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‘Leaving Thailand’ – From Phuket with love and heartaches

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“In his new memoir “Leaving Thailand,” a former journalist, film tech and Phuket resident looks back on his life and loves in the kingdom that continue to haunt and inspire him.”

By Jim Algie

I’m wary of memoirs set in Thailand in which a sex-starved Western man descends on the country to get caught up in the carnal circus of bars, bargirls, sex tourists, wastrels, pleasure-seekers and those eccentric expats I call “Bangkooks”.

But Steve Rosse quickly differentiates himself from the herd in the first story, “A Woman of Bangkok,” by noting how he stumbled upon the famous novel “about a young Englishman who falls in love with a Thai ‘dancing girl’ in Bangkok circa 1950. She takes all his money, breaks his heart, costs him his job, and finally leaves him to a future of failure and bitterness. But despite its turgid plot, the book is brilliantly written. It is a story full of wit, pathos and plain old human drama, and it’s one of my favorite books in the world.”

I quote this passage at length not only because it sums up the story arc of so many Thailand books, but also because Rosse brings many of the same qualities, like “wit, pathos and plain old human drama,” which are the lynchpins of Jack Reynolds’ book, to these stories. The effect is a fresh take on a hoary genre that quickly morphs into something much more substantial and distinctive.

In the early parts, however, the blow-by-blow descriptions of the harlots-for-hire scene on Phuket around 1990 are tastefully done and largely sympathetic to the women. As a student of both Thai language and culture, Rosse casts himself as both participant and observer. By straddling that divide, he brings plenty of universal observations about life and hedonism to this specific milieu: “Everybody bears some burden of self-loathing, and for some that burden is so heavy they will only allow themselves joy if it’s connected to an act of penance.”

From the nether regions of Phuket the memoir scales the heights of high-society after the narrator, despondent about breaking up with a bargirl, marries a respectable Thai lady he doesn’t love and starts a family.

Now working in a five-star hotel, Rosse’s depiction of his life as a PR shill is both candid and comedic: “Normally I would greet a VIP in the lobby and walk him to the dining room, doing the warm up jokes on the way. Find out if the VIP has enough English for the intellectual jokes or if I would need to stick to jokes about farts. Settle in over appetizers and aperitifs, laud the hotel, hand out business cards, and then when the food hit the table ask for my photo opportunity.”

In one of the most memorable tales in “Leaving Thailand” (available from Amazon as an ebook or paperback), the author develops an unlikely friendship with their young nanny from Myanmar, both of whom have been tyrannized by Steve’s wife. (“A 38 year old man and a 13 year old girl. We were Vladimir and Estragon waiting for Godot in an empty, sterile, existentialist landscape.”)

But the story’s strong suit is that it plays out against a far bigger backdrop than the Phuket setting across a much wider swathe of personal history. In 2003, now in Iowa with his wife and children, the author took out a classified ad in The Phuket Gazette to try and track Pui down. The search results were zero.

Along the lines of JD Salinger’s classic short story, from which the title “For Pui with Love and Squalor” is taken, the friendship between Steve and Pui breaks free from the constraints of time and geography to float in a timeless realm. Sure, the particulars may have changed a little, but since maids and nannies from Myanmar remain fixtures throughout Southeast Asia, the story’s huge heart still pulsates with vitality.

In both Thailand and the US, the author covers plenty of ground. He takes a long trip up north to go trekking and smoke opium with a hill-tribe, which used to be a rite of passage for many backpackers. Once again, the story is not without its blackly comic interludes. When the author arrives back at JFK in New York an opium pipe he’d bought as a souvenir and forgotten about falls out on the table when the Customs agent searches his bags. After whisking him off to the back room for a personal search, he writes, “I told God, ‘Dear God, if you keep this cop’s finger out of my ass, I promise I’ll go back to Thailand and study Buddhism.”

There’s also a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the Oliver Stone movie, “Heaven and Earth.” Steve was the Head Set Dresser, and the only foreigner working on a team of nine Thai men. It’s another autobiographical piece in the collection with much grander ambitions than mere diarizing. In one passage he skewers the foreign stereotype of lazy and unreliable Thai male workers; these guys are both diligent and resourceful. In another, he conveys the main drawback of being an expat stranger living in very strange lands.

“And after two years of being the farang in Thailand, always being just outside the conversation, always trying to learn the rules and not accidentally insult anybody, always paying more for everything, it felt good to finally be on the team.”

