Sunday, 27 May 2012

Roast babies, black magic and Michael Jackson

This story gave me the heebie jeebies for months after I wrote it. And it recently came back to mind in the course of writing a South China Morning Post column on a British citizen of Taiwanese extraction busted in a Bangkok hotel room with six babies' corpses in his suitcase. Police were called to room 301 of a Chinatown hotel room after - wait for it - neighbours complained they couldn't sleep because of babies crying all night. (Cue Twilight Zone music). Black magic, or 'sayasut', is alive and well in Thailand. I ventured into the lair of 'Nain Ae', along with fellow journalist Thomas Brecelic, to try and get a handle on the famously defrocked 'baby griller' of Thailand. Nain Ae boasted that he prowled backyard abortion clinics for fresh foetuses that he could use to extract 'nam mun prae', a black magic love potion highly prized by high society dames. I've got photos of him, but they are buried in a box somewhere. Will add them when I have time to dig them out. After this story ran, a Hong Kong woman contacted me seeking directions to Nain Ae's abode, which as a friendly chap I passed on, with a warning to be careful. Two weeks later, she called me in tears, saying she had just been raped by, you guessed it, Nain Ae. This nasty piece of work got a jail term of 100 years for sexual assault and other crimes against decency. Although my wife tells me he was released recently and is once more at large. I've done a short film treatment on some of the above. I hope this doesn't give anybody nightmares.

Nain Ae can’t understand what all the fuss is about. “I have grilled a lot of babies, but they were already dead,’’ he shrugs. The defrocked monk from the central Thailand province of Saraburi did a stint in prison thanks to his penchant for grisly black magic, but he’s back in business now and teaching his trade to eager apprentices.


When you walk into his magic room, you realise this is not the abode of an ordinary monk. A desicated foetus, mouth open in a silent scream, stares with unseeing eyes over a row of human skulls daubed with scribbles and spells. Cobwebs depend from dusty statues of ancient Hindu and Khmer gods and demons, covering  mouldering stacks of books filled with centuries of black magic wisdom. Moth-eaten animal pelts festoon the walls. Incense sticks smoulder as waxen voodoo dolls wilt in the heat.
Nain Ae’s fame has spread far and wide in the Land of Smiles since he was jailed for six months by the Supreme Court and branded “the biggest threat to the monkhood since communism.’’ That was after a television crew filmed him grilling a stillborn infant, to summon the spirit of “khumon tong’’, or the golden baby. Oil collected from the chin of a basted babe is said to be the basis of a potent love potion, and Nain Ae says everyone from gangsters to high society dames have come to his chicken ranch, looking for a little help with their love lives.
"I'm Nain Ae,'' says the tiny chap in baggy blue cut-off jeans advancing down the stairs. He's covered from head to toe in intricate tattoos. He bows, hands touching in a traditional wai, and flashes a stony-eyed smile. Then he ascends the stairs with nimble hops, rattling the yellow fangs of a tiger skull on the doorstep, before settling into a throne of sorts.

Small pointed teeth tear off a great wodge of chewing tobacco and he masticates noisly before directing a feculent jet into a spittoon.  ''Do you know about my powers?’’ he asks. “I am super-powerful. You see these tattoos? You cannot shoot me or hurt me. Bullets will bounce off. Knives can't do any harm.'' I'm thinking, 'Bat Fink (and Karate!)'. He pulls down one of the swords and half-heartedly jabs it into his stomach.

He spits again, then hops up and disappears. A moment later, he’s back, dressed in baggy white karate pants, a gold fez and several loops of chunky wooden beads around his neck. A finger beckons, and we follow him down a gloomy hall, past a cooking pot full of skulls. "They’re fresh from a graveyard,’’ he says. In his lair, more skulls are arrayed on a shelf.
So, er, when did you start grilling babies? "Shut up,'' he snaps. "I want to tell you my life's story first.'' Born Harn Raksajit, he was reared an orphan in a Saraburi temple. A precocious child who believed himself touched by the Lord Buddha, he followed other dek wat (temple boys) to train as a Nain (novice) and adopted the nickname Nain Ae.
"Even from a young age, I was attracted to magic,'' he says in a weird, high-pitched monotone. "But there was no-one here to teach me.'' Despite a lack of tuition he scoured books and honed his powers, making his first real foray into magic by predicting lottery numbers. Then he left, to roam Burma and Cambodia, in search of further instruction.
"See these books,'' he says, gesturing at the musty tomes stacked on the floor. are full of Khmer magic. These belonged to my ajarn (teacher). Some are hundreds of years old.'' He returned to Saraburi and, keeping mum about his occult powers, was duly ordained a monk. But it wasn't long until the robed renegade realised the commercial potential of his skills and began promoting himself as an expert in sayasut, or black magic.
Belief in baby-grilling is particularly strong in the provinces around Ayutthya. It has its origins in 19th century poet Sunthon Phu's quasi-historical epic Khun Chang, Khun Phaen. Khun Phaen, the central character, was a high-ranking soldier during the reign of King Ramathibodi II (AD1491-1529), long before the ancient capital was sacked by Burmese maurauders.
After an argument with his father-in-law, Khun Phaen stabs his pregant wife to death then cuts his unborn son from her stomach and takes the foetus to the temple. He builds a fire, places a grate over it, then wraps the infant in pieces of sacred cloth covered with prayers and grills the body until nothing is left but skin and bone. This ghost child, with whom Khun Phaen can communicate, becomes a talisman and a secret weapon, protecting and advising him.
Nain Ae breaks into an upbeat folk song about his exploits, which he explains was composed by a zealous fan. He points to several big lao khao (rice wine) jars, full of evil slime, sitting in front of the skulls. "That's the glass I pickle foetuses in,'' he grins. He reaches over them, into a hidden space under the shrine and extracts a smaller jar containing a liquid roughly the colour and consistency of cooking grease.
Reverently, he unscrews the top and sucks out some gloop with a day-glo orange syringe. "This is  the oil from Khumon Tong,'' he says. "One drop of this rubbed onto someone you want to love you, they will be yours within an hour. Man or woman, it doesn't matter. It cannot fail. If I rubbed some on your wife, she would be mine and never leave this house.'' He sells a small vial for anything up to 100,000 baht.
Nain Ae says obtaining the stillborn infants was easy.  He developed mutually profitable agreements with local hospitals. Some parents would even bring their stillborn offspring to him. The choicest babies came from the womb on Sundays, and the best day for grilling was Tuesday. To conjure up the baby spirit, the grilling had to be done in the temple's ordination hall. The child is then wrapped in sacred cloth inscribed with prayers and roasted for four hours over hot coals until mummified.
So has he ever grilled a live baby? "Are you stupid? I'm not someone you want to joke with with. Don't you believe in my powers yet?'' He fixes our female translator with unblinking eyes and seems to go back into his trance. A dribble of tobacco juice rolls down his chin. "You had a miscarriage when you were young and you've had two husbands,'' he intones. Her face goes white. "How did you know that?'' she stammers.
Nain Ae says he won’t give up sayasut, but won’t be so foolish as to demonstrate his black arts on national television again. He disappears into his bedroom again, then reemerges, dressed as Michael Jackson. He busts a few moves, attempts the Moonwalk, and grins like a hyena. "I'm not a bad man, you know. My magic is good magic.’’


