Feeling Asia's Pain

Hard days for the barista, hotelier, airline exec or finance minister.

By Steve Burgess 20 Mar 2009 |

Steve Burgess, having wound up his Asian explorations, will, between hot springs soaks, return to writing about film every other week here at The Tyee.

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Japanese mobile game satirizes finance minister alleged to have been drunk at G7 meeting.

"I have curled," said the man beside me.

My companion's remark might have meant any of a few things. We were sitting at a little table at Sukumvit Soi 38, one of Bangkok's more notable addresses for good street noodles. Bangkok's sticky heat being what it is, he might have been referring to some sort of embarrassing wilt, physical or sartorial, brought on by the awful humidity. He may have been confessing to a penchant for a salon permanent. It's a distinct possibility in this Southeast Asian metropolis where disco is still popular.

But as he had revealed that he had spent several months in Toronto, I knew what he meant. And I was thrilled. One looks for hints of home after weeks on the road, but you don't expect to meet a curler. I've often thought curling is the truest indication of the Canadian sporting identity. Hockey is exciting and lots of different people might find out they like it after stumbling across the game somewhere. But curling -- that's Canadiana at its purest and most soporific.

There are unexpected bits of Canadiana to be found everywhere, from a maple leaf flag bumper sticker spotted on a Bhutanese back road, to a T-shirt at Bangkok's vast Chatuchak Market boasting the cute slogan "Canada: Living the American Dream Without the Violence since 1867." But perhaps the real reminders of home are the near-ubiquitous tales of economic downturn encountered in every destination.

'I can't make it'

In Bangkok I met Ae. She is the proprietor of the Valentine House Coffee Shop on Sukhumvit Soi 53. Not only is Ae's ex-boyfriend from Vancouver, but Canada is evoked by her very name, pronounced very much like the final interrogative in the phrase, "How's it going, eh?"

In Ae's case the answer is: not great. Ae's trouble is the global trouble, with a little bit of the particular Thai trouble mixed in. "If you come back next year, [this place] will not be here," she states. "I can't make it."

It's not her first spate of bad luck. Her last attempt to set herself up in business, a little bar, foundered after the September 2006 military coup that ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The Valentine House was to be her comeback. Her next venture will be her next comeback but at present she can't see it. As it is she works some nights at an all-night bar near Nana Plaza and comes straight to her cafe to open up afterwards. (Stories like hers always remind me of the U.S. presidential campaign, during which more than one candidate referred to Americans as "the hardest-working people in the world." Not since James Brown died, they're not.)

Thailand's elite mobs

Aside from the global economy, Thailand has been battered by the political strife that closed Suvarnabhumi Airport late last year. Thai politics are a tough nut for outsiders to crack. The American red state/blue state split has nothing on Thailand's red shirt/yellow shirt wars. It was the yellow shirt brigades that closed the airport in an ultimately successful attempt to oust the ruling government.

There's a tendency to view such popular uprisings in a heroic, Tiananmen Square light. But the mobs that closed the Bangkok airport were no friends of democracy. It was instead a revolt of the urban elites and the middle class against a government supported by the rural poor (and re-elected in 2005 by the largest turnout in Thai history).

Nor is it particularly easy to get behind the other team. Shinawatra was frequently derided as a demagogue, wannabee tyrant, and corrupt thug during his rule. Convicted of corruption in absentia, Shinawatra continued to dominate the political scene from afar as his surrogates -- the "red shirts" -- regrouped to capture new elections in 2007. Now the Shinawatra group is down and seriously wounded, albeit still agitating in crimson. And outside observers are stuck trying to find someone to cheer for.

Thailand tourism is recovering reasonably well considering the troubles it has been through. Still, the prestigious Mandarin Oriental Hotel reportedly had three guests during one January week, an all-time low.

The noodle has turned

The theme of my just wrapped up six-week, six-nation journey has been: It's bad all over. From Singapore to Malaysia, Nepal to Bhutan, Thailand to Tokyo, people are singing the blues about reduced tourist traffic and downturns generally.

My eventual arrival in Tokyo coincided with the release of disastrous economic news and the evident drunkenness of the Japanese finance minister at a Rome press conference. Who could blame him? It's an artificial stimulus plan that a lot of investors are using these days.

My usual hotel in Tokyo -- reasonably priced, well situated -- is closing at the end of March. The very Singapore Airlines ticket I bought to take me around Asia is unavailable as of April, when Singapore discontinues Vancouver service.

Gas is cheap again though. Maybe the next trip will be to Harrison Hot Springs.

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