Video Night in Kathmandu

BOOK: Video Night in Kathmandu



“Delightful … Pico Iyer’s remarkable talent is enough justification for going anywhere in the world he fancies.”

Washington Post Book World

“A surprising and clever book. Like the lost traveler stumbling on Shangri-La, Iyer has hit on the hidden beauty of traveling in the late twentieth century.”

The Nation

“Some of the most polished travel writing to appear in a long time - always revealing, sometimes reflective, frequently riotious. Iyer displays a sharpshooter’s eye for evocative detail. Fresh and immensely accomplished.”

Kirkus Reviews

“The best writers of travel seem to invent the places they bring to life. This is why I am certain that Pico Iyer invented modern Asia. No other explanation could account for his producing so shrewd, so funny, so dazzling a book.”

– Roger Rosenblatt

“An offbeat, brilliant book … funny and alarming.”

Boston Herald

“Enough anomaly to fill a shelf of travel books. Iyer … is especially sensitive to cross-cultural confusion. His book’s mix of thoughtful essay and personal reportage describes a relationship whose ambiguity stands as its principal characteristic. Iyer’s trip [may be] a journey into our own future.”

Philadelphia Inquirer



      On Prospero’s Isle

      The Underground Overland Invasion

      The Quest Becomes a Trek

      The Door Swings Both Ways

      Born in the U.S.A.

      The Raj is Dead! Long Live the Raj!

      The Empire’s New Clothes

      Hollywood in the Fifties

      Love in a Duty-free Zone

      Perfect Strangers

The Empire Strikes Back

Afterword to the Vintage Edition


To my mother and father,
Guides, guardians and friends


Wind in the west,
fallen leaves
gathering in the east.


All tourist people are my bread and butter. So I need to help everything as I could. If I do not help them, they will never forgive me because I fully understand their love or sincerity. I don’t have enough money, but I need to pay their gratitude at one day.

The credo of Maung-Maung,
trishaw driver,
chalked up on a blackboard inside
his hut in Mandalay


conquered Asia. In China, a million people raced to see
First Blood
within ten days of its Beijing opening, and black marketeers were hawking tickets at seven times the official price. In India, five separate remakes of the American hit went instantly into production, one of them recasting the macho superman as a sari-clad woman. In Thailand, fifteen-foot cutouts of the avenging demon towered over the lobbies of some of the ten Bangkok cinemas in which the movie was playing, training their machine guns on all who passed. And in Indonesia, the Rambo Amusement Arcade was going great guns, while vendors along the streets offered posters of no one but the nation’s three leading deities: President Suharto, Siva and Stallone.

As I crisscrossed Asia in the fall of 1985, every cinema that I visited for ten straight weeks featured a Stallone extravaganza. In Chengdu, I heard John Rambo mumble his
First Blood
truisms in sullen, machine-gun Mandarin and saw the audience break into tut-tuts of headshaking admiration as our hero kerpowed
seven cops in a single scene. In Jogjakarta, I went to
on the same night as the
(though the modern divinity was watched by hosts of young couples, stately ladies in sarongs and bright-eyed little scamps, many of whom had paid the equivalent of two months’ salary for their seats, while, on the other side of town, the replaying of the ancient myth remained virtually unvisited). Just five days later, I took an overnight bus across Java, and, soon enough, the video screen next to the driver crackled into life and there—who else?—was the Italian Stallion, reasserting his Dionysian beliefs against Apollo Creed. As the final credits began to roll, my neighbor, a soldier just returned from putting down rebels in the jungles of East Timor, sat back with a satisfied sigh. “That,” he pronounced aptly, “was very fantastic.”

Silencing soldiers, toppling systems, conquering millions and making money fist over fist across the continent, Rambo was unrivaled as the most powerful force in Asia that autumn. “No man, no law, no woman can stop him,” gasped the ads in the Bangkok papers. “Everyone Is Applauding Screen’s Most Invincible Hero,” agreed one of the three ads on a single page of India’s respected
“The Second Greatest U.S. Box Office Hit in History,” roared the marquee in faraway Sabah. “I think he’s very beautiful,” cooed a twenty-three-year-old Chinese girl to a foreign reporter. “So vigorous and so graceful. Is he married?”

Rambo had also, I knew, shattered box-office records everywhere from Beirut to San Salvador. But there seemed a particular justice in his capturing of Asian hearts and minds. For Rambo’s great mission, after all, was to reverse the course of history and, single-fisted, to redress America’s military losses in the theaters of Asia. And in a way, of course, the movie’s revisionism had done exactly that, succeeding where the American army had failed, and winning over an entire continent. Some of the appeal of the blockhead-buster lay, no doubt, in its presentation of a kung fu spectacular more professional than the local efforts and more polished than the competing displays of Norris and Bronson. Some might just have reflected the after-tremors of its earthshaking reception in the States. But whatever the cause of the drama’s success, the effect was undeniable: millions of Asians were taking as their role model an All-American mercenary.
When William Broyles returned to his old battlegrounds in Vietnam in 1984, he found the locals jiving along to “Born in the U.S.A.,” Bruce Springsteen’s anthem for the disenfranchised Vietnam vet, and greeting him with cries of “America Number One!” “America,” concluded Broyles, “is going to be much more difficult to defeat in this battle than we were in the others. Our clothes, our language, our movies and our music—our way of life—are far more powerful than our bombs.”

