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The Gentleman in the Parlour – XXVIII

Non-Fiction > The Gentleman in the Parlour >


A few hours later I was in Bangkok.

It is impossible to consider these populous modern cities of the East without a certain malaise. They are all alike, with their straight streets, their arcades, their tramways, their dust, their blinding sun, their teeming Chinese, their dense traffic, their ceaseless din. They have no history and no traditions. Painters have not painted them. No poets, transfiguring dead bricks and mortar with their divine nostalgia, have given them a tremulous melancholy not their own. They live their own lives, without associations, like a man without imagination. They are hard and glittering and as unreal as a backcloth in a musical comedy. They give you nothing. But when you leave them it is with a feeling that you have missed something and you cannot help thinking that they have some secret that they have kept from you. And though you have been a trifle bored you look back upon them wistfully; you are certain that they have after all something to give you which, had you stayed longer or under other conditions, you would have been capable or receiving. For it is useless to offer a gift to him who cannot stretch out a hand to take it. But if you go back the secret still evades you and you ask yourself whether after all their only secret is not that the glamour of the East enwraps them. Because they are called Rangoon, Bangkok or Saigon, because they are situated on the Irrawaddy, the Menam or the Mehkong, those great turbid rivers, they are invested with the magic spell that the ancient and storied East has cast upon the imaginative West. A hundred travellers may seek in them the answer to a question they cannot put and that yet torments them, only to be disappointed, a hundred travellers more will continue to press. And who can so describe a city as to give a significant picture of it? It is a different place to everyone who lives in it. No one can tell what it really is. Nor does it matter. The only thing of importance–to me–is what it means to me; and when the money-lender said, you can 'ave Rome, he said all there was to be said, by him, about the Eternal City. Bangkok. I put my impressions on the table, as a gardener puts the varied flowers he has cut in a great heap, leaving them for you to arrange, and I ask myself what sort of pattern I can make out of them. For my impressions are like a long freize, a vague tapestry, and my business is to find in it an elegant and at the same time moving decoration. But the materials that are given me are dust and heat and noise and whiteness and more dust. The New Road is the main artery of the city, five miles long, and it is lined with houses, low and sordid, and shops, and the goods they sell, European and Japanese for the most part, look shop-soiled and dingy. A leisurely tram crowded with passengers passes down the whole length of the street, and the conductor never ceases to blow his horn. Gharries and 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. Clopperty-clop they go and it makes a sound as insistent and monotonous as the sawing of the cicadas in the jungle. There are Siamese. The Siamese, with short bristly hair, wearing the panaung, a wide piece of stuff which they tuck in to make baggy and comfortable breeches, are not a comely race, but old age gives them distinction; they grow thin, emaciated even, rather than fat, and grey rather than bald, and then their dark eyes peer brightly out of a ravaged, yellow, and wrinkled face; they walk well and uprightly, not from the knees as do most Europeans, but from the hips. There are Chinese, in trousers white, blue or black, that come to just above the ankle and they are innumerable. There are Arabs, tall and heavily bearded, with white hats and a hawklike look; they walk with assurance, leisurely, and in their bold eyes you discern contempt for the race they exploit and pride in their own astuteness. There are turbaned natives of India with dark skins and the clean, sensitive features of their Aryan blood; as in all the East outside India they seem deliberately alien and thread their way through the host as though they walked a lonely jungle path; their faces are the most inscrutable of all those inscrutable faces. The sun beats down and the road is white and the houses are white and the sky is white, there is no colour but the colour of dust and heat.

But if you turn out of the main road you will find yourself in a network of small streets, dark, shaded and squalid, and tortuous alleys paved with cobble stones. In numberless shops, open to the street, with their gay signs, the industrious Chinese ply the various crafts of an Oriental city. Here are druggists and coffin shops, money-changers and tea-houses. Along the streets, uttering the raucous cry of China, coolies lollop swiftly bearing loads and the peddling cook carries his little kitchen to sell you the hot dinner you are too busy to eat at home. You might be in Canton. Here the Chinese live their lives apart and indifferent to the Western capital that the rulers of Siam have sought to make our of this strange, flat, confused city. What they have aimed at you see in the broad avenues, straight dusty roads, sometimes running by the side of a canal, with which they have surrounded this conglomeration of sordid streets. They are handsome, spacious and stately, shaded by trees, the deliberate adornment of a great city devised by a king ambitious to have an imposing seat; but they have no reality. There is something stagy about them, so that you feel they are more apt for court pageants than for the use of every day. No one walks in them. They seem to await ceremonies and processions. They are like the deserted avenues in the park of a fallen monarch.

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