By Kanara Ty
Like many Cambodian children living in the diasporic communities in California, the entertainment I was exposed to, growing up in the 80's, was dependent on what was readily available in Fresno and Long Beach -- two communities overflowing with Southeast Asians. A huge percentage of these Southeast Asians comprised of displaced refugees from Cambodia, following the Khmer Genocide that was led by the Pol Pot regime from the mid to late 1970s. At the time, my three-year-old mind could not comprehend the atrocity that the regime left on my family and the other millions of people living in Cambodia, but it left a great impact.
One of the major consequences left on Cambodia following the genocide was that 90% of performing artists and intellectuals met the end of their fate at the hands of the Pol Pot regime. This left the country to begin at year Zero: that is, with every Cambodian citizen of equal status to each other while residing in the fields of Cambodia's countryside. During this time, the '80s, it was difficult to find movie stars and singers that resembled the ones from Cambodia's golden era of music and film.
Therefore, the diasporic communities had to find other means of entertainment. One of the largest appeals was Asian-produced dramas, which started to be readily available in Khmer-dubbed form, from local Khmer-owned video stores. Because Cambodians weren't producing new material, it was fascinating to see adaptations of popular wuxia novels in TVB dramas or feuding families in Thai lakorns. Out of this fascination with television dramas grew a fascination with the television stars. Television stars were also pop stars, so it was easy to transition from watching their dramas to listening to their music as well.
For me, it was hard to get exposure to Cambodian music, besides listening to old songs from Cambodian '60s crooner Sinn Sisasamouth. So, I began seeking contemporary music on my own. The person that's left the biggest impact on me is the same man who's left a huge impact on Thailand's music: Thongchai McIntyre, or as he is more affectionately known, "Bird."
His career took off in 1983. While he was working as a bank officeer, he was discovered by a popular Thai producer, Kai Varayuth. Born to a Scottish father and Thai mother who were both musicians, it seemed only natural for him to pursue a career in singing. In addition, Bird began to model and act in television dramas. Some of his most well known dramas include Plubpleung Si Champoo, opposite another popular female movie star Monrudee, and KooGum, which gave him critical acclaim, as well as the opportunity to star in a feature-length version of the drama, about the tragic love story between a Japanese soldier and Thai young woman.
While Bird was starring in these dramas, he also entered a singing contest by Sayarm Kolakarn Music Foundation and won the Outstanding Singer Award, along with two other awards. Thailand's biggest music company, Grammy Entertainment, had scouts at the contest, and they took an interest in Bird, offering him a record contract. Three years later, his first album The Beach, the Wind, and the Two of Us was released to the public.
The song that really resonated with the Thai general audience, as well as those who were faithful watchers of his dramas was the titular track of his second album, "Sabai Sabai," which translates to "Relax Relax." "Sabai Sabai" gained him a huge following, and it's still easily his most recognizable song –- so recognizable that it's considered to be Thailand's second national anthem. Other popular songs by Bird during the 1980's include "Koo Gud", "Kaub Jai Jing Jing," and "Boomerang," whose titular album became one of Thailand's bestselling albums.
Bird is also well known for his collaborations with other popular singers in Thai music. Already known as the King of String (Thai Pop) songs, Bird took Thai's most beloved musical genre of Luk Thung (translates to "Children of the Field" songs) and gave it much much more attention, when he collaborated with another popular Luk Thung singer, Jintara Poonlarp in a number of singles: "Ma Tum Mai," "Fan Jah," and "Saum Dai." Luk Thung music, similar to American country music, has the very distinctive yodeling-like usage of the voice. "Fan Jah" also featured singers Nat Myria Benedetti and Katreeya English.
Bird also worked alongside mega Thai rock star, Sek Loso, in 2006. During this time, Bird was celebrating his 20th year in the entertainment industry as a singer, and he decided to do a recording of some of his most popular songs. He created two separate albums: Bird Sek and 20 Years G"mm' Grammy. Bird Sek included new songs, as well as soft-rock recordings of Bird's classics. For comparisons, listen to Sek's soft rock version of "Sabai Sabai”, as well a duet between Bird and Sek, "Om Pra May Pood." To celebrate his 20 years with record company Grammy (which he also holds huge shares in), he paid tribute to his older songs by recording acoustic versions of "Boomerang" and "Krab Ja Jing Jing."
During the plus twenty years of his career, not once has Bird ventured a music career outside Thailand. But the same isn't true of his film roles. He had a small part in Wong Kar Wai's 2046, starring alongside other megastars, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and Kimura Takuya. While his role was only a one-liner, being asked by Director Kar-Wai to be a character in his film is still quite something remarkable.
Nearing age 50, Bird is a performer who continues to reinvent himself. That's probably a huge reason he continues to remain as Thailand's biggest star. I believe most Asian countries have a great rock or pop star: a person who represents multiple aspects of the country's culture. It's like how every country needs their version of Madonna: Thailand's version comes packaged in the form of Bird. In 2006, he was awarded the "Inspiration Award" at the MTV Asia Awards. His concerts still sell out.
Sure, Bird has won numerous hearts in Thailand, but what about his popular following in other Asian countries?
Bird has multiple talents. He stars in numerous TV dramas. He sings, well, just about everything. And for me, as a Cambodian American, Bird embodied similar enough culture, so he was able to fill in some gaps that might have been lost otherwise. It was easy to follow his Luk Thung songs since they share a similar sound to Kantrum music, performed by Khmer singers who live in Thailand near the border. So, while my Thai doesn't hold up to my Khmer speaking skills, he is one of the reasons I've developed into one of Asia's biggest fangirls.