It’s a family affair. That is what has made the news so hard to accept for many, that Checkinn99, the basement cabaret bar located between Sukhumvit Soi 5 and 7 since 1957, has been forced to close its doors on the hidden gem of a location today: July 1, 2016.
Chris Catto-Smith and his wife Mook took over the establishment on April 1, 2011 when it still employed over thirty hostesses and cigar and cigarette smoke wafted up to the black and moldy ceiling.
Many were hoping the recent news of their lease not being renewed was a joke, only to learn that it’s part of a serious trend in Bangkok, Thailand.
Chris and Mook recently spent over 1,000,000 baht on renovations and business has been booming thanks both to their legion of faithful patrons located in Bangkok and their visitors passing through from all over the world.
Some well-publicized awards from Trip Advisor and tourists generally relying more and more on social media than travel guides has seen the Bangkok club enjoy a resurgence in popularity of late, bringing it through good times and bad.
The club has a colorful history predating the height of the Vietnam War when it was known as The Copa. USO show entertainers such as Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin and Raquel Welch made appearances at this getaway place of relaxation.
Later on, David Bowie would stop by and make friends.
More recently, Sammy Hagar has been known to show up straight from the airport to take in the campy ambiance and listen to Music Of The Heart band members, Kiko, Cherry, Grace, Donna, April, and Jesse rock the house down from a selection of over 1,000 songs until closing time.
As Chris Catto Smith says, “If I was trying to describe Checkinn99 on a business plan, no one would accept it, but somehow it all comes together.”
After a long history of being a private club for Danish members — complete with a dwarf doorman checking credentials in front of the entrance — Chris’ tenure revamped the club with live entertainment 7 nights a week. Music Of The Heart were the heart and soul, there were no cover charges and a menu with budget-friendly prices was introduced too.
Gone were the hostesses but in their place were customers bringing their spouses, girlfriends and mates for a good time out before or after venturing into Bangkok’s many other entertainment venues on lower Sukhumvit. The club became female friendly in a different Bangkok way.
Checkinn99 has hosted two productions of The Vagina Monologues since Chris and Mook took over and have held many other special engagement cultural acts, including The Rocky Horror Show, a Blues Brothers night and Moulin Rouge. The club has became known as an arts-friendly place for creative types to hang out — or better yet, to find a gig or discuss a new book idea.
In another against-the-grain Bangkok move, Chris introduced the Sunday drop-in jazz sessions, led by William Wait on saxophone and Keith Nolan on keyboard.
It started slowly from 2:30 pm to 6:00 pm every Sunday and quickly cemented itself as a meeting place for many longtime expats. If you had a new friend in town, an introduction at Checkinn99 was often high on the list of things to do. Some Sundays it was even necessary to get there early to get a good seat.
The Sunday sessions led to Jazzfest; another annual Checkinn99 event that lasted all day.
2016 will also be remembered as the year everyone’s favorite Mama passed away: Mama Noi, a Checkinn99 original who worked at the club for over 50 years.
And now, not only will the once-recognizable sign be torn down, but all of that history as well.
The move from the current location on the once coagulated and now comparatively homogenized sidewalks of Sukhumvit has surprised many Bangkok residents.
Here are how some of the city’s expat community feel about Checkinn99’s fortunes.
“The place is no palace, but what’s wrong with that? A little run-down, too funky in some ways, the air conditioning isn’t top of the line, but it’s real, and there’s a real community around it. The place is happening, that’s all I can say.
One thing that especially bothers me about this 60-year-old tradition disappearing is that it marks a trend I don’t like: the attempted Singaporization of Bangkok. Development these days is mostly ugly, tasteless, and completely ignores old neighborhoods. There’s no zoning and virtually no planning, a huge amount of developer greed, and . . . well . . . there goes the neighborhood!”
– Peter Montalbano, longtime expat and world-class trumpet player
Another longtime expat who could often be found having a drink in the infamous tunnel leading to the entrance of Checkinn99, is Bizarre Thailand author, Jim Algie. He’s also currently working with Chris Catto-Smith and British film maker Kaprice Kea on a documentary about the paranormal activity that’s been spotted at the ghost-filled club.
The ex-bass player puts it this way,
“The demise of the CheckInn is symptomatic of what’s been happening all over Bangkok recently. We’ve lost the food street on Sukhumvit Soi 38, large chunks of the Pak Khlong Flower Market, the Rex Hotel, and in the next eight months or so, Cheap Charlie’s will be torn down too.
Little by little the city’s real character is being eroded in favor of this generic façade of malls, condos, and international chain stories and fast food franchises, which looks like any place and feels like nowhere.”
Chris Catto-Smith is an optimist. He believes when one door closes another opens.
As with any good epic story, there is no ending here. Chris and Mook are in negotiations for a new location in Bangkok where family, friends and patrons will continue to feel welcome and make some history of their own.
The new location may not be as funky but it will surely still be a happening place and you can be sure, unlike many other places nowadays, you will feel like you are somewhere.
As Chris says,
“Those customers are our family. When you have a family, you have a family atmosphere, it’s something that is inherent in you, you want to continue it. You want to continue to have that legacy long after, individually, I am not here.
And I am sure that what we have created here is going to last and it’s going to last in people’s memories and hopefully in people’s lives.”
Expressionist artist Chris Coles, whose iconic painting of Soi Cowboy can be seen stage left at Checkinn99 sums up the hopes of many,
“Chris Catto-Smith’s relentless energy and vision and the dauntless Checkinn99 staff will find a new home and create a wonderful new venue for the next yet-to-be written era of the Bangkok Night.”
Checkinn99’s final full day of trade is tonight, with entertainment, food and bar service as normal and no cover charge.
They’re expecting a huge crowd and are pulling out all the stops with a mash-up theme and staff dressed in a mix of outfits from their various shows.
Saturday 2 July will see a ‘close the door’ party for staff, the band and the club’s resident spirits – customers and friends of Checkinn99 are welcome to come and help them clear their stock. It’s 1,000 baht entry with free flow beer and whiskey until stocks last, as they bring to a close this chapter of the indomitable Checkinn99’s history.
As for the next chapter, Chris Catto-Smith already has irons in the fire.
He advises that they’ve found a cool new location in Sukhumvit close to the BTS, and are in final negotiations to secure it. With all being well, Checkinn99 should reopen in the second week of July. Watch out for further announcements…
Kevin Cummings is the author of Bangkok Beat which includes the history of Bangkok nightclub Checkinn99