Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Gaggers on Diggers

John Digweed is a man of few words and great tunes. Never known for his extensive or enthusiastic interviews, these days, the tireless globetrotter prefers to answer journalists’ questions by email and gives the distinct impression he would rather just let his music to do the talking.
     Which is fine when you have been at the forefront of the progressive house movement almost since its inception, and continue to push boundaries, envelopes and the limits of human endurance, with some 30 years on the job under your belt and a reputation for occasional marathon sets lasting anything up to 13 hours.
    Digweed, 44, who took over the cavernous members-only Lyndhurst Terrace club Hyde on Saturday night to a rapturous reception, has left an unquestioned mark on the electronic music scene, from his groundbreaking early collaborations with fellow dance music titan Sasha, such as Renaissance and Northern Exposure, through to his latter day progressive and downtempo excursions of the Structures series.
     He is a fixture in DJ Magazine’s Top 100 DJs list, and peaked at number one in 2001. He has graced Hong Kong’s shores on several occasions, from the heady early days of its rave scene to last year’s John Digweed Live In Hong Kong @ StarHall International Trade & Exhibition Centre show. He even released his tribute to the city, Global Underground: Hong Kong in 1999.
      Just don’t expect the man to wax lyrical or rapturous about the scene that has sustained him. He even defines his own music somewhat prosaically as: “Consistent quality electronic music’’. Of course his curmudgeonly way with words is no doubt due in no small part to the grueling schedule of gigs he continues to accept, averaging almost a set every second night some years, and a lifestyle he defines as:  “Gig – hotel – airport – hotel - gig – hotel – airport’’.
     In the interests of full disclosure and achieving word counts, therefore, it should be noted that only some of the quotes below were divulged exclusively to the South China Morning Post by the man christened Thomas John Digweed, and the rest were cobbled together from a selection of equally brief interviews he has given over the past couple of years.
    I would dearly love to have been able to present to you a revelatory peek into the soul of one of dance music’s most enduring and influential figures. Instead, I give you, for the record, Digweed on Digweed:

Digweed on Saturday’s gig: “This is my first time at Hyde, I have always had a great time in Hong Kong so really looking (sic) to playing this month.’’

Digweed on his most memorable Hong Kong gig: “………”

Digweed on dancing: “In the age of camera phones, I don’t need to see myself on Youtube dancing.’’

Digweed on gear: “I use Pioneer CDJ 2000`s and Allen & Heath Mixers for my set up I never really made the switch really like the feel of playing with the CDJs’’.

Digweed on drugs: “……….’’

Digweed on Northern Exposure: “It was a risk to make an album like that at the time, I have never been about playing it safe, its always better to give people something to think about. The quality of the tracks on this cd makes it stand the test of time which I am really happy about.’’

Digweed on overexposure: (See “Gig – hotel – airport – hotel - gig – hotel – airport’’).

Digweed on his label, Bedrock: “……..’’

Digweed on Hong Kong’s underground: “I don`t normally get much time to hit many after hours.’’

Digweed on being Number One: “It was a fantastic achievement to be voted No1 in DJ mag for me. It was not a marketing tool like it is today. Things change and you have to accept that higher placing can make for more gigs, I am happy that people have voted for me for so long so I must be doing something right.’’

Digweed on crowds: “I just try and observe how the crowd are reacting and figure out what I am going to play.’’

Digweed on new stuff: “I have a new release with Nick Muir called '30 Northeast' which features a great remix from Abe Duque.’’

Digweed on superstar DJs: “I hated the word superstar DJ as my personality does not fit that title and for me it`s always been about the music first, I count myself very lucky that I live the life I do playing the music I love week in week out, I have worked incredibly hard to get were I am and still love what I do week in week out. I think if you look at David Guetta for example he is bigger from a commercial point of view than any DJ back in the day so the superstar DJ did not die just got bigger and more mainstream. I am happy keeping the underground scene ticking over.’’

Digweed on his influences: “Everything from New Order, Heaven 17, Talk Talk to Planet Rock, early Hip-Hop and the beginnings of Chicago and Acid House.’’

Digweed on his ‘Transitions’ radio show: “I love what I do. Music is something that is part of my life 24/7/365, so as long as I am having fun and people like what I do, I will continue doing it as best I can for as long as I can.’’

Digweed on his favourite clubs today: “Fabric London, Mayan LA, Space Ibiza, anywhere in Argentina.’’

Digweed on the greatest club ever: “Twilo in New York. The sound system was so incredible. I loved everything about it. It`s shame it`s gone, but I have great memories from it.’’

Digweed on the movie “Groove’’: “It was a fun experience to work with those guys and I am amazed how many people have seen that film over the years as I always get asked about it.’’

Digweed on his oeuvre: “Try Google for research in future.’’

Digweed on his longest set: “13 hours at Cavo Paradiso in Greece.’’

Digweed on his best set: “Playing at The Big Beach Boutique to over 250,000 people with Fatboy Slim at Brighton Beach which was pretty special.”

Digweed on the jet set: (See “Gig – hotel – airport – hotel - gig – hotel – airport’’).

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Planet of the Ape

A Rewind for the South China Morning Post on a lesser known work by the world class mentalist and mind-bending maestro of dub.  

Lee ´Scratch´ Perry is probably the maddest man in music, or possibly the sanest, and certainly one of the most prolific. The man also known as Pipecock Jackxon, The Upsetter, Dr. On The Go, the Red Ninja, Inspector Gadget, Super Ape, Ringo, Wonder Man and the Duppy Conqueror began his career as a gofer for the Jamaican label Downbeat Sound System in the late 1950s, edged his way behind a desk and then in front of a mic, and went on to put out at least 60 albums containing some of the strangest and most innovative music ever committed to tape and vinyl. He has probably smoked more marijuana than any other living human, until about a decade ago when he foreswore his sacred herb “to see if it was the smoke or Lee Perry making the music.’’
By the late 70s, he would be capturing sounds on his four-track tape recorder at the famed Black Ark studios that would inspire artists from Bob Marley and the Wailers through to The Clash, The Prodigy and The Freestylers, employing delays and loops to create the fuzzy echoing dub sounds he claimed were being beamed down to him from “the extraterrestrial gang’’.
Back in 1975, however, he was just getting over an obsession with the spaghetti westerns of Clint Eastwood when Perry saw Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon, and was smitten. The result was Kung Fu Meets the Dragon (DIP/Justice League, 1975) by Lee Perry and The Upsetters, an album some hold up as a seminal classic, others dismiss as a shambling, rambling and somewhat boring dub dud, and most will simply never have heard of at all. Should the album’s name not convince you fully of Perry’s sudden passion for Bruce Lee, the song titles probably will: Enter the Dragon, Theme from Hong Kong, Heart of the Dragon, Hold Them Kung Fu, Black Belt Jones, Iron Fist, Kung Fu Man and more besides.
 The album is faster and to my ear catchier than some of his more feted later material, closer to ska or rock-steady, featuring the melodica of Augustus Pablo and plenty of crazed clavinet. Many of the songs sound somewhat similar at first blush, but upon repeated listens the entire work begins to make a trippy kind of sense. Perry mostly just grunts, hoots and hollers, although on Kung Fu Man he lapses briefly into lucidity, extolling us to “Kick dem Kung Fu, kick dem Kung Fu, hoo ha, hoo ha!’’ Even if you’ve never smoked a joint in your life, by the end of Kung Fu Meets the Dragon, you’ll probably want to.    

 I finally managed to catch “Scratch’’ live at Japan’s Fuji Rock festival in 2008. Despite edging up on his own mid-70s, the Super Ape looked in great shape, a sprightly cat in a smoke-belching voodoo hat, shambolically shuffling about the stage spewing streams of consciousness, rub-a-dub-a-dubbing umpteen to the dozen, looking for all the world like he was in on the ultimate cosmic joke.
So perhaps it’s only fitting that the last word on Kung Fu Meets the Dragon should go to The Upsetter himself, straight from his original sleeve notes: “Madder than mad, dreader than dread, redder than red, dis yah one … heavier than lead.’’

