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Cynthia Gralla

Nang Fah Jam Laeng: Angels in Disguise

 

I walk down Th Sukhumvit, the road running beneath one line of Bangkokís Skytrain, which for nearly two decades has brought a small measure of relief to the cityís legendary traffic jams (hard to believe it was ever worse than this.) The little streets which branch off from Th Sukhumvit, numbered odd to the north and even to the south, bend and straighten and sometimes dead-end into endless imbrications of food stalls and night-markets.

On both the north and south side streets, the metal carcasses of half-built skyscrapers tear at the night sky. Begun during the economic prosperity of the early 1990ís, these structures were abandoned to eternal interruption when the bubble burst a few years later. Serving not as towers of worship to financial giants, but monuments of death for the once-millionaires who lost everything overnight and hurled their bodies from the scaffoldings.

This troubling city, a perfect blend of the spiritual and the carnal, the entrepreneurial and the traditional. A city of both long-preserved and fast-shattered dreams.

Perfect for the shot state Iím in.

Walking fast, skimming really, I pass countless tailors with welcome signs in English and German, including my favorite, whose name, "Intact," strikes an ironic chord in this section of the city, full of seasoned and very broken-wide-open prostitutes. I turn onto Soi 4, where Nana Plaza, with its three stories of strip bars and assignation hotels, glitters in the evening heat like a jewel about to be robbed.

As soon as I walk into the ground level courtyard, which is ringed by about fifteen interchangeable clubs featuring nude go-go dancers, sex shows, and procurement services, I am accosted by at least a half dozen bar girls. They shower me with compliments, beckon to me from red-curtained doorways, trail their hands along my back. If I were a man theyíd be touching other body parts entirely.

Feeling sick, hot, and dizzy, I stumble onto the stairs, nearly running smack-dab into two women who quickly try to entice me into Sapphic bliss in one of the by-the-hour hotels on Nana Plazaís top floor. I decline by smiling, shaking my head, and walking away (the last being the only convincing way to refuse a sales pitch in Bangkok), but nevertheless ascend the staircase to that same top floor of esoteric delights, simply because the existence of the hourly hotels reduces the number of nudie clubs and their hungry-eyed girls, and thus the congestion and noise.

"Do you want a drink?" I turn to see a smiling young Thai woman standing in front of a club called "Hollywood Strip" ("The Top Girls on the Top Floor!" boasts a sign above its door.) Less provocatively dressed than most of the other girls Iíve seen, she is wearing a red tank top that fully covers ample breasts, and a black skirt that reaches almost to her knees Ė a decidedly demure length for this place. Her manner, friendly but not desperate, matches her toned-down outfit. With shoulder-length un-dyed hair and a round, slightly pudgy face, sheís attractive but not beautiful. She could easily be one of the many Asian co-eds who took my classes at UCLA.

Except sheís on the top floor of Nana Plaza, so she isnít, and at least in this lifetime, will never be.

A thousand women are clawing at my insides. Ten thousand nails flaying my skin.

I always thought the pain of withdrawal would come from an overwhelming yearning to put something in my body Ė more, more of those things I loved so much (ketamine, cocaine, Vicodin, to name a few favorites Ė my chemical tendencies were, like my amorous ones, poly-.) But I donít feel like I want to put something in my body: I feel like I want, I need, to get something out.

Since the knife-nailed women inside me show no mercy, I decide to give food a try. I duck into one of the few relatively quiet eateries on Bangkokís raucous, preposterous Khao San Road, where backpackers have pitched a permanent shantytown-cum-Burning-Man-style-carnival with the meager provisions of beer, bootlegged first-run movies, and juggling implements. Even though I feel nauseated, I sit down and order Kati Look Bua, coconut ice cream with water lily seeds, palm nuts, peanuts, and sweet sticky rice. The concoction sounds plausibly magical enough to countervail some of my drug cravings.

While I wait for my dessert, I survey the rest of the clientele, which consists mostly of bored-looking twenty-somethings in dirty clothes, probably hailing from Australia, America, Canada, or Western Europe. These kids come halfway around the world to prove that nothing is cool enough to move them. Iíve observed young people like this all over the world, from New York and Rome to Mexico City and London, but Khao San Road is host to perhaps the highest density of the disaffected Iíve ever seen.

