In The Great Railway Bazaar, published in 1975, best-selling travel writer Paul Theroux described Bangkok as “a hugely preposterous city of temples and brothels”. More than thirty years later, first time visitors to the City of Angels could be forgiven for thinking that Theroux‘s analysis is as valid today as it might have been then, in the closing days of the Vietnam War.
But, to be serious for just one sentence, Bangkok, a city of some eleven million inhabitants, offers more than sanctity and sex.
Closer to the mark, though perhaps unintentionally so, Paul Theroux also pointed out that Bangkok’s “discomfort seems a calculated discouragement to residents” and that the Thai capital was “a city for transients”. In fact, that’s the city’s greatest strength and its untold story. The transients are Bangkok’s lifeblood.
All sorts of people drop by all the time. Most visibly, millions of poor Thai farmers pour into the capital in search of employment. Many of the motorcycle taxi drivers, the cleaners, street sweepers, food vendors, garland and lottery sellers, even the sex workers, in short, the people who make it possible for the city to exist, are transients. Turn a busy corner in Bangkok and you might find yourself in a side street that breathes more like a village in North Eastern Thailand than an urban community at home in a futuristic cityscape. Come harvest time, many of the residents disappear to tend to their fields hundreds of kilometers away. These local strangers are followed by immigrants, legal and otherwise, from Burma, China, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, India, Nepal and places as far away as Nigeria, who also establish their back-street communities in the sweltering Thai capital.
And then there are the wealthier foreigners who emerge, stiff and pale, from the flying metal tubes that ferry them from another world into the humid, hot concrete swamp of Bangkok. Upon clearing customs and facing the Kingdom, they immediately begin to sweat. Some hate the bad air and head for the beaches, others are in a hurry to spend vast amounts of cash on living out their worst hedonistic instincts, while others still simply descend into the pulsating maelstrom of the metropolis and are never seen again. This panoply of Bangkok enthusiasts includes international fugitives, rich heirs with money to burn, film-makers in search of that story, washed-up writers, drunken journalists, drug-addled backpackers, creepy sex nuts, professional hippies, shady exporters, incognito bank robbers, ageing rock stars, war criminals, mercenaries, secret agents, terrorists and Nobel Peace Prize winners, all manners of celebrities, would-be celebrities and pretenders. In Bangkok, even Steven Seagal can make a newspaper headline.
The funny thing is, many of the transients either stay and become a contradiction, or come back again and again. No doubt, the close proximity of the two apparently opposing worlds (one and the same for the Thais, one might suspect) conjured onto center stage in The Great Railway Bazaar – of glittering sacred roofs propped up by the low murmur of whispered prayers and of shimmering mascara painted around fathomless eyes winking sensuously at even the ugliest new kid on the block – is a major part of the attraction for casual visitors like Mr. Theroux.
Last week, yet another passing celebrity grabbed local and international headlines. American actor David Carradine died under mysterious circumstances in his Bangkok hotel suite while in town for a movie shoot. Carradine was an early childhood hero of mine, who, as the Shaolin monk in the 1970s TV series Kung Fu, exuded puritanical feel-good morality – disguised as Eastern wisdom – but kicked enough ass to hold the attention of a seven-year old.
First the Thai police said the actor had killed himself; then the authorities claimed he had died in the course of an autoerotic experiment. The family’s representative dismissed suicide and suggested that Carradine was assassinated by a secret Kung Fu cult which might have felt threatened by his alleged attempts to investigate the secrets of such groups. Sounds like one of his movies.
David Carradine became famous around the same time Paul Theroux came to the conclusion that “this flattened anthill”, as the celebrated scribe called Bangkok, was merely a motley collection of the aforementioned houses of the holy and the not so holy.
Carradine was the ultimate trash actor, a B-movie hero. He is so memorable because he persistently played reliable villains in a sheer endless string of below-par schlock movies and never seemed to take it very seriously. Every now and then, he appeared in a real film, perhaps just to remind himself that he could act.
For those with short memories or the advantage of being too young to remember, his career did not start with Quentin’s Kill Bill, though Carradine did save Tarantino’s shallow revenge ditty with his brooding presence and a fictional death as poignant as his actual passing was absurd. His outstanding contribution to western culture was the character of Frankenstein in the tasteless, cheap and highly original Death Race 2000, the 1975 Roger Corman produced B- movie to end all B-movies. This amazing exploitation flick was driven into top gear by Carradine’s ridiculous yet engrossing performance and the film’s pervasive tone of irreverence and vulgarity.
According to interviews and biographies, David Carradine lived like one of his characters – he experimented with psychedelic drugs and liked fast cars. He was married five times and one of his ex-wives claimed he was a sexual deviant. I did not really understand any of these things when I was seven years old, though I too liked fast cars. Now, more than three decades later, I have lost interest in fast cars, but I do like an artist whose work mirrors his life.
The larger than life characters Carradine played, from kung-fu monks to sleaze-balls of all shades – in the recent and quite appalling movie Hellride, the actor appeared as a hundred year old, oversexed Chinese Godfather – and his tragic but funky end in Bangkok all appear part of an action-packed movie script called, well, life. It hardly matters whether he was assassinated in B-movie fashion or accidentally perished in a solo-sex act gone wrong. What’s certain is that David Carradine was still out there, at the age of 72, doing his thing, at a time in life when most of us barely know how to change channels on the TV.
All that’s left to do is to salute the man for entertaining us then and now. He was apparently happy to be in Bangkok. And that’s good news for Bangkok. The city’s obvious attractions, those mentioned by Mr. Theroux, would hardly have impressed the jaded palate of a true Hollywood survivor. Like I said, a city of eleven million people must have more to offer than that.
During his visit, David Carradine became a Bangkok transient, who enriched the city’s dark cultural underbelly with his tragic, mysterious and wacky curtain-call. Yes, I sincerely commiserate with his family and his fans, but what a way to go for a man who spent a lifetime playing avenging ass-kicking angels and sordid creeps.
Bring back Mr. Theroux for another visit, I say. He too might make a good transient.
Postscript: Fans will also remember the scene in Death Race 2000 in which American hero Rambo Stallone knocked out his female interest in profoundly un-PC like fashion. But Stallone is old snow. He came through Bangkok a couple of years ago on his way to liberate Burma and no one took note until he was caught with a bag full of steroids on his way into Australia. Burma has not been liberated. At least Frankenstein liberated America and drove away with his sweetheart. Don’t watch the remake of Death Race 2000 though – even if David Carradine reprised his role as Frankenstein, it’s a cynical corporate ride and hardly a final masterpiece – times have changed and great bad taste has given way to sick jokes for chavs, subsumed by mindless layers of CGI. Perhaps the days of the great B-movie actors are numbered.
Published in the South East Globe.