Saturday, June 06, 2009

A Mystery for the Grasshopper

It's difficult to know what happened to actor David Carradine in his Bangkok hotel room earlier this week. Carradine became a cultural icon in the 1970's TV series Kung Fu as Caine, the half-Asian Shaolin monk on the run from pursuers in the 19th century American west. Master Po, his blind kung fu master, had called the young student "grasshopper" because he could not yet hear the sound the insect made. While evading capture, Caine used his skills to perform acts of social justice when not meditating or playing tunes on his wooden flute. One author called the show "TV's first mystical eastern western." Perhaps the Ninjas finally caught up with the Grasshopper, a friend speculated in an email to me yesterday from the U.S. Carradine, in Thailand for a film role, was found dead in his hotel room closet, a shoelace tied around his penis and a silk rope twisted around his wrist and neck.

Thailand's chief coroner, Porntip Rojanasunan, said Carradine's death may have been an accident resulting from auto-erotic asphyxiation. Men indulging in self-gratification often deprive themselves of oxygen, the doctor explained. They can lose awareness of the fact that they are running out of air, which exposes them to the risk of suffocation and untimely death. Another local forensic specialist said people who engage in auto-erotic activity usually get high from virtually suffocating themselves. They can go into a state of half-sleep, and die if the brain lacks oxygen for several minutes. Carradine's death, then, was neither murder nor suicide, but an accident during a masturbatory ritual gone terribly wrong.

The practice of auto-eroticism is popular among bondage and sado-masochism communities, according to Kathryn Ando, a member of San Francisco’s Center for Sex and Culture who did her doctoral thesis on the topic of what has been termed “breath play." She studied 350 people who used some form of air restriction in their sex play. Despite the possible dangers, she said, practitioners can be highly motivated in pursuit of a more intense sexual experience. “It can be trust building and still induce fear in partners,” she said. She meant “fear” in a good way. According to a doctor in Kentucky, coroners in just about every county in the U.S. see at least a case a year of accidental auto-erotic asphyxiation. For more on this risky behavior, click here.

One early report said there was a "penis shrine" in Carradine's hotel. I may have a unique perspective on this. He was staying at the exclusive Swissotel Nai Lert Park Hotel on Wireless Road not far from the British embassy. At the rear of this hotel, next to the San Saeb Khlong, is a small forested shrine dedicated to the goddess of fertility. I visited it during my first few months in Bangkok, and wrote about it in Not a Toy. In that blog post you can see the photos I took of a variety of phallic objects, called palad khik, which means "honorable surrogate penis." These wooden dildos can be found on sale in Bangkok, particularly in areas frequented by tourists. But the Thai I'm told take them seriously for their help in inspiring pregnancy. The shrine behind Carradine's hotel was originally built by Nai Lert, a millionaire businessman, to honor Chao Mae Tuptim, a female goddess believed to reside in an old tree there. Someone who had made an offering soon found herself pregnant and the shrine began to attract other women hoping to become fertile and bear fruit. The day of my visit the shrine grounds were empty. I wonder if Carradine took a look during his stay next door.

The 72-year-old Carradine played a variety of roles in his long career, but never erased his original reputation as a mystic in street clothes. His love affair with Barbara Hershey in the 1970s made them the poster couple for hippies. After that unwed bliss, he was married five times. Perhaps his other greatest role was Bill, the title character in Quentin Tarantino's two Kill Bill films released in 2003 and 2004. According to, he had filmed a dozen movies so far this year along with a couple of TV parts. I recall once seeing his father, the noted character actor John Carradine, in a Hollywood restaurant. Since I rarely watched TV in the 1970s, David (actually born as John Jr.) was just that distinguished actor's son to me, and his brother Keith, perhaps a more accomplished actor, John's other boy.

The circumstances of Carradine's death will probably overshadow his long life. Hollywood has a long list of fallen stars, many of them chronicled in Kenneth Anger's classic Hollywood Babylon. I don't want to be the pot calling the kettle black, as my mother would say (from her large storehouse of clichés). We all might have our hidden sexual foibles. Certainly Bangkok is full of men who follow a different drummer when it comes to sexual morés. At the end of his life Carradine continued to pursue the illusive goal of sexual satisfaction, in ways the textbooks might call deviant (the Bangkok corner called him one of them). It's sad not only that he died accidentally but that his private fantasy has become public smut. I suspect that it was no accident that Carradine was staying in that hotel near the phallic shrine. Of course, we'll never know for sure. If only the Grasshopper were around to help us solve this mystery. R.I.P., Kwai Chang Caine.

