The sharper edge to traveling in Asia

The ghost ‘La Fantasma Pechona,’ Argentina’s legendary femme-fatale that robs men of desire for their wives

Written By: herbrunbridge - Mar• 31•14
La Pechona on a cigar box, circa 1920

La Pechona on a cigar box, circa 1920

Argentina’s most famous ghost  (fantasma) isn’t talked about much, but she’s feared everywhere. She is the ghost most likely to cause a marriage to fail, and mentioning her name is said to be flirting with disaster. She’s also the reason Argentine women won’t shower in the dark if there’s a mirror in the bathroom. But more on that later. Like many legendary ghosts, as one story goes, she was a real woman at one time, living during the 1500s, a high-ranking young woman of the Querandí tribe, credited with making Spanish noble Pedro de Mendoza flee her land, prodded by Mendoza’s wife, who swore to him that her extraordinarily wealthy father would see to it that their marriage was annulled and Mendoza’s fortune-by-marriage would be taken away.

The story tells the tale of Mendoza, a man so possessed by seeing a young woman’s large, heavy, and erect breasts that he could think of little else. He couldn’t have her, as she was Querandí  royalty, and to kidnap or rape her would cause a battle that the Spanish were sure to lose do to the numbers of their adversaries.  He saw her at every gathering where Querandí and Spanish would meet, and it drove him crazy with passion and away from his wife. As the story goes, La Pechona’s barely covered breasts caused Mendoza to depart in order to save his failing marriage, and what is now the Buenos Aires area of Argentina to remain indigenous for a little while longer. The princess’ name has been lost to time, but her ghost is named La Pechona, the woman of large breasts who causes men to wander from their wives once they are possessed.

The two rocks on the 'Pechonaguas' falls on the left are said to represent the breasts of La Pechona

The two rocks on the ‘Pechonaguas’ falls on the left are said to represent the breasts of La Pechona, as seen from the Brazilian side of Iguazu (iguacu) Falls

But that’s not the only tale describing her origins. Another legend held that she was a water nymph from Iguazú, spurned by a man who married a rival. From the Brazilian side of the falls, visitors today can see two massive rocks that are split apart and surrounded by streams of gushing water. They are called the “Pechonaguas,” and are said to be La Pechona’s breasts, eternally alive in the waters and reminding respectful viewers of her unrequited love and vengeful spirit. At the confluence of the three countries of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay, she’s feared and respected, known in Paraguay as La Lechera, as the whitewater foaming around and between her breasts is reminiscent of milk.

Not only do Argentines not want to discuss her, they don’t want to see her picture, either. Like Pandora, she possesses those that look at her. Ignoring her visage wasn’t always the case. In the 1920s, a Cuban cigar manufacturer sold its product to the Argentine market in a cigar box that bore what was imagined to be her likeness.  Cigars are a telling reference point, since they are fundamentally a “male” product. Comparatively few women smoke cigars. But in the 1920s, Argentine marriages began to fail, a victim of husbands seeking large breasted women. Perhaps a closer female figure would be La Petenera of flamenco fame in Spain, the beautiful Jewess, “la perdition de los hombres,” who leads non-Jewish men to their destruction. But we’re getting ahead of the story a bit. We should really be discussing how possession by La Pechona works.

To begin, an adolescent woman, or one who has not yet borne a child, becomes a carrier, in much the same way that a carrier of a virus may not be infected with the symptoms herself.  La Pechona chooses her by suddenly appearing behind her while she’s looking in the mirror. It is said that two actions need to occur for a woman to be possessed. She must be a full-breasted young woman engaged in the act of examining her breasts in front of a mirror. Secondly, if this occurs in a darkened room with a mirror, the otherwise transparent ghost will appear. When she does, her female carrier becomes engaged as a weapon against men. Typically, she will wear clothes that emphasize the size and shape of her breasts. In one fairly well-known cigar box image, she sits with one breast half uncovered, the other protruding adjacent to her left arm. Braids discreetly cover what would have been an exposed right nipple.

A man becomes infected by the ghost La Pechona when he looks at a woman that has been possessed. If she catches his eye and winks at him, he is a slave to La Pechona forever. The form the disease takes is life-changing and irreparable. From that day forward, he will be compelled to seek out women with large breasts. It doesn’t matter whether he’s happily married or in love. A common complaint from women whose men have been thus possessed is that their men have what is known as a “roving eye.” When such a man engages a well-endowed woman in conversation, the woman will sometimes point to her eyes and say “my eyes are here, not there,” indicating her breasts.

