The Dragon Show
Chinese New Year was approaching, you could tell by the red and gold coloured banners that began to adorn the noodle shops and Chinese joints. Lanterns were hung outside the pawn shops and firecrackers began to be heard racketing in the smaller Sois.
Groups of young men were donning the dragon costume to wend their way through the crowds, cymbals clashing with a youth leading the way to panhandle on behalf of a fictitious charity and to bring blessing on those willing to donate.
Folks would be filling the lucky red envelopes with money to be given as good luck gifts for the coming New Year and the special vegetarian foods would be in a state of preparation.
Chinese New Year is a noisy celebration – cymbals, drums, firecrackers, shouts, yells and laughter, with the smells of incense and food and hot oil blending to create a heady atmosphere that can leave one slightly giddy and with a feeling of intoxication.
Or, very intoxicated, as the case may be….
I’d wandered into Rob’s room one evening to find him hard at work, head down trying to draw a dragon on a piece of tracing paper, the ever present glass of Saeng Som and soda beside his elbow and a Marlboro smouldering away in the ashtray.
Pausing to look for a moment I observed his shaky attempts at drawing before passing comment, ”Regressing even further are we?"
As no answer was immediately forthcoming I sat down to wait. In Thailand this is often best as replies are frequently not of the instant variety and not necessarily what you might want to hear, so best be seated.
Sitting back and taking a long drink from his glass he replied, ”Naw….Chinky pee mye (New Year), and we’ve a show in Nakon Sawan…Punters want a dragon rising out of the river.."
A dragon rising out of the river; I laughed to myself thinking that it had to be Chinese. If it was Isaan they’d all run for the hills before deciding if they could eat it.
Nakon Sawan is a funny sort of a place in that nothing ever happens there. Somehow it always reminded me of an outpost of civilisation in the badlands with everybody trying to pretend that there really was a life outside city limits but not just quite so sure about it.
It is also built on the confluence of two rivers one of which is a muddy brown colour and the other a more normal blackish blue. Where the rivers meet the colours run parallel for a distance before merging which can create an odd effect that wouldn’t be out of place on a 70’s album cover.
And, slightly downstream of the confluence there is a small island set midstream which appears to serve no useful purpose being as it had no noodle shop built there.
Rob explained that the plan was to position the laser and generator on the island and that a pump and waterscreen would be operated from the bank nearest the town and on the given moment the waterscreen would pump the curtain of water some five metres in the air and hopefully be hidden in the darkness at which point the laser projecting on the curtain of water would cause a dragon to apparently appear from the depths.
As Nakon Sawan has a very sizeable Chinese population this would be deemed a good idea…
Rob’s attempts at drawing dragons were getting worse by now, probably the poor light because I assumed that he was immune to the effects of Saeng Som after all this time, but then again, who knows?
My suggestion that he merely trace the lion from the front of a beer can and then add wings and ‘wot not’ dragon type bits were scoffed at as this would be too obvious.
All this was far too technical for me at 8pm so I wandered outside and was soon deep in conversation with Gop who wanted a letter written to a German paramour to enquire if he had a spare pal who could keep one of her mates in a style to which she would rapidly become accustomed.
(Dearest Hans, do you have a friend who want holiday and maybe wife?’).
It duly came to pass that Rob and equipment were loaded into a pick-up and left for Paradise City, someone somewhere in his office having got a nephew or niece to come up with a suitable picture of a dragon to program for the laser.
Next evening for want of anything better to do I was sitting in our rec’ room in the office idly watching the box whilst the rest of the gang got on with a game of pop gang around the table.
(Recreation room is about right ; there were frequently to be found in the mornings people in states of alcoholic unconsciousness, card games were played, meetings held, telly watched, secret deals done, and beer mandatory. There were even about a hundred cases of Suntory piled in there once – I didn’t ask.)
Anyway, this is a card game which is ideal for separating people from their money at very high speed and is generally conducted with much humour and raucous expletives. Sometimes people even shoot each other over a game which lends a different twist to the stakes, but then again I’m not a card player so who knows what attraction lies in getting shot over a card game?
However I doubt if a more expeditious way to lose money has yet been invented.
Naturally, Thais play it often, it is quick and requires no skill or imagination whatsoever.
The news came on, full of the usual close ups of the normal holiday road carnage with the obligatory cop ‘tsk-tsking about people who will load 28 people into a pick up and try and drive 500 miles whilst totally pissed with no working lights on the truck and that the police would be checking for drunk drivers. Next Year for sure; Absolutely. Maybe.
As usual the majority of the show was dedicated to the festivities for Chinese New Year around the country and the telly bint made some comment about Nakon Sawan which I duly recognised as the camera panned around the celebrating hordes.
This year she announced, there was to be a special show, and that it would begin in a minute. A minute being somewhat elastic in Thailand and can frequently last three months. But that’s another story for another time.
