Harvest of A Quiet Eye – by Craig Stevaux

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There’s a scene near the end of this poignant tale of Thailand where an erstwhile U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer finally persuades the student teacher he adores to join him at the movies. In traditional Thai culture, as practiced in the rural Northeast in 1972, a good girl does not venture out at night, especially not alone with a man, and especially not with a farang, a foreigner.

Nonetheless, here’s Orawan, a demure 20-year-old girl from the Teachers Training College, sneaking into the air-conditioned balcony of Udorn’s Amphorn Theater to be with Malcolm, the co-teacher and mentor she most respects. The so-called Sound Room with English dialogue piped in, is the special province of G.I.s with their tii-hak partners. The film is Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 box-office smash “Romeo and Juliet,” salaciously advertised in Thailand as “Children Loving Each Other” and “Children Having Sex” even though Thai censors have cut out the passionate kissing and brief glimpse of Olivia Hussey’s breast.

The idealistic American teacher and the curious Thai student-teacher are Romeo and Juliet in the parched yet flood-prone Udorn in Northeast Thailand, or Issan. Her dirt-poor family, her poverty itself and her deeply held Buddhist values are the Capulets. Malcolm’s firm intention to not be like other Americans in Thailand, his desire to absorb as much Thai language and culture a farang is capable of absorbing, and his budding Buddhist nature are the Montague obstacles to this unlikely romance.

As the Bard might have said, if he’d been assigned as a Peace Corps volunteer in Udorn, “Never was a story of more woe than this of Malcolm and Orawan.” But I’m not here to speak of Love. I’m here to describe Ugly Americans in Southeast Asia.

As the American War engulfs the region – without touching Thailand – Ugly Americans are everywhere present in a two-fisted air-base town like Udorn. We find them on the sidewalks and in bars and restaurants, bowling alleys and massage parlors. They fling F-bombs and hurl curses at the locals with the utmost insensitivity, all the while escorted by perfumed and painted Thai women – bargirls, prostitutes and rent-a-wives – who are separated from their families, or perhaps supporting them financially. The American interlopers are prone to drunkenness, vomiting, and conking out on the ground.

The U.S. Air Force and the CIA’s Air America pilots are ardently employed in the prosecution of an air war against North Vietnam, America’s philosophical enemy and Laos, America’s ally, declared neutral by international agreement. As Thais go about their daily chores, eating constantly, and Thai students are engaged in mangling English, U.S. fighter jets and fighter bombers scream across the sky, and Jolly Green Giant helicopters chop through the air. It’s no secret that the Royal Thai Air Force Base at Udorn is in the thick of the fight, under American top-brass responsible for wreaking death and destruction on Thailand’s neighbors.

Nobody seems to care, other than our hero English teacher, a Belgian American from Green Bay. However his one-man antiwar campaign in the heart of darkness is meaningless, without sound or fury.

For me, the charm of Craig Stevaux’s tale lies in the lyrical recounting of how a newly arrived farang becomes accustomed to, and learns to love, the way Thais walk, talk and think, in keeping with Thai customs, culture, proverbs and the Buddhist Path.

The memoir style, the era, focus on culture and language, and the references to the Secret War in Laos all sync with the sentiment of “Hustle the East”, a novel about Laos.  Much of the action in “Hustle the East” takes place in Vientiane, about 50 miles from Udorn.

http://hustletheeast.com

The Starving Season: One Person’s Story – by Seang M. Seng, M.D.

In Cambodia there are two seasons: the rainy season for planting and the dry season for harvesting. The title of Dr. Seng’s book refers to the manmade catastrophe of Cambodia’s Holocaust when educated, civilized people were made to live like hungry animals and the weak were left to die.

The world was appalled in April 1975 when the Khmer Rouge unleashed a reign of barbarism against their own people, emptying cities and towns, driving the population deep into the jungle to live by the work of their bare hands, without permanent shelter and without adequate food to sustain such a harsh life.

Seang Seng was a 24-year-old, fourth-year medical student in Phnom Penh when the Cambodian Holocaust began. Nearly four years later, he alone of his 24 family members walked out of Cambodia’s Killing Fields. His story describes in excruciating detail every step of the way. Dr. Seng’s narrative dovetails with the equally absorbing and inspiring story told in the 2017 movie First They Killed My Father – directed by Angelina Jolie, 2017.”

I’m pleased to report that in Dr. Seng’s story, there are American heroes, but — spoiler alert — they don’t show up until the last chapter.

