Nick Nostitz’s Patpong: Bangkok’s Twilight Zone (London: Westzone, 2000) is not for the squeamish. The photography catalogues the nightlife of Bangkok’s Patpong district during the mid and late 1990s. I heard stories about Bangkok back then: a wild place where you could get and do just about anything, and where you could also wind up in some prison and never be heard from again… seems like the first part was more or less true, and the second, well, not so much.
Back in my days of ignorance, prior to Islam, back when my debauchery was in its infancy, I had some curiosity about what all went on there and some admiration for the people—men, mostly: it was a youthful, chauvinist fantasy at it’s basest if I’m being honest with myself, and there’s not point in being other than—who lived that life. This was something of a trend in my generation, I think: the heroin chic type, all those movies about junkies and near-de-wells, Jane’s Addiction and various similar musics, the existential nihilism, it was all prevalent in GenX, but not in the hippies or yippies at all, and seems to have completely vanished in the Millennials.
As an adult, though, and a Muslim at that, most of Patpong is rather disturbing, and I recognize that there’s no glamour in it, that any chivalry or human kindness is couched in drug and sexual abuse. The white men there to live out their fantasies with little regard for the other parties involved or thought that God might be watching; the Thai women and men are there, perhaps, at first, to make a quick few dollars, but seem to end up drug addicted, abused, and debased.
Why did I buy this book then?
Well, I’ve got an idea for a project and I’m collecting examples of autobiographical photo-novel-type things, and Patpong is a great example of the genre, with its scrapbook layout:typewritten pages, complete with XXXX’d out errors and handwritten corrections), newspaper clippings, and handwritten titles for many photographs, plus an interview with one of Mr. Nostiz’s cohort. I probably won’t go quite as far (and if I do, I’ll go further) with the design for my project, but God alone knows.
I expected to find depravity and more reasons to seek forgiveness and beg God for His Guidance and Mercy in it, but I found some interesting navel-gazing that I didn’t expect. There’s an undercurrent running through the narrative that suggests an acknowledgement that the lifestyle is destructive to all involved, and I think it’s important to both include that and to seemingly reject it at the end and double down.
It’s hard to tell if Patpong: Bangkok’s Twilight Zone is straight sexploitation or political commentary, but I feel better thinking of it as the latter, and Mr. Nostitz spent the 15 years after its publication covering politics and all in Thailand. There’s video of him on the internets getting assaulted at a political rally, and the most recent articles talk about his plans to return to Germany, though a recent conversation was recorded in a sweet shop in Bangkok. But I won’t recommend Patpong, unless you’re interested in the layout and design as I am. You can find used copies all over for pretty cheap.
The concept isn’t particularly great (as noted above), but if you’re a 30 or 40 something American kid, you might’ve heard the same stories that I did about Bangkok, and Patpong might remind you of some of your teenage fantasies. The photography is great, and the design is something I’ll keep in mind as I (slowly) work on my opus.
Overall, it’s a solid 3.5 for Patpong.