Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Streets of Bangkok

I'm walking through the streets of Bangkok at dusk. I pick up small pieces of the conversations going on around me, the rapid-fire Thai of taxi drivers and fruit sellers, many of them speaking the thick patois of the Northeastern provinces.

It's a city so often called heartless, a vast and sprawling megalopolis with suburbs dribbling out across the marshy plains of Central Thailand. Expatriates cling to Silom and Sukhumvit Roads, dusty strips of pirated DVD stands and streetwalkers and seven year old girls selling flowers, office and shopping complexes spiraling upward, away from the contradictions of street-level life.

But I've become far fonder of the older sections of the city, especially around Hua Lamphong Station, where numerous passageways narrow down to a couple of meters wide. Walk down Yaowarat Road, a long boulevard lined with food stalls and hung with Christmas lights, a million chirpy conversations at every streetside table in Thai, Chinese, and English. Turn left or right, down into one of the sois, and the streets are empty, the shop doors locked. A fluorescent light glows as an old man eats noodles and drinks beer and watches the TV news, but otherwise the old neighborhoods are devoid of life.

The buildings down here are of uncertain architectural vintage. A few stylistic details stand out, an occasional Victorian window or art deco clock. Built at some anonymous point between 1880 and 1950, they look, to the Western eye at least, removed from time or place. At night, their heavy wooden shutters seem permanently closed off to the world. The power lines hang low over the pavements, and walking home through here, the walker can feel as if a net is slowly descending from above.

Largely forgotten, these streets hold the key to the memory of an older Bangkok, a sunny tropical port town where golden stupas were the highest points piercing a multi-hued tropical sky. The spirit and the memories of the old city, uncomfortable in its modern, glass-and-steel armature, shifts around in the night. It is a rotten leg twisting against the brace.

If we look deeper, below the asphalt, we find many of the old canals that once crossed the area now buried under roadways. Bangkok was built on primeval marshlands, and due to overbuilding and climate change, will quite likely soon sink into the loamy soil. Listen late at night to the storm drains, and you can hear slowly running water-- the sound of the city slowly being reclaimed by the swamps.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

An Imagined Yugoslavia, A Real Malaysia

I spent an afternoon walking through the belt of parkland that girds the western end of Kuala Lumpur's central business district. As I approached the hill crowned by the National Monument, the path became lined by abstract sculptures laid out amid the palms and raintrees.

In each sculpture, I was reminded, eerily, of the spomeniks that Marshal Tito erected in the former Yugoslavia to commemorate the defeat of fascism in Europe. Except rather than great monoliths falling to pieces in the Balkans, these are built on an intimate, small scale and neatly maintained in a tropical garden.

At Korenica
At Kuala Lumpur
At Podgaric
At Kuala Lumpur
At Ostra
At Kuala Lumpur
Was there a connection? Or was this just another sign of the universalizing tendencies of abstract sculpture? In so many sculptures where form trumps representation, where syntax outpaces semantics, everything starts to look the same.

This convergence of form and idea has happened to me, to everyone, hundreds of times before. We see something that looks like something else and we wonder if these two things are connected by some common strand of thought and experience. Perhaps there is a connection here. These Malaysian and Yugoslavian sculptors could have both studied under the same art theorists, or read the same books, or been to the same galleries. The great mass of collective experience buries whatever connections may or may not exist.

The image is translated from the former Yugoslavia to Malaysia, a country few Western media outlets cover. It is a small, peaceful country, quietly developing into a first world state, a serene peninsula balanced above the equator.

I've never been to Eastern Europe. My encounters with the Balkan states have been a few Bulgarian and Croatian friends, the writings of Danilo Kis and Ismaïl Kadaré, and the grainy images of the shellings of Sarajevo and Belgrade that dominated the newscasts of my elementary school years.

But I've spent weeks traipsing up and down the western coast of Malaysia, wandering through the rabbit's warren of old Kuala Lumpur, walking along the seaside in Penang, sipping tea and hiking through plantations in the Cameron Highlands, eating laksa and nasi lemak and curry puffs.

I encounter the reflection of the imagined Yugoslavia in the Malaysia I know so well. If I had first seen these sorts of structures in a Malaysian garden, I would have wandered off, maybe thought about what I'd seen over a cup of coffee, and then forgotten about them. But having only seen them in photographs, I can take flight with them, weave a narrative about their existence heavy with the weight of ideology and modernity.

Instead, I look inward. I stare at the sculpture perched over the ornamental pool, and place it in the continuum of experience. It is the monument that looks like the monument that I saw in a photo that reminds me of something I know about history, which is something I read in a book or saw on TV. I follow my idea back through the infinite regress of memory, until those memories become too hazy to recognize as such.