HERE THEY COME!


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Chinese tourists on the beach at Phi Phi island, Thailand, the setting for the Leonardo de Caprio movie The Beach, about an isolated, virtually unknown tropical paradise.

HERE COME THE CHINESE

The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman has been saying this for years, but it took me moving to Indo-china to witness it firsthand. Tucked as I am between India and China, which contain most of the world’s population, I shouldn’t be surprised to eventually notice my gargantuan neighbors. But something big has happened in just the time I have been here. The Chinese middle class has become affluent enough to travel. And now they are everywhere.

The Chinese especially love Thailand, because here anything goes. It is to them a wide-open, highly affordable,and exotic place. It’s their Mexico. The low-budget Chinese comedy “Lost in Thailand”, sort of an Asian “Hangover”’ prompts hoards of young people to revisit the locations shown in the movie. Many of them are in Chiang Mai, where I live, in the North. In the last two weeks, during Chinese New Year, when we had 200,000 Chinese tourists visit our city of half that size, young couples with two-thousand-dollar cameras wandered in a daze, taking pictures of each other, of anything and nothing at all. They’re simulating the act of taking pictures the way five-year olds pretend to drive a toy car. They do everything in clumps. They are not used to being alone or unsupervised, and they don’t know what to do with that freedom.

Currently, I am in Southern Thailand, on the beach, two hours south of Hua Hin, and the Chinese are here, too. These are not the young hipsters, but rather the middle class who have just gotten rich enough to join tour groups. They travel in clumps of three and four giant busses, partying on the beach, singing karaoke, and taking selfies with their cellphones. As a rule, this class doesn’t have SLR cameras yet. They are an older crowd. The probably remember how to ride bicycles. You young hipsters who come to Chiang Mai don’t know, because China forsook the bicycle twenty years ago.

They certainly don’t seem to chafe under the restrictions on individual freedoms, in fact they seem happy to have their activities programmed. Last night I came across a beach party for a large group of Thal young people, maybe office workers. They were probably on a team-building business excursion. They too were lined up sitting in the sand in neat rows, with supervisors speaking to them over megaphones. They seemed to be having a good time. Who am I to criticize?

This is the part of the world that revels in copyright infringement, that apes every western trend, where the movie theaters are full of our most infantile cinematic product. Fast and Furious 7 is coming to theaters soon, and you can be it will be quite a hit. But when will Asia come into its own? When will a few rebellious Thai or Burmese boys start a band that changes world music, or invent a computer in their garage that sets the word on fire?

One thing we have to remember is that English is the dominant language for tourism and business, and that the Chinese are rapidly learning to speak it. Thais have so far done a marvelous job of refusing to do so. Aided by a feudal government school system, they are quickly being sidelines. And then there is the question of the military dictatorship, martial law, lese majeste laws that prohibit any free dialogue about the current state of affairs. So don’t look to Thailand as the sparkplug for Asian progress.

Thais are no enraptured by the Chinese visitors. In general, Chinese speak loudly, crudely, spit on the ground, don’t flush toilets, and put less value on politeness than do Thais. But Thailand is grateful for the income Chinese tourism brings. Without it, the drop in Western tourism brought about by the coupe and subsequent crackdowns on free speech would have been far more painful.

Yes, the Chinese are coming and there are a lot more of them on the way. Their migration around the world as tourists and then investors will change every country that welcomes them. When I lived in San Francisco, North Beach went from being an Italian neighborhood to an extension of Chinatown, thanks to the first wave of those fleeing Hong Kong before it was turned over the mainland China. Housing prices spiked all up and down the West Coast. When I was in Argentina most of the all-you-can eat restaurants, grocery stores, and variety stores were owned by the Chinese.

Here in Thailand, I pay a $35 tourist visa fee to enter the country. The Chinese pay nothing. I once visited a super luxury resort near Chiang Mai. The staff took one look at my clothing and decided they would tolerate my presence but not encourage it. I was surrounded by rich Chinese hipsters playing with their I-pads as they nursed expensive drinks. I asked for a brochure. The staff informed me they were all out.

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The Girl of My Dreams


post-37737-1311736782 The problem with living in a fantasy world is that even though it doesn’t really exist, it follows you everywhere you go. And certain concepts, like the perfect partner are not only illusory but destructive to real life relationships, proving an effective deterrent to peace of mind. But, like the perfect beach or tropical resort, these concepts sometimes have a life of their own. And often, they are peddled to an unritical audience. Note here Chinese tourists visiting Phi Phi island, Thailand, best known as the location for the movie “The Beach” about a pristine and perfect beach whose location had to be kept a secret in order to keeping it from being ruined. Guess some tour operators and tourists found a way around that one.

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Touched by a Stooge, Real Life Encounters with the Howard Brothers


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Kids growing up in the fifties and sixties in America often saw the Three Stooges on  their local TV channels.  The two-reel short subjects that had been cranked out by Columbia pictures from the thirties to the early forties were now fodder for cheap programming, and by virtue of the fact that anything so numerous and cheap would be replayed continually meant that many of us who had memorized most of the Stooges shorts also saw our fill of Gene Autrey “Radio Ranch” serials, Flash Gordon and The Little Rascals.

