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.

Bangkok Betty features a meticulously researched and creative cocktail menu put together by Boroski. The stories behind real-life B17s and their crews are woven into the cocktails, along with rare tipples such as English elderflower liqueur. "It's an Allied thing, so there are some American spirits. I wanted to bring some Australian spirits like Bundaberg rum. We do a classic English Pimm's Cup - Pimm's with ginger ale, 7 Up, cucumbers as garnish, a dash of gin."

Deeper into Soi 22, Soi Sai Namtip 2 is a right turn into a tangle of shaded lanes and generous homes. It's also home to the RMA Institute, the experimental art space and gastro-cafe created by Piyatat Hemmatat, the Bangkok-born, British-educated art photographer and curator of arcane, off-beat and off-the-wall art happenings.


photo: William Vaughan, Saffron Asia 
Hemmatat returned to Bangkok in 2007 after getting a master's degree in fine art, and was shocked by the dearth of creative venues. He founded RMA - pronounced "ahma", the Thai-Chinese word for grandmother - in 2010, named for his own late grandma. The vision was to create a non-profit space hosting local and international artists exploring the further shores of art and for creative workshops.

He is tickled by reports of Soi 22 becoming a hipster haven, but says he hasn't seen much evidence of it. "We are the quieter end of the street," he says. Inside the gallery, art from the margins holds sway. One recent photography exhibition focused on the sarong and its timeless seductive allure. "Sex is fleeting," says photographer Teddy Spha Palasthira. "It's nature's quick way of reproducing the human race. But sex appeal is forever, like a beautiful flower, that creates desire. Like the sarong that wraps a woman's body, to admire and desire. To unwrap and reveal. To pick and smell."

Hemmatat's own work includes Vestige, a 2007 series of images of mutilated Buddha statues provoking thoughts on faith and its place in modern Thailand; Apasmara, shots of shattered glass and bullet holes in luxury fashion boutiques after the 2010 "red shirts" riots; and 3rd Eye Trilogy, a gorgeous study of the mystery of lens flare and the hidden universes that live within the lens.

Meanwhile, Overground is the new underground home for alternative and indie bands and dark, twisted DJs, curated by owner Grahame Lynch, a seasoned Soi 22 bar owner who is also one of the street's biggest fans. He opened Overground three months ago and life has been a blur since.

The décor suggests underground train stations and abandoned tunnels, which is music to the ears of performers such as Spike N Stein, aka Carrot Daddy, a bondage and light torture aficionado who spins gothic, industrial black noise when not indulging his latest hobby: rat hunting in the greasy late-night lanes of Bangkok.

Lynch assumes his own alter ego at night: as Grahame Wasabi, frontman, keyboardist and songwriter of Wasabi Bytes, keeper of the electro flame, Kraftwerk disciple, Pet Shop Boys fanboy and recent collaborator with Afrika Islam, pioneering hip hop producer, sometime DJ and adopted son of US electro godfather Afrika Bambaata.

On Overground's capacious front balcony, Lynch sits sipping an Aurora, concocted from overproof Bundaberg rum. "I've been drinking here on Soi 22 for a decade," he says. "Soi 22's scene was really created by [former Thai premier] Thaksin Shinawatra's early-closures crackdown in 2001. A number of "speakeasies" sprung up in Queen's Park Plaza and it became the haunt of musicians after their gigs, newspaper subeditors after putting the Bangkok Post or The Nation to bed, DJs, creatures of the night.

"It attracted an eclectic bunch of individuals, many Japanese and Westerners, and they started to build their own bars. It's one of the few places where Japanese, farangs and Thais mingle quite equally, unlike, say, the Japanese enclaves of Soi 39 or Soi Thaniya."

Lynch believes Soi 22 is on the move, and most definitely a "scene" in the making. His goal with Overground is to provide a stage for alternative musical acts, local DJs, acoustic acts, and to support them with proper promotion and payment as artists.

He says he embraces the underground ethos in terms of hearing alternative music and non-mainstream sounds, "but we are not underground in the sense of you having to rough it in order to hear good music. We provide a quality experience."

Further down Soi 22, just past the Imperial Queen's Park and down a tiny side street is the Friese-Green Club, a movie house with just nine seats, marked only by a small brass plaque and named for the inventor of colour film. Here, founder and owner Paul Spurrier can be found holding court or immersed in an art-house film, campy cult classic or black-and-white golden oldie.

A child actor who moved behind the camera later in life, Spurrier is the director of Thai ghost film Phi, and was a lead character in the edgy mid-1980s British TV series Max Headroom. "I wanted to create a haven, a real gentlemen's club feeling, where those passionate about cinema could come together to enjoy great films and intelligent conversation."

Posters and memorabilia line the walls, along with ancient editing machines and movie cameras and a life-sized Tardis, the time-travelling telephone box of Doctor Who. Thailand universities' film students are beginning to come to screenings and coalesce into a community.


photo: William Vaughan, Saffron Asia
Spurrier also envisages the space becoming popular for intimate masterclasses and workshops. November's line-up includes This is Spinal Tap, Rob Reiner's cult "rockumentary" spoof, Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca and The Thirty-Nine Steps, Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Delicatessen, Anthony Minghella's Truly, Madly, Deeply and a documentary being screened for a week called Censor Must Die, which chronicles the Kafkaesque journey of a banned film and its director through the horrors of Thailand's bureaucracy.

The members are mostly foreign cineastes and the odd local film buff, as well as industry types involved in the 600 or more feature films made in Thailand each year. Membership is free, and the films screened are mostly of a vintage greater than 15 years to avoid copyright issues.

"We're not a cinema, we're a club," Spurrier says.


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