This excerpt from Chapter 14, “Men of the Feast: Babylon,” begins the dream of a young Thai man who returns from studying in Britain to his family in Bangkok — much as the young crown prince named Vajiravudh had done seven decades earlier. He finds that “coming home” requires him to imagine a new geography where “the arts, sex and love” can converge for gay men.
By 1979, the nationalist contests in Southeast Asia that had come to such a climax with the French and then the American war in Vietnam had settled, and the international gay guide Spartacus, published from Amsterdam, recognized that Thailand had become exactly what Darrell Berrigan had described in the 1950s as the national goal: a tourist paradise where airline passengers disembarked rather than continuing to Hong Kong or India. “With all those magnificent palaces, temples, and colorful markets,” the Spartacus editors wrote, Thailand “offers the finest sightseeing in Asia.”
Most importantly for the guide’s audience, Spartacus added that “with such warm, friendly, happy people and such handsome young men, it is a mecca for gays.” It was a sharply different description than the one Spartacus had printed about Singapore that same year.
The Spartacus writers were especially struck by what seemed to be the Thai freedom from restrictive Western thoughts about the male body and its sexual desires and behaviors — despite the changes to Siamese gender that had been urged in the name of siwilai and despite the negative comments made in the 1960s about kathoeys and the new breed of gay male “nosferatus” like Darrell Berrigan,
Fluidity still ruled, Spartacus contended. “Thais do not use the artificial Western way of putting us all into classifications like ‘gay’ or ‘straight.’ The most heterosexual young man may readily make love with you if he likes you.”
At least according to the guide’s editors, the triple supremacy and, for that matter, the triple taboo had not prevailed. Bangkok was an erotic paradise where the male body could be an instrument of play and sensuality and where monumental solidifications into categories were not needed. Even outside Bangkok, the guidebook said, “Anywhere and everywhere in small provincial places you can find willing partners.”
How true the observations were is debatable. But as a European media representation, the image of Bangkok as a dissenter – and now a refuge — from the commands of a singular, solidly defined manhood had been maintained.
Spartacus listed fourteen gay bars in Bangkok, more than any other Southeast Asian city. Most were in the district known as Patpong, lying next to Lumphini Park which Vajiravudh, in one of his final efforts, had designed as the grounds for an international European-style exposition that never happened. The most famous statue of the king gazed from the park toward Patpong.
Contrasting with that expansive image of childlike male play, the Spartacus editors were more cautious when it came to describing the actual geography in which that play was most likely to be found. It was as if two oppositional narratives existed. The guidebook warned against patronizing five of the fourteen gay bars, for example.
The Tom Boy, the editors wrote, offered “near-naked go-go boys,” but in the upstairs rooms over the bar where other sorts of go-go could be had, “the management is said to have spy-holes in the walls.”
At the Twilight bar, supposedly, young men could be rented as “off boys, ” meaning that the bar owner paid their wages and the customer then paid the owner a fee to “subcontract” the men’s time somewhere away from the bar. What then happened between the men became a private matter, neatly sidetracking any questions about the bar owner being involved in illegal prostitution. Recognizing that the system encouraged very poor male migrants from the rural countryside to turn to sex simply for money, Spartacus condemned the off-boy approach as “almost a form of slavery and not recommended.”
As for other bars — the New Flora, the Stockholm, and the Black — they were “clip-joints” that earned a rating of AYOR – “at your own risk — dangerous places with risk of personal attack or police activity.”
For massage, the guide noted that Bangkok offered several hundred parlors for heterosexuals “with females who are invariably riddled with syphilis.” The gay scene was a little better, but the guide found only two massage parlors to recommend for gay men, one of which, it said, “was basically hetero, but has some male masseurs.”
It also warned readers: “Since many American servicemen from the Vietnam war came to Bangkok, a serious form of syphilis known as ‘Saigon Rose’ has been widespread. Most clinics did not know how to properly treat it.” Spartacus referred men to the only one it believed could.
As for cruising outdoors, Spartacus noted that Lumphini Park was popular “early evenings and around the King’s statue.” But it was “very AYOR.”
Opposite the downtown Grand Palace several kilometers away from Patpong, male cruising was also popular in the evenings – in Saranrom Park, the old gardens of Vajiravudh’s palace where the crown prince had held his nighttime games with his courtiers and pages.