There is yet another twist, according to legend. If a woman is possessed while ignorant of the pregnancy she’s undergoing, each man she affects, until the day of her giving birth, will form an addiction to breast milk taken directly from the source, through a woman’s nipples.

Women do not know they’ve been possessed by Pechona. The wink they give to men is barely recognizable.  Some men do know that they’ve been possessed. Their world has turned upside-down and they may seek a folk remedy for it or attempt to exorcise La Pechona through prayer, confession, and penance.  An Argentine priest, when interviewed for this story, first asserted that the deity is all powerful. He then said that La Pechona is a powerful demoness (his words) that is not easily conquered. When asked for the number of individuals that he was aware of that had been disposed of La Pechona, he shrugged his shoulders, threw up his hands, and said nothing.

La Pechona’s not the only ghost in the world that people fear mentioning. Krasue, Thailand famous cannibalistic ghost with trailing entrails, is so feared that her name is never spoken.  While La Pechona is not as malevolent as Krasue, she’s a more serious threat than Jose Guadalupe Posada’s Catrina, a skeleton woman with a large hat and a serious presence on Mexico’s Day of the Dead.  Catrina is a caricature. La Pechona’s the real deal.

La Pechona’s true story has been lost to history. Nothing is known of her true name, position, family, life, or death. But she is credited for driving away the Spanish due to her hypnotic appeal. Mendoza couldn’t resist it, and his wife forced him to leave Argentina because of it.

Sibellino's abstract rendition of La Pechona can be found today in the Museo de Bellas Artes in Buenos Aires, Argentina

Sibellino’s abstract rendition of La Pechona can be found today in the Museo de Bellas Artes in Buenos Aires, Argentina

At least one noted Argentine artist has attempted to capture her, although in abstract form. Antonio Silvestre Sibellino made a sketch which he entitled “La Pechona Fantasma.” It’s displayed on the second floor of the Museo de Bellas Artes in Buenos Aires, although museum curators refuse to use the artist’s title, instead referring to is as “Sin título.”

That’s one form of proof that the legend remains a powerful one in Argentina, where seeing the name printed on a wall next to an abstract rendidtion of her likeness was reason enough to re-title the sketch.

If legends are to be believed, this may be the reason that many Argentine men will alternately look at, then away from a young woman proudly displaying her cleavage, especially when escorting wives or girlfriends on the streets. The power of this legend is underscored if one surreptitiously watches a couple walking hand in hand as a well-built young woman passes them.  The female of the couple will almost invariably watch her man’s eyes as a woman who could be possessed by La Pechtona approaches then passes.  She doesn’t want her man to be caught by La Pechona, the ghost that never leaves those she possesses.

Thai tattoos, WoWasis book review: ‘Thai Magic Tattoos: the Art and Influence of Sak Yant’

Written By: herbrunbridge - Mar• 13•14

ThaiMagicTattoosThree books on Thai sak yant tattoos have recently been published, but Thai Magic Tattoos: the Art and Influence of Sak Yant (2013, ISBN-13: 978-616-7339-21-4) by Isabel Azevedo Drouyer is the finest among them, due in no small part through the photographs of René Drouyer. Two other books, written by veteran authors Joe Cummings and Tom Vater, have good texts, but the photos are more than occasionally blurred, and for a book on tattoos, you really do want to see detail. For that, you’ll want this book instead.

The Drouyet book is large format, with outstanding black and white and color photographs of tattoos, artists (called ajarn, or masters), and lots of skin. The text is complete, beginning with a history of tattooing, focusing on the Pacific. It discusses well-known Thai sak yant tattoo masters Ajarn Anek, Ajarn Kob, Ajarn Lek Sitthapha, Ajarn Neng On Nut, Ajarn Noo Kanpai, Ajarn Oh, Ajarn Toi, and Ajarn Tui, and describes the experience of going to the noted temple Wat Thungsetti near Bangkok, where many go to be tattooed by monks. There is also a chapter on the Wai Khru ritual, held each year as a tribute to sak yant masters.

The descriptions of what the tattoos represent is fascinating focusing on animism, Buddhism, sacred protection, and success. Page 86 is exceptionally interesting, showing the back of a man with fourteen distinctive tattoos, text arrows to each, and then a description of the meaning of the tattoo. A chapter on the process investigates the pain involved in getting a tattoo and the philosophy behind bearing it. Drouyet balances the spiritual with the profane, and devotes several pages to the placebo effect as a confidence builder.

