The Queen of Patpong

May 8, 2010

When I first reviewed a Tim Hallinan book, the second in his series featuring gonzo Bangkok-based travel writer Poke Rafferty, I said: 

“OK, call me a sucker for thrillers set in exotic foreign locations, particularly ones with rampant corruption, triple-digit humidity and lazily seductive ex-bargirl protagonists. Guilty as charged; please let me serve out my sentence in the Thailand depicted by author Timothy Hallinan in his wickedly atmospheric new work, The Fourth Watcher.” 

I received an email shortly afterward, posted from Suvanabhumi Airport in Bangkok, from one T. Hallinan, thanking me for the review, and commenting that after waiting all night in the terminal for his crack-of-dawn flight, the review was “better than a quart of coffee.” 

Over the next couple of years, we traded emails, discovering along the way that we had a number of things in common: a fascination, bordering on obsession, for Asia; a group of writers whose work we both eagerly devoured as soon as it hit the stands (or in my case, often before it hit the stands); and a penchant for the bizarre and wonderful flavors of KitKat chocolate bars that show up in airports and convenience stores all over Japan (Apple Vinegar; Soy Sauce; Wasabi; Red Pepper; Roasted Corn; Baked Potato with Butter, I’m just scratching the surface here).

Tim’s latest Poke Rafferty book, The Queen of Patpong, will be out over the summer. I have read it and I can tell you this: it delves more deeply into the characters of Poke’s wife Rose, daughter Miaow, and friend Arthit than previous series entries have done. For more detail than that, you’ll have to wait for the review in the print issue of BookPage (or online at I do have a bad self-shot photo of the cover of my well-thumbed ARC (Advance Reader’s Copy), which nobody has said I cannot use; so, in the time-honored tradition of asking for forgiveness after the fact rather than permission beforehand, here it is:

A couple of days back, I sent Tim a few questions about his connections with Thailand, and how they influenced the writing of the series; here’s what he had to say:

Where did your interest in Asia come from?

I think it’s genetic.  

My wife is Chinese , I write about Thailand, and Asia is my preferred continent.  A long time ago in Phnom Penh – maybe 1996, when not too many Westerners had found their way back into Cambodia – I was eating a croissant in a really good little French bakery on the riverside.  It was a dump, the walls cracked from the Khmer Rouge’s attempts to level the town, but the croissant was amazing.  The owner and sole employee – at least, the only one I ever saw – was a French woman in her seventies, white hair tied back so tightly it looked like it hurt.  I asked her what she was doing there and she said the revolution had driven her out but the moment she could return, she had.  I asked why, and she said, “Ah, Monsieur, I have a yellow heart.”  

That was the first time I knew there was a name for it.  I’ve had it since I was a little kid.  In fact, I gave my whole story to Poke Rafferty, my protagonist, in THE FOURTH WATCHER – how Poke learned, as I did, to read upside-down by scanning his father’s paper across the breakfast table and how the words ASIA and CHINA and JAPAN sort of blinked on and off for him (and me).  When I went to school I had to be taught to read right-side up.  Also in THE FOURTH WATCHER, Poke’s father, like mine, had spent years in Asia he never talked about, and I mean never.   

When I got a chance to go to the Philippines to work on a movie, I jumped at it.  Then I went on business to China and Japan, shooting shows in both places. 

How did you wind up in Thailand?

I was in Japan, working on a PBS documentary about the first Japanese tour by a Western symphony orchestra, the LA Philharmonic.  After touring with the orchestra for a couple of weeks, I was ready for a vacation in Hokkaido, where I’d heard I could sit up to my nose in hot water and watch it snow, since this was February.  I shared my plans with some of the people on the tour, and it sounded great to them. They wanted to go.  This wasn’t what I had in mind – I’d actually had enough of pretty much everyone – so I called my travel agent and had her book me somewhere in Asia where I didn’t need a visa.  That limited it to the Philippines, where I’d already been, Taiwan, which didn’t really interest me, and Thailand.  I got off the plane in 97-degree weather wearing a quilted jacket and a hat with earmuffs, and halfway across the terminal I saw the immigration guys falling off their chairs laughing at me.  I fell in love with the place.  I took an apartment within days.  

That was in 1981, when Thailand was much more open emotionally to foreigners.  Now we’re not so exotic, not so interesting, and also, of course, we’ve sent them some of the worst possible specimens of our culture, so the welcome mat has been sort of rolled up.  That’s mainly in Bangkok and the major tourist areas, though.  In the real Thailand, the people are still sweet beyond all expectation. That’s why it’s so infuriating that they’re governed so badly.  

Now I’m there between four and six months most years, but I’m actually living now in Phnom Penh, which has the advantage, for a writer, of not being so distracting.  If there were an annual World’s Most Distracting City award, Bangkok would win it year after year.  In Phnom Penh, I’ve got nothing to do but write.

How similar in character are your wife and Rose, and is there a Miaow-Mia in real life?  

My wife is a college-educated, American-raised Chinese and has nothing in her background, other than a brief stint as a Playboy bunny, that approximates in even the palest way what Rose went through.  But over the three decades of our relationship, I’ve learned what it means to be in love – something I knew nothing about, in retrospect — and whatever depth of emotion there is between Poke and Rose in the books comes directly from my life with my wife.  My family was devoutly WASP and while we all liked each other pretty well, direct displays of deep emotion were silently regarded as being in bad taste.  I never would have dared to try to write Poke’s marriage without without having had the good fortune of experiencing my own.

There was (and probably still is) a real Miaow, and that was her name.  In the 1990s I wrote a series of six books about a Los Angeles private eye, and I wrote them mostly in the Tip-Top, a restaurant/coffee shop on Patpong Road.  A little girl – maybe seven or eight – who sold gum in the evenings would come and press her nose against the glass, just completely entranced with my laptop, which was more of a rarity then.  After a while I waved her in and bought her a Coke, then put Pinball on the screen, and left her alone for half an hour or so while I walked around and tried to plot my way out of whatever box I’d written myself into.  Over the course of a few years, we got to the point where she’d show up once a week and I’d buy her gum and she’d eat something, play Pinball or whatever new game I’d installed, and then I’d give her the gum back and she’d disappear back into the crowd on the other side of the window.  Around 1997 I stopped seeing her, but I used her name and her physical description – and that fearsomely parted hair – when I began to write the Poke books.

I closed out my BookPage review of one of Tim’s books with the following paragraph, and it is every bit as apropos today: “As a book reviewer, or as a Japanese immigration agent referred to me, a “rittererry clitic” (soon to be the new job title on my business cards), I get countless new books to read, and never have to pay a cent for them. In fact, I have been known to become somewhat cranky at the notion of having to shell out my hard-earned cash, particularly at pricey international airport bookstores, where I most often find myself short of reading material. Tim Hallinan is highly placed on the short list of authors whose books I would happily pay retail to read; if you think about it, that has to be just about the highest compliment a book reviewer (or rittererry clitic) can pay.”