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The Crow of Chao Phraya in Lockdown



Bangkok Byron sometimes styles himself “The Crow of Chao Phraya”, which is adapted from “The Swan of Avon”, an epithet for Shakespeare used by Ben Jonson in his dedicatory poem that appears in the preface to the First Folio.

Bangkok Byron doesn’t have a First Folio (or a second, or a third), but he does have a few self-published books on Amazon. His favourite subject is the goings-on in the fleshpots of SE Asia, and his favourite medium is verse, though its quality is at the opposite end of the spectrum to the bard’s – hence “crow”, instead of “swan”. “Chao Phraya” is, of course, the river which flows through Bangkok, just as “Avon” is the river which flows through Stratford (it’s not called “Stratford-on-Avon” for nothing!)

At the time of writing, there is yet another comparison between The Swan of Avon and The Crow of Chao Phraya. In 1592, due to an outbreak of plague, the theatres were closed down, and Shakespeare found himself in the 16th century equivalent of lockdown. There was no point in writing any more plays, so he turned his hand to poetry, writing two narrative poems: Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. An even more serious outbreak occurred in the summer of 1603 and, as the law stated that when the daily death toll reach 30 the theatres should close, Shakespeare once again turned his hand to poetry. It was during this later period of lockdown that he polished up his early sonnets, and wrote new ones, to create his sequence of 154 sonnets.

Bangkok Byron is also taking the opportunity to write, polishing up some old works and writing new ones (including a series of submissions for this website).

First up was Thai Girls, Sex and the Supernatural, a collection of articles from 2005 to 2012. The idea was to update it to the present day, and include some reflections on the current pandemic. Imagine my surprise when, after attempting to publish it, I got this email from Amazon KDP:

Hello,

We’re contacting you regarding the following book(s):

Thai Girls, Sex, and the Supernatural: Updated for 2020 by Byron, Bangkok (AUTHOR) (ID: 3345918)

Your book does not comply with our guidelines. As a result we are not offering your book for sale.

Due to the rapidly changing nature of information around the COVID-19 virus, we are referring customers to official sources for health information about the virus. Please consider removing references to COVID-19 for this book.

Amazon KDP

What next? – Mass book burnings? But to be fair to Amazon, there is a lot of “fake news” surrounding coronavirus, and since 99.99% of my book was not about Covid-19, it didn’t take long to remove the offending passages and get the book accepted.

My current project is a revision of Highs and Lows of a Bargirl. This was the second book I wrote for Kindle, way back in 2011. It was intended to be a novel based on Balzac’s A Harlot High and Low, but I didn’t have the authorial stamina to write a full-length novel in those days, and it fizzled out at around 20,000 words – barely enough to call it a novella.

Here is part of my current revision, which describes what it is like to be a new girl working in a bar in Angeles City. Note that it is based on what a bargirl actually told me. Indeed, it is not uncommon for girls to start working in gogo bars without knowing exactly what the job involves (they don’t get a written job description like we do!):

EXTRACT FROM HIGHS AND LOWS OF A BARGIRL BY BANGKOK BYRON

There is nothing like a young, fresh face, not to mention a young, nubile body, so it was not long before Esther was called down to sit with a customer. He began that conversation which she was to have many times in the next few weeks:

“What’s your name?”

“Esther, what’s yours?”

“Bob.”

“Hi Bob, nice to meet you.”

“Where are you from?”

“Tagatay.”

“Never heard of it.”

“Where are you from?”

“Brussels.”

Esther had never heard of that, either, but she didn’t like to say so.

“How old are you?”

“18.”

A look of wide-eyed appreciation.

“How old are you?”

“35.”

Funny that, because the guy looked 50, if a day.

“How much is a lady drink?”

“140.”

“OK.”

The guy seemed to think that buying a lady drink gave him the right to fondle her breasts. It was horrible, done in public like this, and by a guy whom she’d only just met, but she saw other girls putting up with and so said nothing.

A little later on, he took her hand and put it in his groin. Esther felt even more alarmed, but didn’t pull it away. On the other hand, she didn’t do what he wanted, which was to massage that place.

Then he said something that she didn’t understand.

“How much is the barfine?”

“Barfine?”

“You want to be barfined, don’t you?”

Just then, Jenny intervened to help her, and explained that, as Esther was new, and hadn’t got an ID, she was not allowed to go with customers.

The man laughed it off.

“Never mind,” he said. “Maybe I’ll come back tomorrow. In the meantime, you’re cute enough. What about a drink?”

Jenny sat down on the other side of the guy, and Esther, much to her relief, was forgotten. A moment later, the mamasan, seeing that her lady drink was finished, and the customer otherwise engaged, told her to get back on the stage. She had not been dancing long, when she noticed that Bob and Jenny had gone. “He’s taken her barhopping,” she said to herself.

That conversation was repeated several times that evening, but now Esther knew what to say when that mysterious word “barfine” was mentioned: “I haven’t got my ID yet, so I’m not allowed to go with customers.”

Next day, Jenny took her to the Barangay Office to get her ID and STD check, and a few days later, Esther was issued with a pink ID card which she was told sternly she must display at all times. So that evening, she went on stage with the ID card clipped to her bikini bottom (like the other girls), but without an excuse to fend off the “barfine” question.

* * *

The re-write of Highs and Lows is up to c. 25,000 words at the moment, so there is a long way to go yet. I will be happy enough if I can reach 30,000 words – which is a good length for a novella. 50,000 words is considered to be the minimum to call it a novel, so if I can get that far, I will be over the moon.

Lockdown in Singapore is to be reviewed on May 4th, so I have plenty of time to write. I will keep you informed. In the meantime, why not read Balzac’s novel to keep you going in your self-isolation? The original title is Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes, which is variously translated as A Harlot High and Low (Penguin Edition) or Scenes from a Courtesan’s Life (Project Gutenberg). Balzac’s novel is the story of a love triangle between a prostitute, a young man whom she loves, and an old man whom she rips off – a story that is still played out today in the pay-for-play areas of Thailand and the Philippines, and which readers of this website will readily relate to.

The author of this article can be contacted at : [email protected]