The expat and the prostitute: Four classic novels, 1956-62


Yellow Crane Tower

View of Yellow Crane Tower in old Wuchang (photo by Isham Cook)

A walk down old Wuchang’s Tanhualin historic pedestrian street takes you past boutiques, cafés and nineteenth-century Western consulates and missions, before ending at grimy Deshengqiao, more alley than street, where a left turn plunges you into a more authentic China of milling crowds and open-front shops selling fish, vegetables and hardware items, a timeless street precisely because it couldn’t be more ordinary. A right turn further down and you’ll see the high school I’ve visited on a number of occasions regarding an English-teaching business I won’t go into here. Street-side stands sell deep-fried chicken patties injected with processed cheese, a popular snack with the students. Further on south is the landmark Yellow Crane Tower, dating to the third century AD, destroyed and rebuilt countless times. It traditionally overlooked the Yangtze River; its present incarnation sits a kilometer inland. Like almost all Chinese cities, Wuchang used to be walled. City walls were employed to protect the inhabitants, but in September of 1926 the walls turned the city into a death trap when it was shelled by the Kuomintang Nationalist army, and the warlord in control of Wuchang, Wu Peifu, requisitioned all food supplies to the army. The siege lasted six weeks and thousands may have died of starvation, judging by the many bodies witnessed being tossed over the walls. An all too-common occurrence: most civilian deaths in wartime China were due to famine or deliberate starvation rather than guns or bombs; the siege of Changchun by the Communists in 1948 starved 150,000 civilians to death. The wall exists no longer, and the moat that once surrounded it is now Zhongshan Avenue. Most residents probably couldn’t care less. Old Wuchang is a mere afterthought amidst the vast urban sprawl of contemporary Wuchang, which along with Hankou and Hanyang across the river form the megacity of Wuhan (pop. 20 million), the largest city in Hubei Province and one of the largest Chinese cities you have probably never heard of.

Hankou is the most bustling of the three cities. Many of the stately buildings of the former British, Russian, French, German and Japanese concessions still stand. Now interspersed with elegant restaurants and cafés, the riverfront has some of the feel of Shanghai’s Bund. I have walked the 3.5-kilometer stretch of the Hankou Bund many times. Between the main boulevard and the river is a pleasant park built on reclaimed land; there is a ferry for crossing the river. A steady procession of cargo ships pass by day and night, which I took a short video of one evening, with bats flying about, from a spot facing the river in what was once the Russian Concession. In the autumn of 1926, while Wuchang was being shelled, you saw a very different sight. Spaced along the river facing Hankow (as it was then spelled) were British and American cruisers and destroyers pointing their six and eight-inch caliber guns down the streets as a warning to would-be Chinese rioters. If you happened to angle one of these guns upward and fired it, the shell would have sped past the rear wall surrounding the concessions, once again now named Zhongshan Avenue (the Communists’ favorite street name), and the parks and sports clubs beyond (which up until a decade ago had been a warren of unmarked brothels whose sliding doors revealed to my curious eyes girls on sofas in gaudy lingerie), and well past the 2nd and 3rd Ring Roads to land somewhere between Jinyin and Dugong Lakes some fifteen miles to the northwest. If instead you fired the gun straight into the concessions, it would have effectively cleared the rabble all right, so effectively that much worse rioting would likely have followed, defeating the purpose. Not that there wasn’t precedent for the use of heavy guns on massed crowds. Back in 1842, with just three rounds of a howitzer at close range, the British turned a street in Ningbo packed with hundreds of Qing troops into a “writhing and shrieking hecatomb” (Julia Lovell, The Opium War).

map of Hankow, 1915.

