Sitting on a blue plastic chair beneath the statues, next to a soldier with a white carnation in his belt, I think how absurd it is to dwell on architectural details at a time like this. But this whole story is absurd in itself.
"Today everyone is happy," says a man who calls himself a Bangkok police officer. He observes the scene with a smile that seems more ironic than happy.
Just a few minutes earlier, the concrete blocks surrounding the government building and the police headquarters were removed. A river of protesters flowed in between two lines of police officers. Everyone is smiling, they make the sign of the wai, palms pressed together, they take photos on their mobiles.
"What about tomorrow?"
"Tomorrow…'mai pen rai'," he replies with the same smile, accentuating the meaning of the expression, which is somewhere between optimistic, fatalistic and resigned, ultimately used to say don't worry, don't think about it.
"What do I hope for? Peace," says a young Bangkok police officer.
"It won't be easy."
"Well exactly, it's a hope."
Only the previous evening there was little hope. A woman points to the Bangkok sky and says salvation can only come from there. The young man translating for the woman says not to take any notice. "We have to do something to create a new country. This may be a dangerous way of doing it, but we have no choice." He is denouncing corruption and inefficiency. "My family is poor. I got an education and found a job. But I can't see beyond that," he says in perfect English.
The woman hoping for a solution from the sky – and it should be pointed out that Thais often use the sky to indicate the royal palace – and the young man working as a programmer in a software firm are two faces of the protest which began at the end of November and escalated into violence and danger in early December.
While the woman and the young man try to demonstrate in different ways that democracy is an opinion, the Bangkok sky is streaked with tear gas and rubber bullets used by the police and with cobbles, ball bearings and Molotov cocktails thrown by the demonstrators facing off on the two banks of a canal, or khlong, alongside the government building.
While the clashes continue, I look for a quieter spot inside a monastery, the Wat Somanas Rajavaravihara. As I write under a bodhi tree, I hear shots that don't sound like tear gas.
I arrived at the government building in the company of a kind man who claimed to be a university professor of political science. I ask him to explain how this crisis might pan out. He says that we can talk as we walk towards the area that has just been “liberated”. But first he wants to stop in front of the statue of Rama V, the king worshipped by the Thais for the role he had in keeping the country independent at a time when all other Asian states were becoming European colonies and for the contribution he made to the modernisation of Siam. He kneels and prays for a moment. "He will protect us. And he'll protect you too," he tells me later. The professor claims we are at a turning point. If the prime minister steps down, a group of sages will ask the king (Rama IX, Bhumipol Adulyadej) to name some unallied person to form a new government. This person would remain in power for a few years. Then elections would be called, once the country is ready. When we part, the professor invites me to visit him at his traditional furniture shop.
In reality, the day of hope is for some just a good tactical move on the part of the government. For everyone, it is just a brief respite on the eve of the king's birthday, 5th December. The cause of the uprising was the government's proposed amnesty for all those involved in the series of uprisings since 2006. The amnesty would also have quashed the prison terms (after an extremely politicised trial) for corruption, abuse of power and lese majesty of the former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, deposed in a 2006 coup d'état and now exiled abroad. Since then, Thailand has been literally split in two: Thaksin's supporters, the so-called red shirts, made up of the phrai, the people, the poorer classes, and his opponents, the yellows (after the colour of the royal palace), representing the ammart, the elite. In 2010 the reds occupied central Bangkok, triggering an uprising that ended with 90 dead and a thousand injured. In the 2011 elections, the red party won and the sister of the former premier, Yingluck Shinawatra, was made prime minister. It seemed that Thailand was finally on the way to normalisation. But it was just another hope.
"Kanom, kanom," calls a woman in the middle of the road, inviting the protesters to help themselves to the Thais' favourite sweet snack. The woman also hands out bottles of water and face cloths – like the damp perfumed ones normally used to freshen up – to bathe eyes smarting from tear gas. The series of demonstrations are reminiscent of the scenes in 2010, during the red uprising. There are the same street sellers hawking T-shirts, hooters, whistles, food stalls, massage stations, and first aid volunteers. Even the soundtrack is the same: a mixture of propaganda speeches backed by roars from the crowd and interspersed with Thai pop music. Everything is extremely loud (so much so that, this time, earplugs have also been handed out). And there are the same surreal differences between one side of the city and the other. Just outside where the clashes are taking place, life goes on as normal. One evening, on my way home, I suddenly heard some violent shots. I think they must have moved on to heavy arms. Then I see fireworks going off in the sky.
