The Borgias

I've spent the last few nights in absolute rapture at the antics of one of the most abominable families in Western history.

They were the Borgias, a pack of schemers, poisoners, and assasins who were for a while the most powerful and infamous family on the globe. And Showtime has brought them most marvellously alive in its series The Borgias.

My interest in this family dates back to my childhood. My father was a great subscriber to series of hardcover books in mock leather bindings: Great Poets of the Western World, The Novels of Charles Dickens and, most importantly, The Great Historical Biographies. Among these was a biography of Lucretia Borgia (and it was always the "T" spelling when I was young, though these days the Italianised "Lucrezia" seems to have become standard) that become a firm family favourite. When my mother first read it she would terrify my seven-year-old self with tales of the wicked  poisoner, and Lucretia Borgia loomed in my imagination as a horrendous mass murderer. As soon as I was old enough I read the biography myself, and found myself charmed by the immoral Lucretia, and firmly in favour of her murderous ways. Lucretia has always been my kind of woman.

That book has long disappeared, and I have no idea who the author might have been. I am assuming it must have been John Leslie Garner's translation of Ferdinand Gregorovius 19th Century biography. But I have had to wait till now to see the Borgias brought to life on the small screen, but the result is so marvellous that it has been worth the wait.

Those of a religious disposition would already have seen the series, and all seem to love it. The horror of this most despicable family can be too much for those of a more delicate constitution. Everyone has been singing the praises of Jeremy Irons as the thoroughly corrupt Rodrigo Borgia, father of those most wicked children Cesare and Lucrezia. He seems almost born for the part, though his thinness bothers me. The Borgias were famous for their plumpness, so this thoroughly glamorous - and terribly skinny - cast has been arranged with some liberties with historical fact.  

For me the winning performances were Francois Arnaud as the spiritually troubled (though reliably murderous) Cesare Borgia and Luke Pasqualino as the thoroughly beautiful Paulo, lover of Lucrezia. Lucrezia is played with a wonderful innocence by the exquisitely named Holliday Grainger.

This show really is tremendous fun, and has absolutely everything need to keep you glued to the screen - sex, murder, beautiful people and outrageous romances. And the best thing about it is that it's (mostly) all true, so you can convince yoursel;f that it is educational viewing.

The sumptuous sets and costunmes and the consistently wonderful performances - that always sail close to becoming campy - make this tremendous viewing. Go and grab the DVD set and devote the next week or so of evenings to watching it. You won't be disappointed!

Review - Butterfly: A Novel by Julie O'Yang

Chinese mythology is filled with tales of fish-women, erotic enchantresses who can disguise their scales, perhaps for generations, in order to lure the human men they love. These archetypal creatures have been re-imagined by Dutch-Chinese author Julie O’Yang in her fascinating new book Butterfly: A Novel, and they exist in a world that incorporates the modernity of Shanghai with memories of the Nanking massacre and the romantic and sexual torments of a young doctor. 

O’Yang has created an intriguing and quite complex world in this novel, and it makes a fascinating read for anyone interested in China and Chinese culture and history.

Butterfly: A Novel is also about women and the problematic tropes of femininity at work in Chinese culture. A repeated motif in the book is the presence of the Buddhist Goddess Guanyin, a feminine figure of the divine who is of enormous importance in the popular religious imagination, and oddly powerful in a religion and culture more noted for favouring masculine power. But O’Yang’s Goddess of Mercy is not the delicate beauty of Chinese iconography. She is cruel and occasionally whimsical, creating torments along with mercies. I must say I admired O’Yang’s bravery in tackling this particular archetype of feminine perfection. Because of course it is doctrinally correct – along with her merciful forms, Avalokitesvara is a wrathful creature whose charge is also to protect and defend the dharma. 

“They say the butterfly fish was made by Bodhisattva Guanyin after she had had a strange dream.”

The Goddess toys with creation in her dreams, and much of this novel inhabits the same, dream-like, fantastical world in which fish-women exist alongside (though hidden away from) modernity. The sexy and sassy young nurses dress provocatively and go to all-night dance parties in sophisticated modern Shanghai, while moldering away in an attic lies a pathetically beautiful creature that longs for her old states of being and lives in a state of perpetual, but beautiful, regret. 

The mythology of the fish-person has resonances across cultures, and it is frequently associated with a kind of female perfection and beauty which is irresistible to man. I was reading Butterfly: A Novel while travelling through Cambodia and Thailand, where in daily life I frequently heard similar legends and even saw them represented. O’Yang’s act of creation is, self-consciously or not, a step along in this older tradition of story-building, and the novel is rendered all the more complex and fascinating because of this. 

It is a novel of grief and of desire, and at one point O’Yang writes, quite starkly: “desire is so strong you can’t afford the consequences.” But of course, it is the consequences of desire (which inevitably include death and destruction) that go to make up the events of this novel.  More particularly, it is desire mis-applied, or perversely directed towards that which might cause most chaos. It is dangerous and queer desire, the love of the wrong, and the forbidden connection between creatures that should never have met – in O’Yang’s book a fish-woman and a Japanese soldier. All of this, mind, taking place in the fraught background of World War Two Nanking, a place that has provided some rich literary pickings for Chinese writers, from Ye Zhaoyan to May-lee Chai. 

Julie O’Yang has created a glittering magic-realist novel that explores desire and the cruel capriciousness of sexual attraction. It is a brave and sometimes challenging novel, and one that will enchant anyone interested in love, relationship and the eternal echoes of Chinese culture and mythology.

