December 24-27, 2001
As Alf mentioned previously today, Santa Claus is a popular figure even in places where 'the other fellow' associated with Christmas is not. Today's Bangkok Post brings us a photo from China:
"A Chinese couple stroll past a big model of Santa Claus outside a shopping mall in Shanghai yesterday. There might be no tradition of celebrating Christmas in China, not to mention a historically hostile attitude to religion within the nation, but that doesn't stop Shanghai's retailers from hoping the festive season will set cash tills ringing like sleigh bells." -AFP
Meanwhile, in the south of England, a well-known Christmas song is not being sung this year:
"A British priest has banned the Christmas Carol Oh Little Town of Bethlehem in protest at fighting in the Middle which has turned Christ's birthplace into a no-go zone, the Sunday Express said. Canon Jim Pannet, who is a priest in Purley, south of London, thinks the carol's second line 'How still we see thee lie' is inappropriate while the fear of snipers leaves people too afraid to venture into Bethlehem's Manger Square. 'I feel strongly that we have to do something for the Christians in the Holy Land and have to make a public declaration,' Canon Pannet said." -Reuters
Tonight, the Oriental Hotel is presenting its annual Christmas Eve Gala Buffet Dinner at the Riverside Terrace restaurant. Large numbers of staff have been working all day on the setup, preparing tables, polishing glasses and utensils, and assembling the dance floor. I'm going downstairs to join Alf, Watcharee, David, and Adriana ... well, right now!
From the 'Summary of the News' section of this morning's Bangkok Post:
Bethlehem - The Mideast conflict which causes world disruption and violence has come to this: the Jewish leaders of Israel have banned the Muslim head of the Palestinians - Yasser Arafat - from attending the sacred Christian service on Christmas Eve in Bethlehem to mark the birth of Jesus Christ. Mr Arafat says he will go this morning, Thailand time - even if he has to walk.
And, as Santas swarm1 on the European Continent, England offers its own version of Christmas festivities:2
London - A woman shopping for Christmas was clubbed over the head with the supermarket's last frozen turkey as Britain's festive season built to a climax, newspapers reported yesterday.
And, in another case of what the media is dubbing "Christmas rage," after road and air rage, a mother exasperated at her family's Yuletide laziness hurled their television set out of the door.
The turkey, the traditional centrepoint of a British Christmas Day meal, was the last one available at the store in Barry, south Wales. Unfortunately, two women both had their eye on the bird. They scuffled for possession in the aisle before the older of the two, aged in her 40s, made off with it.
But there was another confrontation in the car park when the younger woman, aged 33, shouted: "I hope you burn it." Furiously, her rival "stormed over with the turkey and clobbered the other woman with it," store security officer Jeff Evans said.
"The customer came back into the shop in tears with clumps of her hair pulled out. She was shocked and very upset." Her assailant drove off.
Meanwhile, Liz Mace's family is facing a TV-less Christmas. As her husband and five children slumped in front of the television rather than helping decorate the house and tree, Mace, 40, took action. She picked up the offending set and tossed it down the front steps of their Southampton house. "After a shocked silence they did get up, dress the tree and help decorate the house," she said. - AFP
Last night's Christmas Eve festivities at The Oriental's Riverside Terrace were substantially more pleasant. The buffet dinner was spectacular, and the band was fun. Over the course of the evening, the musical selections moved through traditional Christmas songs, and then on to such non-roasting chestnuts as Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, The Hokey Pokey, and Don't Rock the Boat. The marvelous evening culminated with a grand fireworks display, staged from a barge in the Chao Phraya River.
Well, that was the culmination for me, anyway. Having arrived at The Oriental at 3:00 am yesterday morning, by midnight I was ready for bed. David and Adriana, who arrived a day earlier,3 had sufficient energy to head down to Patpong Road II for a continuation of the festivities. Despite their repeated invitations to accompany them, I was adamant in my lameness. Back in my room, I fell asleep instantly ... although I did wake up a few hours later ... and then a few hours later again.
