FROM BALI TO THAILAND
(Strangers Came Along)
I remember one night I was in the Safari Club on Patpong in Bangkok’s notorious street of sins when Shrimp leaped up on the stage and did a Charlie Chaplin gig. When he finished, and to everyone’s applause, he did a leap from the stage on to the dance floor. It brought more whoops and howls from everyone but what no one had realized was that Shrimp had broken both his legs in his finale. An ambulance came and took him off.
Shrimp’s forte, however, was not acting a Charlie Chaplin role but it was photography and, to be exact, it was photographing nude women. He was truly a master at nudes; his calendars were his proof I believe he did more to dramatize Thai women than did any other photographer.
Shrimp was Theo’s good friend and whenever he was around, whether it be at Theo’s house or at a bar in town, you could be certain there would be lots of laughs. Shrimp was a natural comedian.
“To liven up his parties,” Shrimp recalled, “Theo would dig out a couple boxes filled with musty old Balinese dance costumes he brought from Bali. He and Prince Sandith would dress up and do some hilarious skits in imitation of the dancers of Bali. They would even paint their faces and put on wigs. Of course, I joined them. Everyone laughed until their sides hurt; they would actually roll on the floor. It was always crazy fun at Theo’s house.”
- Photo caption on page 231 of the book: Theo relaxing at his home in Chiang Mai
Shrimp recalled that Theo was very protective of his “girls.” For a party at his house he would bring in several dancers from town to perform, girls fourteen and fifteen. When the party was over Theo drove them back into town himself. “This one night I had started out by foot to the main road to where I could get a baht bus into town,” Shrimp continued. “Theo drove up with his girls in his Jeep. I asked if he could give me a lift. There was room for me, but he refused. I guess he didn’t trust me in the same vehicle. “You are young enough so walk into town,” he said and drove off. A minute later Prince Sandith drove up and gave me a lift so that was okay.”
Anyone who visited Theo in Chiang Mai was certain to see a house filled with young Thai girls, many who were not yet in their teens. Theo and Yattlie “recruited” the girls mostly from the hill tribes. Theo admitted he paid money to their families, and in this sense he bought them, but he disliked using the term “bought.” He gave them, he said, an opportunity they would not have had otherwise. Once they were members of Theo’s household, their lives greatly changed. Theo and Yattlie educated them, taught them good manners, how to play musical instruments and groomed them for later employment in the business world. Of course, the young girls also provided Theo with a steady market of models for his painting.
Sometime later when I was at the Singapore Yacht Club talking to members at the bar, I mentioned seeing all the delightful young maidens at Theo’s house in Chiang Mai. The next morning an Australian chap came out to my schooner and asked if he could come board. I had no idea what he could possibly want.
“Perhaps you can help me,” he said as he climbed aboard. He was straight to the point. “I am looking for an Asian wife.”
I had heard this over and over from many farangs, foreign men, asking the same question. But in this case it was a bit different. His name was Jake and at the time I met him I didn’t give him much thought. He was just one of the many passing faces that came and went. Perhaps the fact that there was nothing really distinctive about him was why I didn’t give him second thoughts. If you saw him on the street you probably wouldn’t look twice at him. Everything about him was average. He was average height with hair between brown and blond. He kept it medium length. His sideburns were average. He was always dean-shaven. His clothes were what most people wore in Singapore, slacks and sports shirts.
But what did prove interesting was when he told me why he wanted an Asia wife. He was from a cattle station in the Australian Outback and he found life there boring without a woman. So that was it: he wanted to take back to Australia an Asian wife. He explained that “Aussie Sheila’s” no longer want such a life and he heard about Asian women making good wives. He said, “You don’t know what it is like to be lonely on the Outback, do you?” No, I didn’t know. He explained that he thought he could find what he wanted in Singapore, but that was a mistake. “They’re all glitter here, just like Sydney Sheilas.” He then went to the Philippines and consulted a marriage agent. That didn’t work. Not one of the Philippine ladies turned him down. “They said from the very start that they loved me and wanted to get hitched, right away,” he said, “Never could tell if they were sincere enough.”
Perhaps, he thought, a Japanese woman might be good, but then he reasoned that the climate would be tough on them. He liked Japanese women, the way they took care of their men, but the heat most likely would do them in. He considered a Malaysian wife but to marry a Malay girl he would have to become Muslim. He’d have to say prayers five times a day. Go to Mecca. No eating pork. Same for Indonesia. “They too are Muslims,” he said.
Maybe Bali, he thought, but he didn’t want his woman carrying water around in jugs on her head. Then he thought about Thailand. Thai women, he heard, are adaptable and fun loving. “They make good wives, they say. But not a city girl from Bangkok. No, she has to be an up-country girl. A farm girl like you see working in the fields.”
Poor Jake. He was tied to an image that he himself created. He knew that love was not enough, that there had to be a higher devotion, but his mistake was that he didn’t know what that devotion was.
I simply dismissed Jake’s request and to pacify him I said I’d see what I could do. About a week or two later I was sitting with Theo and Yattlie and in a casual conversation I mentioned Jake, about his looking for a Thai wife. Theo laughed but not Yattlie. No sooner had the words come out than she tore into me like one of those temple dogs tear at farangs.
