The Bangkok World by Denis Horgan, reviewed by Tim Sifert

20 November 2013 — American Denis Horgan has written a rollicking and ultimately engaging memoir about his time as soldier and, subsequently, editor in Thailand during the sixties and seventies.

The Bangkok World centers on the author’s stint at the eponymous English-language daily, a newspaper with a dark history and, when he arrives, an uncertain future. Horgan evokes the very colorful Thailand that in many respects still exists today. However, through hard-won anecdotes about the life of a soldier and editor, this memoirist and journalist also depicts the discreet and under-reported role that Thailand played for U.S. interests in the Vietnam War.

Most of the memoir takes place from 1966 to late 1971. The 24-year-old bachelor serviceman lands in Bangkok “to help lose the great Indochina war” and ends up Camp Friendship in Korat, in the country’s northeast. He sees a lot in a half-decade, including Soviet Russia and the jungles of Burma, and returns to an altogether unfamiliar America, as a husband, father and experienced editor.

Chance plays a big role in the story of Horgan’s life. It may have turned out differently had a different woman won Miss Universe in 1965, for instance. He is “bedazzled” by a photograph of Apasra Hongsakula, that year’s winner, on the same day he chooses where he wants the army to send him. Apasra is Thai, and he writes Thailand on the official form. His fate is sealed. Almost.

Later, a wrong turn at a cocktail party at the officers’ club has him talking to Brigadier General Edwin Fahey Black. The work-shy Horgan, then a lieutenant, has been advised to avoid the general, who “tended to grind up those around him, notably young officers who were considered as toothpicks.” He makes an impression—Black’s wife was also a journalist—and became the general’s aide-de-camp. That relationship allows him to get to know Jim Thompson, before the the famous American business mogul disappears in Malaysia in 1967.

General Black makes new powerful friends as he helps the international search for Thompson. They include Giorgio Berlingieri, cofounder of Ital-Thai Corporation, which owns The Bangkok World. The general soon asks Horgan to check up on the paper’s new editor, and the connection is made. Horgan’s writing, which can be digressive, is most concise and effective when he recounts his life at the paper. And, pleasantly, there is a lot to recount.

The paper’s founder was vulgarly murdered in 1965, the year before Horgan first touches down at Don Muang to begin life as a soldier. Weeks after Horgan joins the paper as managing editor, the Italian editor-in-chief who got him the job is fired, or, rather, the “government quietly invited him to leave.”

A lot of responsibility is thrust upon this American in Thailand. By his own account, he learns quickly, because he has to. The job was a complex exercise in diplomacy, if not always editing. Horgan had to be politic with his culturally-diverse staff, while the newspaper itself had to be careful not to offend the Thai crown. At the same time, Thai authorities, not always the same as the crown, had to be suitably cagy about the country’s role backing the U.S. in the neighboring conflict.

The author clearly enjoys showing what happened when the rules, tacit and not, were slightly bent or outright broken. A member of staff gets incensed enough to put bullet holes in his editor’s—thankfully—empty chair after one incident. A Burmese editor, meanwhile, misreports the death of General Ne Win, which puts Horgan in hot water with the Thai foreign minister.

Then, in the middle of the Cold War, as it was, the writer finds a way to finagle three times the usual advertising rate for a Soviet-sponsored supplement. The Russians pay up to advertise Lenin’s 100th birthday. It does not go over well.

There was also a paper to put out every day. Local staff, who could not read English, created each page letter by letter with handset type and a Japanese press once used for propaganda during World War II printed each issue. This method was even obsolete in 1960s Asia.

Eventually new investors and technology came in, but nothing was ever the same, in part because the new equipment was so expensive to run. And no amount of deft diplomacy could save what Horgan had so wanted to preserve. The paper soon merged with its rival, The Bangkok Post, and Horgan went home.

It finally folded 1987. But it took years and another new technology before the author learns of its demise: “I only happened to read about the end of the World, without either a bang or a whimper, on the Internet.”

New technology has also allowed authors to bypass traditional publishers. Horgan seems to have done so here. While this has the benefit of bringing out books like this one that might not otherwise see the light of day—to our loss—it can also bypass the hand of a firm editor that might have tightened the book up, and ensured that the fascinating photos had captions.

Timothy Sifert is a Hong Kong-based journalist.!

There are no comments so far

Leave a Comment

Don't worry. We never use your email for spam.

Don't worry. We never use your email for spam.