A Different Kind of Girl Friend Experience (GFE) Part 1, Meeting Chanida
Steve first met Chanida in the summer of 1991 when she was a waitress in the House of Pancakes on Vermont Avenue, a Los Angeles neighborhood restaurant in the shadow of the Hollywood sign and the Griffith Observatory. He was working in the seamy and “see-me”
heart of the Hollywood entertainment industry near Sunset and Vine and each night he drove by the restaurant on his way home. Occasionally, when hungry for a little tasty nosh as well as a few friendly words and smiles from a pretty Thai lady,
he’d drop into the restaurant for dinner. Actually, Steve always had a late-night breakfast, invariably poached eggs, toast, coffee and then extra toast with butter and marmalade (English habits die hard, you know!). Chanida grew to know
his entirely predictable appetite and taste so well that she would put the order in even before Steve sat down at a table in her station.
Chanida was a very petite, attractive raven-haired woman who was, for Steve at least, of indeterminate age: with her charming, seemingly guileless manner, perfect complexion and her shy grace she could have been from 19 to 29 years old. She was social enough with her customers to give them a ready and welcoming smile and yet Steve noticed that she was demure enough to visibly blush when they tried to chat her up or joke with her. Her insouciance was entrancing and the perfect foil to Steve’s ostensibly serious-minded attitude to life.
Steve would always say a few friendly comments to her and she seemed to warm to him a little in that she even taught him his first Thai words, “sawasdee krab” and “khop khun krab”. Steve was naturally somewhat retiring and conservatively polite so his low-key approach seemed not to intimidate or offend her, and after a couple of months of regular visits he asked Chanida for her phone number, Steve gave her his and she agreed to go out for dinner.
Even though it was over 17 years ago the details are so indelibly imprinted in Steve’s mind that he can recall details of that dinner like it was still happening right now. Thinking she’d want some “home-cooking” he suggested a couple of local Thai restaurants, but she hinted at something American, which Steve thought curious, but nonetheless they agreed on a famous old eatery in West Hollywood called the Melting Pot. Much later Steve discovered why she didn’t want to go to Thai restaurants, but perhaps you’re much smarter than him and already know the reason.
The start of the date was as Steve expected: he picked her up from the restaurant, where she left her car. Steve was almost expecting one of her girlfriends to chaperone them, but evidently she felt he was non-threatening enough to be trusted. They enjoyed quiet and simple conversation on the way to the Melting Pot and while they waited for the food to arrive. But Steve was totally unprepared for and would never forget what Chanida did and how he felt when the crab cakes appetizer appeared: she took her linen napkin and carefully, even lovingly, cleaned and polished her cutlery and then offered them to him to use. Steve was so taken aback at this gesture that initially he didn’t know what to say or do, but at the same time such a rush of emotional charge hit him that he almost swooned. In fact Steve distinctly felt himself starting to fade while at the same time an absolute jumble of quick-cut mental images flashed through his mind. It was the kind of déjà vu that tapped into some seriously suppressed and intense core memories. Steve almost choked up and so with a trembling hand he somehow managed to accept the proffered knife and fork. But as his gaze met hers she gave him a sweet smile that instantly dissipated his discomfort and reassured him that all was as it was supposed to be.
Another incident later that evening is also indelibly ingrained in his consciousness. After dinner they took a stroll down La Cienega Blvd and then through a shopping plaza, in which there was a verdant arbor-like garden and a series of shallow reflecting pools, some of which were bisected by stepping stones of various sizes and shapes. It was a romantic and idyllic location for an opportunity for their friendship to get closer. But Steve, being rather more prankish than romantic, hoisted Chanida into his arms, and cradling her against his body, leapt onto and across the stepping stones. It was so spontaneous and quick that Chanida barely had a chance to yelp in protest, let alone resist. In the middle of the pond Steve stopped on the largest stone and then held her outstretched over the water, as though to drop her or throw her in. She was so tiny and fragile that even though Steve was neither a large nor strong fellow, it seemed to take no effort to hold her suspended over the water. He thought she would giggle with girlish glee, but instead she just uttered in a panicked and desperate tone a plaintive “No!” Steve immediately retreated back to solid ground and put her down. She was visibly shaken and would not look at him. Even Steve understood that it had upset her, but it wasn’t until a couple of years later that he realized the extent of his terrible faux-pas, that he had inadvertently been so forward in crossing some social, cultural and physical boundaries as to horrify and offend her and potentially stigmatize himself as another typical ignorant, pawing farang.
