There follow selections from 25 stories.
Bangkok Old Hand
A collection of stories
by Collin Piprell
(Bangkok: Post Books, 1993)
out of print
Collin Piprell is a Canadian writer and editor living in Bangkok. Aside from the many magazine articles which he has had published, mostly around Asia and most of them under his own name, he is the author of three novels and various works of non-fiction.
All but a few of these stories have been previously published in the Bangkok Post, Fah Thai, Thailand Tatler, or Asia Magazine.
Most of the stories first appeared under the byline "Ham Fiske".
Why that particular pseudonym? Years before the writer had ever written anything for publication, he thought he would one day like to be a writer. But, once, after he had revealed all in a bar-room conversation, it was pointed out that "Collin Piprell" was kind of hard to remember, which was really the kindest thing you could say about the name; and he'd never become a famous writer unless he could think of a good pseudonym. So everybody sat around and thought about it for a while. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, it came to him. "Ham Fiske"! It was short, easy to spell, and had a certain lusty heft to it. More importantly, though, reviewers wouldn't be able to resist it. They could start every review with "And here we have another typically ham-fisked effort ..." According to the "It doesn't matter what they say, as long as they talk about me" school of self-promotion, it would only be a matter of time before he was rich, famous, and buried in groupies.
He had the name, but it took him several more years before he actually wrote anything to hang it on. And, he reports, having eventually written 40-50 short stories, articles, and essays as Ham Fiske, he still wasn't noticeably bothered by groupies so he said what the hell, and went back to being plain old Colin Prep ... Collin Pipe ... Um. Who?
Franz Kafka and Lewis Carroll might together begin to describe a day spent navigating the mysteries of the Air Cargo. But this is not merely another case of "Abandon hope all ye who enter this official quagmire". In the Thai way, there are always escape clauses.
I am at Air Cargo, Don Meringue Airport, Muang Sarakan. This is my second day here at the mercy of sinister forces, obscure logics, and arbitrary rules.
My guide and chief hope in this Wonderland has been the White Rabbit, a diminutive shipping agent who eats Rolaids by the handful and who scurries this way and that, slipping down this hall and that one quicker than the eye can follow. His refrain is "Wait for me here", which is reiterated as he whips past fast enough for the Doppler Effect to distort the message: "waiiIIT FOR ME HEEerrre."
I breathe deeply, and go back to watching my fellow travellers through this inner circle of Hell.
Dealing with the bureaucracy of overseas cargo offices anywhere in the world is a punishing test of one's equanimity. No one can say he has truly achieved manhood until he has passed through the flame of the Air Cargo Department. My trials have entered their second day, but that's really my fault, as the pained and put-upon expression on the White Rabbit's face has told me again and again. If I had been willing to pay a sum of money, we could have been finished yesterday. However, I am not prepared to pay tax on a trunkful of old clothes, tapes, books, and notes. Unreasonable, I know; but there it is.
I had assumed personal effects could be brought in duty-free, but that is true only in the first month after your arrival in the country. If you wait longer than that to have the goods shipped, you are liable to a tax.
I can't even remember exactly what's in that blasted trunk. I'd written my friend in Kuwait and asked him to send it mostly because I felt guilty about leaving it at his place for as long as I had. I didn't actually need it, not at the price of shipping it by air (there is no surface cargo from Kuwait). And now they want to tax it into the bargain.
"How," I have asked, "do you plan to calculate the value of this stuff so that you can establish what tax is due?"
I haven't yet had a look at it. Until I sign certain forms agreeing to let them tax me, I can't even open it up to point triumphantly and say: "See? Those old clothes haven't even been washed." And: "Here. Look at these notes -- complete rubbish. No value whatsoever, You should be paying me to take this junk away. Tax? How can you tax this stuff?"
There is reason to believe I could expedite matters, circumventing both the calculation of taxes and the filling of forms ZX 1001 through ZY 2072, simply by offering a little "tea money". But this stuff is junk, and I resent having paid to ship it, even. Moreover, the particular official who needs tea subsidies has the most unpleasant manner of anyone I've ever met in Sarakan. He wouldn't get money out of me with an M-16.
