Saturday, March 28, 2009

Cool cat who cried coup


IF THERE were a TV series about Bangkok’s 20-somethings middle-class, what would it be?

“Gossip Girl (the American TV series which revolves around the lives of socialite teenagers growing up on New York City’s Upper East Side) ... but not as rich,” suggested Alisara Kitty Chirapongse, a 23-year-old prominent Thai blogger.

Why? “It’s the social aspect, how everybody knows everybody’s business. And it is about kids wanting to be adults ... but they are still doing childish things,” explained Gnarly Kitty, a magazine writer who blogs in

If Kitty were a character in Gossip Girl, who would she be? Jennifer ‘Jenny’ Humphrey, she said, “because she is in society but she does not let it affect her.”

“Jenny is kind of an outcast. But at the same time her sense of fashion and social interaction are at par with the other characters,” she added.

The typical 20-something middle-class Bangkokian, observed Kitty, is someone obsessed with shopping and nightlife. “They just spend their money shopping and going out drinking at night. And they repeat the cycle the next day,” she said.

Kitty is atypical.

She does not read Elle (a magazine focusing on women’s fashion, beauty, health and entertainment) but Wired (a magazine and on-line periodical reporting on how technology affects culture, the economy and politics).

“When I go out it is because of music and not because I want to get drunk,” she said.

And Kitty does not hang out at the usual haunts favoured by her peers.

“I don’t go there because it is a crowd where you always have to look pretty. If you don’t wear a certain brand or a dress in a certain way (revealing your legs or boobs), people would go ‘what are you doing here?’” explained the writer who describes her fashion style as dek naew.

Dek naew, according to Ian Stewart, CEO of media consultancy The Filter Group, are Bangkok youths into indie music and the art scene, who “mark themselves out by being distinctive, rather than wearing designer clothes or sporting brand-name accessories.”

The dress code for Bangkok’s Gossip Girls, according to Kitty, is a Louis Vuitton Speedy bag, high heel shoes and short skirts. And their conversation is about getting their nails done, boys and botox.

Botox and the 20-somethings? “They are not getting rid of their lines but making their face smoother,” she explained.

Plastic surgery is not uncommon for the 20-somethings. It is a trend, said Kitty, for 20-something Bangkokians to go to Seoul to undergo surgery so that they look Korean – “little almond sized eyes with big pupils” and “cheeks that are rounder.”

“It is the Korean wave. It is blowing up here,” added the woman who cuts her own hair.

While her contemporaries are out partying, Kitty prefers to be home, snuggled in front of her white Macbook.

She prefers to live online because nothing much in Bangkok appeals to her. She surfs sites (blogs on tech, fashion and news) that appeal to 20-somethings from other countries.

In January 2006, Kitty started blogging on things that interest her, such as the colour pink, iPhone and Fisheye camera. On Sept 19, 2006, attained 15 minutes of blogosphere fame when it was one of the first few blogs to post on the coup against Thaksin Shinawatra.

Her pink-themed blog screamed: “The Military is staging a coup against the PM! The current government is down! The military has taken over.”

Subsequently, Gnarly Kitty was featured in a tech book, Here Comes Everybody, by Clay Shirky: “Alisara Chirapongse, a fashion-obsessed college student, posted coup photos to her weblog along with a running commentary on the immediate aftermath of the coup.

“On why a fashion-obsessed college student blogged about something as serious as a coup, Kitty, who is not gnarly in person, purred: ‘It was something that was big.’

“But I did not expect it to be huge ... that people started to link to my blog. It was scary as it was something that I don’t usually write about – politics, protests and military intervention.”

Probably while Gnarly Kitty was blogging about the coup, her Bangkok contemporaries – the Gossip Girls – were hogging the dance floor.

(Published by The Star on March 28, 2009)

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Taxi small talk unearths gems


HEY, I have one g (gram) of ice. Last night I slept with a rich man and he gave me ice. I will sell it to you for 2,500 baht (RM250),” an 18-year-old attractive female student said in Thai over her mobile phone.

The driver’s ears pricked up on overhearing the telephone conversation. She was a passenger he picked up at Hotel Novotel Bangkok.

After the student alighted at Bangkok’s Central Rama 3 shopping mall, Robert Poo informed a policeman about her drug deal.

That night, at home, he jotted down the conversation in his notebook, hoping one day it would be immortalised in a Thai movie.

Poo is not your typical Thai taxi driver. He is a 60-year-old faded actor and director who drives a taxi to make a decent living (about 20,000 baht or RM2,000 a month) and to mine his passengers for “authentic dialogue”.

The last time Poo, whose real name is Chaikorn Chitcha-uw, acted or directed was about 10 years ago. In his prime, he was cast mostly as a bad guy (because of his fierce beard).

He had appeared in about 30 movies as well as directed a movie and a TV series called Mr Joke (Thailand’s Mr Bean).

Asked why he quit acting and directing, Poo, whose stage name is Robert, after his favourite actor Robert De Niro, said: “I’m an old man.”

