Thought For The Day

Thought For The Day
Death In Siam

I've just spent a week in Thailand, which used to be called Siam. I didn't go there for any particular reason. Shizu won some free flights in an online competition. Japan is in the grip of the rainy season so, although I rather like the cool grey skies and drizzle, it seemed like a good time to go.

It takes six hours to fly to Thailand from Japan. I'd never been there. In fact I'd never been to any 'developing country'. I spent the week with eyes wide open. I ended up thinking mostly about America.

Thailand was hot and noisy. If you asked me my preconceptions about this country before arriving, I'd have been a bit vague. I'd probably have mentioned the cooking first. I love Thai food. I've never heard any interesting Thai pop music or seen any Thai films, so I can't comment on those. I'd have thought of the Ladyboys of Bangkok, a transexual mime act I caught at the Edinburgh Festival a couple of years ago. And I'd have thought of two epiphanies I'd read about in the 80s, both of which happened here. Rock writer Paul Morley wrote that he'd gone to the north and fallen in love with the place. And Brian Eno talked in an interview about wandering around the countryside, lost, hearing all the ambient sounds with fresh ears. I think it was shortly before he made 'On Land'. (Back in the early 80s Thailand was a much more daring holiday destination, of course. Going there was something worth mentioning in interviews.)

By Thursday afternoon I too am wandering around the peaceful hills of northern Thailand, amazed at the deep silence of a huge gothic rock cave that's been converted into a Buddhist temple, imagining it filled with the sounds of Luciano Berio. Or moving about in the stereo field of a meadow (it looks like a cross between Provence and Jamaica, fertile fragrant foothills covered in banana trees and palms and wooden houses on stilts) in which huge insects are keening. What a din! What are they? I don't know. They're about six centimetres long, they fly, they look like grasshoppers. Shizu tells me they spend six years underground, eating nothing. Then they crawl out of little holes and make this dentist's drill sound for a week or so before dying. I walk through the trees, through this natural yet totally unnatural field of sound, and I can see -- hear -- what Eno was on about.

Like Some Cat From Siam

I don't really know what Thailand is for. It's very cheap, very friendly, very beautiful. Tourism is by far its biggest industry. It's got the best cuisine on every street corner. You eat a full meal at a little zinc table for less than a dollar. It's spicy, but your tummy doesn't hurt afterwards. People smile at you, some try in a lazy way to rip you off. You visit idyllic gold-painted watts, Buddhist temples on side streets or atop mountains. It's all very pretty. What do people here believe in?

I've always wanted to visit Vietnam. In fact, in about 1993 I even considered living there. I reckon you could build quite a nice wooden house there for less than $10,000. Maybe even half that. I've always thought the Vietnamese had moral fibre because they won a war against the Americans. An unjust, stupid, ideological war. They won it because they knew every leaf and ditch of their country like the back of their hand. And they won it because they believed in something. What do the Thais believe in?

The Thai population is 80% rural. Subsistence farmers living off the food they grow in paddy fields. This will change within the next twenty or thirty years, when a large number of these people will drift to big cities. They'll work in clothing sweatshops in Bangkok making pirated brand name goods. They'll sell cracked copies of Microsoft Office on CD ROM for a dollar. They'll reverse engineer illegal DVD players so that they can play disks from any region, not just the ones Hollywood studios want you to see. Which is great if you want to watch Thai movies in countries outside South East Asia. Trouble is, I don't think there is much of a Thai film industry. Apart from porn, of course.

Kingdoms and People's Republics

The Kingdom of Thailand is surrounded by the People's Republic of Burma, the People's Republic of Laos, the People's Republic of Cambodia, and the People's Republic of Vietnam. Shizu and I seriously consider a trip to Phnom Penh, but are put off by guide book reports of bandits and corrupt police. We opt instead to head north, to the foothills of the Himalayas, and the moated medieval market town of Chiangmai.

At Bangkok airport I run into my old friend James Harrison. He toured Scandinavia with me in 1994, playing bongos and making a video documentary, Planet Momus (never edited). James is now part of a TV crew making a travel series for the Bravo network. They're just back from Cambodia, where they were filming illegally at the ancient temple complex of Ankhor Watt. The presenter was mooning at the camera, his trousers round his ankles, when police officers approached. James and the crew escaped incarceration in a dank communist jail by claiming to be shooting a friend's wedding video. Which is funny, because James really did shoot my wedding video, back in 1994. Thank god there was no mooning presenter in that one.

I've always wanted to visit a People's Republic. I imagine life there to be beautifully grim. In my mind, although the people in a People's Republic are poor, they know who they are. They believe in something. In Thailand, not a People's Republic, they still take religion pretty seriously. At the Erawan Phum altar in Bangkok, a Theravada Buddhist shrine to the Hindu god Brahma, I watched girls kneeling very reverently at a shrine where they could pay heavily costumed dancers to sing and gesture in thanks for specific successes: a relative's recovery from bad health, a good performance in an exam. The delicate music was all but drowned out by the savage traffic all around.

