“I mean, just how many hours does a person need to spend taking selfies?”
Jim chuckled at the recent sight that had begotten this whimsical, half-drunken rhetorical question: a young Asian woman in a floppy white hat and billowing dress immersed in her makeshift photo booth on the sands of a picturesque Thai beach.
Jim’s drinking companion rolled his eyes and shook his head at the absurdity of this behaviour, before taking a swig of beer. There was a brief silence as the sweltering humidity of Southern Thailand enforced its lethargy. They sat at a plastic table, luxuriating in the squalid captivity of their holiday-apartment bar. Palm fronds drooped over the chalky blue water of the nearby swimming pool.
“They just never stop clicking away and making those lame V-signs, do they?” said Jeff, Jim’s paunchy drinking partner. He was referring to columns of Chinese tourists wielding selfie sticks like the swords of a photographic infantry advancing along the local beaches.
Jim and Jeff talked on as a burning orange sunset formed beyond the beachfront apartments of Patong Beach. They were oblivious to the fact that the portrait obsessed young woman Jeff had been describing would later keep local police busy: another missing farang case requiring exhaustive investigation, extensive manpower and an embassy visit. The three-paragraph news story was dumped into cyberspace two days later and landed briefly on the vast menu of click-bait on Yahoo’s homepage where it stood no chance of attention against truncated accounts of celebrity moral outrage and coverage of the public ‘taking to Twitter’ to comment on the kilograms shed and the buttock tattoos applied and erased by the pay dirt champions of reality television.
Police in Phuket are continuing to search for a young Chinese tourist who vanished from Laem Sing beach last Tuesday. Li Zhang, 24, was last seen walking on the beach she had visited with a friend. Police are concerned for her safety and are appealing to anybody with any information of her whereabouts to contact them.
She had arrived in Phuket with two fashionable friends from Guangdong Province. They had booked into the Sheraton Walker five-star hotel for a week thanks to the largesse of well-connected parents who ran factories and shipping companies back on the mainland.
The women came to use Thailand as back-drops to their beauty. They planned to shoot and enhance pictures taken on beaches, in temples and amidst the city’s raucous night-life. Perfection was their shared goal: the ideal pose, the perfect pout accompanied by the surprised-looking stare into the lens with wide eyes. These girls were fanatical self-photographers, and shopping on their parents’ credit-cards complemented the craft of expertly positioning the selfie stick as they snapped themselves wearing Ralph Lauren and clasping Prada. They were competing in multiple selfie competitions across various social media platforms back in China, clicking, pressing, cropping, filtering and uploading endlessly in their quest to become the queens of Weibo, China’s Instagram.
“Cheese!” said Mei-Ling, grasping the metre-long, state-of-the-art selfie stick containing an embedded Bluetooth module to control the camera in her Samsung Galaxy S8 phone.
“Cheese!” said Lilly, making the ubiquitous V for Victory sign synonymous with Asian tourist group photos.
“Cheese!” said Ching-Wei beaming an ecstatic smile and making a heart shape with her hands. She felt like a celebrity with her recently purchased Versace sunglasses guaranteeing her glamour.
They stood in front of Wat Chalong temple, with its brown red cascading roof and spectacular carved entrances.
“Again! From a wider angle,” insisted Mei-Ling, who was determined to carpet-bomb her social rivals with magnificent imagery of the trio in front of as many worldly wonders as possible, to give the impression that the planet was their playground.
They rotated in unison like the gears of a giant lock, their eyes following the camera’s face as it moved with Mei-Ling’s pirouette. They moved slowly, completing three-hundred-and sixty degrees while Mei-Ling took continuous photos with the stick’s remote-control. They held the same poses throughout the lengthy manoeuvre and maintained smiles as though their facial muscles were frozen into place. They screeched with excitement after the last picture was taken, as locals grimaced and other tourists milled around the splendid architecture. There was an international crowd at the temple. European voices tinged with wonder commented on the workmanship of the Buddha carved above the entrance. Young couples with locked hands and impressionable faces watched the monks gliding around and heard the temple’s huge gong, wondering whether they should make a respectful offering for the sake of love or propriety.
