Pan-Asian Metropolis — Thai Los Angeles

Pan-Asian Metropolis

Los Angeles is widely recognized for its ethnic diversity. There are several communities — including those of Armenians, Guatemalans, Mexicans, and Salvadorans — which are larger in Los Angeles than in anywhere else outside of their respective homelands. The same is true of numerous Asian peoples, including Cambodians, Filipinos, Koreans, Persians, Taiwanese, Thai, and Vietnamese which is why I refer to Metro Los Angeles as the world’s pan-Asian Metropolis. Not only is the Thai community of Los Angeles the largest outside of Thailand, but it is also home to nearly one-third of the nation’s Thai American population, as well as the oldest officially recognized Thai Town.

Flag of Thailand

When I moved to Los Angeles in 1999, my roommates and I signed a lease at an apartment in Thailand in which initially all but one of my neighbors were Thai — although none of us knew that at first. To my ears, the lingua franca of our building sounded nasal and argumentative. Sometimes I assumed from their tone and volume that neighbors were arguing but smiles and gestures suggested otherwise. I don’t remember when I learned or figured out that nearly everyone was Thai but catercorner to us was Thai American Express. That restaurant’s owners — also the parents and grandparents of some of my neighbors — lived across the street. They insisted that real sriracha (which at the time I associated with Vietnamese restaurants) came from Thailand, not Rosemead.

The lone non-Thai neighbor kept entirely to himself. He was middle-aged and every night at midnight, he’d warm up his mid-’60s car for ten minutes while loudly blasting the music of Slayer after which he’d drive away. The Thai neighbors theorized, on account of the Victoria’s Secret catalogs poking from his mailbox, come to the consensus that he was “kathoey.” I assured them that the catalog probably served another purpose and that, in fact, he was more likely a serial killer. We’d sometimes look to see if his car was riding lower than normal — evidence of a body stuffed in the trunk. There were no bodies other than his wheeled from his apartment. By then, many of my Thai neighbors had long ago moved out.

I’ve lived here twenty years now and the neighborhood has changed. None of my neighbors are Thai — nor do any blast thrash music from within their old cars. The Korean liquor store long ago became an upscale boutique. The Mexican bar with $2 beers is an upscale Italian restaurant. Moby turned the used car lot next door into an upscale vegan place. The halfway house was torn down and replaced with luxury townhomes — as was the bamboo grove that grew outside of my window. Thai-American Express long ago became an upscale restaurant and the owners’ home is now a shop named after a street in Manhattan that although billed as a general store, rather than selling staple foods and household goods, sells expensive candles and coffee drinks. All of the Thai neighbors are gone — although the Banphaburuts and I still get together occasionally if not as often as we used to.


EARLY THAI LOS ANGELES

All of my Thai neighbors were first-generation immigrants. Like most Thai immigrants to the US, many came here to study and a considerable number worked in local restaurants. According to the US government, there were fewer than 500 Thai immigrants who arrived in the 1950s — most of whom were ethnic Chinese. In the 1960s, that figure grew to about 5,000 — a huge increase but still a pretty small number compared to neighboring Southeast Asians like Indonesians and especially Filipinos.


THAI ASSOCIATION OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA

Thai Association of Southern CaliforniaStill, there were enough Thai living in Los Angeles in the early 1960s that in 1962 it was deemed reasonable to found the first local Thai American community organization, the Thai Association of Southern California. It provided immigrant services including everything from legal assistance to car repair. One of its presidents, Aroon, The group produced a publication, Puan Thai, which focused on events back home rather than in the nascent Thai Angeleno community.


THAI NEWSPAPERS

Community newspapers were historically vital to serving emerging immigrant and refugee communities. Not long after Puan Thai, there were several other Thai language newspapers  — although most were short-lived. The first proper paper was Thai Phon-Tale, which began publication in 1970 but lasted less than a year. One of that paper’s co-founders, Kittiratna Sivayavirojana, launched the first professional Thai language paper — one with a paid staff — in 1973, Sarn Thai. It too, however, folded after less than a year. Chaiwat Paknilarat started Sereechon in 1975, which is still in print, although in 1985 it changed owners and its name to Sereechai. Siam Media Newspaper was founded in Wilshire Park in 1981 and continuing publication today from its offices in Rosemead. Thai L.A. Newspaper was founded in Chinatown in 1985.


