Nepal-chic

This was originally posted on Decomp

 

I’m in Kathmandu, squeezed onto a barstool at a Medieval-style wooden table, crowded by young Nepalese all dressed in black. We bounce our heads to a cover band singing a Bollywood hit. We watch a patch of white backpackers dance near the stage wearing elephant-patterned pajama pants and holding three dollar cocktails. A tourist myself, I think this might be my chance to find a local informant, someone who can show me what Nepalese art is all about.

I lean in towards the long-haired man across the table, who has thrust his fist at every song, even to the Britney Spears cover. I calculate how to begin–’Getting boring, huh?’ I’ll say, and then he’ll suggest other places to go. And I’ll say, ‘Cool, anywhere else you’d suggest going?’ He’ll say, ‘what are you into?’ I’ll respond: ‘poetry, art, anything like that,’ and then he’ll take me to some obscure, unmapped gallery, where a dozen political radicals will be listening to a reading by the first Nepalese Nobel laureate in literature, whose words will inspire me to write my own magnum opus.

“Getting boring, huh?”

“You came in like a wrecking ball!” he sings, thrusting his fist at me.

 

 

I try again in the bathroom surrounded by walls tiled with cassette tapes.

“Anything else to do around here?” I ask a man in all black.

“You’re not here to trek?” he says, briefly losing his aim.

I tell him I’m here to find an authentic experience of art. He tells me he’s a fashion designer, and that there’s a fantastic art gallery right next to the club.

“I just came from there!” I yell above a Modest Mouse cover. “That’s not like a real art gallery, just paintings of Mount Everest. I’m talking about real art!”

“But real people paint it,” he says.

“It’s for tourists!”

“Aren’t you a tourist?”

 

 

The exiled author, Ma Jian, once wrote that art cannot be religion, because “art requires you to push your individuality to the extreme and break all the rules.” They say there are three religions here in Nepal: Hinduism, Buddhism, and tourism. The art market too seems catered to one or a mix of these.

In Durbar Square, where the grandest temples of Kathmandu stand covered in white pigeon shit, and a nine-year-old girl remains captive in a monastery only to be worshipped as a “living goddess,” I continue my search for an authentic artistic experience.

 

 

I hire a guide, hoping the history of some ancient wonders will ready me for a true and inevitable artgasm. The man spends an hour introducing me to stone Mandalas. He explains how each divinely-inspired carving proves that there is hope for anyone to get into heaven, even cynical and perverted artists. My tourist walls get thicker as he tells me that giving money is one of the best ways into heaven. He then leads me into a small art gallery and introduces me to a “great Lama” who, I’m sure, will try to sell me some holy crafts.

The Lama is a heavy-set man, younger than me, and in blue jeans and a T-shirt that has washed-out Buddha eyes. I sit on a plastic stool as the Lama unrolls sheet after sheet of painted Mandalas.

“This one has an all cotton canvas,” he says. “It took three months to make by hand. This one is very old, higher price for this one. It took about one year to make by hand. This one was designed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama himself. Have you seen the American television show, House of Cards? Monks make this to symbolize world peace. This one took six months to make by hand, and inside there is real gold.”

The stacks of mandala paintings grow in front of me. I make the mistake of asking the price, and the Llama says “give from your heart,” and “give as if you are praying.”

I already know how this will end. I’ll tell him I’ll think about it, then he’ll look extremely sad and start asking personal questions, trying to make me feel guilty for being a tourist. Or worse, he’ll just flat-out say that I am cursing myself for not buying anything. I’ve been through this too many times to count. In India, in Laos, in the Philippines, in Myanmar.

The leaving is painful, but I escape having only lost six dollars to pay for a couple of yak figurines I can gift to a family member.

 

 

An old woman in a shabby saree follows me from Durbar Square, dragging her daughter by her arm. The woman begs me to buy milk for her children. She follows me for two blocks, stopping at every roadside stand to plead: ” You can buy the milk and give to me. I don’t want money, just milk for my children!”

