Living in Asia had been a lifelong dream. During the economic stagnation of 2010, when life in America had little to offer, it seemed a reasonable reality. Traveling alone, I landed in Bangkok on a one way ticket, with two bags and three thousand dollars. With dumb luck and smart hustle, I lived for several years in South East Asia. It proved to be a pivotal adventure. Based in Bangkok, I traveled throughout Thailand, enjoyed significant forays through Laos as well as Cambodia, and learned languages, cultures and histories I had never before explored. Along the way I met lots of people, many characters, and one True Player.
I’d like very much to share his real name, but my collaborator wishes to remain anonymous. Foreigners hold a delicate place in the fiercely intricate hierarchy of Asian business. Prospering quietly is preferred. Such demands limit us to broad profile. True Player is a black man from the Bronx, born in the late 1960s. His business in Asia started in 1989, when a hip-hop tour he was with finished in Tokyo. Choosing to remain in Japan, True Player began as a party promoter and later expanded into other ventures throughout Asia. These were obviously lucrative, as judged by his tailored slacks, high end cologne, bespoke white silk shirts, jade cuff links, and top-shelf female companionship. We met when one of these stunning Thai women spilled my drink at The Cosmos.
The Cosmos is an old Bangkok bar, famous as a CIA watering hole during the Viet Nam war. The dim, darkly stained place is filled with carved wooden Thai statues and haunted with shadows. It’s easy to see why the sleazy elegance was favored by Company men during the war. It remains popular with expats today. Greeted by Thai women with chilled wet hand towels, men wipe off the sweat from Bangkok’s blazing heat and soak up the atmosphere, chatting over whiskey sodas. When mine was spilled by True Player’s date on the night we met, he insisted on buying another. Generously upgrading me to Johnny Walker Black, the large, well groomed man toasted cheers and we fell into chatting.
New York City formed an easy, instant bond between us. I had spent most of my life there. True Player had been born in The Bronx. Half a life in Asia had done little to change his uptown roots. His profanity laced speech was blunt, rhythmic and straightforward; kind of like a boxer punching you. But when his ultra slim gold phone rang, he flipped effortlessly into Japanese or Thai. True Player was the epitome of international gentleman cool. I was happy to find him. Having just recently landed in Bangkok, still fumbling with the adjustment to international living, I welcomed a fellow New Yorkers' casual tutelage.
While meeting as regulars at The Cosmos, True Player shared perhaps the broadest base of bar room knowledge I have ever encountered. Beyond tips to living well in Thailand, his riffs covered everything from market shares to political coups, Burmese border disputes, Vietnamese factory riots, the way Laotian women orgasm, Khmer Rouge history, the films of Edward G Robinson, salacious hip hop gossip, gravy recipes, Japanese yakuza tales, Louie Rankin lyrics, detailed historical anecdotes about Julius Cesar, ruminations on the Rothschild family, Chinese real estate, pancakes, and everything in between. Framed in a gallery of “motherfucker” “bitches” and “shit”, his jewels of wisdom were both hilarious and limitless. So one night when True Player brought up the I Ching, which he claimed to have memorized, I wasn’t too surprised.
I had learned of this classic Chinese book while a student at New York University, in a survey course on ancient Asian literature. The I Ching is one of the oldest books in the world, dating back to BC China. The original author remains lost in the mists of time. But the cryptic text has since puzzled scholars, mystics, and seekers of truth for more than 3000 years. A myriad of minds, from Confucius to Jung, have meditated on the I Ching, trying to decipher the meaning of its 64 different “hexagrams”. Dividing the book into chapters, these cryptic lines are filled with Princes and Inferiors, armies and kingdoms, jackals, arrows, rivers, stars and seasons, all providing metaphoric images reflecting profound Chinese wisdom. The I Ching has been described by Terence McKenna as a “Periodic Table of Time”. Like the Western Periodic Table defines the elements of matter, the Eastern I Ching defines the temporal elements which generate life situations. But people are not meant to digest this wisdom by reading the I Ching straight through. This text is used as a tool. Randomly accessing various chapters, followers of the I Ching believe the spirit of the book presents precisely what they need to know, about whatever situation they are seeking guidance on, without their conscious choice.
