Performing Bearman, Leipzig
Bangkok Love Letter
Wednesday 19 April 2017, Bangkok
Dear Foreign Friend,
Believe it or not but I’ve been on a rare excursion to white man’s lands, returning just in time to see the new King sign the new Constitution into law a few days before Songkran—Thai New Year. May the year 2560 bring you health, love, safety, plenty, sanity & grace.
After 3 weeks away, it takes a while to grow back my caveman hairs and catch up with the news. All kinds of lurid Jack in the Box crimes have been popping up on TV: burst pimples on the smooth as silkness of it all. Case#1: the Sudden & Unexplained Disappearance from the Royal Plaza of the People’s Party Marker—‘Mhood Kana Ras’, a round metal plaque commemorating the first military coup d’etat in modern Thai history which ended absolute monarchy in 1932. If you’re into darkly seductive, pre-scripted but impossible to control thrills, follow for yourself this potentially fatal tango, in a sort of horridly fascinating Scorpions’ Ball. Too scary for me.
Then comes Night of the Damned at Elephant Pass (‘Kuen Barb Tie Dan Xang’—New TV 18): a gang rape & child prostitution ring by teenaged children in a videogame shop and “a woodsy area” of Supanburi. Followed by the girl whose hat (& some of her skull but miraculously not one bit of her brain) was shot off her head in the seaside town of Bang Saen.
Now from Sakon Nakorn comes the Case of the Abbot’s Vanishing Corpse: when they opened up the coffin to perform their traditional thank you ritual, the monastery’s monks found nothing of their recently deceased monastic chief except an empty monk’s robe covering some pillows arranged to appear like a dead man. “It is suspected that the body has been stolen”, perhaps for nefarious (donation-magnet) and/or occult purposes, say, to make Nammun Prai* (*Spirit Ointment made by summoning a zombie-like corpse to sit up & tamely permit its chin to be heated for oil with a naked candle flame by a shaman chanting sex & power mantras, for the absolute power to subjugate another human-being to one’s will. A virtuous girl lightly sprinkled with one drop of it would so burn with lust for you that she’d claw her way out of the best-guarded, most virginal household, to couple with you). Nobody said this last but it’s what we tend to imagine, if we don’t kid ourselves.
“Refugees Welcome… Shit Happens” graffiti at an abandoned church in Leipzig.
At the same church: “Is there a God?"
Songkran is not just screaming & splashing water. It can be quite a chore. It took me nearly all day to clean the household altar—almost every Thai home & business has one. Once a year on April 13, we’re supposed to bring out all the sacred statues somewhere outside, into the garden or a balcony, say; bathe them with perfumed holy water, clean them & the altar itself, then bring the icons back in their places, all while cleansing your own heart of every bitter-tasting thing.
The Buddhas are not too bad; you can just give them a shower. The smaller ones are soaked & scrubbed in buckets. You can’t do that with family ashes, however. Each ornate little urn has to be wiped down with a damp cloth. It takes time and a lot of love. As I do this, I imagine that they’re all watching with approval & relief, especially the aunt from whom I inherited the tray of ancestral bones. She herself is now inside one of the urns.
Big Smoke from the train leaving Leipzig
In a big family, I’m not the eldest grandchild nor the most respectable; it’s unusual for me to be the keeper of the bones. I just happened to be there when, in a rare moment of pessimism, my aunt said: “I’m old. Let’s hire a boat and render the ashes to the sea, since there’ll be no one left to look after them after I’m gone.”
This fit of pique came about after the abbot of Wat Sam Pleum (“the crocodile temple”), which the Singhaseni side of our family had built, told us to remove our dead from the monastery cemetery because they were on an artificial hill above a revered ‘Buddha Shadow’—a damp patch resembling a standing Buddha on a rock, which a Grand Personage had taken to visiting. These ancestors might have fought victorious wars for Siam & built this temple, but they were not of royal blood. The then-abbot felt it was wrong for the GP “to be made to salute” such common bones. I must emphasize here that the GP never requested such a thing. It seems to have been a ‘cooties-preventive’ measure on the abbot’s part, shall we say.
Angel in blue sky, Pere-Lachaise
The morning she brought them over (of course I told her that I’d look after them), I had to greet her and them by the gate and receive the tray directly from her with both my hands while verbally inviting the ancestors to my home.