I yelled for quiet as Baw and Jaeb were getting a bit excitable by now then pointing at the telly, said that Robert was coming on in a minute as he was doing the show in Nakon Sawan. Knowing Robert, they sat down, poured more drinks and waited leery in expectation of something going wrong.
The water screen wasn’t visible as a green Chinese dragon began it’s ascent from the river and on reaching full height it began to weave left and right which to be honest looked most impressive on telly although flickering a bit must have been doubly so on the spot.
Supot put his glass on the table and then leaning forward to the television brushed the edge of the screen as though there was some dust there a frown creasing his forehead as he did so,”Phen arai.." He said. (What’s that?)
Leaning forward I could just see a sort of whitish blob moving around in and out of shot, sort of like an errant maggot stuck on the camera lens and mentioned to Supot that it was probably a trick of the light or something like that.
The show finished and the fireworks went up to much oohing and aahing and as nothing had blown up or failed our mob returned to their card game where they could at least insult each other, the consensus being that Rob had failed dismally in his efforts to amuse them by virtue of explosion or electrocution.
The following night I arrived home and after buying a bottle of beer entered the compound to see Rob leaning against the porch looking worn and covered from head to foot in angry looking mossie bites.
This was easy to work out as Rob habitually wandered around in nothing but shorts and flip flops when home.
“Evenin’ Rob….changed your vocation again and decided to become a pin cushion for the duration?”, was my enquiry, sympathy being no fun at all. He grunted then took a long, long pull from his glass with a far away look in his eye as I continued, ”Saw the show on telly though, it looked pretty good and is probably the most exciting thing that ever happened there, ever.."
He groaned again and lighting a Marlboro said, ”What a fuck up, what an absolute fuck up, that’s it for sure this time…..did you see me on the telly?"
I hadn’t, but assumed that he’d been interviewed as the laser expert then asked what it was about.
“No…worse than that.”, he replied, ”I took a hypo.."
Stifling a laugh as a most peculiar picture came to mind, I poured my beer and made a very tentative enquiry, “What,when they were filming?"
See, Rob is diabetic and if you know the signs of an impending hypo you can get the sugar down his neck on time. But if not, alas, then a naked sweating Rob is liable to be your recompense. ‘Ho-hum’ ,I thought as I waited for the details to emerge surely, not on camera in front of a telly bint?
Thinking that more beer was probably in order as if I was to lend a non sympathetic ear I darted into the Soi and scored one for each of us, then settled back against the porch to listen.
It transpired that Rob and gang had been transported with their kit to the island and as they arranged the set up the boat had departed to return with copious quantities of booze and polystyrene containers containing food.
The boatman helpfully waited until the tests were done and then handing over a pile of canvas sheets had putted away towards the lights on the far bank no doubt to start getting into the spirit of things himself.
However, he did promise to return about 10pm and they made him promise on his dead grannie’s grave in the full knowledge that the time scale was very liable to be forgotten about. Hee-hee, this being Thailand after all.
The team waited and waited and as the novelty of watching the river meander past soon got boring they got stuck into a bottle of grog as darkness fell. Comfort being essential in these matters they arranged some groundsheets between the bushes standing there and Rob having laid back settled back with glass to drink and smoke until show time.
As 9pm approached he decided it was time for the last eat of the day and readying his insulin he went to where the food boxes were piled on a bench. To find the first one contained….crab fried rice. As did the second. And the third…..He frantically checked them all to find the same thing…Khao pad boo.
Rob had a problem with seafood. He couldn’t eat it having ended up in hospital once before after a severe bout of food poisoning brought on by eating contaminated shellfish and had naturally developed an aversion to it.
Herein lay a dilemma: He had to eat, but what?
Quickly rushing around the rest of the crew to see if anyone had stashed any other edibles grew a blank and after a rummage through the gear found himself with insulin but no food. No insulin-hypo. No food-no insulin. Hypo.
Robert’s partner who was a Thai veteran of the entertainment scene and a decorated veteran when it came to dealing with Rob, quickly got the instructions about the timing and required keys to be pushed before he lapsed into the planet Zog and having done that left him to sink or swim as the case may be. The show must go on cos’ we have to get paid, sort of thing….
He had decided to have a scout around the isle to see if any errant ducks or chickens were to be found to slaughter and cook when the symptoms began to manifest themselves then slowly but recognising what was happening, he began to talk to himself and look to the sky for his little friends to come and tell him the big secret. Alerted by his talk his team formed a barrier between him and the magic “Go", button and suggested ever so nicely that there was a nice man to talk to “over there”, in the darkness for which Rob thanked them profusely then turned, and stumbled away into the undergrowth.