The women are clambering up my throat, one by one, and massing in my mouth. If the food doesnít come soon Iíll start screaming.

Luckily, the smiling waiter arrives with the exotic dream-cream just in time for me to shove a big spoonful, both smooth and nutty, between my lips.

Distractions to the senses save me from my body.

 

From a second-floor balcony table, I watch the pudgy-faced girl gyrate with about two-dozen other dancers, every single one of them naked but for knee-high cowboy boots. The stage is as thronged with female flesh as a thirteen-year-old boyís wet dream. On masse like that, and by turns plucky and perfunctory, the girls look more like a particularly populated page of Our Bodies, Ourselves than like savage seductresses ushering in exotic carnal ecstasies. Theyíre an anatomical survey rather than a mouth-watering menu for the erotic gourmand.

Even the cowboy boots are not so much cheeky accoutrement as practical necessity: the girls must have one piece of clothing from which to hang the numbered tags that their prospective buyers use to identify and request them.

Since Iím not sure Iíd be able to live with myself if I had to call her over by a number, Iím relieved when my new friend comes up to me of her own accord during the next break.

"Iím Jenny," she greets me, not having told me her name out front. "You have pretty pretty hair." Accented but wholly understandable English.

She tells me that she is from Isaan, the poorest province in Thailand, and, not coincidentally, the primary staffer of Bangkokís strip-and-sex clubs. For eight months now she has been working in Hollywood Strip, in order to support her large family back home. Through her movements and eyes she exudes a mixture of intelligence and bewilderment that is sadly moving, as if she thoroughly understands her circumstances but canít quite believe them.

Without the slightest hint of schadenfreude, Jenny asks about my life in America, and how I could have possibly come to be wandering the garish byways of Nana Plaza alone.

I want to tell her my history: how I worked as a stripper too, to support myself in college, and then in the early years of graduate school. But my trials seem paltry compared to hers, and my recent struggles with drugs and marriage trite and selfish. Instead, as we study each other closely, I ask her how she feels about her work.

"I am -- ashamed." She tries to force a smile while in the background the "Happy Birthday" song, as rendered by a vocal dead ringer for Daffy Duck, accompanies the girl on stage who is blowing out candles on a cake with her cunt.

"No, you shouldnít be ashamed," I protest, futilely, over the Disneyfied music and the thought of pudenda-sent gusts of wind. "Youíre saving your family. You are a saint."

Her forehead flexes in defiance Ė whether at her life or my attempt to consecrate it, I donít know. As she returns the conversation to talk of my travels -- trying, like a good hostess, to cheer me up Ė I reach for my purse and its emergency stash of pills.

 

Iím still hot from the day as I watch the sun set over Wat Arun, the temple of dawn, from my shaded vantage point across the Chao Phraya River. Supported by brick underneath, the templeís exterior is a mosaic of chipped, broken Chinese porcelain in various sun-softened colors. Dumped by Chinese ships that docked in Bangkok in the early nineteenth-century, when they used tons of old porcelain as ballast, these cheap decorations are somehow more beautiful than a gilding of gold, and while the lambent light plays on their shards, as arresting as the exaggerated femininity that swings from the meretricious hips of the cityís many transgendering "lady-boys" (one of whom I caught studying my gestures and movements, as if his very her-ness depended on it, at a Starbucks earlier in the day.)

Adrift in this sinking city, I am a broken boat piled high with goods that only the most sun-stricken tourist would want. Ophelia being sold at the honky-tonk floating market, hair by bedraggled hair.

 

Midnight on Silom Soi 4, a stolen gemstoneís throw from the sex district of Patpong. Soi 4 flaunts its own brand of sexuality, more homo- than hetero-. While in notorious Patpong the sensuality seems antibiotic-pinched and poverty-forced rather than festively depraved, on Soi 4 the participants -- a cheerful mixture of Thai kathoey (transsexuals), laid-back tourists, and hip natives -- seem to genuinely enjoy themselves.