His friends in the movie industry has asked him make a comeback. But Poo told them he couldn’t hack it.

“I can’t do fighting scenes,” said Poo, as he jabbed, crossed, jabbed and crossed the air as if re-enacting a scene from a forgotten movie.

“If the scene requires me to fall on the ground, I can’t do it as it will be painful.”

But how about directing?

“I’m too old,” he said. “In Thailand, except for a handful of directors, when you pass 55 your career as a director ends.”

Now Poo, who has been driving a taxi on and off for the last 10 years, dabbles in script writing.

“As a taxi driver I meet passengers of diverse backgrounds – rich, poor, politician or prostitute – and I listen to them talk,” explained Poo, who displays a montage of his acting and directing days on his taxi’s right passenger window with the caption – “Yes, I’m a director”.

“When I go home I write down interesting experiences and dialogues in my notebook.”

So far he has sold a script for 50,000 baht (RM5,000). His storyline (a smart dog which assists the police to nab drug pushers) was turned into a TV comedy series called Mak Ma Ma (Come here, dog).

Last year, Poo wrote a movie script and sent it to a good friend who is a director. It was rejected. The director told him the plot was not original and “not in trend”.

That story was about a broke university student and drug pusher. “The morale of the story is drug pushers end up in jail,” said Poo, who took along a scrapbook of his movie career to the interview.

This year he got an idea for an “in trend” movie script when on a visit to another friend’s dog training school.

“The dogs could do many tricks -swim, open doors, run and stop suddenly. And I thought why not write a story centred around a dog,” he related.

Excitedly, he added: “Recently one of the most successful Thai movies was Ma-Mha 4 Ka Krub (a 2007 Thai comedy-drama film about a pack of ‘talking’ stray dogs in Bangkok).”

Ma-Mha 4 Ka Krub (Mid-Road Gang), according to Wise Kwai (, a blog on Thai films), “is the first Thai live-action feature to star an all-animal cast of principal players”.

Currently Poo is writing the script of his new movie idea: a broke university student who is a drug dealer but finds redemption after befriending a smart dog.

I pointed out: “Isn’t that the same storyline as your rejected movie script?”

“Yes, but this time the star is a dog,” he said, grinning like a puppy.

“Will you be able to sell it?” I asked.

“When the movie opens in cinemas, please come and see it with me,” Poo confidently replied.

(Published in The Star on March 21, 2009)

Saturday, March 14, 2009

It's the calm before the storm

Thai Takes

THAIS are not jumping out of buildings just yet though Thailand is facing a more severe downturn than the 1997 Asian financial crisis which saw thousands committing suicide.

“It’s yet to come. By the second quarter of this year you should see many suicides,” said the man who counselled businessmen who contemplated committing suicide when they were hit by the Asian financial crisis.

Why the second quarter? Because by then those who have not given up hope yet will have no hope.

“The Asian financial crisis affected some 200,000 Thai entrepreneurs and financial institutions but this global economic crisis will affect 63 million Thais,” warned Sirivat Voravetvuthikun, the most famous face of the 1997 financial meltdown.

Known in Thailand as “Mr Sandwich” because the 1997 crash turned him from a multi-millionaire property developer and stock market guru to a sandwich hawker, Sirivat noted that the Asian economic crisis was made in Thailand and exported to neighbouring countries, whereas the present global economic slowdown was a worldwide phenomenon.

“The Tom Yum Kung crisis (as the 1997 crisis is also known) started because we borrowed too much from overseas.

“And one of the International Monetary Fund’s requirements was for Thailand to devalue the baht,” explained the 60-year-old businessman, who operates five cafes in Bangkok called Coffee Corner.

“By devaluing the baht our foreign debt doubled overnight and many debtors, including me, went broke. And the domino effect forced the closure of Thai financial institutions.”

Mr Sandwich said Thailand’s saving grace then was that it was still able to export.

“Because of the devaluation of the baht (which made Thai exports attractive) and the good economic health of the US, Europe and Japan (which at that time represented about 50% of Thailand’s total exports) we could get out of the crisis,” he explained.

This time it is different.

“We cannot export as the whole world is in recession,” Sirivat cautioned, pointing out that exports and tourism account for 70% of Thailand’s GDP.

Tourist arrivals (which generates 500 billion baht to 600 billion baht, or RM51.3bil to RM61.6bil, a year) is down because of the world economic malaise and as a consequence of the closure of Suvarnabhumi and Don Muang airports in late November.

Thailand is in dire straits, he observed.

“Every day you read about export-based factories closing down and workers being laid off,” he said (estimates place the total so far at between one million and two million).

“I predict Thais will suffer. How long will we suffer? My personal opinion is we will be in trouble for at least five years. Why? Because we can’t export.”

I also asked the businessman, loaded with economic tidbits at his fingers tips, about the finance-related suicides during the Tom Yum Kung crisis.

“Yes, there were many suicides. You are talking about thousands. That’s my wild guess,” Sirivat said.

“Some committed suicide because their three-generation businesses went bankrupt.”