Friday, 18 November 2011

An ore inspiring fairy tale

New piece in Time magazine. See the published version here: http://www.time.com/time/travel/article/0,31542,2099511,00.html

Photo: Cedric Arnold 
Ashley Sutton is built like an Australian Rules footballer, covered in tattoos, swears like a sailor and was once an iron-ore miner. He also believes in fairies.

It has been a long journey from his native Fremantle, near Perth, Western Australia, via New York to Bangkok, where he is now the darling of uber-chic Thonglor district thanks to The Iron Fairies Wine Bar and Restaurant (395 Thong Lor), part workshop, part wonderland, born of imagination and happy accident.

Walking into the bar in full swing is quite a trip. The titular Iron Fairies are everywhere, cast in China but buffed and finished in vices that jut from bar tops. A New Orleans jazz band voodoos around a wrought iron spiral staircase to nowhere. Hand-tooled leather books recount arcane fairy legends.  In the bathroom, an exquisite beaten copper and wrought iron bathtub that reputedly belonged to one of Marilyn Monroe’s lovers bobs with candles. Patrons dine on the kind of hamburgers you find in classic Australian milk bars and sip Absinthe.

Sutton, 37, first went away with the fairies during his peripatetic youth working in the iron ore mines of Western Australia, unforgiving places with deceptively poetic names like Marble Bar. “You’d be underground for so long you’d just about lose your mind,” he recalls. “I started thinking about fairies, and then I started doing some sketches.’’ Then he lost part of his left hand in an accident (not his drawing hand).

He put the sketches aside, moved into the glass business, and then to China, where he ventured into steel, selling up everything to fund a wheeze to sell steel and iron balustrade grids as yuppie doormats. They sold like hot cakes and made him rich.

When his sales manager saw his fairy sketches, he urged Sutton to turn them into a book. Some months later, the first Iron Fairies volume was born (now a three-volume set which has sold over 200,000 copies in four languages. Part journal, part poetry and part mystery, it is about some unlucky miners who strike iron ore instead of gold and set about making fairies. Mischief and mayhem ensues).

First from a store in Perth, then New York, and now Bangkok, in tandem with his foundry in Dalian, Sutton says he has made and sold millions of his iron fairies. They are beguiling things, at once coarse and delicate, heavy yet looking like they could take wing at any moment.

“This was my workshop,’’ he says, gesturing around the bar. “Friends would come in to watch me work, and I’d get some wine, and then I put a little kitchen in so I could make some food. That was four years ago. Now I’m making money 24 hours a day. The place is always packed, and when the customers go home we make fairies.’’

On the back of The Iron Fairies’ success, Sutton has opened two more Thong Lor hotspots: Fat Gutz (1/F, Grass Thonglor, 264 Thong Lor 120), billed as a ‘fish and chips saloon for sexy people’ and Clouds (SeenSpace, Thong Lor Soi 13), a minimalist bar of glass and steel built around a venerable Banyan Tree. He has been partly bought out by Novotel and plans to work on F&B concepts for the hotel chain, and is also in the throes of creating a black magic themed bar in Thonglor. Not bad for a bloke who has spend most of his life away with the fairies. 

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Tetchy Mutant Ninja Genius

A recent piece for the South China Morning Post's Rewind column.

When I was a kid, my parents had an impressively hefty coffee table tome purporting to contain all the world’s artistic masterpieces. I would pore over it for hours, drinking in the visceral horrors of Brueghel the Elder, the chiaroscuro canvases of Rembrandt, the luminous Renaissance art of Titian, Raphael and Tintoretto, and the unequalled imagination of Leonardo da Vinci. But time and again I was drawn back to the stunning fold-outs of the Sistine Chapel ceiling by Michelangelo Buonarroti.

For something separates his art from the rest, and even though he considered himself a sculptor not a painter, his frescoes on the soaring vaulted arches of the Pope’s private chapel stand alone as perhaps the greatest single creative masterpiece the world has ever seen. What at first looks like a confusion of writhing flesh reveals itself to be a peerless tableau of human emotion, from the unsullied innocence of creation to the eternal agonies of the fall from grace.

Watched by a profusion of prophets and sibyls and biblical notables, the central frescoes depict in Michelangelo’s inimitable style the travails of Noah, God dividing the light and dark, the heavens and the waters, the sun and the planets, and of course the most iconic image of all, God creating Adam, fingers outstretched, at once impassive and impassioned, white beard swirling like storm clouds, somehow seeing all the pain ahead for his beloved creation.

A far more flawed creation is Carol Reed’s The Agony and the Ecstasy, a sprawling epic starring Charlton Heston at his craggiest and grumpiest as a Michelangelo beset by dark nights of the soul and a rocky relationship with the bellicose Pope Julius II. Reed attempts to lay bare the creative process of a genius, and partly succeeds.

Heston’s tetchiness might partly be ascribed to the inch-long chunk of rebar he wedged up his hooter in an attempt to ape the Florentine’s famously twisted nose, broken by a jealous childhood rival. As many critics have noted, the film is as generous with the agony as it is mean with the ecstasy.
The film spans the heyday of the Renaissance, perhaps the greatest flowering of creativity the world has ever seen. We meet Michelangelo’s rival Raphael, depicted here as an insipid figure waiting in the wings for the great man to fail, and some of the Medicis, the period’s great secular patrons.          
When his first attempt at the ceiling ends with him drunkenly destroying two apostles, Michelangelo disappears into the hills of Carrara to work with the marble miners. The Pope mounts a massive manhunt, and the artist flees higher into the mountains.

It is here that the most powerful scene in the film takes place, one which should be laughably cheesy but somehow achieves a transcendent beauty. Stumbling out of a vaulted cave with swirling ceiling shapes which hint at the artist’s sinuous bodies, Michelangelo is confronted by an amazing cloud formation which we see form itself in his mind’s eye into God creating Adam. With the swelling score and some slick cinematography, we are transported for a moment onto the highest plane where genius dwells.
Alas, from there the film becomes a rather drawn out affair, all spilled paint pots and dodgy scaffolding and interminable rows with the Pope. After the scene with the clouds, the final ‘reveal’ of the ceiling is almost an anticlimax .
Creativity is an ephemeral and elusive thing. Most artists know it for the briefest of seasons. Michelangelo was blessed – and perhaps cursed – with a full live lived at the headiest heights. This film affords the briefest glimpse of his genius, and for that we can be grateful.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Mos Eisley Cantona

This piece records my frustrating and ultimately futile mission to get up close and personal with that great footballing enigma, Eric Cantona, when he journeyed to Thailand for a spot of beach football. It ran in the South African and Australian issues of Sports Illustrated, as well as in the South China Morning Post. 


The trawler steamed through Thailand last week, but the seagulls went hungry. French football deity and Renaissance man Eric Cantona wasn't giving anything away. One of the many strings to his bow is that of philosopher. And arguably the most famous of his metaphysical utterances runs thus: 'When the seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think the sardines will be thrown into the sea.' The great man is the trawler and journalists the squawking, insatiable gulls.

If there was any lingering uncertainty about his attitude to the media, he cleared it up when he told two French sports journalists earlier this year: 'I p*** on all of you.'

But 'Cantona in Pattaya!', as the Bangkok free-sheet shrieked, sounded too good to miss. Little did I realise it was to prove an ill-starred mission that would end in much gnashing of teeth, intemperate language, vein-popping frustration and heat exhaustion.

