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Nine months of living in Asia provided far more material than I could ever squeeze into 90,000 words. In the end I found myself madly cutting huge chunks of text to try and fit everything in. Below I have posted my pick of the snippets which didn't make it into the book. The Byron of China, football fans and congealed pig's blood in central Vietnam and a disappearing spy in Bangkok.
Religion and Poetry in Xi'an, China
Day two in Xi’an and we’re off to explore the Muslim quarter, with its art communities and markets, mosques and museums.
Islam arrived in Xi'an during a Golden Age. The Tang Dynasty (618 AD - 907 AD) was ruling, using Xi'an (then called Chang'an) as their capital. The nation was enjoying a period of massive growth with numerous trading routes operating through Asia and the Middle East. Chang'an was then the largest city in the world, and China itself was home to around 50 million households. Between the merchants and the political ambassadors, Chang'an was a city open to foreign influence and investment. Scriptural texts, translators and missionaries arrived on the Silk Road, bringing religious thought and philosophy from the Mediterranean, North Africa, India, and the myriad countries of the middle and near East. The court regularly put on artistic spectacles and events to entertain its guests and the period saw the flowering of thousands of Chinese artists and poets: amongst them the Byronic and highly influential Li Bo.
Tang-era China occupied a smaller area than she does today, with territory concentrated in present-day Eastern and Central China. As the Tang pushed to develop their hold in the Middle East the extraordinarily fast rise of Islam provided a focus for resistance on China's western front. The Arabs were expanding their empire in the west as the Tang were pushing into the same territory from the east. The decisive moment came in 751 at the Battle of Talas (around the border between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan) when the Caliphate's forces overwhelmed the Tang. Of 10,000 Tang soldiers, only 2,000 returned home.
Born into a lower class family in Sichuan, Li Bo had neither the background nor the education of his cultural contemporaries when he arrived in Chang'an. Li embraced this role as the outsider, cultivating a popular following and playing up his image as a wild eccentric amongst scholars. Poetry was the hobby and practice of all those who aspired to rise within the court and Confucian teaching prescribed that the subject matter of poetry should be poetry itself and its relationship to politics and the court. While the elite wrote to be read by the elite, Li wrote poetry about love, popular religion, nature and war: accessible poetry designed to appeal to and be read by all. Many of Li Bo's poems dwell on the suffering of the wives in Chang'an, waiting month upon month to hear if their husbands had survived the latest campaign.
Memories of ChangAn
When my hair grew long about my face and I sat at our gate making garlands
You rode around me on a bamboo horse, juggling green plums for amusement
In perfect innocence we grew up together, side by side, together in Chang’an
And at fourteen I became your wife, still too shy to speak or joke or sing
I looked towards the wall, and though you called me often I never came to you
At fifteen I looked you in the face, and my soul leapt up to mix with yours
I knew then that I would wait for you forever, and never lose hope standing in the watcher’s tower
At sixteen you left me to travel through the Gorge, to a far away land of rock and swirling water
By May my heart was sore from aching, I strained to hear the monkeys cry in your far-off land
Green moss is slowly growing in the grooves your feet made by the gate
It’s thick now, too thick to sweep away, early autumn winds cover it with leaves
In August the butterflies come in yellow pairs, swooping together above the garden gate
Their carefree life plants sorrow in my heart, through worrying my face has aged
Send me a letter, telling when you’ll come down the river from Sanba
I will come to meet you, nowhere is too far, I will come all the way to Chang-feng Sha
Li Bo (trans. M Emmerson)
Football and Food in Hue
Hue is relatively vegetarian friendly, and it's easy enough to pick up meat-free noodles or lunchtime broth. Chris, meanwhile, has discovered Bun Bo Hue, which is sometimes referred to as spicy Pho but is actually a different dish entirely.
The wonderfully rich, salty-sweet Bun Bo broth is made by boiling pig's trotters in a large pan of water with beef shank, salt and bundles of lemongrass for 1 - 2 hours. Optional extras include garlic, ginger and pineapple. The beef is then removed, sliced and returned to the broth. In a separate pan, annatto oil is heated and spring onions are fried with paprika and fish sauce, making a deep orange/red sauce which is added to the broth. Shrimp paste is diluted and added along with salt and sugar to season. Next, cubes of simmered, congealed pigs' blood are added to the soup.
