Saturday, November 24, 2007

Granny showgirl makes comeback


IN THE intense campaigning for the Thai polls on Dec 23, what’s a sensible question to ask a 52-year-old Tiger Show performer who recently came out of retirement?

Do you want Thaksin Shinawatra back as prime minister? I asked Krissana Makrasa, who in the past two weeks has performed tricks (such as opening Coca-Cola bottles with the most delicate part of her body) in a go-go bar at Bangkok’s Nana Entertainment Plaza.

“No, because he does not like Tiger Show. I support those who support my job,” the granny revealed last Sunday in a cafe along Sukhumvit road that is teeming with campaign posters of smiling candidates vying to be a Member of Parliament.

Krissana is referring to the social order campaign then prime minister Thaksin launched in 2001 to clean up Thailand’s risque image. As a consequence, the Tiger Show – which Urban Dictionary defines as “in Thailand, a special sex show involving a number of acrobatic displays” – became virtually extinct.

When army tanks rumbled into the Thai capital on Sept 19 last year to oust Thaksin, Krissana didn’t grumble as she hoped the coup would herald change. That year her life crumbled after her 34-year-old English boyfriend of 16 years left her.

“I was hoping to return to my former job as there was nobody to take care of me financially. And I have a big responsibility to provide for my family (her 27-year-old daughter and six-year-old grandson),” she recalls.

In the early 1980s, after divorcing her Thai husband, whom she labelled as a “butterfly”, Krissana journeyed 56km from her home province of Nakhon Pathom to unfamiliar Bangkok to seek a better life.

“At that time I was as naive as a scarecrow,” she recollects.

In Patpong, Bangkok’s then infamous red-light district, she found a job performing gymnastics and ballet in the nude.

“I was embarrassed, but the money was good,” recalls Krissana, who as young girl taught herself ballet and gymnastics from watching television.

The top earner in the go-go bar was a Tiger Show performer. And Krissana studied the necessary tricks so she could make more money.

“At home I imitated what she did on stage. At first it was so difficult. Then I realised that if I contracted my abdominal muscles there was ‘wind’ in my stomach which I could use to blow out a dart,” she explains.

Readers, please don’t try the dart trick at home. “If you don’t concentrate 100%, accidents can happen,” she warns.

Wasn’t the Coca-Cola bottle trick painful? I asked.

“The first time it hurt a little bit. But I did not need to see a doctor,” she says, proudly. “I had to practise, practise and practise.”

Her lucky break came when a Tiger Show performer called in sick. On the night of her first public performance, to overcome embarrassment and stage fright, Krissana pretended that she was alone in a toilet.

And a star was born. Subsequently she learnt more than 100 tricks, earning about 150,000 baht (RM16,300) a month.

After performing for seven years the star quit, as her English boyfriend disapproved of her job. He promised to support her financially.

Last year, the couple broke up after a fight over his excessive drinking and smoking. In financial straits, she wanted to make a comeback.

“But I couldn’t because of Thaksin,” she recalls.

The opportunity to come out of retirement came three weeks ago when Krissana stumbled onto her former mama-san, who offered her a job, as the Tiger Show was now allowed with the change of government.

Surprised that the go-go bar recalled a veteran who possesses a body that has seen better days, I asked the granny why it didn’t hire younger performers.

According to her, Tiger Show performers are now a dying breed following the crackdown six years ago.

“How can a girl learn when she has never seen a Tiger Show?” she asks.

Buoyed from her roaring comeback, Krissana hopes the next government will not allow the Tiger Show to become extinct.

(Published in The Star on Nov 24, 2007. Photograph by Vera Mopilin)

Saturday, November 17, 2007

A tough call to make

Thai Takes

WHEN the dust of the Dec 23 elections settles, one out of the 480 MPs will be Thailand’s Prime Minister. Here’s the latest on the party leaders who may become first among equals.

