The Clown Becomes an Entrepreneur in Thailand
By 1999 my osteoarthritis made it hard for me to do physical comedy anymore. And I didn’t really want to go the Birthday Clown route. So I decided on a radical move — both in career and location. I took a publicity job with Tahitian Noni Juice in Bangkok, Thailand. I also taught English on the side. Since I had spent two years in Thailand back in the 70’s as an LDS missionary, I already knew the language — and I had many old companions who were living as expats all around the country. I soon found myself running a clown jewelry business with a Texas expat partner . . .
Alex Janney is a Texas expat who missed the kind of Tex Mex cooking he got back home, so he decided to open his own Tex Mex place on the outskirts of Bangkok, called Que Pasa. The place is still up and running, and serving huge portions of stick-to-your-ribs chili and burritos. I made Janney’s place my unofficial headquarters when I wasn’t at work, because he let me tinker in the kitchen with his Thai staff. Alex had been using canned black beans for his frijoles refritos, which didn’t taste quite right to me — there was a certain zest lacking. So the cooks and I fiddled around with the native red beans that the Thais use for dessert — they mix the beans with lotus buds and coconut sap sugar. I had the Thai staff cook up a mess of plain red beans, and almost had to forcibly restrain them from dumping in the sugar and lotus buds, and then had them mash the beans up with some chili powder, sesame seed oil, and green scallions. The result, while probably not to be found south of the Rio Grande, was delicious. Alex immediately put it on his menu as “Thai Refried Beans.”
When Alex married his Thai cook he became very ambitious about raising a family in good style. The local schools in Thailand, to put it charitably, are adequate. Expats normally send their children to one of the expensive International Schools that resemble a country club rather than an educational institution. But it cost an arm and a leg. Last time I checked, tuition was 70- thousand dollars (US) per year. Alex was bound and determined to put his future offspring in one of these schools, so he became an uber-entrepreneur. Since his Thai was minimal, I often went with him on shopping expeditions as interpreter to help him haggle for items he could buy cheap and sell dear.
We prowled around the Chatuchak Weekend Market looking for bargains. An amazing place straight out of the Thousand and One Arabian Nights, this bazaar offers everything from pet Madagascar hissing cockroaches to pigeon milk to shingle froes to freshly minted ‘antiques.’ We found a stall that sold samurai swords for ten dollars each. They were beautifully made, and cheap enough for Alex to buy a dozen on the spot. Alex told me that back home in Texas everyone is crazy for weaponry of any kind — the more exotic the better. He’d sell each one for two hundred bucks. But his plans to become the Samurai Sword King of the Pecos foundered when he ran afoul of US regulations regarding the shipping of weapons from overseas. The paperwork and the fees involved left him with a piddling profit margin. You can still see some of these swords on display at Que Pasa — and they’re still available to anyone with two hundred smackers to spare.
By now I had caught the entrepreneur fever from Janney. I, too, would invest in a sure fire product that would give me a Croesus lifestyle.
My first venture was postcards. The market had dozens of artisans who produced hand-printed one-of-a-kind picture postcards that were inlaid with gold foil and frescoed with dried tropical blossoms. I figured if I bought them for ten cents each and sold them for a dollar each I’d be well on my way to a bonanza. But I was about ten years too late — email was by then ubiquitous and tourists were not so eager to use snail mail anymore. My inventory sat and rotted in cardboard boxes in my un-airconditioned apartment.
Nothing daunted, I continued to accompany Alex to Chatuchak on weekends with my eye peeled for the main chance.
We found it one sweltering Saturday down a dim alleyway where the goldsmiths held sway. Clown jewelry! Petite little funny men made of hammered gold and bits of rubies and emeralds that could be used as brooches or earrings or attached to necklaces and wrist bracelets. They made cloisonne Chaplins and lacquered rings featuring the likenesses of Laurel and Hardy. These humble artisans sold their wares for something like fifty baht a piece — which translates into roughly three dollars. Since my own funds were at ebb tide at the moment, Alex put up the cash until I could pay him back and we were in the clown jewelry business!
The stuff sold well on the internet, and Alex even put up a small display case in his restaurant. But just as the money started to roll in, the Thai government sent a representative from the Tax Department to talk to us about our lack of payment of the export tax.
“Don’t worry, Tim” Alex assured me. “It’s just a shakedown. They do it all the time with the restaurant. I’ll handle it.”
He handled it alright — and we were served with a whopping bill for eighty thousand baht. After paying it off with all our profits, and then some, I lost my taste for being an entrepreneur. I sold my half of the business to Alex for some free meals at his place. But we did continue as partners in another venture closer to my true skill set. About once a month I showed up at his restaurant to do a birthday party clown gig for some expat family. What the heck — it helped put som tum on the table . . .
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