Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Lady or the Tiger?

Thailand has always had an ambivalent relationship with Tiger Woods, claiming him once he became famous and then becoming deeply offended when he chose not to make his mother’s nationality his own. “Cablinasian” wasn’t a term that charmed Thailand, not when he could have accepted the privilege of being Thai instead.

He has always received a generous amount of attention from the Thai press, even after his refusal to become the Kingdom’s returning son, and yesterday both English-language papers ran a large AP reprint about Tiger, served up with a generous helping of schadenfreude.

Police To Talk To Tiger About Accident blared the headline in one, Woods In Crash Drama: Wife Smashes Window With Golf Club After Tiger Hits Fire Hydrant And Tree screamed another, and heaven only knows what the less conservative Thai-language press had to say about God’s gift to the sport’s page. Probably quite a bit since the story deals with some of their favorite subjects, an auto crash, blood, a rescue by a dutiful wife, and rumors of infidelity. Certainly the National Enquirer is having fun with what the Florida police have dubbed “a traffic crash,” not a “domestic issue.”

Alcohol was not a factor, the police report stated, but provided no reason why the golf star left his $2.4 million dollar home and his blonde trophy wife at 2:25 in the morning, rapidly losing control of his 2009 Cadillac which hit a fire hydrant and then a tree on his neighbor’s property while Tiger briefly lost consciousness somewhere along the way. When the police arrived, Woods was able to say “nothing coherent,” and those close to him are keeping silence, including the night club hostess with whom he was rumored to be having an affair.

This is the stuff that reporters dream of, all over the world, and who can doubt that Vanity Fair will soon have a feature article about Tiger Wood’s domestic life, with glossy aerial shots of his estate and inset pictures of every woman he has ever spoken to. Did his wife bludgeon him with one of his own golf clubs? Was he fleeing to receive medical attention when he lost consciousness? Or was he simply relaxing with a recreational drug after the thrill of being inducted into Stanford U’s Sports Hall of Fame? God knows that kind of adulation can take it out of a guy, not to mention the recent two-week golf tour of China and Australia where he may or may not have seen the club hostess who was in Melborne at the same time he was. It’s the best kind of mystery. Nobody died and nobody’s happy. Who in the world of newsprint and declining circulations could ask for anything more?

A similar story involving a young Thai actress appeared in the same issue of the Bangkok Post yesterday but garnered only a couple of hundred words in that paper’s gossip column. Her auto accident was far more serious, putting the comatose twenty-one-year-old in the hospital with a bleeding brain and a fractured pelvis, while her passenger was unscathed. The former Miss Teen Thailand was on her way home “early last Tuesday,” chatting to her companion as she drove, when suddenly her car veered off the road and hit an electric pole. She was”catapulted through the windshield and on to the road” while the passenger was thrown into the driver’s seat. Obviously seatbelts were not involved in the accident.

But unlike Tiger’s case, no mystery is attached to this one. It’s the fault of the actress’s director who admitted, “I believe the set of our production may be cursed, as we failed to carry out a buang suang ceremony first.” This is a ritual held before filming begins that drives away bad luck and propitiates any spirits who might be hovering about. When that didn’t take place, bad things began to happen to cast members of the television series.

One actor broke his nose when he ran into a plank on the set and other cast members had received “cuts and scrapes” in the course of filming. The fact that the severely injured starlet had been working from 10 am until midnight on Monday wasn’t a factor, the director assured the press, since she had enjoyed a full day of rest on Sunday.

It’s too late to hold the ceremony now but the director is sure that his promise to have a merit-making ceremony at a temple once the production is wrapped up is sufficient to ward off other expressions of ill will from the spirit world.

It’s easy for him to say—somehow the spirits have refrained from punishing him, although he is clearly the true malefactor in this flouting of ritual. Or perhaps the best is yet to come and the starlet is just a prelude to real disaster? Anyone who has seen the classic Thai ghost story, Mae Nak, knows spirits are not easily dissuaded from a course of wholesale distraction and carnage when their delicate sensibilities have been disregarded. Since the disasters have escalated from contusions to a broken nose to a shattered pelvis, I’d say the spirits are just warming up and that director had better find a good ceremony fast.

