This is the second part of an interview with Bangkok Noir painter Chris Coles whose new exhibition Night Vision is at Meta House, #37 Sothearos Blvd, Phnom Penh.
Noir artist-witness Chris Coles has three pieces of advice for men looking for love in SE Asia – first never marry a bar girl, second never give a woman your ATM number, and third never live high up.
During his 17 years painting portraits from inside Thailand’s dark sex industry – from the prowlers to the hookers to the lady boys to the gangsters – he has given many deluded expats the same warning to try to stop them making the “huge mistake” that will ruin their lives.
But true to the broken dreams and hopelessness that make up his noir vision, he admits he has little success: “It’s like people are so stupid – if the antelope with the limp insists on going to the waterhole at 2am that’s populated with cheetahs, you can’t save the antelope.”
He adds: “When I meet these guys, and they’re about to get married, I tell them: ‘Don’t do it!’ It’s great to live here, great to have girlfriends, great to spread the money around, because everyone here needs money – don’t be a cheap shit and all that. But don’t get married, don’t, especially to a girl with a sixth-grade education, 30 years younger – the cultural and social gaps are so enormous. I mean, marriage is hard enough already…
“I don’t tell her not to marry him, because she has to get something better – it’s her duty to her family and her kids. She has an ethical obligation in a certain sense. He, on the other hand, is making a huge mistake of his own volition. When the ATM number gets given up, the next day they’re flying off the balcony. They die of a heart attack 40 floors below. Two guys a week in Thailand die flying off condo balconies…”
It is tales and images of these doomed desires, delusions, and mysterious deaths that Coles depicts alongside other painters, writers, and filmmakers in the Bangkok Noir movement. Following in the style of his “hero”, the great German expressionist Emil Nolde, he story-boards the tragic lives of sex workers he has befriended to find the truth carefully concealed behind the smiles.
He says it is a trust he has won by being a friend, and never a customer. Once you pay a bar fine, you’re always a customer, he adds, and even if you move in together, it’s still a game – the conditions may have changed, but it’s still about money. He says bar girls quickly learn that if they are to have any chance of surviving in SE Asia’s ruthless sex industry, they cannot get emotionally involved with customers.
“It’s very hard for some girls because they’re brought up in rural areas, they’re quite nice, warm-hearted, and they know if they work in the bar business and start falling in love with customers or start feeling too much, it’s always bad: ‘He’s going to go out with some other girl, he’s going to go back to his home country.’ It’s always going to break their heart in some way, and if you do that twice a month it destroys you.”
He adds: “I’ve almost had girlfriends a number of times, because on my travels around SE Asia I meet really nice girls sometimes. Smart, nice personalities. I’ve come this close and keep telling myself, ‘don’t do it’. And then I’ll be at the bar one night, and she gets bar fined and walks out with someone to a short-time hotel, and I’ll say to myself: ‘Chris, that’s why it’s good never to get involved, because every night she’s fucking other guys.’
“One girl I know earns 150,000 baht ($5,000) a month, and she says: ‘We could just be boyfriend and girlfriend, you know I have plenty of money, I don’t need any money, you know I like you…’
“She moves in, we have a relationship. I’m sure it will be great – she’s got a beautiful mind, a beautiful body – but I’ll always be thinking, ‘she’s already had sex with 5,000 or 6,000 guys over 20 years, and if she’s busy, she’ll bar fine once to twice every night. How can you have sex with someone like that? No matter what you do, it’s not going to be better, bigger, unexpected…
“And the second thing is, ‘it’s 2am, why isn’t she back yet?’ Maybe she’s doing a long time – it’s her job. A guy’s paid her 10,000 baht to stay in a five-star hotel overnight, what she’s supposed to do, say no? I’m not going to pay her 10,000 baht, so you can’t do it…”
He says many farangs end up with shattered lives in the noir of the neon night because they do not understand the nature of love in SE Asia. Others try to find a lasting relationship by dating a woman with a ‘normal’ job outside the entertainment industry, but he says that doesn’t work either – because “it’s still first world meets third world”.
“Romantic love is not part of the SE Asian system – even high-class Thai girls, middle-class Thai girls. They don’t get married for romantic love. It’s like: ‘What’s your job, how much money do you have in the bank?’ It’s about bringing two families together to survive and prosper,” he says.
“In Thailand, if you like someone then you want to help them. If you don’t want to help someone that means you don’t like them, whether you’re upper class, middle class, or a working class girl. And money is always part of the equation because everybody, except the richest billionaire group, always needs money because there’s always some part of their family that doesn’t have very much.”
Indeed, he says many Westerners underestimate the strength of family ties in SE Asia: “No Khmer, Thai or SE Asian woman or person lives alone. Westerners go and rent an apartment by themselves in northern Norway, never talk to anyone except when they go to work, or go out on a Saturday night, and think it’s wonderful.
“The worst fear any SE Asian person has is sleeping in a room alone. They’re never alone – they don’t want to be alone. There’s no safety net here, there’s no pension plan, their family and network is their whole life to them…”