The most noteworthy thing for me about President Obama's speech to the Muslim world from Cairo this week was the absence of the term "terror." Does this mean that Bush's "War on Terror" has been put to rest? In its place is the specter of "violent extremism" he mentioned several times, which I found easier to digest. By any definition, the Americans have been terrorists in Iraq and perhaps in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but they could hardly be guilty of extremism. (The killing of the abortion doctor last week was the act of an extremist.) My first impression of the speech was very positive. Finally, a sane U.S. president. Dialogue in any form is better than the ignorant saber rattling of the prior Republican administrations. Most of what Obama said about seeking a new beginning between the United States and Muslims was sorely needed after years of discord, but is quoting from the Qu'ran enough to settle deeply-held fears?

The root of the conflict between the west and the Islamic world is the dispossession and oppression of Palestinians by Israel. Without peace in the "Holy Land," war will continue elsewhere. What did Obama say that was new? He declared America's commitment to the "two-state solution" and said the construction of settlements on Palestinian land "violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop." These two positions, however, have been America's stated policy for years, but never have U.S. governments used their muscle to insure compliance. Moreover, all the illegal settlements must be dismantled rather than growth merely frozen. American financial aid has long paid for Israel's occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. Will Obama use the power of the purse? Muslim's can easily see the contradiction: How can Palestinians have a viable state if their territory is cut in two, and if 500,000 Jewish settlers are currently living there (not to mention the wall and roads forbidden to Arabs that cut the remaining land into little pieces? Until Obama and Clinton come up with new policies, or put teeth into old ones, the Muslim world will rightly perceive that American continues to favor Israel (the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid). And the violent extremists will continue their bloody resistance.


hobby said...

Re David Carradine's demise: I'm still skeptical, particularly as earlier reports mentioned footprints of another in the room, and the description of the tied hands seem unusual for someone apparently alone.
I'm not inclined to click on your link and find out more about auto-eroticism, so I will just have a guess that it means alone - if he was not alone then was it an accident or something else?

Re Obama: He still can 'talk the talk', but for me he's yet to prove he can 'walk the walk'.
(a bit like Thailand's current PM:)
See Robert Fisk's recent articles in The Independent for a slightly different perspective than the usual MSM.

Anonymous said...

Hi Will,

You say that "the root of the conflict between the west and the Islamic world is the dispossession and oppression of Palestinians by Israel", but I fear that the actual roots go much deeper than that.

In his speech Obama quoted Koran 9:119. If he'd have kept reading he'd have got to 9:123: "O ye who believe! Fight those of the disbelievers who are near to you, and let them find harshness in you, and know that Allah is with those who keep their duty (unto Him)."


Dr. Will said...

Foundational scriptures, Jewish and Muslim, are full of intolerant episodes, but as Obama pointed out, in 13th Andalusia all Peoples of the Book got along just fine. Outward events stimulate inward differences. The Andalusian age of tolerance ended when Christian Spain killed, expelled or forcefully converted all Jews and Muslims in the Reconquista (holocaust) of 1492.

Anonymous said...

Hi Will,

Yes, there is terrible history and blood-curling scriptures on both sides.

The imporant point now is to find the way to peace.

And in that regard I feel that the Christian churches have done very well in putting aside the legacy of hate.

No Christians today form terrorist groups and use quotations from their holy books to justify murder.

No Christians impose the death penalty on people who leave their faith, or on outsiders who want to visit their holy sites.

No Christian countries outlaw the practice of other religions or imprison those within their borders that want to belong to a different religion.

All this happens in the Muslim world. So while I support Obama's attempt to build bridges, it would also be nice if the Islamic world would reciprocate.

A good start would be to remove the death-penalty for non-Mulsims who wish to visit Mecca.


Reno said...

"It's sad not only that he died accidentally but that his private fantasy has become public smut."

One has to lay blame on the family for this. The hotel and authority obviously wanted to put the best spin on the death by calling it a suicide. It was the family who objected to that finding. They insisted on either a homicide--without suspects or evidence-- or an accident. The reason why most likely can be found in David Carradine's life insurance policy.

As to Obama, so far he has turned out to be a articulate and eloquent speaker than Bush.