Tiger might want to rethink his decision on whether or not to become Thai once he understands how much bad publicity can be averted by giving credit to the world of the spirits. On the other hand, if a jealous wife is involved in his predicament, he may have gotten off easier than his erring counterparts in the Kingdom.

It’s common knowledge that in Thailand, Lorena Bobbitt would have been regarded as a household saint, or worse yet, just one of the crowd of spouses scorned. Had Tiger turned Thai, his wife could well have wielded something much sharper than a golf club and the resulting surgical attachment would have been both painful and humiliating. Perhaps a spot of world-wide bad publicity is a decent trade-off after all, although the world’s top golfer may not feel the same about the tools of his trade for a while—at least not until his facial injuries heal.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Looking for Soong Ching-ling

I would have been happy enough to simply enjoy the Beijing lakes in autumn but a sign told me that Soong Ching-lings’s house was only meters away and I wanted to visit it. There were only a few places I had on my internal list of Things to See onPurpose and the home of the renegade Soong sister was one of them. I had only read about her in biographies of Chinese leaders and in Emily Hahn’s China to Me; in my mind she was a shadowy figure, a beautiful rebel who was targeted during the Cultural Revolution and was defended by Chou Enlai. He had provided a home for her near a lake which was apparently the one I was meandering through on a day of wandering without focus.

Since I’m American, meters are as hazy a concept to me as my mental image of Soong Ching-ling but I walked in the direction the sign indicated for a few minutes only to find nothing, not even another sign. Brandishing my bilingual map, I approached a young woman and begged for help. She pointed me in another direction and off I went.

But then the path divided with no indication of which way I should go. The only sign was one that told me to “Behave in a good manner,” so I smiled as I asked a passerby which way I should go next. Her directions led me away from the park and to a road of menacing proportions that was at the end of the trail. Sign language from a kind beer-drinker in front of a small house indicated I should take my life in my hands, cross the traffic-laden street, and turn left, which seemed an appropriate direction.

Fortunately living in Bangkok had prepared me for heavy traffic so I crossed without causing an international incident and walked down a very unprepossessing lane. The houses on it were wooden and small and delapidated and I began to feel very sorry for Soong Ching-ling. Even the most dedicated Communist, I thought, would be depressed in one of these crowded little shanties. But then a woman smiled at me and I announced my destination with not much hope of a definitive reply. She nodded vigorously, pointed straight ahead and there the road turned. Once again I was near a lake, and trees and a park pathway with a sign for the spot I was looking for.

The widow of Sun Yat-sen was provided with an estate that had once belonged to a prince and had housed the father of the Last Emperor. It was filled with trees and manmade hills and a stream and pools and had a feudal air to it, with its collection of houses, all of different sizes. It was a park within a park and the formality of it was quelling. I began to wonder if Soong Ching-ling might not have been happier living in a shack along the lane.

The houses that contained rooms of memorabilia did nothing to dispel that impression. They were filled with an assortment of photographs and documents that had been assembled by the Soviet Union and were arranged in a grim and ungarnished fashion. The signs were bilingually Russian/Chinese with the only English prose written in the hand of Soong Ching-ling. In the photographs she was matronly and heavy and quite Soviet in style, with a forbidding demeanor. It was not a shrine that encouraged lingering so I didn’t.

The gardens were dark and cool and much more alluring than the Russian way of presenting Soong Ching-ling’s life. I walked in quiet, marveled that a Communist would live surrounded by this sort of royal splendor, and wondered how Mao had spent his days—or Chou Enlai for that matter, since he was the one who had arranged this for Soong Ching-ling.

She had refused to live there at first and then finally accepted. I was curious about her life and then I found it—a true museum dedicated to her from childhood to death.

