Sunday, January 24, 2016

Goodbye, Huai Kwang

Huai Kwang is not a lovely section of Bangkok except for the few trees that are found near its streets. Sprawled behind the condos and entertainment centers of Rachada, it is populated with residents from the many low-income housing apartments that have sprouted in clumps several stories high with outdoor hallways that serve as verandahs running down the full length of their fronts. Each apartment opens onto this hallway, which takes the place of the ubiquitous Thai balcony, that private pocket-sized space where residents hang out their laundry and put a plant or two. There’s little privacy in these grey rectangular hutches; most of the light and ventilation that comes into their apartments enters through the doors that face what is essentially a public thoroughfare. People have their meals on the floor near the open doorway as their neighbors pass by, and some stop to lean on the railing of the pseudo-verandah for a cozy little chat. This is housing that is as public as it can possibly get, without a trace of hominess to soften its basic function. It provides shelter in the blandest, most utilitarian fashion in a way that seems designed to obliterate the imagination of anyone who lives there.

But Thai people are more resourceful than that and the streets of Huai Kwang testify to that truth. On the sidewalks surrounding these grim buildings is a life and energy that is the soul of this neighborhood. For blocks on end, people sell fish, poultry, fruit, vegetables, cooked food, cheap clothing, and flowers from ramshackle stalls that blossom into activity every day except on the one that is the city-mandated hiatus, and draw shoppers to them well into the night. The fish are so fresh that they still twitch on the counter, the chicken has no hint of gaminess in its odor, and the produce is the kind that upscale stateside supermarkets can only dream of. Flowers turn street corners into gardens and everywhere people are pushing, shopping, gossiping. The Huai Kwang market is the front yard of a neighborhood that has no other.

If I look beyond the stalls at the cracked sidewalks, the mottled concrete buildings, the canal that’s filled with household garbage, this part of Bangkok is depressing beyond all measure. But I never have. I’ve spent hours wandering through this place, mentally constructing meals from the food that is on display, buying cheap polyester sheets in improbable colors and kitchen crockery to furnish yet another apartment, bringing home more rambutan than I could eat in a week that I end up sharing with friends and little bags of kaffir limes that I treasure for their fragrance alone, finding teeshirts with bizarre English phrases to take back to the states as gifts. I buy orange juice that was squeezed minutes before at a stall that is mounded with fragrant peels and if I’m lucky, I’ll find crisp, molten kanom krok that are a cross between a pancake and a sandwich, filled with coconut cream. Once I found a Buddha amulet that called to me from a stall that sold many of those images. When I was crass enough to bargain for it, the vendor gave it to me and I burst into tears.

This is one of my favorite places in the world and for decades it has been a place I go to for nourishment that has not so much to do with food. Two days ago it showed up in my twitter feed. It will soon be dismantled by the junta and the city government, who seem to believe that clearing Bangkok’s sidewalks is a sacred mission.

The buildings of the official public market will remain in place, where in dark hallways people dismantle animal carcasses and stand in the heat, selling wholesale to purchasers who back their vehicles up to loading docks and carry food away to other parts of the city. They will find it easy to drive their purchases away from Huai Kwang because the streets will be empty.

The crazy entrepreneurial spirit of Bangkok’s streets is being systematically erased and with it goes the life of the city. The slums of Huai Kwang are of course prime real estate, close to the subway and not too far from the central business district. The nearby arterial of Ratchadapisek Road is being filled with buildings that offer all modern conveniences to office workers looking for chic little city residences with swimming pools, fitness centers, little kitchens with microwaves and separate bedrooms in condominium units. They want the same shopping palazzos that downtown Bangkok has: clean, comfortable, filled with franchised goods and food, stretching through buildings that are the size of football fields. And they will get exactly what they want because providing these creature comforts are the way that business tycoons increase their sizable fortunes.

My heart breaks a little bit more for a city that I only thought was mine, in a country that I knew never could be but that I’ve loved for twenty years. Bangkok memories come to me now in the company of a dull, persistent ache and when I think of what I used to know there, I breathe in the shallow gasps that presage panic attacks. Even if the junta leaves, their legacy will never go away, their dismantling of one of the most vibrant cities on earth.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Living to Read, Reading to Live

When I left my Chinatown apartment, I packed my books first and that was a huge mistake. For the past two weeks I felt bereft and last night when I pulled one from my new bookcase and began to read, I could feel a hole was being filled. The internet, as useful as it is, doesn’t replace what books do for me, and when I read from a screen before I made the final move to my new home, I felt as though I were satisfying a cramping hunger with Cheetos.

