Nostalgia Poured Thick at Bangkok’s Retro Bars

A musician performs jazz music with various instruments at Red Rose.

By Thana Boonlert

BANGKOK — We can’t get enough reissued albums, remade films and recycled fashion. With each step into the future, our longing for the past has us trying to turn back the clock.

This nostalgia has reached a place where some spend their free time and hard-earned money: the retro bars which have sprouted up throughout the capital.

It’s not the long-long ago but more recent times that capture imaginations, according to Arthit Jiamrattanyoo of the University of Washington.

“Retro is a style that goes back in time mostly – but not exclusively – to the recent past,” said the social and cultural historian. “It often adopts anything in our culture, from fashion to food, because the past can provide resources for modern consumers.”

It’s the very speed of technological advancement, he says, that heightens retrograde sentiments.

Feeling life is too fast and want to step back into slower times? Here are a few selections in Chinatown and Ekamai.

 

Tep Bar

Decanters of dried herbs and spirits are on display at Tep Bar.

Previously known as an area for Chinese pharmacists, Soi Nana has recently enjoyed a cultural revival and risen to be one a Bangkok hipster hangouts. Hidden in a dimly-lit alley, Tep Bar stands out from western nightclubs because it recreates Bangkok’s past. The title of the bar itself alludes to Krung Tep, or city of gods in Thai, reflecting the glory of the capital’s history dating back to 1782.

The century-old concrete house brings back memories of bygone eras. An antique black door and color fabric gives the entrance to the two-storey building a mystical quality. Inside, the brick wall is partly gilded and exposed in the style of a wat. The counter resembles the foundation of a chedi.

On the second floor is a teak platform where people sit and eat together in Thai fashion. Decorative objects – ranging from sacred threads to carp weaves – reflect the religious and cultural values of Thais.

Moreover, the bar borrows classic literary works to decorate its menu. Thai cocktails take their names from characters such as Phra Abhai Mani, Kaki or Ninlapat. An ensemble of flutes and xylophones performs live Thai traditional music, including songs by the Suntharaphon Band and others from the 1930s. The period attested to the emergence of Thai Sakorn, which developed into an urban genre of Luk Krung.

Tep Bar is located just off Soi Nana, a 10-minute walk from MRT Hua Lamphong.

 

Red Rose

Chinatown is one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions. In the heart of the district, Shanghai Mansion Bangkok revives the golden age of China’s treaty ports. Inside find the Red Rose restaurant evoking 1930s Shanghai, which was the center of entertainment in Asia.

Waiters in tuxedos and hostesses in qipao take visitors back to the roaring ‘30s in a property that was a Chinese opera house before its art deco renovation. The decor includes noir portraits of Shanghai women and period wood furniture.

The lounge brings back the heyday of jazz, a US import that became popular in Shanghai’s clubs. Musicians perform live for a mostly foreign audience packed in close to the stage.

Even the cuisine recalls the tastes. Apart from roasted duck and dim sum, the Shanghai Mojito is an adaptation of the signature cocktail.

The Red Rose is located in the Shanghai Mansion Bangkok. The nearest public transportation is MRT Hua Lamphong.

 

The Cassette Music Bar

The large pink tape is the trademark decor of The Cassette Music Bar. Photo: Facebook

Known locally as Werng Boran, the Ekkamai Shopping Mall has carved out a niche in the vintage shopping scene. The Cassette Music Bar is popular among night owls who miss the play-pause-eject days of the ‘90s. At a time heralded as the zenith of Thailand’s music industry, the cassette was something in everyone’s lives until it wasn’t. An analog medium that people miss for its authenticity in the intangible, digital age.

The bar features thousands of pink tapes on the wall evoking the term lan talub, or “a million copies.” That was the sign of a big hit in the 1990s, when popularity was measured in how many tapes were sold by generational icons such as Tata Young and James.

Find patrons manually taking selfies and turning the spokes of an oversized pink tape at the entrance, like they once did with by pen or pencil to respool tape or manually rewind a beloved track.

Inside the bar, singers bring to mind adolescent crushes, one-sided love, broken hearts and friendships with songs from the 1990s. The bar aims for a positive nostalgia, skipping the melancholic music and opting for sweet colors to decorate both the building and menu with dishes such as the Pink Burger and Margarita.

The Cassette Music Bar is just inside Soi Ekkamai 10 and can be reached via motorcycle or taxi from BTS Ekkamai.