Note: Bernard Trink died Tuesday in Bangkok at 89 after a bout of illness. His funeral is at 2pm today, Oct. 11, at Wat Tat Thong in Bangkok’s Ekkamai area.
NIGHT PROWL — “I was curious, so said I’ll have the 10 baht. She had a towel wrapped around her hand, and after the deed was done, I pulled it off. She had leprosy.”
That’s not an anecdote one can find in a daily newspaper, but for decades it was the kind of frank report you’d get from the hardest working man on the commercial coitus beat, Bernard Trink.
A little over a year ago, I slipped into Bangkok’s nightlife scene for this investigative column you’re reading now. I trolled S&M and go-go bars, chatted up DJs and generally tried to stir up a little controversy.
But I’ll be the first to tell you it doesn’t come close to the league Trink played in as Bangkok’s original nightlife reporter.
Trink’s weekly column, “Nite Owl,” to which “Night Prowl” pays homage, ran for nearly 40 years first in Bangkok World, then the Bangkok Post. This hotshot farang writer was the recognized expert on the city’s go-go bars, massage parlours and girls, idolized by expats and American GIs stationed during the Vietnam War. The birth of Bangkok’s prostitution playground was a pivotal time, ultimately paving the way for Thailand’s contemporary sex-tourism industry. Trink saw it all. He even coined the term “Soi Cowboy” and enduring catch-phrases such as the verbal shrug of “This is Thailand” or “TIT.”
Despite this, the man behind the black-and-white type is still something of a mystery. His last interview was a decade ago and he’s pushing 83 now. The new generation of expats probably wouldn’t recognize the name, and some of the older ones are still trying to forget him.
But Trink’s accomplishments are impossible to deny. “Nite Owl” was one of the longest-running columns in the world. He was a successful gonzo journalist from the Freak Power days of Hunter S. Thompson.
I knew I would have to track down the owl to bring my own column full-circle. I wanted to know if he was a charmer or a scoundrel. After a 40-year career in writing, perhaps he would even have some wisdom to bestow.
So, here’s what happened.
In a different time, Trink complete with his pendulous amulet and signature trousers.
The Nite Owl’s Nest
I knew that to find Bernard Trink, I would have to start at the Bangkok Post. Eleven years ago, Nite Owl was dropped without an announcement or even a farewell party from the newspaper. Trink retired, but continued writing book reviews.
He was still at the office two days a week, I remembered from my time as an intern at the Post in 2010. I would see him across the room, hunched over at a typewriter clanking away, sitting next to a stack of hardcovers with plastic slippers on his feet.
One day recently, I bumped into him as he was on his way out of the building. Trink is impossible to miss even in a crowd, thanks to his token attire: suspenders over a tucked-in button-up shirt and pants pulled up high by a belt. An older Thai woman, with a kind face and hair pulled-back in a bun, was helping him carefully down the stairs.
I hurried over to give them a hand and introduced myself. The woman turned out to be his wife, and she quickly excused herself so we could chat. I told Trink about “Night Prowl” and that it would be an honor to interview him.
He spoke very slowly, with a lilt and slight stutter that’s typical of someone his age.
“But you know what I used to write about, right?”
I assured him that I did, and although I don’t write about prostitution in my column I understood it was a big part of his work. I wanted to know about the history of nightlife in Bangkok.
“Are you a virgin?”
Well, I wasn’t expecting that. But I just laughed and told him I didn’t know an expat who was in this sinful city. That seemed to satisfy him and he told me to come by next week at the same time. He would be picking up the new Clive Cussler and Jackie Collins to review.
An Opportune Time
There he was, this time in a button-up printed with little multi-coloured penguins and green suspenders holding up a pair of crisp, white trousers. I noticed a large metal amulet now slung from his neck. An engraved owl looked out from it. He said it was given to him by a Filipino nightclub singer 30 years ago.
“It makes me feel good,” the eccentric journalist explained, turning it over in his leathery fingers. “I don’t like ties. Ties are like nooses. I have them at home but I never wear them.”
Originally from New York, Trink came to Thailand first as a backpacker in 1962. Before that, he traveled to over 50 countries teaching English and dabbled in journalism in India, Hong Kong and Japan. He returned in 1965 with his wife, one of his students in Japan. She was having their first child and wanted to live close to her family.
Trink went into the Bangkok World with a scrapbook of clippings, and it just so happened that they were looking for an entertainment editor. The column “Nite Owl” was already underway, but “the guy didn’t know what he was doing,” Trink said. “I didn’t know about entertainment either, but I was resolved I was going to find out.”
He didn’t consider himself a partygoer. In fact, he would rather drink orange juice with maraschino cherries than beer or wine any day. But it turned out, Trink did have a lot in common with Bangkok’s nightlife scene: he really liked prostitutes.
That’s when he told me the leprosy story, which I think sums it up nicely.
“When I first came in 1962, the girls in the suburbs cost only 35 baht,” he explained. “Then it went down ‒ if they weren’t that good-looking ‒ to 20 baht. They had even cheaper, some girls for only 10 baht. I was curious, so said I’ll have the 10 baht. She had a towel wrapped around her hand, and after the deed was done, I pulled it off. She had leprosy.”
Of course it turned back to his own immortal fame.