I have 140 books, every one of them kept only because I can reread each with pleasure. Although in everyday life, I usually look at them as a cabinet of mementos, and complain that there’s nothing in the house to read, that’s a distortion of truth, an addict’s excuse for going out and getting more. I realized that when I looked at my new bookcase filled with old books. Each one of them was enticing after our separation period and I began to read with a very real delight.

It’s a strange and lovely coincidence that my new bookcase holds every book I own with room for no more than that. It means that if I buy a new book, I either have to give it away after I read or give up one that I already own. In my room there is no space for another bookcase and that pleases me. I love ownership but I hate greed.

One of the most depressing places I’ve ever visited was a studio apartment furnished almost completely with bookcases. All of them were full. Books had been piled high on a little table and were stacked neatly on the floor. The smell of dying paper was palpable and sad. There were more books than any one person could ever hope to read in a lifetime, let alone reread. I could only spend a few minutes in that place without wanting to retch.

There will be other books that I’ll bring home, and I may fudge the issue of giving and keeping by deciding that the cookbooks will have to find a space somewhere in the kitchen. But overall I’ll stick to my buy-one-give-one policy. Claustrophobia will trump avarice every time and my room is extremely compact.

But even stronger than the issue of space is the memory of six paperback books on a shelf made from rough lumber in a room that was mine when I was fifteen. Catcher in the Rye, Nine Stories by Salinger, East of Eden, China Court, a Louis Untermeyer anthology of 20th Century poetry, a copy of the Tao Te Ching: there were many other books in our house but these were mine, chosen and cherished, read and reread. Then there were my childhood books on another shelf, ones that I rarely opened at this stage of my life but were impossible for me to give away, Anderson’s Fairy Tales, the Brothers Grimm, Treasure Island, King Arthur retold by Sydney Lanier, worn-out copies of Little Women and An Old Fashioned Girl, Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom, An Episode of Sparrows.

All told I kept less than twenty books over the course of my life at home. When I finally went to New York to live with my grandmother, I wasn’t horrified to see that her collection was even smaller than my own. It was easy to understand that; she lived in a city with branch libraries in every neighborhood and soon I was a regular patron of four of them. I would come home with as many books as I could carry, gobble them up, and then go back for more. It was bliss.

The saddest thing for me in this new century is the state of library books, which are so disgusting that I can no longer borrow them. Nothing is more appalling than turning pages that are stained with mysterious fluids—or worse yet identifiable ones. Since the books belong to everybody, they belong to nobody, and the stern dragon-faced librarians of the past, whom I was certain examined every book I ever returned and would confiscate my library card if they found one that I’d besmirched, are dead and gone, replaced by social workers. The libraries themselves are filled with people who have nowhere to go, no place where they can take care of themselves or be cared for. In the 21st century we can pride ourselves that we have no workhouses, no lunatic asylums; we don’t need them. We’ve replaced them with libraries and we are all the poorer for that.

In Seattle we have built a library designed by Rem Koolhas, a building so innovative that it even filled pages in an architecture magazine published in Bangkok. I couldn’t wait to go there when I finally returned to the states but I don’t think I’ve visited it more than six times in the past four years. When I walk past it in the morning before it opens, a small crowd waits outside its doors. The emergency shelters close for the day, the occupants take to the streets, and then to the libraries. All over the city people surf the internet, sleep in corners, and often rave to themselves in public libraries.

When I visited my sister in a small South Carolina town a couple of years ago, we did a small tour of the local libraries. They were the refuges of my youth: quiet, with not an indigent to be seen within their walls. It was both soothing and terrifying—where did the street people go? But then come to think of it, I saw no street people. I don’t think they were allowed past the Mason-Dixon Line; I’m sure they haven’t all been sent to Seattle but there are days when it feels that way.

In a city where encampments are supposedly only official ones, tents are turning the entire city into an impromptu Hooverville. Welcome to the New Third World, where libraries become refuges for the poor and the mad, and used bookstores are where readers go to enter the repositories of books from the past.