LuQi_City.jpgPhoto by Lu Qi
Bangkok is a city of ten million people, including trekkers, transients, expats and other white foreigners
It’s the same day but a different date. That’s one of the first oddities I rediscover about Bangkok whenever I arrive there from across the Pacific. Another is that, in my own experience at least, all flights to Bangkok arrive at 0100 hrs, regardless of their origin or the direction travelled.
On this occasion I breeze through the formalities and check into a clean, cheap Indian-run hotel in Soi 8 near Nana Station and then go to a massage place to remove the travel grime and restore circulation. Later, I stock the fridge. I have been airborne about twenty hours and so I sleep the sleep of the righteous—or do I mean the sleep of the damned? The metaphor has always confounded me.
In any event, when I wake up it’s Dominion Day in Bangkok. (I see no reason to jettison the pre-1982 name of our national holiday.) In a little restaurant, deserted except for me, I refresh my taste for the Bangkok Post and my impatience with the other English-language daily, The Nation. Reading them online is simply not the same. The Post was founded in 1946 by an American, Alexander MacDonald, using presses acquired at an auction of Japanese property seized during the war. MacDonald first arrived in the country by air—by parachute, actually. He was working for the CIA’s predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services, helping to organize the Free Thai resistance movement in the north. I still regret that once, years ago, at an auction in aid of a Bangkok charity, I passed up one of the small maps of Thailand printed on silk that American and British operatives and pilots kept tucked inside their flight suits. I believe that the Post, when I became aware of its existence, was owned by the first Lord Thomson, who found it a convenient place to store his son-in-law.
In Bangkok as in major centres all over Asia, there is life everywhere, on every street, in every shop and at all hours. For many people such as myself, it is not only a key destination in its own right but the staging area and provisioning place for incursions into Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Burma and so on. It’s a sprawling, polluted, congested and deafening city of ten million people—and twenty universities, thirty hospitals and a recent architecture of astonishing ugliness, as the element of gigantism in Asian religious cultures (all those giant Buddhas and the like) now finds expression in skyscrapers as well. Many are decorated with replicas of foreign landmarks. It’s not unusual to come upon a scaled-down Tour Eiffel or Statue of Liberty topping off some enormous black shaft of an office development. Down at eye level, though, BKK (it is commonly known by its airport code) is a city of neighbourhoods, each of them almost a tribe unto itself.
Some of these nabes are particularly associated with white foreigners. Transients have Khao San Road, which is synonymous with backpacks, hostels and cheap phone cards. Expats, who are almost without exception far older than the trekkers, have Sukhumvit Road. It is the most important of five districts that shelter many thousands of English- speaking farang (pronounced “falang”) who have fallen in love with the place, or perhaps only with one of its citizens, or are enjoying a comfortable budget retirement, or have decided for various reasons—legal, moral or philosophical—not to return home. Every three months they make a dash to Singapore or someplace to get their visas renewed.
The Dickens of this demimonde (or maybe its Mayhew) is a Canadian, Christopher G. Moore, who has lived there several decades and, being a speaker of Thai, has learned a great deal about the workings of the host culture as well as many secrets of the expats, most of whom are British and American. His middle initial prevents confusion with two other Christopher Moores—the American writer of trash books read at airports and the Toronto historian and Governor General’s Award winner.
So far, Christopher G. has published twenty-some novels and thrillers, all of them set in Southeast Asia and most of them in Bangkok, the city that is said to have inspired Blade Runner and is indeed a place of fascinating sleaze and colourful crime. Full disclosure: several years ago, a small literary press I started published Canadian editions of two of Moore’s books. One of them drew some favourable reviews and sold modestly well, perhaps because it opens on a grisly murder in Vancouver (where Moore once taught condo law at UBC). The other one was not at all commercially successful in Canada, where he has never been popular the way he is in the U.S., western Europe and Japan. Still, many Canadian readers of police procedurals admire his books that feature Vincent Calvino, a disbarred New York lawyer who works as a PI in Bangkok, often in uneasy co-operation with the local cops.
The new Moore I’m reading now is The Risk of Infidelity Index (Atlantic Monthly Press). You might expect its author to be a tough guy, but he isn’t. He looks somewhat like the singer Tom Jones, is blessed with private school manners and bearing, and knows that the type of writing he does is dependent on expert listening. The last point is reinforced when, during a week’s worth of bar and restaurant hopping, he introduces me to some of his material, on the hoof, as it were.
Sukhumvit (pronounce the vit as “wit”), having been discovered by expats during the boom-time of the Vietnam War, is still rich in bars that are either survivors of or tributes to those times, joints with names like Rock ’n’ Roll Texas a Go Go. In one of these places, Chris casually introduces me to an acquaintance of his who, throughout a long conversation sustained by drunken energy, keeps a nervous eye on the door. A Thai woman he used to know, it seems, has hired not one but two assassins to kill him, and they mean business, too. These things happen.
In another such place, where there is not only a jukebox but one full of the timeless works of, for example, Eric Burdon and the Animals, we meet a fellow who has managed to crash one of the junta-sponsored wholesale gem fairs at Mogok in northern Burma, from which westerners—other than a few big dealers invited from Europe and elsewhere—are emphatically and indeed forcibly excluded, not just at fair time but year round. Mogok owes its status as a heavily militarized forbidden zone to the fact that it’s the source of many of the world’s sapphires and most of its pigeon-blood rubies, the most desirable type. The fellow is telling us the detailed story of how he not only got in but then managed to get out again, recrossing the Thai-Burmese border, on foot this time, with a pocket full of samples.
Smiling and being extremely courteous as always, Chris sits, like Sebastian Flyte’s teddy bear, in one corner of our booth, which is made of knotty pine. Silently and with unblinking eye contact, yet with an apparently effortless air of attentive distraction as well, he is committing the entire narrative to memory, megabyte after megabyte, and turning it onto a plot. The Thai bar-girl, to use her official job title, stands beneath a Budweiser sign, adjusting her vinyl miniskirt. She ignores both us and Gladys Knight & the Pips singing “Midnight Train to Georgia.” Outside it’s 36 degrees Celsius. Inside it’s 1968 AD.