A curious novel set in FRANCE
Talking Location with author Jake Needham – Bangkok (and the Needham Omelet)
8th February 2017
So pleased to welcome Jake Needham – one of the top go-to authors for books set in Asia – to our #TalkingLocationWith… feature!
“Jake Needham is Michael Connelly with steamed rice”– The Bangkok Post
“Needham is Asia’s most stylish and atmospheric writer of crime fiction.” – The Singapore Straits Times
Over to Jake…..
I CAME TO CASABLANCA FOR THE WATERS
RENAULT: And what in heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca?
RICK: My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.
RENAULT: Waters? What waters? We’re in the desert.
RICK: I was misinformed.
Screenplay for CASABLANCA – 1942
When I am back in the United States and the subject of my residence comes up in conversation, I am generally asked in tones laden with suspicion, “Why in the world are you living in a place like Bangkok?”
I always regret that I cannot simply reply with Humphrey Bogart’s famous response when he was asked how he came to be living in Casablanca, but I can make no claim to being misinformed. I had lived in Asian cities for many years before I took up residence in Bangkok. I knew pretty much what I was getting into.
Of course, very few Americans seem to know much of anything about living in any place that is not America, and I hardly ever meet anyone back in the United States who has anything at all to say about Bangkok other than on one of two topics.
Food is naturally one of those topics.
Everyone claims to love Thai food.
Going out for Chinese is cheap. Going out for Thai seems somehow hipper. Of course, most Westerners have no real idea what they are actually eating in either case, but Thai food is both cheap and hip, so how can you beat that?
The other topic, as you might guess, is sex.
Bangkok is inexorably linked in most people’s minds with stories they have heard somewhere — although I notice few people admit to remembering exactly where — of an unabashedly dissolute life and the ready availability of free sex. Well, perhaps not exactly free, but certainly pretty inexpensive sex, at least by world standards. Thai sex is a little like Thai food, cheap but with a kind of exotic style to it. Can’t beat that combination in any context, can you?
With all that going for it, you might think that the idea of me actually living in Bangkok would be pretty interesting to most people, wouldn’t you? You might think that, but you’d be wrong.
The inevitable view people express when they find out that I live in Bangkok is something I have learned to live with. Oh, the place is no doubt fascinating, people murmur, but it’s a city where a lot of people go who aren’t particularly…well, nice.
To be absolutely honest with you here, I have to admit that perception isn’t really all that far off the mark.
I have often thought there has to be some kind of international network devoted to coaxing social rejects and dropout cases worldwide into coming to Bangkok, because come they do. By the thousands, they walk away from third-shift jobs in places like Los Angeles, London, Berlin, and Toronto, pack what they have, buy a cheap airline ticket, and make their way to the Land of Smiles.
Many of these refugees from reality probably couldn’t have located Bangkok on a map before they decided it was the place for them. Maybe they still can’t, but now Bangkok had become their last, maybe their only hope.
In the empty hours, it is this army of the dispossessed that takes control of the part of the city where most foreigners live. Tuk-tuks, little three-wheeled motorcycle taxis, fly back and forth most of the night ferrying carousers between the two clumps of bars that anchor the neighborhood: Nana Plaza on the west and Soi Cowboy about a mile to the east.
They are all there. The lonely, the frightened, the guilty, the lost, the vulnerable, the depressed, and the psychotic. Soaked with sweat, they rush back and forth from one bar to another, reeking of that peculiarly sour, metallic odor habitually given off by the emotionally overmatched and underachieving.
So, I hear you ask, how in the world did you end up in Bangkok? It happened this way…
Back in the early 1990’s, HBO hired me to produce a movie they were making from a screenplay I had written. It was to be filmed in Bangkok and, since I lived in Asia and presumably knew something about the place, they thought it was sensible to add me to the corps of so-called producers every movie drags around with it.
Regardless of HBO’s wisdom in putting me on the payroll, I must tell you now that I am grateful beyond measure that they did because while we were shooting in Bangkok I met the woman who is now my wife. She had been born in Thailand but had grown up and gone to school in England. She was doing a stint at the time as the editor of the Thai edition of the UK magazine, Tatler, and she came out to the set one day to interview me. A year later we were married. Twenty-five years later, we still are and we have two sons who have graduated from universities in the United States.
So there you have it. That is how I came to be resident in a city most westerners seem to think of as little more than Disneyland for the dodgy and the disreputable. Just with better food.
Admit it. You’re actually a bit disappointed, aren’t you? Maybe you expected something a little…well, sexier?
I rest my case.
A personal restaurant recommendation where they feature the Needham Omelet!
The uniquely named Brainwake Cafe may be the hottest place in town right now. It’s in the mid-Sukhumvit area and was opened in 2015 soon after the last military coup by Suranand Vejjajiva, the Secretary General to the Prime Minister in the government ousted by the army. Brainwake has since become a sort of local salon for media, entertainment, and non-military political types, and everybody speaks English so you won’t have any problem communicating. Open only from 7am to 7pm, it offers a huge number of dishes ranging from pancakes and eggs benedict to a large variety of noodles and other Asian dishes at almost embarrassingly low prices. Want a suggestion? Try the Needham Omelet, a thin egg pancake packed with minced pork, Chiangmai sausages, and green peppers served with jasmine rice and sriracha sauce, the real stuff from Si Racha in Thailand, not that crap they make in LA…
JAKE NEEDHAM is an American novelist who lives in Bangkok. He has published nine contemporary crime novels set in Thailand as well as in Singapore and Hong Kong. The print editions of Jake’s novels are widely distributed in Europe, Asia, and the UK. In North America, both e-book and paperback editions of his novels are available to buy here
You can connect with Jake via his website, Twitter and Facebook
Do come and connect with Team TripFiction via Twitter (@tripfiction), Facebook (TripFiction), Instagram (TripFiction) and Pinterest (TripFiction)… and now YouTube
Great to hear Jake wax sentimental about his landing zone in Asia. Brings back memories of the Land of perpetual flooding and crazy traffic. Jake’s books always bring that place of odd buildings on an ancient landscape alive with closed alleys and lovely women peaking out of the shadows to add to the archives of my imagination as I follow his heroes through the plots. Next time I get lost there I will have to find that omelette.
One of my favourite authors who infuses his novels with great nuggets about Bangkok.
I wish there were more authors like him and that publishers realised that there is a big wide world out there.
Great TF interview with Jake Needham. I’m afraid I don’t know Bangkok and I haven’t read any of Jake’s books – yet – but I really enjoyed the honesty of his comments about his adopted home.
He’s right about the general perception of Thailand and Bangkok, and there may well be some small justification. But how often do we all jump to erroneous conclusions, without first having experienced places ourselves?
I’ve just got back from Romania. Far from being awash with Gypsies, vampires, pickpockets and grey Communist buildings, Bucharest, the Carpathian mountains and the Transylvanian countryside are beautiful, the people are friendly and Bucharest is aptly known as the Paris of the East.
Hope to meet you in Bangkok one day, Jake!
I am a personal fan and he knows how much I love his work. As you can see I live in Bangkok too, I have for over 9 years combined. I may go back to the US but the trip is to hard on me, I am sick and old now! So have to have help which my daughter is to provide, otherwise I can not make it!
Oh, Jake is the real deal and a pal!
998 Soi Onnuj 30-32 Sukhumvit 77 Suanluang
Great interview! I’ve been to Bangkok twice for about a week at a time, and find the contrast between great beauty and sleaze fascinating. Once, we stayed in one of the non-tourist areas. Every morning we bought rice to place in the monk’s bowls as they passed by. A lovely and peaceful sight.
How come that omelet is a buck twenty?