Thursday, March 9, 2017

ASIAN DREAMS

Anyone who reads Jack Jones' accounts of his work with the Friends Ambulance in China in my book, A TRUE FRIEND TO CHINA, will recognise a truly talented writer. It then comes as no surprise that as 'Jack Reynolds' he later in 1956 published in New York and London his best selling novel called A WOMAN OF BANGKOK, which is still in print today.

Strangely this was one of three novels published at that time having a related cautionary theme, namely that if you fall hopelessly for your Asian dream, you'll probably lose her to an American. The other two novels are Graham Greene's, THE QUIET AMERICAN (1955)and Richard Mason's, THE WORLD OF SUZIE WONG (1957).

The core to Greene's story, so well represented in the movie, is that sweet young Vietnamese girl, Phuong, leaves his protagonist, an English journalist, for the arms of a younger and of course wealthier American. The narrative, not much more than a novella, tells how this 'quiet American', in the nature of a CIA fixer, ends up dead, face down in the mud of the Saigon river.

Much of the story is set in Saigon and on my recent visit there I re-read the book yet again. Fowler, the English journalist tells his story in the first person, leading us through the labyrinth of the plot and the streets of Saigon. Important to the story is his flat in the Rue Catinat, now Dong Khoi, a fashionable street of designer clothes shops which is right in the centre.


I visited there at Happy Hour and imagined the ghosts of those earlier times strolling the street in front of me as I sampled the local beer in an open fronted café.


Fowler also patronised the Majestic Hotel and I strolled through its cool, spacious lobby, imagining Greene staying here and plotting the twists and turns of a great story.


Though much of the heat and vibrancy of Asian cities is unchanging, new prosperity has changed Saigon since Greene's day, though many fine French colonial buildings would be totally recognisable to him. As a Catholic, Greene would find the cathedral familiar.


Next to it is the Post Office building, always a key communications centre in colonial cities of that time.


Not far away is the City Hall, now the backdrop for a statue of Ho Chi Min, Vietnam's revered national hero.


The city is booming and there are few hints of its communist identity, just the occasional poster and heroic statue, though these stand alongside the ubiquitous symbols of global culture such as McDonalds' golden arch.



In a remarkable way, Vietnam has put the horrors of the past behind it, while for the Americans the hamburger has proved to be mightier than the sword. The irresistible popular culture of Hollywood and fast food and cars, together with close trading relations, is so very seductive... just as the lure of the Dollar proved a strong challenge for the impecunious Englishman in each of the three novels I've mentioned.

Greene's novel of 1955 came first, the Englishman, as sole survivor, triumphantly keeping his girl. In Jack's novel of 1956, Reggie loses Vilai, his 'woman of Bangkok' to Dan, the American who to a degree resembles the 'quiet American'... he likewise wears his naïve and annoying principles on his sleeve. Published a year later, Suzie Wong goes off with her American but goes back to her Englishman, this being the most anodyne and commercial of the three novels. In the very first sentence of the book he sees his Asian dream, making it inevitable that they'll ultimately sail off into the sunset together and that Mason will get rich on the royalties.

While Greene's novel must be judged the best of the three, Phuong, his depiction of the Asian dream again is not much more than a shadowy, simpering stereotype. She is of course as described by Fowler who sees her as an ingénue interested only in silk scarves and magazines about London and the English royal family, perhaps suggesting a shallow judgment. Yet I find her blandness hard to believe, especially against the steely character of an elder sister who negotiates her marriage prospects with Fowler almost like a pimp.

Most powerful of the three and the finest characterisation, however, is Jack's 'woman of Bangkok', Vilai, the predatory bar hostess known to all as the White Leopard. His book is in three parts, the first and third from the perspective of Reggie, the inexperienced Englishman. The middle part enters Vilai's own personal world and follows her as an intimate portrait for almost a hundred pages. For a European author to so vividly capture an Asian character is rare indeed.

In three successive years of the fifties we thus see three parallel stories set in Saigon, Bangkok and Hong Kong. Jack alleged that Mason had copied some of his story but this seems unlikely as the publication dates were too close together, bearing in mind the slow book production of the time. In such a context it was perhaps very likely that Brits would lose their pretty girl to an American, though it's striking that in Jack's story Vilai's son was killed in an accident, while in Suzie's story published a year later so was hers.

