In the Dark

The street, or one like it (Photo: Uwe Zoellner)
The street, or one like it (Photo: Uwe Zoellner)

In the dark of the night, dreaming of their faces jolted me awake. Again. Even though it’s been almost two years since we saw them.

Recurring dreams, it is said, reflect our concerns and help us process memories and emotions. It’s also said that giving this sort of dream a title and writing about it helps. So here goes.

Magellan and I had no real desire to see Bangkok. But it’s a major connecting point (and one of the few) for flights into Bhutan. Because of Bhutan’s extreme altitude and the high winds over the Himalayas, its flights are often delayed or cancelled. We were advised to book two nights in Bangkok on the inbound segment of our trip and a single night on the outbound.

Although it’s not a place we’d return to, we had a good time in Bangkok. We’ll talk about that in another post.

The day I keep returning to in my dreams began with our plan to see the Grand Palace, walk through Chinatown for lunch and tour the Jim Thompson House, three typical tourist destinations.

A man came up and introduced himself to us, asking us where we wanted to go. “Golden Buddha only open one day a month, today the day. I retired police—see card—you take blue and yellow tukttuk to see Golden Buddha. Grand Palace no open. Closed ‘til 1:30 for special occasion. Monk’s funeral. You have time to see Golden Buddha, then Thai discount store—no tax, King’s Guarantee, then Jim Thompson House—400 Baht (about $16).”

Magellan wanted to think about it but I was keen, keen, keen. We climbed into the blue and yellow tuktuk, a three-wheeled rickshaw-like vehicle in which you slowly move, or sit as we mostly did, at the level of exhaust pipes inhaling diesel fumes.

Something was wrong with the tuktuk. Finally the driver pulled over and changed a spark plug. Not much farther along, he pulled over at Wat Po, The Temple of the Reclining Buddha, and told us that he was “finished.”

Were we hoodwinked? In a city where the average person makes less than $6,000 a year, it doesn’t matter. Because we were there, we had a quick look at the 46-metre long Buddha covered in gold leaf. It seemed so ostentatious compared with those in Bhutan. We headed for the simple pleasures of Bangkok’s Chinatown.

Yaowarat, as Chinatown is called after its main street of the same name, pulses with colour, energy and smells. Streets of Chinese pharmacies with earthy knobs of twisted herbs. The Old Market with its iced trays of fresh fish and open boxes of fragrant spices. Wooden-shop houses displaying ancestral names and modern wares. Market stalls bursting with emerald-green papayas and stinky durian. Flower stalls crammed with colour, especially sunshine-yellow Thai orchids. Street-side restaurants, some with the emblems of sharks and birds advertising their menu. Lanes of stalls displaying yards of eye-popping colours in cottons and silks and slippery-shiny polyesters. Shrines, and not far beyond, stands of porn movies. It felt authentic.

We wandered around the tiny, street-side food carts. Each one was selling limited items of their home-made specialty. We settled on spring rolls, making our selection from vegetable or pork (we had both). The woman behind the cart rolled them up, plunged them into bubbling oil and served them—the best spring rolls we’ve ever tasted. For the equivalent of twenty-five cents each.

So Spice, you’re wondering, is the memory of those spring rolls what you keep dreaming about?

I wish. It’s what happened right after that that I can’t help thinking about.

As we were leaving Chinatown, we came upon a side alley, narrow and covered. I’d never be able to find it on a map and have no idea what it’s called but it looked worth exploring and was in the direction we were headed.

Not far along, the light dimmed, the alley darkened and started to seem a bit dodgy. We quickened our pace. Then, in a stall the size of our condo kitchen, we saw a family of seven, mom and dad and school-age kids, all squatted on the floor beside burlap bags of shrimp. Every family member was in the process of biting the heads off the bodies of shrimp. Live shrimp? Farmed river shrimp? For local restaurants or for export? We don’t know for sure. Shrimp heads were tossed aside, shrimp bodies went somewhere else—I don’t know where because my eyes wouldn’t stop looking into the dim faces of this family, their sad eyes offering no expression save resignation.