Serindia Gallery, Bangkok

While I was in Bangkok recently I stumbled upon the most gorgeous little gallery space that is well worth a visit next time you are in Thailand.

It's called the Serindia Gallery, and it's off Charoen Krung Road, right near the corner of Suriwongse.
It's housed in the most beautiful little heritage-styale Thai shopping precinct called O. P. Garden, and it's surrounded by cafes and other fasinating spaces. It's also within walking distance of the always-wonderful Neilson Hays Library (with it's fantastic cafe) and one of my favourite places in Bangkok, the Vietnamese Temple Wat U Phai Rat Bamrung. So you could easily make a whole afternoon of wandering from one fascinating space to another.
While I was there the gallery had the most fantastic exhibition of Taschen's wonderful special editions - great big chunky art books that delight the eye. But soon the gallery is hosting an exhibition of photos of Chinese gymnasts, which I am so sad to be missing. This series of pics will be well worth catching.


Serindia Gallery

OP Garden 4, 6 Soi Charoen Krung 36
Unit 3101, 3201
Charoen Krung Road, Bangrak,
Bangkok 10500


Bigbang - Fantastic Baby

While on a side trip to Vietnam recently I couldn't help but notice that THIS was the song that everyone was listening to - BIGBANG's Fantastic Baby.
Do admit, it's pretty fascinating - great make-up, great hairstyles, the BIGBANG boys themselves, and a strange kind of political commentary that I can't quite grasp yet.
See it and let me know what you think.
And the green eyebrows guy (what's his name?) totally wins on every level.

Lux Body Wash in Southeast Asia

In Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia Lux produce the most exquisite range of body washes that I can't find in Australia and simply adore.
Now, I can understand a little why these babies are not produced for the western market. They are heavily perfumed - you smell great for about 2 hours after yoru shower. And the best product is White Impress, a whitening wash. Skin whitening products are almost non-existent in Australia, though in Southeast Asia they make up the majority of cosmetic products. You can even get skin whitening deodorant here!
So what makes these Lux body washes so delicious? Well, there's the aforementioned perfume - I am the type who likes my bathroom (and, consequently, my body) smelling good. The product is also creamy and has a rich lather, but washes off clean, with no residue (I HATE after-wash residue, and I find it is becoming more and more common in soaps and body washes).
So, there you have it, Lux - can you please launch this wonderful range in Australia - I think you will find a market. I have been a fan for years now, and always buy the products to bring home with me.

My Favourite Pen

I know this might seem a ridiculous thing to blog about, but I have just found a stash of my favourite pens, ones I have been looking for for more than two years now.
These particular pens I have only ever found at one 7 Eleven in Bangkok. I have been back several times in the past couple of years, but they were neve there. I thought they must be gone forever.
Last night I stumbled in there, ostensibly to get myself a ginger ale, but secretly hoping that my treasured pens would be there. And they were! I bought every single packet. I was beside myself with joy - I almost couldn't eat, so satisfied was I with my purchase.
There is nothing special abou these pens. They retail for 14 baht for a pack of two, which is ridiculously cheap. But they are produced by Staedtler and they are simply exquisite. They are ball-points, which are essential for a roving travel writer whose journal gets damp. The minute gel ink gets damp it runs and becomes unreadable. They also come in multiple (but all very strong and readable) colours, another useful factor because in one's journal one wants to highlight different things using different colours.
But mostly it's a tactile thing. These Staedtlers have a thick body without being too bulky and heavy, and have slightly flattened sides, making them very easy to grasp and use  if you have a big hand.

You see, it's the small things.

Luang Po To

Having recently read Justin Thomas McDaniel's simply brilliant book The Lovelorn Ghost and the Magical Monk (which I have reviewed for an upcoming issue of New Dawn magazine), I have become more aware of the popular cult of Luang Po To in Thailand.
Of course, like anybody who has ever visited Thailand I have seen his image thousands of times, but until I read McDaniel's book I was unaware of just how significant a figure Luang Po To is, and how much his memory and image are revered in modern Thailand.
So one of the first things I did when I arrived in Thailand was to head over to Wat Indraviharn, which is the main point of Luang Po To worship in Bangkok.
Who was Luang Po To? He was a nineteenth century Thai monk, a fearsome figure who despised the west and any expression of western modernity. He taught the superiority of Thai Buddhism, and stressed a peculiar and extra-canonical practice - the recitation of a gatha or religious poem that he had written himself, though it was roughly based on a Pali chant.
This gatha is called the Chin-na Panchon (Pali: Jinapanjara) gatha, and at Wat Indraviharn you can enter a small, air-conditioned shrine to Luang Po To which has the gatha written in Khmer script at the bottom of a clear pool.

Thai people believe that the recitation of the gatha is a kind of religio-magical practice that can cure health problems and ensure success in all aspects of life. I bought a couple of CDs of the gatha to play at home - it's gotta be worth a try, right?

There is all kinds of religious memorabilia based on Luang Po To's image available.

He is distinctive because he is frequently depicted in a peculiar position where one clenched fist is resting on another in his lap.

At Wat Indraviharn there is also a holy fountain where you can purchase bottles of water blessed by the statue of Luang Po To

People believe that Luang Po To represents a golden age in Thai Buddhism and culture, and he is said to have been of royal blood himself, and ro have received the reverence and support of the Thai royal family. You can find images of him in temples and homes across Thailand, and also in the form of small amulets in cars and taxis.

Paying respect to these images and reciting the gatha in front of them is said to be spiritually powerful.
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