Saturday, 21 September 2013

Not Fade Away: Bangkok Retro rules

Does Bangkok Retro rule? It seemed to when I wrote this piece five minutes ago, OK, a year ago, for N, the new Norwegian Airlines magazine. Trends are always old news anyway. By definition. It was a fun story to write and hopefully to read, whether the fad is fuelled or fading.  This was my first very exuberant version, which I toned down for the magazine, and its subeditors toned down once more. I rather like the original better though. 

WASHINGTON, DC - At a press conference Monday, U.S. Retro Secretary Anson Williams issued a strongly worded warning of an imminent “national retro crisis,” cautioning that “if current levels of U.S. retro consumption are allowed to continue unchecked, we may run entirely out of past by as soon as 2005.” 
The Onion, November 5, 1997 

"The best time is always yesterday." 
Tatyana Tolstaya, poet 

Retro comes and goes; great waves of nostalgia that wash over cities, sometimes entire nations, leaving in their wake a cloying tide wrack of ersatz nostalgia and sucking sinkholes of junk that some of us find irresistible.

In Bangkok, the retro craze has never been, well, crazier; citizens seized by a sudden passion for an idealised past they never really knew, or perhaps glimpsed on some reruns of American TV shows. Retro nuts, once they've caught the bug, are more crazed than the Bakelite bits on a vintage Mixmaster. Vast markets have appeared to satisfy them, straining and bulging with bric-a-brac, gimcracks, knick-knacks and old stuff that was crap then and crap now. High-rent emporia in the trendiest lanes of Thong Lor and secluded loft spaces in Siam Square overflow with tin toys and antique telephones, vintage duds and do-dads, fifties and sixties furniture and assorted other 'spurniture'.

All of a sudden, five minutes ago is NOW. The best time is always yesterday. Bangkok may not yet be in danger of running out of past, but entire city blocks seem to have been whammied with a real-life Instagram filter. 'Retro' and 'vintage' are the mantras on hipsters' lips, as an eclectic mix of true believers, collectors, entrepreneurs and dabblers have jumped on the wood-panelled bandwagon or trotted off to their time machines, hoping to get kitsch quick.

Among them is Waleeya Phanomphan, the twentysomething proprietor of CinderallasRoom, a true believer, a collector and an entrepreneur; her virtual vintage clothing store found on Facebook from Monday to Friday briefly materialises weekends around dusk at Bangkok Retro’s ground zero, Talad Rod Fai.

Talad Rod Fai, or ‘the train market’, is located on Kampaengphet Road, a short hop from the more famous Chatuchak Weekend Market (which also has a vast vintage offering in Sections 5 and 6) and easily accessible from the Mass Rapid Transit subway. It consists of several old railway department storage buildings crammed with vintage shops, antique stores and pubs, some ancient-looking trains that long since ran off the rails, and hundreds of brightly coloured temporary stalls which multiply as the sun sets.

This cornucopia of collectibles varies in quality from genuine antiques to ubiquitous 50s, 60s and 70s pieces to poorly recreated ‘retro’ pieces to tat you’d be hard pressed to give away, proving the adage that one man’s junk is another’s treasure. An army of bright plastic Astro Boys stand sentinel beside scratched Abba records, candy-coloured bakelite radios and telephones, demolition derbies of Matchbox cars and tin toys, all watched by the unblinking lenses of vintage cameras in varying states of repair.

At one of the stalls, Waleeya is preparing to hawk her well-worn wares. She is wearing a khaki jumpsuit, which at first blush looks like a uniform, teamed with a jaunty military hat and some bejewellewed badges, pins and medals. She does a twirl and gives mock salute before returning to the pile of shimmering vintage treasures she is hanging up on racks.

Waleeya is typical of Bangkok’s burgeoning ranks of retro entrepreneurs, having managed to turn her passion into a business which she says is thriving. During the week, she scours second hand stores, flea markets and garage sales on Bangkok’s outskirts and in nearby provinces, where folks are less savvy about the price pre-loved clobber can fetch in the capital. She then models all her best finds herself on her Facebook page, often with the help of her dog ‘Wua’ (Cow), and makes most of her sales there too.

“High-waisted jeans, vintage blouses, short shorts, happy coats, dresses, I love all of it,’’ Waleeya says. “I’m also really into pins, badges, vintage belts, stuff like that. It started off as something I just loved to look for myself but I’m happy it’s turned into a business now. I could just do it from Facebook but it’s good to come down here and see everyone on the weekends and keep up with what’s happening.’’