The night was over and they barely talked as Steve drove Chanida back to her car at the restaurant. She never did return his calls, she disappeared from the restaurant and so he thought he’d never see her or hear from her again.
More than 2 years later, in the hectic and festive days before Christmas 1993, Steve got a phone call. It was Chanida. After expressing his genuine surprise and exchanging pleasantries she told him she had been going through her address book preparing Xmas cards when she came across his number, and on a whim called to see if he was still around. She sounded more self-assured than before and as Steve was unattached, he invited her for coffee. Steve momentarily flushed when he recalled the suddenly all too vivid memory of their first encounter so he assured Chanida he would not touch her or threaten to drown her this time. She seemed to appreciate his somewhat sardonic humor, or at least if she understood it she didn’t seem to object to the tone, and so they agreed to meet.
A less frightening and socially inept meeting led to other dates and they soon became an item. But once again Steve’s cultural ignorance (probably abetted by his inherent naivety) prevented him from realizing how much more attracted and involved she was becoming with him, when his feelings were altogether more neutral. But despite that they started a fun and seemingly healthy relationship. They still never went to local Thai restaurants in Hollywood, or that part of Hollywood Blvd east of the freeway now known as Thai Town. She preferred eating at western restaurants and when they went to Thai restaurants it was usually in the outlying neighborhoods and even other nearby cities, but never to the local places. Chanida justified this by insisting that the food at the other places was better and more authentic and that it was always so crowded in Hollywood anyway. Steve dutifully went along with this although he began to sense there was another agenda plus it was sometimes a little inconvenient to drive 20 to 30 miles instead of 2 or 3. She also introduced Steve to some basic Thai social protocols such as not pointing the feet at anyone, and certainly not the Buddha, lowering one’s body position in the presence of elders or monks, how and when to “wai” and also not to kiss or be overtly affectionate in public, especially around Thai people. She insisted on the latter point, somewhat to his annoyance and to the frustration of his wandering hands and lips, but he dutifully complied so as to keep the peace as well as the opportunity for gratification in more intimate settings.
As Steve and Chanida grew to know more of each other he discovered that like so many Thai people she had an entrepreneurial streak and liked to discuss all sorts of ideas including an import-export business to Thailand. She was especially interested in trading vintage Levi jeans and invited him to go with her to the Rose Bowl swap-meet very early one Sunday morning. As usual she reminded him to be on his best “Thai” behavior, in other words keep it formal with no lovey-dovey stuff. They had to be there at 6 AM sharp to meet the real pro traders and before the typical swap-meet looky-lou’s showed up. That was his usual time to go knee-dragging and blasting along the Angeles Crest mountain roads with his buddies on their super-sport bikes, but sometimes you make crazy sacrifices in the name of love. So a couple of days later he found himself bleary-eyed and rather distractedly wandering through arrays of what looked basically like grungy old jeans and sneakers. But his attention really perked up when he heard the outrageous sums being paid by earnest and eager looking Asians.
Meanwhile Chanida was engrossed in an animated discussion with a Thai couple and when Steve wandered by she introduced him quite pointedly as her business partner. He thought this was a rather curious characterization of their relationship, but let it go considering the circumstances. The couple were called Bas and Krtisana. Evidently Chanida knew them quite well because she explained that Bas came from Basketball which was his father’s favorite sport. That prompted Steve to offer up that Kritsana’s father must have played Cricket, but that was met with blank stares from the couple and from Chanida a rapid-fire burst of Thai interspersed with “farang”, then a chorus of laughter from them all. But clearly it was at Steve’s expense and not due to his English sporting humor.
