The Glare of Gold
An essay on Asian Gold Fever as a cultural cornerstone
Written March 4, 1999 - Bangkok
DEWEY  VANDERHOFF


  Yellow Fever was once common in tropical Asia, but anti- Malaria pills and vaccines have put this once raging disease in its place. But, another fever afflicts Asia, and it shows no signs of abatement, and is almost always fatal. Asians have Gold Fever. They are addicted to gold.  It burns in their collective cultural psyche, from Korea and Japan to the hot sands of the Middle East. I have seen a fair amount of the affliction in Thailand this week, worth noting.



     In the early hours of today, I walked the 3km from my guesthouse on Khao San Road in Bangkok over to the Grand Palace and the exemplary Wat Po (a Wat is a Buddhist temple). I went ostensibly in search of architecture, history, and the observation of religious creations, but I could not in the end see past all the gold. The temples and the edifices and the statues...theyíre all covered in it.

     Real shiny gold ... ìthe yellow metal that makes men crazy,î as the famous Sioux chief of the American West said when our own tragic ethnic history was being shamelessly gilded back in the late 1800ís in the Black Hills and along the Bozeman trail and, well, just about everywhere north and forward on the timeline from Cortezí landing in Mexico in 1519. Asiaís been doing it for 7,000 years, though. Recent archaeological assessments put the true cradle of civilization squarely in Thailand, not Mesopotamia as we were taught... bronze was smelted here fully 1500 years before it appears anywhere else on earth (because tin ore is plentiful in the Malay peninsula) and goldsmithing came shortly afterwards. Agriculture and the evolving concepts of cities and organized societies were born in Siam while Egypt and Sumeria and Babylon and Stonehenge were yet to be conceived, as it turns out.  This is a revelation. I had more than a few of those today.

 Wat Po was the first excursion, a vast complex of temples and monastic residences and altars and shrines and all things Buddhist; the huge icon that is Bangkok and Thailand itself, where the heart of its Buddhist culture beats strongest and surest.  Even a former Khmer king of Angkor (Cambodia) gave a replica of his finest temples to the SukoThai  kingdom, built here at Wat Po and plated in gold. As I stand under that towering Ankgorian stupa, easily 100 feet high and twenty-dome feet across at the base, I am blinded by its yellow radiance, the Glare of Gold.

     It is hard to appreciate the architecture when you are knocked back by it. It hurts the eyes...capturing the somewhat middling Bangkok ochre sun in its cloudy berth, and using the curves of the stupa to concentrate and focus the light and send it down in solid beams of gold intensity. Everything in a radius of many meters around this spire is tinted in gold light. Objects have a gold aura; even the shadows under outcrops and foliage have a yellow patina to them. I cannot look directly at the stupa, not even with my heavy blue-blocker sunglasses, for it is too brilliant. Yet I wonder of this monstrosity of perfect curve and perverse execution really is made of the metal that makes men crazy, allowing them to think they are really divining something. So I approach it and touch it... itís metal, hot in the sun, slick and polished. The entire surface of the spire is made up of 1-cm square tiles of metal...Gold.



     Hereís a paradox: This monastic community, like any other Wat in Thailand, is populated by Buddhist monks. These men have largely shed their material lives and removed themselves from their possessions, shaved their heads and wear the yellow-orange robe of the sect. They serve for as few as two years or as long as a lifetime, but while in the service of the monastic way they literally have to beg the funds to live on. Each morning the monks take to the streets with their prayer bowls to ask for handouts, most humbly. I have given many a baht to them. It is their way.  But youíd never know it to walk around one of their seeming endless supply of Wats and monastic villages.  The buildings are plated in gold.
    Oh to be fair , there is copious amounts of lacquer and excellent stone tiling and good carpentry from teakwood and other fine constructs. But the impression you are left with is that of living in gilded splendor.  Iíve seen this same phenomena in Mexico...huge cathedrals plastered in gold leaf and religious icons of great artistic value, all consecrated on the backs of the poorest people I know, the congregation. What a paradox ëtis, made even odder when you realize the Holy Roman Church and the New world Catholics came up one side of this timeline on their continents, and the Buddhists (and Hindus and even Islam) did the same thing on their own historical turf... converting the devotion into objects you can touch with your hands, made of Gold. So much glory.  So much tragedy, so much human worth and worthlessness made manifest by, or through, goldness. The photos I took at Wat Po wonít even begin to describe the overwhelming goldness of the place, but they will hint at it.

 

     Earlier this week I was in Thailandís second largest city, Hat Yai, down on the southern frontier. Walking from my guest house there back down the three blocks to the train station, you pass an ungodly number of gold shops. Maybe thirty. They are all dripping in gold inside, literally.  Each shop is decorated in cardinal red, but all you see is the gold...strand after strand of necklace as if making a tapestry; case after case of bracelets and rings and amulets and whatevers. Fully fifty percent of the interior of these stores is goldness.  This  is because of the vast influence of the Chinese. They settled this region, and brought the desire for gold with them. Hat Yai is more Chinese than Thai or Muslim, if not overtly then in its marrow and tissue. The gold is a dead giveaway.  I took some photos of this, too.
 
     Asia has a weakness for gold. But they believe it to be strength and a thing of virtue. I disagree. It is obvious from our pan-global history that it is natural for men to lust for gold, and center their nations and nature on it to a large extent.  I for one think this is a huge human shortcoming and a foible, something we as a planet need to work on. We can start in the churches  and wats and work our way out from there....
 
    A few years back when I was involved in trying to defeat the Noranda-Yellowstone gold mine near Cooke City Montana, one of our strongest rhetorical arguments was the world doesnít need any new gold. The various technical, scientific, and practical applications of the wondrous metal could all be realized by recycling frivolous jewelry.  Fully 85 percent of the new gold mined and refined on Earth goes into ornamental jewelry, and half of that is coveted in Asia (the next greatest consumptive use of gold was in school class rings).  We argued that the Canadians wanted to mine Yellowstoneís precious wilderness gold just to sell it to the Chinese and the rest of Asia for their shops. I donít believe I have seen a single woman in Asia that didnít have at least one piece of gold jewelry on. The men are more moderate, but they wear a lot of it, too. It is one thing about Asia that has struck me from the beginning, this propensity for goldness. But it really hit home today when I saw mountains of the stuff in the Bangkok skies, challenging the Heavens above ì Can you do better than this? ì  We were right to use that rhetorical argument about the consumption of gold relevant back to its supply...what a travesty to realize from this end of the gold chain what might have been.
 
     The goldness of Wat Po and the Grand Palace was awesome stuff. Awe inspiring. Awe-full. There is a temple that contains a hundred foot long, thirty foot high Reclining Buddha, smiling with eyes wide open.  Itís huge, and itís gold. There was a gallery that had a hundred or more life-size golden Buddha statues, and the courtyards were festooned with hordes of mythical creatures and angelic figures made from gold. The Kinnari is a mythical half-bird, half-human princess , a common manifestation in Thai temple architecture, as shown above.

 I was drowning in the substance, but that flood started thousands of years ago here in Asia and has not yet receded. Asia sure has some strange values... once you get past the brilliance of the art and architecture and scratch beneath the surface. And the glare of the gold.

- dew



Dewey Vanderhoff / Photojournalist  -   P.O. Box 1271  -  Cody WY 82414-1271 (USA)
E-Mail to deweyv@trib.com