Hankow and Wuchang, 1915 (

The timeworn suspicion and contempt the Chinese felt for the outside world only deepened over the century (1842-1949) that Western warships controlled the Yangtze. Stray yangguizi, or “foreign devils,” were “constantly under menace from local populations who — given the slightest opportunity — would kidnap, mutilate and murder foreigners who wandered more than a safe distance” from the camps or concessions (Lovell). The hostility flared up in periodic attacks and massacres, notably the thousands of Western soldiers and civilians killed, along with tens of thousands of Chinese Christians, in the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901). Things remained tense even after the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1912 and up through the outbreak of war with Japan in 1937. Paradoxically, anger toward the West regularly coincided with the far greater brutality of Chinese-on-Chinese violence. The mortality figures are beyond comprehension: 30-70 million in the Taiping Rebellion of 1850-64, 10-13 million in the Chinese Civil War of 1927-37 and 1946-50, and 20-30 million in the Second Sino-Japanese War of 1937-45. Chinese casualties at the hands of the foreign powers, with the obvious exception of the devastation wrought by the Japanese, are minuscule by comparison, amounting to some 50,000 from the First and Second Opium Wars.

Over the past decades, China’s political stability, economic growth and maturing international outlook has greatly improved life for everyone, domestics and foreigners alike. The timeworn hatred and suspicion seems to have largely died down, hopefully for good, with serious outbreaks of anti-foreigner violence, such as the 1988 Nanjing riots against African students (after some had been seen cavorting with local women) now quite rare. For the first time in China’s history, we can safely wander its streets at leisure. Thugs are still known to rob drunken foreigners outside bars at 3am, but the problems we encounter these days are relatively trivial affairs — the company that doesn’t pay your final month’s salary and the landlord who likewise disappears with your security deposit when they know you’re leaving the country. I’d rather be living in China now than in 1926, when for example we observe a foreigner struggling with his luggage in Hankow’s British Concession after refusing the rickshaw drivers’ outrageous prices, as described in Richard McKenna’s The Sand Pebbles (Harper & Row, 1962):

The Sand Pebbles book cover

“They walked along Honan Road. Rickshaw coolies cursed them in English and Chinese….A fat white man up ahead was having it even worse. He was carrying a heavy suitcase and losing face with every step. He wore a straw hat and he was sweating through his white coat. His left arm stuck out stiffly, to balance the suitcase. Yapping coolies followed him. One ran and kicked the suitcase and it spilled open. The coolies began snatching and throwing socks and drawers and paper. They were not stealing it, they were just throwing it around. The man went to his knees, trying to grab his gear and repack it. A laughing crowd formed.”

Recall this was the British concession, subject to British law. The Sikh policemen hired to keep order stayed out of the way, mindful not to incite the mob over petty matters, who could easily and often did get out of hand, for there were plenty of volatile Chinese laborers around. Foreigners were strongly discouraged from venturing outside the concessions into the native city, where they risked being outright assaulted or worse, and where the protagonist seaman Jake Holman and shipmate Frenchy Burgoyne of the U.S.S. San Pablo, frequently stole under cover of darkness armed with revolvers. They were looking after the Chinese girl Maily, whose freedom Burgoyne had purchased from a riverfront brothel in Changsha but had been prevented from marrying due to miscegenation laws. The menacing atmosphere of the locale is well captured in the feature film (1966, dir. Attenburough). I first saw it as a child and it has long haunted me, particularly the scene in the Red Candle sailor bar in Changsha. The beautiful Maily (played by Thai actress and uncanny Gong Li lookalike Marayat Andriane) is stood on a table and auctioned off to the highest bidder. You may recall the scene, as her dress is rolled higher up her thighs with each bid to the chants of “Strip her! Strip her!” and is then ripped off her shoulders (in the novel it’s torn down to her hips), before mayhem breaks out and Holman and Burgoyne ferry her away to safety. For cinematic purposes the love story is greatly simplified and compressed. A local family take her in. Burgoyne sneaks off the ship and swims across the freezing river to visit her one night and dies in her arms of exposure. When Holman finds Maily with the dead body, they are surprised by nationalist militia, who kill Maily as Holman escapes through the window.

