Introduction by Kevin Cummings:
The Beauty of Isaan is a non-fiction short story which first appeared in the book, Bangkok Beat published in June of 2015. It is being republished here with the permission of the author.
The Beauty of Isaan
By Thomas Hunt Locke
I jumped on the skytrain. “Exit at Nana, directly opposite the Landmark Hotel, you can’t miss us. Look for the sign, Checkinn99.”
The ‘you can’t miss us’ comment I later understood as Aussie humor. A glance at my watch showed I was early. I grabbed a beer and retreated back to the long entranceway I had just passed through. A Marlboro was torched. The photos lining the tunnel had not been missed. I now gave them the attention they deserved. A story, somewhat haunting, was on display.
The story of my appearance is worth noting. Stuck at a crossroads in my book, 450 pages in yet no ending in sight. Actually, the ending was clear, but how to get there? I’m a sleuth. No stranger to the labor of historical research, the answer lay close. A day or two, perhaps, and an article, an interview was found. The blog was titled ‘Stickman Bangkok’. I had never read it but the name was not unfamiliar. A name came to my attention. Mama Noi.
It would have been easy to walk into the bar, call her over, ply her with drinks, and get the information I was seeking. But, I had come down to the Big Smoke from up north. I needed to make sure the elderly mamasan would be on the premises. I needed to make sure she’d talk. Plus, an introduction to the owner seemed the polite course of action. My characters are often brusque. I am not.
Luckily I acted prudently. A friendship was born. The owner, Chris Catto-Smith, enthusiastically approved my request and encouraged Mama Noi to sit for the interview. A certain photo caught my eye. My mug was refilled. I lit up another stick. Bob Hope, a half-smirk caught in time, a stunning lady on his lap with an ample cleavage on display, acknowledged my presence. “This is a Sam Collins’ type of joint,” I murmured. An idea clicked in my mind. The ending to Jim Thompson Is Alive! crept ever closer.
The butt stubbed out, I was ushered to a shabby chic lounge chair and settled in. I had conducted several interviews to try to develop a sense of the times within which Jim Thompson maneuvered. One such interview, with a former US State Department official, had been quite helpful. Another, with a person prominent in the Thai art world, much less so. Both had been engaged with significant preparation. Mama Noi I would wing.
The interview actually began as I followed her movements around the club. The lady known as the Beauty of Isaan glided from one corner of the club to the next, four pillars observed, at each one a Buddhist ritual conducted. Strangely, I was taken back to my altar boy days at St Agatha’s. The thought then struck me, wryly, that back in her day Noi had likely taken many a lad not far removed from the frock. My mind was clicking. Sam Collins too was a Boston boy. Would a part of his past emerge leading him to Jim Thompson?
“Sir, would you like a drink?”
I noted Mama Noi walk past. “Sure, a jug of Heineken please. And what does the mamasan prefer?”
The comely young waitress smiled with a wink. A hint of Kampuchea (Cambodia) shone through her Thai eyes. My order arrived with my interview subject.
“Can I help you, darling?”
Dark tantalizing eyes bore into me. They seemed so familiar. Had I come across her before? Indeed I had. I was looking at the sexy young lady who had occupied Bob Hope’s lap those many years ago. Beauty fades. It does not desert. I was sitting with one of the most beautiful women I had ever encountered. My heart skipped. I fumbled with my words, an awestruck kid trying to find just the right tone of seduction. A shot of Crystal Head Vodka made its way to me.
“Chris, boss, sorry he late. Here, drink up, on the house.”
The shot of courage helped me find my groove. Mama Noi was funny, a fountain of information, and so at ease with her place in life.
“I came down to Bangkok from Ubon Ratchatani. Only 17, maybe 1960, and I found my way into this life.” She waved her arms around the room. “It was different then,” she said. Her voice was resigned yet not sad.
“Different how?” I asked.
“The name in those days was the Copa. The club I mean,” she clarified. “My name always Noi.” Mama flipped her head back in a deep laugh. She then squeezed her breasts. “Noi mean little. But the boys liked these, big.” I joined her revelry.
“Tell me about Bing,” I prodded. It was time to dig deep. Mama Noi was legend. She had seduced and been swept away by Hollywood royalty. When I exited out of the tunnel of memories, I wanted to know the story. I wanted to feel 60s Bangkok. Noi wasn’t just some girl in some club. The Isaan beauty was the girl in the club.
“We Thai do not, cannot, talk about people from a higher status. And it was so long ago…” Her voice faded away. “My memory is not so good.”
The waitress came to tend to our drinks. She refilled my mug. Another lady drink was ordered for Noi. The Crystal Head was smooth and quickly washed down.
“Where are you from?” she asked, her eyes beaming back to life.
“Boston,” I replied.
“Ah,” she laughed. “I remember the snow! The Boston Park Plaza. Bing loved to spend time there – ’66 or ’67, not too long before I returned.”
She seemed to relax into her reminiscence, and events of another era came flowing back to life. And it was quite a whirlwind adventure she had enjoyed with her Hollywood icon. Atlantic to Pacific, trips to Mexico and a bit of mischief in Paris. A lifetime in a fling. I let her go, us both enjoying the ride.
She finally, abruptly even, stopped. “You’re writing a book.” Her voice contained a dash of suspicion.
“Surely not about me.”
“No. I am writing a novel around the disappearance of Jim Thompson. Did you know him?”
“Oh no. But Bing and Bob would visit him at his house, you know, now a museum, from time to time.”
“And you never joined?”
“I was the mia noi, the second wife. I knew my place. But, even if I had, Thompson, from what I heard, wasn’t the type you got to know.”
I was puzzled at what she said. Cryptic. I tried to get her to elaborate but she danced easily away. Finally she held up her hand. “You see, every night I visit the four corners of our home. It is to keep the spirits happy so they will keep the ghosts away. Darling, you talk of a ghost.”
Mama Noi looked deeply in my eyes, then leaned over the table and kissed me gently on the cheek. “I hope you find what you are looking for. He is not here.” With that she was off.
In that respect Mama Noi was wrong. In that evening, within that moment, Noi led Sam Collins exactly where he needed to go. My voila moment had arrived.
Mama is now a friend. I always look forward, on my trips to the Big Smoke, to a night at Checkinn99. My first order of business is to buy the Beauty of Isaan a drink and sit for a chat. There is no talk of ghosts, just two acquaintances catching up. But, on your next trip, or if it is your first walk down the tunnel, buy a drink for the lovely lady from Ubon Ratchatani and let yourself be escorted into yesteryear.
Noi seen with Bob Hope in 1968. (Picture published with permission by Chris Catto-Smith and Checkinn99.)
The present day Legend, Mama Noi seen with author Thom Locke in the picture laden and history filled tunnel entrance to Checkinn99
T Hunt Locke is the author of four novels to date: Jim Thompson is Alive; The Ming Inheritance; The Chiang Mai Chronicle; and his latest Vinland – A Dan Burdett Mystery.
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