Bangkok-based Harold ‘Steve’ Stephens, who died last month aged 94, enjoyed an amazing life that took him to some of the world’s most beautiful places as well as some of the most dangerous. He loved to write about the people and characters he met, though few matched Steve’s own wealth of experiences. He has been described as “a friend of the old Asia with a unique approach to life, which he certainly lived to the full.”
The following is an edited extract from the book Tales from the Tiger’s Den: An Oral History of Foreigners in the Far East 1920-2020 by Stuart Lloyd profiling 21 larger than life expat characters from all parts of Asia.
Harold Stephens was Mr Perpetual Motion. It’s impossible to catalogue all of Steve’s (as he preferred to be called) great adventures. Sailing 200,000 km through the Pacific, rafting down the Amazon, joining Hillary’s team on an Everest climb, riding across Australia on a motorbike, circumnavigating the world in a LandCruiser. As a Marine watching on Okinawa he witnessed kamikaze attacks, he was a bodyguard for an ambassador in Paris, was friends with Jacqueline Onassis-Kennedy at university, and even appeared in Mutiny on the Bounty.
Like a real-life Action Man figure, the peripatetic American travel writer and author, 81 at the time we first spoke in 2004, made me feel like I was standing still, such was his restless energy. As we chatted in his cavernous 12-bedroom home tucked away at the end of Soi Ari, Bangkok, it struck me he’s come a long way for a farm boy from Pennsylvania.
" I said to my ex-wife ‘I’m gonna disappear from everybody, my whole family and everything, and I’m gonna go make it as a writer’. She said, ‘I think Spain is the place. It’s cheap. Why don’t you go the long way? You always wanted to see Tahiti’."
Steve was duly enrolled in Sorbonne University by the ambassador he was guarding. Then he met a Philadelphia girl, who was revolting against her wealthy family. “And on the spur of the moment we got married, against our families’ wishes.” They divorced in 1957. “So I said to my ex-wife, ‘I’m gonna disappear from everybody, my whole family and everything, and I’m gonna go make it as a writer’. She said, ‘I think Spain is the place. It’s cheap. Why don’t you go the long way? You always wanted to see Tahiti’.”
So intrepid Steve sold everything he had – except for his Hermes typewriter and 100 paperback books – and picked up a ship to Tahiti. “What a lovely island, what a lovely people. But paradise can kill you. You kill yourself with the good life.”
Fate had other things in store for Steve: “I went on a lumberman sailboat. They had five kids and needed a teacher so I shipped aboard doing all the crewing. He was looking for lost art, and he heard about Swiss artist, Theo Maier.” Maier had based himself in Bali from the mid-1930s and was making a name for himself with his Gauguinesque style. But they reached Bali, only to find he had moved on to Thailand. “There was nothing in Bali, really nothing.” Steve points to a wall in his house, where a few pieces hang. “Some of Theo’s pieces are selling for $100,000 dollars at Christies.”
Steve moved on to Singapore by boat then headed for Bangkok by 2nd class non-air-conditioned train, arriving in Thailand for the first time in 1962. “Delightful; the best way to travel because you can have the windows open. And you reach outside, buy stuff, and listen to all the noises. There was a real hippie hotel, the Thai Song Greet, right next to the station. That cost twenty baht for a shared room, or fifty baht for a private.”
The biggest hotel then was the Erawan. Steve rated that “nice, and they had a couple of nice new ones down on New Road: the Pacific Hotel was 120 baht for a room, high ceilings. The Oriental Hotel was really run down, a non-descript hotel, the only one on the river. I really loved Bangkok then. Totally different than it is now … there’s really nothing about it that’s the same.”
Few buildings stood more than three storeys high. “Tuk tuks, broken down taxis and old cars every place. You always had your wealthy Thais with their big cars. They didn’t even have ferries on the river. And the way you got around was walked. You got awfully muddy and dirty walking down the streets.”
Visiting troop entertainers pushed business to the hotels. “The Oriental used to have the Bamboo Bar in the old wing, not the one that’s there now. They would have first class entertainers. All over town they would have really, really good floorshows. We’d go and meet the entertainers, write about them. This would be their warm-up then they’d go to Vietnam but they made vast fortunes. They’d get $400 a show and they could do three or four shows a night!”
Then a funny thing happened. “The Bangkok Post sent me as a travel writer to a war,” he laughs at his incredulous posting to Vietnam. “I did travel stories. I could go anyplace and do anything, and I really went into the thick of it. It turned me off of the war though, it was terrible.”
Water was his favourite element. He embarked on building a boat in Singapore in 1971. Four years later he motored up and moored on the Chao Phraya River, “the same spot Conrad went,” just near the Oriental Hotel. “I had carpenters putting in all the teak, and Theo Maier did some exquisite carvings on the thing, it was absolutely beautiful. I had those chain plates on the outside, with dead eyes -- it looked like an old pirate boat. “Very few people know about the river. That river is the pulse beat of this city.”