She was beautiful. Her father called her Rosamund and she used that name when she went off to college in the states. She was also fierce, and when the Republic of China replaced the Imperial Kingdom, she tore down the old flag from the wall of her room, put up the new, and wrote a passionate declaration of Chinese independence that celebrated the triumph of the man she was to marry.

He was her father’s best friend and when she was denied a paternal blessing, she ran away with Dr. Sun Yat-sen. “It was not true love,” she said but it was deeper than that. They shared a cause and a belief in their country, which Soong Ching-ling refused to abandon long after her husband’s death.

His wedding gift to her was a very small pistol.

After Dr Sun’s death and the Japanese invasion of China, she lived for a while in Hong Kong. Martha Gellhorn met her there and wrote that she was “tiny and adorable and admirable, unlike her sisters Madame Chiang and Madame Kung who were the limit.” She headed relief efforts that sent rice to China, called One Bowl of Rice. The bowls that she used to publicize the drive were both startling and endearing to me. Carefully lit and in their own little display were two of the Pyrex bowls that haunt the memory of every American child who grew up between the 40s and the 60s, the nesting mixing bowls that came in yellow, green, red and the smallest that was turquoise and always the first to break. Soong Ching-ling used and kept and was now illuminated by the green and turquoise Pyrex bowls, a link to her American past.

She still had friends from her college years in the States. She could have used her family’s wealth and influence to live there; both of her sisters often did. She stayed in China, even when the Red Guards wanted to humiliate and degrade her.

The house that Chou Enlai provided as her refuge was big and comfortable, but not ornately luxurious, rather what a well-to-do merchant would live in, gloomy, multi-roomed, Victorian. She spent her time on the second-floor, in a large bed-sitting room with lots of windows and space. A long covered verandah behind it ran the length of the house and overlooked a beautifully manicured sweep of lawn and some truly glorious trees. A room nearby was outfitted as a little kitchen where she prepared her own food, the sign said, and a well-stocked library lay just beyond that.

She must have been comfortable. It’s unclear whether she was a prisoner. A letter that she wrote leaving her books to a young relative “should something untoward happen” hints that she felt she was in danger.

A photograph of her as she greeted Ho Chi Minh when he came to Beijing shows a woman who could still be radiant well into old age. An oil painting on her bedroom wall is a picture of slender women dressed in what looks like Vietnamese clothing and wearing conical hats, walking along a forest path. I wonder if she thought of the Ho Chi Minh Trail when she looked at it, and if she wished she were young enough to be with them, slender and lovely and committed to revolution.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Friends and Gratitude Part Two

I have my fingers crossed that one of my longest-standing friendships will have more threads added to its fabric in December. My friend Lee has a love for this city that has brought him back twice a year without fail for the past decade and visiting with him while he's here is always a very nourishing pleasure. He comes with news of Seattle, of the U.S. political scene, and of the Pike Place Market where he has owned one of the last surviving American newsstands for thirty years. A bohemian, an eccentric, and a thoroughly delightful human being, he, in common with all who sell the printed word, is in peril as newspapers and magazines wither and die, one by one. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Gourmet, heaven knows which is the next that will disappear.

First and Pike News has been proud of being a true newsstand that sells newsprint, not gum or cigarettes or candy. Its only deviations have been the postcard trees that grace its outer boundaries, maps, phone cards, and the occasional postage stamp--but those are at the request of the thousands of tourists that come every year. (It also sells my book--and I am so honored by that!)

Please if and when you are in Seattle, go to the corner of First and Pike, buy a paper and a few magazines, and say hello to Lee. Tell him Janet sent you...

Monday, November 23, 2009

For Friends, Gratitude

My friend Kristianne comes to visit-- and will perhaps stay, I hope--a few days after Thanksgiving and I am thankful. I am lucky to have met people here in Bangkok and other places who are wonderful to spend time with, but we always hold special places in our hearts for people who share some of our history, and Kristianne and I share the Elliott Bay Book Company.

This means we share a passion for books and for talking about them. We both love to examine our worlds and analyze what makes them the places that we see and feel and love and sometimes loathe. It means that our reverence for words extends to using them in the best way that we can. That we share an astrological sign means nothing but it is possibly why we both love adventures and exploration.

