Check mates

After 60 years of ups and downs, an iconic Bangkok nightlife venue is delighting its fans at its latest incarnation

NEW LINE-UP: singer Cherry Tuazon with the Earth band. Photo: Check Inn 99

It's back. From the moment you turn down Sukhumvit Soi 33 for a short 50-metre jaunt to the arched entryway at the familiar black and white sign, you know you are entering the creative world of Chris Catto-Smith's Check Inn 99 in Bangkok. The seven-nights-a-week live entertainment and events venue, known for its good vibrations, jazzy interior and tasty tapas, has a kaleidoscopic history, both ancient and recent.

Started in 1957 in a lower Sukhumvit Road location, it had its first heyday during the Vietnam War era and sustained a remarkable run, complete with visiting celebrities, dignitaries, spooks and prominent rock 'n' roll and other stars including David Bowie, Robin Williams and Sammy Hagar hanging out or hiding out among the faithful regulars.

On April 1, 2011, Catto-Smith and his wife Jiraporn Sriharach (Mook to her many friends) took over the ownership and management responsibilities of the club and transformed it into a meeting place where music, entertainment, camaraderie and everyday good value flourished.

The club's unequalled run ended on July 1, 2016, when the lease was lost as part of Bangkok's so-called trend towards progress. The same progress that has seen Hemingway's on Sukhumvit Soi 14 levelled for a new hotel, the food street on Sukhumvit Soi 38 evaporated, and Cheap Charlie's on Sukhumvit Soi 11 pushed onto higher ground. The flood of new developments at times seems to threaten the extinction of the old. Bangkok is not yet a paved paradise, but the trend is worrisome to some long-time residents as well as tourists who make frequent visits to the Land of Smiles.

PARTY TIME: Check Inn 99 was launched in 1957. photo: Eric Nelson

The optimism and perseverance of Catto-Smith and Mook have blended the old with a newer, larger and much improved home that has long-time customers marvelling and newcomers appreciative. If it's true that everything happens for a reason, the new Check Inn 99 is a very good reason for the closing of the old.

After a couple of pit stops in Sukhumvit Soi 24 and Soi 11, Check Inn 99 has found a great location for its regular clientele to hang out on evolving Sukhumvit Soi 33. The bar is playing a vital role in that evolution, keeping character alive, fighting off the invasion and adding to a more upscale and consumer-friendly soi amid the rapidly changing Bangkok landscape.

The soi once known as "Soi Dead Artists" due to the number of bars named after famous painters long gone, including Monet, Van Gogh, Renoir, Dali and Goya, is now home to live music and events that attract an artistic crowd as well as those just looking for a fun night out.

Located near Pan Pan, one of the best Italian restaurants in Bangkok, the new Check Inn 99 occupies the old Christie's bar building after extensive renovations. The old Check Inn 99 feel is retained while replacing the funk and junk with modern sound equipment, lighting and flashy red furniture. With some new savvy business partners, Catto-Smith has his eyes on an exciting event-based entertainment programme to liven up the local and expatriate entertainment scene.

With a combination of professional theatre lighting and gallery-based seating, the internal space is expansive and highly flexible. A fully configurable stage allows concerts, theatre or even fashion shows and product launches. The new 5x4-metre screen with pro sound system will be used for film premieres and classic movie shows in the evenings and business seminars during the day. There is a comfortable seating capacity of 200 people.

The upstairs area of the new Check Inn 99 contains more than 400 square metres of space (including a rooftop bar area) which will soon house a sports-friendly club room offering a menu of casual dining including steaks and the venue's speciality chateaubriand.

ROOM FOR EVERYBODY: customers enjoy the show on two levels at Check Inn 99.

One of the living artists who frequents Check Inn 99 regularly is Chris Coles, who is using the venue as a gallery for his show of 57 original pieces of art that document the Bangkok night. The "Bangkok Neon" exhibition will run through December and is displayed impressively on two levels of walls, complete with black lights to accentuate their natural environment. Neon will be missed when it's gone but Coles' art will live on. Check Inn 99 is bringing attention to an endangered species that gets little respect as real neon signs are often pulled down and discarded. The progress trend strikes again.

The Bangkok Noir painter is one of many patrons who appreciate the commitment made by Catto-Smith and Mook to maintain a community where people can feel comfortable any night of the week with a variety of entertainment options. November saw the Rock This Way II event and the Bangkok premiere film showing of Jimmy Fame and Friends.

"Under the creative direction and energy of Bangkok nightlife impresario Chris Catto-Smith, Check Inn 99 has become a Bangkok night nexus, a meeting and hangout place for many Bangkok Noir authors, journalists, musicians, songwriters, filmmakers, poets, artists and others, especially for the popular Sunday afternoon jazz sessions," says Coles.