Thus in these three novels, hearts are broken, British resentment over American money creates a common theme, and three books about exotic eastern women become best sellers for their authors.

But which author did their local research best and got under the skin of an Asia woman brought up with a gnawing fear of poverty?

Clearly it was Jack with his portrait of Vila, the Black Leopard. It is she who is the powerful figure battling for empowerment, as we would say today, who is the memorable woman that emerges from these stories. Nonetheless, my brief taste of Saigon reminds me that 'The Quiet American' is high on my list of favourite novels.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Hanoi, the Old Doorway to China

It was absolutely magic for me staying recently in Hanoi; Vietnam is such a wonderful country. And chance had me staying in the hotel La Gare, the railway hotel, the station even being visible from my hotel window.


Severely bombed during the Vietnam war and with its centre portion now rebuilt, it is hardly a building you'd remember, though at night the bright lights and energy of the place make it sparkle.


For me though it has special romantic associations as it was the southern gateway to Kunming in China along the remarkable mountain railway built by the French to give them access to the riches of China from their colonies in Indo-China. This penetration had long been a patriotic obsession for them, disappointed when the heroic explorations of Garnier and others discovered that the Mekong, a possible route, was blocked by the spectacular Khone Falls, and later triumphally realised by this audacious engineering feat of railway building through impossible mountainous country.




Because of this railway, the utter remoteness of Yunnan province was changed forever and Kunming, its terminus, became an important city, developing with a distinct French flavour in the official quarter. Thus the station in Hanoi became the jumping off point for so many roving characters such as Somerset Maugham and Carl Crow who found their way into this hidden region of China, after almost certainly staying in my own station hotel. Their accounts tell how difficult it was to get a seat on the Michelin railcar, thus leading to a long wait at the hotel, the luggage following later or even being flown up by air when possible.

'The Michelin' is preserved in the superb railway museum in Kunming, as is one of the fine locomotives imported from Philadelphia in 1923 that was in service for an improbably long time until 1991.



When the Japanese invaded Burma and took control of Indo-China through the Vichy French, the railway was closed for the duration but Kunming increasingly became a boom town as the terminus of the Burma Road. This was built to bring essential supplies to Nationalist China and to support them in their desperate struggle against the Japanese. When this too was cut, air supply from Assam in India and over The Hump into Kunming, made its airfields among the busiest in the world in what was history's first massive strategic airlift of military supplies.

It was into that hectic scenario that the men of the Friends Ambulance Unit first arrived and touched down on Chinese soil and into which the medical supplies that they distributed throughout the country were imported. Jack Jones, the 'heroic nobody' of my book, A TRUE FRIEND TO CHINA, knew it well, landing there in 1945.

He also knew the Hanoi railway too as in 1948 he took a ride on it, changing trains onto the branch line, stopping at the terminus at Shihping. This delightful French styled station I discovered and photographed in 2010.


Jack's long account of his ride on the train is one of my favourite passages in my book and is Jack at his best as writer and story teller. It is also a unique description of the bustle of life on this railway.

He was on his way to Shihping to do a feasibility study for an anti-malaria project there, which was subsequently set up and saved many lives. Hanoi was not much than a day down the line, to the luxuries of the colonial city and the hotel La Gare, but Shihping was still centuries back in time, a place of immense personal wealth built on the child slavery that provided miners for the tin mines. But that's another story and it's there all in the book.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

JACK'S QUEST FOR BUTTERFLIES AND POO

The first news is that A TRUE FRIEND TO CHINA, my book of Jack Jones' writings in China about his medical aid work with the Friends Ambulance Unit during the forties is sold out and will be reprinted in the UK where I am taking orders (arhicks56@hotmail.com) at a very special price. (It is still available from Quaker Books in Philadelphia, from the St John's Cathedral Bookstore, Hong Kong and from Earnshaw Books in Shanghai.)