Perhaps I’ve lost my way as a writer. My novel, ten years in the making, continues to get delayed. I’ve been published in great journals, but not the career-starting type. I have no idea how to market what I do, whether it’s memoir or totally made-up, whether it’s about traveling as an Asian American in an exotic land, or floundering in self-pity while trapped inside a narcissistic personality.

I’m sitting at a hookah lounge, rethinking my priorities, when an elderly traveler with bushy white hair asks me, “So are you here for the trekking?”

“No,” I say. “Art and culture, I guess.”

“No problem, we have lots of that.”

“Really? Is there any art center you might know about? All I can find are traditional galleries and crafts.”

“Sure, you can just go and have a look around this district.”

‘This district’ is the tourist district. I take a look around anyway. Since I’ve arrived I’ve felt claustrophobic, trapped in Kathmandu’s narrow alleys. I thought I would see mountains, but so far I’ve barely seen farther than two blocks. As I walk the streets, the rearview mirrors of motorbikes scathe my arms. Around every corner it’s “what do you want? Hash? Girl? Trek?” until “hash,” “girl,” and “trek” all become the same thing.

 

What do I want? I want to experience art but not crafts, I want to hear poetry but not sutras, I want “Nepal-chic.” Does it count as art when hawkers follow you for blocks, constantly lowering their price, saying “sir, sir, please have a look!” I want to be inspired, I want to say I came to Nepal and had an authentic, local, artistic experience, except without those words “authentic” and “local,” because that would make me sound like a hack. There’s nothing worse than walking into a friend’s home and recognizing all the cheap tourist trinkets lying around their house.

I want something authentic but consciously aware of its constructed authenticity. I want something local but anti-local.

Just when did my definition of art get so narrow?

Online research tells me that inside the Hyatt Regency Hotel estate, there is an art center that was built in the early ’70s. I arrive by taxi motorbike and find myself in a small subset of buildings that look like the cardboard tubes of a gerbil gymnasium. This is Taragaon, a place of modern art that has security guards posted around every entrance, but not one visitor.

Taragaon nearby the Hyatt Regency

The gallery preserves works of art and photographs taken by foreigners and expats. Most of the photographs are of Nepalese looking very poor, or mysterious, or religious. Maps from foreigners trekking through the mountains are hung beneath shiny glass, and paintings done by locals are the only objects with price tags attached.

I ambulate slowly through the gallery, arms akimbo, staring down each piece of art, each photograph, like I’m thinking deeply about it. But mostly I’m thinking surface-levelly about how I even got here. A wasp buzzes by. I’m deadly allergic to bees, and I think about how pathetic my life would be if I were found here, hours later, a dead tourist discovered within a massive, unvisited art complex.

 

 

I stare at an expatriate’s photograph of a woman praying in a temple. The art makes me feel nothing. It inspires me to do nothing. It speaks nothing to me. Maybe I’m not really an artist. Maybe I stopped learning to fake it. I can see the art is interesting but only from a distance, like agreeing with a friend that a woman is very beautiful, though she may spark nothing in me. Or tasting expensive wine and pretending I like it. The art, too, makes me question what I’m even doing here, in a place where children can’t even get milk.

P.S. –

*The Taragaon Museum is a preservation space nearby the Hyatt Regency Hotel.

*For actual contemporary art spaces in Kathmandu, I suggest this website.

Stamped #7: Zúliáo (足疗) / A Foot Massage

This was originally posted on Decomp

Zúliáo (足疗) / A Foot Massage

It’s Nanjing’s winter. Three layers of Japanese-brand quilt-cloth can’t keep me warm. The heaters from the eight million people living within this sprawling city have created a canopy of white static smoke across the sky. Thus, I need a massage.

I toss into a small parlor run by a woman dressed for the Siberian winter, though she is indoors, with the heaters blasting rubber-scented heat. “Wo yao yige zuliao,” I say, asking for a foot massage. She smiles and shuffles me into a massage chair wrapped in a wrinkled red matting. She hands me tea in a glass cup with an old, half-melted plastic cover on top. I hear chemicals dripping plastic into my cup in soft “poits.” The pollution and I meet again as the heater coughs air into my face, as warm as truck exhaust.

