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Humboldt's dark humour

(No.10, Vol.2, Oct 2012 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

You may remember an article no so long ago about the Shrinking Violet Hotel and dramatic events involving a seething former ship’s captain of a guest of the hotel quitting it forever, late at night, seemingly minus a mother-of pearl-inlaid ship’s wheel or bottle of rum, or both, but with, under his arm, a big cardboard box of the kind in which model sailing boats, a Saigon specialty, are packed for dispatch on semi-circumnavigations of the globe. Well, now, things have gone on apace. The floor of the alley, which widens in front of the hotel, is now thought of as a stage, the houses that make the sides of the alley are galleries of spectators and the ensemble a theatre, the Shrinking Violet Theatre. 

New season at the Shrinking Violet Theatre

Rowdy bout of fishing for catfish with a crowbar, presented by the Shrinking Violet Theatre.

Recently we have witnessed a fine season of the theatre of the black, dark, obscure or tarry - not slapstick but black-stick. The characters were entirely serious. It is only those in the galleries, that is to say, the more or less Italianate houses of three, four of five storeys around the bulging confluence, the Globe in the alley, who would have laughed - if they had known how. Some might have cried, and blubbered the next day to the neighbourhood committee of worthies, the comwort, a name that could also be applied to dark-green lichen scraped off concrete structures about six months old. This time also, I became a character myself, as I had the night I was the only one to gain entry to the sleeping Shrinking Violet Hotel without a key, simply because I tried turning the handle (and resisted stealing, for poetic effect, one of the bottles of Bundaberg rum and other liquor standing sparsely, mirrored, behind the bar). Now I wrapped around myself a sarong, on one night, at 2.30 a.m., and a towel, on another, at 4.20 a.m., took my camera and slipped into my black-rubber, Velcro-closing flip-flops. By the second dark night, I had learnt to take not my own keys, which did not have any kind of pom-pom, trinket or talisman on them, but my wife’s, which had a soft strawberry with friendly eyes, so the keys would not fall out of the waist of my deep loin cloth. The moment after I left the prison-style door downstairs, and entered the stage, I was well and truly a character I believe would nicely be named ‘Humboldt’. This was a man of advanced middle age who knew he had the moral high ground. He had been woken by a sound that had caused him to enter into an extremely noisy dream. No one had the right to make that much noise at that time in a residential alley. It was a chance for Humboldt to fog-horn off to the audience by now awake from extremely disturbing dreams in the rooms and on the balconies. He could say all kinds of things in social commentary of dark allusion. In our quarter, theatre also extends beyond the Shrinking Violet, in the form of a vast symphony orchestra - including such sections as a flail hitting the side of a tin shearing shed every two seconds, old fridges being thrown down a corrugated-iron chute from a building under demolition, the banging of the rust off an old kettle drum of a boiler, banging on huge, dull, damped organ pipes and the harmonious jangling of the retrofitting of brand-new buildings with hammers, chisels and jemmies, a composition John Cage would have been interested in. These performances can occur at night and at the weekends, even on Sunday mornings, when they make the cathedral bells at 5 a.m. sound like a whimsical cordial-vendor’s cart in a sunny mid-afternoon. The sounds of our neighbourhood carry a long way, apparently helped by its shape, a colosseum of ‘economic development’ surrounding a construction site that is now a mature, green lake with rusty piles standing in it like the karst islands in Ha Long Bay. The lake is probably evolving its own species of frog by now, and, in another world, before the developers knew it, they might be facing a green ban. It is probably such inundated construction sites that cause the enthusiasm of the nocturnal mosquito-exterminators in our neighbourhood, who use hand-held half-motorbikes producing grey-white, burnt-petroleum clouds that rival the old, low, humped, black, ridden, groundhog motorbikes in output. The insects die of burst eardrums and the gas embalms them. After escaping from the dream, in which he had been sent inside a coal-fired boiler to seal it with a hydrocarbon resin, while the boilermaker continued to bang on the outside, and to lock himself into the condition in which he could put up with all this and then turn it into theatre, the incipient Humboldt adopted the ingenious technique of imagining he was entering one of the great opera houses of Europe. He got off the bed and out of the mosquito net, put his deep loin-cover momentarily around his shoulders like a cape, clutched his wife’s bifocals for opera glasses, approached himself in the dressing-table mirror, asked for a ticket to a shared box, pushed forward several hundred-dollar notes and murmured ‘Merci bien’. To warm up, from the balcony, waving his arms toward the great world beyond the alley, and breathing in real-world hydrocarbon fumes that rose from just below, he believed he was conducting the demolition of a hundred billion dollars worth of World Heritage and its replacement with a hundred million dollars of speculative and probably useless high-rise concrete in which there would be the extraordinary economy of handbags, jewellery, suicidal, wine-glass-stem shoes and knuckleduster watches. The Theatre of the Black began with the arrival of a covered wagon with the registration number ‘54T’ followed by the year of the bursting of one of the earliest financial bubbles, that of the Mississippi Company, the plate at the rear in very faded black on white. Unbeknownst to the characters accompanying it, the wagon contained props including a red clown’s, dunce’s or witch’s hat, with blackend stripes round it and a red light on top. The characters just thought such things were part of their jobs as street-repairers in asphalt - black, gooey, stony stuff. The other equipment included a motorised machine the size of a lawnmower that emitted the noise that gave the entitlement to outrage and packed the asphalt into shallow holes that reached from the feet of certain buildings and extended sometimes to within a metre or two of the other side of the alley. This machine, apparently very well screwed together, jumped up and down, inside at least, until moved about by a worker. It was probably fuelled with some of the portion of petroleum that had not escaped into the ocean from an off-shore drill-hole.