The events in the novel are at once more mundane, pathetic and moving. Maily is not killed but is eventually smuggled to Hankow, where Burgoyne manages through a local contact to rent a room in the native city, “above a kind of hardware store, with the stairs inside. It was small and shabby and the single window had no glass. Holman opened the wooden shutter and looked down into a short blind alley filled with beggars.” With “a clay stove and a rickety table,” the room was “dismal….A few bright scraps of cloth” are hung up to offset the brown wallpaper hanging off the walls: “When Maily served the food, it was rice and fried peppers and pork in gingery sauce….They had only the chair and chest to sit on, so Maily ate standing, bowl and chopsticks in hands, like a Chinese woman. She brought them acrid Chinese wine, heated. The hot food and wine made the room steamy warm and good-smelling” (presumably the dish was 肉丝炒青椒 and the wine 黄酒). The only problem is, Maily doesn’t love Burgoyne, isn’t even attracted to him. It’s Holman she wants. Loyalty to his friend and other inner conflicts prevents him from reciprocating. Neither has the guts to tell Burgoyne directly. Burgoyne does make that final swim ashore and is found dead by Holman, watched over by a Maily in a deserted alley. That’s the last we hear of her.

McKenna’s fine novel has much to commend it, above all the richly observed first-hand period details. It was a deft move to set the story ten years before the author himself was stationed in Hankow and Changsha in a U.S. gunboat, in that flashpoint moment of 1926 and early 1927, when the Nationalists kicked out the Communists and Wuhan was a microcosm of the country as a whole, and the river a microcosm in its own right, two great antagonists thrust together on a symbolic stage, the Chinese shoreline, so easily traversed across a small portion of the river yet so far away. The river throws up a barrier of junks and screaming students and nationalists hurling refuse at the foreign devils, and one day a bizarre procession of Chinese college girls who protest the Americans’ presence by going naked (the story is too unbelievable not to be true, though the tradition of female protest nudity can be traced back to the Shang Dynasty). They don’t quite get their point across to the mind-blown San Pablo crew, who have been confined to the ship for months and denied their whores.

1936 too was a tense, key year. Despite the return of the international concessions to the Chinese, as long as the gunboats remained on the Yangtze so did the anti-foreigner enmity, albeit this was shifting to the Japanese upon their escalating attacks on Shanghai and other cities; in 1938 Wuhan would see calamitous war and half a million dead. The Hankow of 1936 would not have appeared all that different to the Hankow of a decade before: the same bars, the same tales and gossip, the same glimpses into life outside the concessions, an era so mysterious and entrancing now; and the same forlorn females to be wooed or rescued by expats, upon whom McKenna must have modelled Maily and Burgoyne. But even writing well in retrospect in the 1960s, the author seemed conceptually unable to surmount the entrenched stereotype of the doomed expat relationship. By definition the subject matter plunged his story into the realm of tragedy. The novel’s ideology further required that Maily be tainted, her fate sealed at the outset, by her status as prostitute, even if an enslaved and victimized one. It’s easier to make a character go away and the audience to forget her, if she has known low society.

The World of Suzie Wong book cover

With Richard Mason’s The World of Suzie Wong (Penguin, 1957), the expat relationship is freshly conceived, and we emerge into the sunnier world of comedy. There are several factors enabling this. Mason sets the story in wartime Hong Kong, a decade and a half prior to his own stay there, but the details of the setting are clearly drawn from his contemporary experience of the place. We are also in relatively free and safe British territory. There is no fearsome walled or “native” city, no dangers or threats, no need to be armed. When the protagonist Robert Lomax first arrives on Hong Kong Island after crossing over from Kowloon by ferry, he is politely told there are more appropriate places for a gentleman to stay than in the seedy district of Wan Chai. Wan Chai today is no longer seedy, at least in one sense of the word. It’s clean, orderly, with gleaming office buildings and respectable English pubs. The women riding the elevator in the hotel on Hennessey Road I stayed in last December were locals, not Mainlanders, judging by their Cantonese and their poise; one had a see-through blouse and an areola that peeked out from the edge of her bra. They got off on the third floor, which had a single door and a “Members Only” sign.