So, no, I can't see my trunk. Not till I've given Air Cargo prior licence to hit me for whatever they see fit. And I'm still not convinced that it's necessary; this whole business smacks of being a shakedown.
It doesn't help that I speak limited Sarakanese -- certainly not enough to enter into full verbal disputation with this mob. I am forced to communicate through the White Rabbit, and this hyperkinetic harebrain won't stand still long enough to hear me out before he's turned to the official, wincing and wai-ing and entreating in cringing tones. It's obvious to me that he's missing the finer dialectical subtleties of my position as I'm laying it out in English. He's also a bit too deferential for my liking. Of course I am not a Sarakanese.
Central to the running of bureaucratic gauntlets, the basic maxim is that one must never show anger. If you should find yourself in one of these situations, my advice to you is write this down in big red letters on your hand or somewhere else you can't miss it: DO NOT SHOW YOUR ANGER. Losing your cool leaves you in a situation roughly equivalent to that of the individual who, when faced with a hungry tiger which has got up on the wrong side of the bed, snarls at it and tries to shove it aside. Don't get angry; just breathe deeply. And smile.
In any case, if you have to deal with officialdom, I must admit the Sarakan version is preferable to most. It is true people in Sarakan love uniforms, and the least of those officials I've had to deal with has looked like a field marshal dressed for a coronation. This does present a daunting prospect; nevertheless, there are elements of flexibility and humanity leavening the process. If only I were better at speaking Sarakanese.
I'm thinking of asking the White Rabbit for a couple of Rolaids. But he's off again: "Wait for me heeeerrrre ..."
I have noticed a man and his wife, both, I'd say, in their mid-40s. As the morning has worn on, they've appeared more and more distraught. Initially, they presented the perfect image of self-confident and complacent yuppiehood. I have them figured for American oil-company people. Just looking at them, you can be pretty sure they didn't get those bronzed complexions standing at bus-stops or picking fruit. By now, however, they are beginning to fray a bit around the edges. The man's suntan has developed a definite florid tinge.
They have two shipping agents with them (though their combined speed is still less than that of the White Rabbit). "Wait for us here," they tell the woman, and they park her next to me. I guess this is the waiting-for-agents area. The husband whirls off in their slipstream.
She introduces herself and asks me what I do. I tell her and then ask her what oil company they work for. She tells me they're missionaries. They've just arrived from Georgia, via Singapore. While in Singapore, some friends told them they were crazy if they waited till they got to Sarakan to buy appliances and electronic goods. Everything is so expensive in Sarakan. So they took their friends' advice and bought it all in Singapore and shipped it by air to Sarakan. Good move. Now they're facing an import duty of around US $1500. And they don't want to pay.
So we swap Air Cargo experiences, and she tells me a bit about their new van and the big house they have to furnish and how much of shock it was to learn about the import tax. I commiserate.
There's not much to do in the waiting-for-agents area except enjoy the spectacle of other miserable petitioners in their torment. Ah -- there's a familiar face, for example. A lugubrious fellow, a Sarakanese, I think, who has been passing back and forth for the past two days, empty-handed and empty-faced, like a wind-up toy. Chances are he was an air-cargo official in his last life, and he's been condemned to an eternity of trying to find Annex C-7, Room 2107A, which does not exist, before he can collect his belongings and go home. The missionary's wife thinks that's a pretty good theory, except it's not theologically sound.
At this point the husband returns, looking more florid and even less happy. We are introduced, but he is not in the mood for small talk. He turns to his wife.
"The agents think we can get off for US$500. Under the table. I told them no way."
"Do you mean we could leave?" She looks so wistful it practically breaks my heart.
"I am not going to deal under the table."
Here I presume to interfere: "Well, you know things are done a little differently in these parts. And $500 doesn't sound like a bad deal ..."
