Wednesday, April 16, 2008

KhiKwai Blog on the Noir Side of the Bangkok Night.....

Hollywood Agogo Nana Plaza - Chris Coles

Below is a fabulous post by KhiKwai.com, one of Bangkok's most edgy and scathingly witty bloggers, on the Noir Side of the Bangkok Night...........................................

Don’t Call Me Daughter

Soi 4, just off Sukhumvit Road, is not quite as smooth as silk. A uniquely Thai blend of fermenting piss, rotting compost, exhaust fumes, and burnt-out cooking oils is rendered only more asphyxiating by the cheap incense smoldering by the ubiquitous makeshift shrine. Steam rises from the roadside foodstalls that cramp the narrow, potholed sidewalk; it is with great difficulty that it finally dissipates into the thick, damp air. A bewildering lineup of dead animals on a stick lie on display on pushcarts, alongside tropical fruit whose freshness has long evaporated on the foggy plexiglass shielding it from the flies and the dust. Whole roasted chickens sit on bare tables next to fake eyelashes and make-up, flanked by rows of size zero tank-tops and lingerie. Typically most transfixing to newcomer and repeat offender alike is the repugnant assortment of deep-fried crickets, roaches, locusts, and other bugs sold here by the bagful. They are a favorite with the go-go dancers, who can at times be spotted crunching lazily on the six-legged critters — occasionally plucking the leg of a grasshopper that has impudently lodged between their front teeth.

A ragtag army of hustlers and beggars is out in full force. The middle-aged females sprawled out on the wet pavement pull at every pant leg within their limited reach, imploring passers-by to look at the filthy, emaciated small children sleeping in their arms. Men with mutilated limbs shove their stumps into startled white faces for maximum theatrical effect. A blind, deranged man in tattered clothes wanders through the crowd, holding a cup half-filled with coins that jangle loudly as he violently bumps shoulders with pedestrians briskly walking past him. Touts selling Viagra, teddy bears, and cheap knock-offs of brand name wrist watches and sunglasses hassle every foreigner they come across, often placing the items in their prospective customer’s hands as if to make the ill-advised purchase a fait accompli. Fat American women have their pictures taken while riding a small elephant. Midgets in Catholic schoolgirl uniforms greet visitors making their way in. And a six-foot tall ladyboy poses before cell-phone cameras with a Middle-Eastern tourist shrouded in a black burqa. On the other side of the street, a crippled and scarred stray dog looks on, as if unsure of his next move, perplexed by the feeding frenzy unfolding before his every eyes. Rummaging through garbage is a tough business in this part of town.

“Haah-rrooow, weeeear-come, where you go sexy man?” The endlessly repeated mantra echoes all around, mixing in a thunderous cacophony with the undistinguished thumping sounds of techno, disco, and hip-hop, the languid falsetto flamed out by a local pop-singer, and the dire opening notes of Gimme Shelter blasted from the crackling loudspeakers of the Morning and Night Bar.

They are everywhere. Free-lancers stand shoulder-to-shoulder on sidewalks and alleyways. Others prepare for another long night of somewhat less than backbreaking work. They pack what little seating is available by the foodstalls and clutter the brightly lit convenience stores in a last-minute search for chewing gums, cigarettes, condoms, vaginal lubricant, lottery tickets, and travel-sized toiletries — the requisite tools of the trade. Others still lovingly pay homage to the Buddha, genuflecting with evident devotion before a shrine questionably adorned with garlands, plastic action heros, butter cookies, and freshly opened bottles of grape-flavored Fanta surrounded by swarms of flies. It is only upon completing the elaborate preparatory ritual that they finally report for duty, making their way into the go-go bars or joining their colleagues atop worn-out stools lining the wooden barroom verandas.

Nana Entertainment Plaza — the word “entertainment” serves as a euphemism for ejaculation in much of the country — is a disheveled three-story bazaar of cascading go-go bars, glaring red neons, and mildewy guestrooms rented out by the romp. Acts of unspeakable depravity are committed or tentatively agreed upon here. Men have seeped through the bowels of every respectable first world society, dripping all the way down here to feast on a veritable largesse of oriental game. Bronze-skinned, post-pubescent metrosexuals join limp septuagenarians carrying lifetime supplies of indispensable hard-on pills. Veteran sex fiends wear as decorations from previous, valiant campaigns t-shirts acquired in places as far flung as Cambodia, the Philippines, Brazil, Costa Rica, and the Dominican Republic. Most, however, populate the thick sludge of balding middle-aged men, tourist and expatriate alike, flaunting their trademark deformity — guts swollen from a lifetime of the old lady’s home-cooking and an eternity spent lounging in the slothful comfort of a livingroom couch.

Much like their patrons, the working girls come in all shapes and sizes. Most have the brown or burnt orange complexion of the Lao and Khmer people of Isan, the vast wasteland of depressed northeastern provinces surviving on meager rice crops, occasional handouts distributed by local officeholders, and a steady flow of remittences drenched in the bodily fluids of all manners of Western creeps. They are not all young, nor are they all pretty. Nor, for that matter, are they all women. With a few, blinding exceptions easily explained by the bulge in the man’s back pocket, the girls are rather well-matched with their employers du jour. Those whose looks afford them the luxury pride themselves in picking their dates carefully and discerningly, with a keen focus on physical appearance, dress, charm, and any information about net worth they might glean from a man’s consumption, mannerism, and eagerness to part company with money for no reason whatsoever.