'Former Manchester United star Eric Cantona will lead the French beach soccer team against local football heroes in Asia's first Pro Beach Soccer event,' the free-sheet said. And suddenly Cantona's seaside aphorism seemed fresh and piquant. Images swam before my eyes of flabby white Germans in g-strings fighting over loungers, sun-bleached sand, unlimited alcohol, hooligans with rampant libidos and, in the middle of it all, gazing magisterially over the maelstrom from under that granite-hewed brow, pigeon chest puffed out - ooh, aah Cantona.

The first disappointment arrives after a couple of phone calls. Cantona is to visit Pattaya, but only fleetingly. His primary destination is Muang Thong Thani, a soulless cluster of low-rent condos on the edge of Bangkok's sprawl and home to the Impact Arena. It is here the inaugural Tipco Pro Beach Soccer match will unfold, despite its distance from any of Thailand's beaches.

I contact organiser Paul-Dominique Vachirasindhu, who has smouldering Eurasian looks, an expensive collection of suits and a shaky grasp of what journalists hoping to cover his event would consider pertinent.

'Allo? Yes, the match is on Saturday. Fax my office and they will put your name down.' With that, he hangs up. I try to call back, but get an answering service. Oh well, I think, Cantona mustn't be arriving for a day or two or he would have said something.

Later I turn on the evening news to see scenes of chaos at the airport as that familiar form towers over a red sea of screaming fans, each sporting enough pirated Manchester United clobber to give Sir Alex Ferguson apoplexy. I may be the only person in Bangkok who isn't at the airport.

My mood doesn't improve the next morning when I learn Vachirasindhu failed to apprise me of the previous day's press conference. Not that I appear to have missed too much. Cantona, it is reported, seems tired. 'I am living in sport. That is the most exciting thing,' he says, after repeating his explanation for quitting top-level football: 'I lost the passion.'

Asked whether he wants to succeed Sir Alex at Old Trafford, he knits his mono-brow gnomically for a moment then says: 'No. But maybe 'yes' tomorrow.' It's all downhill from there. Who else could take on Sir Alex's mantle? 'John Woo.' Which players should the club consider purchasing to bolster its ranks? 'John Woo.'

He does divulge, despite his obvious affection for Hong Kong action fare, that he's lost interest in acting following a string of minor roles because there's 'too much hanging around'. He still dabbles in painting and poetry, however.

I set off for Pattaya the next day, hoping Cantona will be more forthcoming once he's unwinding by the beach. Bangkok's lunch-hour traffic means I don't reach the resort until well after sundown. This means I've missed Cantona being handed the keys to the city. I've also missed him ploughing into a lissome Thai liaison officer with his jet ski. The mass circulation Thai Rath splashes the next morning with pictures of a bedraggled Cantona, 35, being helped to shore as the liaison officer is taken off to be treated for minor injuries. The jet ski operator is paid 4000 baht (HK$680) compensation. Another local paper has concocted a wild and implausible tale in which Cantona rams the woman's jet ski in a jealous rage because he's besotted with her and can't tolerate her flirting with other members of the French team.

My timing is impeccable. I finally track down the team and Cantona's in a world-class funk, refusing to say anything to the press and threatening to cancel the rest of his programme if the media prints another word about the accident. Organisers make clucking noises and smile sadly when I ask if there's any chance of an interview today.
Back to Bangkok.

I trek out to the stadium. It's mid-afternoon and there is no air-conditioning inside the arena. Conditions are somewhere between a sauna and a steam bath. and the Thai team is practising on the 'beach'. There's no sign of the French, who are still back at the Oriental hotel. A scan through the French team doesn't ring any bells, apart from Cantona's younger brother, Joel, who played for Marseilles. The Pro Beach Soccer Web site says the sport is 'fun, healthy and very, very spectacular', with a shot on goal every 30 seconds on average, a goal scored every 3.4 minutes, live music during the tournament, and regulated by FIFA rules of fair play.

             YOU MUST BE THE
The pitch measures 28 metres by 37 metres of soft sand. There are five players aside, including the goalkeeper. The game is divided into three periods of 12 minutes, with unlimited substitutions. Yellow cards mean a three-minute sit-out, free kicks are always direct and there are no draws. France are the current world number one team.

It's after 4pm when the French team arrives. Cantona leads them out in a white singlet, looking a tad over his fighting weight of 87kgs. Women with rakes scurry about the pitch, faced with the Sisyphean task of keeping the sand level. Cantona lazily swings his leg back and 'thump', a bright orange ball crashes over the crossbar and into the PA system.

With a chorus of Gallic grunts and shouts, they go through their paces. It's fast and furious, the balls zipping about like tracer rounds. They divide into two teams, blue singlets versus white, for a practice match. It is relentless, compelling, but far from elegant. When the ball hits the sand, it lands not with a bounce but a deadened splat.

Dribbling is an ankle-twisting ordeal, so volleys are the favoured method of attack. There are no boots or shin-pads, and the sickening crack of bone on bone accompanies most tackles. Former Thai national team striker and Bangkok celebrity Piyapon Piew-on is watching from the stands. He will captain the Thai team, who have only been practising for three weeks. He looks shell-shocked. 'Do you think we have a chance?' he asks, not really expecting an answer.

The teams are tied when the time is up. 'Golden goal,' yells Cantona. Just before the added minutes run out, the other team scores. His face darkens and he storms toward the sideline. This is my moment. There are no other journalists about. I've got the great man to myself. I step forward, tape recorder at the ready. 'Merde,' he snarls, kicking a plastic water bottle into the stands as he marches past and into the dressing room. I try to follow, but grim-faced security men with big sticks bar the way. 'Never mind,' consoles Vachir-asindhu. 'He'll definitely be talking to the press tomorrow.' When? 'The best time will be in the afternoon. You should get here around three or four.'

Match day dawns, hot and sticky. After lunch and I'm about to head out to the stadium but decide to call Vachirasindhu just to confirm the previous day's instructions. I've been pestering the man for days, but he's making noises like he has no idea who I am I jog his memory. 'Ah yes. You will be able to talk to him after the match, for sure. There will be a press conference,' he says and hangs up.

The match starts around 8pm, so I figure leaving around 6.30pm should get me there in plenty of time. I figure wrong. There may be clear afternoon skies over the middle of Bangkok, but above Muang Thong Thani, a fierce storm is dumping the heaviest rainfall of the year.

They've already kicked off by the time I get there. There's a crowd of about 3,000 - far fewer than expected, with many deterred by the storm. The game is being beamed live across Thailand and the local media are out in force, determined to give beach soccer, ahem, blanket coverage. The score is 2-2 at the start of the second phase and the Thais seem to be holding their own against the vastly more experienced French side.

Cantona is strutting around the midfield like a colossus, blue shirt emblazoned with his famed number seven. Something doesn't look right, then I realise it's his collar - he's got it folded in the normal manner rather than turned up. He hasn't scored but each time he touches the ball the crowd goes berserk. There's a furious beating of bongo drums and the stands bleed red.

Chants of 'Eric, Eric' vie with 'Ooh, aah, Eric Cantona' sung to the tune of the Village People's Go West. 'Me, I love to caress, stroke, tease and make love to the ball,' Cantona wrote in his autobiography. But this is ugly, more like rape; a grunting, grubby tumble in the dirt-brown sand. He's getting frustrated, as the tenacious Thais cling to his legs like limpets. It's not until the third, er, third that Cantona's array of flicks and trickery actually lands a ball in the back of the net. The roar is deafening.

               IT DID WONDERS FOR
The score is five apiece. A draw would be a major upset for the favoured French. But Cantona reverts to match-winning type after his slow start and heads in the deciding goal with 11 seconds left on the clock. Pandemonium ensues, naturally. A local television type named 'Green Bean' is dressed up, pantomime style, as Napoleon and his horse. He careens around like a dervish on his spindly legs until four French players crash-tackle him. That seems to be the sign for the pitch invasion. Cantona fumes and glowers when one upstart grabs a signed ball from his hands. The security staff seem hopelessly outnumbered and the crowd are baying for autographs. The guards form a human chain around Cantona, as posters and scarves and shirts and postcards and picture books and even bared chests and bellies are proffered.

