CHIANGRAI TIMES – Cartoon pandas, Teletubbies, Ronald McDonald. At first glance they don’t seem to have much in common beyond a certain childlike quality. But during a visit to Bangkok you may discover another trait these popular cultural icons now share: their resemblance to Adolf Hitler.
In the Thai capital’s latest outbreak of Nazi chic, pandas, Teletubbies and Ronald have metamorphosed into cutesy alter egos of the Führer, who seems to exert a childlike fascination over some young Thais.
With any luck you can spot trendy young souls strutting around in T-shirts bearing cartoonish images of the Nazi dictator.
In a particularly popular design, Hitler is transformed into a cartoonish Ronald McDonald, the fast-food chain’s clown mascot, sporting a bouffant cherry-red hairdo and a stern look.
On another T-shirt the Führer is shown in a lovely panda costume with a Nazi armband. On yet another he appears as a pink Teletubby with doe eyes, jug ears and a pink swastika for an antenna. He pouts petulantly like a spoiled brat while flashing the Nazi salute.
Shirts cost from 200 baht to 370 baht (US$7-12) apiece, and some come in matching outfits for couples. Adolf McDonald’s partner is a transvestite with fuchsia hair, lipstick, long lashes and a timid Mona Lisa smile. Panda Adolf’s manlier doppelganger sports a brown stormtrooper uniform.
“Some foreigners get upset [when they see my T-shirts on sale] — they come to my shop and complain,” acknowledges the owner of Seven Star, a small clothing shop at Terminal 21, a new designer mall in central Bangkok on Sukhumvit Road which is a popular tourist haunt.
He’s a 30-something fellow who identifies himself by his nickname “Hut”, and is a graduate of a local university’s arts program. Hut does brisk business selling his T-shirts. Seven Star’s most popular items, Hut notes, are his McHitler designs, which he sells alongside his caricatures of Michael Jackson, Che Guevara and Kim Jong-Il.
Standing invitingly outside his shop is a large dummy of Hitler as Ronald with its motorized left arm going up and down in the Nazi salute. Thai shoppers love posing gleefully with it.
“It’s not that I like Hitler,” Hut insists. “But he looks funny and the shirts are very popular with young people.”
As Hut well knows, some foreigners are not amused. Israel’s local ambassador is one of them.
“You don’t want to see memories of the Nazi period trivialized in this manner,” stresses Ambassador Itzhak Shoham, whose embassy is right behind Terminal 21. “It hurts the feelings of every Jew and every civilized person.”
Shoham recently remonstrated with Hut. “I said to him, “I don’t mind the doll; just take the face off,’” the ambassador says.
Hut’s McHitler doll’s face is now covered by a Lucha Libre wrestler’s mask.
Nazi chic bonanza
Across town at another fashion mall, another small shop hawks its own cutesy caricatures of Hitler plastered on T-shirts. Panda Adolf takes pride of place among impressionistic Smurfs, pop stars and Japanese manga characters.
“Hitler shirts are very popular, especially with teenage boys,” notes the shop’s 30-year-old owner, whose family operates a clothing factory.
Meanwhile, on Bangkok’s backpacker haven, Khao San Road, other T-shirt designs boast Photoshopped prints of the Führer, including one depicting him sunbathing naked on a tropical beach.
Shoppers looking for Nazi flags, reproduction Third Reich propaganda posters, pennants with Iron Crosses and Nazi eagles and faux SS crash helmets can find them at the Chatuchak Weekend Market, where they’re on sale alongside Bob Marley portraits and Rastafarian accoutrements.
Some foreign tourists see such Nazi chic as just a peculiar aspect of Thai youth culture.
“I guess one could say ‘boy, it’s a pretty ignorant world and kids today,’” notes Mark Goldberg, from New Orleans. “I doubt people who are [into these designs] would even know their significance.”
That’s a safe bet. Most young Thais seemingly know precious little about the Nazis and their crimes beyond their eye-catching pageantry. And so they are drawn to Hitler and his regime’s hallucinogenic visual propaganda.
Last September in the northern city of Chiang Mai, a group of high school students showed up for sport day in homemade Nazi uniforms, complete with swastika armbands and toy guns. Leading them was a teenage girl dressed in a faux SS uniform with a fake Hitler mustache.
Locals cheered the students merrily from sidewalks as foreign tourists reportedly looked on aghast.
In 2007, hundreds of students at a Bangkok school staged a similar Nazi-themed costume parade.
Following international outcries, teachers at both schools apologized, saying they had no idea the students had planned to dress up as Nazis.
In 2009, a waxworks museum in the seaside resort town of Pattaya advertised itself with a giant billboard featuring the Führer with the legend in Thai: “Hitler is not dead!”
Cue another hue and cry. The museum’s managers quickly pulled down the billboard, insisting they meant no offence.
“It’s a lack of exposure to history,” notes Harry Soicher, a Romanian who teaches at a Bangkok high school. “If you don’t live in Thailand, you may find it hard to believe they really mean no harm.”
Nazi chic cavalcade
In Thais’ defense, the Nazi chic phenomenon is hardly limited to their country. The misuse of Nazi symbols for fashion purposes has also been common from India to Japan.
Some years ago 7-Eleven stores in Taiwan sold dolls and key chains with Hitler’s likeness. In Hong Kong a clothing store chain once decorated a shop with Nazi flags and banners. In South Korea and Japan Nazi-style clothing is often a part of cosplay, which sees young people dress up as their favorite Japanese comic book characters.
Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Los Angeles, which monitors neo-Nazi activities worldwide, agrees that manifestations of Nazi chic in the region largely come down to sheer ignorance. Yet locals should wise up about Hitler and his pernicious ideological legacy, he insists.
“If the Nazis had won the war, Hitler’s racist ideology would have eventually targeted all races he deemed inferior, including Asians,” Cooper notes.