Abhisit Vejjajiva, Democrat Party

If the Democrats form the next government, this 43-year-old Oxford graduate will become Thailand’s youngest prime minister in the post-war period.
On Thursday, when asked why the Democrats’ campaign poster often depicted him with villagers, the Newcastle-born politician retorted: “Am I a farang (Thai for Westerner)?
“I have always cherished Thai culture even thought I spent 10 years of my life abroad.
I am a shy and quiet person, hence I may appear a bit awkward whenever I meet with my constituents.”
His campaign battle with the other frontrunner in the premier race is dubbed ‘Beauty and the Beast.’
Of course, beauty is the handsome Abhisit. While the Beast is ....

Samak Sundaravej, People Power Party

His party is the re-incarnation of deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s disbanded Thai Rak Thai. And Samak, who was deputy prime minister three times and Bangkok governor for four years, has turned the elections into a verdict on last year’s coup on the 58-year-old Thaksin.
As expected, the burly and outspoken politician (‘My mouth speaks my mind’) is the most venomous among the party leaders.
For example, the 72-year-old politician spat out an arcane Thai phrase (sep methun, which means fornicate) to avoid a journalist’s question about his party’s infighting.
However, there is a method behind Samak’s brashness.
“While rival party leaders are tailoring their messages for the sophisticated middle class, Samak is busy talking loudmouth to woo the working class and villagers,” wrote Avudh Panananda, The Nation’s political writer.

Banharn Silapa-Archa, Chart Thai Party (Thai Nation)

The 76-year-old former prime minister has declared that he would put his country first before personal grudges. This was in response to Samak’s provocation that he reverse his declaration two weeks ago that his party would support Abhisit as the next PM.
In September 1996, the Democrat-led opposition launched a censure motion against the Banharn administration, calling for his disqualification as prime minister because his father was not a Thai citizen.
And Samak reminded Banharn that several parties – except Samak’s – stabbed him in the back during the censure motion.

Suwit Khunkitti, Puea Pandin (For the Motherland)

In Suwit’s recently launched autobiography Pen Pai Dai Ta Jai Soo (For his country, one man will achieve the impossible), the US graduate wrote that he was sorry to leave the country as he could have competed with Arnold Schwarzenegger for the governorship of California.
His qualifications to become the Thai numero uno? “I’ve been deputy prime minister five times, I’ve been the head of seven ministries, in parliament I was twice chairman of standing committees, I’m involved with economic and social-development programmes, science technology, social issues, agriculture and even justice,” croons the 50-year-old former Thai Rak Thai executive.

Prachai Leophairatana, Matchima Thipataya (Thai for the Middle Path)

The 64-year-old tycoon was Thailand’s biggest corporate debt defaulter (over150 billion baht or RM16bil) during the 1997 Asian financial crisis.
A sample of Prachai-nomics: to stimulate Thailand’s economic growth, he promised to launch mega-infrastructure projects such as the Kra Isthmus canal scheme, which will cut across southern Thailand to enable ships to bypass the Straits of Malacca and sail directly to the South China Sea.
Prachai backed the unsuccessful long-running Yellow protests to oust Thaksin as prime minister.
He has no lost love for Thaksin. “Thaksin was cleverer than Hitler,” he declared on Tuesday in reference to the massacre at Krue Se and Tak Bai in southern Thailand.

Or none of the MPs might be PM. Renowned Chiang Mai fortune teller Warin Buawiratlert does not foresee a politician taking the position of prime minister.

He predicts that only an ex-soldier can be the next leader. He warns that political difficulties after the polls could prevent the formation of a new elected government.

Even the military-appointed Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont expects Thailand to have a new government only in February.

With no one party winning an absolute majority, it could take a month to negotiate a coalition government.

(Published in The Star on Nov 17, 2007)

Saturday, November 10, 2007

The A to Z of Thai polls

Campaigning for Thailand’s first general election since last year’s coup kicked off on Wednesday. Here’s the A to Z of the Dec 23 Thai polls.