The successful few who managed to snare his moniker look like they've just had multiple orgasms. The chaos is brought under control just long enough for Cantona and his team to watch a lip-synced number by local chanteuse Ya-Ya Ying. No sooner has she put her ya-yas away, however, and things are going seriously pear-shaped again. Cantona's shooting savage glances at his minders, as hundreds of wild-eyed fans press ever closer. A speech drones on and on, some doddering football luminary oblivious to the anarchy all around.

Suddenly Cantona's had enough. He grabs the trophy, holds it aloft and then, followed by his teammates and a phalanx of minders, sprints for the dressing rooms. A quick change and they file on to the bus, then go haring off into the Bangkok night. With them go all hopes of a quote. I'm despondently kicking sand about as a keen young thing from one of the Thai television stations bowls up, cameraman in tow. 'So, when's the press conference with Eric Cantona going to be?' she asks me brightly.

I point over to the shiny black knot of Hugo Boss and Armani, which unravels slightly to reveal Vachirasindhu and his cronies deep in mutual congratulations, and I mutter: 'Ask them.'

Friday, 28 October 2011

Apres le deluge, mud

This was published in the South China Morning Post today as part of their Thailand flood coverage. One man's sad and soggy odyssey. I didn't post any of my pix because I've put them on facebook already and they just depress me.

As I sit writing this from a friend's Bangkok condominium on the sixteenth floor, I don’t think I have ever been quite so grateful to be high and blissfully dry.
     However, as the vast volume of water from Thailand’s central plains draws its oozing noose ever tighter around the capital, I find it hard to share the panicked trepidation of the city’s residents. The worst, you see, has already befallen me. I’m homeless, shoeless and feeling pretty hopeless. My new house is under more than two metres of water. I’ve been living on the kindness of friends. And as the soggy veteran of three separate evacuations in the space of the week, I might also look into being accorded some sort of recognition from the people at the Guinness Book of World Records.
  The first and worst ordeal was the long march out of my house in Nontaburi’s Sai Noi district, a sleepy backwater to the capital’s north-west where villages nestle amid verdant rice fields and somnolent klongs, or canals. However, as the northern run-off swelled against sluice gates, earthen dykes and hastily erected sandbag walls, those klongs began to run high and fast.
    Don’t worry, the locals in my village said. It’s never flooded here before – a big selling point when we bought the place, having made the mistake of living once before in a street that flooded every time it even looked like raining. They were still smiling when the closest klong was mere centimetres from the hastily erected earthern dyke lining its banks. But those smiles were gone the next morning, when we awoke to half a metre of water sloshing around our streets.
     The night before I had moved everything I cared about upstairs. And when a major dyke in neighbouring Pathum Thani failed, I was glad I had. Suddenly the waters began to surge. From lapping at my front gate early in the morning, by midday they were hovering ominously at my front doorstep. In the time it took to sling my hastily packed bags over my shoulders and unlock the front gate, the waters had risen two inches and covered my floor.
     In my front yard, now a roiling brown soup, centipedes, rats, snakes and other refugees frantically clawed and slithered in search of higher ground. As I slogged more than 3km to dry land, the water rose from my knee to my thigh to almost my waist in places. I saw cars ruined, pets stranded, and homes submerged to their eaves. But in adversity, I also witnessed a new sense of community. One fellow with a boat walked over a kilometer with me to ferry my bags. In a minimart, a smiling toothless auntie handed me a free beer.
    I escaped to a friend’s house in the northern Bangkok suburb of Rangsit. But the waters were on their inexorable way. And within days, I was wading through swelling floodwaters again. My wife had been holed up on our farm in nearby Nakhon Nayok with our two dogs, but when armed troops ordered local farmers to open a sluice gate, the water rose dangerously fast yesterday. And so it was back into the filthy fray once more, an odyssey of buses, army trucks, motorbikes and finally a boat, to help them to dry land.
     Now, as I sit in as yet mostly dry Bangkok, the relief at not being wet is tinged with a growing anger that my house and thousands like it were sacrificed in a bid to keep the capital dry. As the floods drew near, Bangkok slammed down her sluices and piled on the sandbags, meaning the run-off couldn’t find its way to sea and piled up in districts like mine like some slow-motion tsunami.
     I’m not sure when I will be able to get back to my home to assess the damage. I’m uncertain about what the future holds. My forecast? Fear and floating and lost wages.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

The vice man cometh

Here's my latest piece for the South China Morning Post's Postmagazine. Say what you will about Chuwit ... he gives good quote. Pix by the talented Mr Cedric Arnold.

Super Pimp casts a long shadow over Bangkok. Wherever you turn, there he is, on televisions, newspapers, laptops, billboards, beetroot face contorted into its trademark twisted rictus, moustache aquiver with indignation and finger jabbing at some imagined outrage, ready to launch his next blow against corruption and injustice. One can almost imagine him swooping down from out of the sun, pimp cape flapping, patrolling the phalanx of fleshpots he built then disowned, eyes peeled for fresh perps.
    Every metropolis gets the superhero it deserves. For the City of Angels, a town built on graft and grease and dirt and deals, on tortuous alliances and labyrinthine loyalties, internecine squabbles, snout-in-trough sweeteners and baht pro quo backscratching, who could be more suitable to step forward and save the day than the flawed, fabulously entertaining and batshit crazy crusader that is Chuwit Kamolvisit?
    Thailand’s former massage parlour king and self-professed pimp turned Member of Parliament is reveling in his role as thorn in the government’s side, whistleblower and stirrer in chief, elephant in the room and motor-mouth maverick. After winning four seats in the recent election - a result that shocked many but revealed a deep-seated disgust amongst Bangkok’s middle class with the two big parties, the defeated Democrats, still headed up by faded poster boy Abhisit Vejajiva, and the governing Pheu Thai party, led by Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister, savior and stooge – Chuwit is still riding high in popularity polls. And with a deep-seated fear abroad that the blood-soaked belligerence of the red-shirts and yellow-shirts may not yet be consigned to history’s dustbin, locals are lapping up the comparatively light relief of the Chuwit sideshow while it lasts.
     The pimp tag is not something that bothers him; rather, he has embraced it. “It’s OK. I was a pimp,’’ he says. “I did what I did in the past, I owned a lot of massage parlours. Of course I sold them all, but I can’t complain if people still want to call me pimp.
    “Anyway, a politician is worse than a pimp, worse than a whore. I adore the whore. The whore trades something that she owns, her body, while the politician trades the country and what belongs to the people. So I say, go head, call me a pimp. I am Chuwit, Superpimp. Just don’t call me a politician."
      It’s tempting to suggest he invest in a superfly mink-lined cape, perhaps a natty purple fedora and diamond-studded cane. As it is, his one concession to ghetto fabulous is his bull terrier, Motomoto, who was a prominent part of Chuwit’s election efforts and featured on the most entertaining of his talk-of-the-town campaign posters.  “I used my dog as a symbol of honesty, loyalty, everything you can’t get from the politician,’’ he says.
      His Lazarus-like return to politics surprised some, who had written him off after his last run at Bangkok governor ended in ignominy and bruised knuckles. Chuwit lost his temper on live television and punched and kicked a popular television anchor who had questioned his manliness.
    His continued existence amazes many, who believe it’s a miracle that he hasn’t already been helped on to his next life by a hitman, given the fuming coterie of top cops, army generals and political powerbrokers he has embarrassed and cost large amounts of money. Now, his latest mission to expose Bangkok’s thriving illegal casinos – including threats this week to reveal a massive new establishment with an alleged key Hong Kong backer – has the entire city transfixed.
    Chuwit, leader of the Rak Thailand Party, a month ago upstaged PM Yingluck’s maiden policy speech with his video-backed bombshell about a huge and professionally run casino in Bankgok’s Suttisan district operating a stone’s throw from a major police station. The fallout was extensive, provoking a frenzy of buck-passing and butt-covering, and eventually costing the police commissioner his job.
      Now he’s at it again. This week, Chuwit said he would divulge details of a new mega-casino in Huay Kwang’s Mengjai district, which he claims is a joint venture between a former cabinet minister and a wealthy Hong Kong investor.
    The key Hong Kong connection was a shadowy casino specialist he would only name as "Mr Tee" who had extensive experience in Macau and also at the casinos in the Cambodian border town of Poipet. The main local partner was reportedly a former cabinet minister, Chuwit said.
     His latest claims are backed by the deputy prime minister and new Thai government vice tsar, Chalerm Yoobamrung, who said the government was keeping a close eye on illegal casinos under construction. He said the government was aware of a "significant" Hong Kong investment in Thailand's illegal gambling underworld.
   "It's like a joint venture," Chuwit explains. "This guy Mr Tee, he has the international casino connections and the expertise. The local partner secures the premises and deals with the police and other officials. Mr Tee makes sure the security system, the computer and gaming technology, the lighting, the equipment and most importantly the croupiers, dealers, counters, cashiers and other key staff are all experienced casino employees. Because they know very well, if you have staff you can't trust they will rob you blind."
    "To fit out one of these casinos takes up to two months and costs around 100 million baht [HK$25 million]," Chuwit said. "But ... they make a nightly profit of around 10 million baht. Police are getting fat off them and it looks like I'm the only one with enough guts to tell it like it is," he said. "You've got high rollers, roulette, baccarat, blackjack, bok dang, croupiers in uniforms, computerised equipment, money counters ... but to police it's obviously all invisible."
     The new casino was located about 500 metres from the Meng Jai intersection in Huay Kwang district - ironically the same district where many of Chuwit's former massage parlours were located. He said the casino was ready to start operating. It was one of at least four being developed with Hong Kong backing.
     When Chuwit told Parliament last month about a big illegal casino in Suttisan Road, Bang Sue district the disclosure led to the transfer of three senior police officers to inactive posts, a city-wide crackdown and a political firestorm, which claimed the scalp of National police chief Wichean Potephosree.
     This week, acting national police chief Priewpan Damapong said police had searched the area and could find no gambling facility or evidence of one under construction. When apprised of this, Chuwit goes into paroxysms of laughter over the telephone. “Of course they are going to say that. These are the same cops who couldn’t see the Suttisan casino that was operating a couple of doors down from a major police station.’’
    In what may be a warning shot over Chuwit’s bows, however, the Supreme Court this week ruled to seize Bt3.4 million from the MP in connection to his suspected involvement in a prostitution ring. A lower court and subsequent appellate review had previously ruled in Chuwit’s favour, but the high court took the view that he had failed to verify how the assets in question were acquired.
     While Chuwit’s defence team argued that massage parlours were a legitimate business, the high court ruled there was enough evidence to support the parlours being used as a front for the sex trade, as evidenced by company records showing Bt 112,559 spent on condoms alone in 2002.

