Thursday, 25 February 2010

China Fifteen Years On

The door gods in Jianshui have been renewed for Chinese New Year.

The Yue family gardens are already open early in the morning.

This little boy waits for his papa and for breakfast.

There are clear signs of prosperity as this family enjoys their noodles.

They're all waiting for something but I'm not sure what.

For the elderly though it looks as if life's still a struggle.

A few days ago Cat and I were eating pao-tze in the soft sunlight of Kunming, the provincial capital of Yunnan, in the South West of China.

I was last in China fifteen years ago and before that in the mid-eighties. The very first time I visited was in 1978 when travel was first allowed after the doors had slammed shut and China became embroiled in its own self-destructive turmoil. Sadly for much of the seven years I lived in Hong Kong (1976 to 1983), China was thus not accessible to foreign travellers.

Each time I’ve been back the changes have been remarkable and the Kunming we have just visited is more reminiscent of a sparkling Singapore than the drab Guangzhou of the communist era that I visited more than thirty years ago.

While there I received an email message from an American called Howell Jones who told me he had flown into Kunming in 1954 just after the end of the War, arriving to work for the Friends Ambulance Service. As far as I know, he’d been given my name by the Friends Library in London as being interested in the remarkable history of the FAU in China.

With his email he enclosed an article he’d written many years before for a journal produced by the Medical Faculty of Hong Kong University which described his arrival in China and his first convoy carrying medical and relief supplies many perilous miles over the mountains to Chungking.

“Walking through the old town of Kunming at night had all the magical sounds and smells of old China,” he told me in his email. His article also describes the joys of eating pao-tze, the ubiquitous white dumplings with savoury pork inside.

Howell Jones is thus an important new contact for me as I am currently researching the life and experiences of ‘Jack Reynolds’ (Emrys Reynolds Jones) who likewise arrived in China to work with the FAU, landing at Kunming on 10 October 1945 and later became a noted author in Bangkok. It seems that Howell is not aware of my very specific interest in Jack and in his email he did not mention him to me.

Howell and Jack would now find Kunming very changed, but if they went further into the countryside, they’d find scenes that would be thoroughly familiar to them.

At the airport we were met by our friends, Bill, a quiet American from Sichuan University, Chengdu and Denise, a Chinese translator/interpreter also from Chengdu. They immediately took us to the bus station where we boarded a bus for Jianshui, a town about four hours south. The outskirts consist of modern brutal tower blocks but after checking in at our hotel, we discovered that the town centre was still like something out of old China. We sat on low stools in an open fronted eating place and watched the busy world of the spring festival flowing noisily around us in the street.

Next day we were up early and had a quick look round the town. While many old buildings have been demolished, an attempt has been made to recreate the past by putting up new buildings in traditional style. This architectural pastiche is relatively successful and it’s not easy in some cases to distinguish the new from the old.

The streets are all beautifully paved in natural stone, are kept reasonably clean and while we had our breakfast, again in the open on low stools, we could see the signs of new prosperity as people ate their noodles and enjoyed the New Year holiday. Changing times as always create a curious mix of old and the new, of winners and losers and the elderly people still seem to live a frugal life of heavy toil, the lines etched deep into their faces.

I then spent a very interesting week in China, often thinking of Jack and Howell as our bus toiled up the hairpin bends and over high mountain passes above precipitous drops that were utterly hair raising. Now back in Bangkok, I’ve been going through the old photo albums that Jack’s family have very generously lent to me. One picture I’d until now overlooked was of a fresh-faced young man in a mortar board who was obviously just graduating from university. It did not seem at all relevant to Jack’s family story, but then I noticed some writing on the reverse.

This showed that the portrait had been taken in a photo studio in Queens Road, Hong Kong and it was inscribed in a neat hand as follows.

“To my dear Jack, without whose help this would have been quite impossible.”

It was dated 6.9.53 and was signed, “Howell”.

I am thus, it seems, holding in my hand a picture of the now elderly man who a few days ago sent me the article about his China experiences in the first half of the last century, not apparently knowing of my interest in his mentor, Jack Reynolds.

I’m hoping to hear more from him about all this, but in my search for the life of Jack Reynolds nothing much now surprises me any more.

Copyright Andrew Hicks The “Thai Girl” Blog February 2010

Saturday, 13 February 2010

An Adman, Buddhism and Birthdays

Revered monks are made immortal at the cave temple.

The mouth of the cave is festooned with the roots of a fig tree.