Secondly, a good friend in Hong Kong has just sent me a photocopy of THE HEAD MAN OF NA ANG, by Jack Reynolds (his writer's pseudonym), sourced from the library of the Northern Illinois University. I'd seen reference to this, guessing it to be a wry fictional story about villagers having to build privies, then still using the bush, but it turns out to be exactly what it says on the tin, 'An Exploratory Study of Environmental Health and Sanitation, Behaviour and Attitudes in a Northeastern Thai Village'.


So why was Jack, poet and novelist, writing a technical report of this sort?

A densely written paper of nearly sixty pages of text and statistical findings, it is a sociological study of a single Thai village assessing the success of a Village Health and Sanitation Project, launched country-wide and fully implemented over a five year period in this specimen village. In addition to monitoring the single safe water source for the village and the new privies built for each home, Jack's key role was to discover whether the crucial health education programme conducted at the grass roots by the project leader, the Royal Thai Ministry of Public Health, had been successful. Had it given the villagers a reasonable comprehension of the fundamentals of disease transformation and had it stimulated a positive change of attitude and behaviour towards sanitation and hygiene?

Over half a century later, the report stands as a fascinating historical study of a typical remote village west of Udon Thani near Nong Bua Lamphu with eighty households and about 550 inhabitants. It had no electricity, newspapers, postal services, market, proper shop or health centre and with only limited literacy especially among the women, a poor excuse for a school. It also provides another insight into the extraordinary man that was its author, Jack Jones.

In his early fifties, a Jack of all trades, a transport officer or glorified mechanic with no formal qualifications of any sort, how did Jack manage to produce a fine research report requiring considerable anthropological, sociological and scientific skills of sufficient standard at least for a masters thesis in these disciplines if not more. And what's more, why on earth was he of all people chosen to do a complex research project that required three months' field work in the village, supported by a Thai translator?

This wider national public health project was part-financed by the United States Operations Mission to Thailand which also provided expertise through American personnel, including twenty five Peace Corps volunteers. These men and perhaps women, having served their three score years and ten, must now look back nostalgically to those halcyon days of rural Thailand, privies and parasites.

Jack's report itself was financed by the East-West Centre based in Hawaii and it has an introduction by the Bangkok based Chief Sanitarian, John H. Brandt, MPH (Master of Public Health), presumably also an American. It was Brandt & Brandt of New York who had been the literary agents that placed Jack's novel, A WOMAN OF BANGKOK, with the publishers, Ballantines, though it is unlikely that there was a tie-up there. More probably Jack was well-known and repected in Bangkok as a man of many parts in the world of NGOs and development aid. As a former transport director with Unicef based in Bangkok from 1951 to 1959 he certainly knew his way around. Having run a clinic for the FAU in Chungking, he was also familiar with all the devastating bowel and other parasites that were endemic throughout rural Thailand.

Yet appointing a transport specialist to undertake this very technical research project is still a little bizarre. One might think it more obvious to appoint a Thai than an unqualified foreigner with limited language skills. Yet perhaps no educated Bangkok Thai, the only probably source of educated specialists, would be prepared to head off into the blue for three months in 1965. Jack had to live in a rough wooden house on a very limited diet of rice with no meat, only fermented fish, topped up from time to time with inedible American combat rations.

If the current condescending attitude of privileged Thais to the primitive clod hoppers of the North East that remains one of the symptoms of Thailand's political instability is anything to go by, their likely condescension might have made them very unsuitable as local researchers. Nor could they communicate much better than Jack as the villagers spoke no Thai, only a local variety of Lao which are not mutually comprehensible.

In contrast, Jack, with his warm empathy with rural people and his social skills with them learned over his years in China and in Thailand with Unicef, was in fact the perfect candidate for the job. And I guess they knew it too.

I can imagine him arriving in the village with his jeep and translator, getting to know the head man first, sitting up late into the night, proving his fine brotherhood as a serious drinker and immediately becoming an honoured guest. With his gentle demeanour and modesty he would have been immensely liked. It would have been solitary and tough but Jack had the capacity to enjoy that.