When I meet Chuwit on a drizzling Bangkok afternoon in the park that bears his name in Sukhumvit Soi 10, he is riding high on his first salvo about the illegal casinos but yet to launch his second strike. He has a gruff and affable charm but you sense a mercurial temper is simmering somewhere close to the surface.
    It’s clear he gets a kick out of owning such a valuable piece of real estate and using it mainly as a private playground for his dog. “Yes, it’s true. You could say Motomoto is the owner here. One day I might do something here, but this is the last real prime undeveloped Sukhumvit Rd site. So I am happy to sit on it for a while.’’
     Chuwit says he was surprised to win as many as four seats in the election, but not surprised that he himself was comfortably elected. “In my campaign, I presented myself as boring. Thai politicians play politics too much. They talk, talk, talk, but never do anything.’’
     Fighting corruption was Chuwit’s main campaign promise. “Corruption in Thailand is supported by the officials, the politicians, the police, the system. Nobody wants to talk. It’s a big issue in this country.’’ Which might seem a bit rich coming from a man who gleefully detailed the staggering amount of bribes in cash and other largesse he paid to all manner of Thai officials to facilitate his business in its heyday.

     Chuwit strokes his moustache and looks to the heavens. “Look, have you seen the movie ‘Catch Me If You Can? You’re not going to catch a crook by using a good guy. I am the one who knows the (corruption) process better than anyone. So I can make myself useful now to expose corruption. ‘’ It takes a thief to catch a thief? “Exactly!’’
      Can one man really accomplish anything? “Corruption is so strong in Thailand I don’t think it will ever change. I’m not saying I can do anything. But I have vowed to try.’’
    The last time Chuwit was making these kind of waves was in 2004, where he kept Bangkok on the edge of its seats with lurid revelations of police corruption relating to his massage parlour business. The sensationally sordid saga of sex, bribes and videotape hit the front pages when Chuwit revealed that he was paying senior police from four of Bangkok’s biggest police districts over 12 million baht in bribes per month (not a bad sweetener when you consider the average constable’s salary barely breaks four figures). Chuwit also spoke of how he showered the officers with trays of Rolex watches shipped in from Hong Kong and crates of the finest French vintages.
      He didn’t name names, but said he had a list prepared to do just that in the event of his untimely demise, not to mention lurid details of the peculiar sexual proclivities of some of the city’s top cops, some reportedly captured on camera. His tirade was prompted by what he deemed a betrayal by men he had made extremely wealthy and who he paid to protect him. This followed the infamous January 2004 midnight raid in which armed thugs reduced to rubble a motley collection of beer bars and small businesses in what used to be known as Sukhumvit Square. The raid shocked Bangkok, embarrassed the police and angered the government. Chuwit had recently bought the land in question, although he denied authorising the raid and claimed it was orchestrated by a man he had agreed to lease the land to. (Later, in the face of a mounting furore, he magnanimously decided not to develop the land but to turn it into a public park).
    A warrant was issued for Chuwit’s arrest, and he found himself dragged off to spend a month in jail pending formal charges. At the same time, he was also charged with employing three underage girls at one of the six massage parlours operated by his Davis Group.
    “Of course I felt betrayed,’’ says Chuwit. “I felt crazy and frustrated. All the money I have paid to police and then they stabbed me in the back. So I decided to do what no one has dared before, to tell the Thai public what really goes on.’’
    Things took their first weird twist when Chuwit went missing days after his initial revelations. Debate raged as to whether he was already dead or had fled the country. Three days later, a wild-eyed Chuwit called a press conference in his pyjamas in a Bangkok hospital, shouting and rambling as he claimed he had been kidnapped, drugged and held hostage by masked men.
    Then National police chief Sant Sarutanont, before even beginning to investigate the claims, declared that he didn’t for a minute believe the tale and said Chuwit had staged the event to gain public sympathy. He also set up a fact-finding panel which within a matter of days found there was no substance to the claims of massive bribe-taking by officers at Huay Kwang, Makkasan, Suttisan and Wang Thonglang police stations.
   But Chuwit was just getting warmed up. He produced hundreds of pages of signatures which he said belonged to police who received free services at his parlours, prompting then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a former policeman himself, to call for the entire Huay Kwang station to be transferred. Thaksin promised that he’d clean up the force within six months. A new panel was set up to probe police corruption, headed by Noppadol Somboonsup, director general of the recently-formed Special Investigation Department, the Thai version of America’s FBI.
   Chuwit then began to feed the press with a daily diet of teasers and stunts. He released the initials of senior officers who got the biggest bribes, prompting flurries of speculation. He then revealed a detailed list of bribes paid by rank, ranging from 80,000 baht per month for Superintendents down to 2,000 for deputy chief inspectors. He claimed he had paid 300,000 in bribes to prison staff while incarcerated, including 5,000 baht for fried rice and 10,000 baht for a proper shower.
     He donated 13 coffins to a Bangkok charity and dedicated them to “bad bribe-takers who don’t accept the truth’’. He appeared in one mass circulation newspaper bare-chested and lifting dumbbells, to “get in shape for the battle’’. He tried and failed to present a list to the Prime Minister with the names of 1,000 allegedly corrupt Bangkok police officers. And he took the press on a tour of “Suite Five’’ at his Copacabana parlour, a Roccoco riot of marble and gilt which could accommodate 15 guests and cost millions of baht to decorate. “I lose hundreds of thousands a night on this suite alone,’’ he complained. “It’s always full of police, who want free drinks and free girls.’’
     If the figurative spotlight wasn’t enough, Chuwit then took to the boards for a one-night talk show at the Bangkok Playhouse, which was an instant sell-out despite it’s somewhat self-pitying title: "Chuwit: Alone and Shabby''. He penned a quickie book, “The Golden Bath: the Origin of Sex and Every Scandalous Thing'', in which he reminisced about his younger years as a playboy, trying to spend as much of his family’s textile fortune as he could while fancying himself the Thai Hugh Hefner.
system had malfunctioned on the night in question.