For me, the most captivating story is “Cellies.” It starts in Iowa at a high-school graduation party in a bean field, illuminated by the lights of pickup trucks and energized by kegs of beer. Coming home from such a party, similar to one that Rosse attended, a blonde cheerleader is paralyzed for life when her boyfriend rolled his pickup on the way home.

Dorothy ends up in a nursing home across the street from the house where Steve grew up. After returning from Thailand in 1997 with his wife and two kids he winds up living in the family home again.

The contrast between all the developments in his own life, going to university then working in the film biz in New York, travelling all over Thailand before his bittersweet homecoming, and the details of Dorothy imprisoned in that nursing room, unable to move but still possessing the gifts of speech, sight and hearing, is both a devastating juxtaposition of parallel lives and a considerable feat of empathy for this hapless woman.

Hemingway famously said that the best stories are like icebergs; the biggest parts of them float beneath their surfaces: “The Old Man and the Sea” isn’t just about a fishing trip, right?

“Cellies” put me in mind of that quote, but also my hometown in Canada and all the old friends who never left. Maybe they were paralyzed by a lack of curiosity about the bigger world or all tied up in the straightjacket of a 30-year mortgage. I don’t know. It’s an open-ended kind of story. Do your own reading and choose your own interpretation.

For the most part, the stories unfold in chronological order. Towards the end, however, the author’s reflections span the vast gulf of nowadays and yesteryears after a return trip he made to Thailand in 2019.

Full of articulate and realistic stories written with candour and humour, the collection is a worthy non-fiction successor to “A Woman of Bangkok” told by “A Guy on Phuket,” who, despite the book’s title, never really left the kingdom.

Jim Algie is the author of the nonfiction collection “Bizarre Thailand” and the more recent book of music journalism and literature, “On the Night Joey Ramone Died: Tales of Rock and Punk from Bangkok, New York, Cambodia and Norway.” Both are available from Amazon.

'Leaving Thailand' - From Phuket with love and heartaches | News by The Thaiger

The author, Steve Rosse

'Leaving Thailand' - From Phuket with love and heartaches | News by The Thaiger

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World

Dawn Wells, “Mary Ann” from Glligan’s Island, dies at 82

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Dawn Wells, “Mary Ann” from Glligan’s Island, dies at 82 | The Thaiger
PHOTO: Dawn Well "Mary Ann" in the yellow swim suit... best known as the 'girl next door' in Gilligan's Island

Dawn Wells, one of the castaways in Gilligan’s Island, playing Mary Ann, has died in Los Angeles from Covid-19 complications. She was 82 years old. Her career lasted a lot longer than the fateful trip of the SS Minnow… the three hour tour!

Dawn was born in Reno, Nevada, and started a career in Hollywood where she appeared in TV shows including “77 Sunset Strip,” “Maverick,” “Bonanza,” “The Joey Bishop Show” and “Hawaiian Eye.” Her career kicked off in 1959. She starred in more than 150 TV shows, 7 motion pictures, and more than 60 productions on and off Broadway.

She was among over 300 actresses to audition for the part of “country girl-next-door” Mary Ann on Gilligan’s Island, which ran from 1964 to 1967 with repeats going on until this day around the world. Beyond acting she was a producer, author, teacher, humanitarian, spokesperson, journalist and motivational speaker. She ran a number of charitable children’s organisations and ran a Film Actors Boot Camp for 7 years in the US state of Idaho.

She was also an activist supporting The Elephant Sanctuary in the US. The sanctuary, founded in 1995, is the largest natural habitat refuge for African and Asian elephants.

But she also made it clear that her stint as part of the ensemble cast on Gilligan’s Island was as lucrative as people think.

“A misconception is that we must be wealthy, rolling in the dough, because we got residuals. We didn’t really get a dime. I think my salary was US$750 a week.”

“Sherwood Schwartz, our producer, reportedly made $90 million on the reruns alone!”

Gilligan’s Island was an unexpected hit and in honour of the 50th anniversary of the series, Wells released “A Guide To Life: What Would Mary Ann Do?”. Her gingham dress and famous short shorts from the island series are currently on display in the lobby of The Hollywood Museum.

Tina Louise, 86, who played ‘Ginger’ the movie star, is the last surviving member of the cast that included Bob Denver as Gilligan, Alan Hale Jr. as the Skipper, Jim Backus and Natalie Schafer as wealthy Thurston and Lovey Howell and Russell Johnson as ‘the Professor’ (whose real name was Dr. Roy Hinkley… now you know for your next game of Trivial Pursuit. Also, if he was so damn smart, how come he couldn’t figure out how to patch up the small hole in the SS Minnow?!?!).

