Sunday, 18 November 2012

'Lunch is for Wimps', Belgian Thunders

Move over Marc Faber, Thailand's new 'Dr Doom' has arrived. This is a piece just filed for November's edition of Finance Asia on Stephane De Baets, iron-willed investment banker, part time 'Belgian Thunder' triathlete and ironman, prognosticator and seer, and all round good chap. Edited down somewhat for the magazine, I've put the original piece in full here.

Investment banker with a difference Stephane De Baets is a breath of fresh air. The towering, boyishly touselled Belgian breezes into the bar in Bangkok’s trendy Soi Ruam Rudee, oozing enthusiasm and energy.

“There are a few things I’d like to talk to you about,’’ he says. “One is a new form of private equity venture which I believe takes a ground-breaking approach to fund management. The second involves reinventing fine dining. And I’d also like to touch upon inside out money flows, if I may.’’

While most investment bankers are content to merge, acquire and move other people’s money about, De Baets is on a different trajectory. When he’s not training for his next gruelling Ironman race, the founder, managing director and star turn at small but impeccably connected Bangkok boutique investment bank OptAsia Capital prefers to spend his time dreaming up new ways of doing things, taking aim at sacred cows and generally thumbing his nose at the establishment.

His no-holds-barred weekly ‘Trading Notes’ has become something of a cult publication in certain Bangkok circles for its bold predictions and colourfully tortured language: he is less of a gloom merchant than Mark ‘Dr Doom’ Faber, but when the mood strikes him, De Baets does a fine turn as contrarian Cassandra, railing against everything from Europe’s ‘slow motion, freeze frame car wreck’ to China’s looming hard landing and the mainland’s overvalued ‘laundry markets’ of Hong Kong and Singapore while referencing everything from the Fibonacci sequence, video games, hip hop to obscure Morrissey lyrics.

Monday, 12 November 2012

The Big Chill ... breaking worse in the Ice Age

Here's one from the vaults, a long and rather disturbing read on the insidious march of methamphetamine I penned for the South China Morning Post's weekend magazine as the millennium drew to its conclusion

EVA conjures a pale ghost of smoke from a fold of tinfoil, using her lighter's flame like a lover's caress. It curls and shimmers and tries to escape but Eva chases it all the way down the foil, sucking greedily on a water pipe made of straws and a shampoo bottle clutched between her knees. She holds the smoke down, savouring it, letting it work its icy tendrils into the farthest reaches of her lungs, then tilts her head back and blows a jet of smoke into the gloom with a sensual sigh. Pupils start to swell. A delicious shiver runs through her body. She gazes down dreamily at the foil, where a milky trail traces the length of its crease. "This is my vitamin," she giggles, batting fat black lashes over big sloe eyes. "I have to take it every day." She flicks her lighter and strokes the foil and chases the ghost. And then she chases it again. And again. And again.

Eva's "vitamin" is methamphetamine hydrochloride, more popularly known in Hong Kong as "ice". It is also Asia's looming epidemic; a cheap and potent drug which gets users higher and keeps them high longer than anything else on the market while offering huge profit margins to drug syndicates. In the vivid argot of the drug netherworld, ice is to speed what crack is to cocaine; a smokeable rock form of the drug which transports the buzz to the brain faster and more powerfully than its powdered, snorted
cousin. But the hit from crack lasts 15 minutes.

A comparable amount of ice will get you up for anything from eight to 24 hours. It is, like crack, intensely addictive; a mental magnifying glass that initially transforms users into deities, eliciting superhuman performances at work, in bed, at parties. Once addicted, however, users can look forward to a long slide towards a panoply of pain and torment. Long-term use ravages the mind and body and can lead to respiratory disorders, hypertension, stroke, manic depression, paranoia, hallucinations, violent outbursts and psychotic episodes. The prognosis for recovery is far more grim than for someone hooked on heroin.