It turned out that Bas and Kritsana bought and bartered jeans, sneakers and other items and shipped them to Thailand, where there was an almost insatiable demand for iconic US-branded and made goods. They specialized in buying new, used and vintage Levis in the US and shipping them to Bangkok where they were sold either wholesale or retail at Mahboonkrong, Chatuchak weekend market and also shipped to Pattaya, Phuket and Khon Kaen. This was his first exposure to the sometimes nefarious world of the underground cash-and-carry economy so popular with Asians, seemingly especially Thai people, and one that very soon Steve was going to experience both the benefit and back-stabbing backlash of first hand.
Bas and Kritsana said they were doing pretty well and wanted to expand their business but claimed that they just didn’t have the time or money to do so. Steve had money and Chanida, who was now only working part-time, had the time so as he was Chanida’s “business partner” he asked her to discuss the possibility of a joint-venture. Consequently, in the early spring of 1994 they agreed to join forces and become partners.
Bas and Kritsana would work full-time and keep 51% of the business while Chanida and Steve each took 24.5%. Chanida made a big point of stressing that this was strictly business and Bas and Kritsana were not their personal friends, so no fraternizing and be sure to adhere to the Thai social protocols. For their shares they each contributed approximately $8,000. This was for inventory, working capital, shipping expenses and as Steve was to find out, special “courier” expenses. In other words, the “sin-bohn” money that makes so many transactions happen in Thailand and without which some things just never seem to get done. The projected return after the first year was 200-250% net, increasing to 300-400% or more in the second year, of course depending on a number of variables, some of which Steve would discover to his cost, both literally and figuratively. So his $8,000 could roll up into $16-20,000 in the first year and $24-$32,000 in the second. All tax free. As Steve was getting about 11% net on his 401k and other retirement accounts back then he thought this was a pretty decent gamble, and if it turned out to be a scam or went belly-up he could afford to lose the $8,000 without too much hardship.
Of course they looked over the books and records before buying in, and the figures looked real enough, for example (back in the mid 90’s the typical exchange rate was 25 baht to the US dollar):
2/13/95-3/18/95 (shipment and sale of approx 325 jeans) –
|Gross sales||477,400 baht||$19.096|
|Net income||145,817 baht||$5,913|
|Typical cost||800 baht||$32|
|Typical shipping||100 baht||$4|
|Typical sales||1,500 baht||$60|
|Typical gross income||600 baht||$24|
If they were lucky they’d tap into a cheap outlet or retail sale, or even a quasi wholesale deal, in which case they could get the new 501’s for as low as $27, which boosted the gross by $5.00 (125 baht per pair).
They’d stuff about 50 pairs in black nylon or army surplus stuff sacks and secure them with zip-ties and mini combination locks, then tie colored yarn around the carry-handle: blue for just jeans, yellow for jeans and Polo or Champion shirts, orange for jeans and sneakers, and green (the color of money) for special orders or high-value items.
The real money was in the vintage Levi’s, or what is known as “redlines” or “big E” Levi’s. These are both classic, original Levi’s dating to at least before 1973. Redlines are pre-1973 and have the special “selvedge” finish on the inside of the outside leg seam, plus the distinctive narrow-loom, heavier weight denim that has a surprisingly soft hand (feel) to it. Big E’s are pre-1972 and have an upper case “E” on the red tab on the back pocket (it reads LEvi’s, whereas the newer tab reads Levi’s). The typical cost was about $150 and they could get about $400 for them. But sometimes they’d have to pay upwards of $300-$400 and be able to sell them for up to $1,000. Steve still has one pair of Big E’s in just about perfect, broken-in condition that he traded for $140 and despite the less speculative market these days are still worth about $300 in the USA.
The famous “Big E” in the Levi’s logo. Denotes jeans made before 1971.
The famous “Redline” stitching that’s located on the inside of the outside seam of the Levi’s.
The Redline was used until the early 1980’s and denotes vintage or vintage reproduction Levi’s.
An excellent example of Big E Levi’s from the late 1960’s. These are worth about $500 now.
So the profit upside was quite substantial and more importantly, based on the actual sales figures and ever-increasing demand, it seemed realistic. But of course, TIT (This is Thailand) or DWTPAYOR (Deal With Thai People At Your Own Risk) and maybe therein lies one of the morals of this story. Quite often things in Thailand are not exactly as they seem to be.
Very nice start indeed!
* Readers please note: this is part 1 of a 6-part series and I will run the next 5 parts over the next 5 days.