Sunday, October 29, 2006

Thaksin a joy to cartoonist

Thai Takes

On an A4 paper was a sketch of Thaksin Shinawatra’s wife Pojaman, with her Farrah Fawcett hairdo, searching for her lost suitcases on a conveyor belt outside the Suvarnabhumi International Airport. “Here they are! My lost suitcases which never arrived in London!!!” a dialogue balloon exclaimed.

In Starbucks at Patpong in Bangkok, sitting next to stacks of the day’s Thai newspapers, including The Nation that headlined “Pojaman returns without Thaksin”, was Stephff who was pencilling in more suitcases.

Earlier that Thursday afternoon, sipping a big cup of coffee at home, the 42-year-old French cartoonist whose real name is Stephane Peray, had browsed the newspapers and questions automatically popped up in his mind.

“Why would she (Pojaman) return to Thailand?” “Maybe she wants to pack more suitcases and return to London?” and “Maybe she came to pick up the lost suitcases?”

“I remembered Pojaman flew to London last month with a lot of suitcases. And that a lot of bags were lost in Suvarnabhumi. So I combined the two and drew an absurdity out of something real,” explained Stephff, while sketching a cartoon, which involved Condoleezza Rice, Kim Jong-il, Shinzo Abe, Roh Moo-hyun and a nuclear bomb.

The “Pojaman” cartoon was for Stephff’s weekday cartoons for The Nation while the “nuclear bomb” was for newspapers in more than 25 countries.

The Bangkok-based cartoonist, whose cartoons have also appeared in Sin Chew Daily, is no stranger to Malaysia. Lat’s books made him interested in Malaysian life.

Stephff finds many similarities between the middle class in Thailand and Malaysia. “In Lat’s cartoons, there are Chinese who like shopping and new condominiums, which is similar in Thailand,” he said in a thick French accent.

In the last 13 years, he has satirised Thailand, politically, culturally and socially. And his recurring themes are nepotism and cronyism.

“This is a Thai-Chinese thing. Whenever you are in power, you have to share it with your family and friends,” he said. “Nepotism and cronyism are not bad in Asia. They make sense. You are supposed to help your family and friends.”

The cartoonist has poked fun at five Thai Prime Ministers – Chuan Leekpai, Banharn Silpa-archa, Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, Thaksin Shinawatra and Surayud Chulanont.

Who is his favourite prime minister, cartoon-wise?

It is not easy to find something funny about Chuan Leekpai, said Stephff, who was fired from the French navy because he drew a caricature of his “humourless” ship commander.

Chavalit has a particular face that is easy to draw and Banharn has an interesting face.

Thaksin is his favourite.

“Because Thaksin's always has some crazy, funny idea. It is easy to make funny something that is already funny,” he said.

Take, for example, the Thailand Elite Card.

Thaksin’s idea was to sell one million memberships at one million baht (RM100,000) each, which entitled holders privileges including fast-track immigration clearance and multiple entry visa within the first five years of its introduction.

Stephff is missing Thaksin, who is in self-imposed exile in London.

“You can get so many cartoon ideas from him,” said the Frenchman who drew his first cartoon (the insurgency in Thailand’s deep south) for The Nation in April 2003.

“If you get a very honest and wise guy, it would be difficult to find material to make fun of him.”

And that “difficult” person is General Surayud, who the military appointed as Thailand’s 24th prime minister on Oct 1.

“I’ve got nothing bad to say about him. And we journalists, if the world was perfect, are not supposed to exist any more,” he said while his eyes twinkled.

But he is not giving up hope on Surayud.

“It will take some time. At the moment he has been prime minister for 19 days only, so I need to learn more about him,” he said on Oct 19.

One of his favourite cartoons on Thailand is his caricature of Thaksin as a square-faced shark in the animation movie, Finding Nemo. He called his parody “Finding DEMOcracy”.

Thaksin, however, will feature less in his cartoons. “After the coup, I’m going after the new people in power,” he said. “The role of a journalist is to be a counter balance to the government.”

The stately Surayud will be a challenge to skew, however.

(Published in The Star on Oct 29, 2006, Sin Chew Daily, The Statesman, The Nation and AsiaNews)

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Save your blushes, we’re only striptease dancing


Her back on the wooden floor, Kewalin Sukapiboon drew an imaginary circle with her legs that were pointed to the ceiling. Then the 32-year-old nurse caressed herself, starting from her inner ankle until she touched her chest.

“Don’t try too hard. If not, it won’t be sexy,” instructed Busakorn Vorameth, the 35-year-old owner of Rum Puree Dance Studio in Bangkok.

In the swanky studio, there were lots of nervous laughter, “Oh my God” and “ooh” from the seven female students – among them a 50-something company president, three international students and a 30-something farang (Thai for westerner) – when Busakorn demonstrated moves that would stir even a celibate monk.

For the first time in Thailand, a dance studio was offering striptease lessons. And it wasn’t the Patpong fare but New York-style striptease.

