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Sunday, June 20, 2004

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

Bangkok: Resilience in decay

FRAGILE DAYS: Tales from Bangkok, by Tew Bunnag. Singapore: SNP International 2003. 136 pp., 395 baht (paper).

The Bunnag family is one of Thailand's most eminent. Siriwong Bunnag was the formidable and omnipotent Regent of Siam during the minority of King Chulalongkorn in the 19th century. The family assumed an importance comparable to that of the Fujiwaras in ninth- to 12th-century Japan. The present queen of Thailand is from this house. And now another family member rises to eminence.

Tew Bunnag, born in 1947, was schooled at Cambridge (King's College), established a therapeutic center outside the college and is at present helping to care for AIDS patients in a Bangkok hospice. Author of several books and articles on meditation and tai chi, he also, in this collection of short stories, shows himself to be a writer of compassion and critical insight.

His Bangkok -- a metaphor for the country and, by extension, the world -- is not the exotic, sensual, pleasure-filled capital we read about today. In the epilogue to this collection he writes: "I really do not know how to describe Bangkok, whose ugliness has grown on me like fungus on a damp wall."

He describes the mid-1980s when "the city was up for grabs" and "speculators were falling over each other." It was a period of "rampant, manic construction" during which the Bangkok skyline "was transformed forever into the jagged monstrosity it is today."

Bunnag looks at "those unfinished skyscrapers standing like skeletons . . . the cement already starting to age and crack." He gazes at "the black water canal bubbling with plastic bags, the row of shacks leaning against one another like drunks waiting for the final collapse." Staring at this city, he finds that "I am awed by the resilience of the poor," and it is this that his stories are about.

In Bangkok, as the author describes it, in the fume-filled traffic jam, right by the limousine window, a truckload of weary construction workers stare in, with an expression that makes the passenger wish that the windows were thicker. "It is not anger or envy or judgment that is in their eyes. It is the look of people stuck in the dreamworld of perpetual poverty."

Yet the poor do not hate Bangkok, although many try to escape it. One newcomer can afford one ride on the new skytrain. She was amazed by the view of the city. "She loved the tall, solid buildings. It was a shame that there had to be so many shacks between them . . . but nothing could spoil her pleasure at the sight of the jagged skyline." Another local girl, however, finds that "the expressway and the sky train and the mobile phone, far from connecting people, had driven everyone further apart. There was more interest in sitting in front of the Internet or playing a computer game than in talking."

Bunnag's theme is the death of tradition, a proposition always apparent. But this demise and its accompanying "rebirth" is complicated. A natural cycle, it is does not lend itself to moralistic or even ethical standards. This the author knows. "There is comfort in decay. It is like being confronted by the first noble truth that the Buddha taught: dukka. The mark of our existence -- the inescapable fact of suffering."

In Bangkok, Bunnag finds this an essential, palpable quality -- the sense of hovering on the bottom line. "When you are so close to dukka there's no need for any more pretense. Everything is crumbling and you do your best to catch the moment of pleasure as it passes." And this the author has the confidence to find admirable. These 10 stories are a celebration (often ironic, but always sympathetic) of the flexible buoyancy of people -- something that lets them look at ugly Bangkok and yet live in it. Rather then a diatribe against the city (though the city fathers have to endure a few swipes) it is an acclamation of resilience.

In the opening story -- a beautifully observed anecdote, which may be read as an allegory -- a ghost is discovered in one of the old teakwood mansions designated for destruction. No number of priests or shamans can get rid of it. The ghost thus discourages potential buyers. Eventually, however, a Singapore hotel chain wants to buy it, tear it down, and "create a mini theme park which would depict scenes from Thailand's history, including battles using elephants . . . ."

The young girl who tells this tale, a descendant of the ghost, feels that in the imminent destruction of the place, "she had failed in her mission. It was hard to accept that yet another treasure was going to be crushed by a crane but . . . she was a much to blame as everyone else."

Still, she is pleased to think that visitors might some day be amazed to see "a beautiful young lady dressed in clothes from another era standing next to the fast food stall, shimmering in the light of the afternoon."

This book may be acquired through SNP Media Asia Pte Ltd. Fax +65 6733 3671. www.snpcorp.com


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