Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Heigh-ho, heigh-ho it's off to work I go ...
My route to work is basic and occasionally basically dangerous involving some high speed traffic dodging by foot, though largely via motorbike taxi, usually piloted by an elderly guy who seems to have lost most of his sight several decades ago.

Nonetheless, there's one sight that never fails to amuse, intrigue and baffle me at least once a week, usually on a Monday. It's common in both Hong Kong and throughout Thailand to see small offerings - usually food, beverages, fruit - outside businesses and in residential spirit houses to honor ancestors, invoke good fortune, more customers, a wider profit margin, etc. In Hong Kong paper offerings - fake money, cigarettes, cars - are also burned outside the businesses - notably many girlie bars in the Wanchai district - in lieu of the real deal.

About a block or two before I turn into the soi that leads to Asia Times Online there is a small western-style bakery (great rye and sourdough!) that has a tiny portable fountain on the sidewalk ringed by small, foot-high or so statues of Snow White and the 7 Dwarfs. Nothing special except for a tray of offerings (most recently a whole chicken, glass of beer, small meat or vegetable pie, flowers), burning incense and the sight of one of the store owners or employees - a thin, graceful woman in her 20s - supplicating herself and praying in front of Snow White, Sleepy, Grumpy, Happy, Dopey, Bashful, Sneezy and Doc.

I can't imagine who they represent to her. I thought of some Chinese mythological characters called the "8 Immortals", but nah, probably not. Maybe ancestors? Meanwhile, I'm thinking of trying to slip a lawn jockey in the mix if I can find one...

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Unknown Soldier
I've recently encountered the second Asian Vietnam vet I've met since coming overseas. Not a Vietnamese vet from the US-Vietnam conflict, but a Thai man who lives across the way from my office in the residential soi (street) where I work.

He briefly scared the bejeebus outta me the first time I encountered him. I was leaving work and I could hear him before I saw him striding a bit awkwardly around a corner. He had an exaggerated missing teeth grin, James Dean shades, dressed neatly, in his late-50s/early-60s perhaps and talking loudly to no one in particular in Thai.

Startled, I did a sort of startled half-wai, half-salute to show I meant no harm. He snapped a real salute, military-style, grimacing-grinning a bit, before resuming his dialog with his invisible pals and going through his gate where one of the loudest most obnoxious dogs in Southeast Asia joyfully greeted him.
I privately dubbed him "the crazy walking man" about a week later after I noticed him striding far from his home several times, still talking.

"What's with our crazy neighbor? The guy who talks to himself and walks everywhere," I asked one of our two Thai employees, a 20something woman named Nam, a few days later.

"He has no arms," she said.

"What? I saw them," I said.

"Not real," she replied. "Look more when you see him again." I realized that, yes, they had looked a bit stiff but I'd been concentrating on his face so much I'd barely noted the arms. Nam explained he'd lost them in an explosion "a long time ago."

"Where? What happened?" I asked. "Vietnam, I think. Maybe Lao," she said. "He was a soldier." She went on to say he'd served with a "special army for the Queen" and had been mutilated by what must have been a Vietcong or Pathet Lao mine. I Googled around and found, yes, Thai soldiers - including an elite group called "The Queen's Cobras" - had fought in Vietnam and covertly in Laos.

"I ask him before if he wants help," she said. "I can ride my motorbike and get things for him but he say, 'Thank you. No, I am a soldier! I do it myself. A soldier does it himself.'"

I do a real salute when I see him these days. He snaps one back with his brown, plastic arm, grins and keeps walking and talking on his endless reconnaissance.

The other vet was a Chinese "black taxi" (gypsy cab) driver, one of about eight or so that always parked their cars outside my second Shenzhen apartment. He hadn't fought against the US, but against the Vietnamese in a short, nasty and obscure 1979 Sino-Vietnam border war that the Chinese don't talk much about, partly because they got their heads handed to them by the battle tested Vietnamese who, after kicking US butt, had then gone into Cambodia and overthrown Pol Pot.

C told me about "Mr Zhang" and later translated for me as he drove us to the Shenzhen border crossing on our way to Hong Kong late last year. His wounds weren't visible but he was hurting. "I told him you were a soldier before," C said. "He asked me Vietnam? I said Korea. You didn't kill anyone, did you? No. Anyway, he wants to meet you anyway." I guess they don't have a lot of veteran's support groups in China and I was the next best thing.

I shrugged. "Sure," I said. "I knew a couple American soldiers who were in Vietnam. Chris's brother was one. He didn't kill anyone either but his friend died falling off a truck in Saigon. His name is on a plaque of dead soldiers at my university."

Mr Zhang had some horrors to recount. He'd served with a Guangdong province group of the People's Liberation Army and until they'd been mobilized with what he called "50-year old maps and old guns from when China liberated Korea from the US" he said he had had little idea of where or what Vietnam was.