In the mid-1960s, Cambodians were grateful to Norodom Sihanouk, their sometime-King, sometime-Prime Minister for keeping them out of the American War that was consuming Vietnam and Laos. However, Dr. Seng’s footnotes remind us that in 1969, President Nixon ordered the clandestine carpet-bombing of neutral Cambodia, and later propped up the rightist coup leader General Lon Nol, plunging Cambodia deeper into civil war. When his Khmer Rouge overseers order Dr. Seng  to collect human feces for fertilizer, he uses a scoop fashioned from a tree branch and a U.S. Army helmet. The Khmer Rouge seek to erase history; even so the scoop is named after Lon Nol.

The Good Americans show up on November 22, 1979, when Dr. Seng, and his bride enter Khao I Dang refugee camp inside Thailand, just one day after it opened. On his second day in camp, a curious Dr. Seng stumbled across the field hospital set up by the American Refugee Committee. The first Americans he met were volunteer doctors and nurses from Minnesota.

It buoyed me to see them care for their Cambodian patients the way all humans are supposed to be treated. These Westerners also took time to train our Khmer staff … They built an atmosphere of camaraderie with us.

Other Americans Dr. Seng met at Khao I Dang played a supporting role in assisting him and his wife Srey. There was a female med student who organized an impromptu wedding ceremony for them; an ARC worker who helped them contact Srey’s relatives to sponsor them in America; and a male R.N. from Iowa who offered advice and friendship.

But it was a tall, angular American from Hawaii who would set his future course. Dr. Daniel Susott, who became the camp’s medical director, encouraged Seng to apply to the University of Hawaii medical school, and Susott himself began the exhaustive trail of paperwork to make the magic happen. Even Susott’s parents got into the act, meeting the Sengs upon their arrival in Honolulu in August 1980.

The sight of coconut trees behind my apartment along the Ala Wai canal made me feel at home. My first impression of America was positive. … What’s good about America is that the majority of people respect the law.  

The newcomer marveled that American motorists moved aside to let ambulances pass, and yielded to pedestrians — even when pedestrians jaywalked.

Living in Hawaii wasn’t easy for Dr. Seng and his pregnant wife. The hardships med student Seng faced in Hawaii as a penniless immigrant — paying rent, finding part-time jobs, struggling with a language he didn’t speak well — were many but nothing like the hardships he’d endured in Cambodia.

Eventually with the support of Dr. Susott and the assistant dean of the medical school, University rules were bent to enroll a Cambodian med student under an affirmative action program for Pacific Islanders.

I joined Dr. Seng on March 6, 2019, at an event in his honor at the University of Hawaii’s John A. Burns School of Medicine. There were some teary eyes when the silver-haired 68-year-old survivor of the Killing Fields thanked the University of Hawaii for making his dream of becoming a medical doctor in America a reality.

In his book, he thanks Dr. Susott for giving a lifelong gift to him, his wife, and their three children — all three of whom remarkably became doctors in California.

And in the Preface to his very personal story, Dr. Seng writes:

In the refugee camp, I was offered a chance to resettle in France but I was willing to wait for America. I picked America and became a citizen as soon as I could. I made the right choice. Thank you, America.

America brought unexpected prominence to another humble holocaust survivor Dr. Seng befriended at the Khao I Dang refugee camp. Dr. Haing S. Ngor, a Cambodian medical doctor who worked with ARC, won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his 1984 role in “The Killing Fields”. In 1996, Dr. Ngor was shot to death at his Los Angeles home.

Love Began in Laos — by Penelope Khounta, 2017

Lao-American Association brochure and students with teacher

The author of Love Began in Laos: The Story of An Extraordinary Life was my boss in Laos. For more than 40 years, I’ve been grateful to Penny Khounta for hiring me to teach English at the Lao-American Association. The director of the U.S.-supported school and cultural center, Mrs. Khounta was a very mature 34 when I was a soul-searching 25.

I’ve visited her splendid art-filled home in Vientiane, I’ve learned about her family from my friendship with her brother, and I’ve chatted with her while she was out jogging but I never imagined I’d delve into her extraordinary love story in her no-holds-barred memoir. And speaking of memoirs, I can’t imagine writing about my past with such elaborate and delicate detail. Of course I remember the highlights of my many life adventures but I really can’t recall details the way Penelope Khounta has spelled out the dates and details of hers.

