Saturday, May 08, 2010


there is no there there

a few minutes ago watched john simpson's world on the bbc about the rundown shanty town part of chongqing called eighteen steps which will be torn down and replaced by ugly tall modern buildings very soon . i like simpson's world. he certainly picks all the interesting places and people for his program. this particular episode shows a small corner of chungqing which is marked for new development. the place is just an unremarkable shabby and dirty slum but he feels perhaps a mild regret that this colourful place will be no more in a few years time. his feeling about the place was exactly how i feel about places like this.

i've been to so many places and like mr simpson and one of those particular types of tourists , we are always looking for the picturesque. i've always feel uneasy and guility about this. we're selfishly taking voyeuristic pleasure looking at other people's misery and messiness just because they are colorful and picturesque. we feel regret that this messiness will be replaced by efficient comfortable tall gleaming buildings simply because they don't look beautiful to our 'romantic' eyes.

i know this is selfish but what to do. humans are just like that. at least some are. and so i go all over the world looking for the picturesques. i've long lost my interest in visiting the modern cities of the west. but never tire of visiting the messy and crumbling part of asia , the culcattas , kashgars and yangons of the world.

in a few weeks' time i'll be watching the world cup in johannesburg and what i am looking forward to is not the brazil vs ghana or germany vs ivory coast matches that i will be attending but deep in my heart what i really want to see is the shanty town of soweto. and i just found out what soweto meant. i was traveling to novotel bang na with an aussie collegue when we got to talking about south africa and he asked "do you know what soweto means?" and i said no. "it's south western township. " oh bugger. the place lost some of it's 'lustre' and romance now. all this while i always thought it to be an african word .

mr simpson mentioned a very interesting quote from getrude stein about a city , LA i think it was. when she visited the place what she said was "there is no there, there" . and i know exactly the feeling. we're always looking for the "there" in a place. modern cities all have lost the there, there. and interestingly i am still reading bits and pieces from getrude stein's ' an autobiography of alice b toklas' which is full of fascinating episodes about her salons and meetings with artists like picasso and others. i never like marie laurencin as an artist but there was an interesting episode about her in this book. she was messy and picturesque.

and fortunately for me too, i've seen the famous potrait of getrude stein by picasso in the MET (or was it at MOMA?) several years back. i took a picture of it although i think it wasn't allowed. i don't care very much about this ruling of no photos in museums. i always take as many as i like on the sly. it helps me to remember what pictures i've seen. and interestingly one time in the national potrait gallery of london while i was deep in concentration taking photos an old lady museum guard came from behind and told me nicely not to snap photos and i had a little argument with her about the louvre and some others allow photography and...oh i'm digressing again...

and about that place bang na just near bangkok souvanabhumi airport , that simply means rice field. the area has a sizeable muslim community that live their own old quaint life in a messy and picturesque way amidst the modern nondescript concrete modern buildings and one of these days i'll make a proper stop and visit their villages and mosques there. it looks like my kind of place. there is still a there, there.

emm surprise surprise, I also thought Soweto is an African word.
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