Friday, 22 November 2013

Tom-Tom where you go last night? Thai Noon for cowboy junkies

From the Vaults: A little yarn I knocked out for Time a few years back. The Cowboy Way, Thailand's way - same same but different

They descend in droves in buses from Bangkok, in their freshly-pressed checked shirts, shiny boots and Stetson knock-offs. Rawhide chokers abound, as do gleaming belt buckles bigger than fists, emblazoned with screaming eagles, US flags and broncs rampant. Some affect spurs and fringed, flapping chaps.

Legs bowed in homage to John Wayne, or perhaps from three hours stuffed in a bus, they clink and swagger their way to concrete teepees and log cabins, past paddocks full of  horseflesh and a main street straight out of Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns. Strategically-placed speakers echo with Ennio Morricone’s haunting twangs and whistles.

Welcome to Pensuk Great Western resort, the closest thing to the Wild West in the Far East and paradise found for city slickers with a hankering to play cowboys and indians.

"I love this place,'' says Somsak Sukphisit, 38, an accountant from Bangkok with gold-rimmed spectacles, a sheriff’s star and a white 10 gallon hat. “You can forget about your problems here and make believe you’re a real cowboy. This has always been a dream of mine.’’

Sprawled over 40 acres in Nakhon Ratchasima province, about 250km north-east of Bangkok, Pensuk Great Western is the brainchild of Yuttana Pensuk, a cowboy junkie who made his fortune peddling karaoke to rich Japanese tourists in Bangkok.

 "I've always been crazy about the Wild West,'' says Yuttana, who as a boy would gorge on the celluloid exploits of John Wayne and Gary Cooper, as well as Thailand’s homegrown cowboy heroes in the so-called “pad thai Westerns’’. His dream began to take shape eight years ago, when he bought a cornfield within driving distance of Bangkok.

"Originally it was just for friends - a couple of houses and some horses to ride,'' he says, squinting proudly over his spread from under a voluminous black hat. "Then I took a trip to California to look at some old ghost towns and get some ideas.'' Now, 200 million baht later, he presides over a full-fledged Westworld. You almost expect Yul Brynner, as the gun-slinging robot-run-amok, to loom around a corner and call you out.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Street Smarts: 'Cool' Soi 22 doubles down, Soi 11 jumps shark

Sukhumvit Soi 22 is Bangkok's up-and-coming buzzworthy nightlife destination with cultured clubs, a members-only cinema, a home for the musical underground that's Overground, New Zealand culinary whiz Dave Hallam's gastropub No Idea, a name as cheeky as his Guiness Braised Beef Cheeks or signature Lamb Shank Redemption, one of Asia's best all-girl heavy metal bands playing in Titanium, and a new bar and diner from Bangkok's King of All Nightlife, Ashley Sutton, that is quite simply the bomb. This piece ran in Hong Kong's Sunday Morning Post as the lead Review story this week. 

Thailand's iconic nightlife precincts require little introduction: the neon-bathed netherworlds of Nana, Soi Cowboy and Patpong, the Hi-So hotspots, indie kids' clubs and too-cool-for-school bars of Thonglor and Ekkamai, Japanese-only Soi Thaniya, the mega-clubs and rave dives of Royal City Avenue (RCA), and the bastion of Bangkok clubland, Sukhumvit Soi 11, home to iconic establishments such as Q Bar and, until recently, Bed Supperclub.


photo: William Vaughan, Saffron Asia
Twice the value of fading hotspot Soi 11, in the monetary and mathematical senses, Soi 22 is a contender for the title of the city's most interesting and buzzworthy nightlife and culture destination. A creeping creative zeitgeist clings to the likes of the Friese-Greene Club, a secret-door cinema with nine seats, RMA Institute, an experimental art space and gastro-cafe, where you can have your gravlax and chorizo ciabatta and throw it at a canvas as art too, the recently opened Overground, with bands including Kamp Krusty who do hip hop on ukelele with an American who can sing in perfect Thai), Panic Station, Aerolips (a Thai Eurythmics) and Wasabi Bytes, a two-man electro band headed by Overground's owner, Australian journalist Grahame Lynch.