The market, also known as Talad Dek Neaw (indie market), got its start in June 2010 when a long-time Chatuchak vendor rented a warehouse from the State Railway of Thailand, moved his restaurant, bar and antique shop and re-christened it ‘Rod’s’. He then set about inviting other vendors with a bent for vintage to join him.

Looming behind the stallholders’ spaces are Depot 1 and 2, imposing structures that house second hand and antique shops, dark, mysterious spaces which beckon like Aladdin’s Caves to the steady stream of retro collectors. In one of the largest, simply known as ‘Chev’s’, a middle-aged, bespectacled fellow is beaming like the proverbial kid in a candy store.

“I’m here almost every weekend,’’ Piyapon Phongdej confesses. “Is it an addiction? I’m not sure but I can’t seem to stop collecting.’’ His passion is for European furniture, and Chev’s’ steady supply of vintage furniture from Germany, France and Belgium sends him into retro heaven.

“Come and see what I’ve just bought,’’ he grins, leading me through a maze of sofas, tables and chairs, cabinets and evil looking garden gnomes. He stops before a wrought-iron trellis and garden furniture set. “Isn’t it beautiful? It’s over 80 years old, from Belgium. I actually bought this from their catalogue, and it’s finally arrived.’’

Chev, the eponymous owner, a stocky Thai chap in decidedly un-retro pink t-shirt and camouflage pants, is a man of few words, but he concedes business is good. “Busy, yes, very busy,’’ he mutters, repositioning a precariously perched gnome then stalking off to buff a rare Miss Pacman pinball machine. When pressed, he reveals the most expensive piece in the store is a ‘garuda’, the Thai mythical half-man, half-bird, in this case a large, carved wooden specimen from a southern Thailand bank over half a century old and which he says he won’t part with for less than 50,000 baht.

Take the train out of Talad Rod Fai and a 20-minute trip brings you to Siam Square, an indie enclave in the shadows of glittering luxury malls including Siam Paragon, Siam Discovery and Central World. On the second floor of one of its long barrack-like structures is the recently opened Siam Vintage, where serried rows of shops and stalls bristle with clothes and accessories priced decidedly higher than the offerings at Talad Rod Fai.

One of the smartest looking shops is His and Hers Vintage, where Kulthida Maneerat and her husband Subrat Misra purvey an impressive selection of serious retro dresses, accessories, sunglasses and reading glasses.

The pair have had a shop at Chatuchak since 2008, and opened the store at Siam Vintage in April this year. The well-heeled couple have a house in upstate New York, but Kulthida says it was while living in Hawaii that the vintage bug first bit. “We import all our stuff from America,’’ she says. “Vintage dresses were my first love, but now we probably sell more accessories – jewellery and hats.’’

Retro connoisseurs can look but generally cannot buy from her dazzling collection of vintage dresses, mostly Emilio Pucci, Christian Dior and Chanel frocks, trousers and jackets dating anywhere from the 80s back to the 50s and 60s. “Look,’’ she enthuses, “aren’t these hats amazing? They are all Dior, from the 50s.” Kulthida says her customers are usually women in their 30s and 40s, and she also does a brisk business from her brand’s Facebook page.

Subrat’s fiefdom is glasses, and he enjoys sharing his encyclopaedic knowledge of yesteryear’s shades and specs. “Ray Bans,’’ he says simply, when asked what sunglasses always stay in style. “From the 50s and 60s right up to the 90s, there’s always a demand for retro Ray Bans.’’ Thanks to programs such as Mad Men, with its sublimely stylised take on the 60s heyday of advertising agencies on Madison Avenue and iconoclasts like Johnny Depp, the humble horn-rim is also back with a bullet, according to Subrat.

 “We do a good trade in eyeglass frames from many of the classic American brands. Right now Tart Optical is smoking hot, thanks to Johnny Depp and Lady Gaga. But we also sell great brands like American Optical, Shuron, Victory Optical and Art-Craft. What’s expensive? Well, I have some original James Dean Shady Character glasses, this was his own brand, and they will set you back about US$600.’’

Subrat adjusts his own owlishly frowning Tarts and offers his retro-perspective on why vintage is red hot in Bangkok. “It's simple. We're just following Japan," he pronounces. "All these things were hot in Japan a few years earlier, and still are. So we want them too."

It's not that simple though. The Thai sense of humour and whimsy and innate creative flair rubs off, whatever the craze. And the Big Mango warps things to its own gravity and laws of attraction.

It might be caught in the feedback loop of its own time warp, trapped in the tractor beam of pioneering Japan, but you sense this movement is no dud fad or monkey-see monkey-do bathing ape affair. It's a real scene, in rude health, with a Thai twist.

Bangkok Retro is real. It won't fade away. Except in the places it wants to.

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