Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Bangkok Babylon

Bangkok Babylon by Jerry Hopkins (Periplus 2005).

Bule Gila: Tales of a Dutch Barman in Jakarta by Bartele Santema (Equinox Publishing 2005).

The expatriate bar book is a staple of international publishing, and many of the books go something like this:

Chapter 1: The author arrives in ________________, where he is bewitched by the easy life and easier women. In an effort to live the dream, he recruits a partner and opens a bar, evading the domestic ownership laws by putting everything in the name of his partner’s local wife.

Chapters 2 – 12: Wacky stories of wacky times with wacky expats.

Chapter 13: The bar never turns a profit, and, just before the author sells it to a new guy experiencing his personal Chapter 1, the partner is divorced by his local wife, who uses her ownership rights to force everyone out. A sadder but wiser author returns home with his wacky memories.

Of this genre, Bangkok Babylon is one of the best and Bule Gila is one of the worst.

Bangkok Babylon was written by Jerry Hopkins, an experienced writer known for the Jim Morrison biography No One Here Gets Out Alive. (According to Hopkins, the bestseller was rejected by more than thirty publishers, including two rejections by its ultimate house, Warner Books.)

Hopkins’ bar book is a series of sketches of various expats, many of whom Hopkins met at the Three Roses Bar (now defunct) and other Bangkok watering holes.

CIA operative Tony Poe, the subject of the first chapter, was allegedly the basis for Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now (a claim denied by the film’s director). Poe paid his men for each enemy head they brought him, and he once air-dropped severed heads onto a hostile village. Poe took a meeting with the U.S. Ambassador to Laos while wielding a rifle and a machete. He lived with the hilltribe peoples, who thought of him as a god who could call in air strikes or make food fall from the sky, according to former CIA chief Bill Lair.

Poe is one of the less colorful people Hopkins describes. Father Joe Maier is among the last of the radical priests of the 1960s, a man who can say Mass in Hmong and is pastor of a parish in the Slaughterhouse, Bangkok’s worst slum. Byron Bales is a private detective who helps insurance companies identify con artists who fake their own deaths with the unwitting help of the credulous U.S. Embassy. David Jacobsen opened the wildly successful Q Bar in Saigon, only to have the Vietnamese government shut it down and revoke his visa, embarrassed that the city’s hottest nightspot was run by a foreigner. Joe Cummins is the author of several Lonely Planet guides, making him one of the most influential powerbrokers in the Southeast Asian hotel and restaurant industries.

There is a dark side to Hopkins’ adopted world. Several of his subjects died of cirrhosis of the liver and other chronic ailments caused by decades of unchecked substance abuse. You can walk into any Bangkok bar at 3 p.m. and see Western expats drinking themselves to death. Bangkok is a place where you can go to Hell in your own fashion, and nobody will stop you.

Someone should have stopped Bartele Santema, or at least kept him away from a word processor. His bar book, Bule Gila: Tales of a Dutch Barman in Jakarta has nothing new to say and doesn’t say it well.

Santema is a Dutch Archie Bunker, convinced that his banal observations are light-giving revelations. Apparently, that friendly Indonesian woman who asks for US$1,000 to pay her brother’s hospital bill does not actually have a hospitalized brother. Thanks, Grandpa.

Ideally, a chapter or essay should begin with a catchy sentence, called the “lede.” Here are some of Santema’s ledes: “Tomorrow I am going to Surabaya.” “The first night of the staff outing to Yogyakarta almost turned into a nightmare.” “This middle-aged Dutch guy I know decided to get his front teeth fixed.” “That Pak Arif is a funny guy.”

That Bartele Santema is not a funny guy, but he seems to think his stories are hilarious. Bule Gila (which means “crazy foreigner” in Indonesian) reminded me of advice that film journalist Chris Gore gives first-time film makers: Do not make a movie about your friends sitting around being brilliant; only you think your friends sitting around are brilliant. Maybe Santema’s stories were funny if we had been there, but I doubt it and we weren’t.

If you could choose which of these two guys sits down at the barstool next to you, choose Hopkins.

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Anonymous Mark Hanusz said...

Interesting reviews - but I think the Bule Gila one was a bit harsh. I am not only the editor but also the publisher and I am proud to say this is one of our bestselling titles (our of 60 published since 2000). About choosing whom to sit next to on a bar stool - I am sure there are thousands of people who would disagree with you and invite you to a session with the man himself the next time you are in Jakarta.

10:27 AM  

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