Lomax goes there anyway and picks a hotel at random, the Nam Kok, which turns out to have a lively sailor bar. The most popular of the girls is a Shanghainese who fled the chaos of the Mainland, Suzie Wong. She lives with her baby in a shanty flat not far away and is frequently seen outside the hotel. Significantly, then, she’s not enslaved or confined but has freedom of movement and plies her trade by choice. Unlike the Red Candle in The Sand Pebbles, the Nam Kok bar is not a brothel. In fact, to maintain appearances the hotel forbids sex workers from entering the bar unless accompanied by a male. The setting is playfully raucous and comic, and Mason transparently conveys the idiom of the times in all its chauvinistic quaintness. Suzie is seen frolicking with a drunken American sailor, who “had been seized by sudden violent passion and was thrusting her back into the corner to kiss her and the girl was struggling, though only half-heartedly as if she found it no more than tiresome. There was not much to be seen of her but her kicking legs and her thigh through the split skirt.” Lomax remarks with a laugh, “Well, she’s got beautiful legs, anyhow.” To which the girl opposite him replies, “But don’t you think she is the prettiest girl in the bar?”

Though a bestseller at the time, the novel has not been regarded as particularly funny by subsequent audiences, above all feminists. Part of the problem is the language, the penchant for referring to Asian females as “little” and similar diminutives. To list a few examples: “‘It’s that little bitch of mine. She’s with a sailor'”; “There had been lashings of whiskey to wash down the fabulous food, and the usual little Chinese hostesses to joke and flirt with the guests”; “The tiny luscious Jeannie came out, ushered by a gangling American sailor”; “An elderly amah with tiny slit eyes and huge prognathous mouth with gold teeth.” And my favorite: “the little blown-up football of a Suzie had appeared.” It wasn’t just Mason, the vernacular was widespread. Time magazine wasn’t immune, describing Nancy Kwan, who played Suzie in the feature film (1960, dir. Quine) as a “Wonton-sized” 5 ft. 2 in., 104 lbs. and “the most delicate Oriental import since Tetley’s tender little tea leaves…the new ‘yum-yum girl’ has saved the movie” (April 11, 1960).

In one scene, the Englishman “that little bitch of mine” Ben impersonates a policeman and kicks open a door at the Nam Kok to catch Suzie in a room with another American sailor: “Ben leaned over without effort and caught her ankle. He dragged her back across the bed like a lizard by its tail [and] began to spank her. He spanked her long and hard…Suzie lay there crying like a child.” It should be noted that that decade indeed had a thing about spanking. I recently chanced upon a 1950s New York Daily Mirror clipping, “If a woman needs it, should she be spanked?,” inviting male readers’ opinion on the topic. All were unanimous: “Why not? If they don’t know how to behave by the time they’re adults, they should be treated like children and spanked. That ought to make them grow up in a hurry.” “Yes,” another wrote, “most of them have it coming to them anyway.” For Suzie, the spanking “had become one of the proudest events of her life.” But soon she leaves Ben for Lomax. He himself refrains from properly putting her in her place, causing Suzie some consternation. He seems torn: uneasy at the established practice of spanking and beating yet not wholly critical of it.

