Bangkok's Night Scene In Review
BARS & MASSAGE WORST HIT
Bangkok, 01 May 2003
William R. Morledge
The dust having pretty much settled from the brief Coalition military expedition into Iraq, it appears that the real, or perhaps the primary cause for the sudden drop-off in the Night Entertainment business in Bangkok was --and is-- SARS. It should be said that the Thai Government is pursuing a wiser path than virtually all of its neighbors, including Singapore, re: screening arriving tourists and others. Thailand's cases of this highly contagious virus have been negligible to date, and we can assume the strict screening on arrival will continue until the threat has disappeared. If in the long run, the seemingly excessive screening proves to be effective, Thailand will emerge a big winner, both health-wise and tourism-wise. An exercise in deferred gratification, Thailand will have proven itself a 'safe' destination, thereby improving the tourism scene in general and the Night Entertainment Scene in particular.
The SARS epidemic is, as we all are aware, keeping them away in droves. Vis-à-vis the Night Entertainment Scene, the hardest hit are the small bar beers and, perhaps not surprisingly, the massage parlors where contact with carriers would, in theory, be extremely likely.
Although prevalent in the past, more and more bar beers are tightening their belts by taking staff off salary altogether - the girls' earnings coming solely from 'lady drinks', or 'buy-outs'. Several bar beer owners /managers been taken by surprise when their entire staff have quit, to seek employment at a lounge, pub or bar that pays at least a minimal salary, or, barring that, where the Farang trade is heavier. But in spite of these frugal times, very few bar beers have failed completely and gone out of business. (The Zootramp Publications database has not -yet- reflected any increase in the number of failures or turn-overs in any category of Night Entertainment Venue since the Sukhumvit Square debacle.)
The massage parlors and spas in Bangkok are taking a slightly different approach to the current wave of "Entertainment Blues". In that their staff are paid only for each massage administered to the customer, it would seem that it wouldn't matter how large the employee roster was. Or to say it another way, the massage parlor owners wouldn't really care if individual masseuse earnings dropped as long as their customers had someone available when they came in. But in reality, there is a great difference in masseuse capabilities; the professional, well trained masseuses are much sought after by return customers, and are often recommended by these customers to others. Recently, several of the less popular masseuses from various massage parlors around the city are complaining that they often have days where they have no customers - or zero earnings. But even the more experienced masseuses aren't fully occupied with return customers - and their monthly earnings are dropping proportionately. This could (and does) result in good masseuses looking elsewhere for work - even if it is only a case of the grass appearing greener on the other side. It would, of course, be to the massage parlors' disadvantage for this to happen, so they are remedying this by both laying off the less popular staff and giving the remaining experienced (popular) staff extra days off. The added advantage to doing this is it keeps the unoccupied staff from sitting around the television grousing and telling fairy-tales about how such-and-such spa pays so much per massage, etc...
Looking forward, if the entertainment slump were to hit hard and long enough, the smaller bars would eventually have to cash in their chips. Not coincidentally, most of these smaller bars are currently in Night Entertainment Areas that are "opportunistic" in nature. That is to say, the land they are currently on was originally destined for other, grander things. But for whatever reason -- usually the economic melt-down of '97 -- the land wasn't developed according to plan. 'Opportunistic' entrepreneurs came, saw, and built mostly temporary structures, knowing full well their tenure would be only a few years, at best. Examples of these 'opportunistic' Night Entertainment Areas here in Bangkok are Clinton Plaza (already being redeveloped), Sukhumvit Square (already demolished and now being prepared for new construction), Tobacco Road (Soi Zero), Cowboy Annex and Queen's Park Plaza. Should the income from these opportunistic entertainment areas drop drastically for a long enough period, land owners would soon be reconsidering their original large scale redevelopment plans.
This, however, remains a 'worst case scenario'; MIDNITE HOUR expects the normal flow of tourism into Thailand to be restored within 3 months, and does not see much likelihood of these massive redevelopment projects happening at an accelerated pace, even though they will all definitely come to pass in the next few years.
This begs the question - has anyone looked at the projected longevity of these opportunistic Night Entertainment Areas? MIDNITE HOUR has spent the last two months in pursuit of this question, and has come up with a few surprising predictions - all based on interviews with owners, managaers and people 'on the ground' at these venues. Follows is a summary of these findings.