Having Kristianne here means more to me than I have told her; I haven't wanted to let her know how much I long for her arrival in case she decides not to come and might then feel that she has let me down in some way. I am eager to see how she reacts to Bangkok and to see what she finds special about the city I live in. I know she will find parts of it that will be new to me--that's what explorers do.

I love the thought of showing her what I enjoy most about Bangkok and seeing other parts of it that I've been waiting to do with a friend. I'm hoping we can travel a tiny bit together, as well as looking forward to hearing about her adventures when she travels alone. I hope she might think Christmas along the Mekong in Vientianne would be a good way to spend some of the last days of this year.

Living and traveling alone is what I do, but there are some things that are not as much fun to do alone--going to one of Bangkok's many beergardens that spring up in the cool season, for example, or eating at a sushi bar. I'm grateful that in a few days I'll have someone here--as a friend, a companion, and perhaps a reality check. Welcome to Bangkok, Kristianne!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Korat Dreaming

The day after I came home from my rapid visit to the Northeast, I walked past a vendor selling Buddha images and thought that was weird, why did a man give me a copper amulet in my dream last night?

And then I remembered, although the memory had the haze of a fading shadow. After going to Prasat Hin Phimai and the little museum filled with Khmer treasures, after hearing way too much karaoke and watching traditionally garbed beauty contestants waiting for their turn on stage by the banks of the Mun river, after memorizing landscape on the hour-long bus ride back to Korat and before eating food I'd never had before while being feasted upon by mosquitoes so huge I was afraid they were going to fly off with my fried fish that was still gloriously and completely whole , I had gone to a temple not far from my hotel where an abbot had reputedly raided the local caves to construct a cavern of his own on holy ground.

I was greeted at the temple gate by a cordial gentleman who took me straight back to a room that looked enchanted, with stalagmites and stalactites and candles and Buddha images. I was sure Terry Gillam would love it--I certainly did.

A shout from my escort made me turn to the door where one of the temple puppies had decided he needed one of the shoes I'd taken off so very much more than I did. His plan was foiled by a young monk who was indubitably not Thai--"from Germany," my guide told me.

The monk returned to sweeping leaves, while assuring me that yes, he was lucky to have found this particular temple where the abbot was particularly erudite, and when I looked at the young man's quiet, happy eyes, I believed him.

My escort proudly pointed out a pristine new pickup truck, telling me it belonged to him and that he had a tourist business. Handing me his card, he asked me if I'd been to Nong Khai yet--if not we could go tomorrow. As I began my stroll out of the temple gates, he rushed up to me and handed me something small and copper-colored. I thanked him, put the Buddha image in my purse, and walked back into the quiet twilight of a moated provincial city filled with trees and kindness.

Two days later, surrounded by glare and noise and dirt and concrete and carelessly dropped litter, the gift of the Buddha wasn't the only thing that felt as though it had been part of a dream.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Decline and Fall of a Lonely Empire

I live in a household where books come and stay forever, even guidebooks. Since this household is in Thailand it contains a generous amount of guidebooks to this country--most of them published by Lonely Planet. And after buying the latest edition of Lonely Planet's Thailand, I'm grateful to have the backlist, because the current edition takes "travel light" to whole new arenas.

Tomorrow I'm finally going to Phimai to see the pre-Angkorean Khmer temple and also to make a side-jaunt to Phanom Wan. So of course I turned to my latest LP Thailand to see what bus I would take to go to there. Surprise!! There is no Prasat Phanom Wan in the new edition of Lonely Planet--it's been wiped off the Lonely Planet map by some freak asteroid.

It does still show up in the edition just before this one, so I do have the information I wanted, and it will probably be somewhat less than over-run because for Lonely Planeteers, it no longer exists. Good for me, maybe good for the temple, which is still occupied by monks as a holy place who may not yearn for sightseers, but for those people who believe LP is going to give them the whole scoop about a country--maybe not so good.

