Thursday, September 27, 2007

Bangkok to rights

I just discovered the following on my hard drive. I wrote it at the end of 2005 for the column I had in Metro, a Bangkok lifestyle magazine, but it "kind of got lost in the system" according to the editor. Re-reading it, and bearing in mind the political sensitivities one needs to run any kind of business in Thailand, not to mention the irony gap, I can understand why he lost it. The column fizzled out; the editor only lasted another few months, and Metro a couple more after that.

This is the piece as I wrote it at the time. Some of the references are out of date; the airport's up and sort of running now. I've provided links for the really parochial stuff. I think I must have been in a pretty sour mood at the time, but much still rings true.

Title: Truly, Madly, But Not Terribly Deeply

Byline: Tim Footman

The jazz singer Carmen Bradford, we are told, is performing for our louche, retro delectation at Bangkok’s answer to the Village Vanguard, the Sheraton Grande. It would be criminal not to check out her scatty doo-wop, daddio, because, according to the ads, Ms Bradford is “the world’s greatest artist”.

Yup, you heard it right. We’re not just talking about the world’s greatest singer here, with Pavarotti and Callas and Ella and Aretha and, by all means, Tata and Bird all coming to pay tribute on bended knee. She’s The World’s Greatest Artist, in any field of endeavour. Picasso can kiss Ms. Bradford’s arias. Shakespeare can hurl himself into her high C. That lame charlatan Dickens can stick her microphone up his Barnaby Rudge.

You see, in Bangkok, there seems to be a cultural understanding that, if you say something, it becomes true, no matter how demanding the leap between rhetoric and reality might appear.

So it is that a government minister can come up with a comment like “Suvarnabhumi province will be as big as Singapore but it will be more modern with a special administration team to run the new city and the airport.” Responses such as, “Er… no it won’t, actually,” are decried as being un-Thai. When some influential person agreed to pay a perfectly fair and sensible price for security equipment at the new airport, he clearly forgot to ask for a spare bullshit detector.

There are all sorts of culturally sensitive explanations for this Thai reticence to question untruths, delusions, hyperbole and what we used to call when I was kneehigh to a legless beggar, bollocks. Chief among these is the social taboo that means unpleasant confrontations should be avoided wherever possible. Don’t say nasty things about anyone or anything, because that upsets social harmony, increases bad karma, and just to be on the unsafe side, you might get your ass sued.

In a way, this is healthy. If you tell yourself often enough that the traffic’s a breeze, the air’s breathable and the politicians are just in the game to fulfil their patriotic duty, you’ll end up believing it, and you’ll be happy, which is surely what life is about. There’s no bird flu, the war on drugs only took out the bad guys and Kathaleeya McIntosh is a virgin. Focus too much on that traffic cop who pocketed a couple of hundred to overlook a u-turn that never actually happened, and you’ll just get an ulcer. It’s not that Thais prefer lies – they just tend to select the most attractive and convenient option from a wide selection of alternative truths.

This is also why books and movies and restaurants don’t really get reviewed in Thailand. If you’re lucky, a journalist will correct the typos and Thainglish in the official press release before sticking it straight into a publication’s ‘What’s On’ slot. The idea of critical discrimination – of someone sitting down and deciding what’s good, what’s bad and what’s hovering somewhere in the region of mediocre – is anathema to how Thailand works. It’s not surprising then, that so many people honestly believe that the airport will be open on time, despite the fact that the original deadline was fixed in the days of biplanes and airships. This is also why someone, somewhere really thinks that Carmen Bradford is the greatest artist in the world, ever, no questions asked, and Rembrandt and Rubens and Brahms and Liszt and Keats and Yeats aren’t. Although they can be the greatest as well, if they place an ad saying so. Flawed logic is no barrier to reality, Siam style.

Anyway, for your aesthetic edification, here’s the unlacquered truth about what’s been making the cultural running in the last few months:

*Movie reviews: Bangkok World Film Festival. You didn’t miss much. All the decent films were 40 years old and shown in the afternoon, and you can get bootleg DVDs of them in Silom anyway.

*Music reviews: Samui Music Festival. Of course nobody was going to hike down there to see UB40. They’re shit.

*Book reviews: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. You shouldn’t be reading this book if you have more than three pubic hairs.

*Dance reviews: That unfeasibly enhanced one at Cowboy. Don’t be stupid. She doesn’t love you. She just wants your money. And she’s doing a policeman on the side, the one who shook you down for the non-existent u-turn this morning. Grow up, you priapic sap.

Any of the above opinions can be revised if a) the relevant people wish to advertise in Metro or b) someone slips me a few thousand and a new iPod. But this is OK. Thailand is the best country in the world and there is no corruption here. That’s the truth, because I say so, and so does that traffic cop, the one who’s not doing your girlfriend.


Billy said...

"You shouldn’t be reading this book if you have more than three pubic hairs."

Ha! Amen to that...

Noel Boivin said...

Ha, full of home truths indeed!

However, after having visited Carmen Bradford's website, I wonder if she missed a golden opportunity to incorporate some of the advertising techniques used to promote her show in Bangkok into her own promotional material. Her website would have all the more zing if she added one line to what's already there:

"Performances on 4 Grammy Award winning albums; Sold out concerts in over 40 countries; 27 years of music history; GREATEST ARTIST EVER". Other artists might just give up the ghost after a declaration like that.

The condo ads in Bangkok are the most obscenely over the top with the hyperbole. has one such ad on its site now, the text of which reads "A perfect living among perfect neighbors" Then in a smaller, more modest font, "Heaven on earth at 150 Million", and in the fine print "plus an ultimate dreamed car" (the ad is the size of a small building and they can't hire a copy-editor?).

Anyway, I think your column might well be as timely in 10 years as it is now, sadly enough. Your reviews at the end of the article certainly will still be applicable!


BTW - My blog is finally up and running - Do pay a visit when you get a chance. It is the greatest thing EVER.

Tim F said...

The question is, Billy, is it permissible to read HB if you've been thoroughly waxed?

I should alert readers to the fact that Mr Boivin has, between his regular blackouts and episodes of delirium tremens, managed to write a really rather amusing book about incidents of what A&E doctors abbreviate as PAFO. Recommended.

Dick Headley said...

You caught the topsy turvy Thai thing quite well there Tim. It might make a good letter to the editor from 'Arthur' in Chiang Mai but too close to the bone for general release.

Anonymous said...

I love it when you get cross. And I'm delighted you rediscovered your piece about the once and future Bangkok. I like it. It's the greatest piece ever. Of course THE greatest is Ali. He's said so himself once or twice I think. He's not dead you know.

Rimshot said...

Is there anyplace that you actually like? I'm not saying...I'm just saying...

Tim F said...

But I *am* Arthur from Chiang Mai, dh.

Ali is the greatest, VftV, but Foreman is the funniest.

My problem is that I get annoyed with places if I spend too long there, rimshot. My three favourite cities are Barcelona, Hong Kong and Montreal - mainly because I've spent about a fortnight in all three combined.

Rimshot said...

Ooh, Barcelona...I've long wanted to go to Spain.

...and Mike Tyson is the Ear-Biteyest.