Tina Louise said she was sad to learn of Dawn’s passing…

“I will always remember her kindness to me. We shared in creating a cultural landmark that has continued to bring comfort and smiles to people during this difficult time. I hope that people will remember her the way that I do… always with a smile on her face.”

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BTS are the Time Magazine Entertainer of the Year 2020

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BTS are the Time Magazine Entertainer of the Year 2020 | The Thaiger

Music supergroup BTS has been named Entertainer of the Year by Time Magazine, capping another year ascending through the bamboo ceiling of the world’s music industry. The South Korean K-Pop group, who debuted in 2013, has become the world’s most popular band thanks their meaningful lyrics, themed albums, an army of adoring fans (who are actually called ARMY), positive messages and a broad scope in musical styles.

Time Magazine writer Raisa Bruner wrote in the BTS profile… “BTS isn’t just the biggest K-pop act on the charts. They’ve become the biggest band in the world – full stop.” BTS is RM, J-Hope, Suga, V, Jimin, Jin and Jungkook.

Last month, the 7 members earned the first major Grammy Award nomination for a K-Pop band, BTS had the summer bop of the year with the retro-styled “Dynamite”, which was the band’s first single to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts. Their recently released “Be” album is their 2nd to reach the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 200 Album chart this year. In 2019 they scored 3 albums in a 12 month period to reach the No. 1 position, an accomplishment only ever achieved by another “boyband”, The Beatles.

Over the past week the band had a clean sweep of all the major categories in all the different end of year Korean music award shows, a dominance never before seen in one of the most competitive music industries in the world. One member, Suga, has had to sit out their promotional activities over the past month following shoulder surgery. The other members explained that the injury has been a niggling problem for their fellow member since a car accident in the ear days of their training in Seoul.

The band have also risen to world fame on the back of their live performances which has included 2 sell-out world stadium tours. The band’s live singing, stage presence and powerful concert performances have earned them credibility and accolades from the world’s music industry.

“Dynamite” was their first all English track – most of their work is in Korean with smatterings of English – making their rise to fame in the west even more noteworthy.

BTS premiering their single “Black Swan” on the James Cordon Late Late Show.

Behind their slick videos and weaponising of social media platforms, the 7 members write and produce much of their material with 2 of the members inducted into the Korean Music Copyright Association. BTS have also been invited to join the US Recording Academy as part of the committee that selects the annual Grammy Awards winners.

“They did it (the Time award) in a year defined by setbacks, one in which the world hit pause and everyone struggled to maintain their connections.”

Twitter said this week that BTS “Continues to Reign as Most Tweeted About Musicians” in the US for a 4th straight year.

BTS will perform later on tonight, US time, in a television special when Time magazine’s Person of the Year will be announced.

Here’s BTS singing “Dynamite” live during an NPR Tiny Desk session…

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The BTS Law, South Korean parliament amends conscription law to allow Jin to stay with BTS

Caitlin Ashworth

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The BTS Law, South Korean parliament amends conscription law to allow Jin to stay with BTS | The Thaiger
PHOTO: Kim Seok-jin hits the magic age of 28 today but will be able to serve with BTS for another 2 years, postponing his conscription into the South Korean Army.

Many countries still have compulsory military conscription, where young men, usually, are enlisted to serve under their country’s military services. Thailand has it, so does Singapore, Myanmar and Cambodia in our immediate sphere. So does South Korea. That’s a problem for pop kings BTS.

Of course the 18 – 24 months becomes a disruption to your life and your career, but for men living in the countries with conscription it’s just an expectation. But if you’re part of the biggest and most successful pop band in the world at the moment being conscripted suddenly becomes a big deal.

And so it is for Kim Seok-jin, the oldest member of the South Korean mega pop outfit BTS, or Bangtan Sonyeondan. The oldest BTS member reaches the age of 28 today (by the way happy birthday Jin) and would have been expected to put his day of rehearsals and picking up music awards with the other members of BTS aside and enrol in the South Korean military.

Under the current South Korean laws for military conscription, all males, once they reach the age of 28, have to enlist for 20 – 24 months of service for the South Korean military. Remember, technically, South Korea is still at war with North Korea.