“Fàngsōng,” she tells me. Relax.

A man comes in dragging a metal bucket full of hot water that spills bit by bit onto the tiled floor. At first I think he is there to clean up the garbage strewn around the room, the piles of used tissues stuck in the shape of crisp wontons, the sunflower seed husks, the orange peels, the discarded beer cans. Or maybe he’s here to scrub the Mojito-colored grime that frames every floor tile.

The man just stares at me, rubbing his square jaw, and unbuttoning his shirt to reveal a stained tank top. He pulls a cigarette from his front pocket, takes a drag, and blows it in my direction. He assesses me like a piece of meat before tossing it on the grill.

He goes right for my feet, dipping them into the hot water, jolting my legs in strong grips. I give a soft yelp, and he squeezes back, crunching the muscle tissue, hardened from weeks of aimless pacing around Chinese megacities.

“Fàngsōng,” he says. Relax, you dumb shit foreigner.

I nod, feeling blood fill my cheeks. I feel a grinding friction, his mortar-sized thumbs digging into my foot, somehow turning my stomach. I feel his knuckles kneading up my veins, into my hips. He flattens my shins with his palms, pulling my skin back in long, sweeping strokes.

“Fàngsōng,” he says. How dare you come into my country.

My hands clutch onto the red cushion, which tears like wrapping paper in a loud crunch. The man slides his cigarette to the side of his mouth with his tongue, then presses hard into my pressure points. I gasp; my mind flashes in sparks of pain. I could tell him to stop. But part of me feels I deserve it, part of me yearns for this. No more of that restorative health shit, none of that cultivation of sacred gifts and traveling for rejuvenation crap. Here there is no magical land, no sacred culture, no beautiful modality. Here, only flagellation.

“Fàngsōng,” he says, tapping my toes awake. How dare you come here just to write down all the things that you find disgusting.

I feel a brutal twitch in my neck, like a broken nerve, as the man methodically kneads at my ankles. The pain is so unbearable I feel my body will give out, give into death, give into the gas, the shit, the pollution outside.

“Fàngsōng!” he shouts. How dare you come here to belittle us. How dare you travel this far just to pamper yourself with a massage.

Fingers dig into my upper calves, scooping muscle. From deep tissue to shoveling tissue to subterranean tissue. He strips me out like excavating a cavern. It’s invasive, penetrative. I could tell him to stop, but I can’t be a part of a story about an ignorant American. I would rather just take it and get plowed.

“Fàngsōng!” he orders me. How dare you presume you have the privilege to travel all this way, when I would kill to come to America and write shit about your culture. No: How dare you imagine that I want to come to America. Why would I want to go to your shit country, when I love China. No: How dare you imagine that just because I am Chinese I love China, fuck China. No: How dare you presume I am Chinese, you racist American meatbag.

I feel a sharp crack, a thin needle piercing me. My head gives, dismembered, done in. Perhaps no longer human, I go outward, crossing comforts of space. Something hits me, a trigger point, a physical one where emotional ones have failed. I become sensitive to his pressure, I become tender, sore. I begin sobbing uncontrollably, my nose flooded with snot. I close my eyes. I’m thirty years old and I’m still bumming around. I still wear swimming shorts for weeks on end. I came here because I love China, but I spend most of my time imagining that I’m not in China. In darkness I could be in a suburban bungalow, at the end of a Californian cul-de-sac.

I cry thinking of how dilapidated the building is, how disgusting the pollution is, how trapped it all makes me feel, how over a billion people have to live in it. I cry that I have the gall to cry over something like this.

I stare at the items on the ceiling: the half-rusted pipes, the spider webs on the broken fan. Or are those dust cobwebs?

I go over Chinese in my head: zúliáo (足疗), foot massage, literally, foot therapy.

I feel him rubbing my sole like knocks on a distant door, slowly coaxing the muscle back to life. I hear him tapping rhythmically on a body that has gone numb to the touch. The sounds increase in fast percussive movements, chopping, pounding.