Check Inn 99 is a destination for any day or night of the week for many but the Sunday line-up is now a three-scoop treat. Sundays start at 2.30pm with time-tested favourite the jazz jam. It is led by the William Wait quartet, which has Wait, a former psychologist in San Francisco, playing his custom Yamaha alto saxophone. The quartet is filled out by Muk on guitar, Tor on drums and Mai on bass.

Being a licensed psychologist is an asset as Wait also plays the role of coordinating the many talented musicians who drop in to play on any given Sunday. The level of the revolving talent includes world-class musicians and singers, as travelling professional jazz musicians know that Check Inn 99 is the place to play and be on any given Sunday.

One of those drop-in regulars is Bangkok expatriate and former professional trumpet player Peter Montalbano. "The new Check Inn 99 is fast becoming a Bangkok treasure, much better than the old location; the funky feeling is still there, but with a lot more class ... well worth being a favourite hangout for a lot of us. You know who you are," he says.

Bangkok-based author and essayist Christopher Moore is one of the many regulars who may be found at the Sunday jazz jams or as part of his unappointed rounds during the Bangkok night. He often brings visiting guests with him for the afternoon.

Moore appreciates the Phoenix-like rebirth of the venue. "Check Inn 99, I thought we were gonna lose you. I'm glad you're back in the game -- the Bangkok night wouldn't have been the same without you," says the Canadian author of the Vincent Calvino crime series.

Following the jazz jam, Kevin Wood, a career singer, guitar player and entertainer with an impressive resume, takes over the reins to play from 6.30-8.30pm. He also serves as artistic and creative director for special events. Wood penned a Moulin Rouge-like musical called The Patpong Opera, which is in the works for a Check Inn 99 debut, and was the musical director for the run of The Rocky Horror Show at the bar's previous incarnation.

The som tam and chilli line-up for Check Inn 99 has always been its house band. That format is still in place. Regulars will notice a new house band, Earth, led by Cherry Tuazon, the heart and soul of the Music of the Heart band that played at Check Inn 99 for over 17 years. Cherry's vocal range continues to impress anyone within earshot of her versatile virtuoso voice.

The new house band is pitched at making customers feel welcome, helped by Cherry's vivid name recall for returning customers and her easy style to encourage guests to the stage area and dance. The new band has a line-up of up to six highly talented Thai musicians.

Check Inn 99 has a rich and diverse music programme put together by musician and entertainment entrepreneur Keith Nolan, who has coordinated the weekly Sunday jazz sessions and is planning for the next jazz festival in the New Year. Nolan brings his talent to the stage each Sunday night with a rich mixture of lively blues and rock with his band Cotton Mouth. He is often joined on stage by visiting musicians and entertainers.

In recent months Check Inn 99 has become a favourite hangout for Australian music doyen Deni Hines, who with her husband-manager Daniel has made Bangkok her home. Deni often joins the jazz or blues line-ups as a guest singer performing songs she has co-written with Keith Nolan. Check Inn 99 has long recognised the value of making the venue accessible to both those who think nothing of ordering a top-shelf cocktail or are visiting on budget incomes. The split-pricing system applies particularly where litre jugs of beer and cider are available for only 199 baht. The same applies to the pre-show discounted 99-baht tapas specials. Catto-Smith's logic is simple: make prices accessible to all.

Check Inn 99 has appropriately been reborn at a new Bangkok location. It's a tradition that deserves to be preserved and a venue well work checking out.

Kevin Cummings is the author of 'Bangkok Beat', which features a lengthy chapter on the history of Check Inn 99.

Deni Hines sings at Check Inn 99

DOUBLE ACT: Kevin Wood sings with Cherry Tuazon at the original Check Inn 99 last year. photo: Alasdair McLeod

The William Wait quartet playing at Check Inn 99

STAR TURN: Warren Fryer on the trumpet at Check Inn 99. photos: Eric Nelson

READY TO JAM: a panaromic view of Check Inn 99 during the popular Sunday jazz session. photos: Eric Nelson

ARTISTS' HANGOUT: Chris Coles' 'Bangkok Neon' exhibition runs until the end of this month.

REGULAR PATRONS: artist Chris Coles, left, with author Christopher Moore.

Check Inn 99's bar area

GUIDING LIGHTS: Check Inn 99 owner Chris Catto-Smith and wife Mook at a Sunday barbecue held by the bar. photos: Check Inn 99

NEW LOCATION: The exterior of Check Inn 99 at night on Sukhumvit Soi 33. Photo: Eric Nelson

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