A Fine Romance
That ever so elusive romance between a Thai bar girl and a Western man…is "such stuff as dreams are made on" …but, alas, not reality. This is also the stuff as an endless row of bestsellers are made on, no doubt with the commercial potential of 12 million visitors – many of them males – to Thailand every year in the mind of the writers. Clearly these writers are better at doing business than at story telling.
“In art everything matters except the subject”, according to Oscar Wilde. In Bangkok bestseller stories only the subject matters – and the subjects is in variations on the theme above – but nothing else. Imagination, intelligence of plot, originality in composition, nothing of the stuff that makes good narration seems to matter. Worse still is the inability to make the characters come into life.
Lecturing rarely translates into good literature and in those stories the ambition to tell those 12 million visitors all the correct things about devious Thai bar girl-naive farang (Westerner) relationship according to the prevalent web site gospel is so obvious that the text boils down to not much more than that: another web-page submission. I am also often distracted by the authors’ all too common part time job as local tourist guides (the "don't go up stairs in Pat Pong bars or you will be cheated and if you do, handle it with a smile" kind of stuff – this is not story telling, this is Lonely Planet, even if it comes from the mouth of that obligatory “Bangkok Old Hand”, without which no Bangkok best seller worth the price can be published!).
An irritating but all too common feature of this type of fiction is the ridiculous attempt to create authenticity in the Thai bar girl way of talking English : “…I love you too much..I love you number one in the world…”etc. If you want to portray the girl as anything more than a stereotype, you should translate what she intends to say into proper English, as if she was saying it in her own language!
In short: when I want to read about the love story between a Thai and a Westerner – however trivial – I want it to be about two real human beings in all their complexity and, yes mystery, not about stereotyped role figures in a web site discussion.
It’s a small consolation that John Grisham is even worse.
But, now then, who is that Bangkok bar girl? I am not interested in her real identity or where she comes from, her family background, education, how dark her skin is or her social class. All this is discussed and laid out infinite on these web pages and in bestseller stories. It’s all trivial and they all really don’t get it.
No, what interests me is her role in the realm of imagination. That is for two reasons:
One relates to the equivocal essence of romance or romantic love. We recognize it when we feel it but we can never be sure if it’s real or an illusion, a mirage of sublimated erotic desire. A long life’s experience has bent me in the direction of the latter connotation. Romantic love is an illusion and it basically belongs in the domain of imagination.
The second reason relates to the first one. Bar girls or rather bar hostesses are masters of creating the illusion of romance, subconsciously aware that human imagination is so much stronger then our senses, in the same way that a master film director understands how to manipulate the audience by provoking fantasy rather than spelling it all out explicitly. The most sublime form of this illusionism is the eroticism sublimated into fantasy so skillfully evoked by the Japanese hostess in the tradition of the geisha, mostly only by means of stylish and refined manners and conversation.
The Thai hostess equally acts in the sphere of illusion but in a much more involving way: she is able to totally immerse herself in the role of mistress or girl friend to the extent that the illusion of reality is complete.
There is a sublime element of irony in this: the illusion of romance is almost real and “real” romance is ultimately an illusion. The hostess, the lover and the “real” girlfriend or wife are all acting in a fantasy play. The difference is that the hostess brings an element of artistry to the play, casting an ironic light over the pathos of the “real lovers”. The image of a romantically overcharged Westerner together with a Thai bar girl acting her professional role is loaded with irony. It would take a Luis Bunuel to portray this irony like he did in “That Obscure Object of Desire” with the superb Fernando Rey portraying the aging bourgeois gentleman’s vain attempt to buy the love of the beautiful young object of his lust, evasively and seductively played by Carole Bouquet and by a second actress, the equally beautiful and sensual Angela Molina! Actually I do think that the Bunuel movie quite accurately parallels the odd coupling between the typical Western Romeo and the Thai bar hostess. Indeed many Western males are so singlemindedly focused on Thai women as “objects of their desire” that they, like Bunuels gentleman (and we the public!) fail to detect she can be more than one person – or rather that there really are two persons.
Obviously, it happens that the hostess transcends the frontier between illusion and love and really falls in love with her partner. But then she appears to possess an ingrained sense of the futility of her feelings, to be subconsciously aware of the inevitable illusionism of romance, and quickly adapts to acting her role with a new partner as soon as the previous one has returned to his home country. As to him, he will continue to live under the spell of illusion, maybe sending money to her, buying a house for her and doing other extraordinarily strange things, finally succumbing into pathetic misery until he one day wakes up, hopefully wiser. Or so they say on this web site; frankly I have never heard anything first hand to verify that such utterly eccentric behaviour on the part of the male Westerner is common.
A Bangkok bar hostess carries in her personality and attitude setup all those traits attributable to the Thais in general. This typically means a strong emphasis on surface value in relation to other people, which obviously corresponds well with her professional activities. Surface is the meaning, there is no hidden meaning beneath the surface. The illusion of romance, even the fake of it is all there is; this attitude explains how easily she can act out her emotions as if they were real; indeed, at the moment they are in a way real, though, at the next moment they are gone or, again, directed towards another partner.
The emphasis on surface values also corresponds with the obsession with face, gaining or – not being an option – losing it. Life on the surface also implies emphasis on appearance such as dress style and behaviour, although coupled with a surprisingly tolerant attitude towards the faux pas commonly committed by the typical Westerner.
Those are typical text book remarks but this “serious” superficiality affects a hostess’ relations with men. In order to live her life on the surface at its fullest she needs to clean her mind of all “noise”or mental ”garbage” such as problems, sorrows, worries about the present and the future, in short all negative emotions. This cleaning act spills over to her partner as well, adding a certain lightness of spirit to the illusion of romance.
This also means that you cannot expect to involve a Thai bar hostess in a serious discussion about global warming, German domestic politics or gender theory – or in fact about any “serious” matter at all – but then, why would you want to?
Perhaps you should have a shot at writing the ultimate Bangkok novel?