ThailandPromoBannerPerhaps most importantly, anyone who has spent time in Thailand, like we here at WoWasis have, and has gotten to know her people has noticed these tattoos, much of the time in intimate settings. Perhaps the most common is the gao yot, nine rising arrows usually found immediately under the neck. The knowledge contained in this book will allow visitors and expats alike to begin a conversation on the tattoo of a Thai friend, thereby gaining additional insight as to the bearer’s personal philosophy as embodied in ink.

As stated earlier, there are several current books onteh art of Thai sak yant tattooing, but this is the one to get. Buy it now at the WoWasis eStore.

WoWasis book review: Do-it-yourself adventures in Southeast Asia by Harold Stephens

Written By: herbrunbridge - Mar• 11•14

StephensReturnAdventure1The problem with many adventure travel books is that the layperson can’t easily replicate the travels discussed in them. This is not the case with veteran adventure writer Harold Stephens’ Return to Adventure Southeast Asia, with Amazing Thailand as the Hub (2000, ISBN 0964-2521-6-3). As experienced travelers ourselves, what fascinated us here at WoWasis is how many of these spectacular small adventures are easily doable, and how many we didn’t even know about.

Who knew you could take a two hour train ride out of Bangkok to the town of Mahachai, about which the author says “For those who want to see Thailand in a capsule, this is the train trip to take. It has everything in a nutshell that a long, two-day train can offer.” That’s two hours versus two days! This is just one of the several train trips that Stephens suggests, including one from Bangkok to Singapore that seemed tantalizing.

The author breaks down is adventures into trains, scuba and wreck diving, 4 wheeling, bicycles, spelunking, trekking, yachting and island hopping, mountain climbing and volcanoes, river exploring, and archaeological digs/searching for lost cities. He covers the countries of Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia (Borneo and mainland), Indonesia, and India.

AsiaPromoBannerWe weren’t aware of three temples in Thailand that appear to be must-sees: Prasat Muang Tam, Prasat Sikhoraphum, and Ban Pluang. And how about the archaeological digs and museum at Ban Chiang? You can see many of these artifacts in Bangkok’s splendid Suan Pakkad Palace museum, but why not go to the source?

At 227 pages with a splendid index, the book never ceases to amaze, with Stephens’ romanticism replete throughout the book. Here’s a great example, on Bangkok’s Chao Phraya river:

For more than a year I lived aboard Third Sea [the author’s self-built schooner] on the Chao Phraya, down at the mouth near Samut Prakan. The river here is wide, and I was able to observe life on the river, for every vessel, large and small, entering or leaving Bangkok, had to pass before me. Vessels of every flag from every nation found their way past the gray-stoned Customs and Immigration Building. There were tankers and freighters, flat-bottomed scows and lighters, barges loaded with stone and charcoal,and others with rice, being towed by powerful tugs, river taxis and ferries, sampans being sculled, trim gigs from naval vessels, cruise boats, long long-tail skiffs clipping along at incredible speeds, even great sailing junks with their lug sails pulling hard on the quarter, and, last, the Thai fishing boats, by the thousands, coming and going with the tides, feeding a hungry city with their 400 tons of fish every day, and each boat with its sea-toughened crew, torsos tattooed in enigmatic designs, all waving and laughing.

The best time to feel the mood is early morning. At first light, before dawn, the river is intimate. There is little movement, and one almost feels the presence of others as an intrusion. Blinding colors from a tropical sun have not yet supplanted soft grays, and uncertain forms on distant banks, the silhouette of trees or temple spires, that are harsh by day now loom soft in shades of coolness.

Then through the fog and mist rising up from the river, barges in tow, like elephants holding tails in a circus performance, slowly appear. Soon another string of barges come into sight, and another. A river taxi scurries across the water. A freighter lifts anchor and sounds its whistle. A sampan with sleepy-eyed ladies of the night hastily pulls away from a tanker which is also leaving, and now schoolchildren, all in neat scrubbed uniforms, arrive aboard a river bus. People wave and I have another cup of coffee on the aft deck. The river has come to life, pulsating, vibrant.

By mid-morning, Bangkok shimmers in the heat, and while the city swelters, the children born to the river take over. The wide expanse of brown water becomes their playground. Naked, with the image of innocence, they let themselves be dragged through the water by holding on to passing boats, they dive from piers and docksides, and some, the more daring, leap from the highest bridges into the swift currents below, only to come bobbing up a few feet downstream, their faces aglow with cherubic smiles.

