Localized KFC and Starbucks in Thailand’s restive Deep South

 
Decades of insurgency in Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat, and four districts of Songkhla have embroiled the region in violence. A large number of people, especially Chinese business owners, have moved out of the area that used to be the Sultanate of Patani. Economic activity and investment have slowed. According to research jointly conducted by the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre and the Commerce Ministry, the Trade and Investment Sentiment Index during May 2013-2015 has consistently been below the average, indicating that investors were not confident in the economic prospects of the Deep South. Moreover, since the latest round of violence erupted 11 years ago, average economic growth in the area slowed from 2004 to 2009, growing at only 1.4 per cent per year, compared to the pre-violence growth rate of 6 per cent per year. 
 
 
Nevertheless, in the past few years cultural events have flourished in the three southernmost provinces. Night markets and festivals, such as the Tadika festival have been reinstated even under the constant threat of violence. Srisomphop Jitphiromsri, assistant professor from the Faculty of Political Science at the Pattani Campus of Prince Songkla University, says that these night markets and festivals allow locals to have a public cultural space where they can be relaxed and happy. It is a space in the sense that people can feel safe and relieve stress there, says Srisomphop. “Violent perpetrators realize the importance of such ‘neutral’ areas where people can socialize and exchange opinions. The state should realize this, and continue to support such spaces as well.”
 
Not just festivals, but halal food businesses in general have also started a resurgence in Patani, especially creative enterprises such as restaurants that allow Pattani locals to access new cuisines. Critics say that locals in the area need a thriving economic landscape, especially after living in such a tense political atmosphere of slowed economic growth, which gave birth to few malls and trendy restaurants.
 
This article will dive into two extremely popular restaurants owned by young Malay Muslims, Bagus Chicken and In-t-af Coffee and Gallery, both located in Muang district, Pattani province. These restaurants fuse local Pattani and Islamic culture with international tastes to create very interesting results. 
 
Bagus Chicken, at the Patani Clock Tower
 
At a quick glance, you might dismiss this shop as another branch of KFC. In fact, it’s Bagus Chicken, a Halal Western food establishment in Pattani. 3-storeyed Bagus Chicken has been open in front of the Clock Tower for four years now. It’s so famous within the three southernmost provinces region that people flock from Narathiwat and Yala just to eat here. 
 
Since the three southernmost provinces are predominantly Muslim, it is important for locals to get Halal food from sources where they trust their food preparers. 
 
“Bagus” [baah-goose] means “excellent” in Malay. Bagus Chicken is run by husband and wife Muhammad Dumeedae and Rohani Puteh. The Pattani couple do not have any culinary background. Muhammad was a bank employee who lived in Bangkok for eight years, while Rohani is a Malay language lecturer at PSU’s Pattani campus who finished her Master’s degree in Malaysia. 
 
Bagus Chicken in original and spicy flavours
 
Muhammad was bored working at the bank, so he took classes on frying chicken in his spare time. He opened a fried chicken shop behind the campus, but the location was not ideal and he had to close down. Later, after he married Rohani, she noticed that he still had his chicken frying equipment, and encouraged him to open another shop, this time at the Pattani Clock Tower. Bagus Chicken sells well, since there are no KFC branches the three southernmost provinces. Even if there was, KFC does not serve Halal food.
 
The couple do not see the main goal of their chicken shop as profit, but business for the Muslim community, as part of their role as good Muslims. “It’s our job to be responsible to society. After we die, Allah will stand in judgement of us. We will be able to answer fully that we have benefitted society. When we opened the shop, we really didn’t think about profit, but that we had at least created some new food options for Muslims in the three provinces.”
 
Bagus Chicken sells steak, spaghetti, and other kinds of Western food in addition to its different types of fried chicken, similar to a certain fast food chain.
 
Bagus Chicken, filled with customers in the evening
 
After Bagus Chicken opened, the quality of the food drew so many customers that the shop was always full, so the couple rented a three-storey building for the shop. The bottom two floors are for Bagus Chicken, and they plan to use the third floor as a community radio station. 
 
Rohani says that business is very good, especially during holiday seasons such as New Year’s, the days leading up to Ramadan, and Children’s Day. Since there are so many customers and the shop is constantly full, over 30 employees work at Bagus Chicken. People line up and wait for their chicken in over 10 long queues. Bagus Chicken sells up to 280 kg of chicken on busy days, and around 100 kg on regular days. 
 
