David Bowie found Bangkok’s seedy charms hard to resist back in the 1980s. A Thai woman brought him to watch girls poledancing to his song Ricochet in the SuperStar gogobar.
Drink in hand, the singer was filmed in the red light district of Patpong, one of the most famous in the world.
During those years, the area drew countless tourists seeking out offerings from bars to all manner of adult-themed shows.
The pandemic put a stop to all that, bringing Patpong to a standstill. While bars are now slowly reopening and the neon lights are flashing suggestively, the number of tourists remains low.
Some of the most famous establishments, like Bowie’s SuperStar, or the famous Madrid Bar, have not survived.
“The vivid lights of Patpong Road are slowly ebbing away as many bars and clubs cannot 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 based in Bangkok for a long time. He is the son of well-known Viennese artist Ernst Fuchs (1930-2015) and used to own a string of bars in the neighbourhood himself.
He then opened the Patpong Museum in 2019 to tell the story of the entertainment district’s development.
Where did it all start?
Back in the early days, before the sexy dancers, there was a banana plantation. Chinese immigrant Poon Pat, who was ennobled by the king in 1930 and thereafter called Luang Patpongpanich, bought land in 1946 for just US$3,000 (RM12,688 in today’s rate). His family still owns it today.
Luang’s son Udom studied in the United States at the time and also had contacts in the organisation that preceded the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). On returning to Thailand, he developed a business district in the 1950s with the help of his US contacts. Companies from abroad set up shop, earning the Silom district – where Patpong is located – the nickname “Bangkok’s Wall Street”.
Early tenants included IBM and Shell, alongside news agency UPI and the Civil Air Transport airline, which later became Air America, and is run by US intelligence agencies.
Later, US soldiers flocked to Bangkok after the Vietnam War, while behind the scenes, agents coordinated secret operations in Laos and Cambodia against the Viet Cong from the area.
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 glittering 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,” Messner says.
“The essence of Patpong were go-go bars, where visitors could drink cocktails and enjoy adults-only fun, all under the same roof,” his museum website says.
The heady combination of vice, escorts and long drinks quickly increased numbers of tourists, and further clubs, establishments, restaurants and massage parlours were founded.
Then came the infamous ping-pong shows, with young women ejecting... things from their bodies during their acts.
The decline came during the 1990s as Patpong degenerated into an outsized night market packed with Westerners seeking souvenirs and sex. The narrow streets were crowded as more and more bars and eateries opened to serve people eager to enjoy what was seen as an essential stop in a trip to Bangkok.
All that has changed now. The pandemic seems almost to have reset the clocks. Patpong virtually closed down for most of the past two years. Tourists have only recently been allowed back in Thailand. “Many of the former top dogs are gone, which in turn makes room for new people and concepts,” says Messner.
His museum has already opened an art exhibition showing portraits of sex workers. In the future, he hopes there will be more art and culture in the neighbourhood to counter-balance its seedier side.
After all, Patpong has always been more than just go-go dancing and shopping. It is part of Bangkok’s history. – dpa