But the differences are there. In the slogans, in the faces on the T-shirts or in the caricatures. This time round, the bad guy, which in 2010 was the then conservative prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, is Thaksin, in all of his incarnations. Public opinion has also changed about Berlusconi, who, after certain footballers, is the Italian best-known around here. In 2010 the reds told me proudly that Thaksin was like Berlusconi - wealthy, loved and witty. Today's demonstrators tell me that they want to get rid of Thaksin's sister just like we have got rid of Berlusconi. "Thailand could be a wealthy, happy country, if it abandoned this drive towards self-destructive politics," says a Thai friend of mine. "As an Italian, you should understand that."
The greatest difference, however, is hope. In 2010 hope was placed in the elections. Today, things are not so clear. Suthep Thaugsuban, former deputy prime minister in the Abhisit government and leader of the opposition movement, wants to dissolve parliament and form a council of sages who can then form a “parliament of the people”. "I don't understand what that means," declared political writer Pavin Chachavalpongpun. The military probably don't understand it either, as they don't seem prepared to launch another coup d'état (there have already been 18 of them since 1932). At least not in support of Suthep's plans. If they intervene, they will do it when they can appear as the saviours of the Kingdom, rather than over-throwers.
"You see any yellows around here?" a demonstrator asks me. Actually there aren't that many yellow shirts. Almost everyone, including the guy asking the question, is wearing a black one. It's officially a sign of mourning for the recent passing of the supreme Buddhist patriarch. But it's probably also the expression of a desire to split from the “yellows”, as they represent an aristocracy that is seen to sympathise with the very system they want to bring down. This black makes no reference to the Western extreme right-wing associations. It seems to be more in tune with the international protest movement Occupy. Many of the T-shirts feature a Guy Fawkes mask (as seen in V for Vendetta) alongside Suthep's face. There are undoubtedly some yellows around, but they are only one of the opposition groups. The majority are students, kids that have tweeted every instant of the demonstrations, who want to do away with a corrupt, inefficient system (there are many similarities with Italy in this too). Supporters of an anti-capitalist, anti-consumerist ideology, of that sustainable economy extolled by His Majesty Rama IX. The burgeoning groups of the so-called “civil society” largely agree with them. Then there are the supporters of the Democratic Party (resembling the Italian one only in its inability to win elections), representing the Thai middle classes. All prepared to swap democracy for a regime of honest men. Other groups include the ultraconservative realists and the fundamentalist Buddhists, who call for national-religious purity and oppose the animistic contaminations of the peasants in Isan, Thailand's poorest region, who are often of Laos or Cambodian descent.
In one way or another, Thailand, which was the first Asian country to try modernisation (during the reign of Rama V), seemed to have become a battle ground between the so-called universal values of Western political philosophy and Asian values submitted by Lee Kuan Yew, the demiurge of the city-state of Singapore. It's a conflict that could easily spread into nearby countries such as Myanmar, Cambodia or Laos, dissuading them from the path to political reform.
"Many of them are scum," says an expat of the protesters of any colour, who he claims are damaging business with their protests.
"I'm afraid this situation could allow Thailand to descend into a low intensity civil war," declared Paul Chambers, a researcher at the Institute of Studies on Southeast Asia at the Chiang Mai university. The danger is real precisely because cultural and social divisions are deepening in Thailand. Some have called it a “philosophical conflict”. In the meantime, the reds, who have kept a low profile in recent days, are ready to mobilise, mustering all the new supporters recruited from many of the villages in the north and north-east.
Benedict Anderson, an expert on Southeast Asia at Cornell University, has quoted Antonio Gramsci: “When the old refuses to die and the new fights to be born, monsters appear”.
I have spent time sorting out my ideas and notes beneath the government building. Many demonstrators have started to drift off. I leave too. A young woman picks up plastic bottles off the street that just yesterday evening was a battle ground. Thousands of them were used for drinking and for washing tear gas away. She will sell them for a few cents a kilo.