“Yes, I was a playboy,’’ Chuwit chuckles, as we stroll the lush manicured paths of his park. His father was born in Hong Kong and his mother was Thai. After returning from San Diego, California with a Master of Business Administration, Chuwit was eager to put his new business theories into practice. “I was 30 years old. I wanted to be surrounded with girls. What’s wrong? Making big money. So what?
    “I liked massage parlours, but the old ones here used to be done in a very old fashioned way. It was all rush rush, like going to McDonalds. Maybe men don’t want McDonalds. Maybe they want a Chinese banquet. To relax, listen to music, have a drink, take your time. So I changed the whole idea to make the massage parlours more of an entertainment venue.’’ He laughs. “My places were better than anything you’d get in Vegas. I went to a lap dancing place in Las Vegas once. You had to listen to a 10 minute speech on the rules, you cannot touch the body, you cannot do this or that. You can drink though. And tip. I thought it was ridiculous.
    “So all I did was give men what they want.’’ He fixes me with his most steely superhero squint from beneath famously furrowed brow. “The sex business is not wrong. People are wrong.’’
     Chuwit made a modest fortune in real estate in Bangkok after returning from his US studies, and bought his first massage parlour licence in the late 1980s. “It was good for 106 rooms. I had the land, I had the licence, so I opened Victoria’s Secret, around Ratchadaphisek and Rama 9 roads. Boy, did I start making money. Do you believe it? I was making a million baht in cash every night. And from the first day, the police were there with their hands out.’’
    He opened Emmanuelle, then Honolulu, then Copacabana, all of them sumptuous exercises in nouveau riche excess, where some of Thailand’s most beautiful women sat wearing numbers behind glass walls waiting to be chosen by the rich and powerful. “Is it prostitution? Of course. I provide the classy place, the beautiful girls, the booze, the atmosphere. When someone goes to a room, you can’t stop them having sex. But prostitution is illegal, so none of it works without the cops looking after you.’’
      An astute political animal, Chuwit goes out on quite a limb by predicting that Thaksin will be back in Thailand by the end of the year. “Look at them all now,’’ he says, referring to the Pheu Thai party movers and shakers. “They are moving all the pieces around the board now, getting the right people into place to force an amnesty and secure his return.’’
     Chuwit swears that he no longer has any interest, financial or moral, in the flesh trade and says his only business these days is his Davis Hotel group and his real estate holdings. Last time I interviewed him, seven years ago, the Anti-Money Laundering Office had just frozen his assets. This time, it’s the court order – although 3.5 million baht is chump change to someone with a fortune estimated at around 250 million baht.
     We continue to wander about the park. Joggers, strollers and office refugees beam and rush up to say hello, we love you, we voted for you, keep the bastards honest. It’s bizarre in the extreme given his history as a virtuoso corruptor but there’s no denying he has tapped a nerve. His macho image and undeniable charisma probably don’t hurt either. As he chats with another admirer, I glance around the gardens and wonder if he has some souped up superhero-mobile in an underground garage, or a pole to slide down to a graft-busting nerve centre.
      So what is the next crusade for Superpimp once all the illegal casinos have been exposed? “I’m not superman. I’m not a hero,’’ he says. “People think I can do something but really, all I can do is speak up. Talk about the things other people are scared to. In Thailand, everybody knows, but nobody talks. There are lots of issues for me to talk about. Corruption. Drugs.
     “But it’s all about timing and balance. I can’t be in the news every day. People will get sick of me. So I will pick my battles and know when it’s time to speak and when it’s time to stop.’’
     Chuwit turned 50 in August and he admits it was a milestone. “You do stop and think about life. See over there on that table? There is a catalogue of yachts. I look at it every day. One day, I will buy the yacht. That is my goal. That’s happiness. There is no happiness in politics.’’
     Perhaps not, except for the fact that politics may be all that’s keeping him alive. “Yes it’s true, I’m in the spotlight now and to an extent my high profile protects me. When I’m not in that spotlight, I will have to leave Thailand. It will be too risky here. Life is cheap, and I have too many enemies. You can hire a hitman for 200,000 baht. So I have to be focused all the time. It’s the only way to survive. If you lose that focus, you die.’’
     It’s hard out there for a pimp.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

The great shark hunt

When Hong Kong was terrorised by an alleged tiger shark back in 1992, there seemed only one thing for it: summon Vic Hislop, shark-hunter and all round ocker nutjob. The chaos that ensued became the talk of the town ...

Shortly after taking up residence in Hong Kong, I awake one morning to find Vic Hislop, notorious Australian shark hunter, in my bed. Fortunately, I am on the sofa.

In happier times: Hislop catches
 the world's biggest great white
He staggers out into the living room; short, stocky, smelling vaguely of stingray and absent-mindedly scratching his nuts. Vic has just flown in from Queensland, and we’ve put him up for the night in the house my friends and I have rented in Sai Kung, a fishing village and expat hangout in the New Territories.

Nearby Clearwater Bay has been terrorised by a spate of shark attacks and The Hong Kong Standard newspaper, on a brilliant wheeze from my flatmate and uber-journo Hedley Thomas, has hired Hislop to catch the suspected tiger shark. The night he arrives, we dine on the Sai Kung waterfront as he regales us with tales of monsters pursued and killed. It becomes apparent at once that he is quite mad, possessed of a monomaniacal hatred of sharks not far short of Captain Ahab’s obsession with the white whale. What sticks in my mind from the evening’s conversation, however, is not so much the gorily graphic accounts of maneaters hooked and shot and clubbed and knifed, but an encounter with a pitbull terrier in a friend’s backyard.

Ball tearier
“Shit mate, yeah, this bastard dog just comes out of nowhere, eh,’’ he recounts in a nasal ocker whine. “And he’s coming right for me. I look around, but there’s nothing I can pick up to defend meself. I know I’ll never make it to the fence if I run. So as the fucker jumps at me, I get under him and grab him by the balls. And he lets out this yelp like he’s just been shot. He’s trying to bite me, the bastard, but I start swinging him around faster and faster, and then I let him go. And that does the trick, eh, he just lies there looking at me, and I jump over the fence.’’

From there, it’s all downhill. In short order, a lurid logo is whipped up, featuring a gaping man-eater that would do a Peter Benchley novel proud, under the rubric “The Standard’s Great Shark Hunt’’. While the snobs at the South China Morning Post, the Standard's tonier cousin, turn their noses up, the stunt becomes the talk of the town. We procure a junk – the Great Shark Hunt Mothership – and arm Vic with all manner of fearsome hooks and lines and sinkers. We scour the wet markets of Sai Kung for suitable tiger shark bait; stingrays and groupers. We print t-shirts that will go on to become collectors' items. From this point on, Vic, thankfully; will sleep on the mothership as we begin a futile and ill-fated two-week search for the shark.