For a book written in 2000, it’s remarkably current (Angkor Wat, for instance, is more accessible now than it was in 2000). The real warning here is that the reader will experience a real sense of wanderlust and predictably start planning a first or return trip to Southeast Asia. With this book, Stephens has made great inroads into making the seemingly inaccessible affordable and doable. Buy this book now at the WoWasis eStore.

WoWasis book review: ‘Iban Dream’ Borneo Headhunting Fiction by Golda Mowe

Written By: herbrunbridge - Mar• 04•14

MoweIbanMalaysian author Golda Mowe has written one of the more outstanding books we’ve encountered, the beautiful, at times shocking, and endlessly fascinating Iban Dream (2013, ISBN 978-981-4423-12-0). Through 288 pages, Mowe weaves an Iban fantasy that encompasses Dayak rituals, myths, and realities. First, a little background.

Visitors to the Sarawak state in Malaysian Borneo will encounter the Iban culture, in museums, antiquities and crafts shops in Kuching, and in small talk with Iban acquaintances. Go on a longhouse tour, and you’ll see trophy heads in each longhouse. Mowe’s mother is Iban. She knows her stuff.

In Iban Dream, Mowe tells the fascinating tale on an orphaned boy who becomes a great warrior and leader, defeating other tribes, pirates who have kidnapped loved ones, and a startling list of mythological half-human beasts that form the basis for Iban mythology. She offers breathtaking prose on the nature of the forests and animal life of Borneo and provides important background information on Iban culture and taboos. But we liked her writing on headhunting perhaps best of all.

MalaysiaIt’s difficult for westerners to get their heads around headhunting. Borneo-based author James Ritchie has written some magnificent documents on the practice of headhunting, including a primer on how heads are smoked. But Mowe takes another approach, incorporating the practice into a mythological story by taking an insider’s perspective that, we think, can only be revealed in this manner by an Iban. From felling a tree to create a warrior’s shield, to describing how a longhouse is built and outfitted, to the relationships of generations, Mowe hasn’t missed anything.

The story is filled with high drama, too, and the author has the craft of adventure writing down to a fine art. This may not be the book you’ll take with you on your flight to Borneo, but it’s certainly the one you’ll want to bring home with you for the flight home. It unveils countless mysteries and keeps the reader riveted. It serves as an anthropological book, a mythological tale, and high adventure. It’s not to be missed by any reader desiring to read intimate details of native culture and is an important book on Borneo. Buy it now at the WoWasis eStore.

Remembering Carol Hollinger: ‘Mai Pen Rai,’ her book on Thailand, revisited

Written By: herbrunbridge - Feb• 27•14

HollingerMaiPenRaiSo here’s perhaps the biggest tragedy that can befall a writer. You write your first book, and later critics will opine that it’s better than any book ever written on your subject. Readers love it and it’s still talked about and read 50 years after it’s published. But you die before you ever see it published. At the age of 45.

This story of triumph and tragedy is the story of Carol Hollinger, a housewife who accompanied her husband on a U.S. government assignment to Bangkok. From a longevity perspective, her book Mai Pen Rai Means Never Mind (1965, ISBN 974-8303-35-7) is certainly one of the most successful books ever written about Thailand. Since it was published, it’s never gone out of print. Today, every English bookstore in Bangkok has at least one copy for sale, and it’s in every bookstore at the airport too. But Hollinger never saw a royalty check or a review. By that time, she had died, the victim of a cerebral hemorrhage. From the perspective of a housewife (yes, that’s the term used in 1965), she saw Thailand with unprejudiced eyes, the antithesis of the ugly American. She took joy and wonder in everything as she concentrated on raising a daughter and navigating her way through the expat social milieu. And when the reader finishes the book, he or she wants more and to know more. When’s Hollinger’s next book coming out? Who is she? What’s in her background that gave her the perspective of seeing a new land in just the way she did?  The book provides no answers. It has neither an introduction nor an afterword. To a very great extent, Carol Hollinger has been lost to the ages.