According to Spartacus, then, Bangkok was an erotic mecca filled with friendly and fluid men who subverted Western rules about body and desire and gender. The capital of the Chakri kings was a place of male sanuk and male mai pen rai — Thai for “fun” and “don’t worry about it.” Yet, Spartacus had also posted a warning sign on one-third of the supposedly gay friendly geography and had warned of high risk in most actual pursuits.
It was sometime the year that Spartacus published its guide that a twenty-seven-year-old man named Toc was taken by a friend to Patpong for the first time. Like most Thai males, Toc was known by a simple one-syllable nickname, an echo of the days when Vajiravudh had tried to change the Siamese custom of not having last names. Toc had a family name, of course; that had been required since the days of Phibun, but he seldom went by it as a courtesy to those who did not want to utter the usual, long multi-syllabic names that Thais used more formally. Born in 1952, Toc was part of the first post-World War II generation in Southeast Asia. He had entered adolescence the year that Darrell Berrigan had been murdered. By then, he had already been sent away from Thailand. Toc’s parents had accumulated wealth through banking and mining, and in the 1960s, looking for a good education for him, they had sent him to Hong Kong for primary school rather than keeping him in Bangkok. He was partly Chinese, thanks to a grandparent’s blood. In Hong Kong, his parents thought, he could perfect his English more easily than in Bangkok. It was also safely distant from that continuation of the Indochinese war between Americans and Vietnamese. Communist insurgencies in rural Thailand were even more worrisome.
So the young Toc had left to study in a more British setting.
A few years later, he had been moved to the United States for high school, this time at the elite Pennington School for Boys a short distance away from Princeton University. Methodists had founded Pennington as a male seminary during the period of the great evangelical revival that had preceded the American war between the states. Although Pennington had joined the first wave of late Nineteenth Century feminism by admitting women, by 1910 it had returned to its all male-mission, staying that way through Toc’s enrollment there. Fewer than five hundred young men were allowed to attend and Pennington turned away five times as many students as applied. Due to the crusades of Methodist missionaries throughout the colonial world, the school had become known as a spot where bright young males from South America and Asia could get their first introductions to America.
As a boy and even a young teen, Toc was a slender Asian male full of lines and triangles but not elliptical muscles. He weighed so little that his classmates at Pennington would tease him into being the first onto the frozen ponds so he could test the ice for skating. His friends say that Toc was also a disciplined overachiever, studying until 1 or 2 a.m. every night.
His father had encouraged him to study the more practical aspects of life, so Toc eventually ended up studying for a business degree in London, but as had happened with Vajiravudh, the center of the British Empire had simply brought him closer to his real loves: art, architecture, the interior designs of palaces and grand homes, and the expansive yet minutely detailed landscapes of European gardens. His summer vacations with his father included tours of Europe, with plenty of opportunities for treating every period of music and art as contemporary inspirations to be absorbed and then re-synthesized. Between the formal schooling and the travel, Toc would learn to hold his own in conversations about British history with Londoners, about European music with the Viennese, and even about Catholic doctrine with canon law teachers, all of whom would eventually come to his home in Bangkok.
Once, on the European tours, his father asked for formal wear at the evening dinner. A photograph instead shows him wearing a light-colored bowtie offset by a double-breasted dark jacket and wide white bellbottoms. He had also invited his first boyfriend, a young German, to accompany him to the dinner. The boyfriend was an exactly planned fashion contrast, dressed in a dark bowtie, a light-colored jacket and dark bellbottoms.
Despite being in the United States and London during the heady 1970s of gay liberation, Toc never went to a gay bar. The trip to Patpong with his friend would be his first introduction.
That night, they went to the Tulip Bar. It was located near the corner of Silom and Convent Roads in Patpong and Spartacus had noted that the Tulip tended to attract a young crowd interested in dancing. The dark bar had a jukebox and looked something like a crowded shop specializing in long strings of hanging lights and disco balls.
Fresh from the grand palaces and landscapes of Europe, the young Toc was unimpressed. Much later, he would tell a visitor:
“Why should we always settle for something like that? Why should we always be second-class?”
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