ASSOCIATION OF THAI MERCHANTS/THAI CHAMBER OF COMMERCE

Community organizations, like community newspapers, have long been important to immigrant and refugee communities. After the Thai Association of Southern California, the next major Thai Angeleno institution was the Association of Thai Merchants (later renamed the Thai Chamber of Commerce), founded in 1971 with Poonsak “Paul” Sosothikul as its first president. Paul was a young man who was prominent in the community but would tragically die at a young age — more on that later.


WAT THAI & THAI RELIGION

Houses of worship, too, are typically of central importance to immigrant and refugee communities. In Thailand, roughly 95% of the inhabitants are Buddhist. Only about 1% practice Christianity and even fewer practice Islam.

Locally, there are several Thai Christian congregations, including New Life Church of Nazarene – Thailand Christian Fellowship (Long Beach), Prasiri Church USA (West Covina), and Thai Outreach Church (Pasadena), and the Thai Church in California (Anaheim). Majid Al-Fatiha, founded in Azusa in 1993, is the nation’s oldest Thai mosque.

There are several Buddhist temples serving the Thai community including Wat Buddhavipassana (Long Beach), Wat Padhammachart (Avocado Heights), and Wat Thai Srisoda Sun Valley (Pacoima). The oldest is Wat Thai, however, the largest Thai Theraveda Buddhist Temple in the country. Although open since 1979, its origins go back to the beginning of that decade with the establishment of the Theravada Buddhist Center in 1971. 

Wat Thai
Songkran at Wat Thai in Los Angeles, 8225 Coldwater Canyon, No. Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, April 2008 (Image: Cbl62)

Services initially took place in a private residence in the San Fernando Valley. In 1971, Venerable Phra Dhammakosacharn and a group of monks, along with Paul Sosothikul (president of the Association of Thai Merchants), Aroon Seeboonruang (one-time president of the Thai Association of Southern California) and other members of the community, began raising funds to purchase a former Japanese nursery in Sun Valley on which to construct a permanent home. Construction of the temple began in 1972. In addition to religious services, it also offers free Thai language classes, dance and music performances, art exhibits, and a food fair. Today it remains the primary spiritual, social, and cultural hub for most of Los Angeles’s Thai community.


THAI CUISINE

I’ve often stated without too much push-back my opinion that cuisine is the easiest entry point into another culture. Like any sane person, I love Thai food. I love everything Thai that I’ve eaten — curries, rice dishes, noodles, salads, soups — all of it. Even so, more often than not, I return the same items at the same restaurants not out of a lack of sense of adventure but because the cravings are so strong and specific.

Thai food is, for most non-Thai people, pretty much the beginning and end of our knowledge of Thai culture. Thai food is ubiquitous now, having conquered the nation in the way that Italian, Chinese, and Mexican did before it. In any town with more than 10,000 inhabitants, there’s probably a Thai place — but this wasn’t always the case. The first Thai place I remember coming to the Iowa town where I went to college was Saigon to Bangkok, one of those bets-hedging joints that offer more than one cuisine. That was around 1996.

Thai food fanned across the US after first establishing itself in Los Angeles. The first Los Angeles Thai restaurant was Thai Kitchen, which opened in 1969 in what’s now Koreatown. It was destroyed in 1992 when a nearby apartment burned down. Soo, too, were two other Thai restaurants — Arunee’s Restaurant and Renoo’s Kitchen.

The Kuntee Family.Chao Krung
The Kuntee Family at Chao Krung

Chao Krung opened the same year as Thai Kitchen. The owners reportedly found that many American diners confused Thailand with Taiwan (a confusion still disappointingly common I found out when I visited Taiwan in 2010) and so began the practice of including Chinese items on the menu — although several iconic Thai dishes are believed by some to have origins in Thailand’s Chinese communities including goy see mee, pad kee mao, pad see ew, and pad thai. Although only the Fairfax location remains today, were formerly three locations of Chao Krung, which may therefore also have been Los Angeles’s first Thai chain. Another early chain was Tepparod, owned by Aroon Seeboonruang and which at its height boasted three locations. Today, there are several established local Thai chains, including Ocha Classic, Pa Ord, Thai Original BBQ, and Vim Thai Restaurant.