Carol Hollinger, Holly Turton, and Jack Turton departing Hawaii for Thailand, 1957

Carol Hollinger, Holly Turton, and Jack Turton departing Hawaii for Thailand, 1957

Reviewing Mai Pen Rai

After reading the delightful Mai Pen Rai Means Never Mind (1965, ISBN 974-8303-35-7), one can’t help but thinking that author Carol Hollinger has somehow become an old friend, and accessible by email, telephone, or samlor. Of the nearly 100 mentions of her in search engines, none describes anything about her life or death, mentioning instead only her book, and a short synopsis. This book is a remarkably insightful, witty, and charming book, leaving the reader to wonder how she sorted out her final years after returning to the U.S.

The cover of the book refers to her as an “American Housewife,” which is a little like classifying Hemingway as a fishermen, or Carême as a short-order cook. A wonderful essayist in the manner of Marya Mannes, Hollinger is intelligently self-deprecating:

“… my social talents are non-existent. I do not shine at parties. In fact, if there is a gloomy spot, I am usually it. I am prone to the wrong dress and a lock of hair that juts the wrong way in my coiffure. My feet always hurt. The result of this combination of limiting factors is that I usually end up in a corner with a frantic gentleman. He is frantic because he cannot escape me politely.”

 Hollinger offers remarkable insights into the interactions between farang and Thais, and, perhaps more interestingly, between Western expats themselves. She’s keenly aware of the intricacies and injustice of class structure, and unforgiving of the Americans living in Thailand who choose to adopt superior attitudes, particularly when involving servants. Perhaps her finest writing is in the chapter entitled “The Joker in the Deck” in which she relates the beginning and end of her days as a card-reading fortune teller, who unwittingly predicted the death of a close friend’s 19 year old daughter. The book remains an landmark memoir of an expat in Thailand, a major reason why it’s still being sold — and loved — today.

ThailandPromoBannerWho was Carol Hollinger?

Through veteran expat writer Steve Rosse, we were able to trace down Carol’s daughter Holly, and here’s what we found out about her talented and insightful mother:

Carol was born in Honolulu on October 18, 1919, descended from a family that originally came from the Azores or Portugal, and had two siblings, Ben and Louise Hollinger. Her mother’s maiden name was Louise Bushnell (anglicized from Busnoa or something similar). Her cousin, O.A. “Ozzie” Bushnell was a noted author on Hawaiian subjects. Carol’s father, Ben Hollinger, was Administrator of Parks and Recreation, where Queen Kapiʻolani Park came under his control. Ben Hollinger maintained a fascination with animals and began collecting them to showcase at the park in Waikīkī, and ran for governor at one point.

Carol attended Punahou school in Honolulu (its alumni also include Barack Obama and Sun Yat Sen). She joined the Navy during World War II as a Wave, and met Jack Turton, a Navy pilot, and they soon married. Returning to the States after the war, she may have graduated from George Washington University or was working on a master’s degree there (unfortunately, much data detailing her pre-Thailand history has been lost).

She arrived in Bangkok in 1957, along with her husband and daughter Holly, where Jack had accepted a position with the U.S. government. She immediately fell in love with Thailand and its people. She became a member of an informal get-together called the Friday Night Group, taught history and perhaps English as well at Chulalongkorn University. As Holly notes, “We had a gibbon named Gibby. And a handful of servants. She loved the chaos of the servants’ quarters. There were always relatives and mothers-in-law and babies, and it was quite lively.”

Carol and her family returned to the U.S. in 1959, where she wrote Mai Pen Rai. Steve Rosse interviewed writing instructor Dan Wakefield in 1999, who recounted how Hollinger got her book published.

I was teaching at Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference in Middlebury, Vermont.  I don’t remember which year, but I taught there for the even years during the 1960’s, so it was likely 1964. [Carol] was a very pleasant and very attractive woman.  Like all the students, she submitted the book as a sample of her writing.  All the students got to have a one-hour private conference with one of the professional writers on the faculty, and Carol asked that this manuscript be the subject of her conference with me… We always received the students’ work prior to the conference, and when I went to the conference I was elated that this was, finally, somebody who had actually written a publishable book.  You must understand that all the students wanted to be discovered at Bread Loaf, and in most cases their work wasn’t nearly ready to be published.  I knew on first reading that Carol’s was.  I think she did too, but she had no contacts in publishing, and had come to Bread Loaf in hopes of making some connections.  I was very enthused about the book and immediately sent it to my agent, James Oliver Brown.  He usually represented fiction writers, but he was charmed by her book and taken with it, just as I had been.  Then he met Carol, and he was charmed and taken with her.  The first publisher he sent it to was Houghton Mifflin, and they immediately signed it up.  It is very rare for a book to sell to the first publisher who sees it.

