Thai soapy massages meet politics

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.</p>

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.

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?

No. Let me explain. I was educated in a U.S. university in Buies Creek, North Carolina. That’s where I met my ex-wife. She’s a “farang” [Thai word for light-skinned Westerner.] I still have two kids in the U.S.

The media says I’m a sex merchant, a sex tycoon. Whatever. But I quit already! They’re massage parlors, OK? It’s not immoral. But now, when I go to the U.S. embassy, they won’t issue me a visa. I say, “It’s human rights! You have to let me see my kids.”

My ex-wife won’t allow my kids to see me in Thailand. So I’m just waiting and waiting. I’m thinking, you know, in the U.S. you’re supposed to get a second chance. Americans first came over from Europe and England, not agreeing with their king’s system, to the United States. They got a second chance. I need one too.

So you’re still out of the massage business?

I smashed [that jacuzzi]. I stopped it. I’ve started over with a new [family-friendly] hotel.

You’ve quietly registered a new political party called “Love Thailand.” What are your plans?

If you have something to propose to the Thai people, you have to pick a party like ... [rattles off Thailand’s political parties]. There’s noone democratic in these parties, so how can they make things democratic for this country? This isn’t going to be a political party. It’s my company. I want to run for MP and this is just my vehicle.

So you’d be the only person in the party?

I accept that. Because if I have someone else, I have to pay them off. Why should I pay anyone when I'm not doing dirty things? It will be a clean business. Last election, I spent almost 30 million baht [$927,660] to advertise the campaign. The posters, the billboards, the TV ads. So people know my face now.

I only need 80,000 votes from Bangkok. I can get that easily here. Some politicians only know about politics outside Bangkok, in the provinces, where you have to pay money for votes. I’ve been to Isaan [rural, northeast Thailand] and asked people, “Why do you accept 500 baht for one vote?” They said, “I get 500 today. That’s better than getting nothing.” This is the way politics work in Thailand. It needs time. It needs development.

Thai politics is currently a nightmare. Why get involved now?

It’s a nightmare. I accept that. Look, say you have a product, but the market is not very good. Do you wait and wait until the market recovers and then you release your product? No. You’ve invested labor, you’ve invested in the brand. I've been waiting a long time. Long enough. This is maybe my time.

In previous campaigns, one of your main platforms was corruption, particularly police corruption. Will you keep pressing this issue?

This is my main policy. Corruption in Thailand, it’s like its own culture. Very difficult to change. Say you’re driving a car and the police stop you. You're in a hurry. You give 100 baht to the police so he can go buy some coffee. Well, in your country, this is absolute corruption. You'll get a second charge. You'll go to jail.

For Thai people, it's normal. Society accepts it. It's comfortable and convenient. It's a habit, just like when Thai people walk past a spirit house and do this [clasps hands in respectful gesture used to honor the dead]. So you have to change this culture. Step by step. Society, like in Thailand or Asia, everyone runs in a group. In the U.S., you sit at a bar to drink alone and nobody blames you. But Thai people doing this? They’ll say, “What’s wrong with you? Are you broken-hearted?”

Thai society drinks together. We do everything together. We split our fish. We split our curry. In Western society, it's one fish for you, one fish for you, one fish for you. This is why it’s hard to change things in Thailand. It’s difficult for people like me to stand alone.

But how exactly are you going to fix police corruption?

You catch some official, he goes to jail. Let’s say 10 years. Then society will say, “Really? Now someone’s really in jail for corruption!”

But last time you criticized powerful people, you reported being kidnapped and you ended up in the hospital. Your assets were also taken. Aren’t you scared something bad will happen again?

I’m never scared. They took away my assets but then returned them to me. I was kidnapped, but I came back. When you have a gun to your head, you don't expect you'll see your kids again. But I still survived. Now, I’m back. This is Thai society. I’m used to it. I know how to survive without a bodyguard. I take taxis and motorbikes alone like anyone else.

In your election posters, you look like a tough guy. Like an angry man.

It's just political marketing. You know, for the next set of posters, in the next election, I think I’ll be smiling. People want politicians to be the perfect guy. Lovely family, perfect smile, very happy. But when you see someone like me? With a serious face? At least you know I take politics seriously.

People say, “Mr. Chuvit, you're the massage parlor king. Why get into politics?” Because politics has a lot of dirty people. I'm like the massage parlor. I'm gonna clean them all up. Thai people don't study politics, so they don't remember what politicians promise but never do. Thai people are always “jai dee” [good-natured] and then they forget. We have to be more serious.

In the last election, you were doing well. But then there was an incident in which you beat up a TV anchorman who insulted you. That hurt you in the polls. Do you regret that now?

I’ve never regretted that. I was happy to do it. Why? Because I don't like to keep things inside me. I did it suddenly. It would be like if I saw my wife with some guy. I just did it.

What made you so angry?

He insulted me in front of the camera! After that, he dropped the microphone and walked away. I said, “Good, he's walking away. It's better that way.” Then he suddenly turned around, pointed his finger and insulted me. I had to do something.

So if I said something insulting to you, you'd do it again?

[Laughs] Hey, I said I was sorry. I never said I did something good. You ever do something wrong and it feels good?

Do you think you'd play better to an American audience?

I think people in the United States could understand me better than Thais. When I would take my kid to school in the U.S., I’d see the teacher say, “Anyone want to ask a question?” The students would raise their hand. Here, in Thailand, the teacher asks the same question and they’re all quiet. Me, I raise my hand. I'm talking. But nobody's listening.

Thai people are always talking so nice, even when they’re lying. It’s difficult to see inside them. When I ran my campaign, people would come up and say, "Oh, Mr. Chuvit, I chose you!" I know they’re lying. Why? Because I never win. Keeping harmony in Thai society is all about “greng jai” [showing deep consideration, especially to elders and authority figures]. If you’re in the U.S., you don’t have to “greng jai” politicians. You’re a taxpayer!

Mr. Chuvit, you're also a Christian. Are you serious about your religion? How does that affect your life or political views?

I always say that to be a good Christian, someone slaps your face, you show another face.

To turn the other cheek.

Yes. This is what it says in the Bible.

How is your hotel business going? Have you lost visitors because of the Red Shirts’ anti-government protests?

Most of my guests are foreigners or expats. Absolutely, we've all lost opportunity because people are fighting for power and forgetting about business. Every hotel has low occupancy. No one wants to come to the land of terrorists with M-79 [grenade launcher] attacks everyday.

What else do you want people to know? No one really knows you're about running for office again.

My political policy is very short. It's love. If the Red Shirts love the [rival-political faction] Yellow Shirts, if the Yellow Shirts love Red Shirts, do you know how much this country would move forward? You just have to love your country, love your king, love your society. All we need is love.

The original story was changed to correct a spelling.