Thai Original BBQ
A location of Thai Original BBQ that used to be a Taco Bell

Actual vegetarianism — that is, the abstaining of eating dead animals — isn’t apparently that common in Thailand. Although often translated as “vegetarian,” “มังสวิรัติ” apparently actually refers to the practice not eating visually perceptible pieces of animals — which means that even when a server asks “egg is OK?” it’s possible that fish sauce or shrimp paste found its way into the dish described on a menu as “vegetarian.” Vegetarian Thai in Los Angeles also often includes plenty of convincing, processed, salty, and delicious mock meats that needless to say are better suited for vegetarians who abstain from eating animals out of empathy than out of health concerns.

Many of those mock meats are made by Taiwanese brands but are carried in Thai Golden Mountainmarkets like Silom. There’s pretty convincing Vietnamese vegetarian fish sauce, too, which too my nose (for better or for worse) smells pretty much just like the real thing and therefore is consigned to its own cabinet. There are also savory seasoning sauces like Golden Mountain — which my former Thai neighbors refer to generically as a “maggi” sauce after Maggi, the popular Swiss approximation of Chinese soy sauce that’s now integral to many cuisines. It’s a long but interesting story.

Anyway, for reasons which aren’t entirely clear to me — Thai restaurateurs were behind many of the vegan restaurants which appeared on the Los Angeles landscape in the 2000s, including Vegan Express, Vegan Star, Bulan Thai, California Vegan, Truly Vegan, Green Leaves, My Vegan Gold, and Vegan House. Most skewed heavily toward mock meats and most also had some recognizably Thai options; however, with most, it was the greasy spoon staples like fried chicken sandwiches that were/are better than the Thai items.

Pramote “Pat” and Marasri Tilakamonkul opened Bangkok Market, the first Thai market in the US, in 1971. Their son, Jet Tilakamonkul (known professionally as “Jet Tila”) later became a celebrity chef. Bangkok Market closed in 2019 when the elder Tilakamonkuls retired. There are still a number of Thai markets in business, however, including Bangluck, New Bangluck, Chanh Thai, LAX-C, and Silom.


THAI ARTISTS

In 1991, Thai Angeleno artist Vibul Wonprasat painted a mural on the market’s exterior titled East Meets West. Wonprasat established the Vibul School of Painting in Venice in 1984. Wongprasat also founded the Thai Community Arts and Cultural Center (TCACC) in 1992. The TCACC began organizing the Thai Cultural Day festival in 1993, first at Wat Thai and, the following year and since at Barnsdall Art Park. East Meets West, however, was eventually painted over.

East Meets West
East Meets West by Vibul Wonprasat (Image: Robin Dunitz for the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles)

Of course, there are still Thai artists in Los Angeles. Wonprasat’s painting school is still in operation, having long ago relocated to Studio City. Other Thai Angeleno artists include illustrator Gift Janyachotiwong, Patradol “Dodo” Kitcharoen, and Pawan Poungjinda. My friend Susannah Tantemsapya runs international arts organization Creative Migration, which is based in Bangkok and Los Angeles.


SIAM HOLLYWOOD SHOOTOUT

In November 1974, community leader Paul Sosothikul was hosting a group of Thai at Thai Town’s Siam Hollywood, a restaurant owned by another community leader, Vallop ThamrangarinathSurapol Mekpongsatorn. Their purpose was to raise money for the construction of Wat Thai. The event took a tragic turn when Vallop Thamrongarinath walked into the restaurant, placed an order. He then, according to witnesses, turned to face patron Govit Chianthanachinda and said “I’ve been waiting to kill you for a long time” before firing his gun multiple times.

Chianthanachinda then ran for the door, firing his own gun behind him. Two of Thamrongarinath’s accomplices, seated in booths, also began firing guns. Once Chianthanachinda was down, Thamrongarinath and his accomplices fired more shots into Chianthanachinda’s head before escaping in a getaway car. Chianthanachinda had made many enemies in the community by extorting money from Thai living here illegally. He was out on bail, awaiting charges on the attempted murder of Thamrongarinath whom he’d earlier shot four times and left for dead.

When the smoke cleared, Chianthanachinda was dead — but he wasn’t the only one. Two patrons, Wacharapon Kunthara and Jarin Taechanarong, were both injured, one critically. An eleven-year-old girl, Daowsin Dilokevilas, was also dead. So too was Paul Sosothikul.


Thai food began to cross over in earnest to non-Thai Angelenos not long after. Pat Tila of Bangkok Market opened Royal Thai on Pico Boulevard in 1978. Many of its customers came from the nearby studios of 21st Century Fox. In the 1980s, Los Angeles collectively fell for Central Thai cuisine. In the 1990s, Northern Thai established a foothold.

