Chris Coles in a book on noir and an ongoing
exhibition at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand is one of
the few artists to record the people and transactions of Bangkok's red
light districts with all their vivid idiosyncrasies. He paints bright
scenes in acrylics or watercolours, shapes the human form simply through
thick black lines and captures some essential truths of a tawdry
Part of a growing literary and artistic movement known as Bangkok
noir, he adds his strokes of bounteous colour to a scene dominated by
crime writers. Noir is often characterised by cynicism, fatalism and
moral ambiguity _ a literal and figurative darkness for which Bangkok
provides some fertile territory.
"The thing with black is that even when you scratch the surface, you
can never find your mark. It vanishes like dreams, hope and love,"
writes author Christopher G Moore in the introduction to Navigating the
Bangkok Noir, a book that collates a number of Coles' watercolours. What
Coles does in his work is preserve the depicted noir before it fades.
Visually, the watercolours in the book are simple. Many look like
they've been painted from photographs, with subjects posing. The more
recent acrylic works of the FCCT exhibition, "Paintings from the Bangkok
Night", are large profiles or tapestries of massage parlours and
girl-bar strips, more detailed than those in the book and almost
mesmeric in their alternating colours.
Few people are ambivalent about the red light districts, yet they are
under-represented artistically. Berlin nightlife was a prime subject
matter for German expressionists such as Emil Nolde in the 1920s, as was
Montmartre for Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and others in the late 19th
century. Bangkok's red light districts haven't evolved the same mystique
Collectively, Coles' paintings and their captions shed some light on
an underexposed side of Bangkok that attracts and repels, and its
patrons have never been rendered so humanly.
His prostitutes have names and children, histories and dreams: "But
she has seen too much, known too many men, danced too many nights. Her
only desire is to go back to her hometown, take care of her 10-year-old
son and live out the rest of this life in quiet, hoping the next cycle
will be better."
His johns, punters and marks likewise have personal needs and
insufficiencies: "They need her as much as anything else in their
industrialised lives and will dream of her in their old age."
In the captions are occasional touches of poetry to add to those
dabbed across his variegated canvas of the Bangkok night ("her whispered
Thai words flowing across Bangkok's multi-layered spectrum as she
weaves her multiple webs"), and some harsh realities ("no matter how
wonderful the girls, how full of beauty, depth and soul, money
determines the outcome").
To understand Bangkok it helps to understand such places; on the
other hand, such places are not Bangkok; the city holds much more even
under the banner of noir _ the police, the gangsters, the temples, the
bribes, the waterways, gateways and getaways, beggars, the street life,
the homeless, the illegal. Away from the darkness, the human landscape
of the megalopolis can be varied and subtle, warm and compelling.
Depicted here is sexpat territory, the "neon triangle" of Patpong,
Nana and Cowboy, along with a few other illicit parts of Bangkok. Coles
in an afterward mentions that the Japanese, Arabs, Indians, Chinese,
Nigerians and other groups have their own enclaves contributing to the
Bangkok night. Yes, but it would also be nice to get beyond such
enclaves. One of the book's negatives lies in its singular focus. There
is also an occasional presumption that the Bangkok night equates to
Bangkok as a whole, that red-light quirks can arise anywhere in the
"If ... you ask, do you provide service, and they answer yes, it
means they're available for sex, even if you didn't mean to ask. Whether
in a department store, coffee shop, snooker place, barber shop, gas
station or dry cleaner." Another such comment is "getting a haircut can
mean more than one thing".
To 99.99% of Bangkokians, such terms hold no illicit secondary
meanings. Other books on Bangkok's girl-bar scene often make similar
generalisations about the city based on its sex trade, and thus rather
than shedding light on an underexposed facet of local culture contribute
to the many misunderstandings and occasional resentments between Thais
Navigating the Bangkok Noir and "Paintings from the Bangkok Night",
however, constructively add to the discussion. There is a captivating
distance, a loving objectivity in some of the colours and words.
"If they are stylish, clever and speak enough English, they can end
up in London, Beverly Hills or Sydney, living in a big house and driving
a Mercedes. Or they can end up nowhere, too old, with too much mileage,
unloved, their dreams of a better life unfulfilled," Coles writes.
And there is some perspective provided for those who look down on the
sex workers: "No matter who and where we are in life we are all holding
onto a pole and we are all for sale and we must examine our lives."
Decades and centuries from now these paintings may be among the few
remaining records of a side of Bangkok that would otherwise have been
swept under the carpet, its people and scenes faded into the darkness.
For present and future these are creative noirish studies of a
'Paintings from the Bangkok Night' shows until Jan 15 at the Foreign
Correspondents' Club of Thailand, Maneeya Centre, BTS Chidlom, open noon
to 10pm on weekdays.
'Navigating the Bangkok Noir', by Chris Coles, is available from all good bookshops for 500 baht.
Labels: Bangkok, bangkok noir, Bangkok Post, Brunch Magazine, Chris Coles, christopher g. moore, Emil Nolde, Ezra Kyrill Erker, FCCT, Hearts in the Darkness, Montmartre, Nana, patpong, Ratchada, soi cowboy, Toulouse-Lautrec