What’s an 82 year-old to do in COVID-stifled New York City when he is confined to home after undergoing surgery? The answer, of course, is — meander. As in wander through shadow-filled corridors from the past, recalling hard-to-believe things and remembering unreal people, escaping the boredom of suffocating masks and unfriendly social distancing.
And therein hangs the tale of my landlady in Bangkok and tasteful murder.
I lived in the City of Angels in Thailand for five years from 1973 to 1978. It was a dreamlike time spent on the banks of the Chao Phraya River in a house by the Thewet boat dock. My residence defied easy description. The best I can say about my dwelling is down-at-the-heels-genteel New Orleans mansion crossed with tattered Javanese flop-house. A brass plaque on the pillar by the compound’s entrance was engraved with Baan Ban Thomsin, ancient Thai language for “peaceful by the water.” The house was literally a stone’s throw from the river and the pungent smell of the Chao Phraya blended with the hooting, wailing sounds of floating water life, a language unto itself.
Memories of a high-placed Bangkok landlady and her swashbuckling son
During half of the year, the house and its compound were flooded, as the river’s tide crept into my garden so that the grove of old mango trees in my backyard, heavy with sweet fruit during the season, came to look like fairy wands shooting out of the sea.
And there was my landlady, the Khunying (Thai for noble lady), an ancient shriveled creature who lived in an elegant, about-to-collapse pile across from me. She permanently stationed herself at an upstairs window overlooking my entrance where she surveilled my every nocturnal coming and going. If I was late or inebriated, the faceless voice in the dark would chastise me, her gravelly chain-smoker’s croak a cross between cackle and growl, a nagging fog-horn accusing me of crimes yet to be committed.
It was not until years after I moved into her house that I actually met my landlady face to face. It’s that way in Asia. Arrangements are made in mysterious ways. There was a lease and rent was somehow paid, but it all seems a blur to me now.
Deciding to bury the hatchet — which might eliminate the Khunying’s hawk-like prying eyes and nocturnal squawking — I invited her to lunch. The occasion was a birthday celebration for an office colleague, a lovely Thai woman who spoke English with a posh British accent. There were a dozen or more beautiful Thai ladies of her type who composed the party, all dressed in fluttering pastel gowns, their laughing voices tinkling softly like the distant temple bells across the river.
A clatter at my rickety gate signaled the arrival of the Khunying, by that point in her late 70s, a nondescript figure clad in shimmering Thai silk. But her dumpy plainness somehow disappeared as she mounted the porch steps, the folds in her dress rustling like the sighs of His Majesty’s court maidens. I will remind you at this point that Thailand is a monarchy with a king who occupies God-like status in a country where lèse–majesté is very serious crime. Most remarkable was the Khunying’s complexion which, even with age, radiated a luminous, ivory glow superimposed on a weathered face with more than a bit of mileage on it.
It was only after watching her smile and speak very little that I realized her Thai was not fluent, very “fish-fish, snake-snake” and rather “yap” — crude — as the Thais would say.
Glancing at the birthday girl for whom the party had been organized, I noticed her jaw drop when she saw the Khunying. Later as the party was ending, Venika came up to me, eyes rolling, and said, “I have something interesting to tell you, but it will have to keep until tomorrow!”
The next day at the office, I got an earful about the Khunying. According to Venika, whose father had known her back in the day, the Khunying, by now known as Lady Chalao Anirudtheva, arrived in Bangkok with her sister an impoverished immigrant from China. They were barely teenagers and their names were Seo Eng and Seo Eu, not exactly noble titles. Like legions of others from crowded, impoverished China, they had arrived as steerage cattle in a foreign land, dumped by their parents as unwanted female offspring, left to their own devices to become laborers toting sacks of rice or, if they were lucky, slaving in a factory or, just maybe, becoming the lowest level of house servant, abused and underpaid by heartless Thais who regarded Chinese as untouchables.
But Seo Eng was cut out for better things. Her beauty, highlighted by pale skin prized by the Thais, landed her in a “tea shop,” a euphemistic label for places where more than tea was served. She soon plied her trade successfully; so well, it seemed, that Seo Eng became one of the establishment’s prized girls, the one who was sought after by all the better clients. In addition to her beauty, she had personality and added a twist to everything she did, entertaining her clients by playing the lute, and, at the same time, cracking watermelons seeds with her teeth, passing these delicacies mouth-to-mouth to her quivering clients.
Her popularity crested to fame and soon she had royal patrons. One of these admirers was the bisexual lover of the gay Thai King Rama VI. In time the king’s lover married her and Seo Eng became Khunying (Lady) Chalao Anirudtheva. Court life was a series of trysts and intrigues. At the peak of her notoriety, Khunying allegedly conspired in the murder of a man who displeased her — the brother of another man reputed to be her lover. After spending two years in jail during the trial, her high connections enabled her release and she became a free woman, maneuvering once again in the upper levels of Thai society. In spite of her two-year incarceration, Khunying Chalao appeared at her trial elegantly turned out in a fashionable dress, looking “beautiful”, accordingly to on-lookers in the crowded courtroom. The tabloid Bangkok Post told it all in an article from 1947.