Today, Alf, David, and I are planning to go to our 'heaven on earth': Pantip Plaza!
Hey, when did this appear? It must have been placed on my desk last night, while we were at dinner, and I didn't even notice it until late this morning. It's a nice little box of chocolates, a gift from The Oriental.
1 The Post and The Nation report on separate Santa events that took place on Sunday in, respectively, Grätchen, Switzerland and Oporto, Portugal.
2 In a story from back home in the United States, the Post reports on a Reno reporter's attempts to get rid of a holiday fruitcake. Rather than just providing the Post's pickup of the wire story, however, we here at corkscrew-balloon have gone directly to the original source: The Reno Gazette-Journal. (This report reminds us of the well-known TWINKIES research conducted at Rice University several years ago.)
3 Oh all right, they're younger and generally more energetic, too.
Today we have still more Christmas stories from the British Isles. First up:
London - A British man who went underground behind blast-proof doors and thick concrete to avoid a family Christmas has emerged early because he was "dying for a pint" of beer. Colin Wood, a 30-year-old financial services worker, entered the bunker in Essex, west of London, on Thursday and planned to stay for another week. "It was great but I was dying for a pint and the idea of spending another week was too much," he said yesterday. Mr Wood paid £300 (19,000 baht) at an Internet auction for a two-week stay in the bunker. He said he took such extreme action because he abhorred Christmas and all its trimmings. - AP
Meanwhile, across St George's Channel:
Dublin - An Irish Protestant minister who does not believe in Christmas or that Jesus was the Son of God has been suspended from his post for three months to "reflect on his statements." Andrew Furlong, Dean of Clonmacnoise and Rector of Trim in County Meath, startled worshippers in his quiet Irish midlands parish when his unconventional views on traditional Christian teachings were aired in articles published on his website. The minister said he had held his unorthodox views for more than 30 years. - AP
A non-holiday story comes from a more distant part of the empire.
Row After Dying Boy Visits Brothel
Australians were split yesterday over whether it was right to allow a terminally ill 15-year-old to have sex with a prostitute before he died. The debate was ignited after a Sydney psychologist revealed the boy's dearest wish was to have sex with a woman before he died of cancer. Friends were allowed to escort him to a brothel for a session with a prostitute. "He was very, very happy, and only disappointed that it was over so quickly," the psychologist said. - DPA
With a copy of The Nation1 in hand, I went downstairs to the Riverside Terrace for the breakfast buffet. It's a beautiful morning in Bangkok! While Bangkokians consider this weather, with morning temperatures in the low 70s, to be almost frigid, I find it to be absolutely perfect. I lingered over my morning coffee and watched the river traffic.
Just downriver from my breakfast table is an area on the grounds of the Oriental where I sat and read the Nation yesterday morning. Filled with small tables and white chairs, this was a section that seemed different from what I remembered during my prior visit to Bangkok, back in August. The solution to this minor mystery appeared for me in a full-page Bangkok Post story this morning. Apparently, this space is the site of yet another exceptional Oriental Hotel restaurant, one that only exists during the dry season. It is called Ciao. I'll have to ask Alf about this later.
Speaking of dining, last night we walked to a restaurant I had not previously visited, in a largely residential area several blocks from The Oriental. Completely undiscovered by farangs (except those, like us, who have a knowing local friend like Watcharee), this outdoor facility provided us with a wide array of Thai dishes. Highlights included a mixed seafood dish that was wildly spicy and quite delicious, along with a palm drink that was very sweet and unusual.
Working farther back in time, Alf, David and I did indeed visit Pantip Plaza yesterday afternoon. Pantip is, of course, Bangkok's computer and technology Mecca.2 We each picked up a few bargains. Along with general merchandise, the center offers up a wide array of bootleg software. Selling this is illegal in Thailand, but there is nothing clandestine about how the vendors in Pantip operate. This morning, both the Post and the Nation report on recent confiscatory raids and the subsequent destruction of Bt99,000,000 worth of contraband ... but Pantip seems exempt from the annoyances of any regulatory enforcement.
