David Bowie found it hard to resist the seedy charms of Bangkok in the 1980s. A Thai woman took him to see girls dancing to his song Ricochet in the SuperStar gogobar.
Glass in hand, the singer was filmed in the red light district of Patpong, one of the most famous in the world.
Over these years, the area has attracted countless tourists looking for offerings ranging from bars to all manner of adult-themed entertainment.
The pandemic put a stop to all that, bringing Patpong to a standstill. As bars slowly reopen and neon lights flash suggestively, tourist numbers remain low.
Some of the most famous establishments, like Bowie’s SuperStar, or the famous Madrid Bar, have not survived.
“The bright lights of Patpong Road are slowly fading as many bars and clubs can’t keep their heads above water,” the Bangkok Post wrote last year.
“But for Patpong, the pandemic is basically a great opportunity to reinvent itself,” says Michael Messner, an Austrian who has been living in Bangkok for a long time. He is the son of the famous Viennese artist Ernst Fuchs (1930-2015) and himself owned a series of bars in the neighborhood.
He then opened the Patpong Museum in 2019 to tell the story of the development of the entertainment district.
Where did it all start?
In the beginning, before the sexy dancers, there was a banana plantation. Chinese immigrant Poon Pat, who was knighted by the king in 1930 and later called Luang Patpongpanich, bought land in 1946 for just US$3,000 (RM 12,688 at today’s rate). His family still owns it today.
Luang’s son, Udom, was studying in the United States at the time and also had contacts in the organization that preceded the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Back in Thailand, he developed a business district in the 1950s with the help of his American contacts. Foreign companies set up there, earning the Silom district – where Patpong is located – the nickname of “Bangkok’s Wall Street”.
Early tenants included IBM and Shell, alongside the UPI news agency and the airline Civil Air Transport, which later became Air America, and is run by US intelligence agencies.
Later, American soldiers poured into Bangkok after the Vietnam War, while behind the scenes agents coordinated covert operations in Laos and Cambodia against the region’s Viet Cong.
Pilots, intelligence officers, officers and journalists all gathered in Patpong where pubs and clubs opened for their entertainment, from the Madrid bar to the legendary soul club Mississippi Queen.
“Soldiers of fortune and brilliant personalities” were regulars in Patpong back then, Messner says.
One of the most famous establishments was founded in 1969, when former US soldier Rick Menard opened the Grand Prix. “That was the birth of go-go bars in Asia,” says Messner.
“The essence of Patpong was the take-out bars, where visitors could drink cocktails and adult-only fun, all under one roof,” says its museum’s website.
The intoxicating combination of vice, escorts and long drinks soon increased the number of tourists, and other clubs, establishments, restaurants and massage parlors were founded.
Then came the famous ping-pong shows, with young women ejecting…things from their bodies during their acts.
The decline came in the 1990s when Patpong degenerated into an oversized night market filled with Westerners looking for souvenirs and sex. The narrow streets were packed as more bars and restaurants opened to serve people eager to enjoy what was considered an essential stop on a trip to Bangkok.
All that has changed now. The pandemic almost seems to have set the record straight. Patpong has basically closed for most of the past two years. Tourists have only recently been allowed back into Thailand. “A lot of the old top dogs are gone, which makes room for new people and new concepts,” says Messner.
Her museum has already opened an art exhibit showing portraits of sex workers. In the future, he hopes there will be more art and culture in the neighborhood to balance out its seedier side.
After all, Patpong has always been about more than dancing and shopping. It is part of the history of Bangkok. – dpa