I am not a Joe Cummings groupie by any stretch of the imagination, but when I look at the old LP guides that he did for Thailand, I mourn his loss. Under his reign, LP was filled with history, culture, language, and it steered travelers to interesting spots that they would otherwise never know. Now it steers travelers to the most palatial hotels and trendy dining spots.

Is this for the greying traveler? If so, it's the wrong move--I'm over 60 and if I wanted tips on living the luxurious life on the open road, I wouldn't turn to Lonely Planet. They are who I went to for the back story, the quirky spots, the things that would help me give depth to my travels. But not now...

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

I Happen to Like Beijing

I never thought it would happen. I grew up reading about Red China and became politically conscious during the Cultural Revolution. Historical China was bright and vibrant and a leader of all world civilizations. China of my lifetime was bleak and dour and badly dressed. Its art was garish and laden with poster propaganda. It had no literature and its dance was a bad joke.

And yet I've never met a lion dance I didn't like. My last neighborhood in the U.S. was Seattle's "International District," which a less politically correct city would dub "Chinatown," and I would hear drums and gongs and firecrackers and hit the streets of my neighborhood to follow the lions. They delighted me, and so did the old ladies of my neighborhood, kickass old broads who owned their streets, as mean as those thoroughfares could be at times. That should have given me a clue about where my heart might lie, but no.....

I can't blame it on autumn, although that seductive season is when I was last in Beijing. And of course autumn is only glorious when there are trees and trees only exist in cities that are highly evolved. (There are damned few in Bangkok.) So yes, perhaps I fell in love with Beijing's trees, cypress and poplar and weeping willow and ones that look like a variety of oak and ones that resemble Siberian Pea trees that grow in Alaska--but then I would have to give full credit to the people who have filled their city with leafbearing trees, and I do.

It is the people who live there who make me love China's capital city. Joie de vivre is not a term I usually associate with Communism but when I walked down a street after dark and heard music and then saw a large throng of people swingdancing in a space near the Worker's Stadium, that is the phrase that immediately came to mind. Old people, young people, women dancing with women, people dancing alone, right beside a busy sidewalk, without selfconsciousness and with palpable enjoyment--I watched and smiled and kept smiling all the way to the subway station that took me back to my guest house.

It was not an isolated spectacle, I saw this over and over again during my two weeks in Beijing, as well as old men wearing bright and tight Speedos plunging into lakes in the late afternoons, swimming vigorously and emerging with bodies filled with goosebumps and looks of justifiable pride. Old people sang in pavilions near Beihei Park's stunningly beautiful lake, and one group performed what looked like selections from Beijing opera, with professional skill and aplomb, shaking hands with their audience at the conclusion of their performance and thanking them.

Chinese culture is a gift old people give to those around them, and their triumph is quiet but glowing. They survived a revolution that was cruel and terrible and has at last brought a better life to the country. With generosity and elan, they provide a living testimonial to the victory of culture over politics. They are beautiful to see and they carry lessons on how to grow old with joy. I hope they will teach me how to do this one-quarter as well as they do--and I can't wait to begin to learn.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Krispy Kreme On Its Way

I used to wonder during the seven years I spent in the U.S. how American bodies would change if they ate in the Thai way--lots of carbs, meat used as a garnish, green vegetables, a small amount of oil, fresh fruit, an abundance of flavor, fat as a treat and not a daily indulgence, servings that are small enough that eaters don't feel uncomfortable after a meal...

I will probably never know, but I have found out what happens when Thai people eat like Americans.

I returned to Bangkok to find Starbucks with their Frappucinos everywhere, gelato stands and gourmet icecream parlors in profusion, pizza and doughnuts and MacDonald's and Burger King even more a part of the landscape than they were when I left, wafflemakers at every Skytrain stop along with German sausage stands and bakeries with cookies and flabby croissants and squishy white bread. Fried chicken is much easier to find than grilled on my neighborhood street--thank you, Colonel Sanders!

