Discover more from Tales of the Orient by Simon Ostheimer
Beijing, Bangkok and Beyond
Meet Tyler Roney, Bangkok-based author and the new editor of the city's much-loved BK Magazine. In a wide-ranging interview, we talk about bars, banjos and John Denver
I first met Tyler Roney in a Beijing bar circa 2007, where I was heading up a nascent shelter magazine called Urbane. We thought the name was cool, but Tyler's girlfriend thought otherwise, poking fun at our faux hipster leanings. I was annoyed at the time, but in hindsight it's quite possible she was right. We then lost touch after I moved to Hong Kong, but one day many years later - riding the BTS skytrain in Bangkok - I happened to look over at a corner of the carriage and realised, 'Oh, there's Tyler!'.
We caught up, and ended up spending many a night at my favorite Bangkok bar, the Queen Bee. Over pints of cheap local beer, we shared our favorite sci-fi TV series (The Expanse and Battlestar Galactica respectively), listened to The Band, and gossiped about the city’s English-language media scene. Almost five years ago, I moved again to Phnom Penh, while Tyler stayed in Thailand, working in a variety of journalistic roles. Most recently, he was appointed managing editor of BK Magazine, a fantastic free weekly mag I used to read religiously. I caught up with Tyler to ask him about his new role, life in the Big Mango, and what it’s like to be Bangkok’s #1 West Virginian.
Tyler, long time no see - how's life in the Big Mango?
Hot. In a word, Simon, hot. But, there’s less tear gas these days so mustn’t grumble.
Tell me about the new gig - how did that come about?
I started in culture and lifestyle in Bangkok through a luxury travel magazine called Travelogues from Remote Lands. During that time I became involved with environmental journalism at The Third Pole and China Dialogue, and when the Bangkok protests came I shifted toward more local work. It’s like anything else: meet people, work, make nice. As far as getting to know the nightlife, dining, and culture scene, that’s down to my wife who started a bunch of Facebook groups in the hope that it would make me some friends. I’ll let you know if I find one.
What was your impression of BK Mag before you took charge?
It was the tastemaker and breaker in Bangkok, but 2020 really kicked the guts out of BK. The whole outfit was bought by Coconuts in late 2020. It’s a credit to the previous editor Craig Sauers who kept it afloat. Coconuts Bangkok has a reputation for being tabloidy and cutting, but it takes journalism and community reporting seriously. I’m grateful for that attitude. That’s down to Todd Ruiz, I think, who I admire a great deal.
What are your plans for BK Mag moving forwards?
Simple: ‘Make BK Cool Again’. That’s the goal. That’s it. Bangkok has changed and the magazine has definitely changed but there is still this tremendous sense of legacy. As for specifics, the website is an outdated dinosaur in need of a meteor or Chris Pratt or whatever else kills dinosaurs. It will be replaced by something more user-friendly around August. Editorially, we’re easing back into reviews and more discerning reporting. I also hope we can go back to being combative and funny.
Will it still be in print? If so, what are your thoughts on the value of print media?
Yes, by god, it’s still print, and I dare you to try and stop me. We’re relaunching the print as well. There will be more but smaller pages—less like a broadsheet. There are a lot of reasons to do this, but I think print is still important, and not just to readers. To advertisers, to writers, to people who take pride in their community. Bangkok is a real place and it deserves a real magazine. You can’t kill a mosquito with a Facebook post.
It's now part of the growing Coconuts empire, what synergy does that offer?
Obviously, there is the benefit of the staff at Coconuts Bangkok who are all extremely talented. They are bringing resources that BK has been missing for the last few years and a few it has never had before. When we begin to delve back into video, the Coconuts video team will be a godsend. I’m very excited about that. They are next-level good.
What were your first impressions when you moved to Bangkok?
Well, I first moved here way back in 2010 for about a year, but the big move was from Beijing in 2017. You know the feeling. Coming from stuffy, smoggy, freezing Beijing to here—a weird, capricious, maniacal place. It’s a muggy Ankh-Morpork if they discovered electricity and lemongrass. What’s not to love?
How has the city changed since your arrival?
Covid changed everything. Folks have been hanging on by their fingernails for so long it seems like it’s always been this way. Still, this is Bangkok. Everyone has been skiving and hustling and bribing their way through. The protests changed a lot of behavior. No, most people don’t stand in the movie theater anymore, but it’s more aggressive than that. For months tear gas was just part of the weather in Din Daeng. No one let go of that anger.
You have a car and travel frequently in Thailand, any favorite road trips?
Without a doubt, Kaeng Krachan. It is my favorite place so far in all of Thailand. I love wildlife and this is just the best place for it. In one day we saw a wild bear, gibbons, langurs, and my personal favorite: a slow loris—an actual, real, honest-to-god slow loris. I squealed.
Speaking of coconuts, what's your favorite Thai island?
I prefer rivers and jungles because you’re more likely to find some peace and quiet. That said, I like Trang’s islands, specifically Koh Libong. It’s not great for snorkeling, it’s flat, and the water can be murky, but it’s large enough to explore without tourists and the sea grass draws wild dugongs. This will be my favorite island until someone makes a child-free island. Muzzle your goblins, breeders.
Beijing must seem like eons ago, but what do you remember about that time?
I never really went in for the hutong scene, so Sanlitun was my hang. I have a lot of good memories there but even that is gone now. North Sanlitun is no more. Oh, and the smell of chou dofu. I never liked to eat it, but I never forget that smell smacking me in the face as I was driving down the road.
Is there anything you really miss?
I recall a city that was free and easy (for expats, at least), but it's now very much a security state. Do you think you could ever live in China again? Or would want to?
Absolutely not. It’s not the government these days. Nationalists scare the bejesus out of me no matter where I am. They don’t want anything. They are fueled by this ambitious sort of hate. I don’t use that word lightly. It’s hate. I could deal with the “if the Dalai Lama touches you, he’ll make you go blind” sort of stuff, but I won’t deal with planet Hu Xijin in his pomp.
You're from West Virginia. What was life like growing up there?
Just like anywhere else I expect. I haven’t set foot on American soil in 11 years, going on 12. I miss shooting guns and doing medically inadvisable things on ATVs. I regret not engaging with the culture more. When you’re young you like to think being different from the people around you makes you smart, especially when everyone around you is the same religion, same color, same everything. That’s a missed opportunity to learn. But, the truth will out. I took up the banjo during Covid. Getting pretty good at it too.
Have you met other West Virginians on your travels? What similar traits do you have?
Too many, way more than you’d expect. Because of the song, people tend to introduce West Virginians to each other like we’re animals in a zoo and they expect us to mate. To be fair, they’re often not wrong. We’re all different, but none of us like being confused with Virginians.
There's debate over whether the John Denver song 'Country Roads, Take Me Home' refers to West Virginia or west-ern Virginia. What's your opinion?
I’ve also heard that he wrote it about Maryland, but I won’t quibble with Mr Denver over geography. I can only say that I am no longer a stranger to blue water.
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