A Look Back: Bangkok's High Society Scene In The Past
Thailand Tatler is 27 years old. In human terms that makes us part of Generation Y, demographically the most exciting and adventurous by far, due in no small part to the immense technological advances during our lifetime. People who are 27 are in their physical prime, embarking on their careers and perhaps even committing to a lifetime relationship and a family. In magazine years, however, we are fully mature and sophisticated, having been round the block more than once. We’ve seen the ups and downs of the society we move in, we’ve seen changes for the worse and for the better. We’ve earned the respect of society at large and our peers in the publishing industry. And we continue to evolve according to the times, putting our experience to good use, keeping our finger on the pulse of Thai society.
Twenty-seven years is quite an achievement and our staying power is a testament to how we have reflected Thai society over the years; as a mirror and a mouthpiece as well as a critique (in the most good-natured of ways of course). The more things change, the more they remain the same, or so the saying goes. Well, this couldn’t be truer of Thailand Tatler. High society has evolved immensely over the magazine’s lifetime and we have remained a constant in documenting that evolution. So what has changed exactly?
When Thailand Tatler was launched in 1991 social events were exactly that—gatherings at which the crème de la crème made their appearance by invitation, where everybody knew everybody and everyone admired each other. These people were A-listers because of who they were and what they did—and for their poise and sophistication—rather than because of how much money they made. They were elegant and well dressed. They were unique in their own brand of beauty, sporting different eyes, noses, chins and cleavages, since Korea had yet to make its mark on the beauty augmentation industry.
Social media has drastically changed the way society interacts. Thirty years ago, if you wanted to meet up with friends you had to dress up and go out to attend social gatherings. People would actually make small talk and conversation was still an art. Hi! How are you today? You are positively glowing today, darling! Are you in love? Or have you been going to the Guerlain spa again? Where did you get that gorgeous gown? It must be Kai Boutique! Lovely to see you, dear! It’s been ages! Let’s have tea at The Cup next week!
Today people may attend functions en masse but they interact on social media. Every moment, every dish, every corner, every backdrop is a selfie opportunity, which is uploaded immediately and then monitored anxiously for pings announcing likes or comments, many of which will come in the form of emoticons. The more likes and comments you get, the higher your rating on the social scale. At the end of the evening you might have offered less than 10 sentences in conversation but your posts are scoring well and so you are happy.
In the 1980s and 90s society divas had to earn their place at the top of the social tree. Among the grand dames were the likes of Chao Kokaew Prakaykavil Na Chiangmai (or Princess Koko as she was known), MR Malinee Chakrabandhu (or Ying Mud), Mom Kobkaew Abhakara, Thanpuying Boonruen Choonhavan, Farida Bunyasakdi, Chitra Techaphaiboon and Gloria Mahadumrongkul. It’s quite amazing the staying power of these social divas; many are still making grand entrances to social events today, with the same elegance and style…and waistline!
These ladies were the life of the party, whether it was a casual cocktail gathering or a formal sit-down dinner. They were elegant yet edgy, daring and sassy, smart and fun but classy. They were entertaining and people wanted to be around them simply because they made everything so much fun.
And what the 80s and 90s had that modern day society will never experience was the constant presence of Her Majesty Queen Sirikit, who graced many a gala charity event, from dinners to concerts and fashion shows. She was the epitome of elegance, impeccably dressed and coiffed, and her smile put everyone around her at ease. The events attended by Her Majesty the Queen in those days were truly touched with class. At the time there were only a few venues capable of hosting such high-level shindigs, most notably the Oriental Bangkok (before it became Mandarin Oriental), the Dusit Thani Hotel and the Siam InterContinental.
Certainly the gala events back then were not the usual celebrity karaoke performances that we have today. In those days we enjoyed concerts by world-class tenor Jose Carreras and divas like Nathalie Cole, Roberta Flack and Shirley Bassey. There were fashion shows by Renato Balestra and Hanae Mori. Even locally organised gala events involved hundreds of talented singers and dancers and took months and months of rehearsals, for which everyone willingly dedicated their time and effort. Today, just getting a small group together for lunch is a major undertaking, with everyone consulting their Google calendar to find a compatible break in their hectic schedules.