As I carried the tray into the house, I swear the dogs began to howl & yelp & moan, as if they actually could see a whole bunch of people walking in with me. The top dog followed upstairs. After I set the tray down on the altar, a simple low table, he crawled beneath it & curled up there for a while, as if on guard. (Yes, I watch ‘My Haunted House’ too but every word of this is true.) So I always attempt a proper job of the annual altar cleaning, no matter how lazy I feel.
Horsed Angel trumpeting, Paris
Some of the urns are so old, no one alive knows whose ashes they contain. One of them, I don’t know which, holds the remains of Singh Singhaseni, King Rama III’s great scary general who rose to become Chao Phraya Bodindecha. He is famous among his descendents for having ordered the execution of one of his own (eldest?) sons, an opium smuggler (& therefore treasonous colonial stooge?) while the father was in charge of a war on opium, at the precarious time of the British Opium War on China (Siam’s then biggest brother & trading partner), thereby proving to the world that his fabled ‘straight & stern’ brand of justice recognises no blood tie. A certain chilling purity, you could say.
Though the temple that he built no longer houses his remains, and the artificial hill that had been a lyrical & atmospheric cemetery now looks like wasteland, they still have a realistic statue of him in a pavilion by the carpark. Judging from the vaguely neglected state of the shrine, his idol is probably not known for predicting lottery numbers.
In freezing rain, a homeless man sleeps in a silver shroud by city hall, Paris
What the then-abbot of Wat Sam Pleum did was outrageous but no longer unheard of. Look at what’s been happening at Wat Kalayanamitr on the other side of the river: the descendents of that temple’s founders are locked in bitter conflict with the monks. We had no conflict because, unlike them, we didn’t fight for what is right. My aunt even forgave them eventually.
As monks become shamelessly materialistic and ‘development-minded’, pulling down or defacing exquisite national treasures by ill-advised ‘restoration’ projects, destroying sanctuaries of peace, obliterating history, caring for nothing but an endless round of building & fund-raising, transforming sacred precincts into tourist theme parks, the same conflict with the local people they are supposed to serve is raging or simmering everywhere, from the smallest forest hermitage to town & village temples. The problem is so chronic and ubiquitous, many Thai conservationists & architects believe that monks are likely the worst destroyers of our physical as well as spiritual religious heritage.
Meanwhile amidst lovingly embroidered representations of monks phony and real, of soldiers, mosques and ‘sanctified’ flags of nationalism & martyrdom at artist Jakkai Siributr’s ‘Displaced’ show at the Bangkok Art & Culture Centre, the sound of soothing waves from the accompanying video installation of peace and plenty by the Southern sea plays like a lullabye for 78 neatly folded gold-beaded white Muslim shirts, laid to eternal martyr’s rest on rows of shelves inside a black-shrouded mausoleum, in tribute to the 78 protesters who suffocated to death in military trucks into which they were stuffed, hog-tied & half-naked, on top of one another, after they surrendered to authorities in Takbai, October 2004. In this context the peaceful waves raised the hairs on the back of my neck.
Jakkai Siributr’s ‘78’, part of ‘Displaced’ at the BACC
Who knows when or how the Hawaiian Shirt became the Songkran uniform. Quite possibly it came in with Elvis in ‘Blue Hawaii’. Thus Songkran is the opportune moment when many are expected to come out of mourning for King Rama IX. TV newsreaders are wearing floral shirts, mostly in black and white but some in the usual bright colours, as do a few people on the street & the skytrain. But most still seem determined to stay in black &white.
Girl posing on a wall in high heels, Paris.
In the cold, we need so many clothes! We need socks & shoes & dehumanizing visas. I’m happy to be tropical again in a grey Hawaiian shirt, shorts & flipflops after my first trip to Europe in ten years, dragging a suitcase full of films from Frankfurt to Nuremberg to Leipzig to the Cinema du Reel festival in Paris, on a tour organized by awe-inspiringly dauntless cinephiles determined to hold a retrospective of the work of a Thai filmmaker no one has ever heard of.