Thursday, 24 May 2012

E is for Entranced

This is my original South China Morning Post magazine piece from 1996 on Hong Kong's exploding rave culture and what police were touting as an 'ecstasy epidemic'. I was standing on the outside looking in when I wrote it. I've resisted the temptation to edit some of my youthful exuberance or correct a few inaccuracies (Graeme Park playing Trance? I think not. 110 beats per minute? Puh-lease.) If memory serves (and it frequently doesn't) I had actually dropped my first E a week or so before I wrote the story (by myself, for some inexplicable reason in Joe Bananas, which was never one of my haunts pre- or post-rave scene). I liked it. I just wasn't brave enough to make such an admission in the story. Neptunes, the much-loved, short-lived centre of Hong Kong's 'Summer of Love', such as it was, makes a fleeting appearance. Next week, I will travel back to Hong Kong to look at this moment in time through the prism of the 15th Anniversary of the Hong Kong handover, and a resurgence of interest in Neptunes via a Facebook group (and 'secret' group) that exploded in recent months. Love or hate Facebook, it reconnects people, and it has been entertaining and quite moving seeing the people who were there get back in touch and begin sharing the tunes, stories and memories of a very heady time. I'll update this with the magazine cover and some images when I dig them out of a box. 

Ah am f***in' well fed up because there's nothing happening and ah've probably done a paracetamol but, f*** it, you need to have positive vibes and wee Amber, she's rubbing away at the back ay ma neck and saying it'll happen when this operatic slab of synth seems to be 3-D and ah realise that I'm coming up in a big way as that invisible hand grabs a hud ay me and sticks me onto the roof because the music is in me around me and everywhere, it's just leaking from my body, this is the game this is the game

and ah look around and we're all going phoah and our eyes are just big black pools of love and energy and my guts are doing a big turn as the quease zooms through my body and we're up to the floor one by one and ah think I'm going tae need tae shit but ah hold on and it passes and I'm riding this rocket to Russia . . .

Thus enthuses Irvine Welsh, the high priest of heroin chic, who has recently turned his attention to the drug du jour in his imaginatively-titled tome, Ecstasy. It is probably as good an attempt as any to document the weird, seductive fusion of music and emotion and chemicals embraced by millions of people every weekend.

Perhaps each of the recent decades has had one drug above all others which has coursed through the nebulous veins of the zeitgeist, in which the hopes and fears and foibles of a new generation are reified. In the 1950s, it was the dope-shrouded dharma bums of the Beat Generation; in the 1960s, trippy hippies were taking electric kool-aid acid tests; the needlepoint netherworld of heroin clouded the 1970s; and in the 1980s, greed-charged yuppies did their best to hollow out their septums, tethered to the twin comets of the stock market and cocaine. As for the 1990s, a brief false dawn heralded a time of jaded, grungey slackers who had tried everything and aspired to nothing. As the decade wears on, however, the so-called Gen-Xers seem to have been well and truly subsumed by a rave new world.

Amid an avalanche of conspiracy theories, tabloid beat-ups and ugly ignorance, the symbiotic circus of house music and ecstasy is slowly but inexorably penetrating the mainstream of youth culture. Far from being an evanescent late-eighties experiment, the dance-drug scene continues to gather steam as the end of the millennium looms.

The literary world is also just waking up to the ecstasy experience. In Welsh's wake comes a host of E-xploitation books, including AD Atkins' Sorted and On One and Julian Madigan's The Agony of Ecstasy, which seek to explain the highs and lows of pharmaceutical life at the business end of the 20th Century. Rave culture has even percolated into the lair of the lad - the latest character introduced to readers of Viz magazine is Ravey Davey Gravy, who is prone to break into dance steps at the merest hint of a thudding, repetitive noise (in one adventure, he mistakes a jackhammer for a "jungle and ragga trip") and is given to orotund pronouncements such as: "I like larging it to techno and house!"

While debate rumbles on about the risks and effects of the drug and government departments stumble around in a haze of denial, buck-passing and apathy, the Hong Kong judiciary, at least, has made up its mind where it stands on ecstasy.

Magistrate Henry Brazier jailed finance brokers Sean Dullage, 27, and Dominic Way, 28, for 16 and 15 months respectively for selling one tablet of the drug at a rave at Jimmy's Sports Bar in December, shocking even police who made the bust with the severity of the sentence. The pair had been approached by an undercover officer asking where he could get some "stuff". Way's girlfriend had not shown up, so he offered the officer her tablet for $300 - towards the greedier end of street value.