That’s not to say we did not have our own celebrity singers. Some of the faces that would appear on stage to croon beautiful ballads for an appreciative audience were society singers such as Burin Wongsanguan, Khunying Sasima Srivikorn, MR Benchapa Krairiksh, Punchalee Phenjati, and Amaret Sila-on and his sons, Vitoon Kamtorn and Pornvit. One of the highlights of the annual social calendar was the charity jazz concert by Kamala Sukosol and her talented children, Marisa, Sukie and Noi Krissada, who were always joined by Dolchai Boonyaratavej. No one sings jazz like Kamala and while the other voices have faded away, she is still going as strong as ever, raising millions in the process for her favourite hospital charities. Her hotel business was just an excuse to have a personal stage on which to sing, people would tease. But she is no mere wannabe; as a businesswoman, jazz singer, society hostess and raconteur, few have come close.
Local Thai designers also headlined many a major event and none was more highly anticipated than Her Majesty the Queen’s annual Support Foundation silk fair and fashion show held at the royal palace in Sakon Nakhon province, when Elle Fashion Week was still unconceived. The highlight was a fashion show, usually from Thailand’s top designers Kai, Nagara, Pichita or Tirapan. Thai silk was the focus of attention, naturally, and there was always an exhibition brilliantly designed by event organiser extraordinaire Kookie Tinakorn Asavaraks, who was most sought-after as the person who could make an event the talk of the town.
Taking to the catwalk at this event would be a combination of honorary and professional models and occasionally a member of the royal family. There was a core of Thai supermodels that would glide down the top runways, including, Geraldine Ricordel, Ratchanee Siralert, Kara Polasit, Ornapa Krisadee, Helen Pratumrat Woramalee, Natasha Plienvithi, Chalida Panichkarn, Joy Varaluck Vanichkul and Metinee Kingpayom. Socialites who would frequently join them were Sirikarn Saktidej Bhanubandhu, Romanee Thienprasiddhi, Dr Nadaprapai Sucharitkul and Mondhakarn Kridakorn. Lesser lights of the fashion world were such designers as Gina by Sanitpim Ekachai, Metta by Metta Tantisajjatham, Karita Osel by Kalaya Pootanakit and Duangjai Bis by Kerati Chollasit. They each had their loyal clientele and one thing in common: all the dresses had large shoulder pads, which were attached by snap buttons and could be removed for washing.
Another major event on the annual social calendar was the Frank’s Jewelry fashion show hosted by Chaiyos Eiamamornpan and Suthin Jiramaneekul. These shows probably ushered in an era of true extravagance and an in-your-face display of affluence. Not since the days of the Raj had diamonds, emeralds, rubies and sapphires been so oversized and ostentatious.
The economic boom had brought about more money than people knew what to do with, so the ladies were splashing out on earrings and necklaces that you could see from across the road in the dark. And to ensure the men didn’t feel left out, these fashion shows were always hosted in conjunction with top watchmaker Piaget. The event essentially provided society ladies with an occasion to bring out their most glittering of baubles from their bank vaults and flaunt them for an evening before putting them away again for safekeeping.
And there were balls, real balls, where couples waltzed and tangoed to live music from a full orchestras. Whether you danced or not, you’d make an appearance for the sake of charity and your own social profile in the pages of Thailand Tatler. Among the feted couples were Burin and Patsy Wongsanguan, Chamnong and Khunying Supachari Bhirombhakdi, Chaiyos and Bunnaporn Eiamamornpan, Chairod and Gloria Mahadumrongkul, Dr Suvit and Khunying Songsuda Yodmani and Dr Phaichitr and Khunying Kingkaew Uathavikul.
The couple that turned their wedding into a legendary event was Sanan and Khunying Natthika Angubolkul. Their special day was so elaborate that people began saying that the reason Khunying Natthika opened the Grand Hyatt Erawan Bangkok was so she could hold her own wedding there.
