musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Archive for February, 2012

Bangkok’s Searches & Security

The biggest story — not to mention worry — here in Bangkok recently was the recent Valentine’s Day “bombing” by the so-called Iranian “terrorists”. To call what happened a terrorist bombing, though, may not be quite accurate; it was more like a few small explosions gone awry. Whatever the terminology, it did raise a few eyebrows — and perhaps singe a few in the process. Two weeks later, people are still wondering: was this some sort of Keystone Cops-like mishap or a real threat?

 

In case you missed it, in a nutshell, this is what happened: a couple of Iranian “visitors,” miffed that a Bangkok taxi driver refused to take them to where they asked to go, hurled a grenade — or a similar explosive device — at the taxi. Luckily, the driver was standing outside the taxi at the time and was not injured. His vehicle — as you can see from the photo above — was not so fortunate. Soon afterwards, a police car arrived on the scene (two amazing facts here: the fact that the cop arrived so quickly, and that he was not on a motorcycle, which is what almost all officers are seen driving in Bangkok) and one of the nutty Iranians hurled another grenade at that car too. However, this device ricocheted off the vehicle, hit the Iranian and exploded, blowing off both of his legs. He didn’t die and nobody else was injured, but his buddy was later arrested at the airport, waiting to board a flight to Malaysia — which is where I was when all this lunacy was taking place.

This incident happened in and around Bangkok’s Sukhumvit Soi 71, which is not that far from where I live. In fact, one of my walking routes takes me through the neighborhood where these explosions happened. From newspaper accounts, three Iranian men where living at a rented house in that soi. Some observers think that the “bombs” were intended for the Israeli Embassy in Bangkok, or more specifically, the Israeli ambassador. Coming in the wake of similar bomb attacks on “Israeli diplomatic targets” in India and Georgia, this led to all sorts of speculation and accusations, further ramping up the tensions between Iran and Israel … and putting Thailand right in the middle of the nasty feud. This sort of drama is definitely NOT what Thailand needs in order to restore the confidence of tourists after the horrific flooding late last year. What’s next; another massive Red Shirt rally? Actually, that’s a scarily plausible possibility too.

 

After all this bomb-bastic activity, the knee-jerk reaction from authorities has been “heightened security” around the city. In Thai terms, this means squads of police officers making random checks of bags — almost always those of foreigners — at “strategic” spots around town. Every other day it seems there is a photo in the newspaper of some grinning tourist in Bangkok having their bag examined by an equally gleeful police officer. Yeah, baby, having fun in Thailand!

For several years now, there have been regular bag searches on the subway system in Bangkok. But the total lack of thoroughness makes these checks a bit of a joke. As you pass through the electro-gate, a security guard will glance at your bag, maybe shine his or her flashlight in the general direction of the contents inside, and then motion you on. Next, please! I’ve never had one of my bags actually opened and searched. For some reason, the city’s other high-tech transport system, the BTS Skytrain, does not even bother with bag searches at all. We wouldn’t anything resembling consistency here, would we?

But it’s the other type of random bag searches that are a definite source of frustration — and irritation — for expat residents. Previously, these bag checks were ostensibly for the purpose of uncovering narcotics of some sort, but nowadays “security” is given as the reason. I’ve been stopped by police twice in the past decade. The first time I was stopped while walking to the boat pier and my bag was pawed through by an overzealous cop; the other time I was on the back of a motorcycle, stopped at a red light, and interrogated by yet another grim-looking stormtrooper: Where are you coming from? Where are you going? Blah, blah, blah. Totally useless.

A few weeks ago there was a letter-to-the-editor in the Bangkok Post from an African-American resident who was recently stopped by police in the Prakonong district of Bangkok and asked to produce his passport. Like most foreign residents, the man sensibly had a photocopy of his passport but not the real thing. That apparently did not satisfy the local copper, no doubt suspecting this guy was an “African drug dealer”, and he ended up taking the American to the local police station for further interrogation. Or was the cop — as so often happens here in this magic kingdom — just looking to have his palmed greased with some cash? Another one of my regular customers, a 40-ish European man, was stopped in front of Benjasiri Park on Sukhumvit and asked for ID. Again, there was no reason for this guy being singled out for a search. At what point does “good security” cross over to being nothing but sheer harassment? It definitely takes the shine off Thailand’s sanook façade. Of course there is a need for improved security if the situation warrants it, but searching the bags of random pedestrians doesn’t strike me as anything close to being an effective tactic.