Another word: mǎnzú 满足, satisfaction. There’s that zú again. mǎnzú, literally, a satisfied foot.

He pulls on my legs, pulling me back, back to childhood, to being an infant, coddled by another’s hand.

Another word: zhīzú 知足, contentment, to just be happy with what you have. Literally, to know a foot.

My jaw drops like I’m asleep, but I’m not asleep. I’m just ready to give it all up.

zú 足 / feet, the things we stand on, the things that keep us balanced, what keeps us from falling.

“Fàngsōng!” he says again. Relax, if you want the pain to stop.

Stamped #6: Yeonnam, Seoul

This blog series is originally posted at decomP Magazine. It is an experimental (anti-)travel (fake) memoir from an itinerant artist.

My deepest confession as a travelling writer is that this entire Asia fixation began in the most predictable way possible: ten years ago, when I taught private school English in South Korea, and I learned to like, accept, and eventually expect, the privilege I carried as an American. And while I trained Korean children in the global civility that they would need to hop the corporate ladder, I received my own education in Korea’s nightlife, a school of building endurance, of eating only enough snacks not to offset the high of soju bottles mixed with Gatorade.

Over the past decade I’ve returned to Seoul at least once a year, and coincidentally, I get smashed, undone, and driven to excess. Every time I return, it feels like returning to a buffet line that only carries fried chicken and cheap liquor. Between buffet-runs, I try to maintain some semblance of expatriate coolness by claiming to discover some new indie hotspot. Ten years ago it was Hongdae, a trendy art and music district now turned into a glitzy gentrified monstrosity. Years later it was the gallery-rich district of Samcheong, an area now museumified with corporate-sponsored art and American chain restaurants. Just a couple years ago it was Daehangno, a street of live theaters, a cool and exclusive nightspot that was recently rebuilt for middle-class Disney tourists and is full of corporate chains that have surfaced to net in the area’s tourist potential.

This year, my local informants tell me to forget the old hot spots. This year, it’s all about Yeonnam, a slow-moving urban village of artisanal coffee shops and handmade soaps.

I arrive in Yeonnam alone, just after waking at 5 p.m., and feel embarrassed by the fact that I recognize this area. I came with a good friend two years ago, hungover and expecting a new crazy art scene glittered with hip hop dancers and LGBT street art, the “low culture” of a kind one can expect in Seoul. Back then all I saw were a couple calm cafés and dusted stores. The district seemed deserted, a desert. Perhaps this was just my imperial eyes seeing nothing where there was everything. What was run down now appears to carry a “run-down” aesthetic. What was a ruined place of bricks and pipes is now a stage for the art of ruin. What was once an ethnic enclave of Chinese workers (hwagyo) is now a meditation on “enclavity,” with its hybrid restaurants that mix Chinese foods with Japanese, Mexican, and South American ingredients. All the things I associate with Seoul–the fast, the new, the glossy, the speedy, and even Korean food, have little presence here.

Quiet side-streets lead to gardens and bistros. It’s hard to mark what is vintage style and what is European fetish, what is authentic and what is hybrid. But the codes of the space slowly begin to register (the authentic is bright and exotic, the hybrid is dark and small). Cafés hide inside bookstores, bars, floral shops, artist workshops, and pet sanctuaries. Which is the slow, paced rhythm of the parochial, and the trendy, exclusive craftiness of the global?

I watch children play on the old train tracks, sipping my latte on the porch of a café that doubles as a snack market. I sip slowly, hoping to make the single cup last three hours so as not to miss any of the quaint atmosphere of the space: the picnicking families, the couples on rollerblades, the exchanges at the nearby craft flea market, where I bought the bamboo pen I am using to write this. I listen to the absence of cars, I pause over the lack of advertisements, I am warmed by the sound of distant laughter echoing at me through the ginkgo trees.

A pair of young men step onto the porch yawning and collapse backwards into stitched straw chairs, their bedraggled club clothing draping over them like baby blankets. They go on about their night, popping aspirin and sipping drip coffee in between tales of whose pussy they nearly smashed and whether she was an eight, a nine, or a ten.