In the Philippines, South Korea, Hawaii and Japan it is already a massive problem. In the United States, Attorney-General Janet Reno recently named it a national threat and President Bill Clinton said it was on the way to becoming "the crack of the 1990s". And in Hong Kong, it is by far the fastest-growing drug of abuse. Even notoriously behind-the-times government figures record a jump of more than 250 per cent in users last year, while police warn it could usurp heroin as the territory's top drug problem in coming years.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

US election: The view from Patpong

I was part of a team of 25 writers from interesting cities around the world asked to contribute dispatches  on the US elections for Roads and Kingdoms. For a view on the election many agreed 'sucked', I sought expert comment from a peculiar class of bar in the dark heart of Patpong Road.

And for the whole collection: ://

Fear, trepidation and disappointment stalked the streets of Patpong last night, as voting began in the US presidential elections.
      Fear flashed across the face of Nong Ning, one of several ladies loitering outside a blowjob bar with the unlikely name ‘Star of Light’, when I told her they were voting in America right now. “No drink alcohol tonight?’’ she asked. On the eve of local elections booze is banned in Bangkok, which means slim pickings for the nongs (younger sisters) of Patpong.
      Trepidation creased the mamasan’s greasy features when I entered the small and dingy bar. Three girls hovered around a single elderly fellow, making half-hearted, darting grabs for his crotch. No oracle appeared, despite the name’s vague promise of prophecy. Nothing was illuminated.
      “Obama or Romney’’ I asked. ‘Obama black man. Maybe he big,’’ one girl offered. The mamasan sniffed. “I like Bush’’.
      Disappointment, suddenly and crushingly, was all mine. I was in Bangkok’s heart of darkness, its ur-strip of sin and sleaze, where dank doorways portended parades of pudenda, and I was four years too late. For the first election in years, there was no Bush.
     Bush had been ubiquitous in Bangkok. ‘Good Bush, Bad Bush’ the t-shirts observed, juxtaposing George W’s idiot grin with a luxuriant tangle of pubic hair. ‘Fuck you Bush’ said the matter of fact graffito on a contstruction hoarding near my home.
     Dizzy with visions of puns unpenned, sick with the sense of loss, I lurched from the Star of Light, running the gamut of importunate hawkers, proprietors of ping pong emporia and leering ladyboys.
      I stopped, caught my breath, batted away a midget trying to sell me Viagra and reminded myself of the mission. The US Presidency had a long, lewd history with the hummer, from the Kennedy clan’s Camelot kneetremblers to Bill Clinton’s intern eruptions, sticky dresses, exploding cigars and limp excuses.
     This time, the entire electoral process sucked, from the first broken promise to the last forlornly flapping chad. “Campaign sucks hope out of US public,’’ sniffed Christopher Caldwell in the Financial Times.
      “How the World's Greatest Democracy Sucks at Elections,’’ Esquire explained to its readers. lamented how ‘Voting Tech Still Sucks’, while wondered if it “sucked more to be Michelle Obama or Ann Romney’’.
      But it was the Street Art Gum Election 2012 that posed the crucial question: “Obama vs. Romney - Who Sucks the Most?’’, allowing voters to decide with one spit of their gum.
       There was a perverse symmetry in asking a posse of Patpong oral sex experts which US Presidential candidate sucked hardest. It seemed right, somehow, to finally give them a voice, considering Patpong had been getting screwed by Americans since the Vietnam War.
        I ascended the steep narrow stairs to Kangaroo Bar, perched on a barstool, and noticed the décor was strictly Down Under, as were some of the staff.
From a dark room at one end of the bar, shadowy movements and furtive slurping issued. I recalled asides about golf-balls and garden hoses, and suck-starting leaf blowers.
       I pressed on with my quest. But the mission was a bust. No one in the bar, at least no one capable of speaking, had a clue who Mitt Romney was. They knew the name Obama, and agreed this must be a good thing.
      ‘Mitt’, said a tall girl named ‘Chicken’ , sounded like the Thai word for knife.
    “Good Mitt or Bad Mitt?’’ I pressed. She frowned. Then smiled. ‘Bad if you are unfaithful. In Thailand, we use the knife to chop off the penis and feed it to the ducks.’’