He draws himself up into a veritable thunderhead of self-righteous wrath. "I will not pay a bribe. I don't care what the local customs are." He considers for a moment, and then adds, "That is one of the reasons we have come here. To change things."
Some might think this guy has a lot of nerve. They might think, "Okay, that's all I need; now I can pay my tea money out of principle." But I can see his point: what with America having already been spiritually perfected, his mission is, perforce, to move ever farther afield in search of corruption and sin.
"But honey..," his wife tries again.
Their shippers reappear and draw him aside for a huddle. Then off the three of them go again.
We get to watch some more people. Over there in the distance, I catch a brief glimpse of the White Rabbit flitting from one hole to another. And here is my special pal, a rotund Sarakanese. A deaf-mute. I believe he works here in some capacity. Several times, both today and yesterday, he has come over to beam reassuringly at me, giving me the thumbs-up sign and then ambling off. Maybe he's the official cheerer-upper. Maybe Sarakan's officialdom, in all its humanity, wants to suggest a ray of hope in this our darkest hour. Right now he's all thumbs at the high port, radiating optimism like a jolly fat lighthouse.
And just maybe he's right, for the White Rabbit has materialised again, and he's bearing something that he appears quite proud of. He thrusts it at me in triumph; it is a rule-book, very graciously printed in both Sarakanese and English, and weighing no more than 10 kilos. And there. There where he's pointing is the rule recorded in black and white: personal effects may be brought in duty-free within one month of the resident's arrival in Thailand. After that, the goods will be subject to taxation. Quite explicit. Quite clear. Where are the grounds for celebration in that? I've lost, right? But no. The White Rabbit stabs at some fine print. In "special circumstances", it says, these charges may be waived. There it is. Beautiful. That very Sarakanese flexibility built right into this otherwise Kafkaesque excursion through purgatory.
That's the good news. The bad news is that the official in charge of Exceptional Circumstances inhabits an office which is some 15 kilometres distant. If we want to have the slightest chance of finishing today, of getting to see this fellow and then getting back here to run the rest of the gauntlet before the end of the working day, then we have to hurry. The White Rabbit passes me a handful of Rolaids, and we're off, leaving the missionary's wife pining away in the waiting-for-agents area.
It seems that the mere fact of having discovered the fine print and then tracked the appropriate official to his lair is sufficient to win a plea of exceptional circumstances, for we wait no longer than 20 minutes before being ushered in to see an individual so beribboned and brocaded in his brilliant white uniform he'd have any Admiral of the Fleet snapping salutes. He waits till the White Rabbit finishes his veritable tour de force of bowing and scraping and wringing of hands. Then he pulls out a thick sheaf of paper and the next thing I know I am signing a bunch of things in quadruplicate, I'm not sure what, but it's making the White Rabbit so happy that I couldn't think of not doing it.
Just like that, after two days, I have passed. The official is smiling; I am smiling; even the White Rabbit is smiling, though maybe it's only gas. We drive back to Air Cargo at high speed, minutes to spare.
Things are not the same; all is transformed by the lens of optimism. There is the reincarnated official, still passing through, still seeking an office that doesn't exist; but even his step springs lighter, it seems. The jolly lighthouse is up into the million candlepower range, welcoming me back, sensing my imminent triumph. My least favourite official in the world, the one I've vowed would never get money out of me, has to cave in, faced with the arsenal of documents the White Rabbit deposits on his desk, all stamped and signed by the Man in Charge of Exceptional Circumstances. Thwarted in his evil plans, the unpleasant fellow looks even more unpleasant; he makes a token show of examining the forms, but he quickly gives it up. Before I know it, I am opening my trunk, surprised and pleased to find a ukelele I'd forgotten all about. And these clothes will be quite useful, once they're washed.
Everyone's happy. Almost everyone. The missionary's wife comes over, and she congratulates me on my good fortune, never mind she is herself almost desperate by now. At that very moment, however, her husband returns, muttering something under his breath, probably prayers.
