Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Cinnamon Shops

I set out on foot from On Nut Road – a bow-shaped arterial which links the Sukhumvit corridor to the Lat Krabang area on the eastern edge of Bangkok – to the Ekkamai intersection. It was an uncharacteristically cool morning, and ideal for a bit of exploration.

It's a fast-changing strip that I walked through. It was not long ago that this area was mostly known has the haunting grounds of Mae Nak, subject of one of the most celebrated ghost stories of Thai folklore. According to legend, she dies while her husband is off fighting the Burmese, and unable to leave her beloved, she stays behind, only to be left again.

A shrine to her remains at Wat Mahabut, but now the rice paddies and mangroves she wandered are but a distant memory, long since replaced by oil refineries and textile plants, and, more recently, the condos that have mushroomed up as the metro system has pushed further east and south, the wooden houses torn down to make way for 30-story towers, the cottage-industry workshops superseded by “lifestyle centers,” deep-fried mackerel and cheap coffee made sweet with condensed milk replaced with mediocre espresso and unagi rolls.

But the new can only displace the old to a certain extent, and in fugitive corners, the old still thrives.

I walk down Sukhumvit, first past a row of shops selling bargain appliances wrapped in plastic, followed by another row all selling caged doves and goldfish. And as I cut down below the bridge over the foul smelling Phra Khanong Canal, itself beneath the entwined concrete serpentines of a freeway interchange, a few open-air barbershops ply their trade, ancient men clipping away at military flat-tops underneath insect-swarmed lights, each stall with a single, torn brown leatherette seat.

Perhaps “fugitive corners” is the wrong term, because they aren't corners, but margins. Much like how in the American Midwest, prairie species continued to thrive along the embankments of railroad lines and cemetery fences, the remnants of the old Bangkok form a tentacular pattern, likewise along railroad lines and canals, underneath highways, pressed hard between six-lane roads choked with barreling delivery trucks.

Underneath the shadow of the crystalline new city, the lumpenproletariat make their living among rust-stained concrete and rebar, and these spaces are filled with hidden patterns, specialized markets, ethnic and linguistic links to the parched Burmese plains, the hills of Java, the swampy ground of the Mekong Delta.

I haven't explored these areas thoroughly. When I've walked through their hearts, more often than not, I've felt unwanted, an interloper, past living rooms open to the street where families gathered on duvets on the floor to watch the evening game shows and soap operas, before foyers that seemed like junk shops gathering years of scrap wood and old calendars, into engine shops and hardware stores smelling of oil and metal, parts of antique Fiats and Datsuns oxidizing on creaking shelves.

The cinnamon shops, I think, as I cross the bridge over the canal.

In 1934, Bruno Schulz published his story of that name, the story of a young boy adrift amid the magical junk shops of Schulz's hometown of Drohobycz, now part of Ukraine, but variously Polish, Russian, and Austrian in previous times. The cinnamon shops, to Schulz, were the wondrous repositories of the exotic and the forgotten, “Bengal lights, magic boxes, the stamps of long-forgotten countries, Chinese decals, indigo, calaphony from Malabar, the eggs of exotic insects...”

And this resonated so closely when I read Schulz. For as long as I could remember, I had been attracted to the ancient and the forgotten, and had scoured garage sales and used bookstores for antique atlases and postcards. I was just at the age, when I read Schulz, when I dove headlong into the “vintage,” wearing shirts that had been worn for years by Iowan farmers. To see this desire reflected in a totally different time, that of the Galician steppe 70 years before, but in identical form – and what the fuck was calaphony? – was bracing.

So wherever I have lived and traveled since, I have been aware of entering the cinnamon shops. I had seen them in vellum scripts in Oxford, their 18th Century handwriting verging on the illegible, in the dusty junk-drawer Main Street storefronts of Iowa and Minnesota, in a pile of old printing blocks in Nikko, an hour north of Tokyo.

As the city moves upwards, what were once the main form of commerce in Bangkok become the cinnamon shops. The standard Chinese remedies are now patent medicines in dusty jars. The weekly magazines of the Thai housewives of the 1960s are now a mildewing pile. The decorative temple-mural pattern on a notebook becomes a cheap relic. The once brand-new row of masonry houses now lurks beneath the expressway.

In the digital era, will our relics experience the same fate? Is our Instagram photo, already cinnamon'd, already filtered to look like it was taken with an old Lomo, going to be a talisman of a bygone era?

Our lives are as still images. We never see the subtle shifts in the aesthetics around us until they're gone. Then they're gone and we look back, and call it nostalgia. And we archive our nostalgias, relegate them to the museum of our own past, whether that our is a single person or the entire human collective memory.

And we organize those nostalgias into gestalt images of a place, a time, forming these abstractions, and if the abstractions become objects of fixation, they run the risk of becoming caricatures, grotesques.

I arrive at the Ekkamai intersection, now fully back in the modern city. To cool off a bit, I walk into Gateway, a disorienting Japanese-themed mall, where women in cosplay uniforms bark at you to take a shampoo sample or come into a sushi restaurant. A man clumsily trods past in a giant robot outfit.

I'm thrust from a hazy, dusty nostalgia, into another abstraction, one of Shinjuku hypermodernity. 50 years, five minutes. As I walk out into the blinding sunlight, the whole city seems to fall quiet for just a second.