In 2001, Southern California explorer Huell Howser and Jet Tila visited Thai Town — stopping at Palms Thai, Bhan Kanom Thai, and Hollywood Thai — on the former’s series, Visiting… With Huell Howser. Palms Thai was, thanks in large part to Thai Elvis, already well-known. Huell Howser, however, with his own ravenous following, helped expose Thai food to a larger swathe of Los Angeles.

A few years later, Sarintip “Jazz” Singsanong and Suthiporn “Tui” Sungkamee took over Jitlada and shifted its focus to Southern Thai. The restaurant struggled until, in 2007, food critic and Southern California explorer Jonathan Gold wrote a glowing review that appeared the following year in the LA Weekly under the title, “Flame War.” It furthered the appreciation of regional Thai variations while at the same time stoking the competitive obsession of those for whom dining is, most importantly, about seeing who can tolerate the spiciest food.


THE GROWTH OF THAI LOS ANGELES 

Most early Thai immigrants settled in Central Los Angeles. One concentration was in East Hollywood, which would later emerge as Thai Town. The other, around the intersection of Western Avenue and Olympic Boulevard — would soon be absorbed into Koreatown. Although the Thai exodus to the San Fernando Valley would really get underway in the 1980s and ’90s, there were already in the 1970s several Thai businesses and residences on the other side of the Hollywood Hills.

Thai emigration increased dramatically after the conclusion of the Vietnam War, in 1975. In contrast with their Southeast Asian neighbors — in particular Cambodians, Hmong, Lao, and Vietnamese — Thai immigrants didn’t arrive as refugees. Included in their ranks were students eager to study in the US, war brides of American soldiers, and both unskilled laborers and professionals.

In the late 1970s, the New York City-based organization, Thai Physicians of America, opened a Southern California chapter. Central Plaza One hosted the newly established Thai Trade Center and the offices of the Thai Chamber of Commerce. Thailand’s Bangkok Bank opened an office in the Pacific Financial Center.

In the 1980s, roughly 64,400 Thais moved to the US. Thai at the University of California, Los Angeles formed the student group, Thai Smakom, in 1980. Aroon Seeboonruang (owner of Tepparod and one-time president of the Thai Association of Southern California) was instrumental in establishing several new Thai organizations, including the Thai Senior Citizen Club of Los Angeles.

By 1982, the Thai Chamber of Commerce had been inactive for several years when it was reorganized and renamed the Association of Thai Businesses and Trade of California. The force behind its reinvigoration was a group of twenty Thai entrepreneurs including Aroon Seeboonruang’s son-in-law, Chow Burana, Surapol Mekponsathorn, and Dr. Vibul Vichit-Vadakan of Thai Physicians of America. The organization’s first president was Thongchai Teepratew. The association also launched a newsletter, Siang Vanich.

By the 1990s, more Thai lived in outlying suburban communities like Arleta, Bellflower, Cerritos, Lynwood, North Hollywood, Pacoima, Panorama City, Sun Valley, and Van Nuys than they did in the Central Los Angeles enclave of Thai Town — although Thai Town remained (and remains) an important cultural, culinary, and commercial hub of the community.


THAI TOWN IN THE 1990s

New Hollywood Plaza
New Hollywood Plaza sign (Image: Harvey Castellano)

For many years, the commercial hub of Thai Town was New Hollywood Plaza, completed in 1980, which since then has managed to host some of Thai Town’s most popular establishments. The parking lot is a nightmare — except during Songkran when its turned into a Singha beer garden (something it should remain year-round since the opening of Hollywood/Western Station in 1999 removed any excuse for driving). Ruen Pair has been in operation there since at least 1983. The popular Palms Thai opened in the plaza in 1994 but in 2005 moved to a larger location a few blocks west of Thai Town. It was replaced by Thai Patio. Red Corner Asia came and went. Bhan Kanom Thai, Crispy Pork Gang, Pa Ord Noodle 3, and several other Thai and non-Thai establishments remain.

Thailand Plaza
Thailand Plaza, Thai Town, Hollywood, CA (Image: Simon J. Hernandez)

Thailand Plaza, while not home to as many storied Thai restaurants, is the most recognizable symbol of Thai Town. It was developed by Anek Bholsangngam and opened in 1992 and is home to Silom Market (my favorite Thai market), Jinda (the home of Thai Elvis until he was poached by Palms), and Dokya LA — a shop accessible through the wonderfully grimy enclosed parking garage. Out front is a pair of spirit houses, a sort of shrine found throughout Southeast Asia.