“You white men, you all same same,” she screamed. “You come Thailand, and tink you can buy woman. What do you rink! You crazy or somep’n?”
“Yattlie,” I said, and threw up my hands in surrender, “no offense. I am sorry. I just know this guy who lives in Singapore and he wants a Thai wife to take back home to Australia. That’s all.”
“Him no good,” she continued. “What him tink!”
“Yattlie, look, I’m sorry. He’s a nice guy, and he’s quite serious.”
I then remembered something that Jake had said to me that night, about his willingness to pay a dowry. I mentioned this to Yattlie.
“How much he pay?” she asked.
“He said that he had five thousand dollars,” I replied. “Five thousand dollah?” she questioned.
“Yes, he’s got plenty of money; he’s not a poor man. In fact, I understand he is quite well off. The money is for the wife’s family. It’s a custom in the West.”
She thought about this for a long time. “Well,” she finally said, “if he want give money pay mama and papa, that okay, maybe.” The subject changed to other topics.
I thought it was over, forgotten, but the next morning, when Yattlie was pouring tea at breakfast, she started talking about a Shan hill tribe girl who would make a good wife. Then, forgetting the anger she displayed the night before, she now began telling me she could arrange such a marriage. She said things like “a good hill tribe girl” and that her family is poor and “needs money.”
When I got back to Singapore, I phoned Jake.
I never did meet the girl, but Yattlie did show me her photograph when she disembarked from the train in Bangkok after arriving from Chiang Mai. Jake was there too. He had come up by train from Singapore and planned to return with Yattlie to Chiang Mai that same evening. Naturally he was anxious to meet his bride-to-be and didn’t want to linger around Bangkok. I spent part of the day with them, and all Yattlie could do was expound on the charms of the hill tribe girl that Jake was about to take for his wife. Yattlie had made the arrangements. I have to admit, judging by the photograph, the girl was quite a beauty, although a trifle young looking. But Jake seemed very pleased and that evening he and Yattlie boarded the night train to Chiang Mai. I was there to see them off. Yattlie was pleased and I had never seen her so happy. She took over Jake like a mother hen does with her chicks, constantly asking him if he was comfortable. She wanted to know was he thirsty, or hungry, and was his passport and his money safe in his money belt. She asked him to check to make sure. A bit annoyed, he zipped open the belt to show her that the money was still there.
I bid them farewell as the train pulled out of Hualampong Station; that was the last time I saw Jake.
Several months had passed before I got back to Chiang Mai and, as always, I was very excited about seeing Theo and Yattlie. But it did not go as well as I expected. Theo was alone in the house when I arrived, working on a new canvas in his studio. He lost no time to tell me that Yattlie wasn’t too happy with my friend Jake.
“My friend, I hardly know him,” I said.
“Doesn’t matter,” he replied. “Yattlie will get over it. It will take time. “
He then explained what had gone wrong. Jake became obstinate for some reason and refused to let Yattlie help with the matchmaking, and he even insisted that he travel to the girl’s village alone. He also refused to repay Yattlie for the money that she spent helping him. “You know how that sets with Thai women,” Theo said. “Don’t ever try to cheat a Thai woman. You know what they can do!”
I know what Thai women can do, especially when you get caught cheating on them. But I didn’t want to get into that so I quickly asked, “What happened to Jake then?”
Theo didn’t know, which came as a shock. Jake didn’t stop to visit them on his return to Singapore. “He completely avoided us,” Theo said. “He just vanished, without a word.”
I left the house before Yattlie returned, pleased to avoid any argument that was sure to happen. I was terribly disappointed with Jake. It wasn’t very honorable of him to act the way he did. Yattlie had spent time and money helping him but I wondered if he might have felt that she was taking advantage of him. Maybe Yattlie wanted a big cut, a healthy commission and Jake didn’t think it was right. He didn’t understand the Thai mind. I decided I would pay Jake a visit when I returned to Singapore, that is, if he was still there and had not returned with his bride to Australia. When I arrived a couple of weeks later, I took a taxi to Sophia Road. I knocked at the door of his apartment, not knowing who might answer. A new tenant, an Englishman, opened the door. He knew nothing about anybody named Jake. I wasn’t much help when he asked what Jake’s last name was. You know, I never did know Jake’s last name. I don’t think anybody knew his last name. The man suggested I talk to the landlady.
Madam Chew was a nasty Chinese landlady who had no love for foreigners. Like most Singapore Chinese, she called them “foreign devils.” She was as irate as Yattlie had been in Chiang Mai, ranting at the top of her voice, flashing a mouth of gold-filled teeth in anger. What could Jake have done to deserve such wrath? She was not the easiest person to understand, as her English was a mixture with Cantonese. She didn’t speak Mandarin. Eventually, after much effort, I was able to gather what she said.
It seems Jake hadn’t paid his rent for several months and so Madam Chew had sold all his belongings, which she was reluctant to admit.
“You mean he went home, back to Australia, without paying his rent?” I asked.
“No, it wasn’t that,” she explained. “He never returned from northern Thailand.”
Jake never left the hill tribe village. Did the hill tribe people do him in for his money? I did mention it to Theo, but he said it was best to forget it. What had been done had been done.