BOOK REVIEW: A Portrait of Thailand’s True Soul

The following review by well-known author Tom Vater (“Sacred Skin — Thailand’s Spirit Tattoos”) of “Navigating the Bangkok Noir”, a book of paintings by American artist Chris Coles, is reprinted from a leading-edge website about Thailand ( The review by Mr Vater reads:

“Producing great art in Thailand is difficult. It is even harder producing great art about Bangkok, the Thai capital.

“On the one hand, Thai artists are constrained by wide-ranging limits of expression and an almost total lack of freedom of speech. Decades of repression – occasionally both violent and deadly – of intellectuals, left-field politicians, social activists and artists, as well as high profile propaganda campaigns by a nefarious Ministry of Culture that is concerned primarily with Thailand’s image abroad (in the same way the mafia, the Catholic church or a multinational corporation attempts to spin alternative history) and attempts to push a narrow elitist view of what it means to be Thai down the population’s collective throat, have taken their toll. Musicians, painters, film makers, poets and writers, for the most part, produce bland, non-confrontational, easy to consume fare, in tune with autocratic opinion makers in the government and military. Those who do produce genuine masterpieces – like highly acclaimed film maker and Palme’ D’Or winner Pen Ek Ratanaruang, whose most recent film Headshot played Thai cinemas with a limited release for little more than week – are occasionally lauded abroad, yet ignored at home.

“Civil society has almost nothing to say and academics who raise their heads above the common swill are vilified and attacked by army generals and policemen. Sadly the quasi-fascist governments Thailand suffered through in the wake of World War II, supported by the US during the cold war, have done terrible damage to the thinking of many Thai people. And though, away from the big city, most people can read and write, most prefer not to and watch state-sanctioned TV instead.

“On the other hand, millions of foreigners visit the country each year, in search of cheap holidays, beautiful beaches, great food and cheaper sex. Try as it might, Bangkok has not shaken its reputation as one of the world’s notorious sex capitals – though one might argue that Pattaya, a collection of high rises and brothels that puts Miami to shame, located a couple of hours further east of the Thai capital, should actually be holding the crown as the  number one Sleazeville. In Thailand, if you have the money, you can buy anything, or at least anything readers of this page are likely to be able to imagine.

“Some of the visiting foreigners love it so much, they stay. They just can’t stop rolling around in it. And some, a few, produce work about their experiences – books, films, visual art. Almost everything they write or shoot or paint is crap – cliched rubbish populated by sad stereo-types even more disturbing and one-dimensional than the Fellinis, tweekers, sex-pats and creeps that swarm from international flights into Bangkok’s airport and into the lonely tropical nights beyond, every single day of the year. Stand in the arrivals hall for an hour and watch what comes off the plane and you will see what I mean.

“In recent years, several small independent publishers have given rise to a couple of genres of piss-awful ‘literature’ dedicated to those rolling around in Bangkok’s nighttime muck. On the one hand, writers like Christopher Moore and John Burdett lead a small pack of crime writers dispensing twisted tales of nefarious on-goings in the Thai capital, while there’s another batch of worse authors who churn out books  focused entirely on Bangkok’s sordid and tired sex for sale nightlife, dreaming up badly written tales of hapless, happy or predatory hookers. In these crummy tomes, the myths of the happy whore, the seedy private eye fighting the forces of evil and the Buddhist land of smiles and tolerance are rolled out over and over again. Sadly, those millions of punters who spend most of their time propped up on a bar stool in a go-go bar in Patpong, Nana or Cowboy (those Bangkok’s nightlife areas that are frequented by foreigners), relate to most of this literary dross and provide a market for it. There are enough dumbbells out there buying into the story of swinging Bangkok to enable a whole roaster of useless scribes to eke out a living, or at least provide themselves with opportunities to stroke their egos

“There are exceptions of course – artists and writers who try to approach Bangkok’s high and low life from their own personal and unique perspectives without getting their private parts caught in the recesses of passing ladyboys. The Windup Girl by Pablo Bacigalupi is an excellent novel about the Thai capital, set in the 23rd century, a time when a Monsanto-type corporation has destroyed the world and the Thais own the world’s last seed bank. Gripping drama, and yes there’s some sex thrown in, as well fascinating politics, social comment and rip-roaring action. For me, literary visions of Bangkok pretty much end there.

“Navigating the Bangkok Noir, a book of paintings by American artist Chris Coles, takes a different route into Bangkok’s underbelly. This series of expressionist paintings in book form, published by Marshall Cavendish and accompanied by sensitive and insightful captions by the artist, somehow manages to take us to the same places that the Bangkok hacks frequent without falling for the same cliches. Perhaps painting is a better medium to portray the sadness and beauty, the darkness and the occasional rays of bright shining light – in short the unearthly glow of the Thai capital – than the written word. Perhaps, because Thailand prides itself on its anti-intellectualism, Coles’ images transcend the prostitute Disneyland of countless wasted pulp novels and bring some real dignity and, most importantly, substance to its subjects.

“Coles paintings have a bitter-sweet glow all of their own, taking us down the crummy sois, letting us look at the city from a street dog’s perspective (who is really a German sex tourist, we are told), helping us understand that the world is unfair, and that as soon as it gets dark,unfairness goes at a premium in the City of Angels. The artist manages a difficult hat trick. His night girls are beautiful and tragic at the same time. His johns are as gross as in real life and yet they have charisma. His world is sleazy, sure, but it exists and the artist has a gentle way of explaining why it has a right to do so, just as much as any other world out there.

“There is reason to paint these people, that appears to be the central premise of Coles’ work, and the artist knows how to pick his characters, men and women of an inconsequential neon-netherworld that exists primarily because it offers an escape from the equally sordid and boring but less exotic real world its inhabitants came from. The girls leave their villages because girls have very very little opportunity in Thailand and the men fly in from around the world because they can no longer cope with their lives and loves and prefer to pay for female (or otherwise) company or are so lonely that they will accept semi-literate rice farmers as MCs providing psychiatric discourse on the hang-ups of the western world.

“Chris Coles catches the nuances, the small pains and tiny losses and gains that are made each night on Sukhumvit, Bangkok’s main downtown thoroughfare: he captures the tide of emotional refuse that washes up on the Thai capital’s pavements. The women emerge with dignity intact, while the men don’t emerge at all. They are what they are, empty, broken human beings that roll around in it.

“Navigating the Bangkok Noir is an excellent introduction to Southeast Asia’s Interzone, to the black patches on the global map of capitalist indifference, and to the lost opportunities of thousands of Thai women who get screwed, both literally and metaphorically, day in, day out, by their government, by society, by the cops, by peer pressure and by foreigners. I don’t see this book in the Top Ten of the Ministry of Culture any time soon. It’s got too much soul.”  –Tom Vater is the author of the recently published “Sacred Skin – Thailand’s Spirit Tattoos”

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