THAI LITERATURE AND BOOKS

Thai literature is written almost exclusively in Thai script, the abugida derived from Old Khmer and ultimately based on the Pallava alphabet of Southern India. It’s used to write Standard Thai, naturally, but also Southern Thai (also known as Pak Thai or Dambro), Northern Thai (also known as Lanna or Lanna Kam Mueang), Northeastern Thai (also known as Isan), and Kelantan-Pattani Malay (also known as Yawi, Jawi, or Baso Kelaté), among others. Before the 19th century, poetry comprised the bulk of Thai literature. Nowadays, fiction predominates and Thailand has produced several contemporary authors of note including Botan (Suweeriya Sirisingh), Chart Korbjitti, Duanwad Pimwana, Kukrit Pramoj, Pitchaya Sudbanthad, Prabda Yoon, and Siburapha (Kulap Saipradit).

Local Thai-Angeleno writers include Dan Santat — who writes and illustrates children’s books and created the Disney show, The Replacements — and playwright Prince Gomolvilas who spent much of his childhood in Monrovia.

Siam Book Center is probably the oldest local Thai bookstore, having been established in 1980. The main location is in the Thai Town plaza shared with Sanamluang and Bangluck Market and it sells quite a bit more than books. There used to be a second location in Valley Glen but I believe that it closed.

Jintana and Nicha Tantipinichwong opened the first Los Angeles location of Dokya in 1994. I believe there may also be a location in the Dogtown complex that houses the cavernous Thai wholesale market, LAX-C. There used to be a location in the San Fernando Valley, too, but it appears to have closed. As sales of books have declined, the owners shifted Dokya’s focus away from books toward shifted to health and beauty products. It may’ve been a wise move, as Chao Thai Video & Magazine, Thai Tanee Book & Video, and Thaisfly Book seem to have all closed some time ago.


THAI TOWN GOES OFFICIAL

LADOT Thai Town

It’s somewhat ironic that the city finally got around to granting Thai Town official recognition in 1999 — long after most of the Thai residents had made their homes elsewhere and five years after efforts to get official recognition began. Still, it is in Thai Town that the annual Thai New Year’s Songkran Festival has taken place almost every year since 2003.

It’s in Thai Town, too, that the Thai CDC initiated a public art project with funding from the (now defunct) Community Redevelopment Agency of Los Angeles (CRA/LA) and installed bronze statues of aponsi at the neighborhood’s eastern and western entrances in 2006.

Thai BBQ Aponsi

THE WADDELL BUDDHIST TEMPLE SHOOTING

On 9 August 1991, nine Thai were robbed and murdered at Waddell, Arizona’s Wat Promkunaram. The victims were Boochuay Chaiyarach, Chalerm Chantapim, Chirasak Chirapong, Foy Sripanpiaserf, Matthew Miller, Pairuch Kanthong, Siang Ginggaeo, Somsak Sopha, and Surichai Anuttaro.

Although more than 500 kilometers from Los Angeles, law enforcement investigated possible links between between the remote Thai wat and the heroin trade from Thailand through California. One month after the murders, four men were arrested in connection with the murders on the day local restaurateur Thongkam Smith hosted the Thai ambassador and members of local law enforcement. The confessions were foced and the men were all innocent. Smith, though, turned out to be an alias for Lamthong Sudthisa-ard, the former president of the Thai Association of Southern California, who’d fled Los Angeles in 1978 after he was charged with conspiracy to smuggle heroin. The four men’s confessions were false, however, and they ended up settling with the county for a large sum of money.

Earlier in the year, authorities in Hong Kong intercepted a shipment of heroin bound for the US from Thailand concealed inside statues of the Buddha. Two months before the murder, on 20 June 1991, the largest seizure of heroin in US history had taken place in Oakland. Nine days before the murder, a call was placed from someone at the temple to Tepparod No. 3. The FBI believed that owner Burana Chow (of the Association of Thai Businesses and Trade of California) was deeply involved in the heroin trade he vanished. Additionally, a note found at the temple included instructions to call a public phone in a Placentia high school parking lot, to ask for “Phet,” and, rather cryptically, that “it now weighs 1083 pounds.”