What he told me sounded depressingly familiar. After declaring "victory" when they captured a town called Lang Son, the Chinese retreated with a scorched earth policy. "We burned everything," he told me and C. "We did bad things to the people. Old people, children everyone." He sounded haunted and also oddly matter of fact when he described burying Vietnamese civilians up to their necks and torturing them for reasons he either couldn't articulate or C couldn't translate. I kept thinking of My Lai and mentioned it.

He never heard of it but said, "Americans, Chinese, it does not matter. All soldiers are animals sometimes." Then he changed the subject and asked C if I knew any American women who wanted to marry a Chinese man. He wants to go to the US. His plan is to sell his late model car and use the money to pay an American woman to marry him and get him into the country.

I thought about it and surprisingly no women came to mind who would want to marry a psychologically damaged Chinese Vietnam vet who drives a gypsy cab, even for money.

"Tell him I'll ask around," I said anyway. "But probably not. Tell him I hope he has better memories sometime soon, though." That was the last time I saw Mr Zhang but I think of him now every time I salute my damaged neighbor. Two vets, two wars in one country neither understood. In Shenzhen Mr Zhang drives and dreams, and in Hua Hin the old Queen's Cobra walks and talks.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Heartbreak Hotel
Wednesday was the 30th anniversary of Elvis Presley's death, a date of not much note in Thailand though a Bangkok hotel hosted a "30th Elvis Presley Memory Lives on 2007" blowout with a slew of Asian Elvis impersonators, including a 12-year-old named Papontee Veerapravati who performs under the moniker "Elvis Pro."

I wish I'd have been able to make it, but lacking the time off I did the second best thing and hosted my own remembrance. I donned a treasured short-sleeved, (one of a kind, homemade by a former copy editor friend of mine at the Rocky Mountain News who'd originally sewn it for her Elvis lovin' ex before his stomach expanded and their marriage went south) shirt featuring florescent Warhol-like images of the King in three of his crucial eras: Rockabilly Elvis, GI Elvis and Bloated Vegas Elvis. It only lacks Comeback Special Elvis. But three outta four ain't bad.

I grabbed a 14 oz Coke and half pint of Thai Mekong whiskey, a compilation disc of Elvis hits sent to me a couple years ago by Chris, my equally Elvis-happy pal in Colorado, and headed across the dirt road, dodging two brahma cattle, slogging from Faulty Towers II to Faulty I where I found the Johnnie Walker wisdom was already running high among three Brits and one Aussie. Or more specifically, two Brit ex-felons (embezzler, murderer), one hard core sex tourist (Aussie) and a frighteningly normal 69-year-old retired Brit who almost began crying in combined joy and memory when I announced:

"Gentlemen! Your attention please. Thirty years ago Elvis Aaron Presley left the building for good after dying on a toilet in Graceland." (Drunken, heavily accented Brit murmurs followed:"He did? Wha', blood'y hell! Thir'y ye'z, wahz it? A toilet? A loo dih'e say?")

I continued. "But his memory lives on. Elvis is everywhere, including Hua Hin, Thailand where we will celebrate him tonight."

With that I ceremoniously hit the eject button on the bar CD player, slid out the Thai pop pap (a half Thai-half American singer with the unfortunate name of Tata Young), inserted the King, and Scotty Moore's distinctive opening chords to Heartbreak Hotel rang like a ringin' a bell through the sweaty, mosquito clogged tropical murk.

"' 'eart Break 'otel, perfect," sighed the sobbing normal Brit. "Jus' like whea' we're drinkin' tonigh' " Indeed. Aw, man it was sweet. Even their Thai women at another table got into it after a couple songs and the gin-soaked Aussie sex tourist began some pretty decent lip-synching and Elvis-like moves, including the Vegas-era kung-fu chops. In China the King is known as the "King Cat." I don't know if he has a nickname here, the women seemed only vaguely aware of him, damn their souls, but the Elvis trivia began flowing - mine mostly accurate, theirs dug from the Internet and tabloids like the Daily Mirror, I imagine.

"Thi'is abou' his mum, Priscilla" the embezzler sighed as Are You Lonesome Tonight began. "No," I said trying to bite my tongue. "Priscilla was his wife. His mother was Gladys. He called her feet 'sooties'. Elvis had a thing about his mom's feet."

"He di'nt!" cried the murderer. "Bloo'dy hell. He truly loved his mum, not a nutter 'bout her feet!" I shut up and just let the music wash over the comments that ranged from Elvis's "half-Indian" blood to how an obscure '60s British pop star named Billy Fury, (virtually unknown outside of the UK, but roughly the equivalent of Fabian or maybe Frankie Avalon in the US) was second only in the world to Elvis.
Twenty two songs later we'd repeated In the Ghetto ("This song is my life!" sighed the murderer) and Suspicious Minds twice, Jailhouse Rock three times ("This is my life, too!" said the murderer again) and closed the night with Elvis's post-mortem remix, A Little More Conversation.

