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Video Night in Kathmandu: And Other Reports from the Not-So-Far East Paperback – June 18, 1989

4.1 out of 5 stars 22 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Only in India would the American film Rambo be remade with the title role played by a woman--in a sari, no less! Only in Hong Kong would a man at a cocktail party pick up a woman with the line "What do you think of the dollar?" And only in Video Night in Kathmandu will you find detailed, unsettling portraits of a Far East in flux as experienced by Pico Iyer, a travel writer beyond compare. Tibet, China, India, and Thailand--these are among the objects of Iyer's wanderlust, the subjects of 11 essays chronicling his travels. In India, he explores the lucrative Bombay film business: "The process of turning an American movie into an Indian one was not very difficult ... but it did require a few changes.... the Indian hero had to be domesticated, supplied with a father, a mother, and a clutch of family complications." As one film director told him, " ... for example, Rambo must be given a sister who was raped." In Bangkok he finds the sex trade is well nigh impossible to avoid: " ... by the time a third official government tout approached me with the novel invitation: 'My friend. You no like birdwatching?' I was inclined to suspect that ornithology was not among his interests."

Pico Iyer is more than just a travel writer. For four years, he wrote about world affairs for Time, and he brings to these brilliant, comical, and poignant essays his extensive knowledge of politics and culture as well as a journalist's eye for the telling details. Video Night in Kathmandu provides both a stark, unsettling view of modern Asia and an exploration of the ambivalent attitudes Asians hold toward the West.

From Publishers Weekly

In 1985, Iyer, a British freelance writer, crisscrossed eastern Asia to view the spread of America's pop-cultural imperialism through 10 of the world's oldest civilizations. With serendipity as his guide, he spent only a few weeks in each country, and most of his intelligence came by chance. Nevertheless, this traveler's casual observations make a book of warmth, charm and sensibility, and anyone intending to visit the Orient will greatly benefit from his arresting descriptions and shrewd assessments: Bangkok is a mixture of "pizzas, pizzazz and all the glitzy razzmatazz of the American Dream, California style." China displays "the get-rich-quick politics of the Cultureless Revolution." Money-mad Hong Kong is "the largest metropolis in the world without a museum." Despite its "impatience of limitations," Japan is obsessed by baseball and Disneyland. Tibet is "the latest way station of the Denim Route." The people of the Philippines, "masters of Asia's hospitality business," are the most depressing and desperate. One word characterizes Singapore: "McCity." In the end, it is poor, shabby Burma, "the dotty eccentric of Asia, the queer maiden aunt who lives alone" that has the most appeal. If the image abroad of America is "perplexingly double-edged" the responses it provokes are "appropriately forked-tongued," and, in the last chapter, "The Empire Strikes Back," Iyer begins to suspect that every Asian culture he visited is probably "too deep, too canny or too self-possessed to be turned by passing trade winds from the west."
Copyright 1988 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (June 18, 1989)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679722165
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679722168
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #389,747 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By therosen VINE VOICE on March 2, 2003
Format: Paperback
Pico Iyer has written an interesting set of annecdotes on Asia during the late 80s boom years. It covers the isolation of Burma, the sex trade in Thailand, the night life in Nepal, and everything inbetween. The book takes a deeper view beyond the stereotypes to understand the complexities of the cultural merging.
The book really has two main values. First, it gives an annecdotal view of a lifestyle that, while only 15-20 years ago, is already gone. Hong Kong 1986 is a place in transition that is different than Hong Kong today. While many books today provide political and economic viewpoints on the times, and the changes, they don't accurately cover an expats view of life and cultural exchange.
The second value is in understanding aspects of the culture that still apply. India's polyclot of ethnic groups and interaction with the West applies today. Pico Iyer is adept at capturing cultural traits that last, and perhaps even grow, despite the pressures of a globalizing world.
I'm not a universal fan of all of Iyer's material, but this is certainly one of his better works. It's more readable, and the concepts more universal and lasting than some of his other books.
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Format: Paperback
This book is excellent. Iyer is not trying to - nor does he in any way claim to - "interpret" or "explain" the countries or people or cultures he is visiting. His goal is to report from the fault line where the colossal mass of Western money and consumer culture bumps up against the even more colossal mass of Asian societies and cultures. This collision produces many fascinating, humorous, and poignant situations which Iyer captures perfectly in his excellent writing. In each country he visits, Iyer is able to identify and bring to the page exactly those details that perfectly symbolize the situations he is writing about.
What especially impressed me was that Iyer does not romanticize or glorify or exoticize what is beautiful about the lands he travels to. Nor does he denigrate their shortcomings. He is a fair and honest observer of what he has chosen to observe: the ground zero of "west" meeting "east".
As someone who has studied in both China and Thailand (as well as two other Asian countries which were not in the book), I can vouch for the accuracy of what Iyer is reporting. Sure, a scholarly author might have added more details about Chinese philosophy or Thai history. But for his chosen topic, Iyer's accounts are complete and flawless.
The book is certainly entertaining, but it is also informative and thought-provoking as well. Well done, Mr. Iyer.
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Format: Paperback
"Niceties behind us, the stranger looked me in the eye. `I am porridge.'" Now it was my turn to look horrified. `Yes, yes,' he said, thinking that I doubted him. "I am pirate." This was little better. "PIRATE!" he shouted out."

A few years ago, I wrote a book about travelling around East Asia called Notes from the Other China. Some people liked it, others didn't. My first book, I'm not really happy with it and don't recommend reading it. It's derivative and disjointed, but it's original, or so I thought. I was defensively touting its originality on a discussion board once when someone asked, `What about Pico Iyer's Video Nights in Kathmandu?' Another commenter chimed in, `Yes, I was just thinking of that one. He's good.'

I thought, `Pico who?'

I bought Mr. Iyer's The Global Soul, read half of it, and dropped it off at a second-hand bookstore thinking, `Life's too short.' I was also happy in a way. Iyer wasn't that good. I found The Global Soul boring (brush fires in California) and fawning (the city of Toronto). `I can write better,' I thought, and then, thinking there must have been something to the book that launched Iyer's career, I bought Video Nights in Kathmandu and such illusions evaporated.

Video Nights in Kathmandu is a travel-lit classic. It's beautifully written and realized. It's insightful, engaging, and all those other favourable adjectives professional reviewers use to gush about a book. Iyer makes use of metaphor superbly, he uses just the right amount of comedy, he's excellent at analysing and dissecting cultures, and he writes with genuine empathy, and it's this last quality that taught me something about travel writing.
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Format: Paperback
The currency and accuracy of the information aside (China abolished FECs and foreigner prices more than a decade ago), this book presents many truths that may go against a lot of things that the tourism authority and the infatuated romantic writers say. Without actually making fun of everybody, Pico Iyer skillfully paints a poetic yet cynical and down to earth, almost Dickensian picture of developing Asian countries where the citizens quite happily watch Hollywood movies and pore over the latest electronic gadgetry.

Iyer's insights are by no means new, unique or even profound. He sympathised with Chinese-occupied Tibet. He blew the spiritual cover of hippies in Nepal. He talked about the sex trade in Thailand. However, it is through this book that I discovered Pico Iyer's great talent with words and highly polished writing style. For those who like "plain English", I would certainly not recommend Iyer's books. But for those who enjoy introspective literary works, Iyer will not disappoint.

My favourite chapter is Thailand - Love in a Duty-Free Zone. The content of the chapter is as full of nuances as the title.
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