The biggest surprise was a persistent rumor that Washington Square would be sold and redeveloped into a mega-5-star hotel by 2007. This sounds very tenuous, and MIDNITE HOUR has awarded it the "Rumor Of The Month" Award
In summary, MIDNITE HOUR expects Bangkok's 'Entertainment Blues' to have disappeared by the end of August and that the Night Entertainment Scene will be back to 'full-tilt' by then.
• April's Follies Begin Here... •
MIDNITE HOUR presents the NEWS on the Bangkok Night Scene; - the 'history-in-the-making' for all major Night Entertainment Areas for the month ending 30 April, 2003 :
• PATPONG II •The Bua Luang group is renovating the 5th floor Bua Luang Karaoke. Look for it to reopen in June this year. It is one of several of their venues in the building across from Foodland (accessed by stairwell or elevator - located between Cosmos Club and the Crystal Palace). In the same stairwell area they also have another karaoke of the same name (3rd floor) as well as the Bua Luang Restaurant and Bua Luang Beauty Shop. On the 4th floor they have a folk music cafe called Bua Luang Cafe. Also on Patpong II they have the Khun Bua beauty shop (on The Ramp), the Target Pool & Restaurant and the IT Room. The group has been around for years, but keeps a low profile, at least as far as providing Night Entertainment for Farang.
On The Ramp, the Rig-1-Gold has hung its sign back up, so we can assume they are going to stick around for the foreseeable future. Keep on keeping on, gang.
Also on The Ramp, the Dome Juniority Club has hung its old sign back up, after having played around with signs reading Dome Junior and (the resurrected) The Rock. One can't help but suspect .
Our signage problems continue... The Wun Pub next to the Thai Room has finished a minor renovation, but hasn't replaced the sign yet. No name change is in order; they say the sign will be up "soon".
Still on the subject of signs, next door to the aforementioned Wun Pub is its "sister" pub, which first opened in October of last year. It has been plagued with frequent temporary closures, but has finally got a name and a brand-new sign. Business looked brisk at the "new" New Lady. We wish you consistency.
It's too soon to tell, but the stairwell leading up to the old King's Place (Soi Bookstore) had been swept clean, and all the lights were on. While activity levels were high, no one was saying anything one way or the other regarding its fate. Closed since May of 2001, only time will tell if the King's Group plans to reopen at that location.
• PATPONG II •
• NANA PLAZA •Temptations A-Go-Go bar on the second floor has been closed down by the powers-that-be for having fish too young to fry. We can expect them to switch the neon back on in another week or two.
On the third floor, the large bar at the top of the stairwell has displayed several signs, sometimes simultaneously , since it tore down the common wall and joined with the Beverly Hills in August 2000 (to wit: Carousel, Hollywood Strip and XXX). It now appears to have settled on the name "Hollywood Carousel". Brand-new signage says as much. We can't help wondering what the legal registered name is... Business as usual - keep on rockin'.
• NANA PLAZA •
• SOI KATOEY •Located in the old Rome Club premises on the right going in, the Samsara has at last opened its doors to the public. Soft opening was on the 17th of April, and they are planning a grand opening party on 26 May. It is best described as a "lounge" or "music lounge". It is so dark inside you need to tread carefully through the split-level layout as you find your way to a seat, but the layout is indeed attractive once your eyes adjust. Downstairs seating around a hexagonal bar. A small dance floor and musician's area is on the right (no music the night of our visit). Just behind that is the stairway up to the second floor, which is a U-shaped balcony looking down on the action within. It is even darker than downstairs, and there is another serving wet bar along the front in the upstairs bay window. One wonders if that space might have been better used for customers' tables - to look down on the passing throngs. There is no indication at this juncture as to whether they are aiming at the gay market or the straight market, or both. Only time will tell. The male & female staff are friendly, and the prices are in line - 60 baht for a soft drink (early evening prices). The Samsara has definitely put its best foot forward. Welcome to the action.
The Kool Spot Pub is open for business once again, and business looked brisk.
Now we (think we) know..... After fooling around with different entrances, and having different venues on different floors and trying out various signs with various combinations of the words, "Speed", "R&B" and "Hip Hop" over the last nine months, it looks as though the dust has settled: Speed will be on the first floor, and Hip Hop will be on the 2nd. We wish you consistency.
• SOI KATOEY •
• COWBOY ANNEX •The Funny Bar has packed it in, and turned all chattel over to the newly opened Richy Bar. Welcome to the fracas. In an obvious case of , their only sign reads, "Richiy Bar Pool".
