Thursday, April 05, 2012

Voicu Mihnea Simandan on Navigating the Bangkok Noir

"Chris Coles & Navigating the Bangkok Noir" by Voicu Mihnea Simandan (from Bangkok Trader April 2012)

Noir is in fashion, and Bangkok noir is the latest “trend”. Either in literature or art, noir is everywhere and Chris Coles’ album of expressionist art, Navigating the Bangkok Noir (Marshall Cavandish, 2011), stands as proof. The album is comprised of one hundred close-ups of Bangkok nightlife. All of them are watercolors on paper and were created by the artist between 2004 and 2007.

Chris Coles is an artist and filmmaker who spends his creative time between two cities of angels: Los Angeles and Bangkok. For the people of Bangkok, Chris Coles’ work represents the faces of the good, the bad, and the unfortunate who negotiate on a daily basis a living in a Bangkok different than the one usually advertised in the Tourist Authority of Thailand brochures. It is the Bangkok of the red light districts. It is the Bangkok Noir.

The album couldn’t have had a better introduction than the one penned by Christopher G. Moore, another noir champion stationed in Bangkok. In The Bangkok Noir Movement, the essay that opens Coles’ album, Moore looks at what noir means for us, the residents of Bangkok, and places the artist’s paintings in its context: “modern pop art with contemporary pulp story telling”.

The vignettes Chris Coles wrote to accompany each of his noir paintings take us deeper into the darkness of Bangkok’s nightlife. The protagonists of Chris’ paintings are people he met or observed in various “hot” locations, from clubs mostly frequented by old timers to the tourist-oriented ones on Soi Cowboy. A special focus among his “subjects” are the ladies of the night, most of them dancing in brief clothing at the pole or waiting for their first (or last) customer of the day.

"Washington Square Girl" - Chris Coles

Two very striking paintings are Washington Square Girl, the portrait of a working girl whose harsh life back home in the village just seems to jump out of the picture; and Wild and Crazy Guy, the epitomizing image of your run-of-the-mill tourist who back home leads a safe and socially acceptable life, but once he lands in Bangkok, he is “ready to hunt large animals with a club and drag women back to his cave”.

"Wild and Crazy Guy" - Chris Coles

With the recent publication of Bangkok Noir, a collection of dark short stories edited by Christopher G. Moore, plus Navigating the Bangkok Noir, which is already available in major bookstores throughout Thailand, the noir movement has taken a strong foothold in the Land of Smiles, where according to some, everything is wonderful and people are always smiling. Well, thanks to Chris Coles’ acute eye and artistic talent, we now know for sure that behind all the glitter and flashy lights, there’s a human drama that, on most occasions, we like to ignore or even forget it exists.

Laurence Goldstein, the former editor of Michigan Quarterly Review, is of the opinion that, “Many, most of the artworks in Navigating the Bangkok Noir are compelling by any definition, with those deep watercolors that sink into the mind’s eye like blue and red pools. I appreciate the coherence or focus of the book, so that each portrait, even of the dogs, intensifies the rest of the paintings. The captions construct an evolving sociological report on the whole area of Patpong and nearby regions. I love books that merge the verbal and visual as closely as this one does. The paintings exchew the usual standards of “beauty” and reveal the undergarment of psychological life in each of the subjects”.

Navigating the Bangkok Noir is also selling in Europe, North America, Australia, and around the other major cities in Asia. While Navigating the Bangkok Noir is an art book and not a “bestseller”, it will never be dated and will have quite a long shelf life, maybe somewhere around fifty years. It is also now in some libraries of American major universities, art museums and art schools and is being used in academic courses at such universities as the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, the University of Hong Kong, and the Australia National University.

Not so long ago, the book was launched during a show at Bed Supperclub in downtown Bangkok, with the poster title of “Portraits from the Bangkok Night”. Among the guests attending the opening night were the U.S. Ambassador Kristie Kenney; the ex-Foreign Minister of Thailand, Kanthi Suphanmongkhon; the head of Bangkok’s IKEA; and Robert Lacey, the Director of RBS Investment Bangkok in Thailand. Also, Chris was honored with the presence of Bangkok’s leading noir author Christopher G. Moore; Kevin Hewison, a prominent academic on Southeast Asia; the founder of Prachatai, Chiranuch Premchaiporn; the Thai Intelligent News blogger, Terrance Chulavachana; Thailand’s leading classical music composer/conductor, Trisdee na Patalung; Elisabeth Romhild, a leading female artist living in Bangkok; and even Sean Boonpracong, the international spokesperson for the Red Shirt movement.

The show was originally scheduled for two weeks, but kept getting exteneded until it finally ended recently. In those two months, a total of 50,000 plus people viewed the paintings, probably a record for any Bangkok art show. There will be another Bed Supperclub show in the future, probably December 2012.

A second follow-up book containing more of Chris Coles’ Bangkok paintings is in the works and might come out as early as Spring 2013.

Both Kinokuniya stores in Siam Paragon and Emporium have Navigating the Bangkok Noir in their art sections at a shelf price of 600 baht. Emporium has it in the Thai studies section too. Asia Books Emporium tends to sell out of their copies and takes a while to re-stock, whereas the other Asia Books in Bangkok have it, usually in the art section. Otherwise, Chris’ book is always available on the internet from Kinokuniya, Asia Books and Amazon.

For a taste of the book, check out Chris Coles’ online gallery of expressionist art at You can also access for Chris’ most recent paintings plus little commentaries.

Voicu Mihnea Simandan is a Romanian writer who has been living in Thailand since 2002. He can be contacted at at

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