Typewriters, telegrams cling to life in Myanmar

2014-06-05 14:26
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Land-line phone. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

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Yangon - Perched on a stool on a bustling sidewalk in Myanmar's biggest city, an elderly gentleman pecks away on a clunky manual typewriter. It's a will, Aung Myint says, barely looking up as his fingers rise high over the keys and hammer down with a steady sense of purpose.

He points with his chin to the stack of papers he still needs to get through before he heads home, 30 or more, many of them legal papers hastily delivered by lawyers who work at the courthouse down the street.

Reminders of a bygone era cling stubbornly and quaintly in Myanmar, a country that was in many ways frozen in time during a half-century of dictatorship and self-imposed isolation.

Now, three years into the Southeast Asian country's bumpy transition to democracy, smartphones and computer shops are common, but so are phone stands and typists. Even telegrams have not quite made their exit.

Aung Myint said his work is steady enough, but a far cry from the days of military rule, when he spent most of his time typing up authors' novels for submission to the now-defunct censorship board.

He rarely broke for lunch back then, often working by candlelight well after shops were shuttered and businessmen had long gone home.

Authentic air

How does the 67-year-old manage to keep going as his country belatedly joins the computer age? He said there are still those who feel a document lacks an authentic air unless it's pulled from the roll of a manual typewriter.

Plus, he adds, there are several benefits to typing.

"You don't need to waste time with printing," Aung Myint said. "And if you make a mistake, you can just erase it and type over it. It's easier."

Not far from the typist, Thin Thin Nu has a table on the sidewalk with five clunky, push-button phones. Such stands remain a common sight in Yangon, though less so than they were a few years ago.

Thin Thin Nu said many people use her phones only because their mobile phone batteries have died. But with a monastery and a school less than 100m away, she gets plenty of other business. Monks call their families in faraway villages. Impatient kids ring their moms to say they are waiting to be picked up.

She's also a line of communication for young lovers.

"When girls are talking to their boyfriends, they lean in as close as they can to the tree next to the table, picking at the bark, or nervously twisting the iron chain around its trunk," Thin Thin Nu said.

"Other times they'll fight, banging down the receiver wildly. I've even been asked to lie, to tell the voice on the other end of the line, 'She is not here anymore,' when the girl is sitting right across from me."

Poverty

Thin Thin Nu makes only about $15 a day, less than half what she was making before the country of 60 million started opening up. But she thinks she can hang on a while longer.

Most people in Yangon and the rest of Myanmar remain desperately poor, and her service, offered for 50 kyat (less than 5c) a minute, is still the best deal they can get.

Many offices in far-flung corners of the country - completely untouched by the development boom - have yet to enter the digital age. Even computers are rare.

That's helped keep alive the country's telegraph offices, although many remain mostly empty during business hours. The few customers who saunter into the Yangon office, sometimes hours apart, are now mostly bank employees, sending undecipherable coded messages to offices to remote corners of the country.

Than Tin, a 58-year-old, salt-and-pepper-haired clerk, remembers his first days in the grand, British colonial-era building. A thousand people used to line up in the cavernous waiting hall, eager to send love letters, appeals for cash and other urgent missives to remote villages and faraway lands.

"It was a cool job back then," he said, peering over the counter into the now near-empty waiting room.

"It's not that it's boring, really," he sighs. "But yes, it's pretty clear times are changing."

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