The Shrinking Violet Hotel

(No.4, Vol.2 Apr 2012 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

The Shrinking Violet Hotel, which is what I will call it, keeps claiming attention. It capped it off a few nights ago, with an advertisement under our open bedroom window by an Englishman who had apparently been staying at the boutique establishment. This was a very clear-spoken man that gave every sign of having been, in his time, a sea captain. As he left the stage in front of the hotel – and I will come to ‘stage’ later – he had as well as two black suitcases a brown cardboard box of the kind used to contain model sailing ships bought in the area of the Ho Chi Minh City Opera House. You could just about bet that among the things that had allegedly been stolen from him was a steering wheel inlaid with pearl shell and a knob of jade in the centre.
About 11.30 p.m. we were woken by an educated working-class accent proclaiming that its owner was ‘an Englishman’ who, because of his nationality and responsibility to it, would go after his ‘rights’, ‘mark my words’ and ‘believe you me’. To all and sundry along several alleys, the message went out more surely than from any of the old, warbling, self-confusing People’s Committee telephone-pole loudspeakers: ‘You know what they do at the Shrinking Violet Hotel? They steal things from your room. That’s what they do there.’ The apparent sea dog spaced out his announcements to maximum effect. ‘Yes. That’s what they do at the Shrinking Violet Hotel. They get into your room and steal your things.’ ‘And you know about Madam Shrinking Violet? She is not a shrinking violet by any means. The so-called Madam Shrinking Violet is the worst person God ever put wind into.’ There we were again with a seagoing analogy, like wind in sails. The sea dog did not like the cut of Madam Shrinking Violet’s gib and he would do something about others’ not liking it either. I may have varied the sea dog’s words to some degree, buy not those to do with God’s putting wind into the violet. For a little while I was thinking ‘Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum’, but soon I reckoned he was one of the soberer people around at this time of night and that any bottle of Bunderberg was, if anything, among the inventory of, allegedly, of course, missing objects.
Four ways meet, among the alleys of this little quarter, and the quarter is aspirational for v­ăn minh, or civilisation, according to official signboards. So it is not unfitting that the confluence, right in front of the Shrinking Violet Hotel, should resemble a stage in a play by Beckett or Miller – dramatically minimal. The seagoing, hotel-going Britisher performed under the lights hanging over the confluence on a sweaty, prowling, disputational night, in a tropical suit crossing between janitor and deckhand, the cuffs of the shirt and trousers rolled and tapered neatly out of the way. The stage had hung over it one red paper lantern from the East and a metal one from the West, a neon tube and strings of the tiny, chilli-shaped party lights that make a civilising enclave festive. Illumination poured from the metal light and glowed from the neon one.
Twice we heard an emergency vehicle sound in the near distance and twice in reply the seaman seemed to take out a mobile telephone and give directions, in his barnacled but correct English. Soon after, a woman in what seemed to be plain clothes came to the confluence of alleys to help the man away with his gear. He delayed a little to describe to her the virtues of Madam Shrinking Violet and her alleged light-fingered establishment. ‘I fought with her brother,’ he said. ‘He bit me.’ He showed the underside of his right arm. Were the sailor’s rabies shots up to date, I wondered. ‘I only hit him four times,’ the man said. And he and the rescuing woman disappeared from the stage via the northern wing, the woman carrying the cardboard box round the middle, at right angles to the Plimsoll line.
My camera takes pictures in the near dark with a setting something like infra-red. I took a picture of the Shrinking Violet Hotel in curious, slightly flaming light. And who should walk right to the centre of the stage that was the confluence but the fat lady who is said to be the mother of Madam the Shrinking Violet. She is a woman who knows every trick in the book. It would have been her who had put up the sign saying the whole house, with its eight bedrooms, was up for sale. The whole confluence will be gone, if and when the talked-about railway and or commercial zone goes in. Waiting for the rails is like waiting for Godot. So the mother of a shrinking violet walked to the centre of the stage, which was coincidentally but conveniently marked by a piece of refuse pink twine lying on the ground. It was exactly where the sailor had stood. And all was quiet, save for the click of the shutter on a picture of the Mother of Madam the Shrinking Violet into whom God had presumably a generation earlier ‘put wind’.
Nobody – except the sailor – is saying this is not an excellent low-class boutique Vietnamese hotel. Some of the guests love it. Anyone can wander into the ground floor, with its bar and tables and chairs and ask for one of the ‘very fresh coconuts’ advertised outside or a coffee, or a rum, of course. It is extremely intimate. Our house is part of one side of the theatre, if we think of the theatre for a moment as the Globe Theatre. Quite in vein with the ambience of the Shrinking Violet was a family (the management’s family) fight outside the front door in which a man of about thirty was being restrained from punching a middle-aged woman in the throat. These things happen and it is the charm of the Shrinking Violet that such kitchen-sink plays should be regarded as a strong point of the establishment, something to be remarked on with approval in the book of Guest Comments.
When the party lights are on – and they were spectacular at Tet this year – in theory they also act as a deterrent to thieves. On motorbikes these rush through at 3 a.m. every few months and appear to make off with the handbag of an East Asian woman who is shocked and screams. But this has become so routine that many in the audience must suspect that the ‘robberies’ are just a cover for the transfer of some kind of booty. How do the ‘robbers’ get past the enclave guards in muddy green uniforms with red-and-white sticks, who hang a red-and-white chain across the entrances to the alleys? Do the guards slumber, then slump when a cloth dipped in chloroform from an all-night chemist is draped over their faces? In any case, what theatre! It is not as if it takes place under the cover of darkness. The lights in the alley here – especially when a scene is shot with the appropriate camera setting – seem to run on coloured phosphorous. What was that explosion? Ah, the colourful Subcontinental family upstairs has just dropped its evening plastic bag of garbage between the festooning wires that amongst many other things supply electrons to the theatre lights. In the afternoon I got a photograph of a black rat foraging in such a bag. The rat retreated for a few moments when our landlord walked across the stage and slid a few more food scraps on to the bag, as if the rat were a pet.