In the High Court last week, Mr Justice Arthur Leong cut their sentences by four months, before launching into a tirade against the perils of ecstasy, branding it a killer and a threat to Hong Kong youth. He decided Brazier had erred in that the basic starting point for an ecstasy trafficking sentence should be 18 months, not two years. This, according to Way's lawyer, Alexander King, puts ecstasy a bit lower than heroin, for which trafficking sentences begin at two years, but above opium. "This ruling
means one tablet can get you 18 months inside. You don't even have to sell it - even passing one on is considered trafficking," says King.

Take a random sample at any Saturday night dance party in London or Sydney or Hong Kong and you will find stockbrokers and doctors and construction site labourers united by their blissed-out grins and saucer eyes, chests thudding to the commanding rhythms of methylene-dioxy-methylamphetamine (MDMA) and 110 synthesised beats per minute. In fact, take a recent Saturday night at Jimmy's Sports Bar at the Hong Kong Stadium, where DJs Graeme Park and Tom Wainwright from The Hacienda - something of a Manchester institution - have arrived to dispense their diet of Trance, Handbag and Happy House ...

It is ten minutes to midnight and the bouncer's booming voice slices the steamy summer night. "There's going to be cops on the floor tonight. They've said if more than two people are busted, they'll close it down." He is built like a masonry outhouse, has a bristling goatee and mohawk and looks meaner than a chapter of Hell's Angels. He draws a stertorous breath and continues ominously: "So if you've got anything to take, take it NOW!" The small queue of early arrivals giggles nervously. Bottles of Evian
and Volvic are uncapped and hands slide surreptitiously up to mouths. Surprisingly, those keenest to get an early start are not red-faced, bristle-headed expats but young clusters of Chinese slathered in chic and slinky designer clubbing gear, with the odd daub of Fetish Fashion.

Inside, more bulging neanderthals turf out the last of the football crowd, as local DJ Joel Lai conjures some preliminary thumps and squeaks and growls from the fearsome array of technology spread out before him. In the toilets, a raw-boned youth chuckles resignedly to his mate that it won't be long till he's forking out $300 for a dog-worming tablet. At 12.10 precisely, Lai stops tinkering and gets down to business. The beat kicks in - and will not cease until well after 6 am. With an evil whisper, smoke
machines shroud the floor in fog and the lights transform the place into a swirling neon maelstrom.

By 12.25, the first Es appear to have made their way from the stomach wall to the brain. The bar is lit up by a sudden recrudescence of inane grins and a couple of blokes make the first tentative forays onto the dance floor. As I'm standing there, trying hard to look the part in the latest Nike trainers, jeans and gently psychedelic t-shirt, I overhear a young Australian accent whingeing to his mate: "I can't believe it. I necked it an hour ago and I still can't feel a bloody thing. Bastard must have sold me a f***ing aspirin or something." I stifle a giggle at how life is mirroring Welsh's art. But he moves off, lost in the rapidly swelling crowd, and I never do find out whether that invisible hand ever grabbed a hud of him and put him on a bowel-churning rocket to Russia.

It's now 1.30, and the place is heaving. From the flashing teeth and random hugs, it does not seem unreasonable to assume 70 to 80 per cent of the crowd are sorted and on one. Nearby, three long-legged beauties have suddenly become one amorphous, amorous tangle of limbs. The floor seems to be bouncing up and down in unison, peopled by everything from gaggles of topless Chinese boys with torsos by Michelangelo to one chronic case of Saturday Night Fever, complete with acres of lapels, a gold medallion and what appears to be a thatch of snap-on chest hair. Drugs are changing hands in shadowy handshakes, but the promised police presence seems decidedly low-key; the threatened busts have thus far not materialised.

Jack is the committed raver's worst nightmare. Until a recent transfer, he was a senior officer in the police Narcotics Branch and the agent who had the dubious honour of arresting Dullage and Way. "We had one agent who had been undercover in that whole scene for six months or so, who was familiar with the rave scene in the UK, got to know who was involved here. But we didn't want to blow his cover, so myself and other officers would attend these events and the agent would point out potential dealers.

That way, he wouldn't have to appear in court if anyone was arrested," says Jack. "When Dullage and Way were asking us what they were likely to be facing, we told them most probably it would be a suspended sentence. We had no idea they would get such a harsh sentence."

He is unexpectedly candid about the difficulties of policing the ecstasy trade. "We definitely do not have a handle on how it's coming in, whether it's just a lot of individuals bringing in small amounts or a big, organised syndicate.

"One recent development seems to be that the Chinese heroin traffickers are now showing some interest in ecstasy. It's quite profitable: they can buy it in Europe for $50 a tablet and sell it here for $300. So especially with a growing number of locals now getting into the scene, they are looking to cash in."

He says the easiest way to get the drug into Hong Kong is literally by E-mail. "Sending tablets through in the post or by a courier service is pretty safe - the chances of it being seized are small." Most ecstasy sold in Hong Kong is manufactured in Europe - usually Frankfurt or Amsterdam.

If Way and Dullage are one type of ecstasy casualty, another is Jane O'Riordan, who was found dead last year, with ecstasy in her bloodstream, in the bed of her friend, RTHK radio presenter Harvey Crump. Her name is often trotted out as Hong Kong's answer to Leah Betts, the ecstasy victim who became a household name in Britain after the "Sorted" campaign, featuring a stark mugshot and the rubric "just one ecstasy tablet took Leah Betts". Indie band Chumbawumba countered with their own campaign, pasting up parodies of the poster proclaiming: "Distorted. Statistically, you're just as likely to die from swallowing a bayleaf than from taking an ecstasy tablet."