Mei-Ling detached the camera. The girls scrutinized each of the ninety new images. Each face stared into its miniature duplicate in the digital mirror, searching for imperfections and registering the most flattering shots.
“This temple is boring,” said Ching-Wei, a frequent companion of boredom. She lost interest in new experiences very rapidly. Stimulation, whether it was a city, a sight, a nightclub, a smartphone game, a meal or a lover had to change constantly. Static environments of any kind rendered her restless.
“OK, let’s go to the pagoda now,” suggested Lilly, wondering how she would look in front of the building’s rocket-shaped structure. She imagined taking a masterpiece zi pai zhao: a selfie that would make her look majestic before the fairy tale building. She imagined gasps and envious emoji “wows” as acquaintances saw her in front of such fantastic architecture.
“Come on!” she said, frowning. She did not want to miss the opportunity to take this picture: the sun was behind them, the sky was a cloudless aqua and the path leading around the corner to the pagoda’s entrance was not too crowded. Picture conditions would be perfect. She moved off a few steps in the direction of the pagoda, and Ching-Wei obliged her request to be followed. Mei-Ling, however, was less enthusiastic.
“Oh, I’m hungry,” she whined. “Let’s catch a tuk-tuk to town and get lunch.”
Mei-Ling’s hunger was only partially genuine: her real appetite was for the Gucci Dionysus handbag that had winked at her from a display shelf at the Jung-Ceylon Shopping Mall the previous day. She craved its discounted price-tag. She was even considering purchasing three or four that she could re-sell on Taobao for a mark-up.
“Come on! Your stomach won’t mind waiting a little bit longer. Don’t make us miss this magical image opportunity. Besides, don’t you remember what Cosmopolitan said about delaying lunch helping to balance metabolism and maintain the hour-glass figure?”
“Okay!” Mei-Ling conceded, and they set off for the pagoda.
As they rounded the corner, the sight that met them was idyllic. The pagoda was flanked by tall, handsome Rosewood trees with lush green leaves, planted on lawns manicured with rocks and shrubs. The towering silver and gold spire of the building tapered off into the sky. Gold buttresses and balconettes ornamented each floor like the brocades of a sumptuous ceremonial costume. The scene was postcard perfect, and yet the enchanting tower sent a peculiar insecurity into Lilly’s soul. She actually resented the building for its capacity to command the attention of all who now or ever had stood before it. How privileged to be the central attraction of all time, she mused.
The trio approached the front of the pagoda and went through their pre-selfie rituals. They took out compact mirrors, checked their lipstick, brushed their cheeks with additional layers of foundation to perfect the pale, sallow facial tones they craved.
Mei-Ling brandished the telescopic selfie stick and extended it by another ten inches. She wanted high perspectives. Lilly and Ching-Wei huddled up either side of their friend and prepared to pose. They trotted out a wide repertoire of gestures: chief among them were the pout, or a double V-sign. To reinforce her individuality, Ching-Wei sometimes finished with a serious, pensive face.
They started with a group grin, then improvised their own expressions as Mei-Ling moved her arm clockwise and operated the camera. An elderly monk watched the spectacle from the shade of the doorway, while one of the mangy temple dogs loitered around a cluster of rocks with its nose close to the ground, searching for a place to urinate. The girls now separated and devoted their attention to their own souvenir selfies.
Mei-Ling was trying for the fashionable woman of mystery look in her shades, while Lilly had taken her own ‘magic wand’ out of her travel bag and was determined to appear triumphant, pensive, confident, nonchalant and passionate in the sequence of shots she was planning. Variety, in her view, was the recipe for claiming first prize in the profitable Weibo contests, since image preferences seemed to fluctuate like stock values. She needed to be sure that the images she uploaded coincided with prevailing trends. She clicked and posed continuously for ten minutes, shifting now and again to make sure that some line, corner or recess of the building behind her conformed to the symmetry of her body in a complimentary manner. While the girls fixated on their faces and the management of their images, the wooden Bhuddas above watched them inscrutably and a Crested Serpent eagle soared through the sky.
They sat outside a Starbucks opposite Patong Beach, slurping Frappuccinos. It was mid-morning and the beach road was becoming busier, with hustlers, junk-peddlers, touts and ladyboys accosting foreigners. Scooters sped past.