The prospect of witnessing that low-intensity conflict was one of the impulses that took me first to Asia. Over the course of two years, I spent a total of seven months crisscrossing the continent on four separate trips, mostly in order to see its sights, but also in order to visit the front lines of this cultural campaign. I was interested to find out how America’s pop-cultural imperialism spread through the world’s most ancient civilizations. I wanted to see what kind of resistance had been put up against the Coca-Colonizing forces and what kind of counter-strategies were planned. And I hoped to discover which Americas got through to the other side of the world, and which got lost in translation.

This contest for cultural sovereignty was nothing new, of course. Colonel Sanders and General Motors had first set up base camps across the global village years ago, and America’s Ambassador-at-Large throughout the world had long been the retired World War I flying ace Snoopy. Fifteen years before the first American troops showed up, Norman Lewis described families in Saigon listening respectfully to a local rendition of “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” And fully a quarter century ago, Arthur Koestler had stated as a given that the world was moving toward “a uniform, mechanized, stereotyped culture,” a mass culture that struck him as a form of mass suicide. The syllogism was old enough now to be almost an axiom: pop culture ruled the world, and America ruled pop culture. Thus America ruled the waves—or at the very least, the airwaves.

In recent years, however, the takeover had radically intensified and rapidly accelerated. For one thing, satellites were now beaming images of America across the globe faster than a speeding bullet; the explosion of video had sent history spinning like the wheels of an overturned bicycle. For another, as the world grew smaller and ever smaller, so too did its props: not only had
distances in time and space been shrunk, but the latest weapons of cultural warfare—videos, cassettes and computer disks—were far more portable than the big screens and heavy instruments of a decade before. They could be smuggled through border checkpoints, under barbed-wire fences and into distant homes as easily, almost, as a whim. In the cultural campaign, the equivalent of germ warfare had replaced that of heavy-tank assaults.

Suddenly, then, America could be found uncensored in even the world’s most closed societies, intact in even its most distant corners. Peasants in China or the Soviet Union could now enjoy images of swimming pools, shopping malls and the other star-spangled pleasures of the Affluent Society inside their own living rooms; remote villagers in rural Burma could now applaud Rambo’s larger-than-life heroics only days after they hit the screens of Wisconsin, and the Little House on the Prairie was now a part of the neighborhood in 108 countries around the world.

More important, the video revolution was bringing home the power of the Pax Americana with greater allure and immediacy than even the most cunning propaganda. Already, the ruling mullahs in Iran were fretting that their capital’s newly formed clandestine Michael Jackson clubs could easily turn into revolutionary cells. And I once heard one of Washington’s most senior foreign policy veterans privately maintain that the single issue that most exercised the Soviets was not the nuclear arms race, or the war of espionage, or Afghanistan or Nicaragua or Cuba, or even the rising confidence of China, but simply the resistless penetration of video.

In 1985, another influence was also carrying American dollars and dreams to every corner of the world with more force and more urgency than ever before: people. Tourists were the great foot soldiers of the new invasion; tourists, in a sense, were the terrorists of cultural expansionism, what Sartre once called “the cool invaders.” Scarcely forty years ago, most of the world’s secret places were known only to adventurers, soldiers, missionaries and a few enterprising traders; in recent years, however, the secrets were open, and so too was the world—anyone with a credit card could become a lay colonialist. Nepal, which had never seen a tourist until 1955, now welcomed 200,000 foreign
visitors each year; China, which had rigidly closed its doors for decades, had 11,000 tourists a day clambering along the Great Wall by 1985. The road to Mandalay and even the road to Xanadu were crowded now with Westerners—men in search of women, dreamers in search of enlightenment, traders in search of riches. In 1985, many Asians considered the single great import from the West, after Rambo, to be AIDS.

Not all the incoming forces, of course, were American. Mick Jagger was as much the poet laureate of the modern world as Michael Jackson, and Sophie Marceau vied with Phoebe Cates as the poster queen of Southeast Asia. If Springsteen turned out to be my unexpected traveling companion across the continent, so too did the British group Dire Straits: their latest album greeted me in a tiny inn in Hiroshima, then blasted my eardrums from a car in Beijing, then wafted over me in the soft tropical night of a Balinese guesthouse, then serenaded me once more in the Kathmandu home of a local Lothario. And the back roads of Asia were far more crowded with Canadians and Germans and Australians than with Americans. But still, when it came to movies and TV, the United States remained the Great Communicator. And if pop culture was, in effect, just a shorthand for all that was young and modern and rich and free, it was also a virtual synonym for America.

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