I have been talking about it in Singapore with Yeng Pway Ngon, a writer, poet, painter, bookseller, intellectual and free thinker with a difficult life. His latest book, L’Atelier, has just been released in Italy. The English-language translation (The Studio) by Singaporeans Loh Guan Liang and Goh Beng Choo is expected to hit the market in January 2014.
It's a novel of overlapping stories “on love, on art. On life,” says Yeng. The book is not similar to Calvino, yet, like him, Yeng also seems to want to go back in time to cancel out the consequences of certain events and restore an initial condition.
So Yeng's story and his life become metaphors for Singapore, on the very fine line separating Utopia from Dystopia. This was one of the central themes at the recently held Writers Festival.
"The system has stabilised," says Yeng. Which means that control can be loosened, even culturally. The problem, according to this author who calls himself an “existentialist”, is that if that has happened it is because the system has achieved its goal, i.e. mental assimilation to a preset model of thought. Singaporeans, by now, are definitively “kiasu”: “afraid of loss”. And it is not freedom that is at stake. "Once Mao's books were forbidden. Now you can sell them, but no one will buy them," he says.
He gets worked up as we talk, switching from hesitant English to Cantonese (immediately translated by the ever-smiling Goh Beng Choo, his wife of 36 years). What irritates him is cultural conformism caused by loss of culture. Beginning with one's language. Chinese, his Chinese (he writes in Mandarin interspersed with various dialects), has become an “economic” language. People speak it but don't know how to write it; they don't know the characters. We agree that illiteracy is a global problem, even the real consequence of a globalisation of values and ideas. We are all becoming a bit kiasu.
"It takes courage. Moral courage," says Yeng.
If on a winter's night – and, let's remember, it is winter now in Singapore – the world changed, other visions appear that seem to contradict what Yeng has to say. They can be seen at “If The World Changed”, the title of the Singapore Biennale. The city-state's museums, universities and galleries are exhibiting collective and solo shows by Southeast Asian artists. The idea is to mark out the region as a corridor of ideas. Personally, it's a chance for me to discover some artists I did not know, such as Wu Guanzhong, one of the greatest contemporary Chinese painters, or Hong Zhu An.
The comparison with some young experimenters is pitiless. As always, on occasions like these, Plato's Cave comes to mind. In the allegory, many cannot distinguish shadows from reality, the opinion self-induced by knowledge. But this idea of the Cave, of fluid, shady knowledge, has generated some of the most interesting installations at the event. Such as the interactive digital installation by the Japanese teamLab or the digital images by Vietnamese Nguyen Trinh Thi, who presents “living” tableaus of women and men from Hanoi.
If on a winter's night - and it's winter in Thailand too - you take a look at Bangkok, “the best you can expect is that you avoid the worst”. Because the traveller has gone from the utopia-dystopia of Singapore to the chaos of a metropolis whose charm lies in its very chaos.
As in Calvino's book, its stories are intertwined. What is happening in Bangkok, yet more anti-government demonstrations - even though the party now in power are former protesters and the current protesters used to be in power – which may lead to yet another coup d'état, leads back to my conversation with Yeng Pway Ngon about control and democracy. Only, here, the system has not stabilised; it has become dysfunctional: control without democracy or uncontrollable democracy.
In this intersecting plot of paradoxes and oxymorons, the opposition, which condemns the “tyranny of the majority”, inferring a political philosophy of limited or unlimited democracy (a little like that in Singapore) and seeming to augur a military coup, has chosen the V for Vendetta mask as its symbol, epitomising the anti-establishment hero.
I am tempted to make that mask my own. V for Voyager.
Then I read something that made me understand that, often, the real mistake lies in relating everything to ourselves. Like looking at your finger while pointing at the moon. The real shadows are the hidden crimes around us. The dark matter.
What I read was the Global Slavery Index 2013. Produced by the Walk Free Foundation (WFF), it analyses the global situation of modern slavery. This includes slavery, slavery-like practices (such as debt bondage, forced marriage and sale or exploitation of children), human trafficking and forced labour, and other practices.