During this time, Hollinger fell in love with another group of people, teaching at Paul Junior High School,  an inner city school in Washington D.C. According to Holly Turton, “The students had a certain magic for her, not unlike the Thais. She treasured them and they adored her. She put on plays, probably something no one had bothered to do at that school.”

Summers were spent on a lake in Vermont where the beauty and solitude soothed her. The cabin next door often housed her sister Louise Hollinger Miller or friend Martha Dudley, with whom she often discussed travel, history and philosophy.

Carol Hollinger Turton had a long history of migraine headaches, and she died from a cerebral hemorrhage on July 2, 1965, before her book was published. She didn’t live to see her soon-to-be-famous book in print.

Hollinger’s tragic and premature death underscores her legacy as an important essayist on Thai culture and the expat experience of living in a foreign country. Her legacy consists of one book, and it’s a rich one. You can find used copies in many internet venues, and new copies in Thailand. Here at WoWasis, we think that this is an important book that shouldn’t be missed, and learning more about the author heightens its appeal and provides a final curtain on a most fascinating story.

WoWasis book review: ‘Once Upon a Time in Malaya’ by Chong Seck Chim

Written By: herbrunbridge - Feb• 25•14

MalayaChimBook

Set in Japanese-occupied Malaya during World War II, Chong Seck Chim’s Once Upon a Time in Malaya (2005, ISBN 981-4155-46-2) is the fascinating tale of the up-and-coming youth Ah Kiew and how he deftly juggles familial obligation, political realities, and romance. Chong is a master of character development, and introduces the reader to a number of archetypes that wonderfully hold the story together.

We learn early that Ah Kiew is in love with a girl in his church congregation that barely recognizes his existence. Everything in his life changes dramatically when Japanese occupying forces arrive, and how he and his friends and mentors deftly survive the occupation is a remarkable story. Familial obligations are at the forefront, and we here at WoWasis found the references to Malaysian culture, particularly of the baba-nyonya Straits Chinese, to be a highlight of the book (wearing the “green hat” for instance, is a term, derived from Chinese opera, used to describe a man that has been cuckholded).  The author’s descriptive powers are formidable, as exemplified in this passage describing mining ravages reminiscent of the Malakoff Diggins hydraulic mines of northern California:

The brief interlude in Ampang had been less stressful than expected. The refugees found themselves in a strangeplace, almost exotic-a land of rugged escarpments andsand tailings, relics of the tin quarrying that had gone on before. The pressurised water jets in the opencast mines had turned theland surface over like a remade carpet, leaving raw red earth and deep gullies everywhere-as in a moonscape. Or like the badlands of cowboy country in the movies. But the torrential downpours that ravaged the land also filled the mining pools and rivulets, sothat they now sustained patches of freshwater fisheries and marketgardens in the man-made desert. Spare-time dulang (pan) washing by women and children for leftover tin ore in the rillets further helped the villagers to eke out a modest living.

MalaysiaThis book is a landmark in Malaysian fiction, written by a Malaysian scholar who at one time was the Malaysian ambassador to UNESCO, and highly recommended.

Foul Play Suspected in disappearance of journalist Dave Walker in Cambodia

Written By: herbrunbridge - Feb• 20•14

WalkerDave1aAs was reported in the Phnom Penh Post this week, noted Canadian journalist and filmmmaker Dave Walker has been reported missing from his Siem Reap guest house for five days. His passport, telephone, computer, and possessions were all left behind, and foul play is suspected.

Walker reportedly left the Green Village Angkor guesthouse on February 14 with only a bottle of water, taking a short walk while his room was being cleaned. As of February 19, Walker has not been located. According to National Post writer Stewart Bell, Walker had been working on a film on the subject of a former Khmer Rouge official. Walker’s friends are at odds as to whether he might have made enemies with former members of the Khmer Rouge, as speculation is that his disappearance may be linked to investigations he made in preparation for the film.

If, in fact, there is no direct Khmer Rouge link to his disappearance, who else might have wanted Walker silenced? Reports are rampant in Cambodia regarding NGOs (non-governmental organizations) working with police and military officials to shake down male visitors falsely accused of abusing children. In such cases, a bribe, often in the neighborhood of $30,000 USD is demanded, and if not paid, the victim is jailed. Could Walker have possibly been investigating such a story?

