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October 13, 2016

That time a Philly alt-weekly insulted the late King of Thailand

Deaths Royalty
Thailand King Apichart Weerawong, File/AP Photo

In this Dec. 5, 2011, file photo, Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej is pushed on a wheelchair while leaving Siriraj hospital for the Grand Palace for a ceremony celebrating his birthday in Bangkok.

At first blush, the death of Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej doesn’t have much of a local connection beyond the local Thai community, what with Bangkok being nearly 9,000 flying miles away from Philadelphia.

But travel back with me to 2002, to a time when Philadelphia had two thriving alt-weekly newspapers including the late City Paper.

It was the type of button-pushing publication that pushed Adulyadej’s courtesy of an ad from, and subsequent stories about, an Old City restaurant.

“Never before, or since, has anyone suggested that I be f----- with the c--k of the elephant. For that I am grateful." – Howard Altman, former editor in chief, Philadelphia City Paper

Specifically, per a column headlined “Big Trouble from Little Thailand” from then-editor Howard Altman, the ad – "which depicts Adulyadej as a bling-bling hipster with bleached highlights, lines shaved into his hair, stone-encrusted glasses and a shirt that sports an Adidas logo – has so angered the Thai government that its consulate is threatening to cut off relations with the U.S.”

Well that’s not good.

Thanks to that ad from the since-closed Saint Jack’s, 45 S. Third Street in the City Paper – where, full disclosure, this writer worked from 2003 to 2008 – Altman found himself discussing what became a heated issue with Thai consul general Voravee Wirasamban.

Those chats focused on Wirasamban, who wrote letters to the governor and mayor while demanding the paper pull the ad, claiming it represented “mockery” and that “there will be bad trouble” in lieu of corrective action.

Altman wrote a few columns about the confrontation, and many observers were not on City Paper’s side (see here and here.) It was such an issue that even the competing Philadelphia Weekly had to write about it, which was rare in those heady days.

As best Altman can recall from Florida, where he now works as senior writer/military affairs for the Tampa Bay Times, the restaurant eventually pulled the ad and international crises were averted. But since it was such a memorable moment in Philly alt-weekly history, I reached out to Altman when I heard the king had died, as the world's longest reigning monarch at age 88, on Thursday morning.

“May he rest in peace," Altman said. "We truly meant no disrespect, but it became one of the most bizarre moments in a career full of them, and it generated some of the most colorful insults ever hurled my way.

“Never before, or since, has anyone suggested that I be f----- with the c--k of the elephant. For that I am grateful. In all seriousness, I learned something about a culture I never knew before, and for that I am sincerely thankful.”

And that’s all for Today in Philadelphia Ties to the Lives and Deaths of International Leaders.