How lucky are we as Canadians. In a survey conducted by The Economist, our country ranked #9 in its ability to “provide the best opportunities for a healthy, safe and prosperous life in the years ahead.” It’s not so good for a baby born in Thailand, which ranked #50 between China and Turkey. Will little Kanokwan in Thailand be biting the heads off shrimp instead of learning long division?

Remember when we were kids and shrimp was a rare delicacy? Growing up on a farm in Saskatchewan, I don’t remember tasting any crustacean until my (future) mother-in-law served tinned shrimp cocktail for New Year’s dinner in 1968. Now, shrimp are ubiquitous, aluminum trays of pink crescents at the buffet.

After the third or fourth time of dreaming of this family killing live shrimp with their bare teeth, Google confirmed what many of us have suspected.

A year ago the Associated Press published a report that found enslaved workers in Thailand, some locked up for months or years, are forced to peel shrimp for up to 16 hours a day for little or no pay. The report says

U.S. customs records show the shrimp made its way into the supply chains of major U.S. food stores and retailers such as Wal-Mart, Kroger, Dollar General and Petco, along with restaurants such as Olive Garden…AP reporters went to supermarkets in all 50 states and found shrimp products from supply chains tainted with forced labor. Responding to the AP reports, Red Lobster, Whole Foods and others said they’ve been assured by their supplier, Thai Union, that their particular shrimp were not processed by children and slaves, despite the AP’s findings.” (In August 2015, Costco was also sued for “selling farmed shrimp from Thailand, where slave labor and human trafficking in the fishing industry are widespread, and allegedly misleading U.S. consumers about it.

The Thai Union admitted it didn’t know the source of all of its shrimp and promised to use in-house labour exclusively, starting January 1, 2016. The report goes on to say that a spokesman representing three-quarters of the U.S. seafood industry says boycotting Thai shrimp isn’t the answer because you lose your ability to change labour issues. A smaller importer disagreed.

I guarantee you that if Wal-Mart and Kroger and Red Lobster stopped buying from Thailand until this got fixed, I think pretty soon Thailand would have no choice but to really deal with it. The large corporations are the ones who act like the pope as far as sustainability and human rights, but then they go out and buy from the main culprits.

Maybe my dream of this family keeps persisting as a mnemonic for the photograph we don’t have. The photographer Sally Mann says we diminish our ability to remember a poignant situation when we photograph it. Besides, who would dare to take such a heart-wrenching portrayal? On the other hand, would a telltale snapshot help to solve the horrendous labour issues surrounding Thai shrimp? Or would some say this family was working out in the open, of their own free will? I don’t know. In the dark I wonder. And hope that this family can dream of better days ahead.


Here’s the full article from Associated Press about egregious practices in the shrimp industry.

This article from The Economist talks about the lottery of life, where you were born.

Mann, Sally. Hold Still, A Memoir with Photographs. New York: Back Bay Books, 2016.

8 Responses

  1. Wonderful, thoughtful piece! It’s very tricky to select sea food, other foods, and clothes etc that have not caused problems. How are your dreams now?

  2. I have had many a conversation about our foods from afar! Shrimp seems to be a really big culprit! Thanks for putting it in the forefront, best to buy local, if you can… avoiding big stores like Walmart for everything! I am trying to be more locally aware❤️

  3. Interesting story to say the least.

    Not a pleasant thought to be sure and I can see how the view can stay with you.

    There are many items in our everyday household table fair that have suspect beginnings and show a need to be investigated prior to ingestion.

    Too bad we do not have access to all information regarding food sources and proper handling, taking the word of any large corporation does not infer trust on any level.

    It’s kind of like our return to buying in bulk, did we not go away from that due to unsanitary conditions, too many hands in the goods, so to speak?

    “Caveat emptor”

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