A IS for Abhisit Vejjajiva, the 43-year-old Oxford-educated politician who is tipped to be Thailand’s prime minister, if his Democrat Party can persuade the smaller parties to come into a coalition government.

Banharn Silapa-archa, the 76-year-old former prime minister and leader of the Chart Thai Party, is expected to have a say on which party will form the next government. He also has an outside chance of becoming PM again.

Constitution: Under Thailand’s new constitution, the number of elected Members of Parliament is 480 (80 party-list MPs and 400 constituency MPs). Forty million-plus voters will cast two ballots, one for local candidates and a second for party-list candidates who are meant to represent the political parties’ platforms.

Democrat Party: Thailand’s oldest political party is the front-runner in the race to form the next government.

Election Commission vows to be politically neutral.

Free and fair elections. Many are doubtful.

General Sonthi Boonyaratkalin: The 61-year-old coup leader, who is now deputy prime minister, has declined to rule out another coup if the People Power Party (PPP), labelled as ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra’s ‘nominee’ party, forms the next government. Sonthi will announce his political plans on Monday.

Horse-trading will be at its peak among politicians once the outcome of the elections is known.

I’m with Abhisit,’ says Banharn, in dismissing reports that he could ditch his coalition partner if the PPP wins the most seats in the elections.

Junta: The military junta, which ousted Thaksin, is in command of one-third of the country (still under martial law), raising the question on how free and fair the elections can be.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej: The Thais’ mood for elections perked up when the 79-year-old revered king was released from hospital after more than three weeks of medical treatment.

London is where the 58-year-old Thaksin is living in self-exile. He is believed to be a major financier of the PPP.

Matchima Thipataya Party is the political vehicle of 63-year-old tycoon Prachai Liewphairatana, who has announced his willingness to join a coalition with anyone as long as he is in government.

Numbers game: Depending on whom you listened to, the PPP and the Democrat could win more than 100 seats each. The Pua Paendin Party might obtain 50 to 70 seats, and the Chat Thai Party 40 seats. Matchima and Ruam Jai Thai Chat Pattana Party are seen grabbing 20 to 30 seats each, and Pracharaj less than 10 seats.

Outright poll majority, which Thaksin’s TRT managed to win in the 2005 polls, is unlikely in this elections.

PPP, the reincarnation of Thaksin’s disbanded TRT, can win the most seats, but not form the next coalition government if it fails in political horse-trading.

Quotable quote: “Who did you fornicate with last night?” Samak Sundaravej asked of a female reporter in an attempt to skirt around an embarrassing query on his party’s infighting over its Bangkok candidates.

Ruam Jai Thai Chat Pattana Party, like other TRT splinter groups such as Puea Pandin and Matchima Thipataya, is hoping to enter into a government coalition with the Democrats.

Samak Sundaravej: The 72-year-old PPP leader, who served as deputy prime minister in several governments, is seen as a proxy of Thaksin. He has vowed to bring Thaksin back to Thailand ‘with full honour’. He could be Thailand’s next premier.

Thai Rak Thai: The tribunal court found TRT guilty of election fraud in the April 2006 polls (which were later annulled). It disbanded the party and barred 111 TRT MPs, including Thaksin, from Thai politics for five years.

Uncertain and Unclear: No matter who wins the election, the outcome is unlikely to put an end to the country’s political uncertainty.

Vote buying is widespread especially in rural constituencies, where the people are poor.

War of words: A shouting match between Thepnimit Kongjan, a Samak admirer, and Vichan Santivorakul, an Abhisit fan, turned deadly on Thursday.

X-factor: The unknown factor that can influence the possibility of a possible dark horse candidate becoming PM.

Yes votes’ in the Aug 19 national referendum on the army-backed constitution indicated where the Democrats would obtain their seats (south and Bangkok). And the ‘No votes’ showed strong support for Thaksin in northern and north-eastern provinces.

