By Jeninne Lee-St. John
Photographed by Charles Dharapak
Jan 7, 2020
A JAGUAR LOUNGES ON A BRANCH meets you at the door. His expression is indifferent, but his presence startling nonetheless. Some people have house cats. Eugene Yeh has big cats: that black jaguar in the vestibule, a black leopard’s head on a wall, a clouded leopard nuzzled in a bedroom chair, a tiger spread eagle on the living room floor. There’s also, among the old microscopes, porcelain statues and deep copper tub that is the most comfortable you’ll ever soak in, a zebra skin and a moose head.
Wait, before you go calling PETA—these are antiques, caught, tanned and taxidermied generations ago and then salvaged by Yeh and his father from collectors around the world. And, these are the denizens of what for years has been Yeh’s private apartment, a 135-square-meter set of rooms not originally meant for public consumption. Now, though, the Taiwanese interior designer has opened up his Cabinet of Curiosities as the top suite in what is already one of Bangkok’s superlative all-round stays, The Cabochon Hotel.
Considering the outsize place it holds in the hearts of Bangkok dwellers—thanks in part to its intimate Isaan restaurant Thai Lao Yeh—it’s hard to believe the hotel only has eight guest rooms. The white, four-story boutique debuted in 2012 but with its louver windows opening onto tiled and colonnaded balconies, you’d think it was a century older. Yeh contrived it as a French-colonial relic of 1920s Shanghai, and it’s littered with ye olde authenticities, such as stickered Vuitton trunks and model biplanes. Even the greenery-bedecked rooftop pool looks vintage. Hidden in plain sight in the busy central Sukhumvit corridor, the hotel is all throwback romance: dark corners holding old maps, discreet staff in Tang suits. The newest guest room, the ninth, is a broader, multi-continent circumambulation that is all quirk and character, and, no, not for the squeamish.
Often the most recognizable designers exist on a blurred plane between their personal and professional styles. Staying in the owner’s suite at The Cabochon reminds me of visiting Bill Bensley, the über-prolific more-is-more hotel designer also inspired by specific places and moments in time. His house is like the ur-Bensley hotel: you instantly know where you are. And likewise walking into the bric-a-brac-stocked Cabinet of Curiosities grounds you immediately in Yeh’s taste center. It makes the rest of his—lovely, welcoming, home-like— hotel feel restrained by comparison. I spoke with Yeh about why he’s now sharing more than a few of his favorite things with the world.
T+L: Why did you build this apartment?
Yeh: I relocated to Bangkok in 1997. For years, I’d been traveling back to Taipei for a few days per month for work with my design firm, QEY, but with my timetable set according to my Bangkok life. The Cabinet of Curiosities is full of my passions and my archives of traveling around Asia, Europe and South America.
T+L: What is your Bangkok routine?
Yeh: I go jogging for an hour in the morning in a public park near Cabochon then have my breakfast and read the newspaper in the hotel. I go to the rooftop pool around 9 a.m. and sunbathe until 3 p.m. While it looks like I’m doing nothing by the pool, I am actually working on my design cases. I swim for an hour every day then go to the market to see what I can do for my dinner. I usually cook and eat alone, but if I have friends visiting I always entertain them at my Thai Lao Yeh bistro.
I generally spend most my time in the hotel enjoying my home. If I go out, it’s to Chatuchak weekend market or antique shops, of course.
T+L: Does it feel strange to open your private residence to the public?
Yeh: I struggled with this idea for a while, but I’ve recently needed to be in Taipei most of the time to take care of my parents and spend time with them, since they are both in their 90s. Since I used the apartment only 10-plus days in 2019, I decided I’d really prefer to share my Cabinet of Curiosities with people who are interested in staying in an owner’s unit. I didn’t design it for a business purpose—I know some people won’t like this décor—but I knew it would be a very unique stay experience.
T+L: How did you collect all the antiques and hides? Tell the truth—are you a hoarder?
Yeh: The big tiger and clouded leopard were gifts from the mystery elderly man who was the image I based the Cabochon’s hotel style on. But when I was just a kid, maybe eight years old, I was already going to antique shops all the time. Many of the objects in my unit I brought to Bangkok from my Taipei home—I didn’t actually buy them; my father did. Over the past 20 years, we’ve bought more, not because of Cabochon alone, but because it is our addiction. I still buy when I spot anything good!
T+L: What appeals to you about these things?
Yeh: Mixing modern living with antique decorations has been my lifestyle for a long time. My father never treated these things as an investment and I am the same. We love antiques not for their value, but their beauty. I can’t image living in a place without vintage items.
T+L: I was warned before staying over about waking up in the middle of the night and being frightened at all the taxidermy staring at me. Does that ever happen to you?
Yeh: That’s funny. No, I sleep really well there—always straight through the night. I’m used to living with old and weird stuff.
cabochonhotel.com; doubles from Bt5,800; Cabinet of Curiosities Bt18,999 including a bottle of champagne and breakfast en suite.