The one with the beard and sunglasses says, “Dude, you have been here for six years and that was your first time at that club? I feel so sorry for you right now.”

And the other: “Dude, don’t. I’ve been balls deep in so many hot Korean women for six years.”

That feeling when you realize that what really makes a place seem special is the fact that people like you don’t ever go there. It was the same in all those places you visited–the art and live music of Hongdae, the galleries and food stalls of Samcheong, the street performances of Daehangno. You being there upset the fantasy. Your need to find placement on a map, to look for the next desert.

We are always the first wave, a red flag for what’s to come. They run, we give chase. It works out, then, that we never really end up catching them.

And as the chill of night wavers through the air, I can’t help but ask the men sitting nearby for directions to that club.

Para Site Contemporary Art Gallery, Quarry Bay, Hong Kong

This blog series is originally posted at decomP Magazine. It is an experimental (anti-)travel (fake) memoir from an itinerant artist.

We squeeze into a tall elevator, the fetishists and I, and as the doors close, the lights geld bright like an oven set on high. A woman squeezes beside me, priming herself in the elevator door’s reflection. Her animal-hide scarf hides her whispers as she makes some bracing comment to her boyfriend, a short man with curled hair, a Mark Zuckerberg lookalike gently massaging the shoulders of his gateway to the Chinese market.

The elevator stops at the Para Site art gallery on the 22nd floor, and already I can hear the toasts for the “Migrant Domestic Worker Project,” and the words “grassroots” and “minority peoples” being bandied about by suited MacArthurs clutching their mistresses. I try to ignore them, the product of such a union myself, already familiar with the Romeo and Juliet narrative they expel, when, to cynical onlookers like myself, they’re more like Robert Lomax and Suzie Wong.

The gallery is hosting a grand opening gala, a “Housekeeper Spring” that seems startlingly absent of domestic workers themselves, with a crowd that remains over-dressed in chintzy long gold necklaces and plaid suit jackets. This place carries a gloom. Digital art of brown women speaking their dreams seems mismatched to a room of Pinkertons clutching their Butterflys who left their Southeast Asian maids at home to tend to their children. I feel bad for the gallery, that this is the smug crew they have to satisfy with free wine and gimmicky poster art.

And this Anna person still hasn’t texted me back. “Just got to the domestic worker art opening,” I write over the Tinder messenger. “Let me know when you arrive. I’m wearing a brown shirt.” The sad smile on her profile image makes her look like someone who might flake out on a Tinder date. It’s one of those smiles that lunges through anger and desperation, like the smile of my own helper when I give her a ten-dollar tip. Wait, could Anna be a domestic worker too? Anna. “Anna” was no “Mary” or “Rosalina,” but it also wasn’t one of those English names locals often took, like Joy, Pearl, or Grace. Her Tinder profile stated no age or nation, just said that she liked art. I cycle through her photographs, each one of her posing at an airport and coffee shop. Perhaps, to her, these were exceptional spaces.

I stare at a tapestry of hanging clothes, meant perhaps to mimic a migrant housekeeper’s main product: a clean surface, washed by hand, an artisanal craft. Next to me Rupert Murdoch brushes back his Asian wife’s hair, commenting to his face-fucker friends how unbelievably straight and gentle her hair feels, asking them to “try and touch it for yourselves!” (With the money that guy’s floating, I’d probably do whatever he asked me to, too.)

It becomes abundantly clear how this crowd ended up here when I follow the trail of hand-washed wrinkled clothing to the gallery’s open bar, which hosts bottles of British imported beers. I cut the line, daring anyone to try and stop the only brown man here from getting his drink on. The faster I get drunk, the faster I will no longer scowl at them and their absent-minded John Smith and Pocahontas reenactment.

Drink in hand, I waver to the only sober person within proximity, a South Asian intern giving away large red books. She tells me it’s an anthology made up entirely of domestic worker stories. I take a glance at the contents and immediately recognize Carlos Bulosan. Not caring to point out her mistake, I just say “Oh, Bulosan is in here too.”

“Do you know her?” she says.