The dangers of MDMA can be enhanced by the various nasties it is cut with, including LSD, dog-worming tablets, decongestants and horse tranquiliser. It was first synthesised in 1912 by a German pharmaceutical company for use as a diet pill. It resurfaced in the US during the 1970s, and was used by psychotherapists as an anti-depressant until its growing popularity as a recreational drug saw the Food and Drug Administration ban it. It induces feelings of affection and closeness, even among strangers, by making the brain pump out neuro-transmitters known as serotonin and dopamine, which stimulate happy and loving feelings and suppress pain.

One government agency which appears to be expert at the suppression of painful realities is the office of the Commissioner for Narcotics. In reply to a request for information on ecstasy use and its effects came a one-page hand-written fax proclaiming the enlightened news that the reported individuals abusing MDMA in 1994 and 1995 numbered a big fat zero. It's obviously some time since the Commissioner and his cronies popped down to Jimmy's of a Saturday night.

The lack of apparent official concern may partly be due to the fact that ecstasy use is part of a youth culture based predominantly on interior feelings and self-absorption, whose adherents get together once or twice a week to get happy and hug each other a lot. It hardly seems a jagged threat to the very fabric of society, in the way the angry posturing of punk might once have appeared ("E? I'm on ego," a renascent Johnny Rotten sneered recently). Its substitution of sensuality for sexuality must also prove an attractive option for those who have grown up in the shadow of AIDS - many users say they are perfectly happy to end their night in love with the world, but alone in their beds; a kind of instant safe sex pill.

There seems little relationship between dosage and fatalities. People have died after taking one tablet (the ecstasy-related death toll in the UK is now nudging 70), while in one case, someone who took 42 tablets over 24 hours got away with a fast pulse, high blood pressure and a nasty hangover. The level of MDMA in his blood was 70 times higher than in people who have died from the drug. One theory on ecstasy deaths is that a small percentage of the population may be deficient in the enzyme that breaks
it down.

Some people die from overheating, as the surge in serotonin raises body temperature, which can be exacerbated by long and frantic bouts of dancing. This can be avoided by listening to your body and drinking plenty - but not an excessive amount - of water. In rare cases, including that of Leah Betts, death was due to water intoxication. Under the influence of the drug, some people drink so much water that the brain can swell up and be crushed by the skull. Recent research on squirrel monkeys suggests use of the drug can cause long-term brain damage. Nerve cells damaged by the spurts of serotonin tended to grow back abnormally, effectively re-wiring the brain.

Peter, 22, an advertising copywriter, and Donald, 25, a musician, are two friends who are immersed in the club scene and intent on rewiring their brains. Peter reels off the "brands" of E currently on the market in Hong Kong, selling from anywhere between $200 and $300 a tablet. "At the moment you can get Barney Rubbles, Thunderbolts, Swans, Apple Macs, Hammer and Sickles, and Snowballs," he says. They are so-called because of the designs imprinted on the tablets. The effects of different types may vary, depending on how they have been cut, but generally pills of the same batch will produce fairly consistent effects.

Peter: The pushers always, always keep pills aside for the big club nights, which kind of reflects the whole idea of the ecstasy culture, to have a focus. They want you to have a good time on the night. In England, the people involved with the clubs are often also involved in the selling of E. And here, there are, like, affiliations, definitely.

Donald: Obviously, there's an element of being wary of strangers when you're trying to score at a club, particularly when you know there are going to be undercover cops. Most of the cops are pretty f***ing obvious. You can just tell, they don't speak the same language, they're not clued in.

Peter: Ask the DJ! (laughs) Usually you are there with a bunch of your friends and someone always knows someone who knows a dealer. That's one of the best things, it's this grass roots kind of thing, you are all there taking care of each other. If you're on a pill and everyone else isn't, you're not going to have a good time. The best nights without a doubt are when everyone is flying high, not just you and your friends, but everyone in the room. You're smiling at people you don't know, it's a really
transcendent experience.

Donald: I must say, the last couple I've done didn't do that much. I wouldn't say it was disappointing, but I haven't felt it as strongly as I've done in the past. I think it's a combination of a build-up of tolerance and the novelty factor goes.

Peter: What surprises me, though, is when you talk to [rave] organisers and they spout this anti-drugs attitude. It's just complete hypocrisy and contradiction. I mean, the music is designed for people on E. Even the way it's played, there's breaks, and there's like bursts of euphoria, and the best DJs are the ones who understand a crowd that's on E and they give you spaces and journeys - I mean, that's what they call it, a journey.

Donald: The worry, though, is you just don't know exactly what you are doing to your brain. People say that in Britain, it's the perfect drug for the masses from a politician's point of view - it's relatively affordable, you accept everything, you are amiable. You start to wonder if it's more radical not to take drugs. After a while you start to think, does it actually take something out, do you have a store of happiness in your body and can you exhaust that? We've had weeks where we went mad on the weekend, and until Wednesday, you're just depressed and really moody and you think, right, I've got to chill out now and not do it for a while. Then the weekend rolls around, and you're back on it. When it gets to that point, that's when you have to tell yourself, well, I'm just being young and stupid.

It's 3 am now and Jimmy's is full of people just being, well, young and stupid. The sweat is flowing as freely as the $30 bottles of Evian, coursing down gyrating flesh in varying states of undress. It is hard to say whether it is hotter inside or out, and little eddies of bodies buffet each other in the quest to find out. I am drenched in sweat and have finally surrendered to the relentless, hypnotic beat. The DJ is dropping rapid-fire depth charges which shudder through my gut and my hips begin to sway of their own accord. Some punters are already on the way down and lie sprawled around the fringes of the venue. But the floor remains packed, partly due to a constant stream of new arrivals and partly due to chemical replenishment. Danny, a mid-20ish Chinese lad, is feeling rather more relaxed now, having dispensed of the dozen or so pills he risked bringing in to sell on discreetly to friends for $300 a pop. With a wad of cash bulging in his wallet, he glances round then necks the last one himself.

