Orientalism in ‘One Night in Bangkok’
“Orientalism was ultimately a political vision of reality whose structure promoted the difference between the familiar (Europe, West, “us”) and the strange (the Orient, the East, “them”).” — Edward Said
Leaning about 80s music in college, one of my favourite songs to play on YouTube was “One Night in Bangkok”, a song from the musical Chess. Composed by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus of ABBA and lyrics by Tim Rice, the musical is about chess grandmasters from the U.S. and the Soviet Union playing against each other at the height of the cold war. Singer and actor Murray Head plays “the American” Freddie Trumper, and got a hit on the charts in 1985 with his rendition one of his songs form Chess: “One Night in Bangkok”.
The song, along with the music video, is a classic case of orientalism, representations that serves to make Other the Middle East and Asia. Through racist, colonialist, and other patronizing depictions, the ‘Orient’ is often amalgamated by Western powers to support the West’s self-perception of rationality and progressivism. This is clearly on display in “One Night in Bangkok,” whose orientalism is so egregious it deserves a detailed analysis.
The song begins with Middle Eastern riffs and strings that are clearly indicated of the amalgamation at play. Bangkok is the capital of Thailand, a long ways away from the Middle East, but through the politics of representation of orientalism, such geographical distinctions are ignored.
Around the :25 mark in the music video, we see our protagonist bursting from a room. The smoke adds a ‘mystical’ quality to the air, as if he is entering a mysterious place. Such mystification is also common in orientalist depictions.
The first lyric of the song says it all:
Bangkok, Oriental city
By terming Bangkok as part of the orient, the song is pinning the city amidst a tradition of oriental representation, of mystification and difference.
And the city don’t know that the city is getting
The creme de la creme of the chess world in a
Show with everything but Yul Brynner
The American (it only feels right to call him this) posits that the city is unprepared for the cold war battle about to begin, positing the city (and nation of Thailand) as less developed that Western powers. The tongue-in-cheek line about Yul Brynner references Brynner’s performance as the King of Siam in The King and I, which, incidentally, is banned in Thailand. So, in a way, yes, Thailand does get everything except Yul Brynner. While the American mentions that “All change, don’t you know that when you/Play at this level there’s no ordinary venue”, indicating that Bangkok isn’t ordinary. While his lines are largely sarcastic, his exclamation right afterwards referring to Bangkok as “or, or this place!” indicates his disgust. The chorus then plays thusly:
One night in Bangkok and the world’s your oyster
The bars are temples but the pearls ain’t free
You’ll find a God in every golden cloister
And if you’re lucky then the God’s a she
I can feel an angel slidin up to me
Much of the song is dedicated to orientalist stereotypes of Bangkok and the ‘orient’ in general as a nation of harems and sex workers, and this chorus is no exception. The line that “And if you’re lucky then the God’s a she” refers to kathoey, a thai term referring to a transgender woman or effeminate male. Trans panic is not new to orientalist discourse, and its active here. The meaning with this chorus is thus: Thailand is full of sex workers who will assail you, many of them duplicitous about their “true” gender. It’s vile stereotyping at its worst.
During this first chorus, the music video also shows an image of various people of colour, dressed in various garments of oriental nature, looking up and praying as they sing the chorus.
They then disperse as we see, presumably, the ‘God’ who just much the a she.
The next verse illustrates some of the American’s narrow-mindedness:
One town’s very like another
When your head’s down over your pieces, brother
(It’s a drag, it’s a bore, it’s really such a pity)
(to be lookin at the board, not lookin at the city)
Whadda you mean?
You see one crowded, polluted, stinking town…
As the chorus singers berate the American for failing to appreciate Bangkok, the singers in the video do point to him accusingly. But the American’s continue to rebuke them, and the song taps into again the myth of the orient as one giant harem of the East.
(Tea, girls, warm, sweet)
(Some are set up in the Somerset Maugham suite)
These lyrics are notably sung very high pitched, I suspect stereotypically of Asian music. As these lyrics play, images of the orient continue, as the music video continually sells an image of Bangkok as one giant steam room.
Get Thai’d! You’re talking to a tourist
Whose every move’s among the purest
I get my kicks ABOVE the waistline, sunshine
The final verse is particularly egregious, and combined with the sexist images in the music video, present a classic binary between the West and the East. By rebuking sex workers (apparently), the American upholds his send rationality and stoicism, in comparison to the East’s embodied exoticism.
The next chorus isn’t as notable, though it does draw a God/angel/Devil comparison between someone who is nearing the American:
One night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble
Not much between despair and ecstasy
One night in Bangkok and the tough guys tumble
Can’t be too careful with your company
I can feel the devil walkin next to me
There isn’t much notable else in this section, save for the music video presenting some Thai fighters, because Thailand amirite?
The rest of the chorus is accompanied by more tokens of the Orient: strange masks, people performing manual labour is plain garb, etc.
The final verses begin thus:
Siam’s, gonna be the witness
To the ultimate test of cerebral fitness
Siam is the former name of Thailand. it is an archaic term that further mystifies the nation as something other, something from the past.
This grips me more than would a
Muddy old river or reclining Buddha
The American is blithely referring to the Chao Phraya River, a significant land formation, and Wat Pho, a giant reclining buddha statue. Both are notable landmarks, illustrating the American’s callous and inward nature.
I don’t see you guys rating
The kind of mate I’m contemplating
I’d let you watch, I would invite you
But the queens WE use would not excite you
So you’d better go back to your bars, your temples
Your massage parlors
With these final verses, The American again asserts his cerebral nature, branding Thailand as some orientalist fantasia of sex workers. The American asserts the superiority of his “queens”, i.e. intelligence, as something the people of Thailand would not be interested in, who are positing instead to be more invested in the “body”, i.e. sex. It’s a classic binary to support the West as purveyors of reason and intellect, and the East as mystical and bodily.
The chorus repeats, with slightly new lyrics:
You’ll find a God in every golden cloister
A little flesh, a little history
Again, the idea is that the Orient is a place of fleshly transactions, nothing more. There is nothing much else to say in term son lyrics for the rest of the song, it merely repeats on the choruses again, while the music video has dances dance on a chessboard. But it’s time to discuss the final shot of the music video.
The final shot is of an asian woman slamming a chess piece into the camera. Presumably, the way it is edited, with a shot of the American looking upwards, it is the woman crushing the American at his own game. However, such a symbolic gesture is undercut by her relatively passive presence throughout the music video. She is the object of pursuit at the beginning of the video, passively stares at the camera, and quietly plays chess against the American throughout the video. Any attempts with the final shot to redress the American’s rampant orientalism is largely undercut by the orientalism present throughout the video.
As this song comes from a musical about the cold war, there may be larger narratives at play in the song that inform its orientalist depictions. But this one was also released as a pop single internationally, reaching #3 in Canada and #12 in the U.K. Even if the musical itself addresses the orientalism at play, such context is lost in radio and MTV play. The vision of Bangkok “One Night in Bangkok” offers is a textbook orientalist fantasy, and as such also serves as Orientalism 101.