Tom Vater

Tom Vater

Irreverent, informed and downright eclectic crime fiction and reportage from Southeast Asia and beyond

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Trembling Kathmandu – my on the ground view

My on the ground view of the earthquake in Kathmandu, Nepal in the Nikkei Asian Review.

Better late than never – my guide to Thai New Year in The Telegraph


I was away in the Himalayas for most of this month and missed Thai New Year – Songkran which took place from 13thto 16th April.

I did however, just prior to leaving, put together a guide to the festivities in The Daily Telegraph, so here. belatedly, is my run down and if you are researching Thai New Year for 2016, this might come in handy.

Read my Songkran guide here.

Crime Wave Press in The South China Morning Post


Ysabelle Cheung reports on my publishing imprint Crime Wave Press this week. My friend and partner in crime Hans Kemp provides the clues to the scene of the crime. Read the full article here..

It’s always too late for someone.” That’s the enigmatic tagline of Hong Kong-based Crime Wave Press, a two-and-a-half-year-old publishing company with a wicked hunger for crime fiction. Founded in 2012 by publisher and photographer Hans Kemp and writer Tom Vater, the press churns out all manner of grisly, quirky and full-throttle murder mysteries, from hard-boiled to noir and “cozies” – community-set stories in which violence and sex is downplayed.

Although the two nomads met while travelling in Pakistan, it was many years and a collaborated illustrated book – Sacred Skin, Thailand’s Spirit Tattoos – later that they began to consider launching their own press focusing on crime fiction. Both permanently based in Thailand, they found Hong Kong – a frequent pit stop in their freelance lives – the perfect nexus between business and culture, the West and the East. And so Crime Wave Press was born in the city.

“We were just sitting together one day, talking about [Tom's] first crime story set in London and Cambodia, The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu. It’s about a drug deal that went bad. He said he hadn’t found a publisher yet and I said: ‘Well, I don’t know fiction publishing very well, but I do know publishing’,” says Kemp.

Before starting Crime Wave Press, the Dutch-born photographer had self-published several illustrated and photography books. His 2003 book Bikes of Burden features motorbike drivers in Vietnam, some almost toppling over with strapped boxes and bags.

Nowadays it’s possible to publish without impressing a huge amount of overhead costs

The press started small, first with Vater’s crime story, then later with manuscripts chosen from unsolicited submissions. They now have 16 titles under their belt and take about one out of every 10 manuscripts that are submitted by writers across the globe. Although the duo initially were looking for crime stories set in Asia, they soon had to widen their pool because of the dearth of such stories.

“We thought stories set in Asia was more niche, but there just wasn’t enough material coming in,” says Kemp. “And it has to be written in English as we can’t translate yet. But half our titles are still set in Asia and we have authors across the world.”

Their books include Gaijin Cowgirl (written by Hong Kong-based Jame DiBiasio), featuring a time-travelling heroine on a dangerous treasure hunt, yakuza mobsters and painted genitals, and a pulp series whose protagonist is a Buddhist monk pulled back to his former duties of ghost detective.

Vater’s background as a journalist and editor comes in handy when polishing manuscripts, and Kemp’s visual eye for detail oversees the design component of the books and website, although both put equal effort into the small start-up – “a real labour of love”, says Kemp.

Crime Wave Press also operates with a unique strategy where a book is only printed if a customer buys it – a model called print-on-demand. Traditional, huge publishing houses usually order paperback copies in the thousands. However, Kemp says this way he and Vater can manage the production without going out of business, and more and more small publishing houses are starting to operate this way as well. “The publishing world is always changing. Nowadays it’s possible to publish without incurring a huge amount of overhead costs,” he says. “We’re not making much money – yet – but we really feel there’s potential here.”

With authors self-publishing their works also on the rise, Kemp is aware of the many routes writers can take in getting their work to the readers. “Self-publishing is totally possible, but you’re always the worst judge of your work, I feel,” he says. “You might need someone external to direct you and guide you.”

Kemp says that with Crime Wave Press, the relationship between the publisher and writer is a priority, something that might not be the case at a larger, traditional house where a writer is one of hundreds – plus, he and Vater favour meaty, intriguing stories over profit.

“We do publish stories that are slightly weirder that we know might not sell a lot of copies, but we do that because we like them and they’re well-written,” Kemp says.

The market for literature is undeniably tough – especially in Hong Kong, with the Dymocks bookstores closing recently and a start-and-stop culture when it comes to books. However, Kemp and Vater are persistent in their mission and regularly nose out Asia’s prominent literary festivals.

The submissions page on Crime Wave Press’ website states they’re looking for manuscripts (completed) between 20,000 and 90,000 words, and the deadline is rolling. They’re eager to publish the next best crime fiction writer. Could it be you?


A Nose for Trouble – a new Asia set thriller out with Crime Wave Press


Hans Kemp, my partner in crime at Crime Wave Press, Asia’s crime fiction imprint, has written his first novel, A Nose for Trouble, out this week.