Ultimately, however, the murders were pinned on a Thai American high schooler, Jonathan Doody, and his friend Allessandro Garcia. Their motive in murdering nine people was attributed to robbery — they netted about $2,600. Whether or not Chow was ever found, charged, or exonerated, I don’t know.


EL MONTE GARMENT SLAVERY CASE

Chanchanit “Chancee” Martorell founded the Thai Community Development Center (Thai CDC) in 1994 and since then, that non-profit has worked to advance the social and economic well-being of low and moderate-income Thais.

1997.0268.24.6_razor_wire_wall_bars_corrogated_panels
Image: Phillip Bonner, former Special Agent of the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement

In 1995, 72 Thai were found working in slave conditions from a complex of duplexes in El Monte. Among the companies to rely on their labor were Anchor Blue, B.U.M., CLEO, High Sierra, and Tomato Inc. The events inspired Henry Ong‘s 2010 play, Fabric. The sweatshop had been run by “Auntie” Suni Manasurangkun with the help of her five sons, two daughters-in-law, and two others. The complex was surrounded by razor wire and authorities had been tipped off by an escapee in 1992 but took three years to raid.

When the operation was finally busted, it exposed not just the ongoing reality of slavery in the US but also a rift in the Thai community. While many took the side of the imprisoned workers, others were angry over the embarrassment at the loss of face for the community. Some, additionally, were caught in the middle. Several of the freed laborers joined the Retailer Accountability Campaign, which targeted department stores that relied on slave and sweatshop labor. Others, like Rotchana Cheunchujit, themselves became anti-slavery activists. The case came to be known as the El Monte Thai Garment Slavery Case. The Thai CDC continues to handle cases for Thai forced against their will to work in the agricultural, construction, domestic, and sex industries.


THAI FILM

In the 2000s, there was a spate of films coming out of Thailand that (when I worked at Amoeba) briefly garnered quite a bit of a following. Thai Cinema, before the early 1990s, had never been known much outside of Thailad, where a small industry emerged in the 1930s. In the 1990s and early 2000s, directors Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Nonzee Nimibutr, and Pen-Ek Ratanaruang emerged as part of a Thai new wave. At the same time, Hong Kong’s Pang Brothers relocated to Thailand where they made films beginning with Bangkok Dangerous (1999).

Wisit Sasanatieng‘s Tears of the Black Tiger (2000) was apparently a flop in Thailand but gathered audiences overseas as it scooped up awards at international film festivals. The Legend of Suriyothai (2001) had a huge buzz around it and the Thai import sold quite a bit on DVD. Eventually, however, Americans were given a heavily-edited domestic version that pleased no one and that sold poorly. Despite Americans’ preference for the original, the trend of butchering, dumbing-down, re-scoring, re-editing, and re-titling Thai films for US audiences only ramped up. Fans, therefore, resorted to buying imports or bootlegs. American versions sometimes arrived on shelves two years later — by the time the import and bootleg crowds were buying the inevitable sequels. The botched mishandling, I think, more than anything scuppered the chances for Thai cinema to gain a proper foothold in the US.

The biggest success was 2003’s Ong-Bak (องค์บาก) — which made a cult star of Tatchakorn “Tony Jaa” Yeerum but wasn’t released in the US until 2005. In keeping with the practice of botching Thai films, it was heavily re-edited, re-scored, and re-titled Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior — in case, I suppose, potential audiences might stay away if it wasn’t made explicit that it was about a warrior who was Thai. The Bodyguard (บอดี้การ์ดหน้าเหลี่ยม — 2004) managed to find an audience, however, despite not being retitled “Comedic Thai Bodyguard.” Born to Fight (2004), Shutter (2004), Tom-Yum-Goong (2005), Dek hor (2006), The Bodyguard 2 (2008), Chocolate (2008), Ong-Bak 2 (2008), Ong-Bak 3 (2010), and Tom Yum Goong 2 (2013) all did reasonably well.

There have been a few Thai Angelenos who’ve worked in our own Hollywood industry. The first prominent Thai American film actor was likely Art Chudabala, who made his Hollywood debut as Vietnamese student Vinh Kelly in the unexpectedly enjoyable Gleaming the Cube (1989). I first became aware of half Thai/half-Hmong actress Brenda Song when my then-young Thai neighbors would insist on watching her in the insufferable The Suite Life of Zack & Cody, an excruciatingly unpleasant Disney show about a bunch of horrible, sassy children. In 2010, she broke out of Disney hell with a role in The Social Network. Other Thai Angeleno film figures include author/producer Cherry Chevapravatdumrong, director/producer Kevin Harwick Tancharoen, documentarian Looksorn Thitipuk Teeratrakul, producer/writer Maurissa Tancharoen, actor/stuntman Michael Chaturantabut, Saidtha (Chok) Suwanavisootr, and director Todd Angkasuwan.