Another two hours and the sun's first rays are struggling through the smog outside. Judging by some of the weird contortions taking place on the dance floor, the squirrel monkey theory doesn't seem too far off beam. There is some serious synchronised hugging happening, spreading out through the crowd like Mexican waves. By 5.30, a mantra strikes up, gathering volume: "See you at Neptune?".

Local DJ Lee Burridge has already fled Jimmy's for the subterranean Wan Chai haunt half-an-hour earlier, where the last of the pot-bellied, greying gweilos and amorous amahs have made way for the hard-core ravers. Burridge will continue to spin his steel wheels until the sun is nudging the yardarm. I arrive shortly after six, and the place is already filling up. Unlike many in the rave "industry", who publicly espouse "Just Say No" platitudes knowing full well a goodly slab of the punters are eccied to
the eyeballs, Burridge is refreshingly sanguine. "There's no two ways about it, E goes hand-in-hand with the dance scene. I'm playing in clubs most nights, and you see a lot of people who arrive in town, cane it for three months, then have to get off it for a while, before their wallets or bodies give out."

By 8 am, it's all starting to seem horribly surreal. One body - that attached to my drum-and-bass-befuddled brain - is definitely about to give out. Some are still bopping vigorously on the dance floor, looking as fresh as when they arrived at Jimmy's eight hours earlier; some line the walls, looking like extras from Night of the Living Dead. And some are just wandering the streets, as that hollow feeling grows and grows, afraid they can never go home because they seem to have left an important part of
their brain in a club in Wan Chai.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

More bankers, some financial jargon and robots

This piece is just out in the latest edition of Finance Asia, which is such a cool magazine that if you want to buy a copy, it will cost you a hundred bucks. Plus it goes into Cathay Pacific first class lounges and seat pockets, so it's bound to be smeared with a better class of dim sum. Full disclosure - UOB was a client back when I worked at Inhouse Brand Works and this campaign was probably my last big job in advertising. But I was not working for the bank in any capacity when I wrote this. But Dear UOB Bigwigs - feel free to get in touch if you need some PR. 

You can tell a lot about a bank by its choice of headquarters. Architecture has become the ultimate bank statement.
Look no further than HSBC’s Hong Kong headquarters, the world’s most expensive building when Sir Norman Foster’s exoskeletal structure was unveiled, levitating above Central like some alien mothership. Or IM Pei’s Bank of China building, an architectural marvel inspired by bamboo, created to symbolise the inexorable rise of the bank and of China, its cutting angles reputedly aiming blasts of bad feng shui at the colonial oppressor.

In London, the august board of Barclays opted to think inside the box, taking up residence in the reassuringly boring glass cube of One Churchill Place, while in Frankfurt. Deutsche Bank pushed the boat out by turning its old headquarters into one of the world’s greenest and most sustainable structures in the hope some warm fuzziness might rub off on a hostile public.
United Overseas Bank (Thai) PCL occupies one of Bangkok’s most architecturally exuberant and whimsical buildings – Sumet Jumsai’s award-winning ‘Robot Building’ in Sathorn Road. The structure was selected by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles as one of the 50 seminal buildings of the century and earned its creator the first ever award bestowed on a Thai designer by Chicago's Athenaeum Museum of Architecture and Design.
It’s an unlikely home for a bank that has built its brand upon prudence, caution, a low profile and a slow-and-steady approach; more C-3PO, say, than the Terminator or HAL.
But UOB might at last be growing into its look-at-me head office, throwing a coming out party pegged to the looming changes to Thailand’s Deposit Protection Agency (DPA) and revealing plans to raise its profile and make a grab for more market share
The DPA came into force in 2008 to replace the Bank of Thailand’s
Financial Institutions Development Fund, which gave a blanket guarantee on all deposits in all financial institutions to restore confidence in a banking system shattered by the 1997 financial crisis.
On August 11 last year, the sum  guaranteed under the DPA dropped from the entire total of deposits to a maximum of THB 50 million. But it’s August 11, 2012 that is causing ripples through Thailand’s financial community: on that date, the maximum any depositor can expect to reclaim if a bank goes under plummets to just THB 1 million.
Which is why I am seated in a plush top-floor executive lounge somewhere in the robot’s brain with Han Chong Tay, executive vice-president of UOB (Thai), former Major in the Singapore Armed Services, and one of the driving forces and fresh faces behind the bank’s decision to take a ‘more proactive role’ in Thailand’s banking sector.
What this means is a short sharp marketing push to position UOB (Thai) as a safe bet in uncertain times, with a view to catching the attention of nervous depositors with sizeable sums sitting in local bank accounts. As leverage, the bank is trumpeting its National Long-term Rating at 'AAA(tha)'; Stable Outlook, from ratings agency Fitch, which was affirmed by the agency on November 25, 2011, and again last week (April 30, 2012), no doubt to audible sighs of relief from the bank’s boardroom. It shares this honour with just one other bank in Thailand, a competitor it visibly pains Mr Tay to name: Standard Chartered.
 The AAA rating factors in the backing of the Singapore-based UOB Group  (rated 'AA-'/Stable), which Fitch believes would stand behind its Thai subsidiary in a crisis, and the agency's view that Thailand's restriction on the foreign ownership limit at 49% is unlikely to prevent a capitalisation by UOB Group if required.
In its ratings announcement last week, Fitch downgraded the bank’s Viability Rating (VR) to ‘bb+’ from ‘bbb-‘, to reflect UOB (Thai)’s ‘persistently lower profitability and asset quality, relative to similarly rated peers’.
“The VR also reflects its continuing weak funding profile due to a modest franchise network… Fitch views that it would take at least one to two years for UOB (Thai) to improve both profitability and asset quality and longer to improve its deposit franchise, especially in light of intense competition for deposits in Thailand.’’
 Fitch also notes UOB (Thai)’s strong capital position, with a Tier 1 ratio of 15.54% at end-December 2011, although this was down from 17.78% at end-2010 due to a more aggressive growth strategy. The bank’s long-term target of a Tier 1 ratio of 14%-15%, Fitch notes, is higher than most domestic and international peers, but appropriate for the bank's operating environment and risk profile. Asset quality had ‘steadily improved’ with non-performing loans declining to THB 7.5bn, or 3.96% of total loans at end-December 2011. This was weaker, however, than numbers posted by Thailand’s major domestic banks and UOB's other banking subsidiaries in Asia.
Mr Tay says Thai depositors should consider the heft and reach of the UOB Group, operating since 1935 in Singapore, with subsidiaries in Malaysia, Indonesia and China, over 500 branches in 19 countries and territories, and assets totalling almost S$237 billion, when thinking about the safety of their savings.

