Art by Chris Coles. Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 124 in September, 2010.
One night, on the Bangkok street called Soi Cowboy, I sat at an outside beer bar, waiting to meet a friend. Up and down the block, I watched a thousand dark-skinned girls dressed in satin and silk, the soft glow of red neon signs softly blinking above their heads - TILAC, DOLL HOUSE, MIDNIGHT BAR, BACCARA, LONG GUN, SHEBA, and dozens more. Wandering Japanese guys and western Expats, some tourists from Brazil . Food stalls. Hello girls. Lady-boys. A baby elephant. Friendly chatter mixed with disco, Thai and Western. The hot air thick with smoke and scent.
An hour earlier, I had been browsing through the art books at Kinokuniya, the English language bookstore in the nearby Emporium Mall, and I had noticed once again a common thread running through the Berlin painters of the early 1900’s into the Paris painters of then and before. The Expressionists, Grosz, Ensor, Jawlensky and Dix, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec and even the early Picasso. They had all used people and settings from the lively, colorful and often degenerate nightlife of Berlin and Paris.
No matter how transitory this subject may have seemed at first glance, they found underneath something permanent and universal, humanity living on a ragged primitive edge, outside and inside revealed, hopes and fears, dreams and nightmares, in strong colors and clashing styles that would last forever.
As I gazed around at Soi Cowboy, I realized that the scene laid out before me was just as colorful, entertaining and revealing of humanity as Berlin, Paris or anywhere, anytime. A multi-layered self-contained world, perfect and complete. The world of the Bangkok Night
And that’s when I decided to paint it...
Beyond the Expat version of the Bangkok Night, throughout this vast swirling metropolis of uncounted millions, are an almost infinite number of other versions. Thai coffee shops, lady barber shops, massages places from tiny holes in the wall to palatial structures with five hundred rooms, as large and luxurious as a major hotel, beauty salons, spas, snooker rooms, restaurants with special menus, telephone and internet escort services, beer gardens, giant discos, intimate member clubs, hostess bars, short-time hotels, drive-in curtain hotels, Isan music halls and numerous other venues visible and invisible, with and without names and constantly being re-invented, mainly for Thais, both ladies and men.
As large and varied as the Expat version of the Bangkok Night might be, it is only one world of many, less than ten percent of what is there. The Japanese version has signs only in Japanese and sometimes no signs at all. The Arab version is rough and full of shame. The Indian version submerged, hidden and silent. The Chinese version, mainly in Bangkok ’s Chinatown, beyond the knowledge of even the Bangkok police and populated with Chinese from every country in Asia and every province in China . For the Nigerians, another version known only to them.
And then there are the various gay, lesbian and ladyboy versions, some small and dark, others as glitzy as Las Vegas . All of these worlds make up the universe of the Bangkok Night, one of the largest shows on earth and ever invented, an entertainment venue on a scale never before equaled in the history of mankind.
Whatever one might think and however one might judge, what’s there reflects the full range of mankind’s wishes and desires, weakness and strength, dreams and nightmares. It is a spectacle invented in the human imagination and staged night after night, week after week, year after year, for an audience of millions. To pretend it’s not there or that it shouldn’t exist is to overlook an essential element of the human spirit and struggle that reveals who we really are, down deep, not just who we pretend to be.
It is a universe full of clashing colors, dramatic contrasts, jagged lines, extremes of behavior and personality, mankind tilted on a primitive edge. If the Fauvists or Expressionists were re-incarnated and alive today, the Bangkok Night is where they would be, watching, absorbing and painting.