Artist and film-maker Chris Coles says you find it in Bangkok – “gangsters, beautiful girls, vibrant nightlife, the gigantic scale of the city itself, full of its diverse millions and their struggles … a chaotic, edgy world of colliding intention and misplaced desire — lives out of balance, male-female compulsion, alienation and disassociation.”
Why Southeast Asia? Coles sees a link between Thailand today and Germany in the 1920s and 30s – “Large scale industrialization and infrastructure development, immense capital formation and wealth accumulation, massive population shifts from rural areas to cities, disintegration of traditional social structures and the globalization of millions of previously somewhat isolated people and cultures.” In other words, rapid economic change and social dislocation. Big winners, big losers.
Noir is the losers’ side of the story – the dispossessed, the downtrodden. The roadkill of progress.
Christopher G. Moore began it with the Vince Calvino series. Vince is a private investigator in Bangkok, although his very first adventure was in Phnom Penh and he’s recently been to Yangon. In 2011 Moore edited and published Bangkok Noir, a collection of short stories from (among others) John Burdett, Stephen Leather, Pico Iyer. In 2012 he did the same for Cambodia with Phnom Penh Noir. What was really interesting about that one was the high proportion of contributions from Cambodian writers – who better to write about Cambodia?
So what is Southeast Asian noir? My own definition is this: it’s genre fiction, often but not necessarily involving crime, that shows the world as a dangerous, unpredictable place, ruled largely by chance, and without much sign of law, either human or natural. Despite this, noir stories aren’t depressing and miserable. The underlying message is moral.