MY BRUSH WITH THE KKK
By Andrew BIggs
Greetings from Hat Yai, Songkhla province, where your columnist is enjoying a foot massage at a place called “KKK Massage”.
Yes, KKK Massage. That’s the name, emblazoned in big letters on a shophouse not so far from the famed, if not slightly over-rated, Kim Yong markets, where they say you can buy absolutely anything — if “anything” to you can be defined as chestnuts, pistachio nuts, dates and cashews.
There are dozens of foot massage places around this bustling Southern market, but just the name of this establishment is enough to pique my interest and patronage. This is not for any reasons of racial bias, but more for its sheer audacity.
There is nothing inside KKK Massage that suggests it despises black people, although I do inadvertently start humming Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” upon entering. The décor is faded blue wallpaper with sofa chairs which recline to an almost horizontal position.
I’m here with one of my office staff and as the masseuses wash our feet, I remark that the place has a nerve to name itself after the KKK.
“Why?” my staff member asks in all innocence.
His question is a fair one, and certainly answers the underlying concern of why such an establishment would want to name itself after the Ku Klux Klan.
The average Thai has no idea of what the Ku Klux Klan is, and thus would have no compunction in naming a massage parlor (foot massage parlor, dear reader) using those three letters. As odious as the name is, in the minds of Thais it is no different a trio of letters as, say, LLL or MMM. This explains why offensive racist organization names can be used in retail shops here, such as KKK Massage, Hitler Youth Barber or MAGA somtam stall.
When I first came to Thailand there was a toothpaste called Darkie, complete with a black man in a top hat grinning back at you on the tube. At the time it was one of Thailand’s best-selling toothpastes.
Five years ago I was in a large retail outlet here when I noticed a sale on cleaning utensils. There, on a sign above the discounted goods in gigantic lettering were two words: BLACK MAN.
Not just words; a picture as well.
Black Man products featured a logo of a black man in a suit and bow tie, thrilled to bits he’s got all these cleaning objects on hand. And what a range it is; mops, brooms, sponges, dustpans and brooms, window cleaners – all ironically white but sporting the proud Black Man image. THINK OF CLEANLINESS, THINK OF BLACK MAN screamed the company slogan, clearly ripped off from the Foodland ad.
We can send a man to the moon. Information spanning the entire globe fits right inside my cell phone. Yet still we had Black Man mops and Darkie toothpaste?
I craned my neck towards the Black Man window wipers. There on the back of the packaging were the proud words: MADE IN THAILAND. Worse -- the Black Man logo had an R in a circle. Black Man was a registered trademark!
That really got my blood boiling. The Thailand trademark office and I are not the greatest of friends, and it dates back to when I was registering my business here, a business name that included my own name. I submitted my application. It was rejected.
The official reply was I couldn’t register the name “Andrew” in my company name because >>another company was already using it<<. That company happened to be St Andrew’s, a school down the road from where I lived.
Well I wasn’t going to take that lying down.
I stormed down to the trademark office where I explained that Andrew was as common a name as Somchai or Somsri. He was even a saint, albeit a B-list one. If only I’d registered my company name as something really offensive like Black Man or Darkie or KKK Massage. Those would have been passed in a flash.
The Black Man logo bugged me so much I even called the company.
“I’ve just purchased one of your products and noticed the brand name when I got home,” I said when the Black Man operator answered. “I’m wondering if it might be a little ... offensive?”
The operator laughed and put me through to a pleasant gentleman who informed me that the Black Man brand name is 50 years old and a bestseller in Thailand for cleaning equipment.
“It’s interesting, because before you we’ve never had a Thai call to complain about the name,” he said. I was torn between deep disappointment in Thais for not finding such a brand offensive, and selfish pride in being able to pass myself off as a Thai over the phone.
What about foreigners?
“Oh yes, now and again we get foreign suppliers asking why we use such a name,” he said. “Foreigners are the only ones who ask about it.”
Ah, those pesky foreigners. I could just hear this company the day they tried to market Black Man overseas. It’d be like a Scooby Doo episode: “We’d have gotten away with it if it weren’t for those meddlesome farangs!”
It is all the more interesting when you consider that Thais themselves have a very short fuse when we foreigners demean their culture. Tourists are regularly berated, and arrested, for draping themselves over Buddha images. Last November two American idiots were arrested for baring their backsides at Wat Arun, because that’s a really hilarious thing to do.
Buddha is not to be tattooed nor is he a decoration, scream hypocritical billboards directed towards foreigners to and from Suvarnabhumi international airport. These billboards are ignoring the millions of Thais who adorn themselves with Buddha images of the ink and amulet kind. But you get the message.
Before you shake your head and scoff too much, dear reader, I must hasten to say this story has a happy ending, in that education truly is the savior of our society. Like my staff member in Hat Yai who asked “Why?”, somewhere down the line Darkie and Black Man executives asked the same question.
Often such naming transgressions are the result of a lack of knowledge rather than determined racism.
Darkie toothpaste? In the early 1990s it had morphed into Darlie, and the smiling man in the top hat had been white-washed. It remains a toothpaste still popular in Thailand to this day.
Black Man too! Clearly a few more meddlesome foreigners called after me. Sometime in the last five years, it too quietly changed its name.
It’s now Mop-BM in English, and the slightly weird “Be+ Man” in Thai. The black-faced logo is gone too, replaced by a white face; yes, Mop-BM execs, we white folk do household chores as well.
This is all good … but what of KKK Massage?
I told my staff member I assumed the KKK had nothing to do with lynching. I guessed that it stood for something that began with the letter kor kai in Thai, rendered as a K in English. Maybe it was named after the founding three siblings — Karun, Korkiat and Kanokwan perhaps?
Our massage finished and after generously tipping my masseuse ten baht, I went to pay. The shop owner sat at the cashier’s table.
“I gotta ask you,” I said. “Why is this place called KKK?”
He blushed. “I like to play poker,” he said.
That’s it? Only that? He should have called it Flush Massage; beats three kings every time.
Official LINE: @andrewbiggs