Reversal Of Fortune
In the late morning hours of February 25th, 1986, Imelda on the side of her husband Ferdinand emerged on the balcony of Malacañang Palace acclaimed by a cheering crowd. It was her husband’s inauguration day. But Imelda was the darling of the people. She proceeded to a prominent spot on the terrace and sang a song for the remaining loyalist crowd attending the event.
Only hours later Ferdinand asked and was granted political asylum by the USA. By midnight, the same day a fully packed aircraft with crates containing millions of USD in cash, jewelry and gold bars left Manila Airport. On the morning 26 Feb the couple landed in Hawaii. Home of the exodus where the couple’s exile began. Imelda was safe but not happy. She had to leave behind hundreds of gowns, a thousand handbags and 5,000 pairs of shoes.
The last act of the glamorous Filipino couple was to begin. Nothing much original here. Many readers will be able to recall similar fates of once famous and admired couples or individuals the world over. Sometimes politicians, from high finance, movie stars or simply adventurers. There is a pattern, and it is often much the same and can be summed up in a few words. Money – power – greed – abuse – decline – endgame. What varies is often the ending of the story. Sometimes it can be heroic, and the disgraced remain martyrs in the eyes of the world or at least their unconditional followers. But more often the endgame is tragic.
Jim is an old friend dating from my many years living in Phuket. Every 3 months he comes to Bangkok for his health check-up at Bumrungrad. The two of us meet. He is usually accompanied by his wife and a niece who’s studies he sponsors. Me with my girlfriend. Last July we went to see the Patpong Museum. Interesting for us old Thai hands. This time Jim offered to take us to R + R, the exclusive steakhouse on the 32nd. Floor of Landmark. But the venue was closed. Lack of demand, no customers we were told. Instead they recommended El Gaucho, an Argentinian venue on Soi 19, between Westin and Terminal 21. I’d never been there but knew the spot for it used to be a kind of boutique hotel before. The steaks were excellent. Two bottles of red wine went down easily between the 5 of us and the Grappa at the conclusion helped to digest it all. The Marcos’s were not mentioned other than to recall the vaguely similar fate of a couple Jim has known well and for many years in Phuket. On a much smaller scale obviously.
Being that my narratives are usually events or snippets of events out of my own life and experiences with people out of the mostly professional period of my life in Phuket it is fair to point out here that what follows should really be preceded by the set phrase “as told by”. Myself acting as a kind of ghost-writer in an enthralling story told to me by Jim during that all so pleasant evening at El Gaucho’s.
Orn and Jérôme first met in Bangkok. In a go-go bar on Soi Cowboy. Young, slim but tall for a Thai-girl, smiling and all together pleasing to the eye Jérôme was immediately taken in by Orn. A classic case of “le coup de foudre” he later said which literally translates as love at first sight. He asked to buy her out for the night. Orn smiled and said no. She could not be bought out. She was a cashier and cashiers could not be bought out. But she would accept a Lady drink. Jérôme returned the next day. And the next, and the next. The 4th. evening he told his bar neighbor of the predicament he faced with Orn. The guy laughed and said everybody could be bought out of the bar including waitresses and cashiers. It just took a bit more time and perhaps cost a few hundred baht more. Encouraged Jérôme gave it another try and this time it worked. Orn accepted a dinner invitation for the morrow, her day off. Finally, the first hurdle was taken for Jérôme in the conquest of Orn.
Jérôme was a flourishing restaurant operator. He owned 4 business branches in three different towns in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. He was in his early fifties’ and on his first trip to LOS. After a recent health scare and intensifying family problems he needed a break. A total change of scenery was called for. Also, an offer had been made to him for the takeover of his small business empire. On that first evening in the Go-go bar he was lost in thought about his future. What should he do? As a man used to get his way; he was troubled to be rebuffed by a bargirl even that she was cashier. Going to sleep that night and for the first time in weeks his mind let go of bottom lines, cash-flows, and profit margins. His thoughts turned to Orn. Locking back on it later he realized her stubbornness possibly changed his life.
