Amanda Kovattana

Middle-aged musings in interesting times

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Return To Asia

My mother is the first person I've ever seen get a chatty response from a Thai immigration officer. Always the sternest people in this land of smiles, they do not smile at all, ever. At least that was the case before I had flown into the new airport with its steel struts and white canopy enclosure of space. So 60s sci fi. And yes, the passport control officers did seem a tiny bit friendlier given this new grandeur of natural light and gentle climate control so unlike the aggressive frigidness of AC in most buildings in Southeast Asia, but this woman was intrigued enough to ask my mother how old she was and be suitably surprised at the answer, then even more surprised when my mum pointed out that I was her daughter. That was when I realized that my mother had a presentation that makes people trust her and I might as well enjoy it

That we were something of a traveling phenomenon was a perk we would enjoy all over Southeast Asia from Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur to Singapore. We had come to promote my book, the cover of which showed us together some 48 years ago when we first arrived in Bangkok. She wearing stylish cat eye sunglasses, looking fondly at 3 year old me while I look into the camera (at my dad taking the picture). We were traveling by boat down a canal into the story that I would later feel compelled to spend 20 years of my life writing and preparing for publication. Now returning again to the snug family compound of my childhood I could finally show my mother what had happened to Asia in these last frantic decades of development.

I was prepared to be surprised if we found even a single building that she could recognize. There were some. My grandmother's wooden house now showing serious signs of decay. And the old Air France building on Patpong road, now obscured by girly bars and tourist stalls, where she had worked for Grant Advertising in the 60's. At the time big firms such as Palmolive, Esso and Formost were just gaining a toe hold in the "far east" and my mother was soon promoted to account executive being proficient in English and charm. The mix of hanky panky at the office and the glamour of landing these big accounts makes the TV series Mad Men feel as familiar to me as family history, while our photo albums are filled with leering men in skinny ties propositioning my mother who would be glamorously dressed in Thai silk versions of the fashions of the day.

Halfway down the now pedestrian only road, our guide, my friend G-up, assured us that we would find the Tip Top café. My mother had just been describing how she and her colleagues would go there for longish breaks aided by staff who would forward their phone calls. We found it remodeled into a sleek cake shop with sliding glass doors. I stood looking at it, surprised at it still being there, a little bit of family history tied up with the development of this Asian Tiger city.

Bangkok now boasts the largest shopping mall in Southeast Asia, the Siam Paragon, filled with high end status shops of international renown. It's plaza and façade were easily visible from the sky train, the sleek, overhead, light rail that made mobility feasible in this part of town. Clustered nearby were all the other shopping malls. My mother as a champion shopper, wanted to see it all.

As a writer of energy use issues I had, just last year, traveled to the North East of Thailand where I had had opportunity to hear, first hand, the story of how 1700 families were displaced by the Pak Man dam, a hydroelectric power plant that would, in the end, produce just enough power for half a shopping mall of this caliber while destroying 80% of the local fisheries and the livelihood of another 6,000 plus families. Thus I would always see these malls in terms of the price of power and the uneasy status of democracy in Thailand favoring the wealthy while making protesters of the poor. Such information makes me a professional wet blanket. So while I made sure my mother had the "trip of a lifetime" as she wrote to friends back home, I kept a lid on my usual railings and put in my miles scoping out the shopping malls.

The presentation I had come to Asia to make would also be in a shopping mall, the Pavilion, the newest in Kuala Lumpur. Our host was the Times Bookstore, one of the largest chains in Malaysia and Singapore. We spent just one night at the family compound in Bangkok before jetting out from the world class shopping mall cum airport to Kuala Lumpur. There we would stay in the luxury Shangri La hotel with its complementary breakfast. (This an all you can eat international buffet offering the breakfasts of every possible cuisine topped off with two chocolate fondue fountains—one white, one dark and a steady supply of raspberries.)

Twice the city had boasted the tallest building in the world. The high rises around us were dwarfed by the sparkling chrome and glass of the Petronus twin towers, lit by night like a delicate jewel. The haze of smog adding a soft glow. We were dazzled. The twin towers of oil I nicknamed them. We were both thinking the same thing as we surveyed the KL downtown by night. "It's New York city on steroids."
Petronus is the government owned oil company of this oil producing nation. Their offices occupy one full tower and there is a museum of oil between the towers on the 4th floor (above a shopping mall, natch). I managed to get in a visit and was amused to find that the entry into the Petrosains museum consisted of a ride in an oil molecule back into time with a voice over narration booming a tone of awe at this miracle substance that man had harnessed through "determination and technology". It brought back the Disneyland ride in Tomorrowland that shrank me to the scale of a specimen on a microscope as a voice (sponsored by Monsanto) narrated the miracle of science and technology. How fitting a narrative for a city that so completely manifested the splendors of oil consumption.