One member of the opposition Democrat party was quoted in the Bangkok Post last week as saying: “Some cabinet members compared the (Iranian bombing) suspect with vocational students engaged in a brawl,” he said. “Don’t make it sound like a trivial matter.” Actually, all these so-called “brawls” among vocational students in the Bangkok ARE a very serious matter. Several times each month there are reports of fights between students from rival schools that end in bloodshed. The perpetrators might be driving motorcycles, they might be riding on a bus with their “gang”, or they might be on foot. Whatever the scene, an argument ensues, knives or guns come out, and someone is either injured badly or killed. These are not rare cases, but alarmingly frequent occurrences of stupidity and intimidation. It may not rank up there with Iranian terrorism suspects in terms of shock value, but it’s certainly not “trivial.” In fact, it’s a big problem that does concern Bangkok residents. Maybe they should be posting these security guards at the entrances of the vocational schools and bus stops.

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February 2012 Listening List

These are the albums (all of the compact disc variety; I’m not a download dude) that are commanding my attention lately, not to mention keeping me sane and happy during these turbulent times. As usual, it’s a mixed bag of old and new, covering various genres. Just the way I like it!

 

Cut Copy – Zonoscope

John Cale – Paris 1919

Mayer Hawthorne – How Do You Do

Gabor Szabo – Spellbinder

Dusty Springfield – Dusty in Memphis

 

Al Kooper – Rare and Well Done

Saint Etienne – Sound of Water (Deluxe Edition)

Howard Tate – Howard Tate

Ryan Adams – Ashes & Fire

Ornette Coleman – The Shape of Jazz to Come

 

Hank Crawford – Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing

Elvis Costello – National Ransom

Mike Scott – Bring ‘Em All In

The Jazz Crusaders – Live at the Lighthouse ‘66

The Drums – Portamento

 

Townes Van Zandt – Live at the Old Quarter; Houston, Texas

The Cannonball Adderley Sextet – In New York

Camel – Lunar Sea: An Anthology

Poco – Under the Gun/Blue and Gray

Destroyer – Kaputt

 

The Lotus Eaters – No Sense of Sin

Bon Iver – Bon Iver

Eddie Hinton – A Mighty Field of Vision: The Anthology 1969-1993

Duke Ellington – The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse

Robbie Robertson – How to Become Clairvoyant

 

Ebo Taylor – Life Stories

14-Carat Black – Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth

Gomez – Five Men in a Hut

The War on Drugs – Slave Ambient

Passion Pit – Manners

 

Lenny Kravitz – Black and White America

Grateful Dead – Europe ’72, Vol. 2

Pale Fountains – From Across the Kitchen Table

NRBQ – Keep This Love Goin’

Snow Patrol – Fallen Empires

 

Darondo – Listen to my Song

The Billy Cobham-George Duke Band – Live on Tour in Europe

The Pursuit of Happiness – The Downward Road

Willie Tee – I’m only a Man

Peter Bruntnell – Ends of the Earth

 

Dizzy Gillespie – On the French Riviera

M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming

Jimmy Eat World – Invented

Various Artists – Saint Etienne Presents Song from the Dog & Duck

Sonny Rollins – Freedom Suite

Fun Finds

I love hunting for old books when I’m on the road. In Yangon, the outdoor bookstalls on Pansodan Road can sometimes yield little treasures, and in Phnom Penh I always seem to find a gem or two at Bohr’s Books. While in Kuala Lumpur last week, I visited some several secondhand bookshops and also the BookXcess outlet in Petaling Jaya’s Amcorp Mall for some good cheap remainder titles.

One of the goodies I found at the Junk Bookstore in KL (and yes, that’s really the name of this shop) was Every Little Crook and Nanny a 1972 novel by Evan Hunter, the author also known as Ed McBain. Every Little Crook and Nanny is a bit different than McBain’s popular 87th Precinct series of novels, ones that have been dubbed “Police Procedurals.” This one is more of a comic caper, reminiscent of Donald Westlake’s delightful Dortmunder books. The Hunter novel features a cast of (almost) lovable Mafia goons, a hapless kidnapper, and a bizarre police officer or two. Good fun.

 

I also found a battered copy of Hot Day, Hot Night by Chester Himes, which is the sixth novel in the classic Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones series. First published in 1969, this is a 1975 edition, big afros on the cover and all. A review in the San Francisco Chronicle called Himes “the best writer of mayhem yarns since Raymond Chandler.” Mayhem yarns? Whatever you want to call this style of crime fiction, it’s the addictive kind, and I look forward to reading this old Chester Himes novel very soon.