Central to her life and book is her 25-year marriage to a patrician Lao man named Khounta. (He was named after Ban Khounta, a part of Vientiane on the way to town from Wattay Airport.) Before falling in love with Khounta, Penny fell in love with Laos. As a Peace Corps volunteer in Nakhon Phanom, Thailand, in 1962, she discovered that just across the Mekong River, Laos and Laotians were far more charming, far more cosmopolitan and far more accepting of farang (foreigners) than Thailand and Thais. That’s still the case.

Newly arrived in Vientiane, Penny met her future husband on a blind date. Khounta was 15 years her senior and very established as Inspector General of the Royal Lao Ministry of Public Works and Transportation. Think of a Lao version of Ezio Pinza, the Italian opera singer who played the French planter in “South Pacific.”

Penny’s quest to marry Khounta is a textbook case of culture clash and culture shock. She writes in her cover notes:

“With no one to answer my questions or sources to guide me, I jumped in. No American woman had ever married a Lao from a broken family educated in France. I didn’t know what to expect or what to do. I lived in a jungle of ignorance, misunderstanding and confusion to the end.”

In a sense the book is a painful, painstaking catalogue of miscommunication and cultural miscues that would have scuttled a love of lesser commitment. She spoke English but not much French or Lao. He spoke Lao and French fluently and not much English. He seldom translated anything for her so she shared nothing with the family and friends he held dear.

Khounta lived by a code of behavior infused by his high-born, half-Cambodian half-Lao family, and by Lao Buddhist and French Catholic morality. To the young American’s dismay, Khounta never revealed his rules of how he expected her to behave until she transgressed them.

In August 1968, Penny had just been hired by the U.S. Information Service to work as director of courses at LAA. Khounta took her for a ride in his Mercedes-Benz 190SL luxury roadster. He asked, Was she sure she wanted to marry him, given the differences in their background? She seemed nervous, he said. Under Khounta’s questioning, she became teary, something few people including her beau had ever seen. A man of few words, Khounta told her: “You think too much.” She realized it was true, she was behaving like an American.

“I think, I was, and am, a typical American, who likes to hear words of appreciation, compliments and reassurances of love, and affection. Khounta, on the other hand, as I came to learn, said something once, and saw no reason to repeat it.”

One of the most painful examples of their mismatched expectations and outcomes is the chapter on her longed-for wedding, two years after first laying eyes on the unpredictable Lao man.

Penny was visiting Khounta on his study tour in Paris. On a gray December morning he woke his fiancée and told her: “We get married today.” She was indignant and angry and did not want to get married with five minutes’ notice. Luckily she had brought along the ivory-colored mini-skirt dress she wanted to be married in. She relented and they sped off to the Lao Consulate to be wed. All the formalities were in Lao language.

“I understood nothing, I felt embarrassed. The Consul teasingly smiled at me and asked in English ‘Do you love Khounta?’ Yes, I said. No other questions. No vows. No kiss. Only infants and small children are shown affection in public in Lao culture.”

On the way back to the boarding house, Khounta bought a pot of white azaleas. It was his grand gesture in lieu of a wedding bouquet and a wedding party surrounded by her American and Lao friends.

Their wedding night was New Year’s Eve. Khounta spent the night playing Lao card games with his Lao buddies. The bride was ignored and isolated by her inability to speak their language. She was angry because the fact that it was her wedding night and the countdown to a new year meant nothing to the old married men playing cards.

At the ceremony that morning there had been no witnesses to sign the marriage certificate. In the style of high-level Lao officials who weren’t much concerned with official regulations, Khounta later found some Lao Army officers to sign the document and finish the marriage formalities.

After a lifetime of hardship and exile — their family split at times between Iran, France, America, and Laos — Penny writes that it was mutual love, respect and commitment that kept them together. It seems that to survive in a marriage with someone so culturally different, she had to learn to be a little less American.

 

 

Slash and Burn, a Dr. Siri novel by Colin Cotterill – Part 1

I’m not a big fan of mystery novels but I am a huge fan of author Colin Cotterill and his septuagenarian mystery solver, the reluctant coroner Dr. Siri Paiboon. I’m also not a big fan of supernatural heebie-jeebies, and Dr. Siri has plenty of it as his body hosts a thousand-year-old Hmong shaman.