I had never been to Germany, outside of a film festival in Berlin. Germany was to me the Black Forest of the Brothers Grimm, where my red-haired paternal grandmother’s father came from. Not much is known in the family now except his name & rank as an engineer in the Prussian Army; he was “sent by the Kaiser to dredge the river delta for King Rama 5” and never left; his hometown in Germany is “a small place with a very long name” & he died of food-poisoning “despite insisting on eating only out of tins” as he did not eat his wife’s Thai or Mon food. He was very attached to his hat & stick. So the story goes; he didn’t sound very endearing. Idly I wondered if, given the chance, he would’ve been a Nazi; if that one-eighth of me would’ve been a Nazi. Did any of my unknown German relatives become a Nazi?
‘Children & Sport’ at the Stasi Museum, Leipzig
With one day off in Nuremberg, there was no question where to go: the Zeppelinfeld, where Hitler famously held his rallies (as seen in Leni Riefenstahl’s ‘Triumph of the Will’) on the edge of Dutzendreich Lake where Nazi youths held their reputedly orgiastic camp around their Kongresshalle—a sombre pile among skeletal trees like a German Romantic landscape, now a museum & concert hall echoing by day with the sound of practicing musicians. What a lovely way to exorcize a cursed building.
Scary graffiti in Frankfurt
Inspired by the haunted surroundings to perform an exorcism of our own, my German curator & I walked anti-clockwise around the lake to undo Hitler’s voodoo (instead of clockwise to reaffirm like pilgrims circumambulating a sacred site), ending with a picnic on the stand where the Nazi heavies used to be; a good spot for watching a succession of open-air history classes, with kids on daytrips guided by teachers coming and going around Hitler’s podium.
Schoolchildren at Hitler’s podium.
We were too far to hear what the teachers said. I wondered if their history class included comparison with contemporary hate-merchants and cynical overlords who exploit age-old colonial tactics to estrange, divide and conquer us. Name-calling the ‘other’, intensifying fault lines that always exist in any community of humans—these are ridiculously obvious tricks yet they continue to deliver as maliciously desired.
It’s not merely that they don’t believe they can create an ‘us’ without a ‘them’. Of course their power is most secure when the little people fight among ourselves. How dismaying that so many around the world continue to fall for such an ancient and obvious ploy. In a dumbed-down & desperate world, there’s nothing soft about ‘soft power’, especially when wielded by an ingenious impresario. As populist dictators, showmen, admen & the lowliest fairground barkers know only too well, the way to the people’s soul is to capture their imagination. For instance by creating your own logic, as exemplified by Hitler’s remark (from Victor Klemperer’s ‘I Shall Bear Witness’): “I am not a dictator. I have only simplified democracy…”
Left to slowly erode: Albert Speer’s perverted acropolis.
Hitler was famously an art school reject. As Martin Davidson writes in ‘The Perfect Nazi: Unmasking My SS Grandfather’ [Pub. Viking 2010; Penguin Books, 2011]: “Hitler always saw himself not as Germany’s god but as its greatest artist, and Nuremberg was his canvas.. With its combination of Imperial Durbar, Roman Triumph, Trooping the Colour and tickertape parade, the 1934 rally marked the moment all effective opposition to Hitler ceased.”
That bloody art school has much to answer for. Hitler could’ve studied art and become a megalomaniacal film director instead of destroyer of the world. Contained by the cinema screen, within the camera frame, his mesmerising showmanship & flair for the dramatic would’ve been limited to make-believe; he could’ve been a junk candyman instead of a poisoner, had ‘Triumph of the Will’ been an overblown epic rather than a propaganda documentary.
Monster Tree like John Carpenter’s The Thing, Pere-Lachaise
Some Germans are offended when foreigners compare their national villains to Hitler, as if no one can possibly compete with Absolute Evil (and therefore they were overcome by Satan rather than by any corresponding darkness within themselves). Yes, of course, Hitler is awesome, a force of nature like the great white shark. Nazi documentaries are the History Channel’s equivalent of Shark Week. But don’t they see that the very spectre of Hitler, as embodiment of uncontained, unrestrained & unopposed megalomania, compells us to rise & speak up before it’s too late to stop our own Dear Leader?
“Now or Never” was Art Lane’s hit protest slogan during Shutdown Bangkok. Now, seize this day, before total national eclipse, before the would-be Dear Leader achieves his or her triumph of the will. By its very nature megalomania recognises no limits. It must be stopped. Instead of co-operating by building it up, lending it grandeur with our fear, we have to bring it down with ridicule.