Briefly we were all, Brits, Aussie, Yank and Thais, felons and low-level miscreants alike, united as one by The King.

As I left I noticed that a color printout of the Thai royal couple and Elvis on the set of GI Blues that I'd managed to make at work before the printer died and had presented to the embezzler/owner of Faulty Towers had been framed and was hanging over Faulty I's alcove next to a more traditional portrait of the Thai royal pair. I very gently nudged one of the Thai wives as I left and pointed at the picture. "See, even your King loved the King."

"Oh, that is him?" she said, peering at Elvis. "No, he is not king. Only one king in Thailand."

"Not tonight," I said. "But thank you. Thankyouverymuch." And with that I left the building.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Voices Carry
All areas carry distinct sounds, like the accents of the locals. In Boulder what I recall most is - forgive me Paul Simon - the sound of silence following a heavy snowfall. So quiet it was peacefully overwhelming. Then the 'scrich,scrich,scrapescriching' sound of ice scrapers dancing irregularly down the street as the beleaguered dawn patrol began gearing up for another day.

In Hong Kong it is , alack, alas , not exotic temple bells or gongs (except on a few religious holidays) but the sheer 24/7 nonstop din of jackhammers as the city's powerful construction interests once again tear a perfectly good site down only to build it up again, to tear it down. Got to keep those employment figures artificially high, doncha know, in Asia's World City.

In Shenzhen it was the unrelenting pounding of massive pile drivers, at least outside my last abode. Downtown the distorted, shrill wattage of public ads, social slogans for one child families intermixed with looped recordings of Western chestnuts such as Moon River, Theme from Exodus (A Time for Us) and, of course, what's a day without at least four or eight renditions of Hotel California and/or Yesterday Once More.

Hua Hin has a different, slightly less mechanized rhythms. The baying of countless feral hounds seems to dominate a lot of the local soundtrack beginning about 5am when they begin skirmishing for the choice shady spots to beat the fast-rising tropical heat throughout the day. Then come the hawkers, though not the melodious chants and sing-songs of my youth. They've been replaced by the familiar ice cream wagon jingles of American summers gone by, the parp-parp from a broom seller squeezing the horn on his overloaded bicycle and often the sonorous chants and exhorations from a large, over-amped Buddhist temple high on nearby foothill. The chanting sounded quaintly exotic the first 90 or so minutes I heard it, though less so at 10pm and for hours at a stretch beginning at 6am when a 9-day funeral is being held.

Then inside Faulty Towers II where I am currently sharing living space with R, the ex-brother-in-law of my landlord, it's a whole different soundtrack. R is a convicted murderer who did his time in the UK before discovering Thailand's less demanding expat underbelly. He's also an accomplished swordsman who once had some bit parts in the Highlander series. Depending on his level of sobriety, (frequently low) he maintains a generally cheerful civility, punctuated with frisky knife play and ... well, let's take 3am last week when I was awakened by an inebriated R and three equally swacked Thai ladies of the evening. Further hilarity ensued when they saw me peering over the balcony in my boxers and T-shirt at their impromptu bacchanal in the swimming pool below.

"Hey, Justin, why not come make number one party-party!" R has been here so long that he often talks to native English speakers as if they were Thai service workers. He's non-discriminating in that way. I begged off and asked them to keep it down, please. No chance.

An hour later, a knock at my door. I ignored it as well as the Thai female voice but finally relented and opened it. "Why you no want to see me?" she said, swaying a little. She was wearing about as much material as, well, not a lot, actually. I kept my eyes at her unfocused eye level as much as possible but couldn't help noticing that she ... well, R could be heard shouting downstairs for "Big Tits! Big Tits! Where you, Big Tits? Come to R now!" Yes. This was probably the young woman in question.

"You no want me?" she asked as coyly as someone blowing a 1.9 alcohol blood level probably can. No, actually, well, no. No. But thanks for the offer. R again: "You in Justin room? JUSTIN, you pay Big Tits 1,000 baht you touch her! Big Tits where you go, baby?"

"Where you from?" BT asked as I tried to gently shove her out the door. "USA, America," I replied. "R is England," she noted. "Why you fear England? Why USA fear England?"

Mmmm, maybe because he's convicted murderer who likes to play with knives while drunk? But I said nothing much and was able to politely eject her, complete with her mismatched opened toed cheap stiletto heels that she'd mixed up with one of her compadre's and discarded in my room while attempting a lap dance standing up. Gone, I thought. I locked the door, lay down and covered my head as outside dogs began to bark, and hounds began to howl. Downstairs little red rooster was still on the prowl. "Big Titsssss! Why you make R cry?"

Give you everything I got for a little peace of mind.