he went out the door.
A Thai gentleman in the next seat explained that the boxers were allowed to punch, kick, elbow, knee and carry out the attack to the head, neck, groin, below the belt anywhere. Biting, however, was considered to be unfair. The most devastating weapon was the kick to the head and good Thai boxers did this with great beauty and style.
The big moment came. Khwannarong and Krathingthaung (hereafter referred to as Khwan and Krath) entered the ring. Both were wearing unbelievably beautiful satin red and yellow dressing gowns.
They stripped, went to the centre of the ring and began to pray, tapping their heads three times on the floor in obeisance. Krath went into a strange ritual known as 'digging the grave'. He went through all the miming actions of burying his opponent and he finished by carefully stamping down the earth. I was chilled. Khwan was more dignified. He walked slowly right around the ring running his hand along the top rope. This was a symbolic action to ward off all evil influences from outside the ring, advice from the seconds and such. I couldn't help but feel how much our fight promoters had to learn. All this ritual made one almost sick with suspense.
Suddenly they were fighting and at the very first blow the crazy music started. There was a four-piece band, two with long drums like bongos called the Glaw-ng Khae-ek and the other two had very reedy instruments like clarinets. The noise was a crazy beat straight from outer space and the boxers danced in time.
The Thai gentleman told me that good boxers could kick with astonishing accuracy. In the early stages of the bout they tried to do one thing: kick the opponent on the soft spot inside the knee. This weakened him terribly, preparing him for the kill. Then they worked their kicks progressively upstairs until finally they were smashing them into the face.
Khwan had a beautiful left kick followed by a good right toe, followed by left and right fists, a true four dimension man. Krath favoured his left foot but at infighting he was bloodcurdling with a magnificent right knee, followed by elbow and head crashes. Soon blood was flowing from cut eyes and the crowd was screaming so loudly it could have been heard as far off as Phnom-Penh.
During the interval a boy brought around bottles of beer, price sixteen ticals each, plus bananas and hard boiled eggs, a style of refreshment that could well be followed at Western stadiums. And so it went on, round two, round three, round four, and then the last round. This was the climax. The Thai band stepped up its rhythm until it was a frenzy.
The crowd in the bleachers were all on their feet. They were screaming sok sok sok! and kow Kow kow! 'Sok' was a suggestion to use elbows and 'Kow' was a plea to put in the knee. The Thai gentleman beside me, who previously had been most circumspect, was now jumping up and down. Every time he screamed sok or kow he threw out an elbow or a knee. I was in quite a dangerous position. |
What with the pepped up music Khwan found amazing reserves of energy. Legs, elbows, fists and knees were flying all at once. Occasionally the limbs became entangled like barbed wire and they crashed to the floor. The noise built up and up until it seemed to me to be making shock waves across the surface of my beer.
Then the bell went and it was all over. The referee went over to consult with the ringside judges and Krath in the red corner was declared the winner. There were respectful bows, some prayers of gratitude and it was all over.
There were several more bouts conducted under the rules of the Marquess of Queensberry but hardly anybody stayed. The Thais find that sort of fighting too dull for words.
As for the Philippines, we should write more columns about Manila. It is very close to Australia; in terms of modern aviation almost as close as New Zealand. For the tourist, Manila is a very exciting city. The gangsters are very sophisticated and the crime rate appalling. Yet if they shoot you down in the street they are really very nice about it. The people of Manila are the kindest, most disarming in all Asia. They can make all sorts of things appear quite logical.
In Manila one can buy the world's most exquisite cigars for less than ten cents each, the restaurants cook Mexican food to perfection, the mangoes are tasty beyond belief and the girls have a mixture of Spanish and Malay blood which makes a young gentleman instantly want to straighten his tie.
It is a city that lives entirely for pleasure. Horse racing starts on Sunday around 7.30 a.m. and goes through until dark. The dance houses are the biggest in the world and there's none of this conventional business about just dancing at night. There are day houses which start at 6 a.m. Why day houses? Well, the tourists like it, and besides, often it is easier for a gentleman to get away from his job in the afternoon than his wife at night. The hostesses are very pretty and the music tremendous.
An English newspaper correspondent took me on a tour of the gambling spots — they were all pretty much the same and all illegal.
We knocked on the door, a fellow looked through the keyhole, sized us up, and after deciding we were not police, let us in.
Inside the house was divided into two sections. On the right was a night club, almost in darkness with a Filipino band playing to nobody. On the left was a brilliantly lit gambling room with baccarat, roulette, blackjack, the lot.
I asked my friend what was the use of the nightclub if nobody was interested. He explained that there was a simple arrangement. Very often before a police raid they received a tip-off, whereupon they closed the gambling room, cleared away all the gear and everyone went into the night club and started dancing — a very smooth arrangement it was.
As we departed from the gambling house I noticed a sign I had missed: 'Gentlemen are requested to leave their guns and lethal weapons at the door.'