Preparing the black stuff in the travelling troupe's wagon in the dead of night

There was also a mysterious dish containing a black paint, probably tar, and a roller and brush. Some holes in the carriageway were filled with cement, unintentionally forming symbols of the famous ‘grey areas’, and circled ominously with such commentaries as a pole with a plastic bag of old shoes on each end, stones and a pedestal in the form of a tortoise with the lid of a Dulux paint tin on top. The travelling circus of the serious had a crowbar that leant against the truck and slid sideways to the ground like the stroke of a maestro’s baton marking the largest sound in a Beethoven symphony. The travelling players of the night left behind them piles of damp rubble that would probably be used in acts yet to come. These were of immediate interest to a pair of cats, which thought, ‘My word! How our ablutions have been improved! Such nice men with the wheelbarrow and shovel!’ ‘Why are you making such a racket at 2.30 a.m.? Why won’t you let us sleep?’ Humboldt asked, approximately, in the dark but fluorescence-highlighted night. He received the approximate answer, ‘Well, why do you think you can sleep when we have to stay awake and do this job?’ Not that all members of the team of nearly half-a-dozen stayed awake. One was asleep in the cabin of the wagon and two tried to sleep on the ground under a raincoat in the evening until a faded-green neighbourhood security guard told them that they and their little truckload of clay were unsightly and out of place and they moved on. ‘And why can’t you do this during the day?’ Humboldt asked. ‘It is always like this with work with the black stuff,’ a worker said, virtually verbatim. ‘We can’t do it during the day as it will interfere with the traffic.’ In point of fact, only one of the holes, about half-a-metre wide, went within a metre of completely blocking the alley, an alley that rarely carried anything but two-wheeled traffic, and there was very little of this. A worker explained that the holes, mostly elongated, had to do with water, which he illustrated, unfortunately, with what looked like the motion of socking back a shot of rice wine. The evil Humboldt observed that the truck, the wagon, appeared to be owned by a contractor whose address was on the canopy, which he photographed, and, being the theatre-goer he was, he could not help wondering whether the tendering for this job had been entirely above-board, above-deck and in the daylight, given the suggestion to the contrary given by the dark diorama against which and props with which the work was done. When he looked at his photographs later they resembled the night shots taken with automatic cameras to register rare and endangered species in forests, but especially the poachers chasing them.