After 3 or 4 hours, when the pig's trotters are tender and ready to eat, the broth is served with round rice noodles, slices of onion and coriander to garnish. Depending on who's preparing your Bun Bo it may also come with Vietnamese mint, bean sprouts and lime wedges. As you head down towards the Mekong Delta, more often than not you'll also find it sprinkled with sliced banana blossom.
We have discovered a cafe which makes the most amazing fruit smoothies. Back packers congregate on the little tables outside, their bikes and cyclos parked against the crumbling walls. Inside the shady concrete shack, locals sit and play checkers and chess or watch the telly on the wall in the corner. A group of five or six men are watching highlights from yesterday’s friendlies back in England. We order mango and dragonfruit smoothies and Chris attempts to draw the man at the bar into a conversation about football.
The barman gleefully enters into this as he is a Man U supporter and very smug about his team’s triumph at the top of the table. Chris (Liverpool – fourth place) happily starts to pluck stats and favourite games from the air, desperate for some escapist football chat. An and Loc (Man City – ninth place – game of checkers) draw a certain amount of flack. I (Spurs – eleventh place) pretend to read the guidebook. A slightly rowdy table in the corner – who I suspect are drinking something stronger than a durian zinger – declare for Aston Villa (sixth). One by one all the inhabitants of the bar turn and join in the banter. At a table all by himself, a small, quiet gentleman sits, nursing an iced coffee. He does not turn. Chris watches him for a while and then he leans across the bar.
‘What about him? Does he not like football?’
‘Oh no. He likes football, it’s just that...’ The barman falters, unwilling to continue.
Chris leans in closer. ‘Just that what? Who does he support?’
The barman’s eyes wrinkle, expressing a kind of pained empathy: ‘West Bromwich Albion.’
‘No!’ Chris cannot suppress his horror and surprise. The whole bar turns and nods, their eyes stretched wide with fellow feeling.
Very slowly the small man turns in his chair, his lips part just a little and in a heavy Vietnamese accent he whispers the name quietly as if it were a holy affirmation: ‘West Bromwich Albion.’
In the evenings we drink cocktails on the street terrace of Bar Why Not? and watch the world go slowly by. Judging by the South Bank district, Hue is a sleepy town. A town of hazy skies and little mopeds. A town where you can wander down the middle of the main street in the evening sunshine and watch the breeze ruffle the leaves of the trees.
Jim Thompson's House, Bangkok
Jim Thompson was born into a large and wealthy family in Delaware in 1906 and trained as an architect, going on to build country houses for rich families along the east coast of the US. From an early age he was politically active and over time his liberal politics alienated him from his conservative family. In 1941, as the US entered the Second World War, he enlisted and was quickly recruited into the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), meaning that he was involved in clandestine work in North Africa and Europe. When the war in Europe ended he volunteered to join a mission to invade Thailand, a mission which he never had to complete due to the surrender of the Japanese. Two days after VJ day, Jim Thompson arrived in Bangkok for the first time.
Thompson fell in love with the city. He was enamoured of the architecture, the paintings, the people, the food – the whole hum and bustle of a city which still worked and moved mainly on the water. After his discharge from the OSS he decided to stay and oversee the restoration of the Oriental Hotel, which had fallen into a state of ruin following its use as a base for Japanese soldiers during the occupation. Thompson never got to finish his renovation of the hotel because he fell out with his partners and backers and withdrew from the project. Casting around for another enterprise to keep him in Bangkok he thought of the materials he’d been buying up to decorate the hotel. The sumptuous hand woven Thai silk had been particularly hard to come by. A preference for Western goods and the economy of buying machine-made fabric from abroad had all but destroyed this centuries old industry. The few hand weavers still found in Bangkok had kept going mainly because as Muslims in a Buddhist country their craft had helped to keep their community together.
