Text by Aydan Stuart
Photos by Tinnakorn Nuku
He is known as the Fried Beans Rapper, and that’s what he is: a 16-year-old Thai boy who sells beans at 20 baht a box, and throws in a rap performance on the side. You may have seen him around Nimmanhaemin’s watering holes, like Kamrai liquor store and the shops near Infinity night club. I managed to find him on Facebook (www.facebook.com/beansrapper), and arranged to meet him at a Nimman eatery one evening, with plans to follow him around and learn his story.
Known to friends simply by his nickname, “L” grew up in the care of his grandmother in Chiang Rai; his mother was hospitalised due to mental illness and his father had passed away. At the age of nine he joined the temple as a novice monk but left a year later, when his grandmother died. At that point, with no family to care for him, he realised he had no choice but to try and make it on his own.
At the age of 10, young boys will be impressionable, and after getting himself some work singing, L soon found his new “social home” in bars and internet shops around Chiang Rai.
“I was a gamer boy. I was addicted to games and I spent all my time and money at the internet stores,” he told me matter-of-factly in Thai, a noodle hanging out the corner of his mouth. “I was into CM Cartoons – people should know what that is.” I did not (and still don’t, despite extensive Googling) but I kept quiet, willing him to go on. At that point in his life, L had managed to fall in with the wrong crowd, which was not surprising given his situation, and before he knew it, he found himself taking narcotics and shooting up every night. Funded by his “friends,” this boy I was sitting here talking to, at the tender age of 13, was shooting heroin into his veins. The information hit me hard, despite L’s deadpan retelling, and at this point he insisted we move tables to a more private area. Heads were beginning to turn.
“I had to get out,” he continued. Running away from Chiang Rai was the best thing he could do at the time. He made it to Bangkok and again tried his hand at his only developing profession: singing. Despite getting help from a local Christian Church, he still struggled, and soon found himself exploited by his employers and left shortchanged for
Unique. Like any
good business idea."
his efforts. And so, L decided to return to Chiang Rai. His mother remained committed to the hospital and he had no other family to speak of; it was a lonely time, but he pushed on.
Eventually, Young L was taken in by what he thought were kind strangers...and then robbed for every last penny he had. I could tell that he remained bitter as he shared the story, his eyes darkening, his trust broken and still too fresh to heal.
Being robbed at the age of 14 with no family to fall back on proved to be too much for L and he decided that from then on, he would trust no one. “The only way to get on with my life was to start looking out for myself only, to be on my own where nobody could mess with me,” he said.
Sitting in a Chiang Mai hotel, paid for by some of his Bangkok Christian friends, L needed to find a job and an apartment quickly. (He told me that he doesn’t believe in Christianity anymore but appreciates what Jesus did for him in the past.) In Chiang Mai, L found a job working as a floor sweep at a local barbershop, and with the first month paid up-front, he settled into an apartment only two days later.
The work was good; he had his job, he had his apartment, but things still weren’t ideal. With the fear of being robbed or having life throw even more problems his way, L needed to make some serious money. This was when he had a brainwave. Age 15, sitting and drinking a beer with his boss (as you do) at the barbershop, L watched an old lady come up to the table and sell them some fried beans. “I tasted these beans that were just so disgusting, and I knew I could make them so much better,” he recalled. “So I did.”
That budding business mind of his began to click into action, and L knew he had to be extra special if he was to make any money from selling beans on the side of the road. He had picked up some rapping skills in his Bangkok days…et voila! The Fried Beans Rapper was born.
With help from some his barbershop workmates, L began to rap and fry his own beans. Really tasty beans, too (I had to buy myself four boxes worth). The sales pitch was this: offer the beans, and with every purchase comes a freestyle rap show for a couple of minutes. Simple. Effective. Unique. Like any good business idea.
This I had to see. After finishing our meal (with a discounted bill in exchange for some fried beans), we set off. Bar number one: he sheepishly asked me to hang back, as to not draw attention to him…or perhaps to me. Then he confidently stepped into the bar and wai-ed the owners with genuine gratitude; his rapport with them was clear. This was obviously a nightly routine.
He had his first sale at the first table. I was impressed. After seeing so many people selling all kinds of goods with varying success, I wondered how many times L would be turned down. “Most people are nice to me,” he said, “whether they buy my beans or not. But sometimes people look down their noses at me, and that really hurts. It happens every day, but I have to keep going, because people like this probably just don’t understand my predicament.”
His raps contain a few English standby lyrics such as “freestyle” and “yo” but are mostly in Thai, telling the story of himself as a young child, and the misperceptions that have dogged his life: “I’m young guy trying to make his way in life. I may be sixteen but I’m an adult. Don’t think about it too much, just accept it!” He’s no Jay-Z, but the kid has spirit.
As he approaches tables of patrons, he gives another respectful wai and removes his cap, introduces himself and tells of how he is making some money to pay for school fees. This is no lie; he is now back in school, self-enrolled into the Mathayom level and urgently in need of tuition money. After he raps and hands over a plastic box of his fried beans in exchange for 20 baht, he comes out and tells me how sometimes he meets people who don’t want him to rap for them, but still buy his beans.
“The best times are when people buy some beans but then hand me larger amounts of money,” he told me. “These people usually
"He has become
his own maker"
don’t even want to hear my rap, but I feel so grateful. One time this guy just gave me 5,000 baht right out of his pocket. He was a really nice guy.”
L’s assertive sales tactics work well with his kreng jai audience. Speaking to a few of his customers, I found that some were so taken aback by the situation that they felt they couldn’t refuse. The rapping, however, did bring about more interest from the younger customers, who often chatted with L after his show and showed genuine interest in his life.
“He is a young boy, fending for himself,” one Thai couple told me, sitting at a plastic table on the roadside. “He introduces himself and is not shy about his story. He needs money for school and we are sitting here drinking expensive beer. We can’t just say no to him. Thailand is a family and everybody here needs a helping hand. It’s a circle of good deeds that will flow through Thai people, and good karma will keep coming. We share care for each other, not just beans.”
And it’s true. It’s not just about beans and L is not just a young boy with a sad history; he is a boy who has broken free from the kind of destructive past that many can never escape. He has become his own maker.
When it came time to part ways, L thanked me greatly for even being interested in him. He wanted to show me his dancing skills on the side of the road, but slipped in some mud. He laughed and pulled himself together quickly, but it served as a reminder that after all his showmanship, he was still only 16. He has had to grow up fast, however, and his business plans override his youthful dalliances now. Hell, he earns more than I do: 2,000 baht a day, selling roughly 100 boxes of beans a night.
Of course, it’s hard not to look at L and see what he has accomplished in his short life without feeling inspired. Today, his plan is to finish school and become a businessman, working for himself and rapping on the side. I have no doubt that he’ll succeed (although, when he mentioned that one day he might become a professional rapper, I suggested he not quit his day job).
“The best thing about this job is that I do it every day, and I am so happy,” said L. “I can rap and I sell my beans; and at the end of the day I can eat and I can sleep in a warm bed. I never thought I could do this when I was 10, but here I am, and I made it.”