THAI ANGELENO MUSIC

As is the case with all cultures, Thailand’s music is in part a reflection of its geography. In the case of Thailand, that location is at the crossroads of South, Southeast, and East Asia. Although Thailand was never colonized, it is situated along trade routes used by Africans, Greeks, Persians, and Romans, which brought influences from far away. Forms of Thai music include khrueang luk thung — so-called “Thai country music” — which in my experience cleanly divides Thai families along generational lines; mor lam — a folk music associated with Lao people and derided by some as “taxi driver music”; and kantrum — a type of folk music associated with Khmer people.

Of course, since the mid-20th century, Western forms of music have also been popular in Thailand. The British group The Shadows were so popular across much of Southeast Asia and in Thailand, gave birth to a genre known as wong shadow, which later evolved into “string.” Protest folk-rock was represented by phleng phuea chiwit (literally “songs for life”). There’s also western style Thai rock, metal, dance-pop, and hip-hop.

Locally, Thai music enjoyed a bit of a moment amongst the nuggets/pebbles garage rock crowd with Swedish label Subliminal Record‘s release of three volumes of the Thai Beat A Go-Go (2004-2005. Those volumes, which collected obscurities (in the US, anyway) by the likes of Johnny’s Guitar and Viparat Piengsuwan received a fair amount of attention. Similar 60s/70s re-issue label compilations followed, including Amazing Sounds of Thailand, Siamese Soul, The Sounds of Siam, Thai Funk, Thai? Dai! (The Heavier Side Of The Luk Thung Underground), and Pebbles’ Thai volumes of their series Original Artifacts From The Psychedelic Era.

Los Angeles has produced or been home to several Thai musicians as well, including singer Chanatda Punyaratabandhu, Nichkhun Buck Horvejkul (who performs with Korean boy band 2PM) and Tim Chantarangsu, a comedian/rapper who formerly performed as both Timothy DeLaGhetto and Traphik. Many local Thai restaurants include small stages that host live performers — most of whom are Thai. Off the top of my head, I can think of Hollywood Thai, Jinda, Palms, Pattaya Bay, Siri Thai Cuisine. I’m sure there are many more — and I wish I could name more than a couple of the performers who grace them. 

The best known, surely, is Kavee “Kevin” Thongpricha — better known as “Thai Elvis.” I enjoyed his performances many times, dining at Palms on my lunch breaks from Amoeba (and a birthday for which the waitresses unexpectedly surprised me marzipan from Bhan Kanom Thai) until he returned to Thailand. I reckon it was the perceived novelty of a Thai singer devoted to the look and music of Elvis Presley that initially drew people to him but he’s a genuinely captivating performer and he had a way of converting gawkers into genuine fans. In my case, he converted me into a fan of Elvis — someone I’d written off as an impressionable young fan of Public Enemy. 

Before he was the star attraction at Palms, where he performed with a pre-recorded backing track, Thongpricha performed next door at Jinda with a live band. I was friendly with a few of the waitresses at Palms who used to sometimes come by Amoeba. We tried to get the marketing department to allow him to perform on the Amoeba stage but the store has a rule that only artists promoting a new release can perform — a rule created by Amoeba, of course, but which Amoeba employees were powerless to make an exception for. Nevertheless, we all enjoyed a performance at Spaceland (now the Satellite) when he performed once again with a live band. I believe that he retired and moved back to Chiang Mai around 2011 (he’s now 80 years old).

King of Thailand and Elvis

The unlikely good news for Thai Elvis fans is that there are several — perhaps a half dozen, even. It seems that covering Elvis was a lucrative career move during the Vietnam War, when many American GIs began coming to Thailand on vacation (Bangkok is still the most-tourist-visited city in the world). Even before that, Thailand’s king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, was an Elvis fan and in 1960, he and his wife, Queen Sirikit, visited Elvis at Hollywood’s Paramount Studios lot where America’s “king” was in the process of filming G.I. Blues.