All this, of course, was guaranteed to turn the novel and the moniker “Suzie Wong” into a signifier of White misogynist racism, and perversely, a certain exotic chic, e.g., the Beijing nightclub called Suzie Wong that drew brisk business in the early 2000s (until shut down a few years ago in a neighborhood renovation). The feature film of Amy Tan’s novel The Joy Luck Club (1993, dir. Wang) spread the message by lambasting the Suzie Wong movie as a “horrible racist film.” Nancy Kwan had actually been invited to play one of the mothers in The Joy Luck Club but turned down the role when they refused to excise this line. It’s all a bit ironic and unfair, since the Suzie Wong movie greatly toned down the sexist language and violence of Mason’s novel. There are no spanking scenes or turning girls upside down in their bar booth; Kwan’s Suzie gets roughed up by a sailor at one point but fights back. Fans of the novel cite its charm — Lomax’s earnest love of Suzie, his capacity for introspection, his commitment and marriage to her — and its progressive vision of interracial coupling in a racist milieu. True, he’s not entirely sure why he’s marrying her. A voice inside him nags: “‘Don’t be a fool — you know you’ll regret it! You only want to marry her because her ignorance inflates your ego — because she makes you feel like a god.’ ‘Well, what’s wrong with that?’ I asked the inner voice defiantly.” In England where they settle and where in the 1940s-50s they would have presented quite the sight, she acquires in his eyes, finally, a quiet dignity: “Soon she was sitting up proud and straight in the Chinese way…and she looked so proud and poised as we entered the gallery [where Lomax’s Hong Kong paintings were on exhibition] that you would have thought twice before calling her a whore.”

If the idea of “Suzie Wong” still attracts ire, long after this minor novel from a bygone era jogs few people’s memories, it must have something to do with the name itself, the power retained in the name. One of the most common English female given names, it’s yoked to one of the most common Chinese surnames. From old Hebrew Shoshanna and later Suzanne, Susan, etc., and originally evocative of purity (the Persian lily flower), it’s now whorish-sounding in its unnatural juxtaposition. What is the particular allure of “Suzie,” which makes it any better than her native Mee-ling (Mason’s spelling of 美玲, “beautiful jade”) or Mei-ling in the correct transliteration? We can hardly imagine the novel having as much appeal if it had been entitled The World of Wong Mee-ling. Is it that the inscrutable language is all too complicated for us? Is it simply a matter of clarity, to gender the name so that English readers know it’s about a woman? Or is there something more nefarious going on in the profoundly symbolic act of renaming, to remind the subjects of the formerly occupied country that they can never wholly remove the traces of their colonization, that the name cannot be uttered without having the illocutionary force of a summons? The Sand Pebbles represents an earlier era, before this business of substituting English for Chinese names began, but Maily the brothel slave is shorn of her native name as well, inasmuch as it’s been fully anglicized and domesticated for Westerners: it could be an English female name (the original is presumably 美丽, or Mei-li); meanwhile, her Chinese surname is simply excised.

Or is there something inherently threatening about the Chinese female who assumes an English identity? The Hong Kong Chinese have long done this (the present Chief Executive of Hong Kong Carrie Lam, the actress Maggie Cheung), but we don’t seem bothered when Hong Kong males adopt English names (Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan). Yes, they all have their native names as well, and the surname unaccountably goes first. Today on the Mainland too, it’s common practice for most students to adopt an English first name, again for the reason of taking on an English persona, but also to make it easier for foreigners they come into contact with to say their name (some Chinese phonemes are unpronounceable to people unacquainted with the language). In any case they don’t seem to have a problem with adopting a dual identity, Chinese and Western. And I wonder why it is that we have a problem with it. Could it be the vague discomfort the Anglo world experiences at the sound of “Suzie Wong” is indicative of its own racism? Is there a collective sense that the Chinese do not have the right to an English name? Or to put it more bluntly, that Suzie has no business mixing with people outside of her race, and neither does Lomax?

Toute Emmanuelle book cover

One of the covers of the Emmanuelle series, this one showing the author.

On the subject of names and naming, it gets more complicated in the case of our next author, Emmanuelle Arsan. Born Marayat Bibidh into a wealthy family in Bangkok in 1932, she was by her own account highly sexed from childhood. At the age of sixteen while attending school in Switzerland, she met her future husband Louis-Jacques Rollet-Andriane, a French diplomat fourteen years her senior. They fell in love and it’s assumed she lost her virginity to him immediately, but they held off marrying until he managed to get a post with UNESCO in Bangkok eight years later. There they mingled with the expat jet set and made the acquaintance of the Italian aristocrat and libertine Prince Dado Ruspoli. They fell under the spell of his writings on sexual freedom. The three became inseparable, and there were freewheeling parties and orgies and frequent trips between Bangkok and Paris. Three years later, in 1959, Marayat and Louis-Jacques published a novel anonymously in France entitled Emmanuelle and circulated it privately among friends. It’s understandable they were cautious about publicizing the book at the time. It’s a shocking read and more importantly, well written, which makes it even more shocking.