Kitties with the litter brought by ‘the nice men with barrow and shovel’l'

Because of the fluorescence like frost, and not black frost, as it happens, he got luminous shots of the inside of the wagon’s canopy, between its metal sides, where a man’s shadow was thrown suggestively, as in a wayang show about goodies and baddies, as he shovelled blue metal into a barrow. In the night there also appeared a short, middle-aged man with a white shirt and dark trousers, who could have been from the comwort. So Humboldt muffled his foghorn somewhat, though he noted the man in black and white had either slept in his clothes, which did not seem have been the case, or arisen and dressed himself in a more or less official attire, which signified that the man did not think he had much, if any, of the high moral ground. He was not claiming to have been shocked indignantly into a bath towel. Humboldt continued wandering around, thinking such vaguely related thoughts as whether much of the ‘office space’ in the sawn-off pig-stabber of a tower building with the helipad growing on its river side like a moisture-seeking fungus had been occupied, whether anyone had noticed the red aircraft-warning light on an oldish tower building had been overshadowed lately by an even taller building and why one afternoon geysers had leaped from the toilets of a department store like cold New Zealand hot springs. One of the most memorable acts in the latest, multi-faceted, day-night season of the Theatre of the Black alarmed the recidivist theatre-goer Humboldt no end because, first, he had the day before been engrossed by a documentary on TV5Monde about rescued great apes and the naturalists who were able to speak to them in their own language and body language, and, second, a motorbike had a few days earlier been stolen from outside the prison-style door. Now there was hue and cry directly below the balcony, as if massively strong primates were fighting and screeching over a motorbike they were going to carry away - despite the chain and padlock on it, because to them it would seem no heavier than Humboldt’s camera. The lid was lifted on a square manhole in a storm-water drain and held standing vertically, on edge, and several people were virtually in the hole, where there was a confluence of pipes. One man was trying to spear fish with a crowbar. A baby among the spectators already appeared to be looking at something that had been caught, that was being held in a tin that had once held beige paint; beige, mind you, something hardly to be associated with a people of red-and-yellow and dragons, though the painters with beige do tip its leftovers, and other colours of course, through storm holes in the manhole lids. The seasons of the Shrinking Violet Theatre go back to when a neighbour called Mme Epicure cooked fish hooked when the lid was lifted on another square manhole just a few metres downstream, toward the Saigon River, on the same drain. Last night I heard a rumour that Interpol had marched an international arms-dealer out of the Shrinking Violet Hotel and across the by now sacred, illuminated ground with the heel-cooling waterways under it. Dramatically, when I passed the rumour on, the neighbour who had just given it to me almost leaped to say, ‘It’s only a rumour.’ Such is the suspense that has developed, which just increases the anticipation of, ‘What next at the Globe, or Shrinking Violet?’ Will it be a lipstick comedy, which some think is most likely? Humboldt sneak-thieves sleep when the players have presumably bunked down in the clay-lined orchestra pits or are making nothing more than the tiny tunkling of plastic chopsticks against plastic bowls. He is occasionally lulled by the gentle, old sounding of foghorns on the river, and overhears his antics being reviewed below his window, just as his whole existence is reviewed there annually on the days the red-and-yellow flag is poked from the balconies, and reviewed with a degree of approval. Anyway, if challenged, Humboldt is prepared to fire his heritage, riverbank, ship-piercing cannon: ‘Boom! The children need peace and quiet to do their homework.’ And if that is not enough, ‘Boom! The children need more sleep than just what they get with their heads on Siamese-twin, teddybear handlebar pillows on the way to school.’

Text and photos by James Gordon
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