“It’s a him,” I say, pleased to talk about Manong Carlos in the present tense. I add: “My man Carlos has a thing for white women. Like, a huge fucking thing.” I say it loud, a point of Pinoy pride, to make them feel a smudge of what I feel.

I wander through the gallery’s pasty white walls, looking for Anna. Maybe she got offended that, when she suggested a date, the first thing I thought of was a migrant worker art exhibition. Maybe she showed up, realized she was the only domestic worker in an art event about domestic workers, and fled. Or maybe she found someone more attractive in the elevator, a bearded John Lennon to her hazy Yoko Ono. I squat and read over her past texts. “Hey yo!” was her first message to me. And later: “A migrant worker art event? That sounds killer!” And another: “I’m gonna bounce to my mom’s pad, then I’ll meet you there, ok? Peace!”

Just who, where, what, was this girl?

I join a Woody Allen and step-daughter lookalike staring at a photograph series. It’s a photograph of a maid with her back turned, posed alongside the place where she works, with a hand grenade placed on the dining table like a centerpiece. The grenade, an explosion of anger that leaves nothing left of itself, a device that screams, bursts into light, and takes all the lights out.

I wonder about the artists who have to watch the audience watching their work, trying to think of a metaphor to spot, a classy word to pass on (“espy,” “adage”) so they can get on their colonial banging, passionate because it comes from an authentic artistic experience, guiltless because the maid, who has to sort the sweat-ridden red dress from the bejeweled necklaces and need-to-be-ironed shirts, has had her say.

Anyways, just what could be keeping this Anna?

The Afterwork exhibition at Para Site art gallery will last until May 29, 2016.

Stamped #4: Hong Kong’s Occupy Sundays

This blog series is originally posted at decomP Magazine. It is an experimental anti-travel fake memoir from an itinerant artist.

 

Hong Kong’s Occupy Sundays

At a café in Admiralty, I get lost in thought, checking out the barista. Muscular, with dark skin, a smile as broad as his shoulders. He tamps down on the espresso with a grunt, twisting his whole body, then snaps the metal filter into the machine.

“Dessert of St. Honore gateau,” David says, placing a gold-plated cake onto the glass table, edging my laptop so far off that I have to balance it with my knee. David is a bearded British publisher who has invited me to tea to give me the rundown on Hong Kong, a city that David thinks is devoted only to finance capital and has little culture to speak of.

Nearby, a financier rants to a woman about the umbrella movement protests happening just a block away. “They cannot win. They should give up. Democracy is one thing to fight over, but everyone is losing money.”

I feed some birds. Four, hopping about the deck, catching beads of bread. One sits atop David’s Apple-Cranberry Kuchettes cake, flitting about, like the crème were a tree branch.

Droplets of coffee fling from David’s glass as he spins to answer a text message. “The wifi sucks,” he spits, “it’s the domestic workers outside. They take up all the bandwidth.” He jokes, “Sundays are their day off. Puts us in a conundrum: can’t leave the house, because they take up all the space; can’t stay home, because there’s no one to clean the house.”

“I’m Filipino,” I say.

I think he’s going to whistle, but he doesn’t. Just looks, his face all like no you’re not.

It’s with so many arguments not worth having that I keep quiet and watch the dark barista. His eyes finally settle on mine. After a moment he pulls out a cigarette and heads into the street.

I give chase, leaving David to his phone call, and follow the barista’s glide through the city streets. A man dragging an empty metal cart cuts me off, and I lose the barista at a strange demarcation.

A dozen metal bike racks are woven together by bicycle chains and zip ties. My legs cannot go beyond the barricades. I climb over, looking for the barista’s black collared shirt. Tourists push past me, hoping to take selfies with yellow umbrellas and Cantonese Post-it notes.

My body remains in-between them, taking up space.

I find him, my barista, with smoke slithering from his mouth, slipping through a group of domestic workers waving their arms in synchronized dance. I pass them, then waver through a group of women playing Miss Universe. As I squeeze through another barricaded street, I realize I am leaving a political action, and entering a rendezvous point. From protest to festival, from one occupation to another.