 “That’s about the same as the combined assets of the three biggest Thai banks,’’ Mr Tay points out. “So while our market share in Thailand is only around three percent, there’s no doubt that regionally, we are a powerful force.
“UOB’s group CEO (Mr Wee Ee Cheong) has been very clear that liquidity and deposits are the building blocks of our business. We manage our own liquidity, raising deposits and lending to our customers as opposed to relying on interbank liquidity funding.’’
Beginning last year, UOB (Thai) launched its first major television, print and digital ad campaign to proclaim its Fitch AAA rating while challenging consumers to consider impact of changes to the DPA. It made the group’s first serious foray into social media, started a back of house ‘living the brand’ initiative for all its staff and appointed financial journalist and television personality Bancha Chumchaivate as the brand’s “Credit Rating Campaign Ambassador’’.
For a bank which had hovered in the background since its November 2005 incorporation following the merger of Bank of Asia and UOB Radanasin Bank, this was heady stuff.
      “The campaign is about being proactive, transparent. We aim to be the bank that tells it like it is,’’ Mr Tay said. “That’s why we adopted the ‘Ask Me’ initiative, to give all our team members at the coalface the knowledge and tools to answer  people’s questions about the DPA and how it affects them.’’
Whether any of this boosts the bank’s bottom line remains to be seen. For now, UOB (Thai) claims a network of 157 branches, 373 ATMS and 31 foreign exchange kiosks nationwide as of March 31, 2012.
 In 2011, the bank turned a net  profit of THB 1,474 million, almost THB 400 million less than in 2010, although much of that loss can be blamed on the impact from Bangkok’s worst floods for 60 years. Total assets are listed at a whisker under THB 300 billion, up almost THB 50 billion from the preceding year, with loans at around THB 190 billion, up from THB 163 billion in 2010, and deposits of THB 166 billion.
By comparison, Thailand’s biggest homegrown bank, Bangkok Bank, has over 1000 branches, and saw profits jump by more than 11 percent last year to THB 27.3 billion.
Mr Tay said the UOB (Thai) had to pick its battles and play to its strengths as a  foreign-owned David in a market of Thai Goliaths. “UOB is very strong in consumer and SME banking, and these two sectors will continue to be our engine of growth, supplemented by large corporates.
 “We have launched our privileged banking service, to serve individuals with assets of upwards of three million baht. We try to make it a very personalised experience, with special briefings by our leading economists and analysts, combined with events like our ‘Three for Tea’’ tea tasting afternoons in Chinatown.
 “We have also been pursuing a strategy of ‘clusters’ in terms of our branches, focusing on areas with a concentration of individual wealth and business activity, such as Chinatown, the CBD around Sathorn, the Sukumvit area, and areas of new growth like Rayong and Chonburi on the Eastern Seaboard.’’
As part of its plan to use the DPA changes as impetus for growth, Mr Tay said that besides high net worth individuals, the bank had also targeted Thailand’s new ‘mass affluent’ by lowering minimum investments in bills of exchange and fixed term deposits to THB 500,000, from one to three million baht.
Mr Tay said ‘aggressive’ plans were in place to grow the Thailand operation’s contribution to the group’s total earnings from the present level of under five percent. The goal, he said, was to grow the ‘mass affluent’ and high net worth individual business in Thailand to account for 50 percent of the group’s earnings in those sectors, up from the current level of around 35 percent.
Thailand is abuzz with various theories and rumours on the extent of the effect the DPA changes could have on deposit levels. A Thammasat University academic recently circulated a paper claiming deposits in Thai banks could be halved as consumers seek safer havens for their money. Former Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij warned last year that the DPA’s fund base of around THB 52 billion was far too small considering the nation’s total deposits of THB 7 trillion.
The DPA fund base will rise following a hike in the levy on banks from 0.4 percent of their deposit base to 0.47 percent. Persistent lobbying from the Thai Bankers Association has also seen the government act to bring state-owned banks including the Government Savings Bank (which had seen deposits soar by almost 30 percent to THB 1.53 trillion as investors sought refuge from the DPAchanges) and Government Housing Bank under the DPA’s control and subject to the levy.
Singha Nikornpun, president of DPA, said it would take four to five years for the agency to accumulate the THB 200 billion required to cover 98.5 percent of total deposit accounts (which also illustrates the amount of wealth held by Thailand’s ‘one percenters’).
Mr Singha does not expect fund flows from commercial banks to state-run banks after August 10. He also pointed to the January 1 expiry of Hong Kong’s
Deposit Protection Board and the new protection limit of HK$500,000, which had been accepted by the public with minimum fuss.
Mr Tay said UOB (Thai) did not expect any ‘big shift of money’ between institutions or any real panic in the market. “It’s an education process. The Thai economy is performing well and confidence in banks is high.’’
His bank’s contribution to this ‘education process’ – its AAA/DPA campaign – brought the scrutiny of the Bank of Thailand, which takes a dim view of anything that could destabilise or undermine confidence in the nation’s banking sector. The campaign was deemed to fall within acceptable limits, but the central banker’s gaze will remain fixed upon the Robot Building as UOB (Thai) makes its case as a safe haven for deposits.
At the time of his beloved building’s launch in 1986, Mr Jumsai, the doyen and philosopher king of Thai architecture, wrote that it “need not be a robot’’ and that a “host of other metamorphoses’’ would suffice, as long as its daring design drove debate and created change.
He might yet get his wish. Change is in the air. The robot is coming to life.