The street will rachet up the buzz a notch or two this week as the cogs and gears of Bangkok Betty grind into life on the ground floor of the new Holiday Inn. At the base of this black obelisk, a short stroll from the sclerotic chaos of Asoke junction, the latest chapter in the fairytale rise to fame of antipodean ex-miner Ashley Sutton, Bangkok's "it boy" of bar and restaurant design, is being written. Bangkok Betty is a high-concept flight of fancy from the rich imagination of Sutton, preceded by the baroque steampunk decadence of Iron Fairies, fish and chips saloon Fat Gut'z, milk bar Mr Jones' Orphanage, black magic-inspired Five and the hipster-approved, smoke-shrouded, rammed-to-the-rafters orientalist fantasy that is Maggie Choo's.


photo: William Vaughan, Saffron Asia
Sutton, who reimagines the bar and diner as a bomb factory churning out high explosives for B17 bombers, did in-depth research on the planes and their place in the second world war. Ancient pulleys and levers descend from the high ceiling, racks of shiny stainless steel bombs are everywhere, and the bombshell that is Bangkok Betty is painted on the brown brick wall in B17 "nose art" style, above an artistic interpretation of a bomb assembly line.

The room is dominated by its centrepiece, a life-sized 90-kilogram bomb straight out of Dr Strangelove, polished to a sheen and mounted on a plinth: death mirroring art, pregnant with menace, more Fat Man than Little Boy.

A week out from opening, Sutton is pacing and muttering in the bar while mixologist Joseph Boroski, global adviser on cocktail culture to W Hotels, consultant to Hong Kong restaurant Sevva and Bangkok institution Eat Me, and on point for cocktails at all of Sutton's best bars, surveys the scene through hooded Buddha eyes and sips his water.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Naked Smoking Guns: Inside Big Tobacco's 'Operation Whitecoat'

From the Vaults: this was the biggest investigative story I worked on in Hong Kong, and full credit goes to my former colleague and good friend Hedley Thomas for spotting the huge yarn lurking in the briefs column. It's this ability to sense a story that has made Hedley Australia's most awarded, respected and feared investigative ace. When a massive tranche of court documents were made public via the internet following a class action suit against 'Big Tobacco' in the US in the late 90s, we began sifting through the mountain of virtual papers looking for anything that might pertain to Hong Kong. Did we ever hit paydirt. This was the first piece in a series that dominated the front page and features section of the South China Morning Post for three days in a row.

"We are here to do something radical. To look at a problem. To achieve a solution. Nothing should be withheld." Thus begins a sprawling account of a high-powered brainstorming session organised by cigarette colossus Philip Morris and dubbed Project Down Under, for the June 1987 think-tank's antipodean provenance.

Details of the meeting are revealed in a once-confidential Philip Morris document, a minuted note of a top-level strategy, and among more than 30 million pages - some of which reveal the tobacco industry's darkest secrets - prised from the companies' own files and posted on the Internet as a result of litigation in the United States during the past 12 months.

The memo points to the genesis of an international scheme that has now blown up in the face of the tobacco industry like an exploding cigar. A scheme that involved the channelling of millions of dollars from the industry's war chest through a range of innocuous-sounding organisations in an attempt to procure helpful science, then merchandise the findings to ease fears over the effects of second-hand smoke and win major concessions from the public and private sector over bans.

The stakes were huge: this was the 1980s, when objections by non-smokers to other people's smoke were becoming increasingly strident. By drawing pie-charts showing when and where the average smoker lit up, the tobacco industry calculated bans in work places, aircraft, restaurants and other venues would result in a dramatic plunge in the number of cigarettes smoked. People would have less time to puff. And that would lead to billions of dollars in lost revenue.