This morning David and Adriana left to spend a few days on the beaches of Phuket, a short flight to the south of here. They will be back in time for the New Year. This afternoon, Alf, Watcharee, and I are considering a boat ride up to Wat Arun, a temple complex that I did not visit during the summer (although I did pass it on the river several times). After that ... who knows?
A century ago, long before email and the threat of anthrax-harboring envelopes, the death knell of the Christmas card was rung a bit prematurely:
LONDON – [An Editorial in the 'Daily Mail' says:] It is increasingly clear this year that one of the Christmas survivals of the last century, the old-fashioned card of greeting, is likely to enjoy but a very limited further lease of life. Photography, improved typography, general dilletantism in a multitude of artistic pursuits, and particularly laziness, have their hand in this affair. After all, there is little to regret. The new order of things is far better.
Doesn't this lead from an International Herald Tribune story sound like it should begin a novel?
With a resounding thwack, Josef Vondracek brought his wooden mallet down on the flapping carp. The fish opened its mouth in a last stunned spasm of life, and Mr Vondracek plunged a sharp knife into its head. Blood spread on the battered wooden table crusted with ice and fish scales.
At my local paper back home, they wouldn't even be able to spell all those words, let alone string them together so beautifully.3
1 While the Bangkok Post buried the 'Dying Boy Gets Last Wish' story on page 6, the Nation put it right on the front page.
Meanwhile, inside the Nation is the story of a Malaysian named Mahaletchuman, a man whose dream came true yesterday. When he was born 32 years ago, a hospital clerk mistakenly checked a box on his birth certificate indicating that he was a female. As a result, he has had constant difficulties all his life: He was enrolled in an all girls' school, even his friends and relatives mocked him, and he has been denied several jobs. Now, he has finally obtained a revised identity card, and everything's coming up roses: With his gender ambiguity gone, he has landed a job in Singapore paying three times what he now makes, and wedding bells are going to ring next June.
2 No offense intended to the Muslims who are reading this!
3 In truth, life is not so bleak: A bit over a year ago, the New York Times finally began home delivery in my little backwater ... and that paper is where this story (like many in the IHT) originated. By the way, apparently carp is a favorite Christmas dinner in Prague; I wonder if late shoppers beat one another over the head with fish there, as they do with turkeys in England?
The Christmas stories have apparently run their course, and the world is settling down briefly before the New Year festivities begin. In Britain, Boxing Day offered a transition out of the stresses of Christmas.1 Meanwhile, in Bangladesh, desire is the mother of creativity.
Naked Bandits Make Off with Family Jewels
Dhaka - A group of naked armed robbers plundered homes and businesses abandoned by shy villagers in southern Bangladesh, press reports said yesterday. The English-language daily Bangladesh Observer said the nude men with guns slung over their bare shoulders shocked residents into fleeing.
"The womenfolk were so embarrassed by the nudity of the well-built men that they ran away from their homes giving a free hand to the robbers to decamp with their valuables," said witness Ashik Sowdagar in the village of Islampur, 340km south of the capital Dhaka.
The dozen bandits in the buff broke into shops and looted property at a neighbourhood market on Tuesday without having to fire a shot. They left the village and disappeared into a forest before police could reach the area. - dpa
With Christmas behind us, it is perhaps a good time to remind ourselves that the West does not have a monopoly on myths and superstitions. We are all familiar with the fear of the number "thirteen,"2 but did you know many Asians fear the number "four"? I didn't! The potent effect of this fear has now been scientifically documented by a researcher at the University of California at San Diego, who has published his findings in the British Medical Journal. In what is called "The Baskerville Effect" (in homage to Sir Charles Baskerville, who was frightened to death by the appearance of a hound in a famous Sherlock Holmes story), the number "four" is alleged to be one of The Grim Reaper's more able assistants.