Fast-forward nearly 30 years to a dumpy old lady gracing my house for lunch. But the story doesn’t end there. In a hard-to-believe coincidence, another tale unfolded making true life stranger than fiction.
Through totally separate events and connections during a return to Thailand years after the mystery-revealing luncheon, I met Fuangchaloei Anirudtheva, the Khunying’s son! An Army general and a man my own age, General “Daeng,” as he was nicknamed, had retired and was enjoying the good life by the time we became friends. Aide de camp to His Majesty the King, General Daeng was the horsiest man I ever met; head of the Royal Horse Guard, he was also president of the ASEAN Equestrian Association and president of Thailand’s Equestrian Federation.
Daeng was a live wire and a hard partier, always full of war stories. If he were to be believed, he could have won the Vietnam War singlehandedly. So when he invited me to Bangkok’s Polo Club for lunch, I eagerly accepted his invitation, always glad to see my lute-plucking, murderous landlady’s larger-than-life, swashbuckling son.
On the appointed day, I entered the poolside restaurant of the Polo Club and immediately spotted Daeng, seated at what must have been the most VIP table in the place. And he was more than conspicuous, flanked by two seriously beautiful young women whose pulchritude was only surpassed by their serious coarseness. Now here were two first-class floozies! Seo Eng and Seo Eu 40 years later!
Breaking the ice with Elsie and Vivian — though they spoke no English and very bad, Chinese-accented Thai — was easy. Understanding nothing, but seizing the spirit of the moment as only skilled courtesans can do, they laughed at everything I said and coquettishly, but energetically pushed my knees as a substitute for verbal response. A very liquid lunch passed pleasantly and before I knew it, glancing at General Daeng’s Rolex diver’s watch, I saw that three hours had flown by effortlessly, dare I say, on Cupid’s wings.
With a twinkle in his eye, Daeng leaned over Vivian, toward me, and said, with a dirty old man’s smirk and raised eyebrows, “You know, I have plans for the three of you: I want you to marry these lovely ladies and take them to the United States with you!”
The ghost of Seo Eng must have been hovering over us with a Cheshire cat’s grin. I assumed that Daeng knew I was gay — everybody else in Bangkok did! But what did that matter? Business had to be done and marriages arranged. Seeing this moment as the perfect point for departure from what was becoming a most challenging social situation, I shook my head, laughing, and said to the three of them, “Daeng, you have put me in a real dilemma. You know I want to marry these lovely ladies, but you also know that in the USA, marriage is only legal with one person. So I need time to think which one of these beauties will be my bride.”
A flurry of whispers ensued and glances exchanged. Both disappointment and hope registered on the girls’ faces. Small noises, a cross between a whimper and a giggle, came from their overly made-up lips.
If ever there was a moment to exit, it was now. With a slight bow to Daeng and blowing a handful of kisses to Elsie and Vivian, I backed out of the cool shadows of the Polo Club onto the sun-baked streets of Bangkok.
That was more than 10 years ago. The girls must be approaching middle age by now. I hope they have found suitable husbands and learned better make-up techniques. And not to shriek so loudly when marriage is being proposed on their behalf. As for my friend, General Daeng, I last saw him where my Thewet story first began, at Baan Ban Thomsin.
I returned to Bangkok not long ago, and following my ritual for visits to the City of Angels, I made my way to Thewet to savor the nostalgia for a part of the city that time had forgotten, a place that I loved like no other. While high rise condos and sky trains dominated the Bangkok landscape, Thewet remained pristine, clinging to the past with its Buddhist temple, flower market, hawkers’ cries, and my old compound that had crumbled into graceful ruin.
But I could scarcely believe what had happened to my elegant old house! It was near collapse with underwear and other laundry unmentionables hanging on a clothesline from the porch, redolent of a Mississippi sharecropper’s hooch.
I stood for a long time, gazing at what had been a blissful chapter of my life. Then I heard crunching gravel on the driveway and saw a wheelchair approaching. It was General Daeng, a frail shadow of his old self. He had heard from his servants that a visitor was standing in the driveway and had come out to greet me. Overwhelmed with emotion, I stepped forward and shook his hand. Incapacitated by a stroke, he could not speak, but managed his jaunty old grin. With me doing all the talking, we chatted about the old days, bragging about our prowess with booze and other manly conquests that may or may not have happened. Pressing his limp, claw-like hand again, I managed a smile before turning toward the gate, my eyes wet with emotion.
As I boarded the water taxi at Thewet dock, my head was full of bell-like laughter from well-borne ladies and thoughts of murder in high places. A gentle river breeze enveloped me. All part of an afternoon in Bangkok.
Sam Oglesby lived in Bangkok during the 1970s working for the United Nations. He was recognized with a First Place in Feature Writing Award from the New York Press Association for a 2013 essay in Gay City News about how anti-gay discrimination had doomed his career in the Foreign Service, an injustice for which the US State Department never apologized.