Thirty million people live under these conditions in the world today. Most are in Africa and Asia. The highest number is in the two countries that should represent the planet's future: India and China.
From this perspective, Magritte's painting becomes a kind of symbol.
To download the report click here
Schrödinger is a character in A Tale for the Time Being, the latest novel by Ruth Ozeki.
“A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be,” writes the author and Zen monk in the first few lines. This too can sound like a quantic affirmation: time can be experienced only as a series of interdependent relationships. This thesis was made approximately eight hundred years ago by Dogen Zenji (1200-1253), one of Japan's greatest thinkers and masters of Zen Buddhism, in his essay Time Being. Ozeki is on the record as saying this man was an inspiration for her novel.
From that point of view, the book might look like just another post-new-age story. But in fact - as its appearance on the prestigious Man Booker Prize 2013 shortlist indicates - it is a complex novel, weaving together mystery and meditation, history and record, different space-time levels.
It is brilliant, in my opinion.
But, aside from my opinion, it can be said to be about various subjects. About writing as a “form of prayer”. “You’re not praying to a god, but you’re almost conjuring a reader to arrive,” says Ozeki, comparing writers to people who “hear voices”. “People have always heard voices. Sometimes they’re called shamans, sometimes they’re called mad, and sometimes they’re called fiction writers.”
Schrödinger, the physician and the cat, the monk, the shaman, the writer and all the characters in this novel demonstrate, in turn, how philosophical novels can be written. Which has been and is still called into question by many. According to a very Western, limited vision, they belong to two different worlds, they require different ways of thinking and writing.
A Tale for the Time Being, then, is just another work in the great search for truth, the latest in the eternal struggle between art and philosophy.
The tale, the “récit” on Les Aventures de la vérité, is still on show at the Fondation Maeght in Saint Paul-de Vence, France. Curated by Bernard-Henri Lévy, it attempts to show, as the philosopher-adventurer wrote, “the slightly crazy project of telling and interweaving the history of philosophy and painting”. What he says about painting can also be applied to literature: “I really believe that its first vocation, its primary role, is to think, and to make us think, about the world.”
“Caverne de Platon”, by Huang Yong Ping, from “Les Aventures de la Vérité”
All of this cannot be easy, as the prophets of uncultured thinking would have us believe. Once again the key to everything is Schrödinger's cat. You have to choose whether to live in a box and stay trapped in the paradox for ever, or to open the box. To begin with, we will open the Hello Kitty lunchbox that contains the tale of the time being.
I imagine that I am on that pirogue, which from here seems to head towards the river and then into the Gulf of Thailand. Before perhaps heading to the Philippines. Or to Borneo, the Indonesian islands, a dot in the Sixth Continent.
It is one of those times that you ask yourself that same old question: “What am I doing here?” It's all you can think about and you lose yourself like a sailor losing his way on the ocean, not knowing which port to make for or having no final destination. He just keeps sailing as though on a ghost ship.
There is a feeling of being out of one's depth, and at the same time stranded and lost. Which might explain my long absence from Bassifondi. But it's good to take a break now and then. Like waiting for the prevailing wind to decide for you.
The Explorer is one of the works in Melanie's latest exhibition, entitled Traces. She gave it this name because, she says, she wanted those pieces of wood to deliver a message: less chaos, more essence.
Melanie Gritzka del Villar, a vague mixture of Louise Brooks and Frida Kahlo, is a half-German, half-Filipino artist who lives in Asia and Europe. It is probably this hybrid, cosmopolitan nature that characterises her work, both in the technique, using collages of different materials, and in the content, puzzles of different worlds.
For now, Melanie's world is in Bangkok. Her studio, in the popular north-eastern district, is inside a grey building where her fellow artists, designers and creatives of the “Thai post-modern art society” are based. It is called Hof Art and has a Bauhaus-like image, underlined by the name Hof , which recalls the German “place”. In fact, Hof is an acronym of Highly Optimistic & Friendly.
The Explorer led me to Melanie’s world. It was like a breath of fresh air.
They are all very personal. And this explains the first rule:.
