This is the first part of an interview with Bangkok Noir painter Chris Coles whose new show Night Vision opens at 6pm on Friday at Meta House, #37 Sothearos Blvd, Phnom Penh. He will give a talk on “German Expressionism And The Noir Vision In SE Asia”, explaining his work, and there will be music from Phnom Penh-based group KROM.
Artist and ex-Hollywood filmmaker Chris Coles moved to Bangkok by accident. He was working on Cutthroat Island – a movie listed by Guinness World Records as the biggest box office flop of all time – and decided to stay after it bombed.
Attracted by the vibrancy and grotesque splendour of Thailand’s dark side, he’s spent the past 17 years portraying the doomed, illusionary desires, and savage reality of what he calls the biggest sex show on earth. He depicts his noir vision of haunting smiles and predatory men in vivid Expressionist-style portraits – following in the footsteps of artists like Toulouse-Lautrec who depicted the lives of prostitutes in Paris and Berlin almost a century before.
Indeed, Coles says there are a lot of similarities between the two eras. France and Germany were going through a period of massive transition and industrialisation, the same movement from farm to urban life as has happened in booming SE Asia, creating a new Montmartre in places like Bangkok’s Soi Cowboy and Nana Plaza.
As he sits down to talk about Night Vision, his forthcoming exhibition in Phnom Penh, he views the darkness and edgy, neon disassociation of Bangkok’s red light districts through a film director’s lens.
“It’s all about the illusion of excitement,” he says. “When you walk into that world, you’re inside the movie and you forget who you are for a few hours. Everyone’s smiling and everything’s hunky dory – you’re in the middle of a great big party up until the moment when you run out of money, then it’s ‘get out of the way, the next customer needs to sit where you’re sitting…’
“People sometimes think, ‘oh it’s real, she’s really my girlfriend, everyone’s really having fun, this is great, I love it’. The instant they run out of money, the smiles evaporate instantly, because it’s show business. And in order to be there you need to buy the ticket to go to the movie…”
Just as stories in the noir movement can never have happy endings, there are very few in his subjects as well. There are the high-class prostitutes who live luxurious lifestyles with their own apartments, expensive cars, and millionaire customers. But they make up less than 1% of the reality, he says. The rest live painful, hopeless, sad lives beneath the smiles – often blighted by alcoholism as they down lady drinks seven nights a week.
The usual story is peasant girl from an impoverished region, usually Isan, gets pregnant, the father leaves, the child is looked after by the grandmother, as the girl washes off the dirt of the farm, jumps on the bus to Bangkok, and sends home money every month by selling her body. Many of the girls in Bangkok have had 3,000 to 4,000 customers, he says. Girls in Soi Cowboy as many as 5,000 in 10 years. “The girls that manage to get through it without getting destroyed are like Spartacus, they have very strong will power,” he says. Such is the cost, tens of thousands of new bar girls are needed from the provinces every year.
He has less sympathy for the customers – who range in his paintings from tourists straight off the plane, their faces smeared with lust, to the old hands who know the scene, to the demonic American lawyer who takes two girls “rough and crude, acting out his power.” Loose change for him, but for them enough to pay three months’ rent, and their children’s school fees for a year.
Some customers never go back, unable to leave the movie until their money or health runs out and then “disappear” into the bowels of the city. Many are left heart-broken, their lives ruined, but he says they were accidents waiting to happen and arrived “damaged, with a deficit”.
“There’s a dysfunctionality in a certain way, and no matter what was going to happen in his life, it wasn’t going to be a happy ending,” says the US-born artist. “Maybe the unhappy ending was expedited by coming to SE Asia and the whole thing got accelerated. Him getting bankrupted and ruined in a year – instead of 15 years in Huddersfield.
“But I think that problem is really not the girl’s problem. It’s not a problem she created. She and her family need money, they need to go up, they live in a system where it’s almost impossible to go up. So they’re not going to turn down the chance to go up. He has a deficit that somehow the West has no way to service so he drifts over here.”
But he says the typical portrayal of sex tourists as white men with beer bellies is a “trailing remnant of the market” and the customer base has changed dramatically over the past five to ten years – and the cast, costumes, and setting in Bangkok’s never-ending movie have adjusted accordingly.
“It’s all about China now, with a middle class of 200 to 300 million people, a few hours flight away, which is why they’re giving them visas on arrival – one of the few countries in the world to do so,” he says. “There is a very wealthy class of modern Asians now – and Thais are designing the movie experience accordingly…” He says the second biggest customers are Malaysian men, followed by Japanese, Korean, Russian, Iranian, and European – and the city has “a little bit of something” for all of them.
When I question him about the morality of the sex industry, he draws a huge distinction between trafficking – “girls tied to a bed in a fishing port” – and women who work voluntarily in bars. He also believes drug tourism – which he says is what all backpackers are about in Cambodia and Laos – is far more corrosive to society.
“For me the moral issue is less than the potential issue,” he adds. “What I see in the Bangkok night is a huge amount of nice, young girls whose potentials are completely lost so the really rich Thai people can have more money. A lot of them have tremendous potentials and could be doing something else besides getting cum in the face or fucked up the arse. If they were educated, trained, lived in a different society, they would be doing something else. That potential is lost forever.
“In South Korea, they were poor and had a huge sex industry up until the 60s, and as a government policy they decided they were going to educate all the women. And now almost no South Korea women work as prostitutes. They don’t choose to fuck people for a living anymore – because it’s not pleasant work. Thailand is not a poor country like Cambodia, they could decide to educate everybody, but they don’t want that – they want serfs…”
Part two of this interview will be posted next week.
Chris will be at Meta House for the opening of his show this Friday.