kenny hodgart

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Love, actually?

It is just as often the feeding that makes one feel like taking a bath as it is the actual petting. The public feeding. He: Western, a little grizzled, engrossed. She: young and sylph-like, Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese even, ladling mouthfuls between his gills.

Travel just about anywhere in southeast Asia and you will encounter beautiful young Asian women with white men. And frequently much older white men at that. According to the American writer Richard Bernstein in his 2009 book The East, the West and Sex, there is a region of northern Thailand where 15 percent of marriages are between young Thai women and Western men in their 60s. Others, from what I’ve seen from being based in Hong Kong over the past year or so, will make do with the 40-60 demographic.

It is easy to be cynical about relationships that seem uncommonly asymmetrical, whether a propos of age difference, the absence of an appreciable lingua franca or a gulf in economic status. But the ravishments one encounters in bars and restaurants may be simply the most glaring portents of a condition said to afflict visiting western men of all ages and somewhat distastefully referred to as ‘yellow fever’: a shorthand, if you need it spelt out, for the quickening of sexual desire for the region’s women.

Does such a phenomenon exist? Unquestionably, according to a British friend who has been in Hong Kong for 20 years and seen most of his ex-pat acquaintances assailed by it, either fleetingly or more indelibly, some of the latter attaining lasting happiness, others something more like indenture. The evidence is all anecdotal, but it seems all the more significant for the near-invisibility of couples who line up the other way round: western woman-Asian male.

Still, there is a troubling non-neutrality about the tag ‘yellow fever’. Is it entirely inconceivable that white men in Asia go for Asian women because Asian women go for them?

Whatever the likely degree of mutual desire at work, such entanglements are nothing new, certainly; as indeed there was nothing new in the eroticism of The World of Suzie Wong when it was first published in 1957. As Kipling has it in On the Road to Mandalay, ‘there aren’t no Ten Commandments’ east of Suez: for centuries Asia afforded European expansionists sexual opportunities that were hard to find back home. But as Bernstein records, not exactly pace Edward Said, the “harem culture” they were seduced by existed in many parts of Asia long before pale-skinned chaps started turning up.

Let me declare an interest, or a lack of it: I’ve only ever dated European women. And yet it’s not hard to see the appeal of Asian women, and not just for their pellucid features, slender proportions and so on – many Asian societies, whether bound to Buddhism, Shinto or Confucius, value passivity and good manners over causing a fuss, with the result that people often seem naturally polite and friendly.

Some men choose to reinterpret these qualities as docile and submissive. One smitten English colleague in his early 30s insists, however, that while some of the Asian girls he has dated conform to those sorts of stereotypes, just as many don’t. Ideally, he adds, he’d like to meet a British-born or western-educated Chinese girl; in other words someone he might have more to talk to about. But perhaps there is more, in some instances, to a desire for the exotic than meets the eye: disgruntlement with Western women, maybe; even – after than 40 years of shifting gender relations – a sense of male redundancy not found in more traditional Asian cultures. ‘[Asian women] don’t have the attitude problem that Western girls do,’ is my cohort’s unwitting remark. Indeed!

A western-educated Filipina friend who describes herself as ’emancipated’ and who is constantly being hit upon by ‘older gentlemen’, makes the obvious point that economic dependency creates its own stability in a relationship. She also observes that there is a greater reluctance towards divorce in the East, partly because of legal restrictions. ‘So people commit’ – which may be an attraction to outsiders.

Of course, any generalisations are perfectly ridiculous. As my older friend – having witnessed all manner of ‘mixed’ couplings, including several which have begat jilted Western wives – points out, high-flying ex-pats in Hong Kong increasingly tend to view a wealthy, educated Chinese wife or girlfriend as a signifier of status, not the other way about.

To return to the question of what’s in it for ‘her’, though, it’s worth considering that the 2006 US Census found that in a country which is only 4.8% ethnically Asian, the white male-Asian female combo accounts for a greater proportion (an astonishing 41 percent) of inter-racial marriages than any other. Either a lot of Americans lied in protest at government intrusion, then, or there is something going on here that is more than just about male desire.

My Filipina friend deplores the assumption that there is always something ‘transactional’ about East-West interracial relationships, while according to my infatuated colleague, Asian girls are looking for the same thing as Western girls: love. And there’s surely not a whole lot wrong with that. As the world’s economic scales tip eastwards, it might even buy the West a little kindness some day.

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Beyond betrayal

This article appeared on the South China Morning Post’s Rewind page

It may be confidently asserted that the cypher-like emoticon things which nowadays adorn all correspondence amongst people under 30 do not derive their name from George Smiley. The taciturn intelligence officer central to a number of John Le Carré’s most memorable novels, including Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, is rarely given to emotion, let alone enthusiasm. And with good reason. As Le Carre chronicles, from personal experience, the work of a Cold War spy is painstaking and unglamorous, a quid pro quo only for obscurity, paranoia, possible derangement and almost certain betrayal.

Brought out of forced retirement to hunt a mole (code-named Gerald) whom, it transpires, has effectively turned the Circus – the innermost circle of British secret intelligence – into an arm of Moscow Centre, Smiley is a man betrayed at almost every turn in Tinker, Tailor. Jaded yet loyal, we are led to infer that he feels Gerald’s deception, of the service and of Britain, deeply. That Gerald turns out to be the charismatic Bill Haydon, one of Smiley’s wife’s many lovers, adds further to his martyrdom. And, to top it off, his earlier banishment from the Circus was the price he paid for loyalty to “Control”, the boss ousted after a botched operation which was, it emerges, a trap set up by Haydon and Moscow.

Condensing Le Carré’s intricate storyline is no easy task – as Thomas Alfredson, who directed the recent film version, has attested. But as Smiley burrows deeper into past events – the novel begins in media res and jumps about – he assembles a mosaic of duplicity. Scholars have likened him to Homer’s Odysseus, the scorned outsider putting the kingdom bang to rights, but the Circus’s day of reckoning brings him little satisfaction. And when the final act of revenge, betrayal’s narrative bastard, comes, it is implied the bullet is fired by Jim Prideaux, Haydon’s old partner.

Haydon’s character is derived from Kim Philby, one of the so-called Cambridge Five traitors and the man Le Carré believes blew his own cover as a secret agent. The author knows of what he writes, then: a Britain on whose Empire the sun is setting, exposed to subversion from within the ranks of its own establishment. And the Circus serves almost as an amphitheatre for this attrition of old certainties. Espionage is no game of cricket, certainly.

Still, though, Le Carré manages to convince us of what is at stake: loyalty matters, betrayal of one’s own is contemptible. Smiley clings to a kind of unspoken faith that whatever foulness Englishmen may be capable of in defending British interests, they are still more moral than the other chaps, and that anyway it’s all worth it to uphold the rights of the individual against the tyranny of Soviet communism. In spying on the Circus, he may be “sinning against his own notions of nobility,” but Le Carré leaves us in no doubt that some betrayals are more pardonable than others.