Connect to share and comment

Thai soapy massages meet politics

Can Bangkok’s former “Brothel King" bring political tension to a happy ending?

Thailand's massage parlor tycoon Chuwit Kamolvisit (center) poses in a jacuzzi inside Copa Cabana, one of the six upscale entertainment clubs he owned in Bangkok on Aug. 2, 2003. (Adrees Latif AL/DL/Reuters)

BANGKOK, Thailand — There’s still a dash of kingpin swagger to Chuvit Kamolvisit’s deluxe penthouse: the waxed marble staircase, the slick designer-decorated sitting room, the perfumed secretary wearing a slinky black dress and dental braces.

But for a man once cast in headlines as the “King of Commercial Sex,” the brash businessman-turned-political crusader has been uncharacteristically quiet of late. Sinking into a love seat, Chuvit explains his absence.

“Everyone wants to know where I’ve been,” Chuvit said. “While these politicians have been talking, I’ve been listening. Pretty soon, I’ll be back.”

Raised in Thailand, college-educated in the U.S., Chuvit made his fortune in Bangkok running lucrative “soapies”: luxury massage parlors where women treat patrons to erotic baths.

Playing godfather to a brothel empire may seem an odd springboard to becoming an anti-corruption crusader. But any Thai living in Bangkok can recount Chuvit’s path to fame, chronicled in soap opera detail by the Thai press.

In the early 2000s, Chuvit began publicly accusing senior police officers of milking him for an alleged $350,000-plus in monthly bribes. It was protection money, Chuvit claimed. [Brothel bosses can escape prostitution laws through a flimsy legal sleight-of-hand: They rent out masseurs but claim ignorance of in-room activities.]

As Chuvit began to expose the details of corruption — cash-stuffed trash bags, complimentary Rolexes — his public profile grew. He named big names, ranted with American-style bluntness and vowed to stand up for anyone who’d ever been screwed over by sticky-fingered big-shots.

Since 2003, Chuvit parlayed this infamy into several bids for Bangkok governor — all of which failed despite impressive showings — and a brief stint as parliamentarian with an opposition party.

The Thai public last glimpsed Chuvit in October 2008. Though polling strong, his bid for Bangkok governor had failed after he assaulted a TV anchorman who called him “unmanly” following an interview.

But amid the recent political chaos of Thailand, Chuvit is preparing another bid for parliament. Here, he discusses his reputation’s downside, his new political endeavors and how America taught him to disregard Asian groupthink.

People still think of you as the “Brothel King.” But in 2005 you smashed a jacuzzi bathtub in front of parliament to show you’re out of that business. Are you still connected in any way to the massage trade?