The Strength of a Dainty Woman
by Hugh Lunn
published in The Australian newspaper in April 2018 in Anzac Day special
Fifty years ago this month [April 1968] I was working the night-shift in the Singapore office of the British Newsagency, Reuters, tailoring world news to suit different countries in Southeast Asia. Japan wanted American baseball but Malaysia wanted British cricket. While the Philippines was keen on the Pope.
With half-a-dozen tele-printer machines clattering out news at a (then) incredible 60 words a minute – three times faster than Morse code, which was the only way to transmit a story out of Indonesia in the 1960s — it was noisy despite the quiet of the humid night.
The man on my right typed out a story from Djakarta letter by letter on a rattling Imperial typewriter in tune with the dots and dashes. Opposite, a giant “re-perforating machine” spewed out six long, narrow, strips of white paper punctured with small round holes. They spilled down over the floor. Each vertical row of five possible holes in these tapes represented a letter or a symbol. An “e” was just the one hole at the top; a “k” was four holes with none at the bottom.
Several copies of each tape had to be made so that news important to half a dozen countries could be sent off simultaneously.
Local Singaporeans, with no time to talk, ripped off the punched tapes of each story they sought for their particular service and sent it off to, say, Indo China.
They could read the holes in the tapes as quickly as we read an email today.
News poured out 24 hours a day from this converted three-storey colonial mansion on Newton Road which sported a sign on the front door: “English spoken here; Australian understood“.
Breaking news was what Reuters did for a living: ever since it was created by Paul Reuter using homing pigeons more than 100 years earlier. Even being a few minutes behind on a major story could lose newspaper, radio and TV subscribers around the globe because the two American Newsagencies – Associated Press (AP) and United Press International (UPI) — were straining equally hard to be first.
It was after 10.30 pm and so I stretched lazily knowing I had only ninety minutes to go to the end of my frenetic shift.
Suddenly, a sharper, clearer sound cut through the constant clatter like a diamond. Tapping excitedly on the window behind me was a Vietnamese woman dressed exquisitely all in white, which contrasted dramatically with her thick dark flowing hair. It was Madame Sipiere, who brought mystery and a certain excitement to the dreary embassy cocktail party circuit in the 1960s. Like Wordsworth’s “violet by a mossy stone, half hidden from the eye”.
Madame Sipiere spoke perfect English, perfect French and, of course, Vietnamese and was said to be the only non-French private secretary to a French Ambassador anywhere in the world.
Reuters Manager for Southeast Asia, Jimmy Hahn, had introduced me to the glamorous Madame Sipiere when I arrived from Vietnam the previous month. “This lady is the sort of contact a correspondent needs, OK?” Jimmy said. As a Korean who had risen from telex operator to boss in a strictly Oxbridge organisation, Jimmy was smart and friendly. He took me out to nearby islands on his boat on weekends. And he knew how to get things done.
A few months earlier, when we could get nothing to eat in Saigon during the 1968 Tet Offensive, he arranged for Korean troops – in the midst of door-to-door street fighting — to arrive at our office with boxes of their rations.
Madame Sipiere and I had quickly discovered our mutual consuming interest in the Vietnam War. Born in Saigon into a large Catholic family she explained how such a civil war tears families apart — she had a brother in the South Vietnamese Air Force, and another brother in the North Vietnamese cabinet.
She lived near our office in a ground floor unit on Moulmein Road. So when nothing much was happening I’d drop around for a cup of tea – while her teenage children Virginia and Freddy took in every word without ever leaving the room. They loved it when I referred to tree-lined Saigon as the “Paris of the East” or the “Pearl of the Orient”. But when I talked of the main Tu Do Street Madame Sipiere preferred “Rue Catinat”: the old French name.
During World War II, when the Japanese drove out the French, she and her sister Juliet and their brothers were evacuated to the countryside where little Christine Sipiere rode water buffaloes and swam in the rivers. Once, her bed was blown up by a shell during a battle – but luckily she wasn’t in it at the time.
Freddy was to tell me a few years later how much his mother loved her homeland.
Madame Sipiere took a chance and visited Saigon during the war with Virginia and Freddy in December 1972. On return they attended a peaceful candlelit anti-war service in Singapore’s Good Shepherd Catholic Cathedral, where this stoic, resilient woman shocked those around her by breaking down uncontrollably sobbing.
“I was embarrassed at the time,” Freddy recounted recently from London, “but I have since realised Mother was overcome by her love for the Vietnam she knew, for the suffering of the people, and the care and consideration of those present. Her passion for Vietnam kept her awake into the early hours.”
