Sunday, April 25, 2010

In Praise of Brightness

On Sunday, all the guys behind the windows of the currency exchange booths at Chungking Mansions perk right up. Their smiles are brilliant and their eyes sweep across the crowd that passes them. It's the day off for Filipina maids and they throng CKM's ground floor, shopping, wandering, going to the exchange booths to send money home.

These are women who turn wherever they may be into a festival. They move across the grim, fluorescent-lit ugliness of CKM like flowers, laughing and chattering and lovely. Even the ones who are not conventionally pretty are beautiful on Sunday. They fill the nearby green space of Kowloon Park and bring to it the joy of an instant picnic and they transform Chungking Mansions into a town square as they move in and take it over for a day. They are delightful and the currency exchange guys aren't the only ones to think so. When I see them, I think of sunlight and mangoes and music; I remember that Carabao, my favorite Thai band, developed their chops in the Philippines and that the girls who are passing in front of me are close relatives of the people I love and miss in Bangkok.

Today is life as usual and the morning seemed a little more Monday than it should be. I got in the elevator to go back to my room after having coffee and the sounds of drums filled it long before I reached the fourth floor. Music entered with the man waiting at that stop, and I got off.

Down a dark and squalid-looking hallway was an open door leading to a room filled with metal folding chairs and people of all colors seated on them. I would have thought it was an AA meeting except for the drums and singing and African music that came out into the hallway and made it a joyful spot.

This is the reason I stay in Chungking Mansions--the surprises, the music, the occasional blaze of loveliness and light.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

For What It's Worth

For the past week or more I've been hearing the Buffalo Springfield in my head, as I read what's going on in the city I now call home. Maybe it's distance that is making me look at this situation differently--maybe it's the everlasting naivete of the '60s that still scars me--maybe it's the curse of eternal optimism. I'm beginning to support a side and it's one that I never thought I would lean toward.

I want to believe that people who were injured and those who died on April 11 did so for a cause that is greater than a pissing match between a telecommunications mogul and a media empire-builder. I want to believe the farmer in Isaan who was quoted in today's IHT, saying, "This is not for Thaksin, this is for democracy." He then defined democracy as "The majority chooses the winner."

Isaan has always chosen the winner in Thailand's elections, but with ballots that were no longer their own. The value that people in that region have traditionally found in their votes was the amount they received by selling them to the highest bidder. If the current political situation gives rural Thailand the knowledge that they can control their own destinies with the power of their combined votes, then this is a movement to be proud of.

The stand-off in the streets of Thailand's capital is easily categorized as rural against urban, but the poor in Bangkok have as much to gain by what is happening now as their Isaan counterparts. My comfortable Bangkok life, and those of people who live in circumstances far more privileged than my own, is based on a minimum wage that scrapes the bottom of the barrel.

There are families in my neighborhood who live in one bedroom of what used to be a single-family dwelling. A live-in housekeeper receives a wage that is a shade more than 100 US a month, plus a room of her own. Not far from where I live families live in tin houses by the sides of canals that stink and many of the people who live there make their living by selling food and trinkets and flower garlands by the sides of some of the most polluted roads in the world.

There are days when I come back from a walk in Bangkok praying for a revolution--a real revolution--not the kind that lets the leaders of one side take the marbles from the leaders of the other and keep them all for themselves. Thailand deserves better than that--everybody, rich, poor, red-shirts, yellow-shirts, urban and rural.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

A Hunger for the Sky

I am staying in a community of approximately 4000 people which is surrounded by natural beauty that makes me wish I were a visual artist. A short walk from where I sleep is a harbor with water that changes color with the talent of a chameleon. Behind that are hills that frequently look as though they are mistily emerging from a developing Polaroid shot, or fading away into a dream interrupted by wakefulness.

Visible on the horizon on the other side of this spot are small, green mountains that rise up like a surprise behind the urban landscape. A short train ride from where I stay takes me into the heart of these outcroppings where there are enough trees to make me believe in forests again, and small houses with large gardens, and a lovely, clear waterfall.

I have to remind myself of these things when I look out my window and see walls of leprous concrete that soar ten stories above my view. The sky is so far above me that it hurts my neck to look for it, and the only hint of sun is a brightening of the air, sharp shadows on concrete, and a glare coming from windows slanted open that catch the light from above.

"Is it raining today?" I asked the lady at the ground floor laundry one morning. She laughed and said, "I don't know. I live upstairs." At that moment I understood that in the community of Chungking Mansions, of the 4000 people who live here, there are some who rarely see natural light, let alone the natural world.

Hari and Jun claim to never have days off, which means their light is almost completely fluorescent. The laundry lady closes on Sunday, and I hope she goes out to revive memories of how raindrops feel on her skin.

