It looks like a cheap fake storefront on the “Chinatown” set of a junky low-budget movie no one’s ever seen the end of. The two grimy round-topped windows are either frosted glass or just that grimy; the campy haunted-house-red hue of the bar’s interior plays a little light out onto the street.
A string of little almost-kind-of-mostly working Chinese lantern lights stretch the length of the bar’s front above the windows and two larger lanterns, similarly pumpkin-colored, hang at either end of the magnum opus: royal purple neon tubing snakes and loops across the top to spell out “WONG’S PLACE.”
The lettering flops about DIY-style, stuck up there by someone who’s had a few Singhas to be read by someone who’s had a few more Singhas. Wong’s makes only gin and whiskey drinks and serve like three kinds of bottled beer. Or doesn’t serve, if Wong doesn’t wanna. Get it your damn self.
Why would we all be comforted by a dusty ambiance of grime and cheap beer? Most cultures in the room, redolent of a Gen Xer’s attic, value cleanliness and most cultures in the room agree that the beer tastes like piss.
Passing the front of Wong’s takes less than four steps; the facade’s decor is compressed and thrown up onto dirty brick and dark wood. Giant neon beer bottle signs in the center of each window, backlit by the red glow, are framed by flimsy wood-mullioned panes around the edges. There’s a neon Heineken sign and either a Thai liquor license or a notice that the Bangkok government is condemning the building.
But Wong’s demands we come in and sit talking another couple hours.
Wong’s is legacy: GIs, journalists, those with a strange desire to wake up with an explicable black eye and no socks. The first eponymic proprietor, an immigrant from Southern China, opened the bar in 1987; he worked at a few other Bangkok watering holes when the city took on an influx of foreigners around the Vietnam War. “Wong I,” as he’s never been called, was so loved by his patrons and community that when he fell ill and passed away in 2003, his brother Sam “Wong II” took the helm.
Music videos from no later than 1995 fuzz across the T.V.behind the bar, above my confidante Cait’s head. The gauzy cigarette haze and murky-bloody neon lights grant the bar the requisite ambience for watching dated music videos like we’re cool: think nonconformist-hip rather than knowingly nostalgic.
No one here would even pause if we learned that Wong’s beams its music videos in through a time portal from MTV of twenty-five years ago. The audio and video of the Police song that’s playing are out of sync but it doesn’t make the room any more noticeably surreal… “Message in a bott-tle…“
Cait’s peering over the bar at rows and stacks and taller stacks of VHS music videos. A demoralizingly large amount of rewinding labor must go on at Wong’s. A bar in the States would display this collection but as a gimmicky novelty and they wouldn’t even have a VCR. The tapes would take over for the wallpaper but the pile stops teetering just before it shores up against the sea of dusty 4×6 photos, world clocks, cattywompus spirit shelves, foreign soccer scarves, maybe-real autographed celebrity portraits, Chinese banners and shriveled heart-shaped balloons that make wallpaper mostly moot.
That a company of drinkers from such disparate backgrounds all washed or landed or woke up here is at once comforting and perplexing. We aren’t all seeing the same place. Though our affection for a rickety bar stool and a lackluster beverage feels anomalous, we’re not drinking alone. Nobody’s reason for shutting up inside Wong’s and avoiding the world is any stronger than anyone else’s.
The British guy in front of us walks out like the final scenes will blur a little between chair, the door of Wong’s and wherever. Wong’s is a late-night pilgrimage. There are no other bars on Wong’s Bangkok block and it closes when the last person – second-to-last if you count Wong himself – stops drinking.