Banker, cinephile, philanthropist, oil salesman: Meet the Talented Mr Mullis


Schoolchildren giggle, fidget and stare as an Englishman in a tailored pink shirt sits cross-legged and sweat-drenched on the rough wooden floor of their schoolroom. He is reading a message in halting but creditable Thai. Behind him, a priest slouches, hands clasped, garb askew, beaming at the kids from above a dog-eared dog collar.

Water laps at the floorboards from below; the run-off from Thailand’s worst floods in 60 years. We are deep in the backstreets of Bangkok’s Suttisan district, at one of the schools run in the city’s slums and poorer quarters by the unorthodox cleric Father Joe Meier and his Human Development Foundation.
The perspiring Englishman is his friend and benefactor Robert Mullis, the charmingly eccentric chief of Mullis Partners, an entity that lives up to its billing as ‘a unique investment bank’. This morning, he’s giving a million baht – not to mention 10 tonnes of rice dumped in a pile on his front lawn and bagged by his friends and family – to help the foundation’s flooded schools.
Later, he’ll likely be found in his Bangkok firm’s 37th floor Exchange Tower eyrie, analyzing some arcane aspect of petrochemicals or shipping, plotting slicker ways to stitch loans together or swotting up on the deal du jour.
Then again, he might decide to dash up to the far northern province of Chiang Rai to discuss patchouli oil with the head of his organic farm, pop over to Nepal for a chukka or two of elephant polo, check in with his “discovery’’, Thai pop star Tata Young, or spend the afternoon skimming through screenplays, a movie mogul manqué.
Mullis might just be the Renaissance Man of Thailand finance; a right-brain thinker and arch connector who has carved a niche as concocter of creative deals for cash strapped clients in messy industries while hobnobbing with Hollywood royalty and finding time to indulge a diverse array of interests and passions.
As an interview subject he is hard to keep up with and occasionally difficult to quote; sentences are left dangling from a string of ellipses, his mind on board the next train of thought. He is cheerily candid about the near collapse of his company six years ago. “There was a loss of success at some point’’ is how he puts it.
 Mullis launched out on his own in 1998, sensing opportunity in Thailand’s crisis. This followed stints with three investment banks - NatWest Markets, Paribas Capital Markets and Credit Lyonnais Securities (Asia) – where he managed deals totaling over US$3 billion. Since establishing what was then Mullis Capital, he has arranged loans, merged, acquired and otherwise dispensed advice on everything from telecom, shipping and petrochemical plays to major movies and record labels.
The flood aid project for Father Joe was cobbled together in the space of a couple of weeks, through sheer force of personality and personal connections, complete with a letter from Amanda Thirsk, Deputy Private Secretary to the Duke of York, conveying the best wishes and gratitude of the inhabitants of Buckingham Palace to Robert Mullis, Esquire, for doing Britain proud during Thailand’s wettest hour.
But that’s just how Mullis rolls. When a friend needs help, a subject catches his passion, or he gets the scent of a deal, he is like a dog with a bone. According to one Hong Kong private equity specialist, Mullis is well known and respected for his deal-making skills and bottomless reserves of tenacity. “He has a unique perspective,’’ says the source. “His global experience and Thai knowledge allow him to provide more customised solutions compared with local firms that are mostly limited to their existing markets, and international institutions that are focused on covering either sovereign transactions or servicing very large firms while neglecting the middle market.
“In Thailand, domestic firms focus on volume aimed at local investors, while the likes of Goldman Sachs need to focus on very large deals to cover their costs. Thus, there is a bit of a gap in the market and the information packages that Robert prepares are very thourough, comprehensive and value-added, as opposed to a generic information memo.’’
One of Mullis’ fellow Thailand expatriate investment bankers says: “I haven’t seen or heard much of him these days. I think he had a few lucky breaks early on and then went on to do a few more deals. I think his weakness is that he doesn't have a true Thai partner.’’
Mullis would beg to differ, and says his true Thai partner is his wife, Wassana, who was “a tower of strength’’ through the investment bank’s difficulties. A close friend and Managing Director of InFocusAsia, regional producer of documentary films, Frank Smith, says Mullis is generous to a fault, fiercely loyal and “has a knowledge and interest level that never ceases to amaze me’’ on a broad range of subjects. “He understands the finer points of so many things. On several occasions where he had absolutely no financial interest at all, he shared his knowledge to help me with deals I was involved in. It’s true that he doesn’t give up.
“He looks at deals the same way he looks at life. A deal is fun, an opportunity to learn and solve problems and see what can be done. He is intensely interested in the process of everything. He has a spark, a twinkle in his eye. For some people who are not as full of enthusiasm, energy and ideas, he can be an overwhelming character, a bit of a force of nature.’’
His coups include securing project financing of US$360 million for Indorama Petrochem Limited, a subsidiary of Thailand’s Indorama Group, the world’s 11th largest producer of polyester, operating in Indonesia, India, Thailand, Ireland, USA, Turkey, Sri Lanka and Lithuania. The group manufactures a wide array of products including PET Resin, Polyester Yarn, Preform bottles, and plastic bottle caps. The deal, concluded in 2006, took three years to put together and allowed the company to become one of Thailand’s largest manufacturers of Purified Terephthalic Acid (PTA), critical to the polyster manufacturing process.