Blood on the Streets in 140 Characters

Until Saturday night, Twitter was something I'd never investigated or cared to investigate. That much of the world, including Barack Obama and the prime minister of my adopted country, frequently communicated in tweets seemed vaguely comic to me and the idea of anything worth reading being confined to the size of a Facebook status update was, I thought, absurd.

Then the night of April 10 rolled around and I was in Kowloon, worried about Bangkok. I've lived in Thailand just long enough to know that everything was fun until somebody got hurt and the flashpoint to a month of peaceful demonstrations seemed horribly close. Free speech was being treated in a way that no government that was purportedly democratic should ever allow to happen and both a TV station and Parliament had been invaded as a result. The tiny television segments I saw of what was happening in the Thai capital made my stomach hurt and although I was concerned and dying to know what was happening, I didn't turn on the TV in my room.

Facebook had nothing and I went online for news. What came up with the most recent date was a website called Thailand Voice ( and when I went to that place, there was a small column on the side of the page which changed words as I looked. It was a spot for Twitter and what was coming up in terse sentences was a rapidly-changing, constantly updated view of what was going on in real time on the streets of Bangkok.

I stayed on that page, reading 140- character reports of bullets and tear gas and casualties and
tactical moves and press releases for hours. Many of the sentences were coming from reporters and bloggers whose names I recognized--The Nation was prominent in providing capsulized information. Sentences were careful with facts and there was little editorializing, although one tweeter bemoaned the death of his tourist-based business and another was enraged that there was no technical support for i-phone at this particular moment in history.

It was an eerie and horrible evening, but it was illuminating for an old Luddite. The way news is reported and the way it is received changed forever for me the other night. On Twitter, a three-minute report is old news. As events unfold, they go out to the world in a mosaic pattern of sentences that are so immediate that they are breathtaking. Twitter provides an outline with a big blank space in the middle, but the outline is clear enough to reveal what is happening on the spot. The next morning when I read The Sunday China Morning Post, the underpinnings of the article about Bangkok's night of violence I had already read the night before on Twitter.

The SCMP report was based on news from the AP and Reuters. Of the two deaths they mentioned as being confirmed fatalities at the time the article was written, one of them was a Reuters television cameraman. I had already mourned his death--the night it happened, I read about it on Twitter.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Mustard Gas on the Sixth Floor

I came home after a late lunch today and found the door to the Holiday wide open. When I walked in I immediately began to choke. There on their hands and knees were Hari and Jun scrubbing the floor and in the air around them was something horrible. Instantly it filled my mouth, settled on my lips and grabbed me by the throat. I gagged and my nose began to burn as I closed my mouth.

Jun had a towel over his mouth and Hari's face was bare as they scrubbed lines of liquid into the floor. I threw my possessions in my room and left, trying not to breathe as I went toward the open door. "Be careful," Jun cautioned me, "Don't fall."

I have had up close and personal experience with Third World cleansers in Bangkok but not even Vixol--the most potent toxin I've ever used-- was anything like what these two Nepali guys had their countenances inches from today. Whatever they were using became a gas as soon as it hit the air and at least thirty minutes later I can still feel it in my chest. This isn't a cleanser--it's a weapon.

I came back with two packs of face masks and handed them to Jun and Hari, who grinned and said, "But we're finished" while Jun indicated his bandito face-towel. "I don't think that's enough," I said, "You should probably wear three masks at a time."

It reminded me of the day that I toured a Toshiba plant in Thailand where behind a glassed-in wall, people wearing face-masks sprayed appliances with paint that settled around them in a cloud of colorful specks. When I looked in horror at the man who was showing me the plant, he said quietly, "We use robots to do this in Japan."

"The opportunities are greater for us in Hong Kong," a young Nepali told me in the Chung King Mansions elevator the other day. Yes indeed--in a city where the front seats on double-decker buses are equipped with seatbelts and a voice regularly announces, "Dear passengers, when using the stairs on the bus, please use the hand rail," Nepali men have the opportunity to turn their lungs into lace before they're thirty.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Horizontal in a Vertical World

Over the past week, I have been remembering The Widow in Michael Meyer's Last Days of Old Beijing, stamping her foot on the ground of her hutong neighborhood and saying, "Connected." I know how she felt--Hong Kong makes me dizzy.

In Bangkok, I live in a house, walk down a Thai version of a hutong to buy my food, and can get almost everything I need from neighborhood stalls and small shops. I don't know anybody's names with a couple of exceptions but I know their faces and their smiles and we always exchange greetings when we meet. I take the subway to go to other neighborhoods but once in them, my feet are usually firmly on the ground except when I go to a shopping palazzo to buy books. My home is a city of millions but it exists on a very human scale.