“So many men have had sex with women with leprosy, and they have no idea because it takes seven years to incubate, and then you’ve got it. As it turned out, I didn’t have it.”
How could he argue?
Trink really seemed to be on a lucky streak. He arrived in what he calls an “opportune time” and had landed what could only be described as a libertine’s dream job. New go-go bars, nightclubs and massage parlours opened every day by American men (under their Thai wives’ names, of course), and they were all hungry for publicity. Soon enough, Trink was getting orange juice with maraschino cherries and free quickies all over Bangkok.
His first assignment was going to a string of sailor bars in Khlong Toei, on the suggestion of another American expat.
“The ages of the girls, average age was 13,” he said. “The point was they were all prostitutes. They would open your trousers. I wasn’t used to this. Sex is one thing, but not that age and not that aggressive. Yes, that was my introduction to bars.”
To this day, Trink still maintains there’s a big difference between brothels and bars – the former selling women who don’t have a choice in whom they end up with.
Trink really doesn’t like brothels, but man, does he love bars.
“None of them knew how to give a massage but after they finished squeezing you, you couldn’t stand up for days!” he chuckled. “It was sex. They played the game, and I couldn’t argue.”
Trink was truly excited to regale me the old days, going off on gleeful tangents about judging wet T-shirt contests, his favorite mama-san, Ladda and his photographer who was later murdered by a katoey. His favorite nightclub was on New Petchaburi road, a small space with 200 hostesses that felt like “being crushed by 400 breasts.” As the World’s entertainment editor, he even got to interview Marlon Brando, Sean Connery and The Three Stooges.
Interviewing Trink, it was pretty hard to get a word in edge-wise. But I could see he was enjoying himself, and there was something warm and fuzzy about listening to a wizened, octogenarian hedonist joyfully recount his youth. But then he would go and say something like, “I’m not a great lover, but you do it as often as you can, but not for as long as you can” and that really grossed me out.
You can say anything about Trink, but the readership numbers don’t lie. “Nite Owl” had a cult following, and he always had more letters than he could ever hope to publish.
He would give advice to readers and recommend his favourite bars and the best girls by their assigned numbers. It wasn’t only about getting off (although that was a lot of it), but he was known for also warning expat men to watch out for women who would just take the money and run.
He’s gotten all kinds of flack over the years, and is still slammed on online message boards to this day. In the 2004 interview, he tried to explain his stance on the sex industry.
“I didn’t try to reform these prostitutes,” he said. “I didn’t say they should become dressmakers or something like that. That is not my function as I see it. Just to describe what they are.”
I asked about his wife and how, over the years, she handled the truth about his profession.
“She knew, but I didn’t throw it in her face,” he said. “Only one time did she help me on an assignment was once as a translator.”
And his wife seemed lovely. She was also a teacher, but now volunteers regularly at the Thai Red Cross blood center.
“That must have been very difficult for her,” I said, leading him. “Raising kids and knowing what you were out doing all night.”
“I remembered the name,” he replied, in his own stream. “The name of the bar with 200 hostesses. It was called Thai Heaven.”
Bird in Flight
The Bangkok Post tried to cut Trink’s column in the late ’90s, but it was met by a letter-writing campaign from angry fans. So they reduced “Nite Owl” from one page to a half. Up until the mid-’80s, it was three pages every week.
But in 2003, “Nite Owl” ended suddenly and spontaneously. Trink is still rather tense about it.
“They said it was a family newspaper, and in a family newspaper you cannot give the numbers of massage girls,” he said. “The editor said I was encouraging prostitution with the column, and encouraging AIDs. Back then everybody thought if you just look at a girl you get AIDS. But there I was among all these prostitutes, in Patpong, Cowboy and Nana Plaza…”
He did restaurant reviews for a while, but it didn’t work out.
“I wrote an honest review about a place and the restaurant owner called and said, ‘We’re going to take out all the advertising,’ and the editor caved in,” Trink explained. “That got me out of restaurants.”
So he continued with just the book reviews, which you can still see sometimes in the Bangkok Post to this day. I asked him if he could start “Nite Owl” again, would he do it? He said yes.
“I didn’t want to retire,” he said. “Years passed, and I reached an age where I should retire. But why retire? I didn’t save any money. And there’s nothing out there I enjoy more than what I’m doing here, writing.”
That’s when Mrs. Trink arrived, carrying a new bag of books for the die-hard journalist to review. Our time was up. The couple had to catch the songtaew back to their modest home on the outskirts of Bangkok.
I gave him my arm and helped him down the stairs, one-by-one. We waited outside of the building.
“So,” I said. “What are you going to do the rest of the day?”
“I’ll go to an Internet café,” he said. “Check emails from my kids and watch porn. They don’t like me sitting in the office watching porn. I don’t think it’s very nice of them.”
You can take the Nite Owl out of the go-go bar, but 50 years later he’ll still be a dirty, old scoundrel.
His obvious reply? I’ll let the tagline from his column answer that: “I don’t give a hoot!
Archives of Bernard Trink’s Nite Owl column can be found online, and his book reviews for the Bangkok Post are still being published, most recently yesterday.
Barbara Woolsey is a writer and television host who splits her nights and occasional days between Bangkok and Berlin.