That said, I’ve been wanting to write about the Dr. Siri mystery series because it’s set in Laos, or more properly, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. Dr. Siri’s sleuthing takes place in the chaotic years after a Marxist-Leninist state succeeds an unconventional kingdom stage-managed by Americans, who illegally and immorally bombed the hinterland while luxuriating on the riverside. By 1976, when the Dr. Siri series begins, the Americans were gone, so there aren’t many Americans in Cotterill’s spot-on depictions of post-Liberation Laos.

An Englishman who once worked for the U.N. in landlocked Laos, Cotterill now lives on a beach in Thailand. He had me at sabaiidee with his first novel, The Coroner’s Lunch, wherein a logging truck runs over a blind dentist pedaling his bicycle to the post office.

Recently, I came across Slash and Burn, Cotterill’s eighth Dr. Siri mystery, which features a cast of Ugly Americans at their ugliest. It is July 1978 and a U.S. diplomatic mission has arrived in Laos to investigate a possible MIA sighting. Now, Dr. Siri, his coterie of old-coot Communist comrades and his ragtag assistants will be joining Uncle Sam’s team of self-interested investigators on an MIA mission to Xieng Khouang province. Their research will take them to the mysterious Plain of Jars and along the way, someone will die a mysterious death. Whodunit is no concern of mine. I’m here to talk about the behavior of Americans mucking about in Laos.

Published in 2011, Slash and Burn opens with a description of how the weather over Laos was changing 40 years ago. As the story goes, Lao meteorologists educated in East Germany had already concluded that the cause of climate change is Capitalism. The narrator observes that the same Americans who decades earlier planned the roads and red-dirt lanes of Vientiane, were now screwing up the weather. “There was very little the Americans couldn’t be blamed for in the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos, and to be fair, most of the accusations were warranted.”

In 1978, there was no U.S. ambassador in Laos, only six low-grade diplomats toiling away in a U.S. Consulate. The Soviets who were brother Communist allies at the time, rebuffed Washington’s attempts to sneak in two CIA sooks as cleaners or bookkeepers. Prodded by the powerful MIA lobby, Washington was telling Vientiane that there was now a need to investigate whether there were indeed ex-U.S. servicemen on Lao soil. Of course the new Pathet Lao government reminds the Americans that under the Geneva Agreement of 1962, there never were any U.S. servicemen on Lao soil.

“As there were officially no ground troops or U.S. Air Force personnel active in Laos, with tongues in cheeks, the P.L. had asked how these MIAs had been clumsy enough to find their ways into prisoner-of-war camps in the middle of a neutral country.”

Conscripted by the Minister of Justice to join the MIA mission with Americans, the caustic coroner Dr. Siri asks acerbically: “They’re back? Did they forget something?”

After an uncomfortable meeting with an impatient congresswoman they’ve dubbed Sumo in A Sundress, the Lao agree to form a joint delegation to investigate the disappearance of a civilian helicopter on a what the Justice Minister calls “a (cough cough) humanitarian aid mission.” The pilot missing for 10 years turns out to be Capt. Boyd Bowry, who turns out to be the son of U.S. Sen. Walter Bowry, R-South Carolina. The mission is being mounted after someone sent the Senator photos of his son purportedly peering out of a bamboo cage. purportedly in Laos.

Six Americans are assigned to the mission: a retired and alcoholic Army major as team leader, a black U.S. Marine from the Vientiane Consulate, the second secretary of the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok, a Japanese-American forensic pathologist from the University of Hawaii, a journalist named Rhyme from TIME, and a 17-year-old missionary’s daughter named Peach as an interpreter. Unexpectedly, the young Peach with her “impressive display of dentistry,” speaks Lao like a local. However the narrator notes, “despite her fluency in Lao, she was alien.” Besides, she smelled like bubble gum. On standby at the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok, awaiting a bona fide public relations opportunity to join them, is the wealthy U.S. Senator Ulysses Vogal III, aided by his unusually attentive Chinese-American aide Ethel Chin.

Before the story is done, one of the Americans is murdered in what appears to be a perverted sex act, another gets a fingertip shot off and yet another is shot by a lover who has lots to hide. There are lots of questions about why civilian pilots working for CIA-owned Air America during the war were dropping bombs and super-napalm on a mountain near the Thai border, and why Xieng Khouang Province is being smothered by smoke that’s not caused by traditional slash and burn agriculture. It’s finally revealed that a bad guy is really a good guy, and the good guys are part of a cabal of greedy Americans who are willing to eliminate a score of people (one is even willing to engage in filicide) to protect a secret source of wealth, And, good for you Colin Cotterill, for once, it’s not heroin.