Thais also believe in their king. There are photos of him everywhere. The most popular one shows him in regular clothes with a bead of sweat dangling from his nose. The king has been marginally useful in pointing Thailand towards some sort of democracy. He shamed a recent prime minister out of office when the man failed to keep his promise to hold elections. Meanwhile, the country still lurches from one military coup to the next.

In the Kingdom of Britain, the Guardian newspaper has just lost its case to overturn a 19th century law making it a treasonous offence to advocate the transition of Britain into a republic, even by wholly peaceful means. No People's Republic of Great Britain, then, for the time being. Not even freedom of speech. My homeland remains Airstrip One, the island the US launches its jets from.

Jean-Luc Godard said in the 1967 film Far Away From Vietnam that, on being refused permission to film in Hanoi because his ideology was too confused, he made the decision to put a little bit about Vietnam into all his films. Instead of colonising them, we should let the Vietnamese colonise us, he said. So, for instance, in 'La Chinoise', there's a funny little propaganda film in which a straw-hatted peasant spars with tiny jets sent by a paper tiger.

Paper Tiger

The Americans dropped more bombs on the People's Republic of Laos during the Vietnam war than all the explosives Allied forces unleashed on Germany in World War Two. Average per capita income in Thailand is $3100 per annum. In Laos it's $300. Roads remain unpaved. Although the US never declared war on Laos, it literally bombed the country back to the stone age, claiming its jungles were hiding Viet Kong, and trying (as in Vietnam) to prevent its people from choosing a communist government.

After decades of war with the US, North and South Vietnam were united in 1975 as the People's Republic of Vietnam: exactly the outcome the Americans spent millions of dollars and tens of thousands of human lives trying to avoid.

In the Kingdom of Thailand, if you look closely enough at posters of Ronald McDonald, you'll see that he's played by a Thai actor.

Number of McDonalds in Laos: zero. Albums of Laotian traditional music in my collection: one. A field recording made by UNESCO. Date the US pulled out of UNESCO: 1984. Date the UK pulled out of UNESCO: 1985. (Notice any sort of pattern there?) Japanese foreign minister Makiko Tanaka and prime minister Junichiro Koizumi are currently asking the US to rejoin UNESCO and commit to the Kyoto agreement on global greenhouse gas emissions. So far unsuccessfully. But just the fact that they're asking is a welcome new tone from a Japanese leadership. Koizumi, whose approval ratings in Japan exceed 80%, is already being stigmatised by The Economist and other running dog lackeys of the capitalist press as a 'neo-nationalist'. Right. Anyone who criticizes any aspect of US policy is a dangerous nationalist, of course.

Number of tons of carbon emissions produced annually per person in the US: 20.1 tons. Japan: 8.9 tons. Europe: 8.5 tons. China: 2.3 tons. In terms of the economic performance squeezed from each kilowatt, Japan is actually the most energy efficient country in the world.

Notebook on Clothes and Cities

I'm looking down at a street corner in the garments district from the window of an air conditioned chinese shopping centre in Bangkok. This is a place of mosques, antique sewing machines, Chinese and Indian rag trade workers and covered markets. A quick style check on passersby confirms Godard's idea that we're finally colonised by those we seek to colonise. (Maybe it's wishful thinking. But Albert Camus said the same thing about American blacks when he visited New York in 1947 -- that they had colonised the white American imagination.) Almost everyone who passes is wearing clothes which would look pretty normal on the chic bobos of Williamsburg or Hoxton: bermuda-length combats, thong sandals, dragon motifs, sleek chalk white, slate grey or beige brown semi-military shirts.

In fact, much of the style of South East Asia (I like the French term Indochine, because each face really does look halfway between Indian and Chinese to me) is shockingly familiar to the trendy westerner, from 'street cooking' through massage to sarongs and loose three quarter-length trousers. I've been eating Thai food and learning to love Thai-like spaces for the last ten years or so. Exhibitions like Hans Ulrich Obrist's Cities on the Move, magazines like Wallpaper (not that I buy it, mind you!), the films of Wong Kar Wai and London concept restaurants like Busaba and East One have fine-tuned the style. Let's call it Siamese. No, let's call it Indochine. First it was a war, then it turned round and bit back.

One thing this style says is: 'I'm too cool to be an American'. It's post-American. When you're wearing Indochine, when you're kitted out all Siamese, you're not wearing a baseball cap. You're not in jeans. You're not all slobbed out in an XL t shirt which disguises your paunch. You've got to be whippet slim to make the Indochine look work, like the people are here. Of course, it helps to be poor.

Coke or Napalm?