The semi-autobiographical novel recounts the author’s sexual coming of age, and I don’t mean merely losing her virginity but becoming liberated to a radical extreme, with acts of outrageous, if fictionalized, public exhibitionism. A few real-life details are altered or reversed. Emmanuelle’s husband is a Frenchman named Jean who is already established with a job and house in Bangkok, while Emmanuelle herself is French, not Thai, and arrives in Bangkok for the first time to join him. There is a literary tradition of trains and planes symbolically serving as vehicles for sexual transport (most memorably D. M. Thomas’s The White Hotel), and the excesses begin on the flight to Bangkok. Emmanuelle is in a curtained-off first class cabin; next to her is a man and across from them an English boy and girl, both “only twelve or thirteen.” The lights have been dimmed; she is touched and fondled by the man; he pulls out his penis and ejaculates over her. She receives the “long, white, odorous spurts…along her arms, on her bare belly, on her throat, face, and mouth, and in her hair.” Suddenly the lights come back on as the plane starts its descent. The stewardess steps inside and she and the two children, who were “less than three feet away,” stare at the semen-splattered Emmanuelle: “She looked at the damp spots that spread out in both directions from below her collar. She rolled back the lapels of her blouse and the pink tip of a breast appeared. Her neckline remained open and four pairs of English eyes were glued to the profile of her bare breast.” The stewardess helps clean her up in a private kitchen area, whereupon Emmanuelle is fucked by a handsome steward — all before the plane lands.

The next portion of the story involves Emmanuelle’s lesbian encounters at an exclusive sports club in Bangkok’s foreign community, including one precocious thirteen-year old who instructs the heroine on the art of public masturbation (to a select audience). She spends much of the latter half of the narrative with Mario, a wealthy Italian expat modeled after the Prince Dado Ruspoli, who tutors her in his erotic philosophy. His discourses supply the theory to the sexual practice of the novel’s former half. There are highly quotable lines like, “Your horizon will always be shamefully restricted if you expect love from only one man.” And: “Adultery is erotic. The triangle redeems the banality of the pair. No eroticism is possible for a couple without the addition of a third party.” And: “A woman who makes the first move, at a time when a man isn’t expecting it at all, creates an erotic situation of the highest value.” Bangkok is often regarded as the Amsterdam of the East not only for its red light districts but also its canals, notably the Klong Saen Saeb, a shabby experience for first-timers but whose mysterious lairs and lodgings along the banks grows on you and makes it one of the most romantic canals in the world. I need its water taxis to get to Khao San, which has a more interesting range of massage shops than Sukhumvit where I prefer stay when I’m in Bangkok, because the city’s confounding layout has no other convenient means of transportation to the old city. One of the lodgings along the canal is Mario’s residence in the novel. Another is the famous house built in 1959 by the American architect and designer Jim Thompson; the intrigue around his disappearance in 1967 has helped turn his house into a major tourist attraction today. He was possibly known to Marayat and Louis-Jacques back in the late 1950s (more research needed here). The couple were well known and notorious for their sex parties, indeed singlehandedly gave Bangkok a reputation as one of the first locales for swinging.

The canal and its exotic atmosphere is lovingly captured in the Emmanuelle film (1974, dir. Jaeckin), with a screenplay by the author and Sylvia Kristel in the main role. The film, of course, was hugely popular and spawned numerous sequels. I find the movie disappointing next to the novel. While there is plenty of nudity, explicit sex, so essential to the story, was unfeasible at the time. The film needs to be remade with a bigger budget and better acting, by a daring producer or director in an X-rated version that’s true to the novel (I can envision Lars von Trier doing it). But I’m jumping ahead.