Manila was a city where the contrast between the very rich and the very poor was sharper than anywhere in the Far East. My English newspaper friend was determined to press this point home.
First he took me on a tour of the slums, then we went to a suburb which he said was known to all Manila as 'Millionaires' Row'. It was as lush and as expensive as Beverly Hills, California. However there was one difference. There were four guarded checkpoints in and out of this suburb and barriers went down between 7 pm and 7 am.
For many house owners even this was not enough. There was such a fear of robbery they had their own security guards on twenty-four hour watch standing with revolvers at the wrought-iron gates outside their homes.
I had one lucky column break. I arrived in Manila on the day of the 'Cocker of the Year' contest, the Derby, the Melbourne Cup of cock fighting. Cock fighting is illegal in Manila on every day except Sunday. But on Sunday it is on for young and old. Every town, every suburb has its cockpit. There are even private contests by the side of the road. However, for special occasions it is possible to get a dispensation. The Cocker of the Year contest took place on a Monday and, with over sixty fights, it lasted from noon until after midnight.
I went along as guest of the editor of the cock-fighting magazine, Louis Beltran. Louis was quite a character. He was dressed in a white shirt with press and two big fighting cocks embroidered on the back.
First Louis inquired about the state of cock fighting in Australia. When I said that we did not have any, he looked at me in astonishment as if we had no movie theatres.
'But,' he said, 'we import fighting cocks from Australia. They come from a place somewhere north of Sydney. They are wonderful big cocks, a bit slow, but we find them excellent for cross-breeding.' Louis explained that the number of cocks imported from Australia was not great because they also came in from Texas, Mexico, Spain, why, all over.
Louis was very patient. Obviously here was another squeamish foreigner who was not going to approve. He explained that the setup was similar to horse racing. There were some very big owners. For example, there was Jorg Araneta, the son of a very wealthy Manila property owner. He had 2,000 fighting cocks and twenty full-time trainers, whose job it was to bring the birds to fighting pitch.
These trainers loved these birds better than their own children. There was one trainer who at the moment of victory, became almost hysterical with joy and relief. He paraded around the ring reciting poetry. There were many who, at the dreadful moment when their prize cock lay dead on the sand, burst into tears.
Each cock carried a four-inch blade, sharp as a surgical knife, attached to one foot. This meant that it was extremely rare for any fight to last longer than sixty seconds. Oh, it was all most humane, said Louis Beltran. One slash, usually was enough, just one good king slash. The birds died more cleanly than those killed for the table.
We drove to the cockpit, which was on the outskirts of Manila. This was a large stadium with seats all around the square pit, in the style used for the sale of expensive stud sheep or cattle. Except that here there was a bar, all sorts of exotic Filipino and Western foodstuffs laid out on tables and, of course, there were birds everywhere. Half the roosters seemed to be crowing all the time. There was the sort of incredible noise that one hears when trying to sleep at a country hotel at 4 am.
All the best people in Manila were there — congressmen, businessmen, millionaires. Louis explained that today was the real big-time. Each owner had to make a minimum bet of $200 on each bird, plus an entry fee of $200. To become Cocker of the Year he had to score four wins. Then, apart from the fortune he would win on bets, he would collect $3,000 plus a two-foot high gold trophy.
Louis sat with me at the ringside for several minutes, but he had to leave. He had some of his own birds in the contest, and by now he was so excited he could hardly talk. The birds came into the ring with their trainers, and then betting started. There must have been twenty or thirty bookmakers. Everyone stood on their feet, all shouting to each other in Tagalog, all waving their arms.
There seemed to be no scribblers to note the bets, but thousands of pesos, up to $4,000 for individual bets were changing hands. The shouting grew in crescendo and so did the tremendous atmosphere.
The second fight was the most frightening. Ringside connoisseurs thought it the best for years. The trainers caressing their birds, brought them to the centre of the ring and allowed them to peck each other several times to goad them into fury. A bell rang, they were put down and now there was silence as the cocks faced each other, beak to beak.
There was a wild flurry of feathers as they attacked, whirling three feet up in the air and suddenly there was a 'HUH!' from the audience as the blades hit home. Both birds fell to the sand. Was it all over? No, they got up and the battle raged for another ten seconds.
Now both birds were lying on the sand again. This was incredible. Had they killed each other at the same instant? The rules of cockfighting are that one bird must always die before bets can be settled. To prove this the winner must give the other bird two pecks.
The tension was unbelievable as the trainers carried their birds to the centre. Thousands in cash depended on the result. One bird suddenly revived. He lunged forward, gave his lifeless opponent two pecks and then himself flopped dead. It was a last heroic gesture which made a fortune for his owner.
Well, I never did find out who won the Cocker of the Year contest. Two such fights were enough for a squeamish foreigner and I left. On the way out I noticed that there was a surgeon on the job, complete with anaesthetics, scalpels, forceps, sulpha drugs and such. He was mending the wounds of his winning survivors so that they could fight another day.