After Orn had surrendered to him he felt light-hearted. He wanted to do all he could to please her. After many years of 12- or 15-hour days suddenly he was able to let go and enjoy the days of leisure in her presence. He wanted to keep it that way. That meant buying Orn out of the bar for a hefty sum. Traveling up on a flight from Don Meuang to a place called Ubon-Ratchathani, travel for another 2½ hours to a tiny hamlet out of nowhere to meet the family. On the way Orn stopped by a market to buy fish, vegetables, pork, and rice. Jérôme was instructed to buy a bottle or two of good whiskey. Orn of course already had informed the family that she was on her way home, a rich farang in tow. Within less than an hour of his arrival Jérôme was shown a piece of land he could buy for the especially down negotiated sum of 100,000 baht to him only! Build a house and live there happily with Orn.
For 3 days Jérôme tasted the simple country life, eat country style north-eastern food, or at least the dishes he believed were safe to eat and not too spicy as Orn indicated to him. All in the company of 10 or 15 people most of which he had no idea who they were! Except one teenage boy that Orn pointed out to him as her son, looked after by her parents. Eventually the extreme heat got to him and he announced their leave taking the next day. Mother, Orn and Jérôme took a drive to Si Saket, a small town that seemed to be much closer to the hamlet than Ubon-Ratchathani to Jérôme. He went to look for a bank or an ATM, booked a decent hotel for a night and a VIP bus for the next day back to Bangkok. Mother got ready to return to the hamlet in the neighbors old Toyota who was hired as taxi-driver. As per Orn’s instruction, where nobody else could see, Jérôme handed over 20K baht telling mother he would take good care of Orn but declined to buy the purposefully low-priced land offered to him. A bottle of Red-Label also handed over was father’s going away present.
Sitting in the comfortable seats of the VIP bus on the way back to Bangkok the lovers found time to talk. Jérôme admitted that it had never crossed his mind that he was to spend almost a week in the forlornness of north-eastern Thailand. His intention had been to stay just a few days in Bangkok and then move on to that beautiful island in the south everybody raved about. Really, Orn answered surprised. That was where she always wanted to go but did not have enough money to travel that far, ending up in Bangkok.
They settled in at the Novotel, Phuket Town, and for a week or perhaps several weeks and enjoyed the sweet idleness. It must have been these days of leisure that merged the bond between them. Later Jérôme rented a house at the Land & House estate on the way to Chalong. On one of their now daily drives around the island in the rented Honda Orn pointed out a spot along Wiset Road on the way to Rawai. I want to build a bar here she said in her straightforward way of talking. Jérôme, the accomplished businessman he was back home smiled, took her in his arms and simply said: let’s do it. In reality he had no idea how to conduct business in Thailand, but he loved Orn and that was that. An impulsive decision but in no way reckless or foolhardy. He had gotten to know Orn over those weeks and understood that at age 30 she needed more in her life than a lover, parties, and afternoons in the sand by the sea. Besides, she was not exactly a spring chicken in this kind of business and knew how to handle money.
From day one the bar was a total success. The stretch of road less than 1 km off Rawai beach had recently been enlarged and clients could easily park their cars or motorbikes along the road. The horseshoe-shaped bar was now populated from late afternoon until midnight or sometimes well after. Jérôme had no idea where the dozen or more girls came from that suddenly adorned the bar at mid-afternoon hours and then slowly disappeared being bought out-as the evening wore on.
Half a year had passed and Jérôme knew it was high time for him to return home to look after his own business. He hated leaving Phuket but with Orn settled in her own right he traveled relatively easy. His restaurants were looked after by capable managements, but he soon realized after arrival that his presence, his very own and personal input were sorely missed all around. It took him many weeks to sort out bumps and thumps. Later he renegotiated with the prospective buyer and decided to sell his small empire. Naturally, it took months to draw up contracts and legal documents with the new owners, the relevant authorities and banks. Finally transfers of moneys and settlement with the tax administration.
Almost a year had past and Jérôme realized that the long months, the separation from Orn and his own busy schedule had taken a toll on him. In addition to stress, severe abdominal pain had obliged him to spend 10 days in hospital only weeks before his return. Something he did not tell Orn and all was forgotten when he held her in his arms, knowing he would not have to leave her again. He was only modestly surprised when after embracing kisses, a large smile on her face Orn continued; but you are a rich man now, Jérôme, and that is what counts!
