Sunday, March 20, 2016

Cemetery of Splendor, Graveyard of Hope

“Developing country” is a description that is almost completely owned by Thailand. The development is raw: tall buildings of striking design tower over tin shacks that house construction workers, their families, and their dogs; ramshackle buses stand still, paralyzed by traffic under the elevated tracks of the Skytrain; children wearing the uniforms of prestigious private schools have after- school snacks in shopping malls of regal splendor while their less fortunate counterparts sell flowers on the streets outside. It’s become a photo gallery of traveler’s clich├ęs: barefooted monks strolling past Tiffany’s, a Mercedes pulling up to buy food from a street vendor’s cart, the homeowners selling their recyclable papers and cans for what amounts to pennies to a man in tattered clothing who drives from house to house on a motor-scooter with a wooden platform tacked onto the back where he places his gleanings.

Development is less stark but always present in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s latest film about his home country, Cemetery of Splendor. He has set it in Khon Kaen, the major city in Thailand’s Northeast and one of the country’s largest, but the movie’s setting is rural. An improvised hospital that has been put in an abandoned school building sits beside a lake, surrounded by trees and near a small temple. Across the water, the shadows of modern buildings break the dome of open sky that features heavily in the film; in a setting this placidly bucolic, days are given drama only from the storms that might break from the puffy-cotton clouds.

The silence is broken by the daily noise of construction equipment that excavate a large piece of ground near the hospital. Nobody knows why, nobody seems to care. It’s a government secret, one person speculates, so secret that there’s no need to hide what’s being done. In the hospital are beds filled with soldiers, spellbound men who spend most of their time in sleep that resembles a coma. Body functions take place without interrupting their slumber; catheters drain urine, and erections caused by dreams are noted with amusement by the hospital staff. The men awaken long enough to eat something and often collapse facedown into their plates midmeal.

Like all of Apichatpong’s movies, this is one is surreal and demands more than one viewing to appreciate. The film’s pace mirrors the lassitude of a Thai afternoon, its unending hours punctuated by meals and snacks and random snatches of chatter. The conversations, though brief, are telling ones. Beautiful ghosts, figures venerated in a local shrine, come to one of the hospital volunteers to tell her that the hospital is built upon the burial ground of past kings who are sapping the energy of the sleeping soldiers to fight ghostly battles; the men will never awaken fully. A young psychic has been summoned to their bedsides to penetrate their dreams and offers to lead the volunteer into the sleeping world of the soldier she has informally adopted as her son. It is a palatial vision, more glorious than anything the volunteer has dreamed of herself, and as the psychic reveals the soldier’s dream world, the volunteer traces her own memories on the grounds of what was once her schoolyard.

Both journeys are equally spectral; a former bomb shelter for children who were threatened by the war in nearby Laos still stands in place near broken statues that filled the grounds of the ancient kings who once ruled this place. These remnants of history, these provinces of memory, are all fragile and doomed, threatened by the buildings that are making their slow progression across the city and the escalators within them that carry mute and passive shoppers, the mysterious backhoes that scoop sacred ground from a royal cemetery.

On one lazy afternoon, the hospital volunteer shares a meal with her adopted soldier-son, who quotes the famous maxim of the revered historical monarch, King Ramkhamhaeng, “There is fish In the river, rice in the fields.” “Rice in the fields and then there is nothing,” is her response, which would be a criminal act of lese majeste in Thailand.

At the end of the movie, she and the soldier exchange dreams. Whatever she is given remains a secret but it has stripped the beauty from her aging face. The close of the story shows her sitting near the excavation site, her eyes staring fixedly at some terrible vision that only she can see.

Apichatpong’s subtleties are rooted in the culture that shaped him and are obvious enough to Thai citizens that his films are unavailable in the Kingdom. He has said that the current political repression means that he can no longer work in his birthplace, that Cemetery of Splendor will be the last movie that he makes in Thailand. As for the audiences who are puzzled by his work, the hospital volunteer has words for them, in English. “You’re a foreigner,” she tells her American husband, “You just don’t get it, honey.”

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Stepping on Seattle's Dreams

Yesterday I read about an Ethiopian spice grocer who will be displaced by Vulcan’s purchase of Promenade 23, along with some other small businesses and the only supermarket to serve that part of Jackson Street, the Red Apple. Since I haven’t been to that neighborhood since I moved, even though it’s much closer to me now, I decided to explore in that direction.

This is an old neighborhood, and a graceful one. The Langston Hughes Community Center is a cultural anchor and the Sojourner Truth Library combines Carnegie elegance with a downstairs addition that is flooded with light from skylights and offers seating on modern red sofas. The streets are quiet and it’s difficult to remember that it’s a quick walk from them to downtown Seattle.