But we knew the world of the Stooges better than our own backyards.  The films we saw were scarcely thirty years old at the time, which would make what we’re talking about the equivalent of today watching TV made in the late eighties.  Something like the Power Rangers.

Most kids get up earlier than do their parents, and at least in cities, TV programming began at dawn. (Farm TV also began at dawn but was limited to a man stiffly reading the Livestock and Feed market prices, along with a brief weather report.  Then the TV channel left the air until evening)  As a child in a Chicago suburb, I would carry my bowl of Cheerios to the Silvertone to watch Industry on Parade newsreels, to hear mellifluous announcers narrate the saga of Aluminum, Friend to the Housewife, as ore became pot and pan which is turn helped a harried homemaker make dinner.  I would watch whatever was on. This included religious programs and armed forces recruitment films, endless re-runs of World War II footage and any other free programming the stations had to offer at that hour.  In the afternoon, after school, the fare was more kid-friendly, Bomba the Jungle Boy, early Tarzan movies, and of course, the Stooges.

Fifties kid-TV offered a puzzling pot-pourri, and stew that gave glimpses of a more ethnic America that one saw on Ed Sullivan or What’s My Line?  For me, the Stooges held the greatest mystery of all.  Why were these three Jewish men so poor and so mean to each other? I thought Jews had money and were funny, but these guys slept three to a bed, owned one suit of clothes each and were always looking for work for which they had no skill or training. Were they brothers?  Who was that woman who threw them out of bed in the morning?  Their mother or their land lady?

The TV became the parent in locis, and seemed to say every time he or she was flipped on (after fifteen seconds of warm up, first a dot, then a full screen) “Welcome kid, this is the world you were born into.  Good luck.  Looks kind of scary sometimes but it’s not that bad.  Could be worse.  You could be that kid in the iron lung on display at the State Fairgrounds, the one staring up through the little window while other kids walked by, some dropping a dime in the little bucket that hung at the head of the machine.

Besides, the Cuban missile crisis is just a few years in the future and we’ll probably all be incinerated by then.  So drink your Kool Aid and yukk it up with our good friend the Station Engineer, who is half-heartedly pretending to be a cowboy or a clown, and who is looking forward to that happy hour drink he always takes as soon as this kiddy show leaves the air.”

IS GOOD TASTE MY TASTE?


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The Challenge of Unbridled Development

Maybe all development isn’t ugly, but if you’re looking for the exceptions to the rule, Thailand isn’t the place you’ll find it.  Here, anyone who has enough money to build anything can and will, and if permits are required, they will quickly be granted for sufficient consideration. The super-rich can afford architects and walled estates, but everyone else is simply encroaching on the landscape as quickly as possible and with little visible foresight.

It is the season for burning rice paddies in the North of Thailand, and in my search for a place with breathable air, I flew south from Chiang Mai to Bangkok, and then took a series of mini-vans until I found this place, Ban Kroot, a relatively unspoiled village on the Andaman sea coast. Palm trees abound, the beach is white sand and unspoiled, but the big question is, “for how long?”

There are a few resorts in town and a few new ones being built a few kilometers up and down the coast.  Dogs sleep in the middle of the road during the day.  Life moves at a leisurely pace.  Fresh ocean breezes make even a hot afternoon bearable.

But for how long? This is not just Thailand’s problem, but the whole developing world’s. The rich can do whatever they want, wherever they want.  They can hop skip and jump around the globe, following fashion and chasing novelty.  Most people in the third world never travel more than two hours from where they were born. This is it for them. Mess this up, and they will always live in a mess.

Yesterday I heard a retired guy about my age complaining that he used to spend a lot of time on the hippy full moon festival island Koh Panang twenty-five years ago, but upon a recent visit he was horrified to find that everything he had liked about the place had been destroyed.  He wondered if there were somewhere he could go where this would not be the case.  I wanted to throttle him for his arrogance and self-centeredness, yet I understood where he was coming from.

“Sure buddy, such a place exists, only it doesn’t have a name yet, at least not a name listed on travel sites. It’s a tiny village that nobody knows or cares about yet.  If you go there and make something happen that will attract other people, then they’ll move there and tell their friends, and then later, probably after you’re dead, it will become a horrible place that other old farts complain used to be a nice place.”

When I grew up in Missouri, there were no laws regulating billboards.  The highways were lined with the gaudiest and more lurid billboard advertisements, especially for tourist attractions.  “Meramec Caverns!  Jesse James Hideout!” “Onanadoga Cave!” Every barn within a mile of the Interstate highway was painted with ads. Until I visited Iowa, I thought that was normal.

But Iowa had regulated such advertising, so only sober, government signs were permitted.  South Dakota had taken a cue from Missouri, and you could mark your progress on Interstate 90 towards and away from Wall Drug by the inch, if you preferred.

Thailand is more like Missouri and South Dakota than Iowa. There is no regulation of any kind, for anything, as far as I can tell.  If you can pay for it, you can do it. And the public has no right to silence.  Sounds trucks blaring advertisements clog the roads of cities

Most of us find medieval villages and farmhouses to be more quaint and charming than Soviet apartment blocks.  Is this a function of their design, or their relative frequency? What about modern American apartment complexes designed to resemble medieval villages, with fake timber beams criss-crossing sheets of drywall?