Speculation as to the cause of Walker’s disappearance is rife and police are reportedly investigating. Unlike a number of other westerners who have disappeared in southeast Asia over the years, Walker was a well-known individual. Dave Walker is perhaps best known to westerners as the co-author, along with Richard Ehrlich, of Hello My Big Big Honey, a book written in 2000 based on love letters to Bangkok bar girls.

WoWasis book review: ‘Bangkok Express’ by James A. Newman

Written By: herbrunbridge - Feb• 19•14

NewmanBKKexpressAdmittedly, it’s a challenge coming up with new twists when writing Bangkok Fiction. Bar girls, bad girls, corruption, and “influential” bad guys are all staples. It’s a brave writer that newly dips is foot in this muddy stream, and James A. Newman is one of the latest, in his detective novel Bangkok Express (2012, ISBN 978-1-4092-7754-5). The author has lived in Thailand since 2001, and among other things, has been a litigation insurance broker, which gives him some necessary insight into the crime upon which the book centers.

Murders are taking place on the island of Ko Samui, disguised as accidents so the perpetrators can collect insurance premiums. Into the fray comes London-based Joe Dylan, an investigator who, unlike most other protagonists in the Bangkok Fiction genre, doesn’t drink or make it a habit of bedding bar girls. There are some interesting characters in Bangkok Express, as well as several plots twists that move the book along nicely. The insurance scam is nicely explained, a theme that is reminiscent of Byron Bales’ novel The Family Business, written in 2003.

Where the book came up short for us was in the loose ends that never quite got tied down by the end of this 225 page story. Gantira, who plays a major role in the book, just sort of disappears at the end, as does James Hale, who seems to vacillate between being a saint and a sinner. And there doesn’t appear to be anything in the character of the policeman that would prompt his shooting of his teenaged daughter, which we here at WoWasis saw as a flaw in character development. 

ThailandPromoBannerWe’re left with the feeling that the book was too hastily finished (publisher’s deadline) and the ending was rushed. According to the book’s page on Amazon, this is the first of a series on detective Joe Dylan. Possibly those loose ends will be followed in a subsequent novel, it this one leaves the reader lacking a sense of fulfillment. Newman’s not yet thirty years of age, and presumably has a lot more writing left in him. A successful series leaves the reader wanting more, but also offers a sense of completion with each book. That sense is lacking here, and it’s hoped that Newman’s follow-on efforts in the series won’t be as rushed, be a little stronger in character development, and offer some degree of finality that will satisfy the reader to a greater extent than Bangkok Express does.

WoWasis book review: Dean Barrett’s ‘A Love Story: China Memoirs of Thomas Rowley’ historical erotica

Written By: herbrunbridge - Feb• 18•14

BarrettRowleyLeave it to veteran expat western author Dean Barrett to put a new twist on Asia-based fiction. His latest novel. A Love Story: The China Memoirs of Thomas Rowley (2013, ISBN-13: 978-0-9788888-3-1) will make readers want to hold on to their hats (and scrotums) as protagonist Thomas Rowley, a western soldier in China, is captured and then enslaved by beautiful and powerful female Taiping soldiers. The story takes place during China’s Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864), where Rowley, serving in Frederick Townsend Ward’s mercenary army, becomes separated from his comrades. His female captors begin by publicly humiliating him, giving him to soldier Sweet Little Sister, who rides him as a horse, whips him, and makes him sleep with his fellow equines. Soon, Rowley becomes enamored of his slave keeper, and for the remainder of the story, remains devoted to her, dedicated to her every whim and fancy.  Astute readers will recognize elements of the Stockholm syndrome at play here, and conjure up visions of Sacher-Masoch’s classic novel Venus in Furs. What makes this story compelling is that the love is requited, and when the female army rests in the Eden-like Peach Blossom Spring with forty pages remaining to be read, it occurs to the reader that the end of Rowley’s bliss cannot be far away.

Indeed, some of Barrett’s best writing here describes Peach Blossom Spring itself, a mythical paradise to which the author has alluded to in previous books. Here’s how he describes it in Rowley:

As we entered a narrow gorge, the clouds seemed to sweep with an almost unnatural speed across the sky and I heard the howl of rushing wind. The wind increased until I thought we might actually be blown to the side of the trail, but we must have entered a part of the gorge protected from the wind because the wind suddenly died.

