The Rain Tree at the Gymkhana Club
This is a copyrighted excerpt of an unpublished travel book I’ve written about Southeast Asia.
Do not require a description of the countries toward which you sail. The description does not describe them, and tomorrow you arrive there and know them by inhabiting them. –Emerson, The Over-Soul
Many writers have left exact descriptions of their first taste of Asia. For Joseph Conrad, the East’s charm was a state of mind he called romantic reality. It animated many of his best-known characters, like the young seaman in Lord Jim, who longed to lose himself, to be stripped to a bare, primitive moment.
“This in itself may be a curse,” Conrad wrote, “but, when disciplined by a sense of personal responsibility and a recognition of the hard facts of existence shared with the rest of mankind, it becomes but a point of view from which the very shadows of life appear endowed with an internal glow. It only tries to make the best of it, hard as it may be; and in this hardness discovers a certain aspect of beauty.”
To be under the spell of a place, or a state of mind, is to quicken the blood, but behind the spell lies a deeper mystery in the subconscious, a desire to answer an indefinable call.
In the novel Youth, Conrad described the exact moment when Marlow, the narrator, first sensed the East: “ … and suddenly a puff of wind, a puff faint and tepid and laden with strange odors of blossoms, of aromatic wood, comes out of the still night — the sigh of the East on my face.”
Marlow, and Conrad, never escaped the spell of that sublime moment, the sense of life flowing from a new direction, a shift of culture from Western to Eastern. For some of us, it’s a seduction of the soul. Writing as Marlow, Conrad said, “But for me, all of the East is contained in that vision of my youth. It is all in that moment when I opened my young eyes on it … and I saw it looking at me.”
In the short story The Shadow-Line, he described the Bangkok of the 1890s, at the time of his character’s first sighting: “One early morning we steamed up the innumerable bends, passed the shadow of the great gilt pagoda, and reached the outskirts of town. There it was, spread largely on both banks, the oriental capital which had yet suffered no white conqueror. Here and there in the distance, above the crowded mob of low, brown roof ridges, towered great piles of masonry, king’s palaces, temples, gorgeous and dilapidated, crumbling under the vertical sunlight, tremendous, overpowering, almost palpable, which seemed to enter one’s breast with the breath of one’s nostrils and soak into one’s ribs through every pore of one’s skin.”
A very different writer, the cosmopolitan Somerset Maugham, toured Burma and Siam in the 1920s. In a nearly forgotten travel book, The Gentleman in the Parlour, he captured a fading moment when Bangkok had yet to blend into the West:
“The traffic of the river ceased and only now and then did you hear the soft splash of a paddle as someone silently passed on his way home. When I awoke in the night, I felt a faint motion as the houseboat rocked a little and I heard a little gurgle of water, like the ghost of an Eastern music traveling not through space but through time.
“A leisurely tram crowded with passengers passes down the whole length of the street, and the conductor never ceases to blow his horn. Rickshaws go up and down ringing their bells, and motors sounding their claxons. The pavements are crowded and there is a ceaseless clatter of the clogs the people wear. Cloppity-clop they go, and it makes a sound as insistent and monotonous as the sawing of the cicadas in the jungle.”
Along with the romantic view of the East, there’s also the other side of the story offered by writers who left different impressions of how the East and West are separated by cultural attitudes and mores.
Alex Waugh left a depressing portrait of expatriate, turn-of-the-century Siam in Hot Countries,published in 1930. Describing colonial life and the “natives” in Chiang Mai, he reflected the racist attitude and language of British colonial culture. He presumed a Western superiority and his attitudes reflected a personal repression and guilt around sexual mores. He used the expression “gone native” as a rebuke to Westerners who tried to enter into normal Asian life and culture, or who openly took girlfriends or wives and shared their culture. As a journalist who racked up books about exotic countries like they were way stations on a news beat, Waugh left a telling picture of “white life” in old Chiang Mai. It was especially difficult on Western women, he wrote, and he urged them to stay home rather than endure a life of isolation, boredom and disease. He admitted he’d never personally known a case of a white man who had “gone native,” but he’d heard rumors and had constant suspicions.
“In the popular imagination,” he wrote, “the ‘gone native’ myth has become identified with that very different, very real problem of the tropics — the white man and the brown woman.”
He wrote: “In Bangkok, it would be impossible for a white man to have a Siamese girl living in his bungalow, but on the plantation there is fairly often a Malay girl who disappears discretely when visitors arrive. There the relationship has a certain dignity. There is faithfulness on both sides. Custom creates affection. But in neither case is there any approach to the ‘gone native’ picture. In neither case has the white man done anything that involves loss of caste. He observes the customs of the country.”