Another great event was the SEA Write Award, which was hosted annually at the Oriental Bangkok. This drew the more artistic crowd, the who’s who of Thailand’s literary circle, eminent novelists and poets who forsook their computers and their penchant for privacy and solitude for one glittering evening in the presence of royalty, their peers and awestruck admirers. How often did you get to rub shoulders with such international luminaries as Iris Murdoch, Peter Ustinov, Jeffrey Archer, James A Michener, Gore Vidal, William Golding and Paul Theroux who were some of the keynote speakers, and local greats like Naowarat Pongpaiboon, Chiranan Pitpreecha, Chart Kobjitti and Rong Wongsawan.
In the Bangkok of the early 1990s, if you wanted to see and be seen there were quite a few places you would head for. Wherever its location, The Cup Restaurant & Tea Room owned by Sumuntana Mokkhavesa has always been a hangout for the quietly glamorous, the well-heeled crowd who have a taste for roast beef, Yorkshire pudding and apple crumble. Similar was Tea for Two tearoom owned by Vichien Chansevikul first at Charn Issara building and later at Siam Discovery. British fare was also available at Wit’s Oyster Bar and Restaurant owned by the delightful Pravit Purananda (before it became Witch’s Oyster Bar) in Ruamrudee Village. If you wanted a nice bowl of noodles for lunch, you’d probably head for Peninsula Plaza, where you’d get the best boat noodles in air-conditioned comfort, complete with garden umbrellas and a pianist tinkling the ivories.
Among the more outstanding expat events were the Melbourne Cup, St Patrick’s Day and St George’s Day celebrations, the Phuket King’s Cup Regatta and the Ploenchit Fair. Everybody—and I mean EVERYBODY—went to the Ploenchit Fair. Held in the beautiful, spacious gardens of the British Embassy on Ploenchit (now Central Embassy, for the benefit of those who were unlucky enough to have missed the good ol’ days), the Ploenchit Fair was the biggest annual international charity event and eventually earned main organiser Carolyn Tarrant, president of the British Community in Thailand Foundation for the Needy (BCTFN), an MBE and the Most Noble Order of the Crown of Thailand. Though it is still held at various locations, these days it doesn’t have the same cachet it had when it took place at the embassy under the watchful eye of Queen Victoria, seated majestically atop her plinth. Other events where expats and Thais mingled amiably were the Soroptimist events, the annual Oxford-Cambridge dinner and the Chaine des Rotisseurs gatherings.
With no Siam Paragon, Emporium/EmQuartier or Central World, shoppers would head to Central Chidlom for trendy international products.Forget about luxury designer goods—you would have to go to Singapore or Hong Kong to pick up your Louis Vuitton handbag or Chanel dress. Shopping for groceries was something of a social event, if you shopped at Basket of Plenty, a gourmet supermarket that was the brainchild of Tajchai Phadoemchit. This was where you could buy top-of-the-line imported products and only people who put items into their shopping carts without having to look at the price could afford to go there, so you knew you were in good company even if you were just getting some breakfast cereal.
Hotel PR Personalities
It wasn’t just the socialites attending functions at five-star hotels who made the headlines—hotel PR directors in those days were also top of their league. They were the face and the image of their establishment, quirky with a touch of class, held a little in awe by the general managers and loved by socialites and the media alike. They were entertaining, hard-working, had stories to tell, yet had more secrets that they kept close to their hearts. Amongst these were Parichart Suksongkroh of the Oriental Bangkok (and Pornsri Luphaiboon before her), Kancharee Buranasomphob of Siam InterContinental Bangkok (and our own Naphalai Areesorn before that), Nateewan Kolasastrasenee of the Royal Orchid Sheraton Hotel & Towers and Israporn Posayanonda of the Grand Hyatt Erawan Bangkok. And who could forget legendary GM extraordinaire Kurt Wachtveitl of the Oriental?
Today, you couldn’t put a face to any hotel PR officer or, come to think of it, many of the general managers. The turnover rate of top executives in the hotel industry is so high, with the number of new hotels opening at an alarming rate. It has become just another business with few personalised establishments that you can develop an affinity for.
And that is why Thailand Tatler is still a constant in this ever-changing world. It’s so nice to see who is who, what they’re up to and what makes their world go round—or at least, the people that matter to us. Here’s looking at you, kid!