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Smalls owner David Jacobson’s journey from celeb photographer to bar pioneer

David Jacobson, known as the Godfather of Bangkok’s bar scene, shares his remarkable journey from celebrity photography in California to reshaping nightlife in Bangkok and Saigon.

In this latest episode of Trends our host, David Barrett, sits down with The Godfather of Bangkok’s bar scene, David Jacobson, for an insight into his journey from California to Bangkok.

In the 1980s lens clicking world of celebrity photography, where flashes immortalize the essence of A-listers, the tale of a California commercial photographer’s foray into Asia’s bar scene seems like a script lifted from the archives of Hollywood dreams. David Jacobson, the New Yorker visionary behind Smalls Bar, turned his back on Tinseltown to embark on an unconventional journey that would reshape the nocturnal landscapes of Saigon and Bangkok.

In a narrative twist that would make even Hollywood producers gasp, David found himself documenting the ground-breaking efforts of the first American NGO, the World Health Organization’s ‘Healthcare For Children’ programme. Tasked with airlifting medical supplies from Cambodia to Vietnam during a period when the U.S. refused recognition to the Vietnamese government, David’s lens captured a critical moment of change. Visiting Vietnam he spotted an opportunity in a city’s nightlife scene, devoid of a good bar. Trading the glamour of his career, photographing luminaries like Robert De Niro and David Bowie, he sold his camera gear to bankroll the opening of a bar. Seeing Saigon in 1990 as “Ground Zero,” David’s meteoric rise began with the launch of Q Bar in 1992, hailed by Time magazine as one of the world’s best bars.

After the closure of Q Bar in Saigon in 2008 due to overwhelming popularity and unfounded suspicions from the Vietnamese Authorities, David’s entrepreneurial spirit led him to Bangkok. In 1999, he resurrected the spirit of Q Bar in the vibrant heart of Thailand’s capital. Q Bar Bangkok was a cosmopolitan nightclub, boasting international DJs and innovative drinks, and it swiftly became a beacon in the city’s evolving nightlife.

Despite Q Bar Bangkok’s closure, due to an astronomic increase in property rent, David did not retire but rather pivoted, refocusing his efforts from Sukhumvit to Sathorn in Bangkok. Collaborating with artist and photographer Bruno Tanquerie, they launched Smalls on Suan Phlu in 2014—a unique fusion of bar, restaurant and art space, embracing the avant-garde. Nominated five times at the recent Bar Awards Bangkok, Smalls stands as a testament to David’s commitment to steering clear of commercial norms, creating a cultural hub where the warmth of jazz and passionate clientele defy fleeting trends.

As Bangkok’s nightlife transforms, so does Smalls, which, defying conventional norms, has become a cultural hub in the city, receiving accolades at the Bar Awards Bangkok. With its warm ambiance and a clientele enamoured with music, Smalls has transcended trends, transforming Bangkok’s nights into a haven of cool sophistication.

In his seventies, David Jacobson, affectionately dubbed the ‘Godfather’ of the nightlife industry, remains firmly at the helm of Smalls. A living legend, he continues to shape the drinking and music trends of two countries, setting an unparalleled standard for innovation.

For David, Smalls isn’t merely a business; it’s a conversation bar. In an era dominated by digital screens and disconnected interactions, Smalls stands as a sanctuary for genuine connections. Here, music lovers and artists converge to share stories and revel in the delight of authentic conversation.

As the seasoned statesman of the industry, David Jacobson expresses hopes for Thailand’s prosperity and good health in 2024. With an infectious smile, he states, “I meet people here—writers, filmmakers, journalists, musicians—and they come here to talk to me… It’s a conversation bar. People come here to talk.”

In a world fixated on transient trends, David Jacobson stands as a beacon of enduring authenticity, proving that the power to create something very special lies in embracing one’s true self. Here’s to the Godfather of Asia’s bar scene, still reigning supreme in the heart of Bangkok. Cheers!

Managing Director - DBC Asia | + Articles

David Barrett is a MICE Consultant, Marketing Strategist and digital video advocate. Founder of DBC Group, Member of Institute of Place Management (MIMP) his motto is “Everybody has a story to tell. Let me tell yours.”

David is a long-term resident of Bangkok having lived and worked in the Thai capital for more than 32 years. He is recognised in the Thai tourism and hospitality industry for his passion for promoting Thailand, his love of Thai food, and his creative approach to marketing.

64 years young, David is a Brit in Bangkok. Born in St Helier, UK, he returned to the UK and set up home in Cornwall during the COVID pandemic. With business back as usual, David has returned to Thailand. He’s a man on a mission to interview leaders and trend-setters in business, sustainability, the arts and entertainment. You can watch his weekly conversations on Trends YouTube channel.