That the vastly and randomly informed True Player was familiar with this cornerstone of Asian thought did not, as mentioned previously, surprise me. He was widely read, and half his life had been spent on that part of the planet. But when he began reciting from memory various passages—translated into “motherfucker”-thick Bronx patois, I was intrigued. Player’s profound and casual take on the I Ching—which he called Yo Ching— was totally profane and utterly wise. His disregard for propriety opened new dimensions within the work. Throughout history, many learned sages have applied themselves to translations of this classic world text. But none of them, to my knowledge, have utilized phrases like “crab ass”, “bitch slap”, and references to “roll on motherfuckers cross town”. Impressed, I proposed to preserve it for posterity. He would talk, and I would write. We shook hands on that arrangement, and late that night in a Bangkok bar, Yo Ching was born.
For the next two years, off and on, months at times passing between meetings, I sat with True Player in The Cosmos and transcribed Yo Ching. Translating ancient Chinese knowledge to modern Bronx street talk was an incredible talent of Player’s. He had an innate ability to break down the most arcane and obscure elements of this puzzling Chinese classic into plain, straightforward, profane simplicity. But the task of capturing this was far from simple. Because my publicity shunning partner forbade any form of recording him, I was forced to scribble shorthand. My jagged scrawl filled at first pages, then entire notebooks. The steady stream of whiskey sodas True Player supplied me with further blurred my hasty handwriting, as did frequent, not entirely unpleasant interruptions by Thai women working the bar. Despite these hurdles, or perhaps enriched by them, Yo Ching eventually took form in four large spiral bound notebooks; splashed with soda, stained with whiskey, and steeped in knowledge.
These were all rather hastily packed with my belongings when an unexpected business offer brought me back to the United States in 2014. Given mere days to move, I missed the chance to bid farewell to True Player, who was attending to his own business in Japan. Regretfully, I left a quickly written note at The Cosmos, providing contact information and my solemn promise to bring Yo Ching to life. But back home, I found that the promise I had blithely scribbled on the back of a Thai bar tab was no simple one to keep. Culture shocked by my return to America, thrust into a high pressure, fast moving commercial writing project, I had very little time for reflection. Spare days were spent trying to find a home, re-establish friendships, attend to tax matters, and the other time consuming minutiae a re-patriot faces. It was nearly a year before I revisited my notebooks from The Cosmos. Leafing through the scribbled, bar stained pages, I was not entirely surprised to find that writing which had seemed illuminated in the dark glow of a Bangkok bar now seemed erratic and fragmented. Nevertheless, I remembered my promise to True Player, and setting Saturdays aside, began the work.
As I commenced editing this treasure trove of Chinese born, Bronx slanted wisdom, I found myself gradually falling back into the rhythm of True Player’s speech. I took to speaking the notes aloud, which helped me both remember my friend warmly, and make the text much more clear. (It is a technique I would suggest for all readers of this volume. Yo Ching is most alive when spoken aloud.) Over the course of the next half year, my misgivings vanished and the transcription proceeded smoothly, if slower than I would have liked. But what I myself wanted seemed to matter very little in this process. During my entire experience with Yo Ching, I felt my place to be little more than secretary. First, desperately scribbling as True Player expounded in a Bangkok bar, and later in America, where I felt Yo Ching practically writing itself, finding form in the pages you read now.
This final product is both transcendent and brutally practical. The depth of wisdom that has enticed I Ching scholars of all schools, through many generations, is evident within every “Wrexagram” of Yo Ching. But the blunt brilliance of the Bronx brings these lessons to modern heights. Both savvy and sage, profane and noble, True Player's Yo Ching reflects the disjointed contradictions of our time. We have inherited an era of instant information and endless confusion. But there is a rhythm to things. The I Ching has shared that lesson for thousands of years. Finding our place within that rhythm is life’s central task. True Player shows the way through limitless paths. Following them helps us individually, and preserves us collectively. Like environmental conservation, Yo Ching provides mental conservation. Instead of slashing down people and burning the competition, readers of Yo Ching learn to perceive reality, blend their intentions, measure results, and refine efforts to realize highest potentials. Such personal realization in turn enriches us all.
The riches held in the pages you now possess are impossible to measure. It is a book about many things. Perhaps everything. Or one thing in particular, which I learned the night Yo Ching began. Opening my first notebook in the shadows of The Cosmos, I had asked True Player what it was all about. From that dark bar halfway around the planet, his reply remains clear.