Two years ago, Busakorn ventured into a striptease club in New York, watched a dancer perform a striptease and exclaimed, “Wow!” She observed that the stripper’s moves looked simple but to execute them well wasn’t easy.

“If you want to be a good stripper, you really need a good foundation in dance such as jazz and ballet,” said the dance instructor, who at that time taught salsa and belly dancing in New York.

Inspired, the graduate in design studies from Harvard University learnt the art of stripping in striptease schools in New York. In 2005, she returned to Bangkok and set up a dance studio.

In the name of research, she frequented Bangkok’s red light districts. What she saw in the Patpong go-go bars was “sad” and “disgusting”.

“You didn’t actually see them dancing. They stood on stage, gripping a pole and waiting to be picked up. Even if they moved, it was without any feeling or expression,” she explained.

“In New York, striptease is a performance where you pay to see the dancers move and (they are) not naked.”

Three months ago, Busakorn introduced striptease (RM40 an hour) to add something different to her studio’s usual salsa, belly dance, tango and hip-hop classes. Friends, however, warned her to be “careful” as striptease was very controversial.

The public, she was told, might think her students wanted to be professional strippers. “My students definitely don’t want to be strippers,” stressed Busakorn, whose nickname is Apple.

Her students are motivated to learn to express their feminine self and to appreciate their body. “I tell them they do not need to have a good body for striptease as different women have different sexual points on their body,” said the dancer, who believes a woman should experience stripping at least once in her life.

But surely some of the students take the class for their lover’s pleasure?

“They don’t tell me directly. But I’m pretty sure one reason is to enhance their partner’s life,” she replied with a grin.

Not for Kewalin the nurse, though. Her only intended audience is the image reflected on the mirror – herself.

“I enjoy watching myself dancing,” she said, quickly adding, “with my clothes on.”

She said she takes striptease lessons to unleash the sexy girl inside her. When she performs a striptease, she said, she becomes another person.

“A sexy girl who can do anything she wants. And nobody can take their eyes off her,” she intimated.

Her friends know that Kewalin takes salsa, belly dancing and zouk lessons at Rum Puree, but her striptease class remains a secret. She once told a male colleague and he reacted negatively.

“He thought it was all about me taking off my clothes,” she related.

Though shirts were unbuttoned during the lesson, no one was naked at the end of the one-hour class.

But isn’t that the purpose?

“Eeeeh...not really,” Busakorn said. “But at home, if you are dancing for your boyfriend, then it is up to you.”

Her idea of a good striptease is “when a stripper can arouse a man without touching him”.

Can she? “Yes, some guy told me,” she said, flashing a big smile.

She said she yearns to turn the Patpong go-go dancers into New York-style strippers.

“Stripping is an art. It is not about people looking only at your naked body,” she explained.

If she could get her hands on them, she said, they would possess a dancer’s body and movements.

(Published in The Star on Oct 22, 2006)

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Politicians without a cause


Ten minutes into an interview at the posh Four Seasons Hotel in Bangkok, Suranand Vejjajiva, who lost his job as Prime Minister’s Office Minister three weeks ago, stood up and walked towards a politician.

Returning to the table, the boyish-looking 45-year-old politician said “he was Minister of Health (Pinij Charusombat).”

“These are all the unemployed ministers who are walking around in hotels,” said Suranand, laughing.

“There was a joke someone told me yesterday, ‘You can meet all the unemployed ministers in departmental stores. They just walk around.’”

Turning serious, he said, “You can’t do political work because they have not lifted martial law.”

Martial law, which was imposed immediately after the military toppled Thaksin Shinawatra’s Thai Rak Thai (TRT) government on Sept 19, meant that political activities were prohibited.

“As a politician, I would like to be able to present my views. But under martial law, I have to think: Should I say this? Should I say that? Should I give an interview to you?” related Suranand.

Last week, the media-friendly former TRT spokesman declined an interview request as “the Prime Minister (post) and Cabinet (posts) were not settled.”

Suranand is settling into life after the coup.

“I know that I cannot be a minister or MP all the time. It is not a permanent job,” explained the son of Nissai Vejjajiva, the former Thai ambassador to Malaysia.

“So once the job ends – although by a coup and that is sad – there is a new beginning. There will be elections and I’m sure I can put myself in good public use again.”

Now he has quality time for his family and reading.

“I don’t know if there is any wife who will be happy that her husband is unemployed, but my wife is,” he said, laughing. “She says I should take a rest.”

Suranand, who quit TRT on Oct 2, will be taking a break from politics for the next two months. It will also be a time for him to reflect on his political experience in the last eight years. Then he will decide what to do next, politically.

In the meantime, he has a few things lined up. Write a book on his political experience. Write another book on public broadcasting. Write articles for newspapers. And do public work.

He is also thinking about talking to his former colleagues on what to do next.

“Do we go back and rebuild TRT? Or do we set up another political party?” he said, adding that these questions would be answered next year.

So what are his former Cabinet colleagues doing?