The walkie talkie crackled so the team turned their attention back to the opposite bank as the countdown was imminent and as 0 was reached pressed the ‘go’ key to see the water screen rise on cue as the pump kicked in followed seconds later by the laser beginning to write the pattern on the now vertical carpet of river.
From the opposite bank they could hear that peculiarly Chinese hypnotic clash of cymbals and drums which whilst sounding like Robocop in a junkyard, does numb your senses to anything but the music and what is happening in front of you.
Somewhere out of sight in the brush Rob was happily disrobing whilst humming a cheery little ditty and all the time wondering what all the bloody noise was. The dragon which he thought was ever so pretty was something to do with him, but he couldn’t quite remember what just at that moment in time.
Deciding to walk forwards for a better vantage point he arrived at a position which was slightly to the side of the water screen and deciding that the music was pretty groovy now that he could hear it clearly, thought that a little jig was in order.
One of the team happened to look around at that precise moment and was appalled to see this naked apparition dancing around on the periphery of the setup and shouting bloody blue murder to the rest they ran to drag him out of sight and into the darkness where he duly collapsed behind an equipment pile. This allowed them to continue the show before returning to see if he was alive as after all, they had bills to pay as well and wanted paid.
He was just coming round as they arrived back, the dragon having subsided into the depths as the pump cut off leaving the hordes in town to get stuck into New Year Chinese style,, and as he groggily got to his feet they poked then prodded his sweat soaked body to make sure that he was functioning properly whilst they debated what to do.
Someone handed him his clothes and as he dressed slowly said, “Sorry ‘bout that.."
A chorus of “Mye phen rai”, met his apology and having decided that he was fit and functional they scampered off to get the equipment torn down and ready for the off and payment.
A small boat was duly observed setting off from the shore so they all waited in expectation of it’s arrival and escape and as it grounded a porcine Chinese chap gingerly stepped ashore and handed over a fat envelope.
With great excitement and glee the chap explained that the show had been a great success and there was a bonus contained within the loot inside the envelope. The gang were gobsmacked, after all this guy was Chinese? What did he want? Their daughters, their Grandmothers souls?
As he clambered an uncertain way back into the boat, he turned to make a parting comment which was, ”The ghost was a nice touch." (Pii keang maak). And with that his boatman hit reverse and they putted into the night.
Everyone stood staring into the darkness at the retreating boat, somewhat confused by his statement until the penny dropped: Someone had seen Robert’s antics and assumed it was part of the show!
By now well happy, they sat down and counted the money then after a dividing it set about the booze with a vengeance. Someone crept up to Rob out of the darkness and handed him a warm bag which on closer examination turned out to be full of grilled chicken bits. Stolen from the fat Chinaman’s boat it appeared, but Rob needed food and the Thais do tend to take care of their friends…Needs must and all that.
The clock turned and no transport appeared although the sounds of distant revelry were getting louder if anything and slowly they came to the conclusion that their boatman was probably deeply immersed in a bottle of something strong and as such it was going to be a long night on a small island.
They waited all night whilst every mossie in the province arrived to feed on the captives and as the night slowly passed soon the rum was finished then shortly afterwards the cigarettes too.
Swimming for help was discounted as only one of them could swim with any confidence and as he was snoring drunk, this was deemed a non starter.
Dawn was breaking as a passing water taxi was attracted by the shouts for help and after loading them in minus kit, took them to the bank whereby Rob and partner leapt into the pickup before anyone else could. They shouted instructions to get the equipment as Rob turned the key, gunned the motor then skidded off in a Bangkok direction, sweaty, tired and hungry.
Rob’s tale came to a halt as he shuddered and poured more Saeng Som, then smiled before saying, ”The office called this after’. They said that the chinks have rebooked already for next year. They reckon the ghost is good karma or something.."
I laughed in response and said, ”Well,your missus wishes you dead often enough, now you can prove it to her.” I then asked if he had actually told her how much he got for the job. He shook his head by way of reply.
Some weeks later he arrived home with a video tape of the show and announced it to be a copy obtained from a TV station.
As always the girls wanted a nosey so we headed to my room where we got the telly on and the tape running. After a few flickers, there we were back in Nakon Sawan looking over the heads of the crowd as the show began and as the show continued the camera began to slowly zoom closer to the dragon before panning slightly left before settling on a ghostly maggoty presence that was apparently writhing in paroxysms of agony. The girls all shrieked then pointed to the screen yelling “Pee, pee ma." (A ghost. A ghost has come).
As the tape finished Rob laughed and said, ”How about that then? Superstar, that’s me alright."
“You think mate,”, I replied, ”To be a superstar you have to have that little bit extra to make it special. Ask the girls, I’m sure they’ll tell you!"
We let the girls discuss the event for a time before telling them who it was which led to even greater consternation as they’d never thought of Rob as a stripper, but again, this being Thailand, well….
I'm in Phuket for a few days so no comments….sorry!