Ching-Wei scowled. Her expression suggested a major grievance. Mei-Ling, meanwhile, was multi-tasking with her phones. On one, she was using image enhancement apps to make her Pagoda Girl fashion-icon-character from the previous day look whiter and more svelte. On the other, she used Google Maps to locate a store selling competitively priced Louis Vuitton dresses she intended to debut in future selfies. Meanwhile, Lilly daydreamed of divine selfies. The ultimate pictures were in paradise spots beside celebrities she adored, like Kim Kardashian and Fan Bingbing. She closed her eyes and savoured this fantasy as she sucked Frappuccino.
“My face looks too plump here!” said Ching-Wei with rage, holding up her matt black, dual-lens iPhone 7 and eyeballing it as if it was a friend who had betrayed her.
“Look at me!”
Ching Wei thrust the screen at her friends.
“I’ve turned into a pig. I will be a laughing stock. What man will want to come near me when I look like this?”
Ching Wei’s shrill voice became more indignant.
“I didn’t pay seven thousand yuan to be turned into a monster!” she shrieked.
The outburst brought her friends to attention. Mei-Ling was no longer interacting with her apps, and Lilly had parked her Frappuccino on the table. Lilly and Mei-Ling’s eyes met. Lilly tried to assuage their friend’s decimated self-confidence.
“Have you tried using the self-beautifying feature?” asked Lilly, certain her friend must have downloaded the full arsenal of image-manipulation apps.
“Yes, but it didn’t make a damn bit of difference. My chin still looks too fleshy. I look hideous!”
“Just give your face a dose of Meitu Xiu Xiu and everything will be fine,” said Mei-Ling blithely.
“Don’t be insensitive!” scolded Lilly. “Meitu Xiu Xiu isn’t the right app: it only whitens skin tone,”
“What? I wasn’t insensitive,” Mei-Ling protested.
Ching-Wei screamed. It was an eardrum-piercing cry that startled everyone at Starbucks. A few customers dropped their coffees.
Ching-Wei shot up from her chair, grabbed her phone and dashed it onto the pavement. With hatred in her eyes, she aimed her Jimmy Choo Gold stiletto on its fracturing face again and again. When she kicked it, it somersaulted before striking a lamppost, where its case and battery parted ways. She grabbed her handbag and marched off without saying a word. Mei-Ling and Lilly watched her disappear.
Lilly stood barefoot on the powdery sand. The see-through sea and the wall of spotless, blue sky behind it provided a backdrop for her next selfie, which she intended to take better than any other.
It was just after eight in the morning. Lilly and Mei-Ling had taken a tuk-tuk to Laem Sing beach, determined to arrive when the beach would be deserted. They didn’t want tiresome people spoiling their photographs. Ching Wei had decided not to come. After her outburst at Starbucks, she told her friends she wanted to cheer up and find consolation at the department stores. Retail therapy, she’d said, was the best therapy.
Mei-Ling was one-hundred yards to her left, running her hands through her dyed hair while gripping the stainless-steel stick with its high-tech payload. Mild waves surged behind her, and sea-foam caressed her feet. She experimented with poses, blowing kisses in the direction of the phone’s lens. She wanted a bomb of a picture—the Mona Lisa of selfies—guaranteed to detonate the internet and make her a millionaire. She was also determined to recover the thousands of yuan she’d invested in selfie courses at an academy in Shanghai. Glory on Weibo and celebrity would soon be hers!
Lilly swept the bay with her phone, a self-made cinematographer checking optimum shot perspectives. She then lowered the phone and closed her eyes. She listened to the waves and felt the heat of the sun on her forehead. Opening her eyes, she beheld the sea, the sky and the sun—her personal selfie accessories. Nature was another useful app that synched with her camera software to make her look beautiful.
Her mind carried grandiose visions of an artwork she was determined to paint, which was her social media Sistine Chapel of a thousand filtered faces showcasing her saccharine smile. There was a computer game heroine avatar she wanted to emulate: a dark angel with supernatural powers whose halo glowed with a lustre she coveted. With the sea behind her, Lilly looked into her phone and offered up her soul to her Samsung. She sought to merge with the processors, gyroscopes and accelerometers within to become one with her digital muse. Such a sacrifice was worth making if the hardware and software spirits rewarded her with the dark angel avatar look.