"I told them once, and I told them twice," he intoned. "I would not deal under the table. But they went ahead and paid anyway. And I had to pay them back. Our shippers, I mean. It's on their heads. I told them I wouldn't deal under the table. I wash my hands of it."
"But ... What do you mean? Can we go?"
"Yes. It's on their heads. It only cost us $500. I wash my hands of it."
Nothing like a little pragmatic soul-searching to settle the stomach before dinner, I've always said. But I don't know why he doesn't look happier. They are well out of it, after all. And it isn't on his head.
My friend the deaf-mute is being happy enough for all of us anyway. He is playing a merry tune on my ukelele; he really seems to know his way around that noble instrument, in fact. Caught up in the spirit of it all, and not entirely pleased at my reunion with the uke anyhow -- to tell the truth, it has never managed to translate my musical sentiments exactly the way I intend them -- I give it to the cheerer-upper, figuring that's the least I can do. It's a kind of special tax, one I'm more than happy to pay, under these exceptional circumstances.
I offer to take the White Rabbit away for a victory drink, but he's got to be off; he's late, he's late. I make a note to send him a large box of Rolaids first thing next week.
THE ORIGIN OF THE THAI BUS QUEUE
In Thailand, things are not always what they first appear. What is it, for example, that occasionally prompts such normally free-spirited individualists as the Thais to line up at bus-stops in queues of geometrical precision? Why do many construction workers wear woollen balaclava masks even in the hottest weather? Read on to have these and other mysteries revealed.
I showed up at the restaurant a little late, that afternoon, and found my friend Tony from England already deep into a large bottle of beer. He was, he told me, bamboozled.
"There they were," he said. "They were standing in a queue as straight and orderly as if someone had surveyed it for them." He pointed to the bus-stop on the street below, outside the window. "Then the bus came, and all of a sudden it was gangbusters -- every man for himself in a mad scramble to get on board ... Take a look out there now: there's another queue forming."
And so there was. Thus far three people were lined up as smartly as the Royal Guards on parade. Tony shook his head in bewilderment and sought veritas in his vino. Actually it wasn't vino; it was beer, and his glass was empty.
"Your shout," he said.
I suppose it was, in light of the fact I'd been late and missed his round.
By the time the beer arrived several more people had lined up at the bus-stop. You might have thought Thailand had spent 50 years under the British Raj, given the geometrical precision of that queue. Then a bus appeared, and Tony told me to watch carefully. The "queue" abruptly disintegrated into swarming knots of people at the doors of the bus.
"See!" exclaimed Tony. "What do you make of that?"
I had the explanation, in fact. Seeing as how I was paying for the drinks, however, I figured I shouldn't make it too easy for him. I pointed to the crowded sidewalk across the street. It was a typical scene, with people moving from cover to cover like soldiers under fire. A number of them had newspapers, shopping bags, even briefcases held up to their faces. In England, they would've been shielding themselves from the perpetual drizzle. But here in Bangkok, with the sky clear and the sun still hot at 4:00 p.m.?
"They must be keeping the sun off," said Tony.
Right then, I told him; he should have a look at the bus-stop again, where yet another line of people had formed, and think about it.
Tony stared and ruminated. Then he swigged at his beer and ruminated some more. Abruptly, a grin of delighted comprehension cracked his face wide open. "Aha," he said. "I have it! It's the telephone pole -- they're in the shadow of the telephone pole." He chortled, ordering more beer with which to celebrate his perspicacity. For that was indeed the answer. Far from representing some historically unaccountable vestige of the British Empire, these people were being regimented simply by their aversion to sunlight and by the long, late afternoon shadow of a telephone pole.
Flushed with the success of his deduction, Tony decided to overawe me with the quickness of his mind. "I see it now," he said. "This kind of behaviour has evolved as a survival factor -- little habits that constantly minimise the heat, right?"