 

Yet another goodie I was thrilled to find was William Kotzwinkle’s Jack in the Box, one of the more warped coming-of-age tales that you are likely to read. Comic books, teenage hormones, and a wacky cast of characters make for a very humorous novel. Kotzwinkle is a brilliant writer who has written some of the funniest books around, The Bear Went Over the Mountain being one of most hilarious novels of all time, in my opinion. Really, that book was one of those laugh-out-loud tales that you’ll think about reading again a few years later, just to see if it’s still as funny as it was the first time. Jack in the Box isn’t nearly as guffaw-able, but it’s still an entertaining read. Kotzwinkle, by the way, wrote the screenplay for a movie you might have heard of: E.T. the Extra Terrestrial.

In addition to that lot, I found old paperbacks from authors such as Kingsley Amis, J.D. Donleavy, John D. MacDonald, Charles McCarry, Trevanian, Jonathan Raban, Arthur C. Clarke, E.L. Doctorow, Erle Stanley Gardner, M.C. Beaton, and two old “Quiller” novels by Adam Hall. Definitely not the latest best sellers, but this delightful mish-mash of books was just what I was looking for.

Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street

One of the albums I listened to on my MP4 player while wandering around Kuala Lumpur last week was the soundtrack from Good Will Hunting. I never saw the film but enjoyed the music on this album very much. In addition to Danny Elfman’s film score, there are some cool tunes from the Waterboys, Al Green, the Dandy Warhols, and several songs from the late great Elliott Smith. But the tune that always stands out for me, bursting forth with a triumphant tuneful majesty, is Gerry Rafferty’s famous hit “Baker Street.” Everyone raves about Rafael Ravenscroft’s soaring sax solo on that song, but Rafferty’s comfortably smooth vocals were also a vital component to the song’s appeal. People always associate Gerry Rafferty with that one song, but he recorded many other fine tunes during his career as well.

 

Prior to embarking on a solo career, Rafferty was a member of two bands; The Humblebums (which included Billy Connolly, the same fellow who later gained fame as a comedian) and Stealers Wheel. The latter group enjoyed considerable success in the mid 1970s, scoring big hits with “Stuck in the Middle with You” (which was later featured in the film Reservoir Dogs) and “Star.” I have an excellent compilation of Rafferty’s music on the Raven label titled Days Gone Down: The Anthology 1970-1982. This CD includes some of Rafferty’s material from those two bands along with a bunch of his solo recordings. Of course “Baker Street” is featured, but there are many other impressive songs on this single disc, including “Right Down the Line”, “Get it Right Next Time”, “Home and Dry”, and the awesome title track “Days Gone Down (Still Have the Light in Your Eyes).” Anyone who calls Rafferty a one-hit wonder was obviously not paying attention.

 

Rafferty possessed a very distinctive, soothing voice, one that fit his tunes like the proverbial velvet glove. He was not a shouter or gritty rocker, nor a particularly eloquent musical poet, but his songs were of high quality and all these decades later, they still stick in your head. Rafferty reportedly battled alcohol problems in recent years and during the past decade there were numerous reports of drinking binges and mysterious disappearances. Sadly, Rafferty passed away from liver failure last year. But it’s never too late to discover some of the musical jewels he left behind.

Literary Flavors

One of the most asked questions at my bookshop in Bangkok is: “Where do you get your books?” Except for a few titles from local authors that we take on consignment, along with new travel titles from Things Asian Press, all of our stock consists of secondhand books that we get locally. We don’t order or source anything from overseas or even domestically. The only exception would be my occasional forays to Kuala Lumpur, where I usually manage to find a variety of interesting books (more about my latest trip next week) to bring back.

In the early days/years of operating the bookshop, I used to buy books from secondhand dealers at Bangkok’s Chatuchak Market to supplement my stock. But in recent years I haven’t had to leave my shop at all due to the constant stream of people dropping by to sell or exchange books. We end up having to turn down many books because we are so overwhelmed with stuff. Not only are regular customers and tourists coming to do the selling and swapping, we also have many local Thais arriving with books to sell. Most of these “dealers” (for lack of a better term) get their books from local homes, apartment complexes, or hotels, and then sell them to us. The titles can be a mixed bag of languages (we see a lot of Swedish and Russian books, for example) and genres. Sometimes there are brand-new titles and sometimes I find books that are older than I am. Inside the books we uncover sundry items; old bookmarks, airline boarding passes, naughty photos, dead flowers, dead insects, and occasionally some money! Whether the book has collector’s value or not is of no concern to me. I’m certainly no antiquarian dealer (in fact, I think it’s fair to see that I despise the whole collector’s racket); I just think it’s a lot of fun to peruse the old titles.