Jackson Street is peppered with entrepreneurial success stories that stand out among the Walgreens and Starbucks that have sprouted there. Craft beer from Standard Brewery is showing up in restaurants; it soon will offer food as well as fresh-brewed beer in an expanded setting. Nearby in a dusty shopfront, an Ethiopian lady sells what people have told me is the best fried chicken in the city, and I came away yesterday with almost an entire chicken for less than eight dollars. She sells the Ethiopian version of samosas too, sambusas, and little coconut handpies that are made locally, are consumed in two bites, and could prove to be addictive. A bit further down the street is Two Big Blondes, a consignment shop that sells designer wear; 14 is the smallest size in the place.

The Starbucks is one of the few I’ve seen in Seattle with patio seating and it always seems to have people in it who are savoring their coffee, not gulping it on the run. Across the street the Red Apple sells food for families—ice cream in tubs, racks of ribs ready for barbecue grills, reasonably priced produce, and catfish sandwiches for instant picnics. When I lived in Chinatown, I often walked here in the summer, uphill most of the way, to escape the high prices and Japanese junk food of Uwajimaya.

Then there is the ill-fated shopping center, which the Seattle Times in their usual burst of inaccuracy said contained “beauty salons, barbers, and nonprofits.” They weren’t completely wrong, but except for the nonprofits, the other enumerated businesses are singular, not plural. They failed to mention the one clothing store, whose window announces that they offer in-house teeshirt and hat printing and bears a phone number for those who are in the market for custom gold teeth. There is a Seattle Neighborhood Service Center and a place that takes donations of used children’s clothing—and then there is East African Imports and Restaurant.

The minute I walked in, my nose never wanted to leave. The smells came in a barrage and they prickled my nostrils with scents I recognized and those that were completely new to me. Bags of powders and flour and unroasted coffee beans crowded the shelves, along with stovetop grills for injera, kettles and coffee pots in graceful shapes and delicate cup and saucer sets and pans to roast the coffee beans. Colorful baskets of different sizes were heaped in a container at the front of the shop, with much larger ones filling the shelves. Clothing, most of it beautifully embroidered, hung on the few patches of wall that were not covered with shelving.

This was a store for serious cooks and I was dazzled by the world they knew how to negotiate with skill and confidence. When the man behind the counter asked if I had questions, I told him I had too many to answer in one visit, and then assailed him with the most insistent ones.

There is a restaurant partitioned off from the spice shop, with cozy booths and small tables and a menu that gave descriptions of the 22 dishes that can be eaten there. The coffee is hand-roasted and freshly brewed and can be had for breakfast, since this spot opens every day at 9:30.

This shop and restaurant aren’t just a community resource. It ought to be a city treasure. Instead it has at best eleven more months, less if Vulcan is allowed to proceed with their plans apace. It will be replaced by 570 apartments with underground parking and as a sop to the existing local community, a plaza.

In an area where lovely old houses with yards are the predominant feature, a plaza doesn’t seem as though it is what the residents are going to yearn for—especially when it replaces a very well-stocked supermarket and a very good restaurant and a spice shop that is unique in the area.

Arguably even more alarming is the idea of at least 570 new residents and probably more, depending on the size of those apartments, each with a car to keep safe in that underground parking area. Jackson Street is a major thoroughfare that is filled with several well-used bus routes and now the streetcar. Anyone who has seen what happens in the area from South Lake Union to lower Queen Anne in the late afternoon can only shudder at the thought of almost 600 hundred new drivers taking to Jackson Street every day. Even if there were no other neighborhood impact, this is enough to make Vulcan’s vision for this neighborhood one that needs severe alteration.

It also makes me wonder what exactly is being planned for the new and improved Yesler Terrace project. The silence that surrounds this has been broken, to my knowledge at any rate, by an announcement that the development will be similar to that of South Lake Union. To someone who has lived off Jackson for over a decade and who loves it, this is news to chill my blood. Perhaps yours too?

Paul Allen’s vision for Seattle is not mine. This billionaire is stepping on the dreams of those less fortunate than he—and that is almost everybody who lives in this city.


Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Granted Wishes at Dong Thap

Ask and ye shall be given--Dong Thap was given to me yesterday after my plea for pho with flavor and I see no reason to ever eat this dish anyplace else in Seattle. Pho in this place bears no resemblance to any I've ever eaten.

First of all there are those fresh made in house noodles. Second is their shape--flat, not round--"This is the shape we use in Vietnam,"said the Saigon-born owner, "Most places here use dried noodles and they are usually rounded." Third is the broth, rich with slow-cooked bones and aromatic with spices which are used with subtlety but are present on the tongue while eating. Then there is the meat--the brisket and meatballs that I chose from the twenty selections on the menu were perfect, not stringy, not dry, completely delicious.