Several key documents tell the story of how a coterie of tobacco big-wigs and American lawyers drew up a pan-industry plan to target scientists throughout Asia, the US and Europe in an effort to wrest back control of an issue on which they had decided to make a last-ditch stand. That issue was passive smoking, or, to use the industry-preferred euphemism, Environmental Tobacco Smoke (ETS).

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), ETS is a mixture of the smoke given off by the burning end of a cigarette, pipe or cigar and the smoke exhaled from the lungs of smokers. It cites the possible health effects as eye, nose and throat irritation, headaches, lung cancer, and heart disease. It says children exposed to ETS face increased risk of lower respiratory tract infections, such as bronchitis and pneumonia, ear infections, build-up of fluid in the middle ear, increased severity and frequency of asthma episodes, and decreased lung function.

In January 1993, the EPA published a controversial report designating ETS as a human carcinogen more dangerous than asbestos, benzene or radon, and estimated passive smoking was responsible for about 3,000 American lung cancer deaths each year. The tobacco industry hit back hard, accusing the EPA of putting its own spin on statistics to justify a political vendetta against tobacco.

However, the battle lines in this international slugging match were drawn much earlier. In the early 80s, the big tobacco companies could see which way the winds of scientific and public opinion on ETS were blowing. By the mid-80s, they believed their position was becoming critical. By 1987's Project Down Under meeting, they had girded their loins for a multi-million dollar battle.

Drugs, thugs and bugs: Stranded on the Proud Highway with Dr Gonzo

From the Vaults: It is a surreal moment in any scribe's life when you are asked to review the work of one of your heroes. It was with trepidation, awe, fear and, yes, a modicum of loathing, that I prised open the weighty tome comprising Hunter S Thompson's first volume of collected letters, and it was with shaking hands and abject humility that I pecked out my unworthy review for the books section of South China Morning Post. Here's my road trip up The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, but I suggest you take the journey for yourself. Buy the ticket and take the ride. RIP Hunter S. 

The very name Hunter S. Thompson conjures up a bizarre mixture of images: a drug-fuelled booze-monster sitting naked on an Aspen porch, firing at small animals with an unfeasibly large firearm; a rangy frame and a shiny cranium, bashing away at a typewriter, making a strange kind of sense from crazed sojourns on the wilder shores of politics; a redneck tempting fate on a massive hog, howling like a werewolf through the twists and turns of California's switchback coast roads; an iconoclast; a sage; an irascible court jester; purveyor of bitingly eloquent hyperbole; and undeniably, inescapably, the eye of Typhoon Cool.

Anyone who has hung on for the crazy ride that has been Thompson's literary life - from his Hell's Angels stomping, to being out near Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs kicked in, to his fear and loathing-laden forays into the dark heart of the American dream - is in for a treat with the publication of this work.

It is the first volume (two more are promised) of his collected correspondence. These twisted epistles span his formative years as a writer: from a talented if wayward student in Louisville, Kentucky, to his 1967 breakthrough publication, Hell's Angels.

Perhaps the most striking thing that emerges from this collection, compiled by Douglas Brinkley, director of the University of New Orleans' Eisenhower Centre for American Studies, is Thompson's unswerving sense of destiny. Even as an 18-year-old, he was keeping carbons of his prolific correspondence, confident of his emergence as the next F Scott Fitzgerald.

Not the Messiah: the careless unmaking of Elvis the man

From the Vaults: This is a book review I did for the South China Morning Post of Peter Guralnick's Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Aaron Presley. Along with Greil Marcus, Guralnick is one of the more thoughtful and prescient writers among the pack of hacks contributing to the ever-swelling annals of Elvis literature. Watch this space for my own excellent Elvis adventure, when I followed the Hong Kong Elvis Presley Fan Club to Graceland and beyond for the candlelight vigil and assorted other bizarre rituals and commemorations of the King's death.

Much has been made of the elevation of Elvis Aaron Presley from mortal to royalty and, eventually, deity. Many a writer has found a rich furrow to plough, comparing the King and his sad fall from grace (and from Graceland's toilet) to a Christ-like sacrifice; describing the antebellum mansion and its surreal surrounds as the Stations of the Cross for the ever-swelling army of acolytes. The Candlelight Vigil as Midnight Mass. The jump-suited, fuzzy-chopped impersonators as a weird, wobbly bottomed priesthood.