So able-bodied men in South Korea are required to enlist and serve 2 years of compulsory military service from the ages of 18 to 30.

In the past, when asked about the thorny issue of the military service interrupting the rise and rise of the BTS brand, Jin always humbly answered…

“As a Korean, it’s natural. And some day, when duty calls, we’ll be ready to respond and do our best. It’s something all the members often talk about, and all of us plan to accept military service.”

The other members of BTS have always echoed Jin’s comments acknowledging the expectation that they would be, above all, young South Korean men and serve their time with the country’s military.

Read more about BTS HERE.

The BTS Law, South Korean parliament amends conscription law to allow Jin to stay with BTS | News by The Thaiger

PHOTO: Jin with the rest of BTS – from the left: V, Suga, Jin, Jungkook, RM, Jimin and J-Hope.

But there’s been exemptions in place for decades for sportspeople to dodge the military service but it didn’t cover ‘idols’, the K-Pop superstars, no matter how big they were in Korea or, like BTS, around the world.

So the South Korean parliament has just passed an exemption which will allow Jin, and the other 6 members as they also notch up their birthdays, to defer their enlistment for 2 years. In Jin’s case this means he will have another 2 years to work with BTS who, by all accounts, are still peaking in the world of pop music. Fans, universally, have opined that BTS is 7 members and would not be the same without Jin, or any other member for that matter.

The impact of BTS has been extraordinary, and has reached far beyond the shores of South Korea to become the biggest South Korean brand in the world… stand aside Samsung, Hyundai and LG. Just this week BTS has the #1 and #3 spot in the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart AND the #1 spot in the Hot 200 Album chart with their latest release ‘Be’, their second album release for a ‘disrupted’ 2020. Their 35-date, 17-venue stadium tour, set to tour the world from April this year, had to be shelved. It had already been sold out, in some cases, in minutes when tickets became available.

(BTS did mount an elaborate online concert which sold 913,000 tickets for the 2-day event in October, called ‘BTS Map of the Soul ON:E’.)

BTS are the hottest ticket in town right now. So were South Korean politicians be responsible for putting and end to the BTS dream? And then there was the value to the South Korean economy of BTS as an economic engine for the country. The Hyundai Research Institute reported that BTS generates an estimated amount of 4 trillion Korean won (US$3.54 billion) as direct economic value to South Korea per year and 1.42 trillion won (US$1.26 billion) as added value per year.

More recently, the success of their first US Billboard Number 1 ‘Dynamite’ has generated US$1.5 billion for the South Korean economy.

The amendment to the South Korean Military Service Act now states that if an artist has made a positive impact on South Korea’s reputation, then they can defer their enlistment by 2 years. This delay, however, can only come on the recommendation of the cultural minister. This means that Jin can now wait until he is 30 to enrol into military service. Same goes for the other members of BTS, by invitation from the country’s cultural minister.

Back in August, BTS released their first full-length English-language song, ‘Dynamite’ which has become the world’s summer bop at a time we all needed an uplifting song. ‘Dynamite1 debuted at Number on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart, which made BTS the first South Korean act to top the chart. It also became the fastest rising YouTube video clip ever uploaded, 101.1 million clicks in 24 hours.

‘Dynamite’ is also the band’s first number one single in the US, although the group has already scored 4 Number 1 albums on the Billboard Hot 200 Album Chart, singing almost exclusively in Korean! In 2018/2018 they scored 3 consecutive Number 1 albums in the same 1 month period. The only other band to reach that record? The Beatles.

All this started talks in the South Korean parliament about creating a deferral for military service if the contributions to South Korea’s global reputation was great enough. The amendment passed just in time.

In the BTS universe, Jin, aka. ‘Third Guy From The Left’, ‘Car Door Guy’ and ‘World Wide Handsome’, has also been the group’s emotional glue, in-house cook and the oldest ‘Hyung’. The role of the Hyung, the older brother, or elder person, is considered an important role in South Korean culture. And it’s been a responsibility Jin has taken on seriously as part of the group since they started training in 2011 and then since their debut in June 2013.

BTS, and Jin, are likely relieved to have another 2 years to continue their journey into the annals of pop history, not only in South Korea, and Asia, but the rest of the world as well, including the white-washed US pop industry.

“Shining through the city with a little funk and soul, Light it up like dynamite”

BTS, put together a performance for the James Cordon Late Late Show of their latest hit, even recreating his host set for the shoot… and rented a jet!

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