There are times in a man’s or a woman’s life when things run smoothly, and all seems to be simply fine, and people sway in contentment thinking that it would just go on that way indefinitely. And sometimes it does. But only for a time. The bar in Rawai was thriving. It bolstered Orn’s confidence and she went ahead in Jérôme’s absence to sign documents for the takeover of another bar in Patong and had many more projects she never tired telling Jérôme about.
It was now the year that followed the Asian Tsunami and all together a quiet year in Phuket and the region. It is an ideal time to invest, it will never be so cheap and next year will be booming again, Orn lectured Jérôme. Having proven her worth as a businesswoman in the Rawai bar, she seemed to take it for granted that it was Jérôme’s place if not his duty as a husband to finance her many projects. At the end of his second year back in Phuket, Orn found herself at the helm of 2 more bars in Patong, one in Ao-Nang, Krabi and a shareholder in a property development in Khao-Lak where the hole stretch along the beach was being rebuilt after the devastating Tsunami.
Jérôme had to admit that Orn had been spot on with her prediction. Business was booming like never before in Phuket and Krabi. And the year after in Khao-Lak. Better, it continued for many years. Jérôme tried to enjoy his retirement as best he could. Often on his own now on his favorite beach in Kata-Noi where he met Jim. When he took drives to Khao Lak or Krabi, Orn traveled with him but once reached the destination she was busy in her own right conducting the ever-growing business.
Over the years Jérôme tried to better control his food and drinking habits. Following his medic’s advice, he’d given up smoking. The infrequent recurring pain in the abdomen became of concern and a colonoscopy, followed by further medical imagery confirmed his worst fears. He was diagnosed with colorectal cancer. He refused surgery but had to follow an even stricter regime, strict diet and radiation therapy. But the cancer spread and in 2010 Jérôme succumbed to his illness.
But for Orn, saddened as she was by her husband’s disappearance, life had to go on. During the following years Orn’s various businesses prospered and by the end of the decade she was an integral part of Phuket’s business elite. On her ventures and dealings, she was now often accompanied and assisted by a young fellow. It was her son, who had grown into a tall, handsome, young man. Like his mother he had become a determined young businessman who would take no BS when dealing or negotiating.
But Orn had also a soft spot. It was the Rawai bar, her first where it all began. Even during the busiest times of the year, the high-season months, she would turn up there unannounced. Occasionally when talking to farang there she would take out an amulet that showed a photo of her & Jérôme on the opening night 15 years earlier. This bar was her real lucky charm she added, and the amulet would remain around her neck until her dying day.
Then 2020 arrived. Covid-19 pandemic kept tourists away and over the long year one bar after the other had to close down. But not her lucky-charm bar on Wiset Road. Situated in a region mostly populated with many long stay farang on yearly visas, she would never close it down. That was her sincere commitment when last talked to two or three months ago.
Ferdinand Marcos died 3 years into his Hawaiian exile. The amount he and wife Imelda plundered from the Philippine Treasury during their 20-year reign can only be estimated. It amounts to tens of Billions of USD including real estate in California, Washington, New York, Rome, Vienna, Australia, Antilles, the Netherlands, Hong Kong, Switzerland, and Singapore. Only insignificant amounts of the loot have been recovered.
In the same time span of approximately 20 years Jérôme amassed a modest fortune through honest, hard labor. Probably a sizeable part of it transferred to Thailand. He died 5 years after he had retired in Phuket. He had made the island his permanent and freely chosen exile, hoping to spend many more years.
Imelda Marcos was later allowed to return to her homeland in 1991. The Philippines has a gentle and forgiving culture. She was even allowed to hold political office again as did her children later. Much of her time is spent to squander the product of her ill-gotten wealth. Today she is 91 years old and lives in metropolitan Manila.
Orn has made her way from the humble bar-cashier to minor-prominence. She was assisted on the way up by the financial assistance of her common law husband. Her determination, excellent business antenna and good luck. She normally lives in Phuket but her current whereabouts are not known.
The author can be contacted at : [email protected]