Waugh goes on: “All the same, I believe it is extremely rare for there to exist a profound relationship between a white man and a brown woman. I have yet to meet the man who will say that he has really loved a coloured woman.”
And, “Love, as we understand it, is foreign to these people.” And, “Between brown and white there can be only a brief and superficial harmony.” And, “Between brown and white there can be no relation interesting in itself.”
To reach Chiang Mai, Waugh took the Bangkok passenger train for a 27-hour journey north. By river, it was five weeks. Chiang Mai was the administration center of two large timber companies, the Borneo Company and Bombay Burma. He thought he was going to the end of the Earth where the “white community” had to unite against a “common foe.”
“There are not, I fancy, more than 30 white people in the station,” he wrote. “There is the bank manager and the English consul; there are the forest manager and an occasional assistant who has come in from the jungle for a rest; there is an American mission, which is responsible for schools and the hospital and a big sanatorium for lepers.”
The social “white life” of Chiang Mai centered around the Gymkhana Club, chartered in 1898, and still in operation today. As I write this, I sit in the shade of a majestic rain tree that is older than the club, its huge limbs extending over the outdoor tables.
Waugh wrote: “It is a large field set a little way out of town which serves as a polo ground, a golf course and a tennis court. By 5 in the evening, most of the white community is there. There are 75 minutes of strenuous exercise, then there’s a gathering around a large table on which have been set drinks, glasses, and a little lamp. There are rarely more or rarely less than a dozen people there … the women have slipped their legs into sarongs, sewn up at one end in the shape of bags. Their life is hard and testing. It has many dangers, many difficulties. It is only by mutual tolerance, by interdependence, by loyalty and friendship that it can be made tolerable.”
The rain tree is a stone’s throw from the northern bank of the Mae Ping River as it winds past the city’s old Chinese night market and the tourist hotels. For decades, the club remained a tranquil oasis of white privilege with cricket and squash courts. But after World War II it fell on hard times.
By the late 1950s, the last of the Western lumber concessions had disappeared, and the club membership dwindled to fewer than 20 people. To avoid bankruptcy, the directors voted to offer 12 Thais full membership. By early 2000, membership had rebounded to around 300 people, and Thais numbered about 60 percent. One Westerner served on the board of directors.
The centerpiece of the club is still the venerable rain tree, its spreading limbs marking the passage of time. Its shade fell across the visiting Waugh, whose cultural blinders prevented him from truly knowing Asians.
To live here one would be charged in the quiet, small currency of the conscience.– Graham Greene, describing Vietnam in Reflections
The generation between Waugh’s Hot Countries and Graham Greene’s novel,The Quiet American,published in 1955, saw sweeping cultural changes. In The Quiet American,the correspondent Thomas Fowler, Greene’s alter ego, admits his desire to marry his enchanting Vietnamese mistress, Phoung. But his cynicism still colors their relationship. At first, it’s as if he’s taking on a beautiful naïf, a woman perfectly designed to be of service to a superior Western man. Later, he understands that the reverse is closer to the truth.
Phuong is the classic Vietnamese mistress, a heroine who deftly controls and dispenses her emotions and affections between Fowler and his nemesis, Alden Pyle, the wide-eyed, naive American who works for the CIA. Phuong is capable of breaking the idealistic Pyle’s heart, but she presents little romantic danger to Fowler, who prides himself on being a dispassionate observer, a stoic who sees emotional attachment to Phoung as sacrifice or vulnerability. Fowler is a post-Colonial man poised at a moment of realistic, romantic growth, but only barely. He starts off with the typical, cultural baggage that many expatriates still carry around today like baggage off a Boeing 787. He thinks: “It is a cliché to call them children — but there’s one thing which is childish. They love you in return for kindness, security, the presents you give them — they hate you for a blow or an injustice. They don’t know what it’s like, just walking into a room and loving a stranger. For an aging man, it’s very secure. She won’t run away from home so long as the home is happy.”
Later, Fowler’s cynicism is shaken and his emotions expand when he realizes Phuong “was as scared as the rest of us — she didn’t have the gift of expression, that was all.” It was something he should have understood long before, but worth understanding at any age. To know the other is as hard as to know one’s self, if not harder.
The old codes and cultural ways erode before our eyes. We have a long way to go to know Asian cultures, but the same can be said for truly knowing our own culture. The work of this century is to bridge the gap between East and West, or else we run the risk of believing we are more unalike than alike. Copyright @ Roy Hamric