Richard Ehrlich is the co-author of the book Hello My Big Big Honey, Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. The Bangkok based journalist has worked as a correspondent for United Press International, and now works as a reporter for newspapers in the United States, Canada, Europe, Asia, and Africa. He graduated with a master's degree from the Columbia School of Journalism, and was awarded their 1978 Foreign Correspondent's Award. Recently, Scott Murray, had a chance to sit down with Mr Ehrlich and discuss his life in journalism.
How did the idea for your book, Hello My Big Big Honey, come about?
It all had to do with the elaborateness of the bar girl scene here in Bangkok. It is an extremely complicated situation, and the girls are not just statistics, but individuals, each with their own different story to tell - whether it be tragic, lucky or desperate.
My co-author, David Walker, and I were intrigued by the men who truly fell in love with bar girls. Not the ones who just had sex with them, and forgot them, but the ones who would return home, write them love letters, and continually send them money.
For many Westerners, Bangkok is a fantasy land. A man can walk in a bar, and have a number of beautiful women coo in his ear, paw him, and lavish all kinds of attention on him, the likes of which he would never receive back in the West, where his girlfriend was probably average looking at best.
Spending time in the bar scene here can be like being in "Playboy magazine heaven". It's as if Hugh Hefner has given you the keys to his mansion, and said "go nuts". This atmosphere feeds the image of the exotic East, Madame Butterfly, harems, lotus blossoms, and pleasure domes, and many guys just can't get enough of it.
What insights did you gain from writing the book?
In the foreword of our book, Dr Yos Santasombat discusses a phenomena I find fascinating. Basically, it describes how a farang (foreigner) often cannot win if they fall in love with a bar girl. There may be endless requests for money from the woman to help support her family. Two scenarios come into play here. One, the man will inevitably tire of the monetary demands, and begin to wonder if the girl is just using him. If he comes to this conclusion, and dumps her, he may years later, when he is old and lonely, regret it tremendously. He gave up everything, a beautiful woman, attention, support, etc. just because he was too cheap to pay a couple of hundred dollars a month to her mother.
The second scenario is that the man may hold on to the woman, pay the requested money every month, but years later feel as if he has been used all along. Maybe the woman never really loved him, she just wanted a meal ticket out, and wanted to support her family.
What ingredients need to exist for a relationship between a foreign man and a Thai woman to work?
It helps if the woman comes from mainstream Thai society, has some sophistication, a good education (or at least equal that of her partner), and has a good grasp of the English language. It can work because Thais like to travel, like meeting new people, and are interested in other societies, and cultures. Language problems, and unequal education levels are usually the biggest setbacks to making these relationships work.
You studied journalism at the prestigious Columbia University. Tell us about your time there, and how it helped you as a writer?
I went to Columbia in the fall of 1977. I was lucky enough to graduate cum laude, and be the winner of their annual Foreign Correspondent's Award.
Before heading to Columbia, I had primarily written travel stories, and some articles on British society, as I finished my senior year of undergraduate studies at the University of Hull, England. At Columbia, I learned how to deal with the mechanics of the story, pyramid style and so on.
Columbia taught me the nuts and bolts of what goes into a story, what statistics to use, etc. After I won the scholarship, they arranged for me to go work with UPI in Hong Kong, and that's where I gained my on-the-job training.
You have been a foreign correspondent for twenty years now.
Tell us a few of the drawbacks of your profession?
The stress. It can be unbelievable. Your news agency is clocking you against all the other wire services. You have to be the first, and you must never make a mistake, or you will most certainly hear about it from your boss. To survive you must have a sense of humor, and you must be aware of your limitations, and realize what is possible, and what it isn't. You must absorb the situation, and deal with it, being who you are, and the situation being what it is. If you are in a crazy predicament, well, to take the absurd seriously, is even more absurd.
If you are reporting on a continually breaking story such as a war, a riot, or an earthquake, every time the death toll mounts you have to file an update. That is all well and good in the modern world, but it can be very difficult in a place like the Indian subcontinent, where it is hard to find both factual data and functioning telecommunication systems.
Another drawback is that journalism is not an ideal lifestyle to raise children in a nice suburban middle class environment. It can be done, but it is difficult.
Also the money isn't very good, and never has been. If you are concerned with making a lot of money don't get into journalism.
What about the upside?
You get to travel to all kinds of bizarre places, and write about them. You can discuss subjects such as Marxism and capitalism with presidents and prime ministers, ambassadors, and Marxists and capitalists. You get to meet and converse with all types of people ranging from high government officials, to criminals and killers.
You witness the world from a front row seat, and you can play an interactive role in it. You can step in and ask the decision and policy makers why they are making the decisions they are making.
Who have been some of the more interesting people you have interviewed?
There have been a lot, but I once had a fascinating three hour conversation with Imelda Marcos. We discussed the symbolism of shoes. Afghan rebel leaders Gulbudin Hekmatyar, and Abdul Rashid Dostam were both intriguing, as was the Dalai Lama of course.
