Monday, August 29, 2016

The Ghosts of My Neighborhood

This neighborhood, the place where I live, is a land of ghosts. Its street names-- those that translate to Windmill, Red Pavilion, Betel-Vine Plantation – reflect a more innocent time, when its myriad canals watered the little farms that gave an earlier Bangkok a reputation as a city of fruits and flowers. From the old groves and orchards, the main roads are lined with office and condo towers. And yet the back streets are still dotted with decaying turn-of-the-century mansions, house with wide eaves and typhoon shutters, antique Karmann Ghias and Aston Martins in their driveways, chambers stuffy with memories of black-and-white photos of military strongmen, Chinese opera, noodles sold from boats. One is reminded of the Sunset Boulevard of Norma Desmond, or the “senseless-killing” neighborhood at the beginning of Joan Didion's “The White Album.”

“The house on Franklin Avenue was rented, and paint peeled inside and out, and pipes broke and window sashes crumbled and the tennis court had not been rolled since 1933, but the rooms were many and high-ceilinged and, during the five years I lived there, even the rather sinistral inertia of the neighborhood tended to suggest that I should live in the house indefinitely. In fact, I could not, because the owners were waiting only for a zoning change to tear the house down and build a high-rise apartment building, and for that matter it was precisely this anticipation of imminent but not exactly immediate destruction that gave lent the neighborhood its particular character.”

And there is something that vaguely aspires to the non-tropical, in these old chauffeured European cars, in the teak-made half-timbers of the houses. When the ancient khunying of the neighborhood being pushed around in wheelchairs by nurses were in their prime, The Sound of Music was the most successful film in Thai history. And there is something that aspires to the Alpine about these old houses, to be ski chalets in an imagined prewar Austria. It comes even in the street names, where quiet side lanes are christened Convent, Goethe, Mozart, Saint-Louis, Trocadero.

Countless of these memories are tied to the days of the Cold War, when Thailand was theorized to be a critical domino in Southeast Asia. That house around the corner from me behind a high wall, where I can barely see the new flag of the now-Republic of the Union of Myanmar flying was before housed ambassadorial functions of the USSR. Around the corner was the house of the ambassador representing the Czar of All the Russias before the October Revolution. On the other side of the Iron Curtain, a mysterious black door on Sathorn Road still leads to a US military facility where you can enjoy a Department of Defense-subsidized whiskey on the rocks, in a hall festooned with stars-and-stripes bunting, and lined with the photos of the old commanding officers, half of them stern-faced, half of them looking like militarized Jackie Gleasons.

On the level of the foot soldier, there are still some of the same smoke-hazed go-go bars of Patpong, immortalized in the whorehouse scene of The Deer Hunter, where Michiganders and Alabamians on R&R stared at dancing girls in G-strings. The remnants are found in a couple of eateries, Mizu's Kitchen and The Derby King, where they still have the same cracked vinyl booths, and serve the same interpretations of pork chops and spaghetti and meatballs, Yankee comfort food as filtered through an Asian lens.

After the G.I.s packed up came the hippies. Following through after Kabul, Kashmir, and Kathmandu, a handful found their way east to hang up their Nehru shirts in the old counterculture enclave of Ngam Duphli Road, at places like the Malaysia Hotel, now the refuge of gay sex tourists. It was there that Charles Sobhraj, assisted by the fawning young women who surrounded him, lured the occasional unsuspecting traveler back to his apartment at Kanit House on Sala Daeng Road, before drugging them with Quaaludes, robbing them, and eventually murdering them.


The city tries and tries to move forward, to lumber into the new century. This week, the tallest building in the Kingdom, the 312 meter, 77-story Mahanakhon Tower, opens this week, a spire of interlocking cubes that looks utopian in sunlight, dystopian under clouds. A glittering new city attempts to pierce through the old, but the rumble of the ghosts is heard below the earth.

Across the street from the new skyscraper, I see the holy man sitting on the bench at the bus stop, his neck wrapped in a dozen garlands, his eyes focused on the day's issue of the Thai Rath, even though it's 10:00 at night, and there's no streetlight. Is he dead? Is he sleeping? For a second, I'm even wondering if he is a grotesque sculptural installation, some oddball commentary on life in the megalopolis.

I want to look closer, but I don't want to take the risk of startling him, to have a rough encounter. I can't see if his eyes are open-- his face is caked thick and white, like the tribesmen of New Guinea who gather en masse on Mount Hagen to demonstrate each others' rituals. Is he really a holy man, a sadhu of some kind? Or simply homeless, a local Buddhist variant of the toothless street preachers on American soil?

I look back as I walk up the steps to the metro station. He still stares into his newspaper in the dark.