The Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand (FCCT) celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2007. As Southeast Asia's largest and oldest press club, the main goal of the FCCT and its members is to promote and protect the rights of the press in Thailand and across Asia.

The FCCT is Southeast Asia's No. 1 forum for open discussion and debate on local, regional and international news and issues.

History of FCCT
The Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand has always liked to keep a close eye on -- and even have a hand in -- the making of history.

In 2003, that was true, literally, when the carved hand of Saddam Hussein, mysteriously abstracted from a fallen statue in Baghdad, appeard on the FCCT bar. It's also true each year when the Thai prime minister, whoever it is each year, usually joins us for an evening of verbal parry and thrust.

The habit of using the bar as a place to mull over world events goes back to the FCCT's founding in 1956. The FCCT has since become the largest press club in Southeast Asia and, alongside the FCCs in Hong Kong and Tokyo, one of the most important. Appearing to be a hangout for outsiders, the club is in fact the opposite. Inside knowledge is a commodity long produced wherever people with inquiring minds gather.

It all began on Patpong, almost fifty years ago. After World War II and the Japanese surrender in Bangkok, newly arriving correspondents and diplomats stayed at the then Ratanakosin Hotel and found their centre of gravity at the Cathay Cabaret down on Rajadamnoen Avenue.

When the lack of a decent Martini became desperate, three men founded the Silver Palm Club, a nightclub with good food and drinks for a change: Jorges Orgibet, founder of the Bangkok Post Alex MacDonald, and Willis H. Bird.

Jorges Orgibet
But that lease on Suriwongse lasted only three years, so a hard core of journalists started to gather in the far quieter rooms of Mizu's Kitchen. One entirely affectionate rumour has it that table cloths haven't been changed there for several decades.

Life member and former club president Denis Gray reports that among the Mizu's crowd was one of the club founders, Jorges Orgibet, who had come into Bangkok with U.S. troops following World War II and never left.

In Orgibet's memoir "From Siam to Thailand", he names other co-founders as Alex Wu, then Chinese editor at the United States Information Service and later chief of the PANA bureau, and Prasong Wittaya, chief of the UP bureau (precursor to United Press International) and MacDonald with his links to the US Office of Strategic Services (precursor to the CIA).

Other colourful characters who frequented the club in the 1970s and 80s included the late Maxine North, glamorous founder of Polaris Water, business whiz kid Bill Heinecke (a Life Member) and the late, great TV war correspondent Neil Davis.

In the mid-1970s, the FCCT was housed in its most glamorous location ever, the Oriental Hotel. Members gathered in a stately, wood-panelled clubhouse by the riverside garden, a venue now replaced by the hotel's new wing.

It was "the" place to go. At a time when the expat community was a fraction of its current size, everyone knew everybody and it was the best place in town to exchange news, gossip -- and intelligence. Confirmed rumour had it that spies from the Western and Soviet bloc found the club a great place to try to wheedle out information from one another.

1975 was the turning point in the club's history when Bangkok became a regional news centre and watch post thanks to the Communist victories in neighbouring Indochina. Reporters once stationed in Saigon, Phnom Penh and Vientiane now found a new home in Bangkok at the Club.

During one of many coups in the 1970s, minister Thanat Khoman happened to be giving a luncheon speech at the club when he got a phone call giving him word about yet another regime overthrow. He promptly broke the news to all present and continued his talk.

When new clubrooms were opened at the Oriental Plaza, next to the hotel in 1981, the FCCT was opened by Her Royal Highness Crown Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn.

That was also when the tradition of every prime minister coming to address the FCCT began. The most popular among them was certainly Kukrit Pramoj (who came several times), Thailand's flamboyant, mercurial Renaissance man. One of the best attended programmes ever was when Kukrit brought his entire traditional Thai dance troupe, all in costume, and presented extracts from the Ramayana, with himself on stage pointing out the meaning of the moves and gestures of the dancers.

Another very popular evening featured now deceased novelist James Michener, a friend of Orgibet's who had been in Bangkok earlier in his career and reminisced about those times.

"I had to do the introductions that night, and was able to tell him how I loved his novel "Sayonara" having also served in Japan in the U.S. Army and fallen in love with a Japanese woman. He and his wife turned out to be the most unassuming and charming guests among the hundreds of VIPS we have hosted over the years," recalled Denis Gray.

It's hard to beat the FCCT's visitor's book: presidents like Pakistan's Zia ul-Haq, Cambodia's King Sihanouk, foreign and finance ministers, army commanders from Thailand and around the world, ambassadors, artists, the Dalai Lama, Nobel prize winners, and more.

Some members, like a former club vice president, Boris Chekhonin, have achieved a different kind of fame.

"He totally transformed the Inaugural Ball with Rasputin lookalikes fuelled on neat vodka and lambada-dancing ice princesses from Siberia. Executive Committee meetings, laced with Russian champagne and the finest caviar, soared to previously unknown heights," reports a former club president, Dominic Faulder.

Some of the veteran members say the club was more exciting in the good old days, which only goes to show it's been a part of many a wild youth. Happily too, women members need no longer form a brave minority.

"There's the impression these days that everyone can link up through computer screens but it isn't possible. We've had fun here, and some brawls, and some of the best jazz in town. Another good reason to join is you get to know who's who. It's all information," said long-time fan Ole Olson of the club's Oriental days.

To this day, the FCCT offers an ambience with a difference. Most Wednesday nights, and extra nights as events dictate, focus on current affairs, featuring news makers and analysts, heads of state and political prisoners, activists and artists. Movie nights are becoming more regular. Friday nights are popular with live jazz and a busy bar. Wine appreciation nights, Malt Whiskey tastings, an improving menu of Thai and Western food, and a growing and enthusiastic golf section all show the club is fulfilling its mission as laid down by Faulder:

"Apart from its role as a professional association for foreign journalists based in Thailand, the FCCT must provide for all its members a welcome haven from the grubby polluted madhouse outside."

Vaudine England
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