After responding to a richly scented plea for help Chicago PI Scanner Grant teams up with the charismatic Max Zwoelstra to travel to Hong Kong in search of Max’s adoptive father who has disappeared while selling cheese to the Chinese.
Closer to home, a slew of abductions and the gruesome murder of a young Tibetan girl severely rattle Scanner’s old friend and guardian, the esoteric taxi driver Lobsang.
As both seemingly unrelated cases edge closer to an explosive finale, Scanner & Max need all the help they can muster while they confront a Nazi scientist, a battle scarred Vietnamese pimp, an over the hill Aussie punter and a morbid Japanese priest.
The long hidden secrets they unravel along the way are bound to change their lives forever.

Hans, who writes as Jonathan Kemp is working on a second Scanner and Max Mystery.

Here’s an interview by Paul D. Brazill with Hans on his debut.

British Library holds a significant collection of Lao material – including unpublished recordings of remote populations by Tom Vater

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Hmong Lao Khaen player in Vientiane 2001

The British Library holds a small but significant collection of Lao material, consisting of manuscripts, rare printed books, periodicals and post cards, mainly acquired after 1973. However, the oldest items in Lao language date back to the 19th century. The earliest book about Laos is in Italian and was published in 1663. …. Among these are numerous unpublished recordings of remote populations of Laos, Cambodia and Thailand by Tom Vater.”

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Hmong Musician in Ponsavan, Hmong New Year, 2001

Very happy to have some of the recordings of indigenous people I made in the 90s as part of the Lao collection at The British Library..

In fact, my writing career started right here, at the British Library’s National Sound Archive. I went to see them in 1993 after my first return from India. I was interested in the music of indigenous communities in the region and approached the National Sound Archive’s International Music Collection with an offer of recording and documenting the obscure sounds of Asia. A great collaboration emerged in the following years. With equipment and a small grant from the Archive I roamed around Asia and recorded musicians in India, Pakistan, Nepal, Thailand, The Philippines. Three CDs of my work were released and I lectured on disappearing music. I did my last recordings on the eve of the tsunami a decade ago in Sumatra. All my recordings remain with the archive and I hope there is some way to save all this invaluable collective memory.

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Young Hmong woman in traditional clothes singing, Ponsavan, Hmong New Year, 2001

Not easy rock ‘n’ roll — the saving of Srey Thy – in the Nikkei Asian Review


TONIGHT on BBC Storyville – ROCKING CAMBODIA–RISE OF A POP DIVA, the incredible story of THE CAMBODIAN SPACE PROJECT & its singer Srey Thy.

Here’s my article on the film’s main protagonist Srey Thy and its director Marc Eberle in The Nikkei Asian Review today -  Not easy rock ‘n’ roll — the saving of Srey Thy.

The film, a BBC/ABC Australia co-production is an excellent look, both emotionally touching and visually exuberant, at Cambodia’s recent past and present seen through the rise and fall of Cambodian RocknRoll in the 1960s and its re-emergence in recent years, primarily driven by Cambodia based rock collective The Cambodian Space Project and its incredible singer Srey Thy.

Image created by Marc Eberle, Tim D. Huys and Julia Goschke.

Crime Wave Press launches brand new website –


My crime fiction imprint Crime Wave Press has launched a new WEBSITE – with information on our killer titles and illustrious authors.

And we are about to publish our 18th title, Jonathan Kemp‘s A Nose for Trouble, A Scanner & Max Mystery.  Here’s the lowdown:

After responding to a richly scented plea for help Chicago PI Scanner Grant teams up with the charismatic Max Zwoelstra to travel to Hong Kong in search of Max’s adoptive father who has disappeared while selling cheese to the Chinese.
Closer to home, a slew of abductions and the gruesome murder of a young Tibetan girl severely rattle Scanner’s old friend and guardian, the esoteric taxi driver Lobsang.
As both seemingly unrelated cases edge closer to an explosive finale, Scanner & Max need all the help they can muster while they confront a Nazi scientist, a battle scarred Vietnamese pimp, an over the hill Aussie punter and a morbid Japanese priest.
The long hidden secrets they unravel along the way are bound to change their lives forever.

Out on March 17th!!!

Chinese New Year in The Daily Telegraph…and on the streets of Bangkok.

My photo caption in The Daily Telegraph hardly does justice to the surreal, red tinged mayhem I witnessed in Bangkok’s Chinatown today. Dancing dragons, lots of police, thousands of people dressed in red,  as a weirdly strong wind blew up Yaowarat Road, as if a spaceship in the shape of a waving golden cat was going to land amongst the crowd any time soon. No spaceship alas, but good pad thai, two kids fighting each other with dragons off their parents shoulders, and men in strange medieval costumes.  For some, it was just too much.


Bankok’s Third Fiction Night of Noir


Bangkok based writer James Newman organized the third Bangkok Night of Noir at CheckInn99, a club cum bar on Sukhumvit Road, last month.

The venue, once the haunt of the likes of Bob Hope and David Bowie (probably not on the same nights) was packed with as many punters as  local ex-pat writers and aspirants and the authors’ readings, mercifully short and succinct in each case, were received enthusiastically.