She pouted. She made coy faces and placed her little finger inside her mouth and sucked on it suggestively. She tilted her head back, placed her hand behind it and blew the phone a sex-siren’s kiss. She then laughed coquettishly—just as the selfie champion vlogger tutorials had shown—to express her beauty, mystery, and unobtainability. The phone camera served its mistress, flashing constantly. However, it was failing to satisfy its demanding task-master because whenever the camera wasn’t shooting, and the strained mask of conceit wasn’t stuck on Lilly’s face, she looked desperate.
She reviewed the results of her work and became more exasperated with the images. No matter which angle she tried, which face-slimming digital oracle she consulted or which colour filter she applied—one of her apps gave a choice of ‘seven levels of beautification’—the face that stared back gave the viewer nothing but the supercilious smirk of a pale-skinned young woman with severe cheek-bones and camouflaged acne. Her mood worsened when she scrolled back through each picture and saw the same disagreeable impression. Her apps had swindled her like a tawdry fraudster, promising beauty but delivering nothing but a spoilt, pretentious Plain Jane mugging and mooning endlessly into a lens that would never reward her with fame or adulation.
“You’ve made me hideous!” She spat into the phone’s screen and accused it of more crimes against her self-esteem. The saliva slithered down her pixelated face, distorting her features grotesquely.
With fury, Lilly resumed her work. She swung the phone around and took a series of shots with her index and middle finger parted in the ‘eye-in-triangle’ pose so much in vogue in celebrity shots. She gasped when she saw the travesty of herself now looking corrupted and debased. She was nothing like her precious angel, and there was no halo.
“Damn you!” she snarled gripping the selfie stick and shaking it. In frustration, she cursed the camera with more obscenities. The disobedient, ungrateful phone she’d fed with love, vanity and money would feel her fury! She poked her tongue at it, gave it the finger and made the Baphomet sign so popular with her favourite pop-stars.
“I demand that you make me an angel! I’ll buy more apps. I’ll give you whatever you want, just make me divine and the queen of Weibo.”
Everything went white. An all-encompassing brightness blinded her and she screamed as she felt her body burned by a temperature she could only imagine was comparable with the centre of the sun. From the whiteness, there burst forth a spectacular kaleidoscope with an infinite spectrum of colours, some of which she had never seen or known existed. When the colours changed, she felt a terrifying sensation akin to a molecular change, as if her flesh was losing its solidity and her body was being broken down into a bit-string. She was no longer a three-dimensional human, but a digital sequence. She cried out as she was sucked through her phone screen by a huge, scaly, hissing serpent with eyes that glowed like coals.
When Mei-Ling returned to the beach, she carried on snapping selfies for several hours. Only after she realized that Lilly wasn’t around to answer a question about how to enable the auto acne reduction function of her Meitu app did Mei-Ling notice her friend had vanished.
Because of a language barrier, it was not until the evening that Mei-Ling was able to raise the alarm through a hotel interpreter.
The police searched the beach and found no clues. They were baffled by the footprints, confirmed as Lilly’s, that led to a spot and then no further. Her picture was circulated throughout Thailand, while the Chinese internet and broadcast media gave its citizen missing abroad case cursory coverage. The only item of Lilly’s property found was her phone.
The Thai police took custody of the phone and passed it to their forensic and technical experts. When they turned the phone on, the image that greeted them elicited gasps, and argument as to whether it should be shown to the media. Lilly’s mouth was a gaping wide tunnel broadcasting a silent scream. She now had huge white wings attached to her back, and a wispy halo hovering over her head. Her face was no longer the face of Lilly, but the visage of the nameless avatar she had worshipped. The serpent was behind her, with its forked tongue protruding.
Titus Green currently lives in the UK. His work has appeared in numerous venues, including Empty Sink Publishing, Sediments Literary Arts, Literally Stories, Fear of Monkeys, Ramingo’s Porch (‘The Ghost of Guangzhou’ in Issue 2, Love, Spring Revolution) Fear of Monkeys, Beyond Imagination, Stag Hill Literary Review and Coffin Bell Journal (forthcoming).