 

 

Slash and Burn, a Dr. Siri novel by Colin Cotterill – Part 2

Anyone who knows anything about Laos knows the Plain of Jars is a mystery itself because the origin of ancient jars strewn remains unknown after centuries of guesswork. In this eighth Dr. Siri mystery, a joint U.S./Lao MIA mission must fly through heavy smoke to reach the P de J.

The Lao and American teams are billeted in separate wings of the aptly named Friendship Hotel. It’s also something of a mystery that the hotel, which began life as the Snow Leopard Inn in the provincial capital of Xiengkhouangville, was still standing, because Xiengkhouangville was wiped off the map. The narrator notes:

There was nothing remarkable about the Friendship Hotel other than the miracle of its continued presence. It stood amid a landscape of craters in the most bombed area of the war.

From 1964 to 1973, Americans dropped 2.3 million tons of ordnance on Laos, and a third of it, including tens of thousands of small devices called “bombies.” didn’t go off . Years later, farmers and their children in Xieng Khouang are still stumbling upon the unexploded ordnance, and as a result the author notes, few residents of the area could claim a full set of limbs.

As an ice-breaker to melt the animosity that hangs like a shroud over their joint endeavor, the Americans suggest the former enemies play charades, miming what they do for a living. When Peach the translator moves her hands to symbolize two people talking (I’m thinking of France Nuyen’s charming hand movements in the song “Happy Talk”), the Lao participants guess that Peach is a duck farmer. That’s about the only laugh for about 200 pages.

The next day the mission sets up shop at the abandoned airbase at Long Cheng. The starting point for thousands of sorties the U.S. flew against Lao Communists, this was where the missing pilot took off a decade earlier. The MIA search team meets in the former home of General Vang Pao, the Hmong leader at the heart of the C.I.A.’s Secret Army. The home of the former hero is now “a two-story outer-suburb motel of a place, as incongruous as the shirt-and-tie spooks who’d built it.” The Americans bring with them a dozen cases of cold Bud. At the time of the MIA mission, beer was hard to come-by. Spearing hot dogs at Vang Pao’s place, the Laotiand are warming up to American hospitality, observing that “Americans had the art of seduction down to a fine point.”

Waiting for the visiting Americans are several hundred hilltribes people, They’ve come to the abandoned spy base carrying scraps of war materiel and bones in the erroneous belief that Uncle Sam will pay a reward for evidence of MIAs. Some have brought tin ration trays, bootlaces, Zippo lighters and shell casings; others brought non-matching bones that they laid out in full skeletons. Obviously, “There were a lot of desperate people in the northeast.”

On the second day, a group of ethnic Phuan from a remote village arrive with a litter carrying the horizontal stabilizer of a helicopter, and not just any helicopter but the one Capt. Boyd flew when he disappeared. Now the search for the pilot, live or dead, and his crash site begin in earnest. We later learn that TIME’s Rhyme, who looks like Woody Allen, has taken aerial shots of the Plain of Jars from the hatch of the American helicopter.

With the help of assorted gang mates and supernatural spirits, including the ghost of the recently departed (murdered) King of Laos, Dr. Siri unravels a history of intrigue among the Americans that is rooted in the Vietnam War and the thirst for money and power. Senator Bowry, for example, who is searching for his lost son, went to war to do good and did very well. He hustled teak from Thailand, made a lot of money, invested it in real estate, grew stinking rich and used his fortune to enter politics.

Senator Vogal the Third, who has come to join the search team, boasts that America was transparent and accountable when he was a clerk at the U.S. Embassy in Vietnam. Civilai, the ex-Politburo member who’s as cynical as his comrade Dr. Siri, brings his condescension to a boil.

“I imagine everything was open and above board,” Civilai says. “Not like in Laos.”

“You couldn’t possibly know just how much good the U.S. was doing for your country,” the G.O.P. senator says, adding that the vast majority of the U.S. budget for Laos was spent on aid. Civilai corrects his accounting.

“The vast majority of your budget went on B-52s and ordnance.” Alleging he has a copy of the U.S. Embassy budget for Fiscal 1970 in his room, Civilai continues:

Your total expenditure for that year was $284 million… $162 million of which was tagged as military assistance… (while) Only $50 million was assigned to aid.

“That’s still a considerable humanitarian effort in anybody’s book,” interjected the Senator’s aide Ethel Chin.