In Beijing, I stay in an old neighborhood in a courtyard house where I am surrounded by a family. The matriarch and I talk without language; she advises me on how to dress for winter chill and I sympathize with her black eye and rakishly bandaged forehead that occurred during a wild nightmare when she fell out of bed. She goes out to buy green vegetables and eggs every day from street vendors and I walk for hours along streets with one-story buildings that are filled with vitality and music and color and food and children and the people who love them. These are the areas that make me love Beijing--the newer high-rise areas are like reverse ghost-towns filled with incredible extravaganzas of glass and steel and concrete and no people. I walk through them shuddering and wondering when the neutron bomb had struck and how I missed it--or if this is the time of the Rapture and I of course am Left Behind.

The area of Hong Kong where I am--Kowloon to be exact--is what Beijing seems to be striving for--high-rises and shopping malls and people all together in a gigantic mass of vertigo. Behind one large, expansive shopping area is a huge park, but from the street you would never know it, were there not signs giving the secret away. There are a row of stunning banyan trees, but they seem artificial in the midst of so much artifice. Grey is the color of Kowloon to me--and even the harbor, as beautiful as it is, seems a backdrop for the skyline of Hong Kong Island, or a framed exhibit seen from the windows of the nearby Art Museum.

I woke up this morning realizing that the residential areas I have walked in search of are all around me and that Chung King Mansions with its thousands of rooms is replicated all over this city. I have lived in no place like this except for my brief time in Manhattan when I was sixteen.

I am a peasant--it's in my blood--centuries of Irish and German forebears who believed in the power that came from their relationship with the soil. I love cities, but only those that let me feel the earth firmly beneath my feet. I look at the windows that surround the air outside my room in every direction, and my head swims.

In Beijing the matriarch walks with bags of green leafy vegetables, an old man sells garlands of jasmine on a Bangkok sidewalk, Hari, under artificial light at my guest house's reception desk,remembers fishing in the mountains of Nepal, and somewhere I hope The Widow still stomps her foot in a gesture of connection.

Monday, April 5, 2010

And God Bless the Nepali, Every One...

In addition to my excursion to Lush, I also took the advice of Hari and Jun, my hosts at the Holiday Guest House in Chungking Mansions. When I came home last night after not eating one of the worst meals I have ever purchased (burnt naan and horrible canned tomato sauced biryani at a place called Khyber Pass--"Would you eat this?" I asked the Pakistani host who shuddered and said "I don't eat rice," as he patted his rotund little belly), they recommended the Everest Club on the third floor of CKM's D block.

And oh my god am I glad they did. Beer Laos, momo with a very good chili sauce, and some of the best chili chicken (chicken Kadai) that I have eaten anywhere--and rice that tasted clean and so very good.

I will eat there again many times in the next several weeks and will always have a flood of gratitude toward Nepal when I do. Thank you, Hari and Jun--you may have saved my life here.

Lush Thank You!

There is something about coming back to what serves as one's home for the time being and noticing that the prevailing odor is that of old socks and unwashed hair. Since I have no socks (I left the ones I bought in Beijing behind me and never looked back) and wash my hair at least once a day, I was quite sure this wasn't my fault--especially since I smell it in the elevator, in the tunnel-like corridors, and when I open my window to let in what is laughingly called fresh air.

Yes, I live in Bangkok and yes I share my home with a kitten and yes I should be accustomed to all sorts of odors. But Chungking Mansions has every place I have ever lived in before beat--including the International Apartments in Seattle's China Town, which has served as a haven for old men for decades--every last one of them a heavy smoker.

I am very sensitive to scent and stench. If I were in Bangkok and encountered this odor, I would immediately go out and buy many, many wreaths of jasmine and an equal number of kaffir limes and a huge bunch of small and fragrant roses. But I'm in Kowloon and jasmine seems to be in short supply. Roses I am sure cost more than I can afford and kaffir limes are doubtless only in the area I have yet to explore where the Thai groceries are. (That would be tomorrow.)

I stared out my window at grey, mildewed concrete, airconditioners with their tops covered with garbage, and pipes festooned with hanging clothes that were presumably drying in the dirty, damp air. Being here in daylight, I realized, was not a good idea for me at all. I thought about the greenery that covers my balcony at home and I thought about my kitten who is a month older than when I last saw him and I wanted to go home.

But I have things to do in this part of the world and an airline ticket to Bangkok isn't an option for eight more weeks. As I sat and thought of scent, I suddenly remembered Lush at the subway stop near Alexandra House, on the other side of the water.

It's a quick trip from my part of Kowloon to Central and I was there in a matter of minutes, following my nose to a place where soap and its relatives are an art form. "My room smells like dirty socks." I told the sales girl, who turned pale and showed me many things that did not.

It was an expensive little outing for a person in my income bracket but I gleefully handed over what came to around 24oo baht (I don't want to tell how much soap that was in dollars) for sharp, clean scents that are going to make at least my tiny portion of CKM smell very good indeed. Therapy, as we all know, does not come cheap--unless you live in Bangkok where limes and jasmine and roses are thought of as necessities of life and everyone can afford to make their home smell good.