Sunday, 29 September 2013

Prophet and loss: In the hall of the White Dragon King


It's amazing what a bit of self-belief and snappy patter can do for your prospects. Chau Yum-nam started out as a jobbing electrician in Pattaya before plugging in to a different power source which would see him become the unofficial prophet of Cantopop and the high priest of Hong Kong show business as the self-styled White Dragon King.

When Chau popped his white dragon clogs earlier this month, more than 5,000 fans and disciples gathered for the funeral. This who's who of Hong Kong showbiz royalty included businessman Albert Yeung, movie director Meng Yao, Cantopop king Andy Lau, movie stars  Shu Qi and Tony Leung Chiu Wai. Thailand's King Bhumibol even sent some 'holy mud' for the burial. 

The White Dragon King was still at the height of his powers when I visited his lair  seven years ago for a brief and deeply weird audience. 

Hours before dawn they begin to assemble. Buses and cars form an orderly queue, disgorging white-clad figures who drift about like ghosts in the gloom. As dawn's fingers clutch at the bruised sky, a spark of excitement jumps from vehicle to vehicle. A small, bent figure has emerged from behind the spike-topped red gates and silently passes from group to group, handing out numbers.

At exactly 6am, the gates will be thrown open and this pale cavalcade will proceed along a winding driveway, stopping in the shadows of an impressive Chinese temple topped by two huge, bejewelled dragons rampant. The true believers will be ushered into an anteroom, where they will trade the number assigned their vehicle for individual numbers for each of their group. They will shake incense sticks at grotesquely rendered deities and purchase amulets and charms. They will quaff coffee and greasy, fried cakes. Then they will sit patiently and wait for their allotted minute or two with Thailand's most eccentric sage, an illiterate former electrician who has a growing portion of Hong Kong in his thrall, including Cantonese pop and movie royalty. Enter, if you will, the lair of the White Dragon King.

I had stood before the same red gates two days earlier, oozing sweat under a violent Pattaya sun. 'I'm sorry,' said the voice that answered a telephone number emblazoned on a sign by the fence. 'The master doesn't give interviews.'

I pleaded, stammered and grovelled, explaining I'd driven all the way from Bangkok and my editor wouldn't take no for an answer. 'I'm sorry,' said the voice again. 'No interviews. Ever. But you can come back on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday and wait in line with everybody else. The master might decide to speak with you.' And you would be? 'I,' said the voice, 'am Mr Lo.'

And so it is that at 4.30am one Friday I find myself waiting with the rest of the devout in the White Dragon King's driveway, dressed in my least-stained white T-shirt, whey-faced from lack of sleep. The mysterious Mr Lo, I had learned, is no faceless lackey: he is the master's right-hand man and translator, the chap who decodes the Dragon King's pronouncements for his Cantonese, Putonghua and English-speaking supplicants.

Indeed, it was Lo whom the Dragon King sent to the fatal shores of Hong Kong during the height of the Sars scare to bestow a blessing on the 'camera-cranking ceremony' to mark the commencement of filming Infernal Affairs 2, the $40 million prequel to the smash hit starring Andy Lau Tak-wah and Tony Leung Chiu-wai. 'The master wanted to come, but he was worried about catching Sars,' revealed a spokesman from production company Media Asia at the time.

The White Dragon King had blessed the first instalment of the planned trilogy, and it went on to become the year's top-grosser, collected countless awards and is soon to be remade by Hollywood hunk Brad Pitt.

Flash and blood: the unbearable lightness of being tattooed

This piece first appeared in the South China Morning Post's Sunday 'Review', when in fact it is a preview of the 1st Hong Kong China International Tattoo Convention, which roars, dragon-like, into life this Friday, October 4.  

I got my first tattoo in Hong Kong at Ricky and Pinky's in 1994. In the heady pre-handover years, it was a rite of passage, as tattoos often are. That hidden dragon or crouching tiger carved into flesh in the dark heart of Wan Chai was a note to your future self, a permanent reminder that all the craziness did happen.

The parlour lurked in Lockhart Road, an anonymous door in a blinking forest of neon. I turned up there one morning around 3am with two sozzled fellow reporters. We had made the fateful decision an hour before in a pub. There was no turning back.

We rang the bell until a frowning Chinese fellow appeared and we followed him into a lift that creaked and moaned like some superannuated Suzie Wong. Eventually it rattled us up to the parlour, which was a room lined with mirrors, cheap furniture

and rusted steel flooring glazed with tiny ink spatters. Shades of Blade Runner. The walls were festooned with the dragon scales of yellowing tattoo flash and glistening snapshots of the freshly inked.