In Statue Square young women perch on every available surface: cement barriers, stairways and broken-down escalators, sitting on cardboard boxes with the edges up in a curved wall. With their shoes lined to make a barrier between them and the street, they crowd onto the cardboard pieces like island settlements eclipsed by an ocean of pedestrian commerce. Some play cards, chewing pork rinds and giving each other pedicures. I have to push past them as they pose for pictures near artificial waterfalls and Christmas ornaments. “Merry Christmas!” they shout, throwing their hands up in that puro arte of the islands, not caring that Christmas is still two months away.

In the center of the square a legion of tourists stand, their cameras aimed at a robust colonial statue, their fingers set on their smart phones as they wait for a group of Filipinas to pass.

My eye catches him: the barista, now behind me. Is he following me now? I get nervous and try to hide inside a cathedral. But the Filipinas are packed in, blocking me along with the other tourists.

I find him again, the barista, whose enticing smile–fake as it is–invites me to sit with him on his cardboard ship. He tells me his name is Nico, and he has a friend competing in a potatosack race. We watch the women hop and scream. Some, Nico tells me, are go-go girls, some maids, some nurses, and some stewardesses, who tomorrow will share a workspace higher than any Hong Kong skyscraper. When the police tell us to leave, we stand up and chat until they are out of eyesight, then settle right back down into our trenches. When the sun peaks, Nico opens an umbrella to give us shade.

Stamped #3:Phnom Penh’s Blue Chilli Drag

This is reposted from my blog series, “Stamped,” at decomP Magazine

Phnom Penh’s Blue Chilli Drag

You arrive in Phnom Penh expecting the New Golden Age. The talk is everywhere. You’ve followed Cambodian artists on Facebook, seen the advertisements for Phnom Penh on backpacker rows in Bangkok and Chang Mai, and in Siem Reap, on your way down Pub Street, you heard the news: Phnom Penh is back. Cambodia is no longer just Angkor Wat.

I imagine this is how a lot of the white tourists came to be here, dancing beside me on Street 272, here to stay for an eleven-hour-long street party. Next to me Kid Rock-like live music drowns out the car horns from near the Independence Monument. Electronic music spills out of every nearby doorway. Every face around me is white. I see white arms sticking up from tank tops; there are more white people in a single place than I have seen since I moved to Asia two years ago. The banner above me reads “Golden Street Party,” and I think, if this is Phnom Penh’s new golden age, what kind of age is coming next?

Eager to move, I climb a stairway up to a well-known club that doubles as a hostel hang out. Inside, tank-topped backpackers, holding bright red balloons, sprawl out on bean bags. Every now and then they kiss the balloons to suck in more nitrous oxide. For better or worse, at least here are some black people I can stand nearby and not feel like part of the monochrome street.

From the balcony I spot street vendors selling kebabs and gyros. I watch dancing backpackers surround a refrigerator-sized tank of Angkor beer, with a sign that reads: ALL YOU CAN DRINK! I watch the backpackers and NGO workers circling around the tall silver canister, handing in their plastic cups, then picking up their beers, then circling, circling, circling, until they arrive back at the vendor where Cambodian waiters give them a refill. I become mesmerized by the pacing, a vortex pleading for me to jump.

Unable to go on in the vortex, I hail a tuk-tuk taxi to the Blue Chilli gay bar, where something completely different is happening. Yes, music also spills out into the street, but it’s not electronic dance music. It’s love songs from pop divas like The Temptations and Lady Gaga. Lounging outside, I meet the expat gays: a man from America, who currently lives in Tokyo and speaks fluent Japanese, and another man from Sweden who is dating one of the dancers. I meet artists from all around Cambodia, ballet dancers, traditional dancers, and a modern dance choreographer from Los Angeles who runs a Cambodian dance crew in America.

At Blue Chilli, Saturday night, like the two nights before it, is drag night. The woman dancing in a black shiny tank top and webbed leggings levitates over us, held afloat by three half-naked back-up dancers. She pulses out a Beyoncé song, asks “Who runs the world?” and the mixed crowd of Cambodians, travelers, men, women, gays, lesbians, chuggers, sippers, and perhaps people high on nitrous oxide, all belt along: “girls!”