The author travelled to Pattani to try Bagus Chicken’s fried chicken and spicy popcorn chicken. The chicken’s crunchy skin and juicy flesh made it very delicious. It is not hard for the author to see why the shop is so popular. 
 
Rohani (middle) looks on as the author (right) tries the fried chicken as well as the spicy popcorn chicken.
 
One of the factors that make Bagus Chicken so popular in the 3 southernmost provinces is because customers can be sure that their food is 100 per cent Halal. Another is the successful localization of Western food to the community.
 
“At the old shop, the decor was retro and people assumed that ‘Bagus’ wasn’t Malay, so they read Bagus like English [bay-gus]. After we moved the shop here, we tried to show our locality in the decor. The shop’s name is written in both Yawi (the Malay alphabet used in the three southern provinces), Thai and English, so that Malay customers feel more familiar to the shop. They feel like the shop is for them,” said Rohani. 
 
Signs in Bagus Chicken are written in Malay, English, and Thai
 
Once, a foreigner came to Bagus, asking for the dish that would express the quintessential Patani identity. “I told him that we didn’t have one,” said Rohani. “I was confused, and thought about what kind of food Bagus was.” Rohani is currently developing her menu to show more Patani locality. She experimented with a chicken burger with Melayu Golek source, but did not add it to the shop menu since the flavours weren’t just right yet.
 
With a shop this popular, of course people have contacted the couple about expanding their shop into a franchise. However, the husband and wife are not interested in this yet.
 
Signs in Bagus Chicken are written in Malay, English, and Thai
 
“We’re not expanding Bagus into a franchise yet because we’re living according to Amanah. In Islam, Amanah is having responsibility to our duty. If we expand to a franchise, then we have to follow up with the buyer and see that he is keeping up the food quality. Otherwise, we will sin against Amanah,” said the 30-year-old lecturer. Muhammad added, “I see running a restaurant as an art. Expanding into a franchise would be a business way of thinking.”
 
Even though the couple do not have plans to create a Bagus Chicken franchise, they are expanding into a very rarely-seen section of the Halal food world: making Halal sushi.
 
Bagushi is popular among Malay Muslims who want to try new Halal foods. Picture courtesy of Bagushi’s Facebook page.
 
“Our goal is to increase food options for fellow Muslims. We’ve already made a fried chicken shop, so now we are setting up another shop that fulfils needs that are currently unmet for the Muslim community,” said Muhammad.
 
For Bangkokians, Japanese food is available at many price levels and options. Many Malay Muslims, however, have never tried Japanese food—especially sushi. Few Halal Japanese restaurants exist. Additionally, since sushi mostly includes raw fish, some food preparation methods could easily render the sushi non-Halal.
 
The couple opened Bagushi, a Halal Japanese restaurant that has a Shabu Shabu menu, as well as a sushi bar. Bagushi is located at Tesco Lotus in Jana district, Songkhla province. Like Bagus, Bagushi has been well-received by the Muslim community, especially after having opened only at the beginning of this year. 
 
The author, who is a big fan of sushi, did not have a chance to try Bagushi. Muhammad said that a dish of salmon sashimi, priced at 99 baht, is Norwegian salmon purchased from Makro. However, this menu is not so popular, since his Malay Muslim customers are not so familiar with eating raw food. Muhammad says that many customers, after ordering raw fish, send it back and ask him to torch the fish.
 
Before opening Bagushi, the couple tried out Halal sushi in Chiang Mai and Malaysia and researched the process of making Halal sushi. They noted points during the cooking process that could easily become non-Halal. They sent some employees at Bagus Chicken to learn how to make sushi in order to staff Bagushi.
 
The non-Halal part of sushi is mirin, said Rohani. Mirin is rice wine, and an important element of sushi that gives the rice a slightly sour taste. Mirin that is fermented for too long may produce alcohol, which is not Halal. “We had to change the recipe of mirin by contacting the factory, asking them not to ferment it till the alcohol level rises.” 
 

Creative Halal food options for Pattani locals

 
Muhammad said that he is always looking for new ideas for Halal restaurants for the three southernmost provinces. Muhammand and Rohani often travel to Bangkok to survey popular restaurants, especially those located in malls. For example, if they want to survey pizza shops, they look at Pizza Hut; for coffee shops, Starbucks; for Shabu restaurants, Shabushi; for Japanese restaurants, Yayoi; for steakhouses, Sizzler, and so on.
 