I met alleged mass murdered Charles Sobhraj in Tihar jail. Former Saigon and Bangkok UPI bureau chief Alan Dawson and I were going to write a book about him, but Dawson's tape recorder was confiscated by the prison guards as he left the compound, and the project never got off the ground.
What about some advice for budding journalists?
Ask the question. If you don't, then when you return to your office, or home you will regret it. You are placed in an adversarial role with people in power. You represent the people's right to know, and you must be their vanguard.
Print journalism has the potential to be the best media forum, as it can be the least sensational, most accurate, and most factual. Good journalists must realize they are gatekeepers, and they mustn't stand in the way of facts getting to their readers.
It is also very important that the journalist report on the victim's point of view, not just the embassy's or the press attaches's. Who are the victims and how are they suffering from what is going on?
Is there a country that you especially enjoy working in, or reporting from, here in Asia?
I enjoy India very much. The level of intellectual discourse is very high in the Indian subcontinent. The Indians have a very strong tradition of debating politics, whether it be the blue collar worker, or the white collar professional. In India people can talk long hours into the night about matters that concern them.
There is also a tremendous amount of freedom of the press in India. There aren't any taboos on any subject. You can name names, but you must not make a mistake, and you must be fair and present all sides.
How did you become interested in the Indian subcontinent?
I taught English in Kathmandu back in 1972, and traveled extensively throughout the region, and loved it. When I was working for UPI in Hong Kong, everyone wanted to be posted to Paris, London or Tokyo. Not me. I wanted to go back in India and Afghanistan. Everyone they sent to India went there screaming, and kicking and hoping to get out as quickly as possible. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in December of 79, they said "Send Ehrlich, he knows those guys." So off I went. At the time there was a fear the Russians were going to drive for the Persian Gulf, and seize all the oil.
What writers have influenced you most?
William Burroughs because he worked with language in an experimental anti-rational way, and did the complete opposite of what people are taught to expect. Hunter S. Thompson for liberating the norms of what could and could not be written.
Specific books I have enjoyed reading include, Charles Bukowski's "Notes Of A Dirty Old Man", Alfred McCoy's "The Politics Of Heroin In South-East Asia", Oliver Sach's "The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat", Hubert Selby Jr's "Last Exit To Brooklyn", Geoffrey Moorehouse's "Calcutta-The City Revealed", Oriana Fallaci's "Interview With The Story", VS Naipul "An Area Of Darkness", Howard Zinn's "A People's History Of The US", Raymond Bonner's "Waltzing With A Dictator", Michael Herr's "Dispatchers", Wieslaw Kielar's "Anus Mundi-5 Years In Auschwitz", and Burrough's "The Naked Lunch."
You sport a beard. In some places, especially here in Thailand that can be inappropriate. Any problems with the facial hair?
Quite the opposite. I have had my beard since I was eighteen, but I have always kept it short and neat. It has helped me blend in when I have had to do any stories on the underworld, or black marketeers. Besides, it makes me popular with tuk-tuk drivers, and the rest of the "real people" out there. I was actually mistaken for a Moslem fundamentalist once with the Afghans, and that probably wasn't such a great thing. In Thailand many of the high ranking officials I have talked to have dealt with people with beards before, so it isn't a big deal.
What are your future plans?
I plan to stay based in Bangkok for at least five more years. It is very central and convenient, for the area I cover which stretches from Afghanistan to Vietnam. We are also working on doing a sequel to "Hello My Big Big Honey" and marketing it other countries. Dave Walker and I are also working on another project, but it is still in the formative stages, so I'd rather not discuss it just yet.
Few foreign correspondents could ask for a more impressive resume than Richard Ehrlich has. Let's take a look:
* Apr 1984-today. Washington Star. Based in Hong Kong (Apr 1984-Oct 1986), New Delhi (Nov 1986-Mar 1989) and Bangkok (Apr 1989-today). Assignments have included:
- United Nations' efforts to end the war in Cambodia
- India's separatist's violence in Kashmir
- Afghanistan's Islamic revolution after the overthrow of President Najibullah
- the Dalai Lama's struggle to free Tibet
- political and economic changes in Vietnam
- Thailand's democracy movement
- Burma's repression and rebel wars
- insurgencies on the island of Sri Lanka
- the Philippines under Corazon Aquino
- China's crushing of the Tiananmen Square protests
* Jan 1980-Apr 1984, UPI. When Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan, UPI immediately posted Ehrlich from Hong Kong to New Delhi as their staff corespondent for South Asia. News reported from UPI, 1980-1984 included:
- the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan
- Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's re-election and rule
- Pakistan's martial law under President Mohammed Zia ul-Huq
- coups in Bangladesh
- demands for democracy in Nepal
- the start of the Sikh insurgency for Punjab's independence
- the beginning of Sri Lanka's civil