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


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


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.)



A general theory of oblivion

2 07 2017


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


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. 


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.


Worlds collide

21 06 2017


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”

Aline Frazao : Ao Vivo

19 04 2017

New world star

6 03 2017


Portuguese producer Branko is part Manu Chao, part Diplo. While his former group Buraka Som Sistema took Angola’s kuduro music to the Europe MTV Awards stage, new album Atlas matches glitchy electronic beats with guest artists from Brazil and South Africa, amongst other places, to create a tapestry of modern world sound.



21st century boy

12 02 2017

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Meet the new face of Seoul, 16-year-old Nigerian-Korean model Han Hyun Min, who broke out at this year’s Seoul Fashion Week. Sign o’ the times.


The art of Belkis Ayon

25 01 2017


Afro-Cuban symbolism in the art of Belkis Ayon, who sadly took her own life at the age of 32.

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Tkay Maidza

30 12 2016

Australia’s own Azealia Banks – but less crazy.

Pieter Hugo

12 12 2016

Jamaican porn star fashion shoots, Nigerian hyena-men and Carnival fools in                           South African photographer Pieter Hugo’s powerful portrait work.

A history of the greatest

12 12 2016


I was intrigued recently by this article on the Guardian website, a history of the cities which have been, at some time in the last five thousand years, the greatest city on Earth. It is an incredibly romantic, surprisingly long and notably heterogenous list: China is of course well-represented, as is Earth’s current number one metropolis, Tokyo. But the cities sprawl across four continents – Africa, interestingly, included – and contain a host of names that once represented vibrant, thrusting world capitals which have now been all but completely forgot. There is Merv, the Central Asian trading post subsumed into the Soviet Union and now an historical monument in Turkmenistan. As well, the list contains a trio of Ukrainian obscurities which each housed up to forty thousand people three-and-a-half millennia before Christ, making them the largest (known) Neolithic settlements on the planet. Rome is there, of course, and Constantinople. New York. London. But also Cordoba, Carthage (really?), Fez – the Athens of Africa under the Almoravid dynasty – and a host of cities in modern-day Iraq like Seleucia and Cstephon, the ancient Babylonian capital set upon by the Roman and Muslim legions. India is represented by Shravastri, lying under the shadow of the Himalayas, and Pataliputra, while the forgotten tropical Buddhist port of Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka also makes the list. So does amphibious Ayutthaya, now a provincial town on the outskirts of Bangkok but until its sacking by the Burmese in the seventeenth-century, the great trading centre of South East Asia, its canals buzzing with commerce and its palaces home to a Greek Prime Minister, his Indian-Portuguese wife and an army of Japanese samurais under the command of a naturalised Japanese lord-cum-Thai-aristocrat.


The article is a thrilling reminder that the world has always been a more complex, and more fluid, place than we sometimes give it credit for.

Sufi surrealism: Maïmouna Guerresi

20 10 2016


Images by Senegalese-Italian artist Maïmouna Guerresi.


Play it again, Sam

17 10 2016


One of the world’s great Art Deco cities, Casablanca.

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Yinka Shonibare at K-11 Art mall

12 10 2016


A Tuesday night at the Mansions

21 09 2016


I ventured out on a Tuesday night to the notorious Chungking Mansions, the “ghetto at the centre of the world”. Together with some friends, I had decided to track down the African food that was reputed to be found there. We had been warned that many of the restaurants there, being unlicensed and therefore technically illegal, would be unwelcoming to outsiders, and we didn’t have so much as an address or even a phone number but we figured we would wander around and try to strike it lucky. Which we did, in a way.

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Upon entering we were mobbed by touts of the famous curry houses on the upper floors – in all my trips to the mansion I have never experienced anything like it. But after we forced our way through the scrum and piled into an elevator, waiting for the previous occupant to lug out numerous bags of some kind of tradeable commodity, we got out at a random floor. Strings of green fruit, some kid of citrus and peppers, were hanging over the doorways (some kind of charm), and one door opened briefly to reveal a crimson-robed Bhutanese (?) monk inside, then shut just as fast. Black and Indian faces pressed past. Soon we were told that there was an African restaurant on the floor, behind a door with no sign, and on ringing the bell we sure enough glimpsed a room with Congolese music playing and tall African dudes sitting around chatting in a windowless room. The Filipina clerk who answered the door had a hasty conversation with an unseen boss (“There are some Chinese outside, they want to come in”) and we were told the restaurant was “fully booked” but we could sit in the Indian restaurant next door and order from their menu – which we did, supplementing delicious naan and paneer with fufu rice, a spicy fish dish and okra chicken stew from Tanzania, although they also offered Nigerian dishes like abacha and ugba, watching Kylie Minogue’s never-before-glimpsed Bollywood video on the TV screen mounted to the wall.

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Just another night in the mansions.


Luanda calling

21 09 2016

Above, a new video from Aline Frazao, filmed live on a breezy Luanda rooftop and here, a link to the free album download for fellow Angolan artist Nastio Mosquito and his new disc, “Mugger EImigrante  (immigrant) & Family Guy”. Mosquito is also a high profile visual  artist who will open a show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art next month.

Black man in a white world

11 09 2016

The soulful voice of Ugandan-British singer Michael Kiwanuka on his new album “Love and Hate”.

A star is born

20 08 2016


Olajumoke Orisaguna was selling bread on the streets of Lagos when she happened upon a photo shoot for UK star Tinie Tempah and photobombed the star. Everyone loved the picture and she has since gone on to sign with one of Nigeria’s top modelling agencies. A star is born!