One of the better known Thai Elvises locally is Manuel Toi-GB, who used to co-own Ruen Pair. He was born in Bangkok and came to Los Angeles in 1974. It was much later, however, that he began performing Elvis songs back in Thailand and now, sometimes, around Los Angeles and Southern California.


THAI SPORTS & THAI ANGELENO ATHLETES

Muay Thai (มวยไทย) is a well known Thai martial art. When I try to recall when, exactly, it entered the American collective consciousness I reckon it must’ve been around the time of the 1989 release of the film, Kickboxer. In it, Jean Claude van Damme plays an American who travels to Thailand to fight a Thai champion known as “Tong Po.” Somehow I’ve never seen it nor any other van Damme film but knowing what I know of Hollywood conventions, I’m assuming that the American triumphs through his mastery of the Thai adversary’s technique. Even though I didn’t watch that film, though, I do remember my schoolmates nearly arriving at a consensus that Jean Claude van Damme and any muay Thai master could defeat Steven Seagal or any aikido master in a fight. 

Surapuk Jamjuntr‘s Muay Thai Academy of America, founded in North Hollywood, is supposedly the first such venue opened in the US. Nowadays there are numerous muay Thai gyms in Los Angeles and one of the main features of Thai Town’s Songkran festival are the muay Thai fights.

Surely the most famous Thai-Angeleno athlete, however, is golfer Eldrick TontTigerWoods, whose mother was born in Thailand and of Thai, Chinese, and Dutch ancestry.

Aroon Seeboonruang, who’s come up several times in this piece (president of the Thai Association of Southern California, founder of Tepprod, founder of the Thai Senior Citizen Club of Los Angeles, &c) was also a highly-regarded tennis player and founder of  the Thai Tennis Association. Seeboonruang was born in Bangkok on 29 December 1913. He appeared in The Hangover Part II in 2011 before dying that year on 14 October.

Other local athletes of Thai background include tennis-player Tamarine Tanasugarn, skater Eric Koston, and American football player Kevin Kaesviharn.


THAI MASSAGE IN LOS ANGELES

I suppose, too, that I should mention Thai massage — although with which I have no personal experience. Apparently, though, it’s a traditional healing system combining acupressure, Indian Ayurvedic principles, and assisted yoga postures. I would sooner pay a stranger not to touch me but I do know several folks who love Thai massage and it certainly seems like there are a lot of Thai massage places in Los Angeles. Additionally, in 2019, UNESCO added Thai massage to its Cultural Heritage of Humanity list and so I’ve included some Thai massage spots on the Thai Los Angeles map.


THAI ANGELENO MODELS AND BEAUTY PAGEANT CONTESTANTS

No disrespect intended against the noble occupation of “model” but I probably wouldn’t have mentioned Thai Angeleno models if there weren’t several and if a couple weren’t so well-known. Not a week goes by that I don’t see and ignore a headline about half-Thai model and “media personality” Chrissy Teigen — who apparently lived for a while in Huntington Beach and may still live in Los Angeles. Model and former porn actress Tera Patrick is also half Thai and has or had a residence in East Hollywood. Other local Thai models include Allison Samson (née Pimbongkod Chankaew), Bui Simon (né Porntip Nakhirunkanok), Ganita Koonopakarn, Greg Uttsada Panichkul, Janie Tienphosuwan, and Lada Engchawadechasilp.


OTHER THAI ANGELENOS

If it seems like an afterthought listing “other Thai Angelenos” at the end of an essay, it’s not — I just can’t think of a better way of incorporating them more gracefully into the body of this piece. One Thai Angeleno whose work I enjoy is Quincy Surasmith. He is an improv comic and actor but I mainly know him through his thoughtful podcast, Asian-Americana. Another Thai Angeleno who I couldn’t figure out where else to mention is Sorn Nonn the Khmer Thai designer behind the bag brand Laphiny. Are you a Thai Angeleno who’d like to be included in this piece? If so, let me know in the comments.


FURTHER READING


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Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRWWhich Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubiand Twitter.

Art Prints

2 thoughts on “Pan-Asian Metropolis — Thai Los Angeles

  1. Wow. I am speechless that I found this blog after years of trying to learn about the history of LA. I have spent so much time browning and I could spend hours upon hours going through so much more content! Thank you for taking the time to do something you’re so passionate about. It motivated me even more to be the change I want to see in my community and get involved and improve it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! It’s always so nice to get any sort of feedback that lets me know that these posts aren’t merely being published inside of a void. I’m working on another right now… stay tuned!

      Like

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