In the aftermath of the fall of Saigon in 1975 — when refugees fled as “boat people” — some were picked up off Singapore. Madame Sipiere rushed to their aid and sheltered a large group in the garage of the French Ambassador’s residence. The French government accepted all the refugees she rescued.
Once inside our noisy office Madame Sipiere said she had just been listening to North Vietnamese radio: Ho Chi Minh had announced he was willing to talk peace with the Americans.
“Gees, don’t tell me that Christine,” I said. “That’s the biggest story in the world!”
“Yes,” she said, pointing at my typewriter.
Jimmy Hahn was away, but luckily the Editorial Manager Clare McDermott, a Canadian, was still working upstairs. He cross-examined Christine and gave me the go-ahead: I sent off to London the only “flash” story I ever wrote.
Because the London office was inundated with stories from around the world – two people were employed just to rip the stories off the banks of tele-printers – Reuters needed to be alerted to the big ones. So an “urgent” story rang three bells on the telex in London; a “snap” rang seven; and a “flash” rang 10. All Reuters reports started with your location and the date – only with a “flash” could that be dispensed with.
“Ho Chi Minh said on Radio Hanoi tonight that he is willing to talk peace with the Americans,” I typed, and signed it with my initials “HL” as the person taking responsibility. Then I followed it up with a “snap” with the dateline “Singapore” and the rest of the story: how President Johnson had been trying to sue for peace talks; but no one seriously thought Ho Chi Minh would ever agree.
In London, Reuters were at first overjoyed, telexing: “Congratulations, we ahead of all others “… followed up a few minutes later by: “Trading has been suspended on the New York Stock Exchange”.
Instead of being thrilled, as Madame Sipiere was, I started to sweat.
It was rare to be even two or three minutes ahead on a major story because as soon as one Agency broke a story their staff would be told curtly “need matcher urgentest”.
We all stood and stared at the incoming telex machine, waiting for more reaction. Then the next London message arrived. It said ominously: “Primary and Secondary Opposition (i.e. AP and UPI) denying your story. You still alone”.
It was no longer “we” it was now “you”.
A further five minutes and this: “White House has heard nothing of this – you’d better be right”.
Now my Canadian boss and I were staring hard at Madame Sipiere who smiled joyfully at our scoop. Despite everything that was now happening around the world she retained her self-assured gracious air.
At last, after 21 long minutes, in came primary and secondary opposition with their stories. What had happened was that Ho Chi Minh always spoke first in Vietnamese and then in French – and the American agencies only monitored his French broadcasts.
Following their scoop, Reuters spent $US300,000 advertising the beat in American newspapers: “YOU WAITED 21 MINUTES TO HEAR HO CHI MINH WANTED TO TALK PEACE… UNLESS YOU BOUGHT THE REUTER SERVICE“.
In Singapore we didn’t get to celebrate for long.
A week later the telex came from London: “Ho Chi Minh tonight will make major statement re Vietnam peace talks. Know you will use usual arrangement to ensure we first with story”.
What usual arrangement? A woman at home in bed listening to her radio?
Even worse, following the boastful Reuter ads, AP and UPI had employed Vietnamese to monitor Ho’s broadcasts.
Jimmy Hahn and I ran to Madame Sipiere’s flat: but it was in darkness. Jimmy knocked on the front door while I yelled through the back windows: all to no avail. We were in trouble.
After several precious minutes, a neighbour emerged from another unit to see what all the yelling was about. She said Madame Sipiere was at a piano recital in the Concert Hall at Wisma Indonesia (their Embassy) in Orchard Road.
One spotlight showed a woman playing a large black grand piano in the centre of the stage as we entered at the back of the hall. Some 1,000 people listened in the dark silence to the pure clinking of notes.
Jimmy said: “You take that side.”
Starting at the back row, I called “Christine!” in as loud a whisper as possible. In the darkness, people turned and hissed. I moved down to the next row, “Christine!” Now two rows of music lovers were angry. But I kept going. I was too scared to stop.
Four rows from the front Christine leapt out of her seat. The three of us raced to her house to just make the broadcast.
She listened intently and looked up and said, “Ho Chi Minh agrees to peace talks in Paris next month.” That was all the information we needed.
The newly-employed Vietnamese monitors at the other wire services were no match for this petite woman. Madame Sipiere still beat them by 17 minutes, causing a major New York stockbroking firm to put out a circular to clients: “We get the Reuters service, which seems to have an edge on all other news sources out of Vietnam”.
A Reuter executive flew out from London to present Madame Sipiere with, of all things, a portable Phillips radio for her world scoop.
(The peace talks started in Paris on May 10, 1968.)