Tuesday, June 2, 2009

“Transactions in Thai”: The Story Behind the Story of Lovers and Strangers Revisited

For about ten years, starting in 1985 I had to leave Malaysia every three months, so I would alternate between Singapore and Thailand. Long before I had ever been to Thailand, I had heard the stories about the prostitutes, about how travelers would fall in love with them and even marry them. How visitors would extend their visits from one or two weeks to several years, and this went all the way back to the Vietnam War. They say, jokingly, there are no real Missing in Action from the Vietnam War; they’re still living in Thailand! That's pretty close to the truth.

In 1992, during one of my trips to Had Yai in southern Thailand, while staying at the King’s Hotel, I was having breakfast and catching up in my journal, when I observed these two Western men in their forties being befriended by the Thai manager. I knew what was going on, since the manager had approached me on numerous occasions, and I thought there’s a story here. Since I didn’t have any spare paper with me, I turned to the back of the journal and started writing the story out. It was one of the fastest stories I had ever written. Maybe because I was so familiar with not only the setup, but also the background knowledge of the working girls in Thailand, the expats and Malaysians coming up to Had Yai, and had even seen, at the behest of one of van drivers that plied the Penang/Had Yai route, a Tiger or Thai Girl show and the startling feats that the Thai women performed with their vagina.

So when I began to write the story it came easily. For one, I was in the actual setting of the story and from my table I could casually observe and describe first hand the characters, the Thai manager, the two men, and then the arrival of the two girls. I could observe the waitress who served them beer since she was the same woman who served me breakfast, and from my table I had an excellent view of the elevator, of the girls leaving with their dainty overnight bags. It was all there, and all I had to do was to piece the story together and imagine what they were saying. If I could only hear their actual words, it would’ve made my job even easier, but they were sitting at a different section from mine. But I had enough to go on to write out the story, at least the first rough draft while eating breakfast. Not a bad way to start the day!

“Transactions in Thai”, as all stories do, did require a lot of revising before it finally fell into place. I even managed to work in my presence into the story. An issue I did wrestle with was dialogue, should I make it direct or keep it indirect as it appeared in EM (Malaysia) in 1996. Later, while rewriting it, I added in some direct dialogue, though most of it remained indirect, which I thought better suited the mood of the story.

Long before I submitted it for the Silverfish New Writing 7 (2008), I realized I only had half the story told. I stopped way too soon, after the two men had bought the bus tickets. To make the story more effective, I needed to have the men think about this transaction they just made in terms of their marriages, in terms if their children, in terms of the other Thai women, as if wondering they could have made a better deal. I also needed to bring the girls back to the hotel, and even raise the doubt if they were coming back, as if the men had been conned.

I decided the end the story on the bus, because after that it would all be a little too predictable. Later, I plan to explore what all does happen to the typical Westerner, who for the first time, feels what it’s like walking into a bar and how all the girls turn to look at you and hope you’ll choose them. Plus the obvious downsides, from health risks, sexual exploitation, and the stupid decisions some people make, even killing themselves, when it all goes wrong! But for now, for this story, I wanted to capture merely the financial (and mental) transactions being made by these two men in Thailand.

For the MPH Lovers and Strangers Revisited, I made mostly minor changes, though I did delete the final line of the story since I thought it was clearly implied: “For now, that was all they wanted.” So now the story (as does the collection) ends:

The bus jerked as it pulled away, taking the two men and their companions on their journey. In no time, Noi and Mi Lai got the two men giggling as if they were back in high school with their whole lives ahead of them.

"Transactions in Thai" has now been translated into French as "Escapade en Thaïlande". Here's a link to the first translated page (and a contact for the rest of the story in French, which is free) In fact Lovers and Strangers Revisited is now getting translated into French as Trois autres Malaisie. Here's a link to the French blog set up by the publisher Éditions GOPE.

Here are three reviews of Lovers and Strangers Revisited: The Star (MPH), The Expat (Silverfish), and NST (Silverfish) and a link to the other story behind the stories for Lovers and Strangers Revisited.

*Update, the 20th anniversary of Lovers and Strangers Revisited

** Here's the link to my website, to MPH online for orders for all three of my books, including my latest, Spirit of Malaysia and Trois autres Malaisie.

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