The Lemon bar has ditched their old sign, which read, "Lemon Bar Bear", and replaced it with one reading just "Lemon", thus undoing the work of previous gremlin painters.
Last month we reported the opening of the 0-2 bar in the area previously occupied by the C.J. Pub and Restaurant. This month two other bar beers have opened in the remaining area under that roof. The first to open was the C.J., which is a tiny bar beer facing onto Sukhumvit Road. The Mitr bar opened shortly thereafter, and in the back corner is a single pool table shared by the three bars. New signs to be up by the end of the month. We wish these two new arrivals the best of luck as they cast their lot with the rest.
The Prime Bar, closed tighter than McLeod's coin-purse last month, has reopened. As the old neon sign wasn't turned on, we asked the proprietress if it was still going keep its old name. She asked why, and we explained that since they were closed last month (3 separate observations), we didn't know whether or not this was going to be a new bar. At which point she emphatically denied they had been closed last month. We bring this up as a matter of interest, as this phenomenon is an oft-repeated occurrence. We are not sure why bar owners would have others believe they have never closed, when in fact they and their chattel had long faded into the night. Nevertheless, we (think we) welcome them back to the Night Scene merry-go-round.
Walker's Bar, reopened only last month, has gone belly-up - this after having been run out of Sukhumvit Square by the local institutional Mafias. They apparently could not come up with the nut for the rent. Not only are they closed, but the premises have been stripped --lock, stock and barrel-- and swept clean. The area is up for re-rental to whomever. Interested parties can inquire in the Say Hi two doors down.
New on the scene is the No Money No Honey bar beer. Located at the old Rin's Karaoke digs. Pretty much just another bar beer; it didn't look all that busy. Wish them luck as they throw their hat in the ring.
Red Hot Pepper has opened in the 8-Pak at the old Witch Bar location. They seem eager to enter the fray: they are already starting on their Red Hot Pepper web site.
Next to them, also in the 8-Pak, the second of two Lucky Bars reopened after a one-month closure. We'd welcome them back, but were they ever really gone? One can't help but wonder why the 8-Pak is the most volatile of the bar beer areas - having the highest turnover rate in the Capitol. Rents too high? Too many people with too much money ready to 'get into the bar business'? We'll leave it as an open question for the time being...
• COWBOY ANNEX •
• SOI DEAD ARTISTS (Soi 33) •The friendly Japanese bar with the signs saying 'Members Only' and 'Japanese Only' now has a new sign: they are officially the Shinse Kai Japanese Club Karaoke. Inscrutable, for lack of a better word.
The Pui Massage now has an additional name sign which reads, "Sarinna". As before, various Thai massages available.
• SOI DEAD ARTISTS •
• QUEEN'S PARK PLAZA •The unusually named Monkey's But is closed, unless it isn't closed, of course. On the one hand, doors were locked and lights were out, on the other hand, they have a brand-new sign in the window saying they are now looking to hire new staff. I'm sure, given enough time, they will sort it out.
The Popeye 2 bar beer has its roller-shutters pulled down and padlocked to the deck; only darkness shines out from within. Originating in Clinton Plaza in 1998, when Clinton Plaza was still called 'Thermae Annex', Popeye saw the handwriting on the wall early on and moved to Cowboy Annex in May 2000. The Popeye 2 opened in Queen's Park Plaza at the end of 2001 as an offshoot of the original Popeye. (The original Popeye still going strong in the Cowboy Annex.) Let's wait and see if Popeye 2 gets its second wind, or if it plans to sell.
• QUEEN'S PARK PLAZA •
• CLINTON PLAZA •The long fight with terminal attrition is almost over at Clinton Plaza. April saw the closing of Bill's Coffee Shop, (which used to have the Top Down Grill at the back for snacks.) Now only a darkened, trash-littered floor and the ever-encroaching construction zone barricade remain where once were happier times.
Also in the main building, the Delifrance has bid us all a final adieu - only its darkened doorways greeted old customers. Likewise, the Family Mart convenience store has battened the windows and barred the door. With only the Living Room and Monica's remaining, we can expect the last chapter in the Clinton saga to be written in the very near future.
• CLINTON PLAZA •
• The No-News-Is Good-News Dept •It's status-quo-ante for the following Night Entertainment Areas
• SOI COWBOY •
• PATPONG 1 •
• WASHINGTON SQUARE •
• TOBACCO ROAD (Soi Zero) •
© 2003, BANGKOK EYES / bangkokeyes.com
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