“Except in your book,” counters Civilian. “Humanitarian aid included feeding the Royal Lao Army and several thousand irregulars.” Some went to refugee programs.

When Chin says the refugees were fleeing “the atrocities you people inflicted against them,” Civilai says the U.S. bombed a third of Laos’s population out of their homes, and Ted Kennedy’s 1969 Senate subcommittee found that 40,000 Laotian refugees were “dispossessed as a direct result of U.S. bombing.”

Yeah, says Vogal, but “Kennedy was a Democrat with undisguised Communist leanings.”

The plot twists and turns crazily and so do the relationships between Lao and Americans. Quick at first to criticize each other’s cultural and political intricacies, they are ultimately, in a few cases, able to relish them.

On the other hand, Ugly Americans will be Ugly Americans, and Dr. Siri discovers that there are some bad apples, some very bad apples, in every bunch.

 

 

Crazy Rich Asians – on an airplane

Actor Constance Wu as Rachel Chu – Warner Brothers photo

I recently watched “Crazy Rich Asians” for the second time on an airplane headed for – where else? – Singapore. Watching a film on a small screen is different from seeing it in a theater because your nose is in it.

Once again I was impressed at how American the Chinese-American Rachel was made to appear in contrast to her Chinese-Singaporean detractors. She is disarmingly casual while, with few exceptions, the Singaporeans are stiffly formal, and she is charmingly self-deprecating while they raise self-importance to skyscraping heights.

Early on, Rachel attempts to establish her Chinese chops by saying, “I’m so Chinese, I’m an econ professor and I’m lactose intolerant.” Economics is an acceptable professional pursuit in the financial capital of Southeast Asia but Rachel is a professor of game theory, which to Singaporeans seems a trivial pursuit.

Twenty minutes into the film, Rachel’s boyfriend Nicholas Young discusses his relationship with Rachel for the first time, face-to-face with his imperious mother. Singapore’s most eligible bachelor proffers his New York girlfriend’s suitability by noting how auspicious it is “that the first girl I bring home is a Chinese professor.” His mother, the fearsome matriarch Eleanor Young, quickly corrects him: “A Chinese American professor.”

In a face-to-face with Rachel, Eleanor pointedly tells her that following a personal passion is O.K. for Americans but Singaporeans put age-old family obligations above personal pleasure.

Eleanor again derides the frivolity of the American soul during the mahjong smackdown (where Rachel’s knowledge of game theory ultimately trumps Eleanor’s traditional Chinese mahjong strategy). Intent on busting up the relationship, Eleanor plays her anti-Rachel hand bluntly, telling her: “There is a Hokkien phrase kaki lang. It means: our own kind of people, and you’re not our own kind.’” Elaborating, Eleanor says: “You’re a foreigner – American – and all Americans think about is their own happiness.”

Plucky Rachel challenges her adversary: “Don’t you want Nick to be happy?” Happiness, Eleanor retorts, is an illusion. Her family’s enormous wealth “did not just happen,” she says. “We understand how to build things that last.”

Many Singaporeans did not like CRA. While the film portrayed the litterless, chewing-gum-less city-state as a gleaming super-modern, super-green metropolis in breathtaking Hawaii Five-O-style videography, it did nothing to show the multicultural aspects of the Lion City. The only non-Chinese who stand out in the two-hour film are the Sikh guards who confront the car bringing Rachel to the Youngs’ eye-popping mansion (shot on location in Malaysia).

However, other Singaporeans got a chuckle out of the cinematic skewering of traditional upper-crust Chinese families. My Singaporean friend who was raised in a traditional Chinese family said she knew old-fashioned families like those surrounding the Youngs. In fact, her own mother demanded that she and all her siblings contribute 50-percent of their salary to the family. She confessed that, one year, when her employer gave her a huge end-of-the-year bonus, she failed to declare the full amount for tithing by her Mum.

Not all Chinese Singaporeans are as tightly bound by tradition as Eleanor Young.

 

The Quiet American – by Graham Greene, 1955

 Bantam paperback, 1955

The Quiet American serves up a classic love triangle amid political treachery in Saigon. A jaded English journalist and a youthful American economic aid officer fall in love with the same woman, the willowy, amber-skinned Phuong, an embodiment of the eternal beauty and mystery of Vietnam.