Last week’s cache of books unearthed a particularly cool find: Flavours: Thailand’s 200 Most Interesting Restaurants by Harry Rolnick. That might not sound like a very interesting title, until you look inside and notice the publication date: 1972. Hoo, ha, this is going to good, I thought. And yes indeed it was, akin to a stroll down memory lane, and made even more fun by the irreverent writing style of Harry Rolnick.

 

Obviously, some of the restaurants listed in this book are long gone, but more than a few ARE still in operation. One of my friends and customers, Ing, came by the shop and perused the book, saying how it brought back so many memories of growing up in Bangkok during the 60s and 70s. She bought the book, but left it with me to look at for a few days. I thumbed through it and found some real gems. For example, the listing for Chokechai Restaurant in Thonburi says:
Snake? Bat’s Blood? Bear Salad? Elephant Knuckle? If such be your taste, Chokechai supplies the dishes. The English menu once was a discarded hunting license (they’ve since gone sophisticated and mimeographed one of the most hilarious and rare menus I’ve ever seen) and the game is fresh, much of it prepared at your table from just-killed animals. Mainly patronized by country people, the Chokechai is a bit difficult to find, but the dining is al fresco, the dishes quite splendid, prices ridiculously low, and even if your taste doesn’t run to crocodile tail, you’ll be entranced by the atmosphere. P.S. Elephant knuckle must be ordered 48 hours ahead of time … defrosting, you know.

For another place, dubbed “Khao Ka Moo,” Rolnick writes:

The reason for the obscure address is that there is no real name for this restaurant, it only serves one dish, and they’re all sold out by noon. The dish is roast pork leg with rice, it is reputed by pork-lovers to be THE restaurant for the stuff, and between 6:30 a.m. and noon, you’ll see crowds literally queuing up to taste it. Not being one of the Mystic Order of the Roast Pork Leg people, I find myself unable to understand the fascination, but swineologists swear by it, so who am I to be the sceptic?

And the listing for Thaweesak Bakery on Sukhumvit Road:
If you can walk by without buying a box or two to take home, you have the culinary emotions of a Cyclops. The atmosphere is decidedly youthful, with long-haired Thai and American teenagers torn between the éclairs and the sounds of Creedence Clearwater Revival.

Remember; this was written in 1972! The book has chapters for Thai, Western, Other Asian, and Outside Bangkok. It also includes a glossary of Thai foods, and “a selected list of rarer dishes.” Even though this guide is 40 years old — or maybe that fact actually enhances the appeal — this is fun reading for anyone who enjoys Bangkok history or Thai food.

After thumbing through the restaurant guide, I was intrigued: Who was this Harry Rolnick fellow? Looking at the author photo in the back of the guide, he appeared young at the time of publication, so I deemed it quite possible that he was still alive and kicking … and eating. I did an online search and found this Wikipedia entry:

Harry Rolnick is an American author, editor and music critic. His writing often examines Asian lifestyles and culinary traditions. Eating Out In China (1979) was the first book to explore People’s Republic restaurants. His other restaurant guides, to Hong Kong, Bangkok and Macau, prompted Alan Levy to write in The Foodie’s Guide to the World, “Nobody eats in Asia without consulting Harry Rolnick first”.

Rolnick has written a history of coffee, a guide to feng shui, and a social history of Macau. He also co-authored The Chinese Gourmet with William Mark. A native of New York, Rolnick was a Merchant Marine before taking residence in Thailand, where he was one of the first editors of the Bangkok Post and later Hong Kong, from where he traveled throughout Asia and East Africa for two decades. He has written articles for Lonely Planet, Newsweek, International Herald Tribune, Wall Street Journal, Travel & Leisure, GEO and many other publications. In 1998, he edited the first English-language lifestyle magazine in Budapest, before returning to Manhattan.

Rolnick’s most recent book is Spice Chronicles: Exotic Tales of a Hungry Traveler (2008, Seven Locks Press)

 

It sounds like Rolnick has kept VERY busy since his young days in Bangkok. And his latest book, Spice Chronicles, sounds like a must-read for fans of food and travel.

Village Remembrance

I received an e-mail yesterday that brought a really big smile to my face. It was from Kazuko, a friend from Japan, who just returned from a visit to Myanmar. I met her last year at the anniversary ceremony for the primary school in Shan State’s Tat Ein village. Kazuko, nicknamed “Ma Zabei” by the villagers, makes visits there several times each year, and is one of the school’s most generous donors. I ran into her again when I was in Tat Ein in November and enjoyed speaking with her. Our conversation ends up being a mixture of Burmese and English, a delightful but sometimes challenging combination.