Since these restaurants are not Halal, the couple go in and order drinks while surveying the restaurant. To taste these types of food, they go to Malaysia. 
 
A bento box from Bagushi. Picture courtesy of Bagushi’s Facebook page.
 
“The market potential for Halal dining is huge,” says Muhammad. “Most Muslims are situated at the ‘river mouth.’ By that, I mean that we are often in the restaurant business. The ‘river source’ is getting raw food material, while the ‘river body’ is cooking ingredients to use in food preparation.” 
 
Muhammad is planning to make a brand of Halal ingredients and sauces, such as Halal shoyu. This brand would allow other Muslim restaurateurs to easily make new types of Halal cuisine. 
 
When asked about future plans, Muhammad said that he wants to make an east-meets-west fusion restaurant, similar to “On The Table,” a popular Italian-Japanese restaurant in Bangkok. Rohani, being a university lecturer, wants to make a 24-hour cafe similar to “Too Fast To Sleep,” situated next to Chulalongkorn University. At “Too Fast,” students and patrons can study, work, and tutor each other without regard for time. However, with the violence in the region that usually happens at night, Rohani realizes that she will have to put her dream project on hold first. 
 

Hipster teahouse in the land of philosophers

 
The teahouse is part of the Melayu social life. Locals, mostly men, frequent their village tea shop. The patrons and the shopkeeper all know each other. They discuss politics, social issues, and the news over tea, coffee, and roti. The Patani teahouse can be classified as a public sphere, a place where, according to theorist Habermas, locals can exchange their views on social issues. Therefore, part of the political awareness in the three southernmost provinces can be attributed to the local “tea culture.” The voter turnout in 2011 was 77.48 per cent, higher than the national average of 75.03 per cent. 
 
However, one “hipster” Patani teahouse has emerged, set up by a group of young men who have worked and studied in Bangkok’s most fashionable district. . 
 
In-t-af in the evening. Picture courtesy of In-t-af’s Facebook page.
 
“In-t-af,” an anagram of Fatoni, the Arab name of Patani, is a teahouse with the theme of nostalgia for a peaceful Patani.  
 
Arzeezee Yeejehwae, one of In-t-af’s owners and an architect graduate from Rajamangkala University of Technology, located beside Chulalongkorn University on Phya Thai Road, speaks about the inspiration behind the teahouse. “We all grew up here. I was reading the history of Patani one day, and encountered the name ‘Fatoni.’ It has a good meaning too, meaning land of philosophers. I wanted to convey the identity of Patani in the shop, but using ‘Fatoni’ or ‘Patani’ outright sounds too nationalistic, so I added some playful tricks to the name, creating In-t-af.” 
 
The founders, four Malay architects, chose to build In-t-af in the old section of the city because they love the east-meets-west architecture there, strongly influenced by the architecture of British Malaya. At first, the architects wanted to open a gallery and a design firm, but decided that a cafe would fare better economically.
 
The outdoor part of In-t-af, next to the Pattani River. Picture courtesy of In-t-af’s Facebook page.
 
In-t-af is located in a two-storey townhouse. The first floor is for clients to drink tea, and even has a balcony overlooking the Pattani River. The second floor is a prayer room. The four architects decided to decorate the teahouse according to the Japanese aesthetic principle of wabi-sabi, with exposed, unpaved concrete, showing the beauty of the imperfect of the building materials. Not everyone appreciates this minimalist, bare style though. 
 
“When we first opened the shop, many customers thought we hadn’t finished construction,” laughed Arzeezee.
 
The architects, owing to their gallery-hopping tendencies in Bangkok, managed to include a gallery corner in the cafe for customers to view art while sipping their coffee.
 
Arzeezee says that it took one year to build and decorate In-t-af, since they started with this space.
 
“We wanted fine art to be accessible to the locals, not see it as an elites-only kind of thing. Everyday, familiar things can be art too, like the ponoh [traditional Islamic school].” 
 
A black-and-white photoset of a ponoh, by Amphanee Satoh. This is the first set of art displayed at In-t-af.
 
