Tom Vater

Tom Vater

Irreverent, informed and downright eclectic crime fiction and reportage from Southeast Asia and beyond

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Bangkok Noir? – We’re still waiting


One of Germany’s best known writers and TV intellectuals (yes, there‘s such a thing), Roger Willemsen, recently spent three months in Bangkok, writing about the city. Every night, the experienced media professional left his hotel at 6pm to explore the underbelly of Thailand’s capital.

The result is Bangkok Noir, a 350 page coffee table book with images by photographer Ralf Tooten. With this handsome and somewhat lightly sleazy tome, they join a host of other writers and artists who have tried to capture Bangkok’s dark side – which is considerable. Thirteen million or so people engage in a daily struggle of maintaining a beautiful and cruel machine – after all, this heart of irregular beats and regular near fatal attacks, is the only one Thailand has. Most important decisions and events in the kingdom originate between the wide avenues and narrow sois, between the black canals and brightly lit markets of the capital. But whether for resident or visitor, for focused media-hound or all-over-the-place girl-chasing tourist night-owl, defining the city’s darkness is not as easy as finding it.
Willemsen does it by sucking up and analysing copious observations and then stumbling over artfully composed long sentences and flowery descriptions. He doesn’t speak Thai, nor does he appear to have hired a translator for much of his wandering, though he does imply that he did not sleep with girls like the ones that stare out of the book at the reader, page after page.

Perhaps a different sensitivity to Thai urban culture would help. Oh, I don’t mean writers should take official ruminations about what Bangkok is, into account. The Ministry of Culture’s definition would lead straight to glossy travel brochures that have little in common with reality. But bar girls and road side vendors selling insects, lady-boys and homeless elephants, Thai boxing and concrete landscapes, the reality most writers are understandably enamored with and sucked in by, merely provide a surface for the city’s darkness. There’s even a literary genre staring off local bookshop shelves, that attempts to throw some light onto what’s normal life here, and hence easily accessible. Countless amateur-Chandlers murder the private eye story format in the gutters of the City of Angels over and over, providing similar insights as Mr. Willemsen does.

What makes Bangkok so different from many other cities is that the city’s ordinary residents are always confronted by the apparently surprising eccentricities described in these books. One day, a headless corpse swings from a bridge on your way to work. The next, mobs of demonstrators threaten to blow up gas trucks on busy intersections. Hapless wives violently separating the penises from their philandering husbands is a phenomenon that has grown from urban myth to tabloid reality, as Mr. Willemsen notes. It’s all enjoying, suffering and living, nothing unusual.

No one describing the outer layers of Bangkok’s soiled underwear will ever get a prize from Thais, who would much rather wish the Noir into the nearest canal. But for some visitors and temporary residents, Noir is the city’s inner matter, which lies beyond the glittering freak-show midways described ad nauseam in aforementioned publishing endeavors. The world is still waiting for a literary light to make that darkness shine.


Image by Aroon Thaewchatturat.

Published in the South East Globe.

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