“Singapore is an example of a place where people are self-conscious in the presence of foreigners,” says Paul Theroux,” because they feel that you’re going to criticise them for having accommodated themselves to their government and this way of living.”
“It’s like a gated community,” he adds. “You go in definitely feeling (a) that you don’t belong there, (b) that they’re not particularly interested in your staying there, and (c) that they’re very, very defensive. They feel they have to explain why they’ve settled for Singapore. And do you know, the sex trade there is booming, but their boast is, ‘These aren’t Singapore girls . . . they’re Burmese, they’re Vietnamese, they’re Filipina . . . but not us!’”
Singapore still rankles in Theroux’s memory, from his remarks to the Wall Street Journal.
But he has good things to say about Indians. “I love traveling in India,” he says, “because Indians are approachable. If I were traveling in the U.S. and asked people some of the questions I ask in India, I’d get a very dusty answer. People would say ‘Who are you?’ ‘You work for the government?’ When you’re in India, you can ask, ‘Where do you live, what do you do, how much do you earn, how many children do you have?’ It’s the accessible poor. You can do that in Southeast Asia, too.”
But apparently not in rich little Singapore.
Theroux taught English at what was then the University of Singapore (now the National University of Singapore) from 1968 to 1971. His experiences weren’t entirely happy. Apparently, his contract wasn’t renewed. But he did write his fifth novel, Jungle Lovers, in Singapore, and after moving to London in 1972 enjoyed better luck. Saint Jack, his novel about an American brothel-keeper in Singapore, came out in 1973 and was made into a film by Peter Bogdanovich, the hotshot director of The Last Picture Show, What’s Up, Doc? and Paper Moon, in 1976. It was banned in Singapore, where it was filmed. But that hardly affected Theroux’s career. By then he was famous as the author of The Great Railway Bazar, his account of his epic journey by train from Britain to Japan and back again.
I prefer Theroux’s travel books to his fiction. The Great Railway Bazar, The Old Patagonian Express, The Kingdom By The Sea, Riding The Iron Rooster are all good reads.
I wish I could lay my hands on Ghost Train To The Eastern Star, published last month, where he retraces the journey he chronicled to fame in The Great Railway Bazar.
“Can you imagine, I did that journey back then with no credit cards,” Theroux tells Tunku Varadarajan in the Wall Street Journal interview. “I didn’t get an Amex card until the early ’80s. I didn’t have credit. I travelled from London to Tokyo and back just with cash.
“In Iran, in 1973, if you had blue jeans and a watch, people would follow you down the street, saying ‘Please, sir, sell me your watch, sell me your jeans.’ In Mashhad, I sold a pair of jeans for $15, quite a lot of money, because they were real American blue jeans and everyone wanted American blue jeans.”
I know. Levi’s was so cool back then. We couldn’t get them in India and had to make do with local brands.
Theroux regrets he couldn’t get a visa to Iran this time and bypassed Pakistan and Afghanistan because of the troubles there. Tunku Varadarajan writes:
Mr. Theroux is territorial. When I ask him why he undertook his latest journey — expecting him to talk about the need to observe how places had changed — he responds by saying, “I really didn’t want somebody else taking my trip. A lot of travel writers hang their stories on my peg. But I’m still in the business, so it’s something I should be doing.”
Here’s the New York Times review of Ghost Train To The Eastern Star.