“Who runs this mother–?”

I find that word, “girls,” lunging out of me. My voice comes out, chanting with the crowd, some of us raising our fists, others our drinks. We chime along with the songs we’ve heard a thousand times, tunes that never really connect until you’re chanting them with a woman clung into place by three shirtless men, lyrics that never really register until you hear them sung by a queen bathed in green light, splashing the air with the whip of her fingers, her high heels slamming onto the bar top as the disco lights above her pierce your eyes, when all you want to do is gaze.

Only blocks away, Kid Rock imitators perform for a full crowd of over-oxygenated white backpackers. The contrast isn’t stark, it’s cosmic. Another world, another planet, but not another age.

See Blue Chilli Bar

Stamped #2: The NVM Gonzalez Writers’ Workshop

This is reposted from my series on decomP Magazine. To see the original post, click here.

The N.V.M. Gonzalez Writers’ Workshop, the Philippines

We storytellers spend the ferry ride cycling in and out of an air-conditioned cabin, pausing now and then to watch the ocean below us. Our boat carries us skipping across Batangas Bay to Mindoro, the birthplace of N.V.M. Gonzalez. Our writers’ workshop group is an experiment in cultural cross-over. We are half self-defined Filipinas, and half self-defined Filipina Americans, all of us roped together with the requisite hugs and smiles that occur just before a workshop, when you know the next four days will be spent within dangerously close proximity. I sit next to a group of Filipina writers who share a plastic bag of mandarin oranges, peeling it with yanks, the citrus liquid spurting onto their hands as they whisper gossip about American celebrities. I must be a disappointment to them, a fourth-generation Filipino American illiterate in both Tagalog and Celebrity.

Next to me a self-defined Filipina lies asleep, her white tennis shoes propped on her friend’s leg, her body kept in place by the careful balance of her limbs. I envy her sleep. My head has been pounding for hours, still reeling from Manila’s nightlife. Images of cabaret dancers and bakla hairdressers overload my brain. My breath still smells like Cuban cigars. My senses tingle in corporeal memory. On this vacation workshop, we’re supposed to be writing about our histories, our families, and all the things that connect us to the Philippines. In this sacred pursuit of art, I plan to lie about everything.

“Are you feeling sick?” one of the Americans, Anna, asks me. I tell her it’s just the jet lag. She looks at me cross, knowing that I came from Hong Kong, which is in the same time zone as the Philippines. That’s still one step better than telling her that the Filipino food has made me sick. One could do no worse than get sick off of the food of their own people.

Anna lets me get away with that one, and I sit like the others, with a pen and notebook in my hands, poised to write. I look at the sun, the ocean, the sky, and then at the sleeping woman, her head now hanging lifelessly over the armrest like a deflated balloon.

I wander about the wooden deck, wondering when I should pretend inspiration has grabbed me. “I’m too fat to be here,” I can’t help but say out loud, staring at my growing lumps. My workshop story: how did you get here, fat? And why won’t you leave? Fat. Doesn’t it prove we’re all American?

“We’re here to celebrate N.V.M.’s life,” we’re reminded. N.V.M. Gonzalez, National Artist of the Philippines. “N.V.M.” sounds like a wicked name. The Vice President, Jejomar Binay, is also three names put together (Jesus, Joseph, and Mary). Maybe there’s something to this name-jamming. Is there a point when your multiple identities, your multiple names, can be shortened to a simple, self-made tag? It’s already getting old calling myself Filipino, Irish, and Chinese. Could I just be a F.I.C., a fic-American? A Fictive American?

The ferry skids along. I return to sit with the Filipina Americans, smiling kindly at the Filipinas sitting across the bench, unsure what kind of gestalt inspiration we’re supposed to be getting from them. But the Filipinas don’t stare. They all have 3G internet. So the Americans stare at the Filipinas staring at American music videos, each of us, perhaps, trying to put this lack of feeling into words.

See The N.V.M. Gonzalez Writers’ Workshop