Mullis was appointed to advise on the THB 4.8 billion expansion of Vinythai PLC, South East Asia’s third largest PVC producer, partly owned by Thailand’s giant Charoen Pokphand Group, arranging the sale of 20 percent of the company to Thai Olefins PLC, ensuring a supply of ethylene needed for expansion while also negotiating a debt facility of Baht 2 billion (US$52m) with Bangkok Bank; did M&A advisory on the US$30m sale of Chinese resin company Shunde Syntech Resin, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Huarun Paints Holdings, the Hong Kong-based holding company of one of China’s leading paint businesses to Dutch Group DSM; and negotioated a US$16 million loan for Hong Kong shipping firm Sunwise Navigation in late 2004.
Around the same time he was pondering polyester, he was appointed by lycra-loving pop singer Tata Young as promoter for her first English album, “I Believe,” released by (Sony Music) Columbia Records, following an earlier undisclosed investment to launch of her career. But this was just the overture to his real passion play: in 2006, his bank invested over AUS$1 million and he raised almost AUS$9 million more to make Little Fish, an award-winning film starring Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving and Sam Neill, with a production team led by Barrie Osborne, producer of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Flying high and swept up in the glamour, Mullis now admits he took his eye off the main game while expanding too aggressively. As he partied with A-listers, the team he’d left minding the store was struggling.
 “We definitely came close to losing our shirts,’’ he says. “It’s a great film but I learned a lot about what not to do.’’ A legal wrangle over an AUS$20 million film grant diverted further time and resources as the world economy lurched towards crisis and his bank teetered on the brink of insolvency.
“I had quadrupled our budget, hired some expensive people, but it didn’t work out.’’ A painful round of downsizing was forced by the realization that his bank’s balance was fast approaching zero. Mullis Capital became Mullis Partners, but in reality it is The Mullis Show, for he is his bank.
Refocused and running the show alone, he pulled off his biggest deal, a refinancing and new loan facility for Thailand public company Precious Shipping to the tune of a just under US$600 million, which saw the company’s shares soar by more than 1000 percent in the space of three years. His commission and fees were substantial. “We paid every bill, cleared every debt, and got to start with a clean slate.’’
Mullis doesn’t believe in the art of the deal, so much as the craft and graft. “The key? You just can’t give up. We don’t get the simple deals, the huge bond issues you do if you’re Goldman Sachs. Our deals tend to be more complicated.
In fact, our clients have usually been to Goldman Sachs and everyone else and we’re the last port of call.
 “Why do clients keep coming back? Why is 70 percent of our business repeat customers? What I’ve tried to do is be a bit more creative when it comes to structuring deals. Here’s an example. In the shipping industry, most financing was done over five or six years, which is utterly absurd when shipping tends to run in three to four year cycles. So you’d borrow and pay the bank off just as your ships’ value starts to fall. So we started doing 10 and 12 year refinances for shipping companies, and suddenly these deals started throwing off cash flow.’’
Another expatriate Bangkok investment banker suggests managing egos and bridging expectation gaps are key to putting deals together - areas where Mullis excels. “The art of the deal is also about demonstrating value creation, being able to play a network in forging value for the client, which could mean the ability to swing a new banker, find new money, or create new business alliances.
 “Time to market is also important.  Thailand deal making is suffering from very long lead times simply because everyone lets their ego run above everything else. It’s not just about getting the best price. It’s about getting the deal done. From what I’ve heard, Mullis is good on restructuring, bringing life back into a difficult situation. A bit of a fixer.’’
Mullis’ most recent “fix’’ was the tricky business of advising Globex Corporation on the acquisition of a 51.98 percent stake in Thailand’s oldest construction firm, Christiani and Nielsen (Thai) Public Company Limited, from the Crown Property Bureau Equity Company Limited, for just over THB 1 billion, with a loan facility of just over THB 2 billion also negotiated with Bangkok Bank. The deal was concluded in November last year. “Now that was a deal that had its moments,’’ says Mullis.
He won’t be drawn on pending deals, but says the areas that excite him most are agriculture and entertainment. He foresees a strong future in organic farming and he is looking into setting up an investment fund. In the meantime he is practicing what he preaches with his own set-up in Chaeng Saen on the Mekong river in Thailand’s northernmost province, Chiang Rai; his wife’s hometown and where he has bought over 200 rai of land to grow teak, organically-farmed patchouli oil and rare orchids.
In between time spent on the farm “driving my tractor and watching my trees grow’’, he has also been devouring every book he can find, including some he has had translated from Thai, on the history of the Lanna Kingdom which once stretched over vast tracts of northern Thailand. He just smiles when asked about the scope of his own landholding ambitions but it should be noted that he has called his company “Million Fields’’, a direct translation of “Lanna’’.

Somehow the conversation veers into a discussion of organic fertilizer and manure, which in turn leads to the Asian elephant that adorns the Mullis Partners logo. Mullis waves away suggestions that it might be seen as something clumsy, slow and hard to turn around. “The elephant,’’ he opines, “is family-minded, thick-skinned … and it never forgets.’’

Saturday, 5 May 2012

RIP Adam Yauch, Beastie Boy and genius.

Unearthed a mix I did of my favourite breakbeat tracks, all done on vinyl, circa 2007, with a wicked white label mix I had of the Beastie Boys' Intergalactic somewhere in the middle. A few other bits of funk too I fink. DJ Love Handles, Big Phat Breaks ...

In their own magazine Grand Royale (also their defunct record label) the Beastie Boys paid tribute to the tonsorial travesty that is the mullet in "Mulling over the Mullet''. When I heard about their obsession with mullets, it inspired me to write this piece, swanning around Hong Kong for a couple of days in an appalling mullet wig I had made. The story had to begin, of course, with a Beastie Boys quote  ...