It’s not just the development of land to which one can object, it’s the recurring, copycat events we stage in the name of culture.  How many film festivals do we need?  Is the current plethora of film festivals a sign of an actual cinematic artistic renaissance or the result of copy-cat maneuverings by regional development offices?

And what do they have to do with the actual state of creative dramatic Art in America?  If you passed a law forbidding theater companies from staging “A Christmas Carol” or dance companies from mounting “The Nutcracker,” most of them would go dark within six months.  How’s that for creativity? What’s really happening in the arts that we can get excited about?

Obviously to answer these questions requires defining taste, and that’s a hard thing to do, especially by proclamation.  One man’s eyesore is another man’s goldmine.

Guess I’m glad I’m not really in charge of much of anything, because then I’d have to go to meetings in stuffy conference rooms and endure power point presentations when I’m not listening to angry people complain about others people’s lack of good taste.

Remote Paradise by the Sea


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In my attempt to escape the smoke that engulfs Northern Thailand at the time of year, I retreated to the far south, to a small town on the ocean.  It’s called “Baan Kroot” and nobody’s ever heard of it which why I’m here.  It’s two or three hours south of Hua Hin, which everybody’s heard of. A few funky resorts line the sandy beach.  There is no real downtown, but a market appears and disappears at a vacant lot with regularity.  The people seem happy and nobody seems sick of tourists.

I found this idyllic village by the sea quite by accident while trolling the Internet.  Basically, all the descriptions repeated the same theme: there’s nothing happening here, the restaurants and cheap and good, the sand is white, the ocean gentle, and most of the visitors are middle aged.

If someone had told me thirty years ago that I would one day prefer the company of my current peers, I would have laughed.  How boring! Where are the hipsters, the discos, the cute girls? Somewhere far away, I hope. I went out on my rented bicycle last night in search of aspirin and Kleenex tissues.  In the dark, I passed by a group of twenty or so young men all lounging on their motor scooters.  They politely directed me to the Seven Eleven.  As in most Thai villages, the Seven Eleven (referred to simply as Seven) is ground zero for commerce.

This narrow peninsula running  south from the main part of Thailand stretches for many hundreds of miles.  A the eastern half belongs to Thailand, and the western half to Myanmar. These countries are markedly different.  Their languages are dissimilar, they use different alphabets, the people don’t look the same, and Burmese women coat their cheeks with a powder which Thai women eschew.

The Burmese side of this peninsula is totally undeveloped.  No roads, no electricity, no water, no sewers.  Someday, of course that will all change.  At night the squid boats glow green a few miles off shore.  Fishing is the main source of income down here.

Thailand is a very different place. Even though all of Indo-China may seem the same from a distance, the Indo-Chinese don’t think so.  Only Thais speak Thai. After you’ve been here a while, you can tell people from one country to another pretty quickly.

Even though it’s cool here by the sea, the heat is coming back with a vengeance, and as soon as I can safely return to Chiang Mai I’ll have to deal with the horrors blazing heat and Song Kran, another youth-inspired holiday where total strangers throw ice water on each other.  Sometimes they hurl buckets of ice water with cubes on a passing motorcyclist.  People die.  Ha ha!  Good clean fun!

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LOOKING FOR LOVE OR ITS COUNTERPART


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The men who come to Thailand looking for love or its counterpart are not the ones who resemble movie stars. As a rule, they are the guys who struggled to find girlfriends back where they came from, and are hoping that the economic incentives a developing country offers might make them more desirable.  They are often right, though you get what you pay for. Purposeful forgetting will not erase the fact that this is a largely economic transaction. When questioned, most of these men will insist that the woman in question finds them charming or interesting or funny, and that the money has nothing to do with it.

It can be fun to see these hookups in action.  Not all of them are exploitative or creepy.  Pattaya is Bangkok’s whorehouse-by-the-sea. There, many an aging Caucasian man can be seen hanging onto the arm of a young Thai hottie.  I don’t think any one man or any one woman in this case is guilty of anything.  Since the women speak only a few words of English and the men speak no Thai, not much conversation goes on, but they both look reasonably content in each other’s company.  It’s not a creepy scene.  It’s a business deal, up-front and out in the open.  It’s transparent.

And how important are age and looks anyway?  If two people want to be together for whatever reason, why shouldn’t they, no matter whether their partnership fits into conventional models of romance?

I am a retired Caucasian man in Thailand and have recently met an attractive Thai girlfriend who is nineteen years my junior.  She doesn’t speak English, and I only speak a little Thai, so communicating about practical matters is often problematic.  Google Translate can only do so much.  When I describe our relationship to my women friends they always ask “How do you communicate?”  No man has ever asked me that.

Don’t know how far we’ll be able to run with this, but so far, I’d have to say that our lack of a common spoken language has had one unintended benefit.  She has never invited me to talk about our “relationship.” and we have never wasted a moment of our time together arguing about abstractions.