Ponoh is a school, a religious site, and the spiritual centre of the community. These photos show the beauty of past ponohs. We wanted to convey this to the dissidents, for them to consider what they’re doing, and to rethink the role of ponoh in society. In the past, it was devoid of violence,” said Arzeezee.
 
The black-and-white photoset of ponohs by Amphanee Satoh. Picture courtesy of In-t-af’s Facebook page.
 
In-t-af has the feeling of an urban coffee shop rather than a rural teahouse. Customers include Thai Buddhists, Thai Chinese, and Muslim Malays. Most patrons are young people, both students and working people, and are of both sexes. The shopkeeper does not know everyone by name, but it is still more of a meeting place for friends, in contrast to Bangkokian cafes, where visitors are often isolated from each other. 
 
Asked what the old generation think of In-t-af, Arzeezee smiled and said "Some of them feel awkward to come and sit here, a modern tea shop."

The fires of youthful entrepreneurs amid the fires of violence

 
Rohani of Bagus Chicken told the author that only a few months after moving to the three-storey building, a bomb exploded at a gas station only about a hundred meters away. It was one of the 33 bombs detonated in 2014. The bomb was deafeningly loud, and the lights went off in the whole shop. For the customers’ safety, they decided to shut the doors, keeping the customers there. “Our customers were so great that night. We lighted candles for them, and they just kept eating chicken.” That night, all of the customers ate for free. 
 
A military officer stands guard in front of Bagus Chicken, since bombs have been detonated before across the street and in a nearby soi
 
“Since we opened shop, we’ve never felt safe in the area,” said Rohani. “Still, we believe our good intentions protect us. Living in such a high-pressure area full of conflict and violence is hard for everyone. Getting to eat some good food helps to relieve some stress and make life better.” 
 
As for the owner of In-t-af, he said that he isn’t too concerned about the violence affecting his business, since life must go on for him anyway.
 
Arzeezee added that before he opened, a lot of people told him that the area he was going to open shop was a Thai Chinese area, and that Malay customers would not come. “My shop is able to draw Malay Muslims, of course. It’s not necessary that my shop has to be in a Muslim neighbourhood,” said the 34 year old architect. “I’m Muslim, and I’m opening shop in a Chinese neighbourhood to show everyone that we can all live together.”
 
The proprietors of both shops agree that the chronic violence in the area is an incentive for Patani locals to create something that changes society, and in doing so, stand up for themselves. 
 

Rubber price is everything to the Deep South

 
Abdulkorday Yusoh, a member of Federation of Deep South’s Melayu businessmen and director of Siroros Hospital in Yala’s Muang District, however, said that the flourishing of restaurants in the provinces is not an indicator of a recovering economy. In fact, most of the restaurants open because people failed to get jobs in other sectors.  
 
“The restaurants and clothing businesses are booming because the rubber price is down. When people don’t know what to do, they open a clothing shop or a restaurant or mobile phone shop. They look like an easy business with low risk, but actually they’re not. There’s limited purchasing power in the Deep South. They may look OK at first but I’m not sure about in the long run.” Abdulkorday still admires the young entrepreneurs who have brought new types of business and tastes to Patani people. But he casts some doubt that the new creative types of restaurants may not survive in the long run since the food served are not common dishes for Patanians.  
 
He said the economics of the three southernmost provinces, especially Yala, which is landlocked, is highly dependent on the rubber price.
 
“When rubber prices drop, people spend less money and therefore buy less. All businesses are in the self-support mode.”
 
Because of the violence, there is very little investment, industry and tourism. Therefore, the unemployment rate is high. 
 
Nevertheless, the Siroros Hospital director said the health business sees some future. “When the rubber price soared, the rubber farmers went to private hospitals. Now the price has dropped, but they still want to get same kind of service they received from the private hospitals. The insurance business comes in and this makes the private hospitals grow.”
 
Since there are few tourists due to the violence, the main source of income of hotels and resorts in the restive South is from seminars and conferences held by organizations, especially state agencies, said Abdulkorday, who also oversees a hotel business in Songkhla Province. 
 
The violence in the past 11 years has changed the faces of businessmen in some sectors. The obvious one is in the construction business. Muslim Malay companies are slowly replacing the Thai-Chinese because the Thai-Chinese entrepreneurs feel unsafe about taking on construction projects in unfamiliar rural areas. 
 
Translated into English by Asaree Thaitrakulpanich 
 
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