"Wrong," I replied. "Have a look across the street; do you see those construction workers?" A dozen labourers, both male and female, occupied a building site. It was hot, yet everyone was dressed in long-sleeved shirts buttoned at the collars and fastened at the wrists. They wore broad-brimmed hats together with either scarves or knitted balaclava masks covering their entire faces but for the eyes. Some kind of insulation against the heat? Or maybe they were breathing through the scarves because of the air pollution. Nice theories, but almost certainly wrong.
It was vanity, I told Tony. That's what it was. Your average Thai has almost a phobic reaction to sunlight on the skin. And why? Just because it makes you darker.
"I can't accept that," Tony said. "Surely these habits have evolved as the distilled wisdom of generations who've had to work in the hot sun. If you spend too much time in the sun, your skin ages and you get skin cancer. It makes good sense to stay out of it.
Skin cancer? I responded. Good sense? Rubbish. Nobody cares about skin cancer until they get it. Not in face of the Cosmetic Imperative. No, it's all vanity.
You look at your average Westerner. I've seen Germans, Americans, all sorts of people who are supposed to have better sense lying in the sun till their skin blisters, cracks, and curls up crisp at the edges. Skin cancer? The popular media are full of stories about sun and skin cancer, but you still get people devoting the better part of their annual vacations to working on the perfect suntan. Good sense? You get them spending large amounts of money and time subjecting themselves to something that has in many traditions been used as a form of torture (though when it is applied as torture there generally aren't any cold beers or gin and tonics involved). You get shirtless Aussies in the middle of Chiang Mai and topless Germans on Jomtien. Are they merely concerned with staying cool? No; once again it's only vanity. "To hell with local customs and local sensibilities; we want an all-over tan to taunt back home."
It's ironic. Thais tend to be naturally darker than a lot of Westerners, and they're often concerned with getting lighter, or at least at holding steady. Westerners, on the other hand, suffer all sorts of expense and discomfort trying to get darker. In the West, a tan lends an aura of health and vitality. In Thailand, It is generally about as welcome as leprosy.
This can be explained, at least in part, by the fact that darker skin has been associated with manual labour, in Thailand, while fair skin has represented a visible sign of class.
Of course this used to be true in Europe as well, where in days gone by tans were associated with the working class. Ladies, for example, would carry parasols and wear big floppy hats and gloves and things, just to keep their skin white and upper-crusted.
It was the advance of the Industrial Revolution which democratised pallor in the West, taking the hoi polloi out of the sun and putting them into the dark Satanic mills and pits of Industry. Pale skin lost its classy cachet; few aristocrats could compete with the pallor of a factory worker, for example, who was required to sweat inside for 18 hours day. Then along came the 20th century, when tropical beaches and tennis courts became readily accessible to those with the money and leisure, which is almost everybody, these days. A nice dark suntan has become prized evidence of a trip to the Bahamas or one's membership in the Gastown Polo Club. It really is a powerful thing, this attitude towards tans: even though I have to laugh at the obsession, I myself almost throw up when I see newly-arrived farangs on the beach -- some couple from Liverpool, for instance, lying there like gobbets of whale blubber washed ashore. In two days' time they'll resemble boiled lobsters, except for the skin hanging in shreds from their tortured bodies. Within two weeks of their return to Liverpool, of course, they'll be white as fish bellies again or, as the average Thai would have it, "Suay mahk" (very nice).
In the West, tans have become a symbol of health, beauty, and money. In some circles they are virtually mandatory. Have you ever seen Liz Taylor or George Hamilton without a tan? No, you haven't; and they'd hide under the bed before they'd let you. And Ronald Reagan would've done the same, at least before he did, in fact, get skin cancer.
"Okay, so you've convinced me," said Tony. "Westerners are crazy. But everything you've told me goes to show that the people standing in the shadow of that telephone pole are eminently sensible. They know what they're doing."
"They may be doing the right thing," I replied, "but they're doing it for the wrong reasons. Let me give you just a few random bits of evidence.