The implicit reminder: tattoos hurt. There will be blood.

It did hurt. There was blood. And my tattoo, a tiger, wasn't quite right. It looked like … a lizard. A soft reptilian thing slouching up my left shoulder, shorn of any hint of sex or menace, meaningless, absurd.

Jay FC, co-organiser of the 1st International Hong Kong China Tattoo Convention 2013 taking place over the coming weekend, also got his first tattoo at Ricky and Pinky's in 1994. The founder and creative director of ChinaStylus creative studio, pioneer of 2008 Hong Kong tattoo event SKIN:INKS and the ST/ART street art collective, and a member of the Clockenflap festival organising team, arrived better prepared than my posse.

Jay FC says he had his first tattoo all figured out. "It was a Maori hei matau, which had personal significance for me." The fishhook-shaped hei matau is usually worn as an amulet to denote power and authority, conferring protection on those travelling over water. "My friends all thought it was the Ocean Park logo."

It took Jay FC almost a year to return to Ricky and Pinky's, this time acquiring a spectacular dragon coiled around his arm and shoulder. "It was fantastic. Ricky sat down and did the whole thing freehand. I realised great tattoo artists have to understand what they are doing and do what they are best at. You just have to let them get on with it."

Pinky Yun died two years ago and Ricky Yan is in his dotage. The new Hong Kong tattoo king is Gabe Shum Long-wai of Freedom Tattoo, the driving force behind the convention. His empire sprawls over the 11th floor of a To Kwa Wan warehouse, but the industrial chic ends there. Inside, it's more like a smart new bar or an advertising agency. Only the finest American inks are used, rigorous American health standards are followed. And it closes at 10pm.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Not Fade Away: Bangkok Retro rules

Does Bangkok Retro rule? It seemed to when I wrote this piece five minutes ago, OK, a year ago, for N, the new Norwegian Airlines magazine. Trends are always old news anyway. By definition. It was a fun story to write and hopefully to read, whether the fad is fuelled or fading.  This was my first very exuberant version, which I toned down for the magazine, and its subeditors toned down once more. I rather like the original better though. 

WASHINGTON, DC - At a press conference Monday, U.S. Retro Secretary Anson Williams issued a strongly worded warning of an imminent “national retro crisis,” cautioning that “if current levels of U.S. retro consumption are allowed to continue unchecked, we may run entirely out of past by as soon as 2005.” 
The Onion, November 5, 1997 

"The best time is always yesterday." 
Tatyana Tolstaya, poet 

Retro comes and goes; great waves of nostalgia that wash over cities, sometimes entire nations, leaving in their wake a cloying tide wrack of ersatz nostalgia and sucking sinkholes of junk that some of us find irresistible.

In Bangkok, the retro craze has never been, well, crazier; citizens seized by a sudden passion for an idealised past they never really knew, or perhaps glimpsed on some reruns of American TV shows. Retro nuts, once they've caught the bug, are more crazed than the Bakelite bits on a vintage Mixmaster. Vast markets have appeared to satisfy them, straining and bulging with bric-a-brac, gimcracks, knick-knacks and old stuff that was crap then and crap now. High-rent emporia in the trendiest lanes of Thong Lor and secluded loft spaces in Siam Square overflow with tin toys and antique telephones, vintage duds and do-dads, fifties and sixties furniture and assorted other 'spurniture'.

All of a sudden, five minutes ago is NOW. The best time is always yesterday. Bangkok may not yet be in danger of running out of past, but entire city blocks seem to have been whammied with a real-life Instagram filter. 'Retro' and 'vintage' are the mantras on hipsters' lips, as an eclectic mix of true believers, collectors, entrepreneurs and dabblers have jumped on the wood-panelled bandwagon or trotted off to their time machines, hoping to get kitsch quick.

Among them is Waleeya Phanomphan, the twentysomething proprietor of CinderallasRoom, a true believer, a collector and an entrepreneur; her virtual vintage clothing store found on Facebook from Monday to Friday briefly materialises weekends around dusk at Bangkok Retro’s ground zero, Talad Rod Fai.

Talad Rod Fai, or ‘the train market’, is located on Kampaengphet Road, a short hop from the more famous Chatuchak Weekend Market (which also has a vast vintage offering in Sections 5 and 6) and easily accessible from the Mass Rapid Transit subway. It consists of several old railway department storage buildings crammed with vintage shops, antique stores and pubs, some ancient-looking trains that long since ran off the rails, and hundreds of brightly coloured temporary stalls which multiply as the sun sets.