Americans don't really do the Indochine style much. Maybe some skate kids are into it, at least in its Kung Fu dragon tattoo mode. Unlike Australians and Britons and Israelis, Americans don't seem to go in large numbers to South East Asia. Maybe it still feels too much like conscription to them. Don't forget, they lost that war in 1975, and they've never felt quite the same about themselves since. Nevertheless, America is there. Oh yes.

Ways American culture is undermining Thailand:

Coke easier to order in restaurants than tea. (Coke execs currently targeting China. Stewardesses on Air India 747 snappy when asked for 'English tea'. 'It's Indian tea.')
All drinks contain excessive sugar.
Awful American mullet rock unavoidable in public places.
Dollars a universally acceptable currency.
American Express accepted.
CNN present in all the hotels.
(Who really fucking cares about Larry King interviewing the treacherous Linda Tripp, and her attempts to portray herself as a victim? I switch off immediately. It's all so ugly. Morally, visually.)
Internet widely available.
ATM machines accept foreign cards.
(Unlike Japan. I guess the last two items are 'good'.)

I suppose the Thais are lucky. Better Coke than napalm.

Welcome to the Monoculture!

I fly from Japan to Thailand by Air India. I often measure the likely exoticism of my experiences on the scale foreign, double foreign and triple foreign. It's foreign for me, a Scot, to be in Japan, doubly foreign to be going on holiday from Japan to Thailand, and triply foreign to be making the transition on an Indian airline. But the expected Bollywood musicals fail to materialise. The in-flight entertainment is a Nicholas Cage movie, The Family Man. Clever, moving, socially conservative, normative, moralistic. American.

On the hotel TV in Chiangmai there's an NHK programme intended to teach English to Japanese. It opens with a dramatised scene in which two Japanese girls in LA take a sunbathing hunk for Brad Pitt. The sentence being taught is 'I am your biggest fan'. I don't know when the programme was made. It looks pretty old. It probably dates from the 80s, when American stuff was not so uncool in Japan. Now it really jars to see the Japanese women debasing themselves over and over again before a deckchair dickhead who only slightly resembles Brad Pitt. Personally, I don't know any Japanese women who like Brad Pitt. They're much more likely to revere Jean-Luc Godard. They stay away in large numbers from American pop music and films. The Japanese music market, the world's second biggest, is 70% dominated by Japanese music. The Japanese, heroically in my view, accepted American culture politely, as one takes an unwanted gift, bowed, then put it in a closet somewhere and got on with the business of speaking, eating, shopping and fucking Japanese style. There was no noisy rejection, just this polite, absent-minded dismissal, this refusal, despite two atomic bombs, to have their unique culture radically compromised by outsiders.

I'm told that in the early days of silent film, when American movies were shown in Japan they had, instead of subtitles, interpreters on the stage who would announce the cardinal points of the action. Since they didn't have access to the original scripts, they would always call the bad guy 'Bill' and the good guy 'Jim'. Bill would tie the heroine to the railway tracks, Jim would rescue her.

The Japanese weren't mocking the one-dimensionality of the films, it was purely practical. But it's always struck me as a potent symbol of monoculture. What if there were no more dramas in the world except tales of Jim and Bill, endlessly repeated, in minutely-varied permutations? What if the people who owned Jim and Bill also owned every cinema in the world, and could buy up the copyright to every story Man had ever told? Jack Nicholson plays Bill, Robert De Niro plays Jim. They, and their successors, incarnate every human story, from the Epic of Gilgamesh to the Kama Sutra. Welcome to my nightmare! Welcome to the monoculture. It's there because people like it!

Ride the Dragon, Ride the Dream

On my arrival in the cities of Thailand I'm horrified by the thick air pollution, the grinding, jammed streets, the raucous motorbike engine noise that follows you everywhere. I don't really 'get' this toxic 'developing' atmosphere (no regulation, no planning, everyone aiming for a big BMW with air conditioning) until, in Chiangmai, I rent a Honda Dream and start riding, helmetless, through the throng. Then I taste that poisonous cadmium yellow fizz on my tongue, and like it: the particulate air, the danger, the hot wind in my hair, a million insects dying in pin-and-needle stings against my face, the devil-may-care delight of it all. I get it.

The thrill of 'development' is the thrill of new forms of death, speed, poison. Ask the Italian Futurists. Ask J.G. Ballard. Fumes smell horrible, Coke tastes toxic, everyone's stuck in a big traffic jam. It's death on wheels, death with gas bubbles, death warmed up! It feels good to be on the side of death, and dollars. With Shizu clinging behind me, I take off for the hills, go caving, visit hilltop temples and the zoo. This death thing is okay once you get used to it.

In the zoo, there's none of the usual western caution about 'don't touch the animals, don't feed them'. That's all typical 'don't sue us' shit. Here you can pat the elephants and sling cucumbers down the hippos' throats.