The primary finding of this study is that fatal heart attacks among Japanese- and Chinese-Americans are especially high on the fourth day of each month. These cardiac lock-ups are then attributed to a supposed fear of the number itself. Of course, this sounds pretty silly. Why not look for a more sensible explanation? Here's my guess: As you know, all Social Security checks arrive on the third day of the month. Rather than straining to connect these 'stress on the ticker' deaths to some far-fetched numerological mumbo-jumbo, why not take a look at the large numbers of seniors who go out and blow their fresh windfall on one too many lap dances at the local club on the night (and into the early morning hours) after their monthly allowance arrives in the mail. That, rather than some weird, vague 'fright death,' is most likely the cause of the morgues' heavy business in heart failures when they open for business on the fourth day of each month. Perhaps a study into this hypothesis can receive some funding, as I think it offers a much more likely explanation. Remember, you read it here first.
Last night, I mentioned to Alf that we hadn't seen many photos from the Bangkok Daily News lately, and so this morning he provided me with a couple batches. These photos always show up when Watcharee is unavailable,3 and because the Daily News is a Thai language newspaper, we are left to guess what happened to cause the scenes we see in the paper's photos.4
The first scene is pretty clear. An extra cranial orifice has been created by means of a firearm, either through the subject's own hand (with the pistol lying by his side) or as the result of a shootout he lost.5
The second scene is a bit more of a mystery. The weather has been quite a bit colder than normal in Thailand lately, however. I think these photos illustrate a new service now being performed by the Thai police: they travel around the country replacing sheets and blankets on Thais who have inadvertently tossed them off in their sleep. This special service thus prevents the citizenry from catching a possibly health-threatening chill.
Last night I went with Alf and Watcharee on a dinner cruise offered by The Oriental. It was wonderful! The night air was almost cool, and the river traffic is always interesting. We headed upstream and enjoyed a typically excellent Oriental Hotel Buffet, then we turned around and sailed back. All along the way, we were accompanied by lovely traditional music. In all, the trip took about two and a half hours.
When we got back to the Oriental, it was straight to bed for me. I slept really well, although I had a somewhat annoying dream. In fact, it was sufficiently disquieting that I remember thinking, during the dream, "I really wish this was a dream, so I could just wake up and I wouldn't have to keep living in this existence, with the changes that have been taking place during this current episode." But I didn't wake up, and so I figured that it wasn't a dream at all but a crummy new reality in which I would dwell forever. It was really nice, several hours later, when I did wake up ... although I'm a bit disappointed at my inability to will myself out of that other world when I wanted to do so.
1 See stories out of the United Kingdom from the past few days of this journal.
2 Although Alf, Watcharee and I are all on the "fourteenth" floor of The Oriental Hotel, the floor directly underneath us is ... the twelfth.
3 Alf generally gets up in the morning earlier than she does, and so no translation is available until she awakens. This morning, however, Watcharee had early morning errands, and she is not yet back to translate.
4 Many Daily News photos, especially the ones that are most bloody or most revealing of private parts, are normally somewhat "sanitized" through the superimposition of semi-transparent "dots", courtesy of Morton, the Daily News's photo editor. In noting the dearth of crime scene photos in recent issues of the News last night, Alf speculated that Morton might have retired, thus leaving the paper in the lurch. Today, it appears that the decision has been made simply to print the photos sans dots: The first set of bloody images would ordinarily have some dotting about the face; the second set arguably calls for a few dots, or perhaps a touch of cross-hatching, in the inter-cheek region of the sleeper.
5 The lifeless man appears to be wearing a "Rage Against the Machine" t-shirt; perhaps the Machine was a more formidable force than he realized, and he would have been better advised simply to "Reconcile With the Machine."