Bangkok: the money monster

12 08 2017

Bangkok is a late capitalist capital par excellence. Everywhere, from the thronged pavement stalls of the tourists strips, to the plush and shiny malls, the seedy red light bars and the alleyways of Chinatown is laden with stuff: things to buy, services to purchase, all provided with a ready smile. There is no city I can think of  where consumption is so conspicuous, and so varied. If you can’t buy it in Bangkok it likely doesn’t exist. As I once wrote, everything the human mind can devise or imitate is on sale here, often advertised commandingly on giant billboards or slick skytrain commercials. I saw one new (and well-situated) condo development tagged shamelessly, “Make yourself the centre of the universe!”

But this city of instant gratification and temptation can be a fickle monster. Trends are big here. Fads sweep through the city and then ebb away, like tsunamis. One minute everyone is crazy for yakiniku restaurants and then suddenly its all about tapas bars or organic wine. That is part of the fun of the city, gauging its obsessions du jour.

An interesting and unexpected trend I noticed on this trip was that the iconic Thailand elephant pants – beloved of backpackers but something of a running joke among the country’s more fashion forward citizens – have been (re)appropriated by Thai young people. I saw more than a few baggy Koh Phangan-style pants on hip Bangkok youth in the night markets and “walking streets”.

Even more interesting was the adoption of thanaka. The traditional Burmese herbal face-paste, until recently the preserve of the elderly and provincial, has made a big comeback in the capital, with a repackaged version given a push from a local personal care goods company. Charmingly yellow powdered faces were visible (often on working class people) around the city.

At the other end of the spectrum, well-to-do Bangkok seems to be flirting with another unlikely import. The city’s African music scene has always been surprisingly healthy but following the lead of trailblazing world music club Studio Lam, there are now at least two other African music-friendly venues aimed at upwardly mobile locals: 12 x 12, another bar in Thonglor described as a “Japanese hipster’s dream” and Third World Bar, on the second floor of the old Tapas on Silom Soi 4.

A less wholesome trend was one I read about in alarming news reports. Apparently the practice of facial surgery to create dimples – by piercing the cheeks with metal pins – had caught on and was now being practiced by unregulated and unqualified merchants at Chatuchak market, according to the lurid reports in the press.

But metal cheeks and Afro beats aside, the trend that had the biggest impact on my trip was undoubtedly an app. “Grab” is a must-download for anyone spending time in the city, a superior Southeast Asian sister to Uber. Not only is the Malaysian-based app wildly popular  – meaning that a car is never more than a few minutes away –  and cheaper than Uber with a better designed interface, it also eliminates the need to give your driver directions. You enter your destination and it pops up in English on an extremely detailed database, with a map directing your driver right there. No more tortuous conversations about “turn left after the Big C” across a language barrier, or taxi drivers who can’t read maps (or often, read at all, even if you have an address written in Thai). Grab revolutionises the ease with which you can explore Bangkok.

 





Day 7 Bangkok Art & Culture Centre 12:00am

29 07 2017

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A chilled day today, lingering over breakfast and then taking in a small exhibition by Mozambiquan artist Dino Jetha of “psikhelekedana” or wooden miniatures of everyday life.





Day 2 9pm Bangkok Screening Room

24 07 2017

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The Bangkok Screening Room is a chic new pint-sized arthouse cinema, perched above a gallery space a stone’s throw from the sweaty scrum of Sala Daeng. Its one of two spaces – along with the Friese-Green Club on Sukhumvit – offering curated non-mainstream fare in the city on a (semi) big screen in a private club or bar-like environment. I saw Ousmane Sembene’s 1966 Senegalese film, “Black Girl”.

There was also an exhibition by a Thai photographer of Cuba next door (and a splashy corporate party for L’oreal in progress when I arrived.)

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A general theory of oblivion

2 07 2017

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A General Theory of Oblivion by Portuguese-Angolan author Jose Eduardo Agualusa is a work of fiction based on a startling true story. In the tense last days of Portuguese colonial rule in Angola, an expat colonial woman finds herself unexpectedly alone in the increasingly hostile environment, and in panic and desperation, walls herself up inside her high-rise apartment…not to set foot outside for another thirty years. Through the windows she can look down on the city below, hear the gunshots and see the demonstrations, watching as the once-grand colonial apartment block all but collapses around her. She withdraws into herself, hermit-like, her days an endless stream of sunny, silent days in her penthouse, looking out over the trees and the bouganvillea flowers.

It is  fascinating premise and reading the book, so evocative of the heat and the clamour of Luanda, in the baking Hong Kong Summer is an experience in itself.





Queendom of the Merina

25 06 2017

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Above, a sculpture from an exhibition of Malagasy art at New York’s Metropolitan Museum titled “Kingdom of the Merina” and below, Madagascar’s “mad queen” Ranavalona I. 

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I was recently reading about the interesting historical figure of Queen Ranavalona, who ruled Madagascar with an iron fist from the 1830s to the 1860s. Traditionally described as a cruel tyrant, and sometimes said to have been insane, she has recently been subject to some historical revisionism. Her rule, which relied on forced labour and featured the violent persecution of Christians, was undoubtedly brutal. But postcolonial historians have wondered if her determination to stop European colonialism in its tracks and preserve Madagscar’s traditions and sovereignty (unsuccessful in the end) deserve attention as mitigating factors.

Among the hallmarks of Ranavalona’s rule was the widespread use of the tangena justice system, a kind of trial-by-torture reminiscent of that used in the witch trials of medieval Europe. An accused person would swallow the poison of the tangena tree. One source quoted by wikipedia says: “The accused would be fed the poison along with three pieces of chicken skin: if all three pieces of skin were vomited up then innocence was declared, but death or a failure to regurgitate all three pieces of skin indicated guilt.[4] Those who died were declared sorcerers. According to custom, the families of the dead were not permitted to bury them within the family tomb, but rather had to inter them in the ground at a remote, inhospitable location, with the head of the corpse turned to the south.”

In 1838 some 20% of the population may have died this way, in an anti-Christian purge.

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Worlds collide

21 06 2017

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I must have walked past this a million times without noticing, the shuttered and now sadly gone store of a mysterious Malagasy trading company. What was the Madagascar-Hong Kong connection, I wonder? Rosewood? Dinosaur teeth? Spices? Who knows…. It is in the dingy arcade of the former Central Market, an old art deco building which has been left as a gaping open sore in Hong Kong’s centre for the last six or seven years as a legal battle rages over its prime real estate.





All around the world

25 05 2017

African beats from Johannesubrg’s Batuk, and a Southern Sudanese-themed video.

The return of Thai pop star, Palmy.

And below, Japan’s Wednesday Campanella on the Mongolian steppes for “Melos”