Four Friends at the Bar

An extract from chapter 4 of Ron Chepesiuk’s book, Sergeant Smack: The Legendary Lives and Times of Ike Atkinson, Kingpin, and his Band of Brothers.
With the kind authorisation of Strategic Media Inc.
It’s a minor scene is a much more complex story. But it gives an insight into how Bangkok entertainment scene was at that time.
The scene features some key figures. William Herman Jackson, the Jack mentioned in the bar’s name, a former comrade-in-arms of Atkinson, his business partner and the one that convinced him to move the nerve-centre of the business to Bangkok. James Warren Smedley, another former soldier, was the manager of Jack’s bar and an important member of Ike’s gang. Last but not least (by any means), Luchai "Chai" Ruviwat, a Sino-Thai businessman. He often appears as a shadowy figure, described by some as “a ghost”, but he was perhaps the key figure that made the heroin trade possible between the Golden Triangle and Bangkok. In this extract they appear as “four friends at the bar”.

The Bangkok entertainment scene reflected the tense racial situation in America and Vietnam at the time. Whites and Blacks tended to hang out at bars whose clientele was drawn predominantly from their own race. “The bars were strictly segregated by music,” recalled Pete Davis, a retired Black DEA agent who came to Bangkok in 1971 to work. “You would have country music in one bar and soul music in another. If you were Black and wanted to go into a country music bar, even the girls would give you attitude. They would look at you as if to say –what are you doing here?”

The segregation could lead to racial tension, especially over Thai women. “Many Thais considered any Thai woman who went with an american GI, Black or White, to be a whore,” said Steve Jarrell, a former U.S. airman stationed at Utapao Air Force Base at Sattahip in the late 1960s and early 1970s. “But those same Thai women who went with White GIs held their noses up when they saw Thai girls with Black GIs. The vice versa was also true. So the Thai women were as segregated as the American GIs.”

But few bars in Bangkok catered exclusively to Black GIs. Soul Sister was a big place with a live band and a coffee shop upstairs. The Whiskey Jazz also had two floors but it was small. La Fee’s had become one of the more popular places, but it too sometimes gave patrons the feeling of being packed in a sardine can. Jack and Chai recognized a business opportunity and they renovated a building on Petchaburi Road and opened it as a bar in June 1967. To massage Jake’s ego, the bar was called Jack’s American Star Bar. Both Ike and Jimmy Smedley became partners, with each of the four partners investing $8,000 in the venture. Ike became a silent partner and Jimmy Smedley worked as the manager, a good fit despite Smedley’s fondness for alcohol, because everybody seemed to like the retired U.S. military man who always wore a nice smile.

Peter Finucane, a journalist with the Bangkok Post newspaper since 1967, remembers Smedley as a congenial man with a shoulder twitch and a pocked-marked face adorned with a permanent smile and lots of laugh lines. “Jimmy would sit at the bar facing the door so he could see everybody coming in,” Finucane recalled. “He always had a drink in his hand, and nobody could figure out what kind it was. He wouldn’t tell any one. It was like a classified military secret.”

Finucane and John McBeth, a friend and fellow journalist, were two of the few Whites who frequented the bar. “Sometimes we would get a little aggravation and a few stares,” Mc Beth explained “But Jimmy would always take care of us and seat us at the bar. He kind of presided over thing at Jack’s.” Smedley told everyone he met that the opening of Jack’s American Star Bar had given him a niche in life. No way would he ever go back to Saigon and exchange dollars for MPCs.

While Smedley played genial host, Luchai kept an eye out for potential trouble and hired the girls. It was a requirement to include a Thai partner in a business arrangement. The Thai partner, as was the case with Chai, would also have the local contacts and could serve as a buffer in case the partners had any problems with the authorities…

For Ike, the investment and money he made from Jack’s was pocket change, because he was still going full blast with the profitable MPC scam. Yet being a business partner gave him a legitimate reason –a front, if you will- for being in Bangkok…

Patrons of Jack’s American Star Bar would enter through a heavy creaking front door that had a large red tinsel star on the right. On the bar’s round floor was a dance area where Thai girls, some of them sporting elaborate afros, danced with Black male patron to the funky sounds of such popular tunes as “Funky Chicken,” “Rubber Legs” and “Mechanical Man.” Anybody could stand up and sing, if the had the desire or the nerve. “One of the funniest things I saw at Jack’s was a small Thai man who weighed about 90 pound, singing James Brown’s “Hot Pants,” Davis recalled. “He’d screech: ‘Hot Pant!’ And then shout: ‘Yeow!’ trying to imitate Brown.”

On the second floor was a restaurant with the best soul food east of Harem. A patron could feast on Bar B-Q ribs, pork chops, pig’s tail, feet and ears, chitterlings, fried chicken, black-eyed peas, grits and collared greens until the wee hours of the morning. Smedley would boast: “We sell everything on the pig from the tail to the ears”.

The partners would stock the liquor supply with booze purchased from the local U.S: Army PX. With Ike, Jack and Smedley being retired military, they could buy cheaply and in quantity and avoid the steep tax the Thais put on booze. They bought cigarettes and food items cheaply from the PX as well.The bar had no problem recruiting pretty young Thai girls or getting them to become part of an internal spy network that reported on what the GIs patrons were saying.