The popularity of the novel as it privately circulated among its decadent readership convinced the couple to have it republished under the author’s name in 1967 (the English translation was launched by Grove Press in 1971). By this point, Arsan had ventured into acting, and her beauty and reputation had gotten Hollywood’s attention. At the seasoned age of 34, she was offered the role of Maily in The Sand Pebbles, under her cinematic name Marayat Andriane; Chinese actresses were hard to find and a Thai actress would have to do. She’s nonetheless memorable in the role, but ironically so, for while her character is the epitome of tragic female virtue, the actress was one of the indelible faces of the sexual revolution — or depravity, depending on where you’re coming from. Hollywood prudery allowed her dress to be yanked off no further than her shoulders and a full slip revealed underneath, but she surely would have had no problem being stripped completely naked. After all, in the film she later directed and acted in, Laure (1976; based on her novel of the same title), she engaged in sex scenes with full-frontal nudity. The ironies abound. The director of the Suzie Wong film, Richard Quine, evidently had a terrible time convincing Nancy Kwan to wear a half slip and bra rather than a full slip in the scene where an angry Lomax rips off her Western-style dress (she relented). Not that Kwan’s reputation was entirely unblemished; she was rumored to have had a fling with Marlon Brando (who had driven the actress originally given the Suzie Wong role, the French-Vietnamese France Nuyen, to a nervous breakdown). Arsan was rumored to have had her own affair with Steve McQueen, and the delectable possibility is that it was sparked by their joint reading of the novel, in which, as recounted above, his character Holman was the real object of Maily’s passion.

Eventually it came out that Arsan’s husband Rollet-Andriane was the author of Emmanuelle. He had apparently used her name as a cover to protect his working reputation. Equally likely, they collaborated on the story and he polished the French, or it was a three-way collaboration with Dado Ruspoli; it’s hard to imagine she had no input into the novel. In this new configuration, “Emmanuelle Arsan” is more of an authorial idea, or ideal, than a person, as well as the deftest of marketing ploys — the Oriental femme fatale authoress — to captivate a prurient audience. It worked, and the reclusive couple cultivated their enigma and mystique to the end, sheltering themselves in a retreat in the remote French countryside from the 1980s (Arsan died in 2005 and Rollet-Andriane in 2008). For my part, I can no longer watch Marayat Andriane, or Emmanuelle Arsan, or whoever this figure as elusive as a female in a Picasso painting is, play Maily in The Sand Pebbles, without imagining her thirsting for jets of semen to the chants of “Strip her! Strip her!”

A Woman of Bangkok book cover

In the same year Rollet-Andriane arrived in Bangkok to marry the 24-year old Marayat Bibidh, a curious novel entitled A Woman of Bangkok came out by an Englishman, Jack Reynolds (Secker & Warburg, 1956, originally published under the title A Sort of Beauty). It’s in many ways even more striking and shocking than Emmanuelle, though for different reasons. An intrepid traveler, the author had worked as an ambulance medic in Chungking (Chongqing) in China from 1945 until his capture and release by the Communists in 1951, whereupon he found work with UNICEF in Bangkok (see my Chungking: China’s heart of darkness). There he raised a large family with a Thai woman. After a stint in Jordan from 1959-67, they settled back in Thailand, where he died in 1984.

Bangkok has undergone numerous changes since the 1950s. The Klong Saen Saeb canal and the charming old city with the famous palaces and temples on the Chao Phraya River are thankfully still intact, but there was little sex industry to speak of, compared to the neighborhood upon neighborhood of red light districts today. The cult of sexual freedom propounded by the Andrianes was confined to elite circles. Not until the Vietnam War did Thailand begin to erect its notorious recreational industry, and then not really until the expansion of the war to Laos in the 1970s; the Thai city of Udon Thani, 50 miles across the border from Vientiane, was one of the early prostitution destinations catering to U.S. servicemen. Back in the 1950s, Bangkok’s nightlife wasn’t much more than a sleepier version of Hong Kong’s Wan Chai, with a handful of sailor bars and brothels. It’s in one of these bars, the Bolero, that the hapless protagonist, Reginald Joyce, a young naif recently posted to Bangkok by his UK firm, becomes ensnared in a tortuous relationship with a prostitute named Vilay. 