 

Prior to Kazuko’s trip in late January, I e-mailed her some images of photos I had taken in November and asked if she could make prints and give them to two of the teachers at the school. There is no photo shop in the Nyaungshwe area (the closest one is in Taunggyi, nearly an hour’s drive away), so Kazuko made the prints in Japan before she left. While at the school in Tat Ein this time, Kazuko took some photos of her own and attached a few of those to the e-mail she sent me. Thank you! I look forward to seeing the whole Tat Ein bunch — and maybe Kazuko too, if our schedules overlap — when I return later this summer.

 

John Hiatt

A topic that’s guaranteed to stimulate heated discussion among music fans would be: Who is the greatest songwriter of the Rock and R&B era? Bob Dylan is probably the first name that would pop into many minds, or perhaps Lennon & McCartney — as a duo or individually — would be the choice of many. You can also toss around the likes of Neil Young, Curtis Mayfield, Joni Mitchell, Bruce Springsteen, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Pete Townsend, Burt Bacharach, Townes Van Zandt, Brian Wilson, Dan Penn, Randy Newman, Leiber & Stoller, Carole King, Elton John & Bernie Taupin, Richard Thompson, Laura Nyro, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, and countless others. But one guy who ranks among the greatest in any genre yet never gets proper props is John Hiatt. If you just said “Who?” then my point is made. John Hiatt is a music legend who remains criminally under the public radar.

Since the early 1970 John Hiatt has been writing songs, lots of songs. He’s written clever songs, funny songs, wistful songs, tenderly beautiful songs, and foot-stomping numbers that leave a smile on your face. Rock, Country, Folk, R&B, Blues; he can do it all, and do it all well. Hiatt has a wicked sense of humor, but he’s also a compassionate and tender writer. Really, there is no style of song or type of music that this guy can’t write. Many of Hiatt’s songs have been covered by artists such as Rosanne Cash, Emmylou Harris, B.B. King and Eric Clapton, Jeff Healey, Joe Cocker, Linda Ronstadt, Delbert McClinton, Nick Lowe, Patty Griffin, and even some fellow named Bob Dylan. Not surprisingly, there is a tribute album of artists covering Hiatt songs; It’ll Come to You: the Songs of John Hiatt.

In addition to being a superlative songwriter, John Hiatt has recorded twenty most memorable solo albums. His songwriting has always been of the highest quality and he has gained the reputation for being a vibrant live performer (I was lucky to see him perform with a band one time in Florida), but over the years he has also developed into a fine singer too. Check out his powerful 1994 live album, Hiatt Comes Alive at Budokan for a dose of his energetic and electric side. No, this album wasn’t really recorded at the famed Japanese venue where Cheap Trick also experienced concert success, but the title – not to mention the hilarious cover — does serve as proof that John Hiatt has a definite sense of humor.

Hiatt began his career as a songwriter for a publishing company in the early 1970s. His first brush with success came in 1974 when Three Dog Night scored a hit with one of the songs he had written, “Sure As I’m Sitting Here.” That same year he recorded his debut album, Hangin’ Around the Observatory for Epic Records. That album and the next year’s Overcoats, sunk like molten bricks, and Hiatt was promptly released from his contract. He signed with MCA and made two even more impressive albums, Slug Line and Two Bit Monsters, before finding himself out of a contract once again. Next came a stint with Geffen Records, where he made three more wonderful albums; All of a Sudden, Riding with the King, and Warming Up to the Ice Age.

But those records also failed to sell as well as hoped, and Hiatt went label shopping once again, eventually signing with A&M. That led to a nearly decade-long streak (from the mid 80 to the mid 90s) of wonderful albums such as Bring the Family, Slow Turning, Stolen Moments, Perfectly Good Guitar,  and Walk On (the later two with yet another different label, Capitol). While Hiatt didn’t turn into a Michael Jackson hit-making machine during those years, his albums did finally start selling better and cemented his reputation as a top-notch songwriter and recording artist. Hiatt was part of super-group Little Village, an ensemble that also featured Ry Cooder, Nick Lowe, and Jim Keltner. Those same musicians played on Hiatt’s perfectly crafted Bring the Family album in 1987, but as Little Village they only recorded the one album in 1992.

Hiatt eventually abandoned the major label ship and has continued to steadily release consistently fine new albums on smaller labels such as Vanguard and New West. His latest offering, 2011’s Dirty Jeans & Mudslide Hymns is a particularly outstanding collection of tunes. Songs like “Damn This Town,” “Train to Birmingham,” and “Adios to California” rank as some of the best he’s ever written. Considering the wealth of gems in his back catalog, that is saying a lot.

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