“I talked to a couple of ministers and they are doing the same thing as I am – re-arranging our (furniture at) home,” he said. “Mostly we say ‘We take a rest now but if you do anything, just give me a ring and let’s have lunch (discussion).”

Some of Thaksin’s former ministers are depressed and feel that the coup is not justified.

Suranand has advised them, saying: “That’s life. I don’t agree with the coup but it has happened. And for the sake of the country, we have to move on.”

Some of them are also worried as there have been rumours that the interim government would go through their assets and take action if there are irregularities.

But Suranand is not worried. “When you see my assets you will be laughing. Probably I am the poorest minister in (Thaksin’s) Cabinet,” he said.

Since the coup, Suranand has not spoken to former Prime Minister Thaksin, who is in London.

“I don’t want to bother him. Let him take a rest. But I do pass messages and words of encouragement through (the former prime minister’s secretary-general) Promin Lertsuridej,” he said.

The feedback he has received from London is that Thaksin is relaxing.

“He was in a fighting mode at the beginning of the coup. But now, like what is taught in Buddhism, he can let go. Thaksin wants everything to be on track so that everyone goes back to democracy and the country can move forward,” he said.

At the end of the 50-minute interview, Suranand said he was staying put at the hotel.

“I’m meeting up with the former Health Minister. He’s still around the hotel. He’s walking with his daughter,” he said with a boyish smile.

(Published in The Star on Oct 15, 2006. Photograph courtesy of The Nation)

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Young bride, old groom


The girl in the deckchair was one of the prettiest of Thai girls, young and fresh. Her companion, in his sixties, was powerfully built with greying hair across his chest and back and was wearing tight Lycra swimming shorts.

It was beauty and the beast.

That’s the observation of Ben Farnsworth, the 20-something protagonist in the novel, Thai Girl.

A “young and fresh” Thai girl clinging to a “short, dumpy and almost bald” white man is a common sight in Thailand. Thais call the men tao hua ngoo, which means “old nasty man with a snake on his head”.

What goes through the mind of Andrew Hicks, the author of Thai Girl, when he sees these oxymoronic couples?

“It is often looks awful and obnoxious,” he says. “The ugly sex tourist is a fact.”

Is it fair to say that back home no woman (except their mother) wants these men?

“It is often true,” says Hicks.


“Maybe because they are fat and ugly,” he says.

Then why are they so desired in Thailand?

“The girls are prepared to tolerate an older farang because of his money,” he says.

Before querying the 60-year-old Englishman who is married to a Thai woman half his age, I cushioned some of my questions with “this is not referring to you”. I was sincere, as Hicks is not “short, dumpy and almost bald”.

The tall and trim man can pass for a dignified John Major, the former British prime minister. Hicks, a former London corporate lawyer and National University of Singapore law lecturer, has authored law books such as The Company Law of Malaysia.

Why do young Thai girls marry an old farang (Thai for westerner)?

“Strangely,” he explains, “they can give each other the same thing although they are offering each other something different. Fundamentally, they are giving each other a new life.”

New opportunities open up for a young Thai farmer’s daughter, who has limited prospects, when she marries a farang. And the marriage offers a farang a completely new life.

“I’m divorced, retired and have very little left to do in my life and marrying my Thai wife gives me the whole of her country. I’m no longer an outsider,” says Hicks, who since 1977 has travelled throughout Thailand, jotting down his observations of the interaction between Thais and foreigners.

Their marriage provides the opportunity for his wife, who is a rice farmer's daughter, the opportunity to live between London and Ban Mahachai, her village in Thailand.

But bringing home a Thai wife has a “slight implication”.

“The sad thing in England is when I say I’m married to a Thai, there is a slight implication that I must have met her in a bar, that she must be a prostitute,” he relates.

For the record, three years ago, he met his wife Cat while she was working in a restaurant in Phuket.

The stereotype is unavoidable.

“Sadly, Thailand has earned its sex tourism reputation,” says Hicks, who runs

“From the Vietnam War onwards, Patpong, Nana Plaza, Soi Cowboys and Sukhumvit have been major attractions for sex tourists.”

The traditional Thai girl is the opposite of a go go dancer, however.

“She will return home before dark to look after mama and papa and she is not allowed to see boys,” Hicks says, relating his observations of life in Ban Mahachai, a village near where he lives in Isaan, the arid north-east region.

However, some of the girls are driven into prostitution because of their fear of poverty.

Typically, in Isaan, which is about an eight-hour bus ride from Bangkok, villagers own a small padi field that produces enough rice to sustain them for a year.

“Other than one or two calves, they’ve got nothing else to sell. They hope their children can leave the village to earn money so that they can send home 500 baht (RM50) a month. That (RM50) is what they live on (for a month),” he says.

The young woman faces the terror of letting her parents down. “She will do anything to make sure her parents don’t go hungry,” he says.

Publishing his observations of life in Ban Mahachai is what’s next for the writer. Hicks’ non-fiction book will be titled, My Thai and I.

(Published in The Star on Oct 8, 2006)