His key to discovering the success of the health project, was that he mustn't arrive as a lord high representative of government, as an official checking up on the villagers; that would ensure he'd only hear what they thought he wanted to hear. He had to be more subtle than that. So he dreamed up the wizard wheeze that he was an English entomologist interested in insects, bugs and parasites. 'By posing as a butterfly collector I was allowed to roam in and out of compounds at will, not unnoticed, but not classified as a health inspector either.'

Jack's conclusions in the report are detailed and technical but underlying them are many ironies that he would have much enjoyed. The little people of the rural backwoods were not going to be pushed around by big officials set above them, nor be told how they must live their lives. Thus, he reported, they had successfully absorbed and were able to parrot many of the public health messages that the education programme had fed to them, but they were resistant to changing their habits and pleasures of many generations. They adored the rare luxury of eating laab, a bloody and fiery concoction of diced uncooked meat that has confronted me to my regret on many occasions. They'd never actually seen any of these alleged parasites in the food, so why should they give up on eating laab. Why must they wash hands after defecation and before eating? They couldn't afford soap and there was no clean water accessible anyway. And if they kept shitting in the privy, that would make it awfully dirty whereas the vast countryside is capable of absorbing anything.

Jack reports that many of the bamboo and wood privies that had been constructed five years previously were rotted and collapsing and the habit of using the bush was proving hard to break. In truth, much had been achieved towards better sanitation but it was going to take increased prosperity and at least a generation or two really to move things forward. And so, in my experience in the region, it has proved.

This is a fine report, Jack made an insightful contribution to public health in the villages, and he earned a useful fee to help him feed his family. Presumably not long returned from his posting as transport officer with UNWRA in Jordan, he was (not atypically) between jobs and he just had to take on this very demanding project to keep the wolf from the door.

Giving me a new insight into Jack and his life experiences, I genuinely enjoyed reading the long report for this reason, but also because I can relate so very closely to the particular place and to its people. Having myself lived in a Thai village in the North East for some years (qv MY THAI GIRL AND I), while much has changed over the last half century and huge progress has been made, things also stay pretty much the same in so many respects.

One of the objectives for the national sanitation project Jack reports on was that all villages should have at least one source of safe water, namely a well with a pump. Yet so very recently my village in Surin province still had none. Exactly as described by Jack, the first choice of the villagers for drinking water was rain water collected from the roofs. This is the house of my next door neighbour, the dragon pots being carefully placed to catch the water.


I myself was unable to use bottled water, though it was available some seven kilometres away, because the many tens of locals who wandered through my house daily would all first go to the fridge and help themselves, so this just wasn't possible for me. Refusing my family or neighbours a mere sip of water or hiding bottles in the bed would have brought down odium on my head and branded me as truly kee nieo, as mean as sticky shit. Thus I too had massive water casks sited at the guttering downpipes of the house and drank this water daily without filter or boiling. (Again, putting boiled bottled water in the fridge was a lost cause.) Nonetheless my bowels remained serene, though when I later learned how clogged with dirt the gutters were when 'gutter man' climber his bamboo ladder in bare feet to clean them out, I did feel a little queasy.



Inevitably it only took a naughty kid to open the tap on the water storage cask during the long dry season and our supply would be lost, though usually we just ran out. The next option was then to get water from the local pond, a particular favourite that was everyone's second choice for drinking water. The procedure was either to take a push cart with a dragon pot on it and fill it up with scoops, or, plutocrat that I was, to pay a farmer to get it for me behind his rot tai and to pump it into my big casks.



That local pond was important for the village as a primary water source, for which the unusually high water table was crucial. The next village was not so fortunate and when their pond tended to dry up during the dry season, they would come and steal water from ours. Our pu yai ban, the village head, then went over to demand reparations but he did not succeed. One morning it was discovered that our pond had been deliberately contaminated with some generous quantities of shit.


Our own pond on our land was not suitable as potable water as we had built our pig sty over the water; all the pig excrement would drop into the water and feed our fish. Like drinking from a somewhat robust water supply, the fish were delicious so long as one didn't think too much when eating.

Yes, those were the days and in comparison today the supermarket check-out does now seem a little dull. At least though, I can still travel with Jack Jones to China and Thailand as his writings never fail to remind me that there are exciting worlds out there other than mine.