Fangs for the memories 
I am charged with penning his daily dispatches and succumb to a creeping lunacy, inventing all sorts of wild rubbish to keep the story going. As I milk the Ahab angle, Vic falls ill with a virulent flu. After a couple of days, he begins to question what’s being written about his efforts. So I take to hiding his glasses so he can’t read the paper.

Hong Kong’s piranha-like pack of Chinese newspapers gets hold of the story and soon the hills of Clearwater Bay bristle with telephoto lenses as the waters around the mothership are buzzed by reporter-laden motorboats. We dole out access to Vic like jealous parents.

It soon becomes apparent that the shark has left town. Despite Vic’s best and increasingly desperate efforts, the stinking, rotten stingrays are left unmolested, the groupers ungutted, and eventually the circus leaves town too. Vic is sick and defeated, whimpering like a bull-terrier with crushed nuts, as we stick a cheque in his pocket and push him onto a plane.

Bee-el-zee-bub has a devil
put aside for meeeee
Back at the Press Club in the seething heart of Wan Chai, bathed in blinking neon from the short time hotel on the floor above, toilets awash with acrid eddies of urine, the story has taken on a delirious life of its own. The Standard’s sub-editors, a notoriously louche and drunken bunch, won’t let the thing die. For months afterwards, when sufficient brews and shots have been quaffed, they run up and down the length of the bar, hands held aloft like dorsal fins, shouting “SHARK! SHARK!’’

Hislop, however, from reports received, has never been quite the same since. The great destroyer of great whites, the tigerish killer of tiger sharks and macho crusher of pitbull balls, is a sad, bewildered and broken man, hoist on his own reeking petard, lashed to the mast of failure. The ultimate victim of the Great Shark Hunt, ironically, is the great white hunter himself.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Blood lust on the border

Photo: Palani Mohan 
It’s only halfway through round three, but the fighters are nearly spent. ‘Super Op’, the Thai, sucks at the searing air, wipes blood from his eyes with his forearm, then launches a vicious assault, swinging haymakers with both hemp-wrapped hands. One connects, and as his Burmese opponent crumples, the Thai brings a lightning knee up into his face, pulling the other man’s head down to maximise the impact.

There’s a sickening crack of bone on bone, a geyser of blood, then a slow-motion teeter to the canvas. As the Burmese twitches, prone, a pool of bright vermillion spreads from his shattered nose, subsuming the older rust-coloured stains on the canvas. It’s a palate of carnage; the grisly record of an animosity that has spanned millennia. Super Op runs to his opponent’s corner, eyes clouded with red mist, and screams at the crowd. His primal howl is the sound any man might make, having just prevailed in one of the oldest and rawest forms of unarmed combat - Muay Haad Chuak, the ancient bareknuckle version of modern Thai kickboxing.

The Burmese segment of the crowd, half-mad with heat and cheap whiskey, press closer to the makeshift ring and scream back. A blistering sun beats down on the corrugated iron roof, making it so hot it’s hard to breathe. The larger throng of Thais send up puffs of dust as they dance victory jigs. Money furtively changes hands as bets are settled. Super Op runs back to his corner, then his legs buckle and he drops to his stool. The adrenalin overload begins to subside. Claret drips from a gaping gash above his left eye into a circular steel tray under his stool, blending with the water and ice. The sight of this gory soup stirs something in those pressed closest to the ring; they too begin to bay with demented bloodlust. The Burmese fighter is dragged from the ring by his irate handlers. ‘You stupid donkey,’ someone shouts. His head lolls, he’s missing a tooth, and his eyes seem dangerously glazed. The leakage from his shattered nose mingles with sweat and coconut oil, lending his teakwood torso an infernal sheen.  

Photo: Palani Mohan
Bareknuckle boxing has been banned in Thailand for almost 90 years, but that doesn't seem to bother anyone in the wild border town of Mae Sot in Tak Province, a stone’s throw across a shallow river from the equally lawless Burmese settlement of Myawaddy. The inhabitants of these freewheeling twin towns include illegal loggers, drug barons, human traffickers, gem smugglers, rebels, pimps, drifters, over-stayers and assorted other flotsam, all with a healthy appetite for blood sport. And so each April, during the Thai New Year festival of Songkran, authorities look the other way as fighters from the feuding nations take off their gloves and climb into the ring to settle old scores.

Photo: Palani Mohan
In 1774, after being captured by the Burmese during the sacking of the ancient Thai capital of Ayutthya, the legendary kickboxer Nai Khanom Tom won his freedom by stomping a dozen of the invader's top fighters in a row. ‘Every part of the Thai is blessed with venom,’ pronounced King Mangra, as he watched his men drop like ninepins. The story of Nai Khanom Tom dispatching the bogeymen from Burma is one of the first history lessons taught to every young Thai. The ancient Burmese armies would pass close to Mae Sot on their various incursions on their way to the famous Three Pagoda Pass, which perhaps explains why the sport – and the fierce cross-border rivalry – still thrives here.

The rules have changed a little - now there are rounds and referees, and the ring ropes and knuckles are not sprinkled with broken glass - but the fights are still nasty, brutish and short. Eye gouges and groin strikes are forbidden (if not unknown) but pretty much anything else goes. Head butts are popular. Gloves are discarded for tightly wrapped strips of hemp, which makes the knuckles rock hard. Bouts are scheduled for five rounds, but seldom go the distance. Victory is by knockout or awarded when one fighter can’t continue. If both men remain standing after five rounds, a draw is declared.

It’s a hard way to make a living, considering the very real risk to life and limb: winners take home about US$200. Losers get jeers and pain. The organisers, a coterie of Mae Sot businessmen, soldiers and police, refuse to comment on deaths in the ring, but one veteran of the sport says at least five fighters have died in the past decade. ‘Maybe more,’ he says. ‘They take a beating, but seem OK. Then they go back home and a few days later their livers or kidneys give out. It’s not something people here talk about, because a lot of money gets wagered on these fights.’

Photo: Palani Mohan
A day earlier, in a professional-standard ring by the main road, surrounded by sponsors’ banners and television cameras, seven bareknuckle bouts between more polished and experienced fighters are scheduled. There’s an expectant buzz in the crowd, who have just learned that for the first time four foreigners will be fighting alongside the Thais and Burmese. This introduces a new dynamic, as neither the Thais or Burmese want these upstarts from America to win. In the preceding weeks, the White House has been particularly vocal in its criticism of Burma’s regime, and some sections of the Burmese crowd are shouting about arrogant Americans and demanding a butt whooping. The visiting Americans train with Master Toddy, a burly chap with faded movie star looks, who left Thailand 20 years ago and now runs one of the biggest Muay Thai gyms in the United States, amidst the bright lights of Las Vegas.

‘This is a great test of courage for my men, to come here to the very home of bareknuckle fighting and prove themselves,’ says Master Toddy. His fighters – Kit Cope, Ben Garcia, Anthony Brown and Sol Mitchell – are battle-hardened veterans of American bloodsport contests like Ultimate Fighting and King of the Cage. Cope and Garcia have both been world champions in their weight classes. They’re accompanied by an MTV crew, who are filming a piece on mixed martial arts.

Not everyone is happy, though. Chavalit Kitsakdaparp, who runs Mae Sot’s Tuptimtong training camp, scours Burma for talented fighters to come and fight for him, and is complaining to anyone who’ll listen that two of his fighters are seriously outweighed by the Americans they’ve been matched with. ‘My men are tough,’ he says. ‘But this is not fair.’ Even here, it seems a good big man will beat a good little man. It’s touch and go for a few hours as to whether the fights will go ahead, but eventually Chavalit relents. ‘Everyone wants to see the farang fight,’ he grumbles, ‘so let them fight.’

