Singapore had its beautiful people and its sometimes wild night world but it was a relative place of calm in tropical Southeast Asia of the late l960s, for this was a region that, while appealingly erotic and exotic, had many war zones. Because of the relative calm it was in Singapore that I started what had the feel of a publishable novel. It was set in Bangkok, where I had recently been living, a much wilder place in all ways.
The book, which came out two years later under the title Where Dragons Dwell, drew heavily, almost to the point of being memoir, on what had recently been part of my life in Bangkok, including a just finished love affair with a Thai girl who, among other things, wore gold lamé with flair and sang in night clubs. And it had as a central figure a daring and lovely young American woman, a true Sixties figure, who had arrived in town in the dangerous company of a C.I.A. man who was pretending to be a car salesman. This was the Bangkok of the Vietnam era when it was a camp followers' boomtown overrun with spies and con men of all nations, and American soldiers on "rest and recuperation" from the war, in town for drugs and drink and night world girls – a wildly colorful, sex mad, anything-goes tropical river city of bright palaces and temples right on the fringe of the American Wars in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Night clubs and bars and huge new massage parlors, side by side with old teak houses on languid canals – and always smooth, smiling girls, their bodies often on display in sarongs, and increasingly in strapless night club gowns. And always danger, for almost all the resident foreigners were up to surreptitious activities, like the American girl's recent C.I.A. boyfriend – foreigners working for intelligence agencies and also conducting scam operations such as selling worthless stock and underwater Florida land to American soldiers and to each other. It was not uncommon for one of their number to be assassinated.
In Bangkok I had lived in an airy house built out over the half-mile wide Chao Phya River in Thonbury, across from Thai gunboats and Bangkok's main temples and palaces and the shaded docks for the ornate old royal barges. Just the right setting, I thought, for someone who only needed the right material in order to achieve to literary success.
One night, after I had started writing about Bangkok, I flew from Singapore to the Philippines. Shortly after I landed in Manila I was having dinner in a well-guarded, walled-off compound with two old American friends, Steve, an amusing and extremely intelligent writer with a complex personal life whom I had known in New York, and his wife Berta, who had long sandy hair and was alert and sometimes bohemian.
Steve now edited something called Free World, a slick U.S. government, Manila-based propaganda publication, that looked like a shrunken Life Magazine and went to America's cold war Southeast Asia allies, which were mainly monarchies and military dictatorships. Free World permitted Steve and Berta, to live like rich people in the Philippines, which was fast becoming yet another well-armed dictatorship – meaning Southeast Asia was not very free except in the imagination of Free World Magazine.
Steve and Berta lived like rich people because they were being paid by the State Department at a time the dollar was hugely overvalued, and also they had been given – as a perk for the supposed hardship of living outside America – this big solid house fully staffed with servants.
I was surprised at what I heard myself saying here at their polished mahogany dinner table, servant girls padding around us. I was not talking now about my recent life among the intelligence agents and sex workers in Bangkok , where I had thought of myself as both a pillar and a Boswell. I suddenly was talking instead about a time during World War II when I was nine and my parents had separated (though it was never called that). I talked about how we had all left Connecticut, my father for the city, my mother, my Southern Grandmother Clark and my twin brother Peter and myself, to stay for some undefined period of time at a hotel in Florida that was built around a tile patio with old pieces of eight embedded in it, a place that appeared to be made of found driftwood and was called The Driftwood, a place where everyone was drinking on shaky porches and balconies all the time.
Back there in Florida, I told Steve and Berta, my mother and her mother had quickly lost track of us. For no apparent reason they failed to put us in school. They brought along fourth grade textbooks but forgot to make us use them. Peter did find the textbooks and spent his days studying alone at the hotel, where he was often the only sober living human. Me, I wandered.
I had a small bicycle I rented out to soldiers billeted at a much bigger nearby beach hotel, a white stucco box building across from a ramshackle beachside bar-restaurant called Max's Tavern, where Mother and Grandmother Clark sometimes took us for hamburgers. It was a dark place, smelling of onions and stale beer, with a juke box always playing – "Stars at Night," clap, clap, "Are big and bright," clap, clap, "Deep in the heart of heart of Texas," along with "Praise the lord and pass the ammunition, For we're on a mighty mission...", and also crooner songs by Bing Crosby and a very young "Frankie" Sinatra. Soldiers drank and danced with tanned women who had long, bouncy hair and bright lipstick and sometimes wore only bright colored halters with their shorts or skirts. Along one wall was one of the best things I had ever seen – a row of slot machines. Even better than best, since Mother said this was illegal. "One-armed bandits," said Grandmother Clark, a gambler herself, as she downed a Manhattan cocktail.
Each day after this discovery I went to the back door of Max's with coins I had collected from the soldiers who used my bicycle – along with more coins I got by jiggling the receivers of pay phones I passed (the phone system so badly run in wartime that this was income I could count on). They let me in by the back in daytime so that I could play the slot machines.
Meanwhile, in my wanderings I made friends with a boy dressed in rags who lived in a shack in the orange groves, and sometimes we staged battles with rotten fruit. But mostly I wandered alone.
One day I came out of a dark palm jungle I frequented where I'd seen many reptiles and apparently a wild boar, and often had fearful thoughts of death. And as I emerged on the main road, tanned and freckled, my hair bleached nearly white by the sun and hanging nearly to my shoulders – for, like school, barbers had been forgotten – a convertible stopped and people in bright clothes with cameras got out and took my picture. I was quite sure they thought I was a swamp rat, a colorful, backwoods, forgotten child who lived here alone in the jungle.
Many years later in Southeast Asia when I finally got around to telling other human beings this story, Berta, my hostess in Manila, said, "Fred, this is what you should be writing about."
But I was not swayed from my view that my recent anything-goes time in Bangkok would have far greater appeal than anything in my childhood – as would the subjects of planned future books using, as background, my time underground in Portuguese Angola during Holden Roberto's guerrilla war, or in Borneo and Laos, or Syria and Cyprus, or Haiti and Cuba, or in the hot springs resorts of Taiwan, or right here in Manila outside this heavily guarded Manila compound, out beyond the walls in the nearby cockfight arenas, or in the big brothel-dance halls filled with sleek smooth girls of the night that I was drawn to.
What did Berta know about big exotic worlds? That I should write about that time in mundane Florida! It made me furious.
I was in my early thirties now, which seemed like I was well along in years, but it was another twenty years before I began to know, or dared to know, my deeper stories.
And, although I wrote that novel that was filled with real characters, including the American girl and me, it was another 20 years before I could even write about my time in Bangkok without a certain amount of falsifying, running from what was most real. There were huge gaps in the lives of all the characters as I portrayed them. It was years before my writing got deeply into the only context that counts, the context of concrete reality in the writer's own life and times and stories, the context of the writer's self.