At lunchtime there was a lull as people disappeared to the hotdog stand. To show his contempt, my German curator, who has no religion other than cinema, felt compelled to leave his banana peel & his spit where Hitler had stood reviewing the troops. To seal the magic I lit incense & prayed to Shiva. From afar it must’ve looked as if I were worshipping Hitler. But we Thais light incense to expel bad vibes as well as in worship or remembrance. Later in Paris at Serge Gainsbourg’s grave, I offered incense to honour both his memory & the idea of ‘Paris’ as represented by him. (It should’ve been Patchouli but I only had sandalwood.)
Shiva & Banana exorcism ritual.
After our multi-cultural exorcism ritual, we retreated to the back rows to finish our picnic. No other daytrippers were there when three neo-Nazis came up the steps to pose on Hitler’s pedestal. They were American skinheads with their ‘regiment’ tattooed on the backs of their heads, identifying them as official members of a group of neo-Nazis from the US.
The Nazi salute is illegal in Germany. They had to pose for their photograph almost surreptitiously. One saw the banana peel & kicked it viciously away in obvious outrage. Whether they knew that the disrespect was intentional, I don’t know, but they left my incense stick alone.
American pilgrims at Hitler’s podium.
“So beau--tiful!” said the young blond woman who was taking their picture, with an emotional catch in her voice. This dark perversion of the Athenian Acropolis was their Mecca, their Vatican, their dreamland. Where, in Thai folkloric terms, the “locked chest of their heart” (“Glong Duang Jai”), their consciousness, is kept. (In many tales including the Thai Ramayana, you can’t kill the monster until you have located the locked chest of its heart, which is of course outside its body under the mountain or the sea, or whatever is hardest to get to.)
In this respect, being pure consciousness, I sometimes think cinema can do as good a job as K9 dogs or truffle-hunting pigs in unearthing & exorcising such artifacts. It’s nothing less than a national tragedy that Thai filmmakers are prevented from doing so by the Thai film censorship board’s power to ban films.
Back in Nuremberg town that evening, an all-night discussion on all things German & cinematic with the Komm Kino gang there led us to the puzzling discovery that, despite having inspired the world’s children with some very exotic nightmare imagery including cannibalism (Hansel & Gretel et al), despite the seriously strange festivals that have survived in some German villages, for some reason contemporary German filmmakers have shied away from this richly exotic Germany that enthralls the rest of the world.
Perhaps it seems contaminated to them in some way as well as being overly familiar. Like the highest (non-skyscraper) point of my own hometown, the Golden Mount, which I never went to until Shutdown Bangkok propelled me up there in hopes of a bird’s eye view of the surrounding protest camps. The short climb up the Golden Mount turned out to be more wonderful than any dream I never had of it. Exotica, like beauty, are in the eye of the beholder, whose perception is total personal reality.
Hope for France: lovely happy couple on the metro who asked to be photographed
You would imagine, for instance, that being under military rule in a state of psychic emergency “at the brink of civil war”, the streets of Bangkok would be bristling with tanks & soldiers with heavy weaponry. But you never see any soldier anywhere. Since the death of King Rama IX, you’d be lucky these days to see a single policeman outside of the old town. They seem all to have disappeared, probably gone to the palace area to help keep order for the mourners.
In Paris, on the other hand, it was hard to escape the presence of fully-armed police commandos in black (very fetching; they all seem to be Hollywood-handsome as well, as if handpicked to harmonise with the surroundings), who alas had the propensity to hang out in my favourite quiet spots of Paris. Hardly surprising given the impending elections & that the Westminster truck attack had just occurred next door, in London. I longed to photograph them but chickened out.
Now that even in Paris romantic solitude equals suspicious (in)activity, and queues for museums have grown absurdly long, I headed to the cemeteries for quiet time. There is peace in the cemeteries; presumably terrorists don’t see the point of killing long-dead people.
At the Pere-Lachaise, a few tourists searched among the tombs for the final resting places of Jim Morrison & Oscar Wilde, as I did on my first visit over ten years ago. Everyone else just drowsed in the sun. The tombstone I leaned on was welcoming and warm.