Silom Soi 4 is a dead-end passage, too narrow to really be considered a street, too big for an alley. This intermediate size only intensifies its sideshow atmosphere: because itís so compact, the sheer number of neon lights and people is dazzling. The proprietors and staff of over a dozen bars and clubs vie for customers, tossing enthusiastic invitations and extravagant compliments to the passersby.

Several kathoey praise my outfit, a dress of black chiffon that drops from an ornate neck-plate of braided cords and metal balls. Even while they are greeting me, their eyes scan my body more carefully than any straight manís, for these lady-boys have something more urgent than sex at stake. They have their dreams of a different body, a different life, hollering within their skin like starving babies. And if killing me would allow them inhabit my body, or that of another attractive woman, I think many of these men would do just that.

I find their honesty with themselves refreshing. The Thai slang for transsexuals I like best is nang fah jam laeng, meaning "angels in disguise."

Tapas is one of the bars on Silom Soi 4, across the street from an open-air, kathoey-frequented tattoo parlor. I take a seat outside and drink my Long Island Iced Tea while I admire the Olympic ambition of the transsexuals scripting their bodies with ink. They will do anything, absolutely anything, to redesign what nature wrongfully ordained, paying for surgery with blowjobs on elderly farang (foreign) men. These lady-boys spit in the face of God -- not because they donít love him, perhaps, but because they love him enough to correct his mistakes.

Their dedication inspires me. Their reason for taking drugs is similar to mine: to pass from nightmare to dream, the better the flesh to breathe and fall. If they can survive the errors of heaven, surely I can live through another day. And then another.

But on my third Long Island Ice Tea (my self-styled detox program doesnít exclude alcohol, because Iíve never liked the stuff enough to worry it could enslave me), I am approached by a dark-haired man in his twenties. Haggard face, skinny eyes. He turns out to be British, and after a bit of careful conversation, he offers to sell me drugs Ė more pills, ketamine, crystal meth.

We go into Tapasí bathroom and I buy some ketamine. For Jenny, I tell myself. She needs relief.

Itís been two weeks since I arrived, an exile from the state of dependence, banking on the hallucination that is Bangkok to take the place of my chemical beloveds. I donít think I should still feel this pain (not this much, poisoned darts pinning my heart to the chest wall, to bleed and shriek, captive.) I should be able to lose myself in this city, descend into its dirt and heat, and come out clean. Sensory inundation of the utmost urban kind must save me.

The late April sky is stained white with heat and pierced by skyscrapers, in the shadows of which near-ruined wats and weeping hovels fall away like a fairy cakeís crumbs.

I cross paths with an orchid market and bury my face in purple dendrobium petals. I duck into the nearest temple and pray, pray, pray.

 

Theyíre all still there on stage, shaking their bodies mechanically, like sleek-framed dogs drying themselves after a bath. Petite slim unlucky-struck matchsticks, warm skin and dead eyes.

Jenny comes over to me during her break, and I take her hand in mind.

"These other girls" Ė she motions toward four of her co-workers, who are simulating lesbian sex on stage Ė "they think they meet a rich man here. But I know it wonít happen."

Her smile is unchanging as I place ten Vicodin tablets in her palm and close her compliant fingers over them, and then when I stare hard at my drink.

One of the worldís best hotels, the Oriental Bangkok is renowned for its high standards of service. Iíve heard that after youíve stayed here just once, the staff will remember on your next visit what you like for breakfast, which flowers you prefer in your room, and the exact pitch of smile and bow that make you happy. I admire that kind of discipline and restraint, having so little myself.

After crossing the Orientalís faultless lobby and descending a plush staircase whose walls are lined with one-hundred-year-old photographs of the royal family, I reach the Authorís Lounge. There I am promptly and lavishly seated in a high-backed wicker chair that could have doubled as a throne in any British colony -- which, despite this setting, Thailand never was. Thailand was never anyoneís colony, which makes the Authorís Loungeís nostalgic atmosphere of quasi-imperialism more than a little disconcerting. I guess it just goes to show that Iím not the only masochist here: the fond remembrance of colonialism, particularly when it never occurred, seems to me one big rape fantasy.