It’s also a political novel, spiked with philosophical and ideological dilemma. Should men of conscience stand up to America’s intervention alongside France in opposition to Vietnam’s struggle for self-rule? Should America use its massive might to instill wide-eyed Western idealism and liberal individualism in a country that’s never known democracy? In the short term, should Washington support the tactics of torture and terrorism employed by  murderous Vietnamese allies? In the long term, is it better to enter a prolonged war that will cause unimaginable suffering, or allow Vietnamese nationalists to establish a Communist regime?

Thomas Fowler, the story’s narrator, is a red-faced, middle-aged reporter who finds refuge in his quiet romance, his opium pipes and his sense of dégagé, being uninvolved. Only when Fowler discovers that an earnest young American has stolen away his mistress  does he re-engage in events. Alden Pyle’s personality and C.I.A.-scented activism stoke Fowler’s hatred of Americans in Southeast Asia. He says, “I was tired of the whole pack of them, with their private stores of Coca-Cola and their portable hospitals, and their too-wide cars and their not quite latest guns,” he says. At another point he haughtily derides “the poverty of American literature, the scandals of American politics (and) the beastliness of American children.”

Fowler disses Pyle for his idealism and lack of real-world experience: “He was young and silly and ignorant and he got involved.” He mocks Pyle’s typical American preoccupation with “mental ideas,” including “-isms and -ocracies.” Adding fuel to the fire, Fowler learns that Pyle has thrown in his lot, and America’s, with a despotic general who leads a Third Force against both the beleaguered French and the advancing Communists. He sees Pyle as complicit in a terrorist bombing that kills and cripples civilians in the square opposite the Continental Hotel. Fowler is ruthless yet he’s shocked when Pyle defends the murder of women and children as a tool to effect positive political change. Worse yet, the reporter susses out that Pyle is importing plastic of the sort terrorists can mold into bicycle bombs.

Alden Pyle is a fine example of an American whose innocence and good intentions bring tragic consequences. Greene has granted the quiet American a few good qualities. He is Boston-bred and Harvard-educated, exceedingly polite and highly scrupled; he doesn’t drink, or smoke opium, and he has the decency to tell Fowler face-to-face that he plans to marry Phuong. In fact, he earnestly asks Fowler to translate his troth. And it is Pyle who gallantly risks his own life to save Fowler from dying under fire in a rice paddy. Pyle says he did it for Phuong. Fowler retorts that he would not do the same for Pyle, and apparently he means it.

In what could be an allegory for the way Western powers regard Vietnam, Phuong’s pair of suitors discuss Love Saigon Style. Pyle tells Fowler that Phuong can’t possibly love him because he lies to her. Fowler admits he lies because he wants to keep her. The Englishman tells his American adversary: “Love’s a Western word. We use it for sentimental reasons or to cover up an obsession with one woman.” Asians are too practical to suffer from obsessions, he asserts. Pyle says he wants to give Phuong “a decent life” in America, which Fowler paints as a deep freezer, a car of her own, the latest model TV and supermarkets that sell celery wrapped in cellophane. Fowler says his live-in lover is quite capable of deciding for herself. “She’s tougher than you’ll ever be,” he says. “She can survive a dozen of us.”

Greene’s novel is positively brilliant with conversation that cuts like a diamond. If you read only one of the books on the Ugly American bookshelf, read this one.

 

The Quiet American (films), 1959 and 2002

Movie posters, 1958, 2002

1959 movie directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz

2002 movie directed by Philip Noyce

There’s a story behind Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1959 screen adaptation of Graham Greene’s 1955 novel. It’s a story with political overtones and it’s not entirely clear what role politics played when Mankiewicz surgically depoliticized the novel. At the center of the  artistic intervention intrigue is Edward Lansdale, the real-life Air Force major general and C.I.A. operative most prominently associated with American military and espionage intervention in Southeast Asia. Greene denies modeling the quiet American Alden Pyle on Lansdale; but both the real Lansdale and the fictional Pyle walked a small black dog on the streets of Saigon in 1952, when Greene himself served as a foreign correspondent. Both Lansdale and Pyle had a consuming interest in keeping Southeast Asia free of Communism at all costs.

Director Mankiewicz met Lansdale in Saigon and it’s known that Lansdale advised the filmmaker when he was adapting Greene’s novel for the screen, boldly flipping an essentially anti-American novel into a pro-American film. In the transformation process, the novel’s Alden Pyle lost his name (He was simply called The American in the film.) Pyle not only lost his name; he lost his savvy East Coast upbringing, his Ivy League education and his job as economic adviser (cum C.I.A. agent) in the U.S. mission.

