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Navigating the Bangkok Noir

by Chris Coles

Reviewed by Brian S.

The collective musings of Chris Cole, combined with the artwork he created inside the 128 full color pages of Navigating Bangkok Noir will turn any reader of this book into an ‘armchair punter’ searching for manufactured romance while basking beneath the spectral glow of neon inside any go-go bar, teeming with tourists, touts, Thais and tarts in such places as Patpong, Nana Plaza and Soi Cowboy.

Navigating the Bangkok Noir takes the reader inside the minds of the bargirls and guides them on a whirlwind tour through the notorious, seemly, and occasionally poignant nightlife scene of Bangkok without ever once stepping outside their front door.

When the editor of the Trader presented me with this particular book to review, it didn’t take long to realize that there was no obvious narrative to review. It was a picture book, or more specifically, an art book. How was I supposed to review a book with very little text? In fact, the only text inside the softcover ‘art book’ was made up of an introduction, followed by a number of reproductions of Chris Cole’s colourful artwork.

Fortunately, each one of the author’s expressionist, water color paintings was accompanied by an evocative caption that explained its inspiration and subject matter.

The images in the paintings Chris Coles has created are reminiscent of a modern day Toulouse-Lautrec. The cast of characters, displayed in gaudy colors depict the good, the bad, and the ugly. The gay, the straight, the bargirls, ladyboys, partiers, punters and pissheads are the ingredients that inspired the images, and give Bangkok’s noir its spiciness.

To me the narrative descriptions of the settings and characters which accompanied each painting is what makes this book shine. Each vignette of words enhance our understanding of the paintings. For example the description penned for a painting titled Washington Square Girl provides the reader with some insight as to how so many Thai women end up in a Bangkok bar:

Sometimes she sits the whole day without any clients or drinks. She thinks about her life as a little girl, in a house on stilts, taking care of the chickens and water buffalo. Her mother worked from dawn till dusk, taught her kids to smile and sing, no matter how hard their life. At age twelve, she finished school and joined her father in the rice fields. Before she was eighteen, she had two babies. Her boyfriend ran away. The kids are teenagers now, living in the house on stilts. Someday they too will come to Bangkok.”

Another piece by the name of Patpong Girl explains the ability of a seasoned bargirl to size up any man:

For two years she’s been dancing in a Patpong bar, about a hundred tourists a night, thirty-five thousand a year, seventy thousand in all, from Europe, Australia, the Middle East, Japan, Korea and the U.S. She looks at each one, knows them better than they know themselves, who they are, what they are looking for and whether they are worth her time.”

While another work called Lover’s Quarrel aptly illustrates the huge chasm that separates a youthful foreign bar patron from an equally young bargirl:

He’s still young and naïve, learning how to live. She spent the last five years working in a Bangkok bar, at least three lifetimes compared to him. Both twenty-three, they’re not from different planets but separate solar systems, intersecting in the heat of a Bangkok night.”

Whatever one might think of the Bangkok nightlife scene, Chris Coles has successfully painted a vivid and sometimes lurid portrait, using both paint and words of what transpires inside of Bangkok’s bars and nightclubs, between the pages of Navigating the Bangkok Noir.