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Surviving Bangkok's Slums

By Bertil Lintner

The Slaughterhouse: True stories from Bangkok's Klong Toey slum, by Fr. Joe Maier. Post Books, Bangkok. 250 baht ($6.06)

No one could better tell the stories of those who have missed out on a slice of the cake of the Asian miracle than Joe Maier, a Redemptorist priest from the United States who has lived and worked with the residents of Bangkok's Klong Toey slum for more than 30 years.

The Slaughterhouse, his first book, is a collection of short stories, mainly about children who grow up amid poverty and drugs. The heroes are abandoned runaway street kids who scavenge for garbage along the railway tracks, and women like Samlee, who married a drug addict but still managed to raise her children and now teaches at a kindergarten in the slum. And Sao, a nine-year-old girl who was raped by her grandfather, but had her dignity restored when she managed to charm a famous model in Bangkok and became a bridesmaid at her wedding.

"Here in the slums . . . we go on--we survive," Maier writes, and that's the central message of this moving book. He is a Roman Catholic priest, but he doesn't proselytize.

Since coming to Thailand, Maier has even spent a lot of time in Buddhist monasteries. "In Christianity, Buddhism and the Sufi religion, the highest attribute is mercy," Maier once said. He sees it as his duty not to convert people but to bring hope to the destitute by giving them shelter, some basic education and, if necessary, legal aid. Many of the people who live in "his" part of Klong Toey were already Christian when he arrived there in 1972. Buddhists consider it unclean and bad for one's karma to kill animals, so most of the workers at the old slaughterhouse, after which the slum got its name, were Catholics. "The animal slaughterhouse has long gone," writes Maier, "but life in the human slaughterhouse goes on as brutal as ever."

Brutal, yes, but this book is not pessimistic. The Asian boom may have passed them by, but there is hope and there is pride--even in the slaughterhouse.

This article first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, May 08, 2003

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