Reynolds has a knack for strategic focus, and the fateful setting when Reginald first meets Vilay, or “Wretch” for Reg as she calls him in her thick English, is sharply etched in odd, surreal details, which serve to adumbrate the subsequent story. The open-air bar is “like a share-cropper’s shanty on Brobdingnagian scale. A raised wooden floor, acres in extent; no walls; a low gloomy roof. From the gloom hang dozens of tawdry paper lanterns, all very dim and dusty. In the middle of the floor is a circular space waxed for dancing; this is flanked by the rows of tiny desks at which the girls sit like amazingly exotic schoolgirls in a kindergarten.” She had caught his eye on a previous visit and he was back to see if he could make her acquaintance. She avoids him until he approaches her, and charges him by the hour merely to make conversation with him at his table. Ten minutes into the session, she affects boredom and indifference and gets up to go mingle with others in the bar. He forbids her to leave since he’s paying for her time. This makes her visibly upset, and she “leans far back in the armchair with her body almost supine and her head at right angles to it, propped up by the back of her chair. There is a frown on her low rather narrow forehead and her rather small eyes have gone smaller and are black with resentment. Her lips, tomato-red, are pushed forwards like a sulky child’s.” When she refuses to fill his beer glass, he himself gets upset and splashes the beer over the table and on her. She leaves his table again and returns. He pays for several more rounds of drinks. She makes him buy flowers from a flower lady, and when he’s not looking returns the flowers to the lady and pockets the money. She demands a bar fee to leave the bar with him and another large fee to take him back to her flat.

There is no letup. The hard-sell tactics are repeated in anguished negotiations over the course of the entire narrative. The more entangled they become, the more refined her techniques of extracting money; the more he pays her, the fewer crumbs of affection she throws at him in return, until yet more banknotes are peeled off his wallet. He only becomes more obsessed, and soon he’s giving her most of his salary. At first we recognize the sheer callousness of a manipulative sex worker in the tradition of Zola’s Nana, but that doesn’t fully account for Vilay’s perverse behavior. Something else is going on. Their relationship has a more complex dynamic which seems to feed on itself. It’s almost as if his abject and revolting helplessness drives her to a sadistic extreme if only to shock him into recognition. At one point her son is hit by a car and she refuses to go to the hospital to see him, seemingly in denial over the gravity of the situation, but also in sheer defiance of Reginald’s rectitude, who pays for everything and watches over the dying son. In another episode, Vilay convinces him to rob a family of his acquaintance, claiming she is greatly in need of a large sum of money, and he actually attempts it. He is on the verge of physically assaulting one of the family members in their home when he is caught, but as it’s unclear exactly what his intention was, they desist from calling the police and let him go.

I’ll refrain from divulging any spoilers, except to say the ending of this study in psychological degradation has got to be one of the most humiliating imaginable for a male protagonist at the hands of a sex worker — the sort of brutal reversal or poetic justice that might appeal to certain feminist readers. Others may find it an exasperating read, given how unbelievable it is a man could so prostrate himself before a woman who treats him like a dog. And I suspect that is indeed the point the author wished to make: such men are a dime a dozen.

Suzie Wong and Woman of Bangkok book covers

Restaurant in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where Jack Reynolds’ novel is partly set.

*    *    *

More book reviews by Isham Cook:
Foreign devils on the loose in China: A review
Lotus: Updating the great Chinese socialist realist novel
The 1.3 billion-strong temper tantrum: Review of Arthur Meursault’s Party Members
The literature of paralysis: The China PC scene and the expat mag crowd
The ventriloquist’s dilemma: Asexual Anglo travelogues of China

Forthcoming by Isham Cook (February 2020):


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