Do not go by other people's commandments
Do not eat soup for breakfast
Do not write articles for free
Do not leave your passport with other people
Do not drink alcohol before sunset
Do not choose the middle seat
Do not trust cats
Do not wait for dawn to ask a woman if she wants to stay over
Do not get off at the first stop
Let the stupid ones die.
“A landscape, as I see it.” A kind response.
You can sense that Jean Cabane's paintings are landscapes. They are the places of a French poet painter living in Hoi An, Vietnam. He walks between the sea and the rice paddies and draws what he sees as he sees it.
His work, painted with natural pigments on rice paper, resembles what a haiku would look like if it were drawn. A shanshui of the Chinese tradition, a landscape. And it isn't superfluous to note that the term landscape in Chinese is made up of the union of the two characters for mountain, shan, and water, shui. The Asian aesthetic, harmonised in Jean with the genetic imprinting of his native Provence, highlights not so much the cognitive aspect as the communication of emotions.
I know all of this. So why ask such a stupid question?
Probably because it is hard to escape the desire to place, define or nail down something that is altogether more subtle. It is as if I couldn't trust myself.
On the other hand, thinking back to my meeting with Cabane, whose life shares a few coincidences and experiences with my own, I realised that the shanshui, or landscape, in his composition of water and land, sea and mountain, or forest, has become the scenario in which I operate physically and mentally, where I search for ideas for articles, where the stories I should be telling are set.
Such as the stories of the monks I am following between north-east Thailand and the mountains of the southern Shan, in Burma. The stories of ghost ships in the Gulf of Thailand or of those tackling the waters of the South China Sea, with its islands, islets and rocks. The stories of deviations and digressions from those paths, with quiet moments spent on deserted beaches near the base and port of Cam Ranh, or the nimitti, the hallucinations of meditation, that set off anxiety and panic attacks.
Moving confusedly around this landscape, between monks, archaeologists and poets, mysterious and menacing ships, ruins and wreckage, I look for the story within the stories.
I keep asking myself the same stupid question: “What does it represent?”
But I don't yet have the courage or the ability to respond: “A landscape, as I see it.”
"I don't have that much time," I replied.
"Stop thinking about time."
That night, in a kind of kuti, or monk's cell, that the old man had built next to his own, I continued to think. About time and about stupid people. Time that passes and that seems to have become the time of stupid people.
I concluded that the old monk was right: let time pass without thinking about it. And without thinking about stupid people (which is getting increasingly difficult).
I have started working on a short story, maybe a book, on forest monks. Which at least partly explains my long absence from this blog.
It’s yet another reference to the film Lost in Translation, in which a long drawn-out speech in Japanese is translated into English in just a few words. In this Bangkok street, the languages spoken were English, Thai, Mandarin and teochew, a dialect spoken in the east of the Chinese province of Guandong. “Very traditional Chinese,” says the young man who is my interpreter. Many linguists consider it to be one of the dialects most similar to archaic Chinese. The dialect has become the language of the so-called Teochew diaspora, approximately ten million people dispersed around Southeast Asia and the rest of the world.
“Destiny,” says the young man to explain the phenomenon that brought his grandfather from the south of China to Bangkok. The young man, however, does not know teochew. He speaks Thai and, very wisely, has also learned English and Mandarin, the official language used in the People’s Republic of China. He was called by Ms Phrasit, the director of the touring company – which performs in Bangkok, Thailand and also abroad, i.e. in Malaysia – who is the subject of a photo reportage in progress by Andrea Pistolesi (who took all these photos). This young man is supposed to be able to help me understand what is going on so that I can write about it.
The problem is that before she can speak, Ms Phrasit has to mentally translate from Chinese to Thai. Then she tries to express the idea to the young man, who then translates into English. This is why it is hard to understand the name of the group she leads, for example. It sounds more or less like this: “This Chinese opera group has arrived and good luck to all”. After translating it, the young man looks puzzled and smiles. “It sounds strange, I know,” he says.