This year, pulp author and publisher James Newman created a mixed line-up of poets, painters and writers including Jame DiBiasio from Hong Kong, old Asia hand Dean Barrett, the poet John Gartland, Newman’s partner at Spanking Pulp Press John Daysh from New Zealand, Kevin Wood, Harlan Wolff, the painter Chris Coles who exhibited many of his brilliantly garish impressions of Bangkok’s nightlife. and myself. A photographic slideshow of Bangkok’s neon zones by Stickman ran on various screens for parts of the evening and was harsh and gratuitous enough to out-gross any of the fiction being read, and that, I suppose is saying something on a night of Noir.

Prior to his attendance, Jame DiBiasio, author of Asian based thriller Gaijin Cowgirl, published by Crime Wave Press, wrote a rather dry blog post on his site Asiahacks . Jame flew in from Hong Kong for the event. We last met at the Irrawaddy Literary Festival in Mandalay last year and it was great to reconnect with one of my writers face to face again.


In any case, James Newman introduced the artists and read a sickeningly beautiful short story he had written a decade or so earlier. Bangkok fiction Night of Noir gets no financial or sponsorship support at all. It’s a truly independent event and ever so slightly underground, despite its impressive list of part attendees – including Christopher G Moore, John Burdett and Carla Black.


Jame DiBiasio read from Gaijin Cowgirl and followed up on the event with a second blog post at Asiahacks entitled  Il n’y a pas Charlie Hebdo ici. in which he raises interesting points on the culture and politics of crime writing in Southeast Asia.

Says DiBiasio, “The biggest barrier to putting Asian Noir on the global map, however, is the fact that we, generically speaking, are not free to use fiction to discuss the true nature of power in this region.



This was the third time James invited me to the Bangkok Fiction Night of Noir and I hugely enjoy participating as a crime fiction publisher as well as an author not least because the events serve as a barometer reading of the relative health of Bangkok’s crime fiction literary scene, which is tiny and diffuse.

I read a chapter from my first novel The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu The scene takes place in a decadent night club in pre-revolutionary Iran. As I was reading just a few days after the Charlie Hebdo killings, I wanted to read something relating to the mood of the day, the Zeitgeist. A chapter on Iranian nightlife – suffused with booze, sex and drugs and a certain foggy magic – seemed the most appropriate text I could think of. In the cavernous, semi-lit, nostalgic neon night and beer infused ambiance of the Checkinn 99, my opening words, ‘Sallam Malaikum’ seemed to resonate with the same magic. At least to me.

Hope James Newman will continue with another event next year.

Just for a laugh, here’s the Bangkok Post review of The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu, penned by possibly legendary journalist Bernhard Trink from 2006.

Global trekking across Asia is becoming increasingly difficult. War, terrorism, ever tighter Immigration rules are blocking the traditional land routes. And travel by plane doesn’t qualify as backpacking. Authors of wayfaring novels must set them years ago to make them plausible.
Which is what British freelance journalist Tom Vater does in his first book of fiction The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu. In fact he sets the story in two different years, 1976 and 2000, alternating between them. The years are safe, the first prior to the overthrow of the Shah in Iran, the second prior to the US invasion of Afghanistan. They, along with Pakistan and Nepal are the key countries in the plot.
The author makes a serious effort to capture the mindset of the backpacker. The characters are always stoned, hump like minks, seek to connect with the vital force of the universe. If there’s a way to make money without working for it, even when dangerous, they go for it.
In 1976, Dan, Tim and Fred pool their savings and buy a second-hand Bedford bus and head for the East. What they have in common is the determination to reach the Khyber Pass, buy drugs and re-sell them at a substantial profit. Experiences along the way are detailed. At one point they pick up Thierry, the Frenchman dealing himself in.
There are girls, of course, every bit as horny. Making the strongest impressions are Lida and Madi, Armenian sisters, entertainers, Siamese twins. Immigration officers are invariably corrupt, demanding bakshish to stamp their passports.
The deal almost proves fatal to no fault of their own. The Pathans involved are having a blood feud, shots are exchanged and some passengers die. Though they get the money, it’s safer to deposit it in a Kathmandu bank than to attempt to bring it home with them. Thierry decides to stay in Asia, marrying Madi after a Stateside operation separates the twins. Fred disappears.
A quarter-century later Fred, presumed dead, e-mails his partners to come back, in order to withdraw the deposit together. Dan brings his son, Robbie. Alas the money has already been taken by a man called Marlowe and Fred is ensconced in the highest temple in the Himalayas. He never sent the e-mails, but Thierry did using his name.
The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu is a better backpacker’s book than Alex Garland’s The Beach.
Khao San Road’s habitues will go for it.

The book is out as ebook and print with Crime Wave Press. A Spanish language edition is out with EditorialXplora.

Tom Vater on Travel Talk Asia

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I am interviewed this week on Travel Talk Asia about travel writing and my journalistic career in Asia for the past two decades. Hope there are some interesting insights on the craft and a life well lived.  Thanks to Trevor Ranges for suggesting I come on the show.

Listen to the full interview here.

Photograph by Luke Duggleby.