Artist takes dangerous trip to Bangkok’s underworld

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The Nefarious Face of Chinatown is a solo exhibition of new works by American artist Phil America and shows a series of photos and artifacts from Bangkok’s Chinatown, a neighborhood considered to be the most authentic Chinatown outside of China. The works give an in-depth look at the underworld of one of the world’s most criminal neighborhoods in search of its true face.

Before setting up the show, several artifacts gathered by the artist that are related to the neighborhood, were confiscated by the Danish police and the law-firm owning the rights to Rolex. However, the show is still complete and will open September 28th.

The show will run through to November 10th, 2013 at Vess in Copenhagen, Denmark.


In Bangkok, Thailand, the heart of Asia’s criminal underworld functions due to one place: Chinatown. While 70% of male visitors to the country engage in the sex trade and 60% of all visitors engage in drug use, nearly none of them do it in Chinatown. The large neighborhood made up predominantly of Chinese immigrants controls the docks on the Chao Phraya River and supplies the city with nearly all of its imported goods. The main road of Yaowarat appears like any other Chinatown: littered with restaurants and street vendors selling imported goods and cheap street food, but venture off to one of the sois or behind the docks, you will see crime is a way of life here.

From fake DVDs and imitation luxury accessories, to prostitution and human trafficking, to opium dens and money laundering houses, Chinatown’s criminal element is on every corner yet hidden from the world. An American male in Chinatown, without the ability to speak Thai or Chinese, and without knowing the wrong people, sets out on a journey to come in contact and build relationships with the local criminal element to bring an entire new series of works for the solo show at Copenhagen’s Vess. Through arguments, physical altercations and run-ins with the local police he carries himself through the neighborhood and becomes accepted by the criminals who begin to trust him and allow him to take photos.

Over the course of 30 days he spent nearly every day in Bangkok’s Chinatown, betting on Fan-tan and Hi-lo with the old men and got tattooed with a magical sak yant tattoo by a master. He built relationships with prostitutes outside the tea shops, painted fake license plates and put together knock-off Louis Vuitton bags with local workers. He even spent a day with a young gang members riding around dropping off fake Valium and Viagra to shops around Bangkok. During the process he gathered artifacts relating to the neighborhood and it’s crime, some of which were confiscated by the law-firm owning the rights to Rolex and by the Danish police.
The series of photos shows a strong, underlining strength in the eyes of the pimps and drug lords and contrasts that with the tattooed hands of the criminals on the street. Phil America takes his time to show that, here, the face of the criminals and crime itself are both honest and nefarious.


Phil America (b. 1983 in California) is a Northern California and NYC raised photographer, artist and writer. He holds a BA in Psychology with a minor in Philosophy. After three years in Europe he currently spends his time between Berlin, Germany and Bangkok, Thailand and is working on projects in and around South East Asia. His first book, Our Side Of The Tracks, was released in 2012 and was published by Alias Press.

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