Friday, December 14, 2012

Off the Beaten Track: I Came to Casablanca for the Waters

We're pleased to have writer Jake Needham as our guest blogger this week. Jake is an American crime novelist who lives in Bangkok. His crime novels set in contemporary Asia include: THE AMBASSADOR'S WIFE, A WORLD OF TROUBLE, KILLING PLATO, LAUNDRY MAN, and THE BIG MANGO. His latest Inspector Tay novel, THE UMBRELLA MAN, will be released next month. The print editions of Jake's novels are distributed only in Europe, Asia, and the UK, where they have all been bestsellers. Happily, the e-book editions of his novels are available worldwide. Jake has lived and worked in Asia for over twenty-five years. Read more about Jake's books at his website,
When I am in the United States and my city of residence comes up in conversation, I am usually asked — and almost always in a tone laden with wariness and suspicion — why in the world I am living in a place like Bangkok.

Bangkok. All photos courtesy Jake Needham.
Sadly, I cannot simply reply with Humphrey Bogart's famous line when he was asked how he came to be in Casablanca. I can make no claim to being misinformed. I had lived in Asian cities for a long time before I took up residence in Bangkok, and I knew exactly what I was getting into.

I have come in a perverse way to look forward to this track conversations with my fellow Americans seem to take whenever they learn that I am living in Bangkok. Instead of expressing curiosity about my life in the distant and exotic city that I call my home, my interlocutors seem far more intent on telling me what they think of the place.

Of course, very few Americans seemed to know much of anything about any place that is not America, but still it surprised me that I hardly ever meet anyone back in the United States who has anything at all to say about Bangkok, other than on one of two topics.
Food is one of those topics, naturally. Everyone claims to love Thai food. Going out for Chinese is cheap. Going out for Thai seems somehow hipper. Of course, most Westerners have no real idea what they are actually eating in either case, but Thai food is both cheap and hip, so how can you beat that?

The other topic, as you might guess, is sex. Bangkok is inexorably linked in most people’s minds with stories they have heard somewhere -- although I notice few people admit to remembering exactly where -- of an unabashedly dissolute life and the ready availability of free sex. Well, perhaps not exactly free, but certainly pretty inexpensive sex, at least by world standards. Thai sex is a little like Thai food, cheap but with a kind of exotic style to it. Can’t beat that combination in any context, can you?

With all that going for it, you might think that the idea of me actually living in Bangkok would be pretty interesting to most people, wouldn’t you? You might think that, but you’d be wrong.
A couple of times I tried joking that, well, a man could sure make a lot worse choice than taking up residence in a city that is internationally famed for food and sex. But when I saw the solemn expressions that crack generally engendered in most Americans, I swiftly eliminated it from my repertoire. Maybe the suggestion that food and sex are important parts of life makes Americans uncomfortable. Maybe I ought to have more friends from France.
Anyway, the inevitable view people express when they find out that I live in Bangkok is something I have learned to live with. Oh, the place is no doubt interesting, people murmured, but yet . . . somehow it's still a city where a lot of people go who aren’t particularly…well, nice.

To be absolutely honest with you here, I have to admit that perception isn't really too far off the mark.

I have often thought there has to be some kind of international network devoted to coaxing social rejects and dropout cases worldwide into coming to Bangkok, because come they do. By the thousands, they walk away from third-shift jobs in places like Los Angeles, London, Berlin, and Toronto, pack what they have, buy a cheap airline ticket, and make their way to the Land of Smiles.

Some are looking for a cheap tropical paradise; others hope they’ve joined a nonstop orgy; but almost every one of them is intending in some way to make a fresh start on a life that until then had very little to recommend it. Many of these refugees from reality probably couldn’t have located Bangkok on a map before they decided it was the place for them, maybe they still can’t, but now Bangkok had become their last, maybe their only hope.
In the empty hours, this army of the dispossessed takes control of the part of the city where most foreigners live. Tuk-tuks, little three-wheeled motorcycle taxis, fly back and forth most of the night ferrying carousers between the two clumps of bars that anchor the neighborhood: Nana Plaza on the west and Soi Cowboy about a mile to the east.
They are all there. The lonely, the frightened, the guilty, the lost, the vulnerable, the depressed, and the psychotic. Soaked with sweat, they rush back and forth from one bar to another, reeking of that peculiarly sour, metallic odor habitually given off by the emotionally overmatched and underachieving.