Picture: The apparent sea dog takes the stage at 11.30 p.m. to declaim about his disappointing hotel.
Photo: James Gordon

Naturally, the Shrinking Violet Hotel has its share of guests who come home late at night and don’t have a key and find no one is up and about to open the door. We hear them swear about the Shrinking Violet Hotel and the geniuses operating it and mumbling about what they are going to do now and ringing the phone number to no avail and banging on the door. I would ring the number on their signboard and get no answer. In the early hours of one morning we were just about spiflicated with petrol fumes. I went downstairs and outside and on the hotel side of the ‘stage’ was a very plain motorbike of a certain age dripping petrol from its tank. A guard in a muddy green uniform threw objects at the façade of the hotel, the windows and balconies, in an attempt to get someone to come down and do something with the motorbike. After half-a-dozen water bombs from me and shots with pieces of fruit the guard found on the ground after they had bounced there after my shots with them, the hotel might have been a mausoleum. Hours later, after more near-spiflication, I moved the motorbike, which was still dripping, and posed it over the grate of an underground drain, so the petrol would not lie around on the ground. At some point I tried the handle of the hotel door and solved the riddle of so many customers who had been ‘locked out’ and furious. The door opened.
I went in the door of the Shrinking Violet Hotel, about 3 a.m., and surveyed the bar, which was sparsely backed with bottles of liquor. Motorbikes - which had not so far been stolen - were parked where at other hours patrons would be. I wrote a note to go on the saddle of a motorbike warning them not to go out in the morning without putting out their cigarettes. To assure myself that perhaps no one was in the place I yelled and banged about the ground floor. In the course of this I put my hand on a doorhandle at the back. This door also opened, explaining why there seemed to be no one on the premises: there was a man on a bed but he was dead to the world. Only by commanding in a stentorian manner could I get the man out to deal with the dripping motorbike. He took the machine inside, which to my mind meant that around about six o’clock the hotel would explode, probably taking out not only the benighted guests but such things as the washing on our balcony. Full daylight came and there had been no explosion and I was relieved. Later I heard that a teacher who stayed in the hotel had thanked me for leaving the note. There is still the waiting for the railway. Sometimes I am a little disappointed that the drain did not erupt along its whole length, causing only a few bruises and solving a lot of official problems to do with resumption of and demolition of houses.

By James Gordon
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