But a scene was unfolding near the chapel, around a grave roped off by yellow crime scene tape. Either they’re shooting a French CSI episode or they’re pretending to be making a movie at an actual crime scene, I thought. Such a convoluted plot would suggest itself to my over-stimulated mind after 3 weeks with cinema fanatics. The wide-eyed guy in the white bio-hazard mask & suit lurking behind some mossy tombs either is or is not a bit-part actor waiting for his cue. “Movie?”I asked; he nodded hesitantly. I did really see a small film crew nearby; if they were in fact a particularly fastidious news team, that’s OK too. They would evacuate the cemetery if they’ve really found a zombie virus planted to arouse the catacombs.
I’ve walked through some evocative cemeteries over the years, including Bukit Brown, which the wonderful Philip Cheah, eccentric founding director of Singapore International Film Festival, kindly took me to and which I’m told no longer exists. Here in Bangkok on Silom road, tiny remnants of the cemetery district are left; the lovely old Catholic graveyard is gone (& with it my German great grandfather’s bones which my father & I tried half-heartedly to find. Unfortunately the names on the oldest graves had been completely worn away). Condos are rising there on prime real estate which no Thai would buy, knowing what it had been. But no one would dream of building a mall or a highway through Pere-Lachaise, Montmartre & Montparnasse with all their famous romantic dead.
Without looking for it, I came upon Oscar Wilde’s tomb just as the bell began to chime to chase us out of the cemetery before sunset. The bouquet of lipstick kisses that 10 years ago covered his headstone had all been scrubbed off; in fact the whole stone is now protected by a spotless shield of plexiglass. As the bell sounded nearer, an improbable man stepped out from behind the high tombstone. He was festooned with large cameras on long neckstraps but otherwise he was the spitting image of Oscar Wilde. “I’m taking fisheye photos of the whole cemetery,” he told me enthusiastically, unbidden. The voice was American, the manner alert & eager, ludicrously so.
“Why fisheye lens?” I asked him.
“The fisheye lens is gimmicky, yes, but it takes a lot of technical expertise to achieve the right effect,” he earnestly explained. Just then a policewoman whose large size was emphasized by her squat electric patrol car crested over the rise, her bell ringing. “Oh!” he jumped as if stung by a wasp, “We have to hide from them! Hide from them!” So exclaiming in a high, hysterical voice, he dived behind the headstone.
The policewoman appeared not to have seen him, but she ‘sat on me’ impatiently as I lighted my last stick of incense to the Happy Prince. She continued on her way only after I started to move towards the nearest gate. I looked back one last time, but the mad American photographer with Oscar Wilde’s face was gone, to spend the night in some crypt, perhaps.
Now safely back in my own tomb, I’m haunted by ‘The Red Aeroplane’, a painting in oil by Franz Radziwill, “initial Nazi sympathizer who was ostracized by 1935” in Frankfurt’s Stadel Museum. It is a new acquisition. The museum notes said that as the terrible years went by, until well after the war, the artist kept on adding to the sky behind the red aeroplane. Fiendish entities peep obscenely from putrid clouds. Oh, the guilty pleasures of German painting!—which we rarely get to see outside of Germany. What hallucinatory monstrosities, what demonic shapes, are being added by the brushstrokes of the gods to the gothic storm clouds amassing overhead for the grand finale? Which Jack or Jill in the Box will shock us next? Please take care of yourself.
With Love from Bangkok,
Update on 22 April re the Abbot’s Vanishing Corpse: News anchors are now openly mentioning the Nammun Prai possibility. Nation TV says the monks invited a Mhor Phee witch doctor, “all the way from Sakon Nakorn City” to search for their abbot’s body in a trance. The Mhor Phee chanted mantras in ancient Khmer (signifying magic of the highest potency in these parts) then gave detailed directions which were followed, but fruitlessly. In the absence of the body, they decided to cremate the empty coffin.
A pioneer of environmental investigative reporting, Ing Kanjanavanit is a filmmaker, painter & bilingual writer, best known in Thai for the cult classic travelogue/handbook for environmental activism, ‘Khang Lhang Postcard’ (‘Behind the Postcard’) under the nom de guerre Lharn Seri Thai (136)—‘Free Thai Descendent/Force 136’, to evoke the Free Thai Movement against fascist forces during World War 2, which fought for the Allies then after the war was betrayed by the Allies. Sadly, she no longer attends Free Thai merit-making rites, not since Thaksin’s redshirts appropriated the name & equated Thaksin with Free Thai leader Pridi Banomyong, which is a travesty & a sacrilege.