The bears, monkeys and hippos of this zoo are, as a result, shameless prostitutes. They see every visitor as a possible source of protein. So they waste no time running up to the perimeter fence and soliciting. (After all, business is just war continued by other means. In the jungle they would eat us. In the zoo, they have to sing for their supper.) This makes them all, whatever nominal species they are, seem the same.

It reminds you of something. Thai people, at least in their relations with farang, the foreigners, who, however poor back home, are rich in a country where everything is so astoundingly cheap. The shameless dancing bears and elephants remind you of the motorbike taxi drivers who run after you clucking 'Tuk tuk? Tuk tuk?' They remind you of the shady hotel reps in every station and at the airport who clamour round offering you dubious accommodation in rooms already rented to geckos and roaches. They remind you of the long-necked hilltribe people, doing their bit every day to represent just the right degree of dignified Otherness to visiting ethnotourists. And they remind you of the AIDS-infested girls in Pat Pong who, for a few dollars, will smoke a cigarette with their genitals. They remind you of dollars, and death. Like the heat, you get used to it after a while.

Alleys of Bangkok

In school I had to read Joseph Conrad's 'Typhoon'. I found it insufferably boring and racist, but the image of the 'coolies' lying below deck, immobilised by heat, came back to me in the alleys of Bangkok, where I was fascinated to glimpse 'coolies' in loose clothes sprawled on low beds, with a big fan and a little colour TV always on. These rooms are sometimes workshops, sometimes apartments housing a whole family, with food being cooked in a corner or right outside in the alley, usually deliciously aromatic. Huge orange brown insects crawl over the concrete. Nobody cares. There's hardly any demarcation between public space and private, between the alley and the apartment, which is filthy, lit by fluorescent tubes, draped in fabrics, surrounded on either side by vital, noisy workshops. This death thing, it's crawling with life!

Despite the apparent lethargy of the Bangkok Coolie, there's enterprise everywhere. Bicycles custom-adapted into travelling sales units, covered in droopy, loopy lamps which make them look like deep sea fish, swim along the streets in search of purchasers of god knows what. Fried insects heaped in a plate (I swear!), fake brand clothes and watches (Hello Pitty!), underwear, jewellery. Street restaurants with zinc tables but no running water, fishmongers with no refrigeration but big blocks of ice they cut into slush with knives.

It's very clear that it's precisely the lack of 'human rights', 'intellectual copyright', hygiene, zoning and 'planning permission' which makes this brashly stimulating atmosphere possible. If corruption, civic and moral, were removed from Thai society, a lot of this vitality would go too. Take away the death, and you take away the life.

Rich Or Poor Enough To Be Who You Want To Be

Back in Tokyo I'm stunned by how deliciously cool and grey it is, like the whole city is air conditioned. I'm also stunned by how unAmerican Japan is, as if there's an irreducible Otherness here which is only possible because of Japan's great wealth. It's bought them insulation from the dollar, from 'development', from death. Only the very richest and poorest countries can have their own cultures.

On the Yamanote line I almost explode with joy. The girls here are so much sexier than the girls in Thailand. They're not for sale.

Chie has rented lots of videos. One of them is a 1967 collective piece by various directors -- Chris Marker, Jean Luc Godard -- about the Vietnam war. It's called 'Far Away From Vietnam'. There's amazing footage of the north Vietnamese preparing for an American bombing raid by making small concrete bins for people to climb into. Then soldiers with leaves on their backs, marching through a paddy field. On a signal, they all go belly down and their bodies instantly become part of the scenery, completely invisible from the sky. Godard says in his section that he is struggling against American imperialism in the film world just as the Vietnamese are struggling in their daily lives. There is more than one model for human life. Resist the monoculture!

Then there's a clip of some Cantonese opera-style agitprop acted out in a public square in Hanoi. Lyndon Johnson, played by a pretty Vietnamese girl with a panto villain moustache, weeps at what he's done to the Vietnamese people. That single gesture is more beautiful than anything I've seen in all those De Niro and Nicholas Cage movies I've been catching in places I thought were supposed to have their own culture, their own values, but turned out (from what I could glean in a fleeting week) not to.

I found people stronger than the dollar. I found them at the top of the league of nations, protected by the yen, and at the bottom, digging tunnels in mud to survive assault from the sky, struggling to survive. The Japanese, because they've worked so hard to win the peace and to keep their culture distinct. Despite atomic bombs and General MacArthur, they've succeeded. America is now barely present in Japan. That, for me, is as great an achievement as the Vietnamese winning their war.

I went to Thailand. I had a nice holiday, got burned, and learned to make some links in my mind between the word 'development' and the word 'death'. In the end I came back to Tokyo with even more respect for Japan's utter oddity. Like Vietnam, it's a bastion against the monoculture, and a beacon for the world.

Thoughts Index