"Never give up on pho. It is wonderful,"the beautiful lady behind the counter said before I left. Yes, it is--if you eat it at Dong Thap.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Desperately Seeking Pho, Long-term Relationship Desired

Yesterday I felt depleted and lackluster and in need of a meal, so I went to Lemongrass for soup. It is a downmarket place when compared to Eric Banh’s joints that are quite nearby, and I figured the only reason for its survival would be its food. A month earlier I’d eaten fried fish with tamarind sauce that had tasted very good to me so it seemed a plausible spot for a hot and restorative meal when necessary—and right now seemed very necessary. The wind was raw and I had prudently worn my rain coat which wasn’t warm enough. I walked in and ordered my food, feeling happy that I was given a seat near the streetside window. When the waitress offered to pull down the shade to spare me from the tanning quality of sunlight, I felt hopeful. If she believed darkness was a positive asset, then maybe the cook would believe in serving the true food of Vietnam.

I know nothing at all about how Vietnamese food should taste, only that the ingredients need to be very fresh and that fish sauce is as much of a staple in that country as it is in Thailand. I come to it as most people approach Thai food in America. If it pleases my palate, then I call it good.

I’d always avoided pho after my first few bowls of it, deciding it was far too subtle for me, and ate bun bo hue instead, which is hearty and flavorful and packs a punch of heat. The first bowl of it that I ever ate had a jolt of fish paste, which I really liked and have never encountered again. Still it pleased me more than pho, which tasted like nothing at all but the herbs that accompanied it. “Too refined for me,” I decided.

Then my friend Kim came to town and we went to eat Eric Banh’s acclaimed pho at Ba Bar. After several spoonsful she told me politely, “This is good soup, but it isn’t good pho. There’s no spice in this broth.”

I was surprised because I had never realized that pho’s broth should taste like anything other than slightly salted stock. When Kim told me it should have notes of things like cinnamon as its anchor, I felt cheated and when I saw that Lemongrass had a five-spice chicken soup, I ordered it.

It wasn’t pho and the broth was a vegetable one, but it did say five-spice and I felt optimistic. I sipped my tamarind soda and looked at the other patrons. Few of them were white and that made me even happier. I smiled at the plate of mint, basil, jalapeno pepper, and bean sprouts, with its generous slice of lime and remembered the Vietnamese restaurant in Hong Kong that had told me they had no lime when I had requested it for my meal. This place had already passed that hurdle successfully.

My soup arrived in a bowl that resembled a small basin and I covered it with the herbs, sniffing happily as they released their scents. I stirred it all with my chopsticks and found three large chunks of roasted chicken with its once-crisp skin still attached. It detached from the bone easily, dark meat that hadn’t become hard and dry. It all tasted quite comforting, but where were the five-spice flavors?

They weren’t there, or if they were, they were far too delicate for me to detect. What I had in my bowl was typically Seattle pho, a light broth with a clump of rice noodles that clung together in chummy fashion at the bottom of my bowl. The difference was the roasted chicken.

It tasted good, although toward the end I wished I had chili sauce on my table to jazz up broth that had become tepid. But I ate it all and assured the boy who came to clear away the dishes that he had probably saved my life.

I left a sizable tip and went away feeling fed. Whether I was well fed or not, I have no way of knowing. I only know I was given a meal in a bowl that tasted good and made me feel much better than I had before I ate it.

And isn’t this the best that we can ask of a restaurant, especially an unpretentious neighborhood joint with low prices? In some ways I would say yes. In other ways I feel cheated. I would bet that every cook in a Seattle Vietnamese restaurant goes home and puts spices in their pho, ones that I found in a cookbook on my bookshelf. Pho contains a cinnamon stick, coriander and fennel seeds, anise and cardamom pods, and whole cloves, tied up in cheesecloth and simmered for an hour in the broth. They can be bought in a little package at a local Vietnamese grocery. I know that’s true because I bought them myself at Viet Wah recently to put in a Thai dish that I made at home.

Even when Vietnamese restaurants first appeared on US shores, these spices were available, but I’ve never detected any of those familiar flavors in a bowl of pho. They are all well known to American palates. Why aren’t they used? Is it because US eaters associate those spices with pies and recoiled from them in soup?

But then if eaters don’t know they should be there, does it matter if they are missing? As someone who has never cared for pho, I say yes. If I enjoyed the taste of salted water that is augmented with a handful of fresh herbs and the meat that floats in the broth, I’d say who cares?

And this is the question for me: is it wrong to criticize Americanized Asian dishes? They serve a purpose and make people happy. What’s not to love? But I do think it’s unfair that I now have to search for pho that has retained its traditional flavors in a city with acres of places that serve a watered down version of the real thing.