In Hello Shadowlands: Inside the Meth Fiefdoms, Rebel Hideouts and Bomb-Scarred Party Towns of Southeast Asia , Patrick Winn crawls right into the underbellies of selected criminal (and colourful) subcultures across Southeast Asia. If you’re looking to read something to balance out endless Instagram snapshots of sunny Southeast Asian beaches dotted with umbrella-stabbed coconuts, this dark book is it.
American Winn, who has covered the region since 2008, writes that he’s interested in exploring how ordinary people react when they’re pushed to the brink; when the rule of law breaks down and they have to, somehow, get by. This isn’t an academic, structural examination of political economic power in the tradition of Joe Studwell’s Asian Godfathers. Rather it’s reportage about a handful or so different underworlds and the people who populate them. These are the corners of society that the average traveller will largely be oblivious to, whether they’re on the way to Southeast Asia or they’ve already been and left. These subcultures, Winn writes, are representative of what the future holds for a Southeast Asia that is shifting towards authoritarianism. “This is the present and future of Southeast Asia: hypercapitalistic but deeply illiberal,” he says. “This autocratic sweep doesn’t just benefit the entrenched political dynasties that run these nations. It’s also a blessing for organized crime.”
Winn delves into the meth-producing regions of Burma, North Korean hospitality in Bangkok, the abortion and birth control crackdown in the Philippines, the far southern Thai border town of Sungai Golok, and dog-snatching in Vietnam. The result is not an even portrait of Southeast Asian organised crime, but rather a sketch of a few aspects of its various nefarious criminal underworlds. And while Winn’s coverage is limited, he weaves plenty of historical background of each country into each chapter, to still make this an excellent primer to read ahead of a trip to the region.
The two chapters on drugs in Myanmar are probably the most compelling and fascinating. Winn explains how a reality check is in order after the much-hyped shift towards democracy and the election of Aung San Suu Kyi. “Sure, the monks are on Facebook, its golden temples are swarmed by foreign tour groups and teenage boys can court their girlfriends over a KFC value meal. But both ends of the nation are on fire,” he writes. “Up in the hinterlands, no one is tasting the freedom. Old dreams of democracy are reduced to a sick joke—88—stamped onto a speed pill.”
Myanmar’s production of methamphetamines is enormous: It’s the world’s largest methamphetamine empire, a billion-dollar complex churning out more speed pills each year than McDonald’s serves Big Macs worldwide, Winn notes. Addiction is a massive health crisis; the rehab centres are grim; vigilantes are taking matters into their own hands.
Winn doesn’t make it to Hpakant, a notorious mining town closed to foreigners, but it’s indicative of what much of the country might become: “The state has good reason to quarantine Hpakant from outsiders’ eyes. It is one of Asia’s most blighted corners: a grim vortex, sucking in men with the allure of riches and regurgitating meth and heroin addicts. By the thousands, men descend into Hpakant’s stadium-sized quarries each day. Those who find jade stones can sell them to middlemen at the rim of the mine. The miners are then invited to spend the proceeds in an open-air bazaar selling speed, sex and heroin.” It’s a far cry from the temples of Bagan.
It's Winn’s firsthand reportage that really makes this book; it’s also a weakness, in that the coverage is necessarily limited to what he’s decided to cover in person, rather than a more studied, theoretical approach drawing on the work of many. Still, it’s fascinating, and a grand departure from the usual topics covered in the mainstream media, which is what Winn says in the introduction that he wanted the book to be.
Hello Shadowlands casts a bright light into a few dark corners of Southeast Asia. Read it to start filling in your blind spots on the region. You won’t fill them all in, but the ones you do will be forever etched in your mind in technicolour.
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