Monks sit outside the shrine in the shade of the trees.

Cat and Yut chat to the head monk inside the cave.

The Buddha images gaze eternally out of the cave.

The monk poses for a photo he will never see.

Like so many older monks, his face is strong and serene.

Once at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Bangkok I heard someone say that international reporters in Bangkok soon find they have to give up writing seriously about Thailand. It’s simply impossible to achieve more than a superficial understanding of Thailand unless you’re a Thai. When you think at last that you’ve begun to grasp the tear stained onion of Thai politics, in truth there’s always more slippery layers hidden beneath.

So it takes an American adman called Peter Arnell to stay just a few weeks in Thailand and to announce to the world that he knows all the answers. According to the Bangkok press, he’s promised to deal with Thailand’s image problem and he’s going to do an instant re-branding of this, the very amazing Land of Smiles.

“I think I can make this place famous for what it’s famous for, instead of what we think it’s famous for,” he vacuously said. So was that a real mirage or did I just imagine it?

Having lived a long time in Thailand, a small scrap of wisdom that accrues to me is that really I know almost nothing of the place. I like the Buddhist philosophy though, that all is illusory, changeable and unsatisfactory, and I find it a welcome contrast to the material self-confidence and assertiveness of the West. In that respect, the American adman has said it all, yet all has become confusion here too as the Thais are now so readily embracing his militant materialism.

Staying for several years in the rural wilds of Surin in the poor North East of Thailand, I thought there were no more unchanging corners here for me to learn about, but I was wrong about that too.

We’ve just visited a fascinating temple in Bua Chet an hour away from home that I’d never heard of before and it was fascinating. Bearing our yellow bucket full of supplies for the monks we drove up a long track through the rubber trees to this pretty forest temple set in a cave under huge, craggy rocks.

The cave is a wide fissure running deep underground, not even high enough to stand up in, whose mouth is covered with a cascade of roots from a strangling fig tree that clings to the rock face. Inside it’s dry and cool, with an elaborate display of Buddha figures and revered monks and behind them a substantial reclining Buddha. It’s tidy and clean but everywhere is suffused with the pungent odour of bats.

Cat and her sister, Yut, sit before the head monk and chat and make merit with him. He then chants at length and with a switch flicks sanctified water over us as he intones loudly. It’s easy and relaxed with none of the stiff religiosity sometimes present in Christian ritual.

Then we climb a ladder to the top of the rock above the temple and wander through the dry jungle, wondering at the strange shapes that countless ages of water flow has carved into the stone.

And then we leave this timeless and ascetic world, free of electricity, televisions and the baubles of modern living. The head monk looked to be at peace with himself and I doubt that he cares much whether or not a passing American succeeds in rebranding Thailand.

What the American does not of course understand is that Thailand is not a brand, is not Coca Cola or McDonalds, but is a rich culture that can never be defined by one as shallow as his.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, today it’s my birthday and I am for a third time passing the milestone of twenty one years.

Yesterday I also became a grandfather for the first time. I welcome Bethany Dawn to a world that will be very different to the one I grew up in, and I congratulate Anna and Will. Her Uncle Tony is only four years her senior and he’s looking forward to meeting her. (See two blog articles down.)

Tomorrow is both Valentine’s Day and Chinese NewYear and Cat and I fly to Kunming in Southern China where Jack Reynolds, the famous Bangkok author, much discussed on this blog, landed in a DC3 on 10 October 1945.

On my desk as I write, I have his diary and journal from 1957 that his son, David, has just lent me. Most of it is written in spidery pencil and takes some deciphering but when I get back I’m going to go through it all in detail.

I can hardly believe this is happening. I should of course stop striving and go with the flow but Jack’s life is such a remarkable story that I feel another book coming on.

It’s a story that just has to be told.

Andrew Hicks The ‘Thai Girl’ Blog February 2010

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Savaged on Samet!

The fishing boats at Koh Samet are still very colourful,

though how they manage the tangle of gear in a storm I have no idea.

The tourists are pouring in again and Samet is full once more.

Thankfully you can still find an unspoiled corner along the coast,

and the seas are still alive and shiny as the sun begins to fall.

Invaded at weekends, it's a major task to keep the place clean.

“Nice doggie,’ I said and it leaped at my face and tried to bite a chunk out of my nose. That was in Si Saket eighteen months ago. I won’t forget all those rabies jabs in a hurry!

