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Spooky

Close encounters from Burma to pre-Civil War Manhattan

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Many visitors to Burma (a.k.a. Myanmar) get the willies. The small Southeast Asian nation is a police state, after all, and fear is in the air. Cameron Davidson, who photographed our story about the desecration of Buddhist treasures in Burma’s 1,000-year-old holy city of Pagan ("Sacred and Profaned"), got spooked when a Rangoon taxi driver and a companion riding shotgun drove Davidson on what seemed a hopelessly circuitous route through a congested marketplace. Fearing he was about to be mugged—the interior door handles had been removed—the photographer was taking off his belt to use as a weapon when the taxi finally pulled up at his hotel. Misguided cabbies notwithstanding, Davidson found the Burmese people to be especially gentle and kind: "They are really a delight to work with and be around."

Richard Covington, who wrote the Pagan story, was interviewing his driver (of a horse-drawn cart) when two villagers approached on foot. The driver motioned to Covington to hide his tape recorder. Once the villagers had passed, the man explained that a BBC reporter had used another driver’s name in a dispatch. "The police arrested the driver," Covington’s chauffeur said. "He was in prison for a couple of months." Covington assured the man he would not use his name in his story (and didn’t). "OK," the driver said. "I just have to pay for my son’s education." Covington put the tape recorder away for the rest of the trip.

Fergus Bordewich, who lives in New York, was the obvious person to write our article about the story behind director Martin Scorsese’s new film, Gangs of New York ("Manhattan Mayhem"), which portrays turf wars between newly arrived Irish immigrants and so-called nativists (immigrants who got here earlier) in downtown Manhattan before the Civil War. After all, Bordewich’s own great-grandfather, James Patrick Farrell, had arrived in New York from Cork, Ireland, about that time. He found himself turned away from job after job by signs saying, "No Irish Need Apply." Farrell fought in the Civil War, made a fortune importing Irish linens and woolens and built a mansion for his family in Brooklyn overlooking the harbor. "Writing this story," says Bordewich, "has left me with a richer sense of how daunting and how brutal was the world in which my great-grandfather lived—and prospered—a kind of miracle when so many others like him died trying."

About Carey Winfrey
Carey Winfrey

Carey Winfrey was Smithsonian magazine's editor in chief for ten years, from 2001 to 2011.

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