At the sound of running water I turned my head. A sparkling spring meandered toward sheer, white-faced cliffs, a solid mountain wall which appeared precipitously steep and impassable. And yet we continued on in that direction. Soon the air was sweetened with an intoxicating fragrance. On both banks I saw peach trees ablaze with deep pink blossoms and beneath the trees a myriad of delicate pink and white blossoms had carpeted the banks of the stream. An eerie shaft of golden sunlight shot out from a well concealed opening in the cliff, bathing the women warriors in a deep yellow glow. Sweet Little Sister looked down at me from horseback and smiled. “We are here,” she said.

The women dismounted and led the horses through the narrow gorge. We emerged into a sunlit, bucolic land of villages and temples and farms and fields. Beyond intersecting dykes, mulberry trees and bamboo groves stretched to the horizon. I could see how prosperous the farms appeared especially compared to what I had seen during my captivity. We passed fertile fields of rice and cotton and beans and corn and almost every crop I could name.

Villagers espied us and abandoned their work to warmly greet the Taiping women whom they obviously had seen before. I noticed their clothes seemed to be of a fashion totally different from anything I had previously seen in China. Young men and women immediately helped unpack the horses and others took them off to be cared for. Several gathered cautiously about to stare at the long-nosed, ghostly white, foreign-devil.

In the distance I could glimpse the sun reflecting off of a series of small lakes and setting fire to the bells of a seven-story pagoda. The wind was gently ringing its bells and at its base peach blossoms carpeted much of the entrance area. In the distance I could hear someone playing a flute.

 

ChinaPromoBannerThe book, though, is based on the psychological nuances of erotica, an oriental fantasy that kept us thinking of Sax Rohmer’s Dragon Lady operating within a sexually-charged environment that many of us adolescents no doubt dreamed about when we read those books as youths. But make no mistake, Barrett here takes it to very adult proportions in keeping with what one easily finds today in Bangkok, where the author lives. As such, the story essentially operates in two historically distant, yet sexually similar worlds. And there is justice: a large-breasted, prejudiced, and class-conscious western woman is brought to her knees as easily as Rowley, becoming the lover of her female subjugator, a sub-plot in which Barrett must have reveled as he wrote it.

Barrett’s written a number of books on Asian themes, both fiction and non-fiction. Clearly, this amalgam of erotica and history has been brewing some time before bubbling to the surface. We couldn’t put it down and neither, do we suspect, will you. Highly recommended. Buy it now at the WoWasis eStore.

WoWasis book review: ‘Don’t Mean Nothing,’ Vietnam nursing experience by Susan O’Neill

Written By: herbrunbridge - Feb• 07•14

ONeillDontMeanNothingLike many other veteran of the Vietnam war experience, Susan O’Neill, who served as an army operating nurse in 1969-1970, was angry enough when she returned that she simply wanted to forget it. Years later, she wrote about her experiences in fictionalized short stories in her Don’t Mean Nothing: Short Stories of Vietnam. (2001, ISBN 0-552-99975-X).  Although she swears this is all fiction, it becomes clear that most, if not all of it, is factual, and she’s changed names and possibly places to protect both the innocent and guilty.

The book takes a while to get its legs.  The drudgery of the job, the asininities of many of the officers, and the questioning of why the U.S. was there in the first place don’t produce a lot of action stories, but give it time, because the book unfolds well. Many of the characters appear repeatedly in different stories and there’s very little in the way of character development. The personnel are who they are, and make no mistake, they are, almost to a person, jaded about the war and its aims.

O’Neill takes a sympathetic view to both the Vietnamese and to many U.S. soldiers, who were essentially sold a bill of goods before they arrived. Nevertheless, many of them re-up, feeling that at home, there really isn’t much awaiting them. The oppressiveness of attempting to win an unwinnable war is omnipresent, keenly felt as yet another soldier — on either side — arrives in her field hospital (she serves in Phu Bai, Chu Lai, and Cu Chi) with injuries that will created lifelong challenges or soon result in death.

VietnamPromoBannerFor us here at WoWasis, the best chapter ‘Hope is the Thing with the Golf Club,’ which documents the tits-and-ass show brought in by Bob Hope, in which the comedian’s endless string of bawdy jokes falls increasingly flat on the audience. One of the most memorable characters is the magician Sammy Cohen (‘This Rough Magic’) who spurns a lovemaking attempt by his female assistant to such an extent that the reader is led to believe that he’s probably gay. Or is he?

O’Neill provides more questions than answers, and we found the book to be a worthwhile read more than a decade after its writing. We’re happy it’s still available, and recommend reading it as a worthwhile diversion that still conveys the power of the moment. Buy it now at the WoWasis eStore.