So, I hear you ask, how in the world did you end up in Bangkok?

It happened this way…

Back a couple of decades ago now, HBO hired me to produce a movie they were making from a screenplay I had sold them. It was to be filmed in Bangkok and, since I lived in Asia and presumably knew something about it, they thought it sensible to add me to the corps of so-called producers that every movie drags around behind it like a modern version of the old time camp followers that every army attracted.

Regardless of HBO’s wisdom in putting me on the payroll, I must tell you now that I am grateful beyond measure that they did.

The woman who is now my wife was born in Thailand and educated in England (thank heaven it wasn’t the other way around). She was doing a stint at the time as the editor of the Thai edition of the UK magazine, Tatler, and she came out to the set one day to interview me. A year later we were married. Twenty years later, we have two sons and are still living in Bangkok .

So there you have it. That is how I came to be resident in a city that most Americans seem to think of as little more than adult Disneyland for the dodgy and the disreputable. Only with better food.

Admit it. You're actually a bit disappointed, aren't you? Maybe you expected something a little more…well, spicy?

I rest my case.


  1. Hi Jake,
    A great story with a happy ending.I always learn something from your excellent novels and blogs.
    Have a wonderful Christmas and of course, A Very Happy New Year.

  2. Love it, Jake! And it's just the right balance of sweet and spicy. Thanks for blogging with us, and I must say---I can't wait to read your books.

  3. Hello Jake, nicely done as always.
    As someone who doesn't get out much anymore, I want to add that Thai films are worth the time spent getting used to them. I've watched most every Thai film on Netflix. I'm a huge fan of wuxia film stories, and if I had an all-time top ten, three of them would be Thai: Ong Bak, Chocolate, and the original Bangkok Dangerous.

    One of the reasons I enjoy reading your work is your ability to evoke not only the images of the locales you write about, but the heart and the spirit of the people who make them meaningful.

  4. Thanks for blogging with us Jake. Great post!

  5. Interesting post. I have to say, indifference to the reality of life in other countries is not limited to Thailand. I lived in the very western country of Italy for 18 months and was amazed at the lack of interest many people exhibited about what life was like there. Not everyone, but a fair number. As you point out, many people relate to a foreign experience through food. And sex. That pasta? Those sexy Italian women? Most people aren't big nuances when it comes to furriners.

  6. Jake, thanks for sharing this fascinating city with us. Looking forward to reading your books. One of the great joys of reading international fiction is the glimpse we get of unfamiliar places.

  7. Nice piece, Jake. Thanks for sharing. I've lived in Rome for ten years, and I get the same question. Sometimes I send it back with a "Why not?" Food, of course, is what everyone talks about, but many express some concern about crime. That's why I describe my work as writing about two of Italy's great works of art: food and crime. Italians generally ask a different question, "Which do you prefer, Italy or America?" That requires a more complicated answer.

  8. I've often wondered why there are so few novels that touch in any way on American expats, and I wonder that even more now after reading how many of you identified with my own expat experiences. One reason there are so few novels about such things published, I suppose, is explained by what I have always heard from US publishers about my own novels: Americans don't want to read about foreigners. If US publishers have already made up their mind that no one wants to read about American expats, then I guarantee you there won't be many novels like that around.

    Happily, other cultures seem to have an awful lot more interest, and so my novels all sell very well in the UK, Europe, and Asia. That's why, years ago, I simply lost all interest in being published in the US. Like the Bangkok Post said, I'm 'probably the best known American writer no one in America ever heard of.'