Then a year ago a pavement on Sukhumvit soi 4 rose up and hit me on the chin, breaking my jaw in three places. A new graduate of a really bum run, I then spent three nights in the Bumrungrad hospital where they wired my teeth together for the next six weeks so I couldn’t eat anything.

But it made a great blog article. (In a Pool of My Own Blood! 8th March 2009.)

Then at New Year on Koh Chang the snake in my shorts, only a small one I might add, bit me on the toe and I nearly died. Could have been my last blog article. (I Stare Into the Jaws of Death! 2nd January 2010.)

To cap that one, I’ll have to get into the tiger enclosure at the zoo.

And now I’ve just been to Koh Samet for a short trip and, sitting on the verandah of my hut, once again I got savaged. It was like a horror replay of Koh Chang.

Again, unseasonably, it was raining. I was sitting in the easy chair on the verandah feeding the mosquitoes when, suddenly, to my intense shock something small and soft fell onto my foot, an exact reprise of the instant just before the Koh Chang snake sank its fangs excruciatingly into my little toe.

Adrenalin surged but no agony came. It was only a lizard!

But then I felt an itchyness down the side of my neck. I scratched and I scratched and finally took off my shirt to see what it was. Yes, I’d been savaged again.

This time by a caterpillar!

Cat’s always been warning me about caterpillars and once again, annoyingly, she was right. My neck swelled up in a livid, red rash and the spots spread down my chest. In the damp and sweaty heat it was extremely uncomfortable and I couldn’t go in the sun and didn’t risk going in the water either. I must have done something pretty bad in a previous life to get so traumatised by a caterpillar and while on holiday.

Koh Samet, a tiny low island only a few hours from Bangkok was still as beautiful as ever though. It’s a very special island, being immortalized in literature as the setting for part of Sunthorn Phu’s, nineteenth century epic poem, “Phra Apai Manee” and of course for Andrew Hicks’ noughties tropical beach romance, “Thai Girl”.

I do love Samet, but whenever I go back there I’m always shocked by the new and expanded holiday developments that despoil what’s supposed to be a national park on which all development is prohibited. When first I went there about ten years ago, the small bamboo huts used by backpackers were tolerable but now it’s on a totally different scale. It’s no longer a bamboo backpackers’ place but a concrete resort destination for city dwellers that’s going gradually upmarket.

On returning to Bangkok from my sporadic trips to Samet, I usually fire off a letter to The Bangkok Post’s Postbag bemoaning the flagrant breaches of park regulations and the fact that none of the millions collected in park entry fees at 200 baht per farang face is being spent on keeping the place clean. An utter shambles of ragged buildings and strewn rubbish greets you in the main village of Na Dan which could win a gong for worst Thai eyesore any day.

This time though when I got back, still nursing my sore neck, I wrote no letter to The Post. Somehow I felt a little more reconciled to the fact that Samet is now a sophisticated resort island. It looked a little cleaner to me and the shops and eating places on the road to from Na Dan to Hat Sai Kaew were looking distinctly smarter. There was definitely encouraging evidence of an effort to clean things up.

Just as Bangkok is a monument to organised chaos, so also it is remarkable that thousands of tourists are regularly shuttled out to Samet along with the many tons of food and drink that they’ll consume, that they’re all accommodated and relieved of a little money before they and some of the rubbish they’ve generated is shipped back to the mainland. Even water has to be brought to the island in rusty old tankers and as shit happens daily, the sumps under the new WCs in the rooms have to be pumped out by a same same but, one hopes, different old tanker and taken back to shore or dumped somewhere on the island.

By Thai standards I have to admit that Samet is at least a partial conservation success. There are no tower blocks, the interior is still low, dry scrub and jungle and there are no real roads. For western tourists it adds a sense of a far frontier as the battered pick-ups bump and rattle them down the island’s rough dirt track to their resorts and it’ll be the beginning of the end when the road down the east side is paved in concrete.

And I love the fact that you still leave the mainland from the same tatty old jetties on the same traditional wooden boats, many of them converted fishing boats, all brightly painted in blues and oranges and smelling of diesel and the sea.

The guide books talk of sightings of hornbills and I’ve seen the skin of a python that was killed and eaten on the island and it was the biggest I’ve ever seen. Yes, it’s still a beautiful place to visit, though I have to admit it’s wild… wild and sometimes dangerous.

There’s man-eating caterpillars out there!

Copyright: Andrew Hicks The “Thai Girl” blog February 2010