Thirty Years Ago: A Decade To Remember
No juicy tales, no horror story, no tragedy, just a few memories relating to Thailand in particular and Asia in general, from an old man:
In the mid 80s my European employer posted me to Australia, where things were booming. By 87 the attention was on Asia – the Asian tigers were emerging, the Asian miracle was occurring. My company told me to get up to Asia and “take a look around”. I was told to find out what was happening, where the opportunities were etc.
What a mandate!
I started with the big guys – Japan, with its bubble by now rapidly inflating, was the first obvious place. We had good relationships with Japanese companies and it was a good way of breaking into Asia. Pretty soon I was looking at Korea, Singapore, and then later at the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and of course Thailand. I kept out of China, which back then was seen as a sort of North Korea. No money and run by lunatics. I also kept out of what were then economic basket cases like Laos, Cambodia etc, for obvious reasons.
It’s worth remembering that although this was only 30 years ago, it was a very different time. Reagan ran the USA, Maggie seemed to run everywhere else. The cold war was still on, Chernobyl had just occurred, there was no email, no internet, no mobiles, no direct dial in most countries, no cable TV in the hotels. You watched local TV, read 3-day old newspapers in hotel bars, and sent faxes to the office. The girls didn’t have smartphones, didn’t Google you and check out your worth or background on LinkedIn or Facebook, and there was no army of backpackers clutching Lonely Planet guides as they rooted their way across Asia.
On top of that not many people knew how to do business in Asia. The contacts, the cultural awareness, the experience. Don’t touch heads, don’t show the soles of feet, stare at business cards, accept long silences, slurp your noodles. And to cap it all, Asia wasn’t the safest of places back then. There were as many coups as democratic elections, corruption and crime were ever present, and health and safety were a huge issue. Most travellers spent days clutching stomachs in the bathroom – if they were lucky.
But I was prepared to do it.
And so by about 1988 I had begun a whirlwind life of business trips around Asia. I concentrated on a simple mix of the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia. Over the next few years Manila, Bangkok, Jakarta and KL became second homes to me. My company even proposed at one stage that I relocate to Singapore to be nearer the action, but my wife vetoed it. Instead I was away 3 weeks out of four, living in hotels, drinking in bars, a travelling expat.
What was it like? Good and bad. I lived in fear of missed flights and illness. I missed every birthday with my wife for a decade. Sometimes I was really lonely. I spent a fortune on cheap paperbacks. I put a fax machine in at home to stay in contact with my wife, but all I seemed to get was messages about the washing machine leaking or the dog being ill.
The lack of communication in those days meant no-one really knew where I was. I sometimes took a few days off, went to nice beaches and just relaxed and unwound. I remember thinking if I drown here no-one will ever know what happened to me.
The good was very good. Business class flights, nice hotels. Barely a night went by that I slept alone. If I did it was because of an early meeting the next day. My expenses were all paid for, so I was always very cashed up, in cities that were still incredibly cheap to live well in. Back then the girls were much more interested in having fun than in getting money, and a fortune to them was a small change to me.
Most were stunning, but sometimes for the hell of it I would look for the unusual. Chubby, fat, old, ugly, one-eyed etc. A few times I fell in love. It never lasted.
The life continued into the 90s, but over time things began to change. The bars became more commercial. Everyone wanted a piece of the Asian Tiger boom. The girls became money-focused, and costs went up. The girls moved from being interested in hanging around with men with money to becoming girls with money. They moved from being expat groupies and getting a free ride of drinks and dinners, to having a purse full of baht. The freelancer had arrived in force.
I was doing ok, those early years of information gathering had put us in a good position, we were doing well in Asia, and Asia was thriving. From 1985 to 1995 Thailand achieved an annual average economic growth rate of 8.4%, while the United States could only achieve 1.3%. Much of Asia was in the same position. For a while it was like I could make no mistake. Money dripped off walls. Deals were easy to seal, and the tempo just kept increasing.
That easy money also attracted every carpetbagger and bum across the world. Suddenly Asia was full of illiterate English teachers and illegitimate bar owners. Many are still there.
It also attracted the wheelers and dealers, who flooded in from everywhere. Seen the movie Gold? Bre-x and the Indonesian gold mine? John Federhof was just one of tens of thousands of people trying to scam a dollar out of a booming Asia. (Federhof scammed billions). In the bars I would meet guys fresh off the plane with wild ideas on how to make money. RAM chips in Korea (remember that story?). Apartment complexes in Bangkok. Shopping malls in Jakarta. By the end of the decade they had moved on. They were all claiming to be experts in the World Wide Web and were all trying to scramble onto the Dot-Com gravy train.
Then came the early warning signs. Thailand was first. Instead of borrowing to develop growth industries, Thai companies began borrowing to fund a property boom. By the mid 90s there were 350,000 empty apartments in Bangkok, with a further 100,000 under construction. There was an estimated 5 years’ worth of supply standing empty. Smart people could see what was going to happen. The Thais were not smart.
The Bangkok Bank of Commerce collapsed in May 1996. Corruption and stupidity brought it down. At one point nearly 50% of its loans were doubtful. Of $3 billion in low-quality loans, only 18% of their value is secured by collateral assets. Even then those assets were worthless land of questionable ownership in remote parts of Issan.
As The Wall Street Journal put it, BBC was “patient zero of the Asian contagion”. And to a senior BOT official, the BBC collapse “was the beginning of the snowball, which rolled into the 1997 economic crisis”. The problems in the Thai banking sector, and its economy in general, were now obvious to anyone reading the newspapers.
In February 1997 Somprasong Land collapsed over a tiny USD3.1 million payment on Euroconvertible bonds. A month later Finance One collapsed, and the party was over. Speculators began selling the Baht short, in July the Thai government had to unpeg it from the US dollar, and it went into freefall. The speed of the collapse was staggering. One minute there was a never ending boom, and the next it was all over.
Over 1997 the loss of currency confidence spread to every other country I was involved with, and they fell like dominoes. Malaysia struggled and fell. The Philippines went down badly. Korea, the 6th largest economy in the world, simply ran out of money. By 1998 it was all over. Suharto fell, there were riots in the streets. Asia was a total mess, a dystopian nightmare for most people. Expats fled en mass.
For me as the times got tougher my lifestyle got cheaper. No-one had any money, I had a wallet full of Australian dollars, and those dollars had increased in value by ten times. Everything was cheap. Five-star hotels were a handful of dollars. Expensive suits were being sold off for small change. And hookers would beg you to long time them for a couple of dollars. Bar girls were like Dutch auctions, underbidding each other because you were one of the few men with money.
For a while it was like the fall of Rome, or the last days in Berlin. A little money would buy you anything you wanted. All over Asia girls would do unimaginable things to put food on the table. It became normal to take two or three girls back to the hotel at a time.
Then a combination of logging, the 1998 el nino weather effect and land clearance set a massive part of Sumatra and Borneo on fire. All of Asia disappeared under a smoke haze that went on for months. Hundreds of thousands died of respiratory problems. The poverty, panic and riots were viewed through a choking yellow brown haze that made midday look like twilight.
I developed a rasping cough, my work died off rapidly, and all the deals went bad. There was nothing left for me and I went home.
All I took back were the memories and the clap.
All this started around 30 years ago this month. It seems like last year.
On a final note. Porn stars boast of sleeping with 2000 girls. Simple maths tells me that between 1988 and 1998 I would have been in Asia around 35 weeks of each year. That’s 350 weeks or around 2400 nights. I think I had a different girl around 70% of those nights – or around 1700 girls. Not bad for a married man.
I still miss those days.