He married Michelle, a Filipina with Thai citizenship who wrote for The Bangkok Post, and they produced three boys. “It was great for them, climbing the rigging. I’d do charters down in Phuket and they were always in the water.”
I put it to him that he moves in relatively lofty circles in Bangkok compared to how it might have been States-side. “Writing for The Bangkok Post helped me. My wife and I literally met anybody of importance to come through Bangkok. And The Oriental, my friend down there, Ponsri, the PR Director, would invite us for lunch almost every day and you’d go in because a movie star like JR Ewing is in town, or a writer’s in town. I remember meeting James Clavell, he was a great guy.”
" They had little stalls and restaurants on New Road that I’d go in, also Bang Rat was the place. It was all outdoor dining down there and if you spent 35 baht for a meal for everything you spent a lot. We’d go into the Oriental Hotel and beers were eight baht a bottle. So nothing was expensive. "
" Steve embarked on building a boat in Singapore in 1971. Four years later he motored up and moored on the Chao Phraya River, “the same spot Conrad went,” just near the Oriental Hotel. “I had carpenters putting in all the teak, and Theo Maier did some exquisite carvings on the thing, it was absolutely beautiful."
He instantly liked the relaxed mood of the Thais. There were not many farangs, and certainly there were no signs in English, but Steve soon hooked up with a few like-minded journalists, working their way steadily through bottles of Singha beers on a hot day. “They had little stalls and restaurants on New Road that I’d go in, also Bang Rat was the place. It was all outdoor dining down there and if you spent 35 baht for a meal for everything you spent a lot. We’d go into the Oriental Hotel and beers were eight baht a bottle. So nothing was expensive.”
Still, he had to make a living so he went along to meet the editor of The Bangkok Post, and sold stories to them about The Mutiny on the Bounty, among others. Around 1965, he became a correspondent for Thai Airways magazine and his words were regularly gracing Bangkok World. “I started the Nite Owl column before Bernard Trink did,” he says of the world-renowned expat nightlife column penned by the American from 1966 till 2003.
“It was an exciting, fun place. Geez, ah man!” The excitement was fuelled by the large amount of GIs involved with the American War in Vietnam. It was centred on Petchaburi Road. “There’s not even a bar there today.” New Road, too, had its Starlight Bar. “And they had 300 girls in there. But they were kinda first class call girls. And they had Thais on one side and Chinese on the other. And they’d dance, one of the last taxi dances. And they wouldn’t bug you.”
" I knew Jim Thompson….I went down to the jungles the day after he disappeared. I know everybody involved with that because they became my friends. Connie, General Black, the whole gang. I kept piecing the story, writing the story. I mean years and years and years of work on that. It is so delicate … "
Steve did a lot of talks for visitors at The Oriental when Kurt Wachtveitl “was just a young man.” (Kurt was GM from 1967 till 2009.) “One day I was standing out there by the pool and this lady with three children walked by. And she went down to the water. I was in a suit, I must’ve been trying to impress somebody. Then they started screaming: ‘He’s drowning! He’s drowning!’ I could see bubbles. I kicked off my shoes, and dove into the water, and I felt these arms reach out and grab me and sink into my neck. And I came up and there was this ape! The hotel had two great big gibbons and they were on chains and one got loose and fell in the water. I thought it was a little kid. I finally make it to the shore and climb up. I got all cut up by the barnacles. I get to Ponsri’s office where she took my shoes and coat, and she says: ‘Don’t bleed all over my floor!’”
I have some burning questions about Jim Thompson, perhaps Bangkok’s most famous resident who kick-started the failing Thai silk industry then disappeared in mysterious circumstances in the Cameron Highlands in 1967.
“OK, I knew Jim Thompson,” says Steve slowly, deliberately. “I went down to the jungles, the day after he disappeared. I know everybody involved with that because they became my friends. Connie, General Black, the whole gang. I kept piecing the story, writing the story. I mean years and years and years of work on that. It is so delicate …”
Just then Michelle walks in and asks his dinner plans. Usually every Thursday night he has four or five journalists come over, writers like Steve Van Beek and Dean Barrett, and they cook spaghetti, chilli or barbecue.
Print and eBook versions of Tales from the Tiger’s Den: An Oral History of Foreigners in the Far East 1920-2020 are available on Amazon now.
Stuart Lloyd has published 15 books – including Bamboozled and The Missing Years -- that have sold over 100,000 copies. He has been called ‘The Perfect Storyteller’ by The Telegraph UK. Stuart has lived in Hong Kong, China, Singapore and Thailand for 25 years. Follow him on twitter @RealStuLloyd and facebook/ StuLloydStorytelling