Rocking out to bicultural rhythms

by Philip Cunningham

BANGKOK — Hundreds of kids line up patiently outside the air-conditioned convention hall for an hour, only to learn the hottest, cheapest concert of the month has just been sold out. The logo for the event is the Japanese flag, a red sun on a field of white, bearing the English words: Asia 2000 Music Festival.

Co-sponsored by Japan’s NHK and the Thai Army’s Channel 5, the concert is being staged in a consumer’s paradise, the top floor of the biggest department store in Bangkok, and is symbolic of Japan and Thailand’s generally friendly relations, in a region fraught with ethnic and national rivalries.

The extravaganza starts an hour late. The sight of the empty, glittering stage causes some head-scratching among the adults present, but provides an opportunity for the hormone-driven crowd of Thai and Japanese teens to mingle and horse around.

Tickets are democratically priced at 20 to 50 baht a pop, and happily many scrawny-looking kids in flip-flops and shorts are in attendance along with their well-heeled peers from Bangkok’s nouveau riche elite. In the midst of the humming crowd there are roped off seats and camera perches for the press corps and yawning VIP visitors, but the real action is the standing-room-only peanut gallery at the back of the hall.

Boys will be boys and girls will be girls, except in Thailand, of course, where you sometimes get a mix of the two. A group of slim, effeminate Thai boys, wearing halter tops, hot pants and high-heeled shoes, are dancing among themselves a short distance away. Cross dressers ogle each other’s outfits and accessories.

A Thai boy wearing Union Jack pants, thin waist wrapped with an American flag, quietly shows off his noisy threads to his peers. Three Japanese girls from the International School in Bangkok are dressed in yukata and giggling among themselves. Tight clusters of rambunctious kids, who looked like they might otherwise be selling flowers on the street, danced happily together, whirling around like dervishes and laughing at the slightest provocation.

A comely teen from Thepsirin High School is winning appreciative glances for her skimpy halter top, revealing skinny shoulders and upper arms decorated in indigo tatoos. She says she likes “fai” the best. I fumble through the promotional materials, failing to find any band by that name, until I realize that fai is her way of saying Fly, whose latest album “Fly2k” is one of the hotter rock tapes in Bangkok today.

She and her spiky haired young male friend disagree over the best band of the night. He says he likes Ami Suzuki, provoking a jealous retort.

While I watch them argue, a slightly older, more proper-looking teen interrupts to turn the questions on me. She’s wearing the conservative white shirt and blue midi-skirt uniform common to high schoolers.

“Who do you write for? Where are you from? Where did you learn to speak Thai?” she asks. She has good reason to be curious, I suppose, since I was the lone farang (white person) in the crowd and perilously close to her parents’ age. When we got all that straightened out, she made it quietly clear she didn’t approve of the young couple I had just queried. She countered with some opinions of her own.

“I like Thai music better than Japanese music,” she said, as if the friendship concert was a trick question on an exam designed to test national loyalty. “Thai music is more fun, it has more power.” I asked her if she had made any Japanese friends in the throng of teenagers. “No, the Japanese are too stiff and formal,” she said, looking disapprovingly at a group of well-to-do Tokyo teens a short distance away.

I asked one of the young transvestites which singer he liked best. “Ni-ko,” came the answer in falsetto, as he coyly cupped his hand over his mouth. “Of course, Ni-ko.” Nicole Theriault, a superstar in Thai youth circles today, recently caused a stir when she made some careless, derogatory comments about Lao people. Born in California to a Thai mother and American father, she is not just pretty, but extremely fair-skinned, a quality mercilessly exploited in TV commercials and drama. Nicole projects an elite image, as evidenced in her hobbies “swimming, snowboarding, roller-blading and ice hockey,” two of which are truly exotic, almost unthinkable, in Thailand.

Here and there I took note of a Thai kid attentively leading a Japanese friend around by the hand, but most youth seemed content to stick to familiar groupings of their own culture. A lot of Thai kids showed up at the last minute, and waited in long lines to get in, while their Japanese cohorts had advance tickets and secured seats.

A small group of Japanese girls sat quietly together, chatting among themselves. A Japanese girl from Nagoya, dressed in a silk Chinese qipao, has her hair up in braids. She tells me she has been in Bangkok for three years and is looking forward to going home to Japan for college next year. I asked her group of friends what they thought of Thailand. “Too hot!” they answered in unison. “And dirty and smelly,” one of them added with a malicious grin, winning a few murmurs of agreement.

How about Thai food? “I hate pakchi,” says one of the almost-bicultural kids, using the Thai word for cilantro, a treasured ingredient of local cuisine. “I can’t wait to eat shiso again.” Her favorite band? Da Pump from Japan. What about Thai music? “No, I don’t like it,” snaps a fair-skinned young woman with pink beads in her hair. “It’s no good.”

Onstage, a “talent” from Tokyo humiliates himself with a callous attempt to pose as an American Indian chief, feathered head-dress and all. This turns out to be the master of ceremonies, who goes back and forth between French-accented English and passable Japanese. While music may be an international language, M.C. small talk is not. In fact, the show dragged to a halt several times during the evening, not just due to the time-wasting jokes and vapid posing of two trendy bilinguals but the showy and time-consuming Thai to English to Japanese back to Thai again translations that followed every bit of trivial chitchat.

Perhaps that is why it was so easy for the ultrasweet girl band Morning Musume to win loud cheers by addressing the crowd directly using a few words in Thai. Bowing in unison, hands cupped at their noses, seven Japanese girls dressed in identical shiny pink shorts and tops exclaimed “Sawatdee kha!” in greeting. How cute! What is it about speaking a few words in a foreign language that impresses people more than speaking it well?

At one point in the evening, four fake blond men strut onto stage and launch into a hip-hop dance number. I look at my concert notes truly confused: Japanese or Thai? It turns out to be African-American wanna-be Japanese band Da Pump.

Each time a Thai band comes on stage, the overwhelmingly Thai audience, familiar with the lyrics and personalities, comes alive with shouts and applause. Hands and fingers are delicately outstretched in the tradition of ramwong dance, only here it’s speeded up into a frenzy.

The Thai boys seemed to genuinely enjoy the many cute Japanese acts, though Ami Suzuki was the only Japanese star the Thais I spoke with could remember by name. “She’s cute!” boys would exclaim approvingly and longingly, as if she were a mirage of distant Japan. A number of Japanese girls agreed. “Ami-chan, she’s the best.” Why? “Kawaii!”

According to my informal exit poll, Nicole (cute) and Fly (anything but cute) came out on top for the Thai listeners, depending on whether they liked sweet pop or grungy rock. In third place came Ami Suzuki, who rivals Hello Kitty in popularity.

Most of the Japanese talent reflected the sophisticated banality of the corporate-sponsored, top-down, how-you- look-is-more-important-than-how-you-sound youth music that thrives in Tokyo. It’s reminiscent of karaoke in the sense that music is reduced to “talent” who excel at holding a mike; it’s song and dance unencumbered by musical instruments.

Although I couldn’t determine if lip-synching was going on, the sounds of unseen males voices backing soloist Ami Suzuki, for example, puzzled me. I suspect most of the Japanese acts will look better on TV (to be broadcast on NHK in early June) than live because the Japanese artists were generally better groomed, made up and more camera savvy than the Thai acts. But overall, the Thai music was more original, more spirited and at its best was full of soul and verve lacking in the Japanese numbers.