The title of the opera they are performing is even harder to understand. Ms Phrasit thinks about it for a long time. And finally gives up: “I don’t know how to say the title. It’s a new story. It’s the story of an honest person.” I should now point out that the lady previously explained that the stories they perform are “stories from the imagination”, in the sense that every year she writes two or three new ones, merging traditional and historical elements with everyday stories. The script is usually written by an author “from China” who is also the director, acting consultant and teacher for the actors who do not speak Chinese. Because, to complicate matters further, some of the actors are “pure Chinese” while others are “pure Thai”. In order to learn their parts, the latter must listen to a recording and then recite by rote.
Paradoxically, then, it can be said that the Chinese opera show finds its traditional setting in Bangkok. They used to say that “a minute on stage requires ten years of rehearsal”. They may not take that long to get ready, but the backstage atmosphere cannot have changed much since this kind of performance began, almost two thousand years ago. The scene backstage is a show within a show, reproducing the script of play-actors in an Italian Commedia dell’Arte, Greek tragicomedy or Indian Sanskrit opera. With the addition of certain elements that create a post-modern image.
Some are eating soup, some chatting on the cell phone, kids are playing, one actress cradles her baby, a girl with tattooed shoulders eyes up an actor with a striped face. The actors put on their make-up and revise their lines. Some have the script on a tablet. Others are chatting online on social networks.
The company is made up of thirty or so people for whom this is their main job. They earn as a whole about thirty thousand bath per night (about 90 euro), which is split “more or less equally”, as Ms Phrasit puts it. They are commissioned by district committees, associations (the clans present in countries with a strong Chinese community), and individuals wishing to demonstrate their sense of gratitude, goodwill and belonging to the community. And Thailand is one of the countries in Southeast Asia where the Chinese presence is strongest and where Chinese opera is more popular than in China itself.
“There are about twenty companies like ours in Bangkok alone,” says Ms Phrasit, with evident pride in her company and in the Sino-Thai's connection to tradition.
Indeed, while we were walking around the area of Hua Lamphong station trying to find the location of the show (the directions were “near a temple near the station”), we came across another and only after a while realised it wasn't the one we were looking for. Fortunately one of the actors was the brother of our Ms Phrasit. “Everything starts with the family. Then it expands, it splits,” she will tell us later.
After spending some time backstage, I move to the other side of the street, facing the stage, where rows of plastic seats have been set out. There are not many spectators. Mostly women, and mostly elderly. Some are chatting amongst themselves. “Some are talking about the show and some are gossiping,” says the interpreter.
Following the show turns out to be even harder than understanding Ms Phrasit. The actors express themselves with a series of acute metallic sounds accompanied by gongs, erhu (the Chinese two-string “violin”), lutes and other traditional instruments. There are two women on stage, one of which is playing a male character. I ask if this has a special significance. “Thais like to see women dressed as men,” comes the reply.
In the end, I give up trying to understand. There will be time to write about the colours, sounds, movements and mask-like make-up. In Chinese opera, every tiniest detail is a symbol connected to mysterious philosophies and religions. I think by now there are very few specialists capable of decoding everything. Everyone else comes just to look, listen and chat.
Instead, I try to understand how my interpreter, a second-generation Sino-Thai, experiences the relationship with his traditions, whether one identity is dominant over the other. The reply is always the same: “Both.” In the sense that he feels as Chinese as he does Thai. He follows both Chinese and Thai rituals. He finds no contradiction between Chinese (Mahayana) and Thai Buddhism (Theravada). Or in business: certainly, China has become the second global superpower, and many are considering going back in a kind of historical recourse. But he believes he is in the best situation to run things between Thailand and the People’s Republic (without counting the adjacent countries).
We sit a while in silence and watch the show. But he looks bored.
“I don’t understand what they are saying,” he repeats.
I ask him whether he is fascinated by the stage show all the same, whether he feels it as part of his cultural heritage, whether he is interested at all.
“It's a show for old folks.”
“You really don’t like it?” I ask him several times.
And suddenly the street scene turns into a scene from Christmas at the Cupiello's, the play by Edoardo De Filippo. Famous for the oft-repeated line “Te piace ‘o presepe?” (Do you like the nativity scene?), which the lead character, Luca Cupiello, constantly asks his son, Nennillo.
“Do you like the nativity scene?”.
“No. But so what, do I have to like it?”
And then again, pointing to the little waterfall in the nativity scene: “Do you like it?”