Portrayed by the World War II hero Audie Murphy, The American of the film is a Texan who works for a foundation. He’s more of a Gomer Pyle than an Alden Pyle: a do-gooder who says ” Oh, golly.” It seems his main occupation in Saigon is to make Phuong more American. Moviegoers may wonder if the Boy Scout was secretly a cowboy James Bond but there’s no way of knowing. Curious minds also want to know if Mankiewicz defanged his movie for political purposes, or merely to sell tickets?

The 2002 version of the film astutely casts Michael Caine in the role of Thomas Fowler although there were fewer accolades for the casting of Brendan Fraser as Alden Pyle (Pyle gets his name back). Caine was nominated for Best Actor in the Academy Awards, Golden Globes and BAFTA.

Critics agreed that the 2002 film was better written — without help from the C.I.A., — and better directed by the Australian Philip Noyce, who closely follows Graham Greene’s celebrated story line.

 

Saint Jack – by Paul Theroux, 1973

Penguin paperback, 1976

Rereading Saint Jack after 40 years, I wondered what Jack Flowers would think about today’s Singapore. Clearly, he would despise the single-party island state for its strict Confucian / hyper-Catholic moralism and repressive regulations, although he might dig it for the innumerable opportunities to make oodles of money.

Flowers was a colorful character out of Boston who washed up in Singapore, much like Paul Theroux, who lectured at a university there in 1968. The author first introduces Flowers as an untrustworthy narrator of his own tawdry Conradian tale. At 53, after years at sea and 14 years in Singapore, Flowers is no longer a Devil-may-care American college dropout. He’s as dispassionate about his day job as an odd-jobber in a Chinese ship chandlery, as he is about his sideline, conscientiously providing Chinese and Malay girls for sailors and married men. Despite a well-earned reputation for provisioning ships and hotels with local women, he doesn’t think of himself as a pimp, merely as A Useful Man, with a reputation for having “a finger in every tart.”

Flowers fawns over his johns like a sycophant, unable to speak his own mind. Dining with one of his customers, he reluctantly passes up the seafood he craves because the customer suggests the food isn’t up to par. Flowers is wilting but not without hope, composing over and over in his mind letters congratulating him on winning a fortune in a hoped-for future.

Into his dispirited life comes a cool-eyed English auditor named William Leigh, who casts shadows like a funeral shroud over Flowers’ purposeful life as a part-time ponce. When Leigh’s heart gives out, Flowers mourns him and thus embarks on his own canonization. A second archangel appears in the form of a U.S. Army employee named Edwin Shuck, who ensures Flowers’ financial success, at least for a while.

Flowers arrived in Singapore just as it was emerging from the cloak of colonialism. Even so, barflies leftover from the Empire populate the bars, exchanging enough British witticisms to make an American reader want to dump a crate of tea in Singapore Harbour.

Having left home for good reason, Flowers didn’t really want to be seen as an American, lampooning his countrymen as “the glad-hander, the ham with the loud jokes and big feet and flashy shirts.” But his Americanness had advantages when it came to pimping. “Being American was part of my uniqueness,” he says. Against his will, Flowers purposefully exaggerates his accent and becomes known as The Yank, making his rounds on a well-upholstered trishaw, making friends with Chinese bargirls and foreign sailors in order to twain East and West.

Remaining at his day job to keep his visa, the streetwise pimp and porn-pusher opens his own brothel, poetically named the Dunroamin. The brothel is a big hit in the demimonde of expats but not the underworld of Chinese secret society gangsters, who kidnap and torture him, tattoo him with Chinese expletives and torch his bordello.

With money from the U.S. Army, the burnt-out brothel owner survives purgatory to become the glad-handing proprietor of the Paradise Gardens, which succors G.I.s on R & R from Vietnam for five days at a time. Happy in his Eden, catering to sexually starved G.I.s, Flowers begins to see himself as a saint awaiting annunciation. “I was the kind of angel I expected to visit me,” he explains. “I was a noisy cheerful creature. But the mutters in my mind told me I was Saint Jack.”

On this Earth, Uncle Sam giveth and Uncle Sam taketh away. When a change in Pentagon policy shutters Saint Jack’s profitable Paradise, Flowers seeks out Shuck, the Government man who once told him, “We’re all whores one way or another.” Funny that it’s Shuck, a decidedly Ugly American, who gives Saint Jack a shot at salvation.