Hi-So

Bangkok, Thailand -- 13 May 2004 | Permalink

The boy with brown hair looked something like a young David Bowie, but with the full lips and suggestively-mobile eyes of somebody's slightly unnerving aunt. After a while, a girl who looked as if she was at risk of being hospitalized for an eyeshadow overdose handed him a handbag, completing the picture of fashionable androgyny.

Nearby, a pack of photographers had pounced on a slender youth with a cultivated near-beard and an artfully-unbuttoned shirt. He accepted the tribute of camera flashes gracefully, put one arm around the trim waist of his lady friend, flashed a peace sign, scribbled an autograph. The photographers snapped away furiously, wai'd en masse and withdrew.

Thai socializing modifies the basic Asian wai greeting - hands brought together in front of the chest, fingers steepled, a suggestion of a bow - with two important variants. The "drink wai" employs the same gesture, but adds a drink - champagne flute, wine glass or beer can, according to the occasion - gripped between your palms. The "cellphone wai" replaces the drink with a cellphone, and can be seen repeated all across Bangkok a thousand times a day. I considered cellphone wai'ing everyone I met, but the gesture is fashionable in direct proportion to the cost of the cellphone used. My US$40 “secondhand-from-the-mall” Motorola wouldn't cut it.

The projector pointed at the glass wall of the fancy restaurant looped through an enigmatic animation of what looked like an olive being swirled around the bottom of a martini glass, then flashed up a phrase in English: “I rather die than live a mundane life”, reassuring the expensive young members of Bangkok's jeunesse dorée that, whatever else they might be doing, they weren't living mundane lives. I noticed that there was no Thai script visible anywhere. Thailand is probably due for a backlash sooner or later, but for the moment Roman script and English words are the indispensable language of typographic cool. Fashionable Thai-language magazines use English for their article headings. The projector stands proudly declared that we were privileged to be present for the opening of “The new escape on Sukhumvit”. By my reckoning, Thanon Sukhumvit was at least three-quarters of a mile away, but it would have been ungracious to quibble.

“Well, we know one thing.” said A., looking around at the mostly-Thai crowd. “Rich people everywhere are tall and thin and white.” I thought I qualified, but there was no danger of anyone mistaking me for a member of Bangkok high society. Unlike A., who had parlayed his usual beachcomber look into a kind of effortless grooviness, or M., who somehow contrives to look right in any setting, I merely looked scruffy. I considered handing out all my business cards and telling everyone I met that I was the long-lost cousin of Thai pop-star Bird Thongchai McIntyre, but I didn't think they'd go for it. For all I knew, everybody there was the cousin of Bird McIntyre, and family reunions are always so awkward.

I concentrated on using my psychic powers to make one of the waiters bring me a drink. To my considerable surprise, it worked. “My waiter-fu is strong tonight”, I announced. The butch girl behind us threw her ice cubes into the ornamental pond, rippling the black reflective surface for a moment. The projector again announced that it would rather die than live a mundane life.

At last we made our goodbyes and set off walking down Thanon Thong Lo, past long rows of expensive bridal stores with names like White Marry Shop. Amidst the shopfronts full of white wedding dresses and elegant housewares, the street food vendors' carts perched on the narrow, tilted sidewalks looked little different from the carts that you would see anywhere else in the city. Even the opulent white bulk of the Private Club ‘Exotica’ had attracted a cluster of carts and a row of plastic chairs and tables ranged along its perimeter wall.

Approaching Sukhumvit, we stepped aside to allow a pair of oncoming pedestrians to pass us and it suddenly dawned on me that one of the pair was burlier and hairier than most Thais, and had more legs. “Oh, the elephant” I said in surprise. It was a very small elephant, and it raised its trunk in greeting as we approached. “Fwormp”, it said. “Hello”, said M. It turned the corner and ambled off up the street, reflective tape wagging on its ample backside as it sauntered off into the night.