Photo: Palani Mohan
Before the Americans get in the ring, there are three Thai versus Burma bouts, the first featuring Super Op’s older brother, ‘Super O’. The fighting ‘Supers’ are the sons of Chanchay Oranorong, a local legend, who fought bareknuckle for nearly 15 years and remained undefeated. Both brothers are short, nugget types with legs like tree trunks. Super O’s fight is a gruelling affair that lasts the full five rounds, an out-and-out slugfest in which he gets the better of his Burmese opponent, Jeleong Pagan, but can’t deliver the knock-out blow.

Cope is first of the Americans up, and he dances through the crowd in a bright red robe, waving and shaking his fists. He’s up against a tall, rangy Burmese named Mojo Myawaddy, and the first round is close. Not long into the second round, however, Cope delivers a lightning uppercut followed by a scything elbow strike, and it’s all over. The Burmese crumples to the canvas, dazed. The American does a back-flip for good measure, and dances back to the dressing room.

Photo: Palani Mohan
‘That was incredible,’ he exalts. ‘Did you hear the crowd? I kicked ass out there.’ The crowd has gone strangely silent, however, by the time the tall, wiry Ben Garcia emerges. It’s clear no one was expecting an American victory. When the bell sounds, the shouts and screams begin again, louder than ever. Garcia takes a beating for three rounds from a ferocious looking fellow named Josoor Rangoon. He looks to be done, when he unleashes an elbow strike seemingly from nowhere. Josoor falls twitching to the floor in the corner nearest where I’m standing, spattering my notebook with blood.

Local pride is only somewhat salvaged in the last fight of the day. Sol Mitchell is the least impressive physically of the Americans, but at 64kg, at least he’s exactly the same weight as his opponent, Tonton Rangoon. The bell sounds, as the musicians wind up into their familiar demented fugue, snake charmers on speed. Tonton leaps in with sweeping low kicks and a flurry of blows. Mitchell tries to defend, but with seconds left in the round, and gouts of blood issuing from his nose, he goes down and doesn’t bother getting back up. He peers into the lens of an MTV camera, and gives a twisted red smile.

The fighting finished, I follow Chanchay and his super sons back to his house. His mouth is bright red – from chewing betel, not blood – and he’s downing shots of whiskey like there’s no tomorrow. It’s been a good two days for his family. Two victories, $400 in prizemoney, and at least five times that in gambling winnings. It’s clear this toughest of sports has been kind to him. He has all his faculties and barely a mark on his broad, flat face. He lives in what passes for high style in Mae Sot, in a big rough-hewn teak house, with a St Bernard dog, a shiny new pickup truck and a glistening chrome hog.

Photo: Palani Mohan
‘Good boys,’ he says to his sons. Both are sporting black eyes and shy smiles. Both are preening in front of the mirror, getting ready for a night on the tiles. I ask Super O if his father makes him fight. ‘No, it’s my choice,’ he says. ‘What else would I do around here?’ Super Op smiles through fat lips and says it’s fun. ‘Winning is the greatest feeling in the world. And it doesn’t hurt when you go looking for girls.’ The brothers, too, are undefeated, having inherited their father’s lightning speed, vicious kicks and ring savvy. They’ll get a week off training now as their bruises and cuts heal. Then it will be back into it.

In a dusty ring next to the house, the fighters of tomorrow are going through their paces. Terrible tykes smashing legs into heavy bags and peppering each other with kicks and slaps. Chanchay takes another pull of whiskey, and looks out the window at the action. ‘Some talent there, I think.’ He spits a stream of betel juice out the window, and in the glow of whiskey and victory, waxes philosophical. ‘It’s a funny thing about fighting,’ he says. ‘It never hurts as long as you win.’

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Musical interlude

Here's a little thing I threw together ... funky house and breakbeat, with some new tunes and some classics



Sunday, 25 September 2011

Trout masks and beef hearts

The South China Morning Post has come up with an excellent wheeze for its Sunday pages: a column called Rewind, in which a classic movie, album and book, all of which tie into a theme, are reviewed. Here is my first contribution to the column, a scary encounter with Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, for a Rewind themed around madness.

When Tom Waits leaps into print to give you props for bringing the crazy, you know you’ve reached some transcendental level of lunacy. Not that anyone would have dared to tell the late and very large Captain Beefheart, who once pushed his drummer down the stairs for refusing to "play a strawberry", that he was nuts.
    Madness and genius have been inextricably linked down through the ages, not least in the arts, and most especially in music. You have to be a hamper short of a picnic, the thinking goes, to get synapses short-circuiting to produce bursts of pure creativity. But there’s music by tortured geniuses and sad broken poets, and then there’s Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band (Straight) 1969. This is some seriously nutty stuff from a real whack job. Listen to it too often, or for too long at once, and you might begin to call your own mental health into question.
    Warns Waits: "The roughest diamond in the mine, his musical inventions are made of bone and mud. Enter the strange matrix of his mind and lose yours." The song titles alone gave me pause: Dachau Blues. Hair Pie Bake 1. Pachuco Cadaver. China Pig. Ant Man Bee. Neon Meate Dream of A Octafish. Only a madman, or someone trying to impersonate one, could cough up such frothing nonsense. As a Beefheart neophyte, I felt nervous. What if I didn’t get it? Worse, what if I did? Anyway, I sonically tip-toed past the point of no return and realized with relief that anyone who claims to ‘get it’ is a big fat bare-faced hipster-wannabe liar. You can’t ‘get’ this level of virtuoso deranged chaos any more than you can ‘get’ a tornado or a serial killer. You can only stand back, knock-kneed and awestruck, humbled with fear.
    "My smile is stuck, I can’t go back to your frownland," he warbles through werewolf teeth on Frownland, the opening track. And for 28 songs he sinks those fangs into your brain and chews. You feel for The Magic Band, and boy, they must have been to have even remembered which bit of what song comes next. The tunes jump about like hyper kids with Ritalin grins. Tunes? More like attention deficit symphonies. Mad chattering rhythms, a dozen different time signatures in a song, random bits of blues, rock, folk and assorted musical perversions I couldn’t begin to categorize. Random guitar wails. Gratuitous sax. And over all of it in his importuning multi-octave growl, the insistent babbling insanity of the Captain’s stream of incontinence, all fast and bulbous squids eating dough in polyethylene bags, lipstick Kleenex and mice toes scampering, girls named bimbo limbo spam, and dank drum and dung dust.
     I gave Trout Mask Replica the recommended five listens. I still couldn’t hum a single tune. Although one song that got wedged in a loose flapping fold of my brain was The Blimp, which features a hysterical loudhailer voice intoning "The tits, the tits, the blimp, the blimp, the mothership" over a demented, repetitive hurdy gurdy riff.
    Beefheart buffs will know the legends. How the Captain, aka Don Van Vliet, had his musicians rehearse for a year to translate the simmering visions in his skull into something approaching actual songs, then recorded 20 of them in one day. How he wouldn’t let them eat or sleep or leave his house. How he made them wear dresses and subjected them to endless hours of group therapy. How he brought Frank Zappa in as producer, and how Zappa recognized instantly an evil genius at work, and how he basically left Beefheart to get on with making his magnum opus of madness. You wonder how the band put up with his abuse, but would you mess with a man who could hit High C while simultaneously blowing on two saxophones?
    Whether the Captain was a real deal loony tune, crazy like a fox or simply, as Lester Bangs suggested, ‘the only true Dadaist in rock’ doesn’t really matter. Trout Mask Replica stands alone, a jabbering beacon at the far edges of our universe, pulsing its arrhythmic logorrhea through bursts of static, warning of the epic weirdness and flights of madness that lurk in the human mind.
    "The tits, the tits. The blimp, the blimp." The horror, the horror.