The Making of
THAILAND: LAND OF BEAUTIFUL WOMEN
By Dean Barrett
Many years ago, when, in many ways, I was a much younger man, I enjoyed living in Hong Kong and, once a month, traveling to Thailand. I would give the blueprint of the next Sawasdee magazine to the people in the head office of Thai Airways International to check for cultural and other errors, and while those good people made certain I did not place a pretty girl’s picture above a monk or commit some such typical farang editor abomination, for several days I would head out across the country, photographing temples, children, the elderly, rural scenes, klongs, fishermen, ricefields and, yes, women.
It wasn’t long before I noticed that although I had quite a collection of Thailand shots, I also noticed that the majority were on, yes, women. It was my belief that –- whatever their occupations -- the women of Thailand were lovely, graceful, charming, etc., etc., and wasn’t it a shame that no one was doing anything to pass that message on? Also, I suspected that someday some fool was going to do a book on Thai women and, as I later explained to the photographer extraordinaire, Khun Shrimp, (slightly miffed because I had beaten him to the punch) I wanted to be that fool. I was. I am.
And so it was born: a 144-page, full color photobook entitled, The Girls of Thailand. I loved it, the girls loved it, men loved it, my mother and stepfather loved it. Uh oh, acclaim was not to be universal: khunyings and feminazis detested it. Sweetheart of a guy that I am, with the publication of this book, I had nevertheless become the anti-Christ. And while Singapore Airlines was creating arguably the most successful airline ad campaign in history – Singapore Girl: You’re a Great Way to Fly, I was told by stern-faced Western women that “there are no girls in Asia, Mr. Barrett!” Right, whatever.
The book sold well but one day I noticed in shops at Hong Kong’s old Kai Tak airport it was shrink-wrapped so no one could open it. This was strange, thought I, because there was no nudity in it. And certainly no obscenity. And then I understood: the vendors had shrink-wrapped it precisely because there was no nudity in it; they didn't want potential buyers to know how mild the book really was. And so The Girls of Thailand attained legend status (duly mentioned in Publishers Weekly) as the only book in publishing history to have been shrink-wrapped not because it was a dirty book but precisely because it wasn’t.
Fast forward twenty-one years. 2000. After 14 years living in Manhattan as a novelist and playwright, I returned to Thailand. No one asked me about my novels or plays or musical or ballads. No one seemed interested in my more “serious” work. The only thing I kept getting asked was, “Hey, when you gonna do another Girls of Thailand book?” And finally I gave in: OK, give the public what it wants. Besides, I realized there is a whole new generation of khunyings and feminazis who know nothing about The Girls of Thailand book and the least I could do was to give them someone to focus their anger on.
And so I abandoned my “serious” novels and non-fiction and off I went rewriting and updating the old texts, adding new material, and photographing like mad. And, before too long, the 160-page, full color photobook, Thailand: Land of Beautiful Women was born. (Astute readers will not fail to notice I even changed the title from “Girls” to “Women.” Who says men living in Bangkok don’t have the capacity to change?)
I assured a local distributor (who still retained less than happy memories of the flak surrounding the first book) that there would be no nudity and just a few nightlife pages in the back of the book. Well, actually, there are more than a few: 80 pages to be exact, but, hey, who’s counting?
And the book appeared! And the book disappeared! Apparently, after seeing photographs of the dominatrixes and the ladyboys and the construction workers – not to mention the venerable Bernard Trink, someone in officialdom felt it wasn’t the right image for Thailand. But then the book (in some places) reappeared! (In his review, Trink complained there were no stewardesses in the book. But I had replaced the stewardesses in the old book with dominatrixes in this one; from plane to pain, so to speak.)
The Girls of Thailand appeared in 1980, Thailand: Land of Beautiful Women in 2001. It is my intention to come out with the next one 21 years from now, and the final one 21 years after that at which point I will be exactly 100 years old, and can look back and feel good about having fulfilled what was obviously meant to be my life’s mission.
Originally published in the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand Dateline Magazine.