Despite warnings that the Thai economy is currently in dire straits there have been no media reports of Thais committing suicide, I pointed out.

“Yet to come,” Sirivat said. “Does that mean the Thai economy is still good? No, they (down and out Thais) still have hope. But when hope diminishes, you will see suicides.

“And there will be people who will give up because when they go to their relatives and friends to borrow money, they will be turned down. I’ve faced that before, but I did not give up.”

But, I told him, the Thai economy looks robust. Bangkok’s shopping malls such as Siam Paragon are full of shoppers who do not look as if they are going to jump out of a building.

“What you see is an illusion,” he countered. “Yes, you see many shoppers in Siam Paragon, but they are just enjoying the air conditioning. They are not buying.

“The shop owners at Siam Paragon will tell you that their business is down by more than 50%.

Mr Sandwich does not have faith that the unstable Abhisit Vejjajiva-led government will be able to solve Thailand’s economic woes.

“Is the prime minister a good man? Yes,” he replied to his own question. “But does he know how to run the country? Question mark.

“Did he form his government democratically? Fifty-fifty, so I expect House dissolution soon.”

(Published in The Star on March 14, 2009)

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Wax job for sexy pop star Tata

Thai Takes

YIM mai? (Thai for ‘Do I smile?’),” asked Thai pop star Tata Young after 10 minutes of “passport photograph” expression during a photo shoot in an empty office in Silom, Bangkok.

Louis Tussaud’s Waxworks Pattaya general manager Somporn Naksuetrong glanced at a portfolio with photographs of the singer and answered “Yes”.

Instantaneously, Tata smiled so sweetly.

Fresh from a lunchtime charity walkabout, wearing a pink T-shirt with the slogan “Those who give are those who get” and khaki shorts, the 28-year-old superstar was in the middle of a sitting for a life-size wax figure.

She’s among 10 Thai icons picked by Louis Tussaud’s Waxworks together with 60 international celebrities (Michael Phelps, Jet Li, Tiger Woods and his Thai mother, Kultida included) for its waxworks museum that would open in Pattaya, Thailand, in October.

No Thai politician was picked.

“With the political situation right now it is not a good time to feature a Thai politician. Abhisit Vejjajiva is too new as prime minister while Thaksin Shinawatra is too controversial,” he explained. “Maybe we will consider in the future.”

Louis Tussaud’s Waxworks, according to Somporn, chose Tata from a shortlist of 50 Thai celebrities because she was not only well known in Thailand but also internationally. In November last year, Louis Tussaud’s Waxworks Pattaya asked Tata whether she wanted to be immortalised as a wax figure.

The artiste had just returned from Berlin where she recorded her third English album, set to be launched in June. At the German capital she visited Madame Tussaud’s Berlin.

“It was pretty cool to see David and Victoria Beckham, Julia Roberts and Elvis. I said ‘yes’ because it would also be pretty cool to see myself as a wax figure,” said the luk kreung (Thai for “half-children”), who is half-Thai, half-American.

“And not everybody gets the chance to be a wax model.”

Her wax model, according to Tata, would be “something that will remain in the wax museum for a long time”.

“So in the next 10 years when I have children or my fan club members visit the museum they would say ‘Oh, she looked like that 10 years ago’,” she said.

When Tata was told luuk thung (Thai country music) superstar Bird Thongchai McIntyre was also on the list, she said she felt honoured to be chosen together with him. “I’m his biggest fan.”

Paradorn Srichaphan (the Thai tennis star) would also be featured, she enthused.

“Oh, I was told not to ask you about Paradorn,” I said. Her ex-boyfriend is married to former Miss Universe Natalie Glebova (who will not be featured in the museum).

“That’s OK. He really did something for Thailand. And he deserves to be one of those chosen,” said the singer, who is known for her sizzling sexy performances.

Earlier, Tata jokingly said “Make sure you make me look skinny” to three artists from Silpakorn University (Thailand’s leading university in fine arts) and a photographer.

They were taking hundreds of measurements and photos of her to ensure her wax figure would be lifelike.

The tattoos on her neck (her late mother’s name, Bunchorn, written in Thai), wrist (a star as she’s a superstar) and ankle (a butterfly as she travels a lot) were also photographed.

Not photographed were tattoos on her belly (her name) and her back (a clef).

Tata also discussed with Somporn the pose for her wax figure. He showed her a photograph a Louis Tussaud’s Waxworks Pattaya designer from Canada had picked.

The pose was provocative – the singer standing with her hands tucked behind her head and her legs spread wide.

“That pose is good. But I have a lot of pictures to look at. Wow! I really have to look through them as this is going to be quite legendary,” said Tata, who is also featured in the computer-generated video game The Sim 2.

The image she wants her wax figure to project is “a Tata that everyone knows – outgoing, fun and confident”.

“Yeah, it should be maybe a little sexy as everybody knows that about me,” she added.

Tata can’t wait for her “clone” to be completed in six months’ time.

“It will be freaky to see a twin of myself,” she said.

(Published in The Star on March 7, 2009)