We were shepherded on this journey by Han, my publicist who had also been my editor (one of them) owing to his affinity for a dual culture childhood, his having been spent in Canada. Young and lanky, he was steeped in the language of literary criticism and well versed in global politics. He was to guide me through this publicity event by talking to me about how I should present my story to the Malaysian public, a people I knew precious little about. We thought we should begin, academically enough, with a historical reference to mixed marriages in Thailand and roll into it the story of why I, as a writer, had been compelled to stick to a memoir as opposed to the safety of fiction. We were building up a good case when my mother arrived and ordered a glass of wine.

My mother insisted that we should focus on the family dramas to get people interested and proceeded to illustrate her point by telling all her stories from my book with exuberant dramatization. Han was amused by her use of the term "creepy crawl" as she described how she approached the Queen on the beach at Pattaya the first week, practically, that she was in Thailand. After an hour or two we were joined by Raja and his wife my cousin Nor. They were mama and papa of The Blue Toffee brand, now devoting all their creative energy to the promotion of the fledging "lifestyle" publishing company that Raja had conceived to occupy himself in his retirement from corporate life.

We moved our brainstorming party outside to the Arabian nights patio to get warm, since Han, wearing only a polo shirt, had neglected to account for the hotel air conditioning. Sitting on cushions surrounded by decorative hookahs we continued our discussion as my mother tried to get a word in edgewise between the banter that Nor and Raja kept up. Finally Nor summed up my original thesis about mixed marriages being a privilege of wealth (in the case of Asian men marrying Caucasian women) and then suggested that we put my mother on stage with me. That at least would make it viscerally interesting.

The next morning my mum made a beeline for the hotel beauty salon, while I worked up my talk on my laptop and had the business center print it out just an hour before we were due at the Pavilion. I would wear the same outfit that I had worn for the book party that my writer's group had thrown for me in Palo Alto. Except I knew it would be too hot to wear the same black boots. The marine blue Thai silk jacket was fine as was the black hilltribe pants, but the square toed pumps I brought just would not do. I looked over my mother's collection of reliably dressy sandals and chose a black pair with silver medallions marching down the front. They were a half size too big, but she punched a new hole in the strap for me. My mother herself, was elegantly dressed in a black scoop neck T-shirt adorned with a glittering band of turquoise and green sequins reminiscent of Nefertiti. Matching earrings set off her freshly coiffed blond hair.

We took a taxi rather than risk walking and arrived in plenty of time well ahead of any crowd. We wandered around taking pictures and trying not to gawk at the women wearing full coverage black burkahs doing their brand name shopping like any good consumer the world over.

My event was scheduled for 4 p.m. on a Friday afternoon. The roads were being blocked in preparation for a protest that was to take place the following day. (Something in the constitution similar to habeas corpus at stake, I gathered from Han.)

"Did you invite anybody?" Nor asked me. Well we did invite these Americans we met at the airport in Bangkok, my mother having chatted them up when we heard our plane was delayed. Otherwise I didn't know a soul here, of course. Han's father showed up and other members of the Blue Toffee staff, then a few strangers wandered in, including a large burkah glad woman with a male escort and the Americans did indeed show up making me feel at home.

There were also members of the press (two freebie tabloids, the Sun and the Star) and their photographers. The photographers flashed away making us feel like we were getting the red carpet treatment. As did the expensive graphics—large banners and posters showing the cover of the book, the book jacket blurb (written by one of my long time clients who had become a literary mentor) and the date of the launch. So that's all you need, I thought, some nice graphics, a venue and members of the press. Never mind that I was such an unknown entity, I could hardly interest a few casual shoppers. I just had to play the part. And then we began.

My speech and accompanying passages from the book were kindly received. They chuckled at my opening joke about bringing my mother to vouch for my biracial credentials. I kept the presentation short for fear of boring anybody, but they seemed content and we fluffed up the hour with me narrating the slideshow that Han had put together of pictures from my childhood. During the Q & A Han's father asked some insightful questions about moving from culture to culture. A stranger, a young woman, felt emboldened enough to ask my mother how she had been treated by her in-laws. She offered the story about my grandma coaching her on protocol for greeting the Queen.

"You didn't say "creepy-crawl"", said Han afterward, my mum having opted to be formal in her presentation of her brush with royalty. At our get together the night before, she had asked Nor and Raja for gossip about the royal family and had received a non-response which she took to be chilly thus inspiring her caution. It is not a time to be playful about politics in Thailand I realized. More on that another time.

While the public visited the amply provided snack table, I was ushered into a back room to answer probing questions from the reporter from the Sun who was himself a writer. I enjoyed the questions and gave it my all (only to learn later that he would loose the tape, but we made up for it with questions via e-mail). As I talked I reflected lightly on how my life story had become a product in a shopping mall bookstore, yet that had not robbed it of its power for me and the two reporters. All human production, it seemed now needed PR to get it off the ground. I was just
proud that I did have a product I could stand behind with pride.

We deemed the launch a success. By definition publicity is always deemed a success unless it's a disaster. It is how the game is played.

Figures regarding the Pak Man dam gleaned from the book "A Land On Fire: The Environmental Consequences of the Southeast Asian Boom" by James David Fahn, a reporter to the Nation, an English-language daily newspaper in Thailand.

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At 8:30 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

The Sun interview is up:

At 8:31 PM, Blogger Unknown said...



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