with Bella Smiles / @bellasmilesmodel
Photography by CJ / @imagefaktory and Nantpipat Vuthisak / @FotoCandiny
Make-Up: Simsim / @simsimatelier
Hairstylist: Muu /@tanatmuu
ShootingVenue: Black Pagoda; Patpong Museum–Bangkok, Thailand
CJ, a photographer from Hawaii, has been coming to Bangkok for many years. He knows the city – as far as one can say that for a metropolis of millions. One district has always fascinated him: Patpong. Bangkok’s oldest and most historic red-light district. “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, but what happens in Patpong can’t even be imagined’ perhaps best describes this district.
This is where the U.S. intelligence agency, the CIA, had a safehouse in the 1960s. David Bowie shot a music video in a club in the neighborhood. Mohamed Ali, Kendall Jenner, Steven Tyler and Hugh Grant strolled down the storied street of Soi Patpong 2. James Bond chased a car through the district, and in Hangover it served as a backdrop just as much for The Deer Hunter starring Robert de Niro. Patpong is probably one of the most famous red-light districts in the world. And now in 2022, the countless neon lights of the street Soi Patpong 2 are flickering again. But one club had always caught CJ’s eye. He had been there hundreds of times. But only felt. Because the club is a bridge on the third floor, connecting a parking garage to a building. It’s all glass and open to the street, so you can see the go-go dancers dancing in the glass and feel the bass of the beats as you walk underneath. And the roof is a black Japanese roof. Hence the name: ‘Black Pagoda.’ CJ thought to himself, I’m sure it’s the same for the thousands of others who stroll through this street. Every one of them has been in the Black Pagoda. They all see the club, feel the beats as they walk under it. But where is the entrance? How does one get into this club? CJ began to look into it. He found out that the club served as a backdrop in the international award-winning indie film “Crazy Medicine.” That’s how he finally got to the operators and after learning their story as well, it was clear to him that he had to do a photoshoot here to tell the club’s story in pictures. But from the beginning.
The Black Pagoda has existed since 2008, before which it was a narrow bridge that connected the parking garage on the third floor with the building across the street.
The name is inspired by the roof of the club. The entrance via the parking deck was actually just a stopgap solution but proved to be a catalyst. Can be seen by everyone but entered by some’ is probably the best summary. Indeed, this club stands out like no other on this street. Everyone sees the club, but very few know how to get in. Those who do know either walk through the graffiti-covered small stairwell at the parking garage, whose entrance has to be climbed over an adventurously high curb or park their car on the third floor in the parking garage. There, a neon sign with the name “Black Pagoda” above a black door point to the entrance to the club. National and international DJs play here. The furnishings are extravagant, opulent sofas and armchairs, go-go dancers lolling on poles right by the windows facing the street. In the center, a large bar that offers spirits as well as cocktails. The toilets are separated from each other in the washroom by a pane of glass. A brief shock when you expect to see your reflection in the mirror but see a woman in it who was just thinking the same thing.
A boutique club, if you will. Publicly visible, yet more intimate than any other club. Something for insiders. There is nothing like it in Bangkok. Maybe nowhere. The club is run by two brothers: Michael and Baruch Messner, the sons of Ernst Fuchs, a well-known Austrian artist. Co-founder of the Viennese School of Fantastic Realism and a friend of Salvador Dali. The brothers are original residents of Patpong. Already in Thailand for 30 years, they run several clubs in the Patpong district and also on Phuket. They have a special relationship with the Black Pagoda.
Michael, the older of the two, noticed this bridge directly when he came to Patpong some 30 years ago and opened his first bar there. For 10 years, he walked under this bridge every day. And then, in 2005, he walked on the bridge for the first time, looked into the street and saw in his mind’s eye big glass walls, a black pagoda roof. A space on the bridge. He decided to make this vision a reality. However, it proved impossible at first. Different owners of parking garage and building, the authorities. No one here was able or willing to support this ambitious plan. There seemed to be no solution. But perseverance is a virtue and with a lot of patience, tact and luck he managed to acquire the bridge and get a building permit. For this, engineers from the Thai Army’s Engineer Staff had calculated the necessary reinforcement of the bridge’s steel structure for the pagoda roof covered in shiny black and the support systems for the fully glazed armored glass system. The construction costs tripled. That, too, was mastered. What had appeared in his mind’s eye in a brief moment on that bridge in 2005 had become reality in 2007. He had created something impossible.
What was certified as ‘impossible’ at the beginning by the authorities, the owners, friends and acquaintances whom he confronted with this idea, now towered 3 stories above the street. Nothing is set in stone. Not even the firm conviction of people. And the Black Pagoda is proof that you can create impossible things if you really want to. And this is exactly the feeling you get as a guest of the Black Pagoda. This feeling of space, the angles, the atmosphere. Here on the third floor, directly above the street, the energy vibrates that the young Austrian Michael Messner felt on this bridge in 2005. The energy that allows the impossible to become possible. Perhaps that is what makes the Black Pagoda. Because it is not a club, although DJ’s play. It’s not a go-go bar, even though go-go’s dance. It’s not a cocktail bar, even though there’s a cocktail bar in the middle of the room. What is it then? Even the brothers who run it don’t have an answer to that question. The Black Pagoda is a space for people who feel comfortable in this place. Who like to move their bodies rhythmically to crystal clear beats of DJanes and DJs. Who like to drink a cocktail and enjoy the view and those who just linger in one of the opulent seating areas, taking in the energy of the Black Pagoda. Whatever the Black Pagoda is, it is incomparable and something different for every guest.
If you delve into the concept of the Black Pagoda and look around inside, you’ll come to the conclusion that the brothers naturally inherited some of their father’s artistic streak. They also run a museum. The Patpong Museum, in the neighborhood of the Black Pagoda. The museum tells the story of this neighborhood and enjoys international press coverage. The brothers are very reserved and modest. What counts for them is the experience of their guests. And they are happy when someone shares their love of art. Therefore, to CJ’s delight, they immediately agreed to make their Black Pagoda and also the Patpong Museum available for this photo shoot. CJ hired another photographer for this big set, Nantpipat Vuthisak, who immediately loved CJ’s idea. The two then immediately came up with an idea for a model. It was to be Bella Smiles, a model with Thai roots. She has already been in front of the camera for FHM, Playboy, Maxim and many other magazines. Most recently, she graced the cover of FHM Sweden. Now she should be the model that CJ and Nantpipat use to capture the story of this special club. After CJ called Bella’s agent, it only took a day to get the nod. A district with CIA history, Hollywood stars and operators whose father was a friend of Salvador Dali, and in her grandmother’s country, in such an interesting club with such history and energy, she didn’t want to miss out. On the following pages you can see the result.