In this new series of Bizarre Thailand columns author Jim Algie will be profiling some of the most famous and notorious foreigners in Thailand. First up is an Aussie journalist Andrew Biggs who turned his talent for language into a starry place in the Thai cosmos of celebrity.
Thanks to his hosting of TV programmes and game shows about learning English, his regular column in the Bangkok Post, and running his own English-teaching school—the Andrew Biggs Academy—Andrew Biggs may well be the most recognizable farang face in Thailand,
His starting point on the serpentine road to fame in Thailand began in the editorial offices of The Nation newspaper where he was working at the time when somebody dropped by to say they needed English-language content and videos for the then-new and long-since-discontinued Microbus line. On the spot they offered him the job. Initially hesitant about hosting a TV show—“I have a face that’s perfect for radio,” he said with a wry grin—the Australian turned what could have been a banal segment, “English on the Bus”, into an often hilarious and culturally insightful showcase for how to teach the language in Thai terms.
Many mornings on the bus on the way to my own copy-editor’s job at The Nation—where I first met Andrew in 1995—in-between nature documentaries showing Komodo dragons running down and devouring deer, up would pop Andrew speaking remarkably fluent Thai as he taught commuters how to speak English like Clint Eastwood by translating the tagline of a Dirty Harry film, “Go ahead, make my day”, into the local vernacular. In other segments, he spelled out how Thais could tell obnoxious farangs to piss off in polite terms, educated Thai women on how to ward off the come-ons of would-be Romeos from the West, and even threw in a satirical lesson for Thai police officers to teach them how to bribe native English speakers by using expressions such as “Please grease my palms.”
The now 55-year-old expat parlayed those early appearances into regular slots on Thai TV, hosting news programmes and even a game show about learning English that turned him into a household name in Thailand by the late 1990s.
To qualify for celebrity status, in my eyes anyway, requires more than just millions of Instagram voyeurs gawking at your retouched hindquarters hashtagged #bootyfordays. What you really need are stalkers, and Andrew has had several. One hunchbacked Thai woman dogged him for months, stepping out in front of his speeding car and nearly causing a fatal accident. Another Thai woman, who used to wait for him every evening for three months in the lobby of the TV station where he worked, became so aggressive one night that he had to call out for help from the security guards. But the lady told them that she was his old girlfriend and they backed off. “Thais won’t get involved if it’s a personal thing,” Andrew pointed out. “She used to send me letters and kiss them at the bottom with her lipstick and all that.”
While his academic credentials are impeccable—he has a BA in Thai language studies and is currently working on a master’s degree in Curriculum Innovation and Learning Management—his real background is in journalism. As a young reporter in Queensland he had the chance to go to England to work for another Rupert Murdoch newspaper. Thai Airways had the cheapest flights then, but the catch (and the letdown for him) was the mandatory two-day stopover in Bangkok. Arriving on Valentine’s Day, 1989, he had no interest in seeing the city. Instead, he had planned on holing up in his hotel room to spend his downtime reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. But the capital, with what he called its “air of excitement and lawlessness”, along with the genial people, slowly pulled him into their orbit.
During his time at The Nation, he witnessed some pivotal points in Thai history, like the ‘Black May’ crisis in 1992, when protestors took to the streets around Democracy Monument to voice their discontent with the installation of an unelected military government. As tensions mounted over several days and nights, soldiers emptied their cartridges into the crowd and the body count soared past 50. Martial law was declared and a curfew imposed.
The junta also attempted to censor the local press. Some papers like The Bangkok Post caved in, but The Nation did not. They continued to run stories and photos of the carnage. That did not sit well with the military, which brought its tanks rumbling down Bang-na Trat Road to point their turrets at the paper’s editorial offices, where Andrew and his colleagues had front-row seats during the tense standoff.
These are the kinds of recollections that he sometimes shares in his weekly column ‘Sanook’ in the Brunch supplement of the Sunday Bangkok Post. It’s an entertaining read that also illuminates many murky aspects of Thai culture and history unbeknownst to most foreigners. For human interest, he sketches portraits of the Thai staff at his language school and their superstitious beliefs, while also tossing in observations, sometimes critical, sometimes laudatory, on the state of the nation.
Of these topics, few are more contentious or pertinent these days than the subject of education. Thailand is mired in what economists call the “middle-income trap”. After moving from an agrarian society to a manufacturing-based economy, the country now needs to innovate its own products and services, which would require more critical thinking skills and a better education system free of rote learning. The main contradiction, he noted, “is that critical thinking skills go against Thai culture of respect your elders and shut up. But I have faith that the education system will get better, because it has to or Thailand will go down the pan.”
For such a high-profile man about Thailand he always comes off as low-key and humble in person. Asked about his massive Twitter following, he said, “Nobody gives a shit about me. They just wanna learn English for free,” and laughed.
For this interview, at a coffee shop in the Terminal 21 mall, he showed up—apologizing profusely for his lateness—wearing jeans and a checked shirt pinned with a royal insignia to mark and mourn the passing of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej. His only nods to wealth or high fashion were an expensive watch and a stylish silver bracelet on his other wrist.
When the meandering conversation turned homewards, he said, “I love Australia now, it’s more multicultural. Going home is fine for about three weeks, but then I start to get bored.”
Would he ever consider moving back there?
He contemplated the question and then, in a line that surely must echo the expat experience for many others who have abandoned their predictable homelands in favour of more exotic terrains, he shrugged and said, “What the hell would I do there?” On the upside, he probably wouldn’t have to fend off any hunchbacked stalkers.
But pragmatically speaking, it’s hard to leave a place where opportunities keep coming your way. As he revealed in a recent ‘Sanook’ column, his omnipotence in Thailand is set to grow after Andrew recorded the new voiceovers for the Bangkok Immigration Bureau at Chaeng Watthana. Soon you will be hearing a distinctly Australian accent calling out, “Ticket number 53 at counter number 15”, to shepherd you to the right counter. Which brings his career from an outlier to an insider full circle, in a way that could only happen, and possibly only makes sense, in bizarre Thailand.
Check out Andrew’s website at www.andrewbiggs.com, where he’s now doing video on demand. You can also follow him on Twitter at @andrewbiggs.
By Jim Algie