In 1948, Thompson sold shares in his newly formed Thai Silk Company. He bought better and faster looms and expanded the traditional silk weaving district in Bangkok. In the wake of the Second World War the fashionable capitals of the world were hungry for luxury products. Thompson was well connected and sent samples of hand woven silk to Edna Woolman Chase, the editor of Vogue, and to the costume designer Irene Sharaff who was shortly to start work on the production of a new musical, called The King and I. For several years, Thompson pursued a highly imaginative and successful marketing campaign across Europe and America. By the mid-1950s, Thai silk had become one of the most sought-after Asian exports in the West and Thompson a wealthy entrepreneur. In the wake of his success, Thompson decided he wanted a build a grand Thai house, a home for his growing collection of Eastern antiques and a celebration of the local architecture he had fallen in love with.
He wanted to construct a compound using rooms and structures from old houses he saw around him in Bangkok, and towards the end of the 50s he set about buying up beautiful old houses and transporting them to his empty site, across the canal from the weaving district which he had helped to revitalise. A team of carpenters was employed to fit together the various elements and make them a cohesive whole. In the grounds around the buildings he started work on a sculpture garden and a wild area which he wanted to look like a jungle. The house was finished in 1959 and became a place for Thompson to live in, work from and entertain his many friends and visitors. Somerset Maugham visited him there in 1960, as did the actresses Anne Baxter and Ethel Merman and Robert and Ethel Kennedy.
The compound really is extraordinary. The rooms of Thompson’s house overflow with antiques from around the world. Enamelled boxes and bowls from China, decorated in shades of sea green, chestnut brown and pumpkin orange. On top of a cabinet painted in gold leaf with scenes from the lives of the Hindu gods, a set of Thai bowls glow with a dancing, leaping troop of demons. Propped against the wall is a serving platter from fifteenth century Vietnam, painted - blue and white - with a scrolling border of petals and acanthus leaves. In front of the window stands a twelfth-century Khmer statue of Vishnu, its one extant arm raised in blessing. The whole house seems to glow from within, its deep red-brown wood burnished and gleaming. It’s like being trapped within a jewel.
An open terrace holds low, sinuously curving garden furniture. Surrounded by flowering bushes and palms, it was the setting for many cocktail parties in Thompson’s heighday. The living room is really a kind of long hall with a steeply sloping roof. Here as well low sofas, daybeds and coffee tables invite the visitor to escape the heat by lounging and sipping from Chinese pots of jasmine tea. The bedroom walls are covered in geometric patterns, carved into the wood. Screens have been brought from China, showing scenes of imperial life and the floor is thick with animal skins. A multi-roomed Imperial palace for white mice from nineteenth-century China sits in an alcove.
Over the years, Thompson was bolstered and encouraged in his pursuits by a number of important friends, among them the rather extraordinary Connie Mangskau. The daughter of an English father and a Thai mother, by the time of the Second World War Mangskau was already a young widow with two daughters. She joined the Thai resistance during the war and was imprisoned by the Japanese in Cambodia for spying. She and Thompson bonded after the war, brought together by their shared experiences of espionage and Mangskau’s need to provide for herself and her daughters after the war. Together they launched a number of business ventures, with Thompson specialising in silks and Mangskau in antiques.
In 1967, Thompson and Mangskau travelled to Penang in Malaysia for an Easter holiday. From Penang they travelled further south to the Cameron Highlands on the Malaysian mainland. On Easter Sunday they attended a morning mass and then returned to the bungalow they were sharing with their friends Dr Ling Tien Gi and his wife Helen. Sometime in the afternoon Thompson said goodbye to the ladies as they sat talking and went out for a walk. He never returned. Despite the offer of a vast reward and a search that took in hundreds of people, no one has ever concluded what happened to Jim Thompson.
© Miranda Emmerson 2014
reviews for fragrant heart
"Here we have an entertaining and thoughtful account of passing from one stage of life (footloose youth) to another (the responsibilities of parenthood)."
Susan Griffiths, Perceptive Travel online magazine
"The book takes the reader on an adventurous journey through S.E Asia, painting a picture not only of the sights of interest, but also of the culture, history, art, politics and cuisine of each region. Some parts of the book are touching, some fascinating and some are laugh-out-loud funny.
"Detailed descriptions of the foods they discover on their travels are so vivid that you can almost smell the food cooking and taste the flavours as you read..."
Lisa Onykahonie, We Don't Eat Anything With a Face...