"I come home from the beach glowing with health and a tan fit to get me on the back of the bus in Alabama, and my Thai neighbours greet me with 'My, you look good! Been to the sea?' Dark farangs are okay, it seems. My Thai girlfriend, on the other hand, comes back from the beach to be greeted with expressions of concern bordering on horror: 'Oh, you're so black! Naaglee-ed (ugly)." She's unusual, inasmuch as she liked to sunbathe; most Thai women at the beach stay in the shade, and they cover up with clothes if they go in the water. 'Modesty,' you say? Maybe. But I've got my money on vanity.
"Take another example. The first time I went up to Chiang Mai, I was expecting to be swept away by the incredible beauty of the ladies, having been primed with the folk wisdom that the loveliest women in Thailand are from the North. I must say I was a bit disappointed. Sure, the local maidens were by no means blemishes on the landscape, but I reckoned I'd seen more heartbreakers per square metre in Bangkok. What had everyone been raving about? Only after I'd lived in Thailand for some time did I realise what it all meant: it's simply that northern girls are fairer-skinned that the Northeasterners or the Southerners and, hence, "more beautiful". No, you're not going to get most of your Thai women sunbathing when Thai beauty pageants have a "Miss Fair Skin" category, and when you can bet the one who takes the crown as most beautiful of all is going to be at least as fair as Miss Fair Skin.
Tony was ready to concede the point, he finally indicated, if only I'd stop yammering on about it. In any case we were distracted by the appearance at the bus-queue of a lady of indeterminate origin (she was a little too dark for Chiang Mai) but of truly breathtaking physical attraction. Though she stood in the shadow of the telephone pole, she glowed as though with an inner light. After a couple of minutes a bus came along to signal the disintegration of the queue and to carry the object of our admiration away to grace other fields of perception. Tony and I heaved sighs in unison, and there followed a silence wherein we practised our middle-distance stares.
"You know," I said after a spell, "my brother wrote from Canada the other day. He told me he's been going three times a week to an institution known as "Fabutan". Apparently this is one version of something called a "tanning salon", and he has been preparing for a vacation in Jamaica."
"You mean he's getting a tan before he goes away?"
"Yeah. Maybe it's a status thing -- the Joneses down the road just came back from Bermuda with a tan, and now he's going to fix them by going away with a tan. Who knows?"
"Well, Bangkok's already got Dairy Queens and McDonald's; when are you going to get the first Fabutan Salon?"
"Are you kidding? Trying to sell Fabutan franchises in Thailand would be like trying to promote Pork Sausage Parlours in Arabia. No, what you'd want to set up here would be Pallor Parlours. That's the thing -- lead-lined rooms shielded from the least glimmer of ultra-violet; immersion in bleach baths and massages with skin lighteners ...
"That's it -- this is what you do: you establish a chain of Pallor Parlours in Thailand right away. Then, with the fortune that pours in, you buy into the tanning salons in America. The way the Western media are going on about skin cancer, and what with Ronald Reagan describing what's left of his nose as a billboard proclaiming we should all stay out of the sun, the trend is going to turn, and before you know it the anemic look is going to come back into fashion in Europe and America. At the same time, the influence of the West and Western-style affluence is striking ever deeper at Thailand; and, as always, the popular culture embraced abroad is going to lag behind what is actually current in the West, so more and more Thais will come to see that the smart thing is to be tanned and to look as much as possible like George Hamilton. And that's when you pull the old switcheroo. Suddenly, overnight, you convert your American tanning operations into Pallor Parlours, and your Thai Pallor Parlours into tanning salons. Before you know it, you're bigger than Coca Cola."
By now it was becoming clear we'd both had a little too much to drink, and we agreed to postpone further discussion of our new commercial empire till we could re-examine the matter in the cold hard light of day.
The next morning, in fact, it didn't seem like such a good idea anymore; and I had a pallour that showed right through my Koh Samui tan.
RUNNING WITH THE BULLS, BANGKOK-STYLE