How refreshing, then, to witness this rare and tender resurrection performed over more than 700 pages by Peter Guralnick - the resurrection of Elvis the man. No easy task, this, reclaiming Presley's life from under the crushing weight of supermarket tabloid history. Guralnick acknowledges the challenge in an author's note: 'Elvis Presley may well be the most written-about figure of our time. He is also in many ways the most misunderstood, both because of our ever-increasing rush to judgment and, perhaps more to the point, simply because he appears to be so well-known. It has become almost impossible to imagine Elvis amid all our assumptions, amid all the false intimacy that attaches to a tabloid personality . . .' Impossible for a lesser writer, perhaps, but in Guralnick's patient and capable hands Elvis lives and dies anew. This is the second part of his painstaking project, the first being Last Train To Memphis: The Rise Of Elvis Presley.

One rock under a groove ... Hong Kong Handover hijinks

From the Vaults: my wrap up of The Big Hong Kong Story, the reason many of us upped stumps and decamped for Hong Kong, the big 'H' ... the Handover. Upon rereading this, I see right at the end the scatological infatuation that gave this blog its name was already rearing its head. 

THIS WAS supposed to be a story about how they botched the handover. A searing, fang-bared expose of greed, disaster and incompetence on a truly grand scale; a harsh spotlight trained upon Hong Kong's pratfall on the world stage. Oh, the scope for disaster was enormous. Looming typhoons. Feuding sovereigns. Last-minute decisions. Missed deadlines. Recalcitrant tradesmen. Profiteering fly-by-nighters. Goose-stepping soldiers swarming over the border. Hot-headed demonstrators itching to be the martyr du jour. Very Important Egos to be stroked and coddled. A diplomatic chamber of horrors and a terrorist's fun-fair, jam-packed into the big top of a genuine three-ring media circus.

The only problem is, it was all right on the night. Against incalculable odds, Britain managed to hand back the last glittering jewel in its tarnished colonial crown with nary a major mishap. Somehow - and who knows how? - Hong Kong pulled it off. Thousands of blood-hungry, battle-hardened scribes were left scratching their heads and wandering the cavernous press centre, glassy-eyed with boredom and bemusement. It all seemed to go so smoothly that it's hard to believe it happened at all.

But under the bonnet of the shiny, purring handover machine, there was no little grinding of gears. Somewhere beneath the seamless facade of pomp and circumstance, of stirring speeches, coruscating pyrotechnics and perfectly timed telegenic tears lurks a litany of glitches, hitches, bloopers and blunders. More 'Hong Kong's Funniest Handover Videos' than sombre Dan Rather fodder; not so much a dignified dissembling of the three-legged stool as the stuff of the Three Stooges. So let us take a trawl through the lighter side of the handover - the scenes you didn't see on CNN.

THE ONE factor out of anyone's control during Hong Kong's big week was the weather and, as the territory's sodden populace knows, there was the odd spot of precipitation during the handover period. The heavens opened to dump half the average yearly rainfall in just over a week - and most of that seemed to be during the British farewell ceremony at East Tamar.

It might have been a sign that even God is sick of the British Royal Family. The best thing about the rain was that no one could hear a word of what Prince Charles had to say. Between the pounding of the deluge on the canopy of umbrellas and the fact that water had shorted out the Prince's microphone, he might as well have been mute, or could have been holding forth on Camilla and his tampon fantasies for all the audience knew. Of course, no one at home watching on television would have noticed, because they probably would have killed the volume the minute His Royal Dampness stood up to speak. The other advantage of the downpour was that you couldn't tell if Chris Patten was still crying. After trotting around from one goodbye to the next, his tear-ducts were working overtime and he was beginning to look like a graduate from the Bob Hawke Academy of Public Weeping.