And people are getting fat. It used to be a rare sight to see a Thai woman who was obese--now they are everywhere. I'm not talking about figures that are plump and cute and zaftig--I mean bodies that would be hard-pressed to fit in an airline seat. The children who seven years ago were well beyond chubby and happily replied KFC and french fries when asked what their favorite food was are now adults who are fine candidates for heart disease and diabetes.

Eating patterns have changed as well. The most subversive poster I have seen since I came back had nothing to do with deposed Prime Ministers or shirts of different colors--it was a picture of a young Thai man, sitting alone at his laptop with a single-portion frozen dinner steaming nearby. This is so antithetical to Thai culture, where friends and family gather to eat food that they love in good company, ignoring all other concerns in favor of the meal, that it is even more heretical than remaining seated in a movie theater when others rise. It strikes directly at the heart of the Kingdom--at the appreciation for good food that is well-prepared, at the need to be nourished in the presence of people one loves, at the recognition that work is less important than being fed on many different levels. It is as sad as the recent news that people prefer to buy packaged food at a supermarket, rather than shopping at a fresh market, because supermarket food is more hygienic.

The other day I read that Bangkok will soon boast its very own chain of Krispy Kremes that will join the throngs of Dunkin' Donuts and Mr Donut in Bangkok shopping centers. My cholesterol soared at the very thought of these little fat bombs attacking bodies in Bangkok--and I began to wonder if there is a Weight Watcher chapter established yet in the City of Angels. Attention entrepreneurs--a new growth opportunity awaits.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Books in Beijing

I just read the latest email newsletter from The Bookworm in Beijing where, in addition to the monthly single-malt Wednesday, they are hosting a film series (Visions of China: six generations of Chinese filmmaking), a bluegrass band, an open mike session for musicians (Basically Beethoven), a Sunday Salon with a violinist presiding, a writer's workshop, and Colm Toibin reading from his latest novel, Brooklyn.

The Bookworm is a strange and lovely place--a bookstore that is smaller than many book sections that I have known and loved in the past, but with well-chosen volumes on its shelves, a library that is huge and disorganized and like a Salvation Army book department where I found a Skagit Valley cookbook with recipes from Pacific Northwest authors and others, a restaursnt with food that is Western, imaginatively named in literary fashion, and marginally edible in British fashion (stick to the desserts), and a carefully nurtured single-malt scotch selection.

It is the brainchild of an English literary empire-builder named Alexandra Pearson, who has scattered her stores past Beijing and into Chengdu and Suzhou, and may go international, according to a Beijing staff member, with possible stores in Bangkok and Canberra. This woman's ambition is only exceeded by her energy--when she moves through her store, the air crackles.

Just one of the events that she has going on in November would have Bangkok on its ear--bookstores are not destinations of activity in this city. In fact, it's hard for me to think of any bookstore in the States that has the diversity of the Bookworm--a bar, a restaurant, a music venue, a library, a place to buy new books, a center for a literary festival that attracts truly fine writers, a spot for readings year-round after that festival is over, regular Quiz Nights and Scotch tastings and recently a month-long series of events dealing with the evolution of the species.

It is not perfect--some of the literary events are so tedious that they verge on the smug side and one author remarked that only two of his books were available for him to sign ( a rival Beijing bookstore who also hosted him had the man's entire literary output, which considering that it is mostly in paperback is not a huge outlay). But it is a vibrant, growing, enticing spot in the citiesI have visited and it always offers something to attract a widely diverse audience, from booklovers to pubcrawlers.

And it leaves me wondering why is The Bookworm the only store I have found to encompass music and food and alcohol and games and a lending library and a bookstore and a place for writers to read and discuss their work and a film festival and god knows what else Alexandra Pearson will come up with?

It could be reason enough to move to China--unless of course The Bookworm comes to Bangkok...

P.S. It's Gone

Bailey-Coy is closing and my heart cracks a little more. The wit of their windows and the beauty of their selections can never be replaced. So many years of bookselling history, gone--"All changed, changed utterly." Stars are burning out and will be missed by people who loved to walk in starlight.

Will somebody please tell Michael Wells that I love him?