Zones: Under the proportional representation system, there are eight zones or groups of provinces, with each area to be represented by 10 members of parliament (MPs).

(Published in The Star on Nov 10, 2007)

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Dim sum the Malaysian way


MAI kow jai (Thai for don’t understand) was the impression of a Malaysian dim sum cognoscente when he sampled chicken feet at a coffee shop at Bangkok’s Chinatown.

“I did not like the taste of the kai kiok (chicken feet). Thais do not understand the subtleties of cooking dim sum,” said Peh Teik Hok, a 35-year-old dim sum chef with Ocean 52, a trendy restaurant in the city.

“They use the same ingredients – cinnamon, anise star, ginger, split onion – as dim sum chefs in Malaysia. But the flavour of Bangkok’s kai kiok is too strong compared with Kuala Lumpur’s,” explained Peh. “This is because Thais know what to put in the dish but they do not know how much to put.”

The chef also gave a thumb’s down to the coffee shop’s other dim sum fare such as har kau (the size of the prawn inside the steamed dumpling was very, very small) and siew mai (the dumpling only had pork and no prawn as it was sold “cheaply”).

His yam cha session in Chinatown was part of Peh’s mission to research on Bangkok’s dim sum palate as he was creating a dim sum menu for Ocean 52, which is in lebua, a luxury hotel.

Here’s his tasting note. The Bangkok-styled dim sum has a distinctive Thai flavour – spicy and strong. It taste dissimilar from KL’s dim sum that has a light flavour (similar to the Hong Kong dim sum).

The dim sum served in Bangkok’s five-star hotels is arooy (Thai for delicious) as it is exactly like that in Hong Kong because the chefs are from ? Hong Kong.

However, Peh complained that the dim sum selection in the five-star hotels was limited. “It is mostly prawns,” said the chef, who loves to fill his dumplings with fish and duck.

Peh is genetically engineered to love dim sum. He comes from a family that used to own a dim sum restaurant in Ipoh. “As a child I ate dim sum everyday,” said the chef, whose first dim sum sifu (master) was his father, Peh Kim Hong.

He left the family-owned restaurant to work as a dim sum chef in the Shangri-La Hotel Kuala Lumpur, Singapore Marriott Hotel and Yauatcha, the stylish London restaurant that is popular with celebrities.

Last year, Peh was headhunted by Ocean 52, a restaurant with a bird's-eye view of the Chao Phraya River and Bangkok, to transform dim sum dining in the Thai capital.

When asked why a Malaysian chef was picked for a cuisine that is synonymous with Hong Kong, Peh responded with a smile. “The Hong Kong chefs are from the old school. They insist on cooking Hong Kong-style dim sum,” he explained.

“What style does a Malaysian dim sum chef have? If my boss wants a hot and sour dish – which is popular in Europe - I’m prepared to create it.”

Ocean 52’s brief was: to create modern dim sum dishes with an Asian flavour. And in February, Peh experimented, referring to his old recipes for inspiration.

It was a trial and error process. In the end, Peh dished out 16 dim sum dishes that were uniquely his. For example, seabass wrapped in rice paper filled with cream sauce. The 280 baht (RM29.50) dish is simply delectable.

His favourite dish is Mooli puff with dried scallops and prawns (280 baht). “It has a light taste and a delightful smell. And it is crispy on the outside and soft on the inside,” he said.

It took him about two weeks to perfect the deep-fried dish. At first he used spring rolls. But it was not perfect. So he tried using flour but it tasted normal. Then he used glutinous rice. “That’s how I got the soft and hard texture,” he recounted.

His menu is not strictly modern. There is also traditional dim sum such as the 280 baht har kau (with fresh and big-sized prawn) and Shanghai chicken dumpling (140 baht or RM14.70)

“You still need to offer the old style as some customers demand a familiar taste,” he said.
Modern or traditional, for Peh all his dim sum are his babies. “I’m the one who makes them,” said the dim sum lover.

(Published in The Star on Nov 3, 2007)