Light wafts down from the all-glass ceiling, its fall delicately broken by silk canopies. I admire the flower arrangements in this idyllic conservatory until an assortment of tea sandwiches, each the size of a locket, and a ballet of tiny pastries are brought to me on a four-tiered silver server. And finally, the tea, its china cup and spoon chosen to match the tablecloths that stir lightly beneath the whispering fans.

"Tea, Madame?"

Yes, please. More more more, until my lips are as wet as my eyes, my heart, and the sudden place between my legs.

 

Here my body is both familiar and foreign. For the first time in several years, I donít have the constant opportunity to sacrifice it Ė to drugs, risky sex games, endless stabs of guilt. I donít have this opportunity because part of my body is not mine, and thus I must respect it. Part of it resides in and honors the wild unknown corners of this brimming city.

They say that time heals all wounds, but canít place do the same? And if not place, what about a dark-eyed go-go dancer tricked out with kindness, resignation, and cowboy boots?

Better to keep my hope in place than in a person. For I am not a deluded male farang, suspending disbelief to convince myself that I can find salvation in the arms and heart of one of these unfortunate girls. At least, I should be too sober by now to be chasing after Madame Butterfly, maiden or myth.

But foreign landscapes have a funny way of morphing, condensing, collapsing, into the shape of a woman.

 

On May 2nd, my birthday, I visit Jenny at Hollywood Strip. With a drink she bribes the DJ to play the "Happy Birthday" song for me (without the accompanying exhibition of genital skill.) "You must go back to America, have many babies," Jenny toasts me. "You still young." She looks far happier for me, for the banality that is my birth rite, than I have ever been for myself.

I hand her a tiny packet of white powder and she smiles serenely, forgivingly, like a tank-topped Buddha.

Heavy rain, and thus a respite from the never-ending hawkers and their sidewalk stalls which normally flood the streets, purveying flower necklaces, skewered meat, Pad Thai, preserved and mounted spiders, pirated DVDs, cheap silk, cheaper lingerie, ornaments made of bamboo, rosettes sculpted out of soap, lacquer boxes, sarongs, spurious jade, t-shirts, animals and deities carved from wood, pornographic magazines, fried scorpions, fruit, fresh juices, electronic goods, little statues of couples fucking and women masturbating, puppies, sandals, jewelry of questionable origin and authenticity, skimpy dresses, amulets, watches, poorly-made qiapos, sunglasses, wall-hangings, handbags, candles, designer knock-offs, snakeís blood, and lottery tickets.

Making the walkways even more impassable are the beggars (many of whom are themselves immobile, amputees dumped on the ground, plastic collection cups askew beside them) and especially the omnipresent touts, offering tuk-tuk rides as well as their surely invaluable guidance to discount gem shops, custom tailors, massage parlors, and more explicit adult entertainments (though they do not advertise these last two services to me, a woman, but only to the farang men who, heavy with sweat and on the gimlet-eyed look-out for underage Thai girls, pant down the poorly paved, crowded streets, seeking to redeem the lonely Saturday nights of their adolescence.) The sidewalk salesmen and touts communicate among themselves by gesticulating wildly and silently, as if they are all deaf-mutes -- yet I know, because Iím often accosted by them in cloying voices to take a look at their sorry wares, that they are not.

But theyíve all just pulled up shop to escape the rains. With the streets suddenly easy to navigate, and concentration on movement less necessary than usual, the floodgates of my memory open as well. And I think back to all that happened, there. At home. My extramarital affairs, my inadvertent cruelty, my search for security and then my rejection of it. My loss of it.

By contrast, Bangkok is pristine. It was never touched by my ugly betrayals, by grief or failure. So that even with all of the cityís pollution and congestion, con jobs and harassment, I am somewhat at peace.

One of the hawkers, slow to close up the stand from which he sells lighters in the shape of naked women, gestures toward me, and then the sky, and I realize Iím standing in the downpour. "You still here?" He asks, teasing out a meaningful question from the innocence of foreign words.

"Yes," I smile. "Still here. For now." I buy a nudie lighter, thinking I can give it to Jenny, who will hope, because she knows not a little about danger, that the gift is meant to say good-bye.

The rain slows.


Cynthia Gralla is the author of the novel The Floating World.

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