The pocket-sized Lonely Planet guidebook that accompanies scores of tourists on their first, wide-eyed trip down here proclaims, with unmistakeable condescension and tone-deaf self-flattery, that “Beautiful [Thai] women will throw themselves at you, all for a modest sum (money or status).” Of course, that women would throw themselves at men for money or status fails to distinguish Thailand from any country on this earth. The operative word here is “modest” — what counts as money and status here buys you a stack of foodstamps and a welfare check back home. But for many Westerners, Bangkok’s legendary magnetism does not lie in its heavily discounted market rates. It’s rather that the services rendered in this town involve a measure of passion and lust that prostitutes elsewhere typically don’t offer.

For the local bargirl, after all, a long term relationship with a farang is prospectively the most secure of early retirement funds. Most are painfully aware that the clock is ticking inexorably against their capacity to earn incomes equivalent to those paid to mid-level corporate management in Thailand’s private sector — and several times the salary of most government workers. To make matters worse, their lifestyle mercilessly accelerates the aging process, making them look thoroughly washed up by age thirty. And when the music stops, in a few short years, a life less glamorous still awaits those left without a foreign husband. Not many among them particularly look forward to working the night shift in a factory, giving $5 handjobs in a seedy massage parlor, or sweating it out in the rice paddies upcountry.

So rather than engage in a single-night shakedown of the worthless pigs, the girls often take a more calculating, long-term approach to dealing with Westerners. They might not have the faintest scintilla of an idea of what they are getting into — most foreigners here posing a varying measure of danger to themselves and others — but many salivate at the chance of taking the devil they don’t know. Indeed, the instant cuddling may be somewhat unauthentic, the words they speak suspiciously sappy, and the loud orgasms just a wee bit contrived, but the attempt to get them to care is sincere enough. Call it “the fierce urgency of now.” And that makes for a damn good time, I guess, should you happen to be so fortunate as to be singled out as a potential one-way ticket out of the cesspool or, at the very minimum, a temporary shelter from its sickening stench.

The anthropologist Eric Cohen has it about right when he notes that there is “often no crisp separation in Thai society between emotional and mercenary sexual relationships.” If anything, it’s possibly even more complicated than that. If, specifically, it is the girls themselves who push individual relationships held together by regular side payments to quickly develop some emotional content — animated bouts of jealousy, prophanity-laced tirades, crying fits, and sometimes physical abuse after just a handful of encounters are far from uncommon — at the same time the girls go to some lengths to compartmentalize the demands of their careers from other aspects of their lives. And while they are quite aware of the stigma with which their profession brands them, they eagerly dispute any characterization of them as loose or promiscuous.

Quite aside from what the girls actively do, more or less consciously, it is the stories they tell that are frequently poignant enough to drive a dagger into the soft spots of even the most jaded, cynical, or sociopathic among us. A common thread runs through just about all such dismal narratives. In the background is a large and/or broken family where parents are always poor, sometimes abusive, and occasionally in the throws of an addiction to alcohol, gambling, or methamphetamine. As soon as she is old enough to make it on her own, if still much too early to do anything useful with her life, the girl drops out of school and moves to the big city.

The poor bitch, no education, marketable skills, or social graces to boot, comes to Bangkok to face quite the conundrum. One option is to work 12 hours a day in a convenience store, scrub the latrines at a hotel or a private home, or serve tables at a restaurant. That only gets her about 6,000 Baht (less than $200) per month. And after paying rent for a 150-square-foot shared hole-in-the-wall, not much is left for herself or her family. The other option is to sleep until mid-afternoon, lounge around for a while, take a leisurely promenade shopping for faux name brand clothes and accessories, and finally make it to the bar at the late hour of her choice. At work, she has a drink or two, suits up in boots and bikini, takes 20-minute turns “dancing” — more like wobbling listlessly around the pole with a conviction and energy evocative of Shakira on Xanax — and finds some foreigner to screw at the fixed rates that exist for short-time and long-time romps. Between the regular salary the bar corresponds, the commissions on “barfines” and “lady drinks,” and a hundred percent of the fees paid by the customer directly to the girl, a fraction of the effort (not to mention the humiliation) generates an income at least five times as large as that guaranteed by SevenEleven. If the girl is pretty, charming, and has a strong enough stomach to fuck multiple strangers a day, her monthly income may exceed 2,000 American dollars — more than a good chunk of her own customers make. More empowering still, the status of a young girl otherwise as authoritative as the water buffalo parked underneath the stilted family home in the provinces soars as she becomes the family’s chief breadwinner.

Beyond this skeletal plot, variations on both theme and cast of characters are legion. Many of the girls have one or more children living with their grandparents in Isan. Their eyes well up when they are pushed to admit that the kids no longer recognize their mothers — much less pay attention to anything they have to say — when they go back for a rare visit once or twice a year. Mom or dad might have initiated the girl to the time-honored trade by selling her virginity to an acquaintance of their choice. Ever present is also a younger sibling whose studies are being subsidized by the big sister turning tricks in the big town. But it’s the dangerous Thai ex-boyfriend who’s invariably the most interesting character. He might enter the storyline as a thug, a drug dealer, or a deadbeat dad. Or he might simply be the girl’s first love, the man who broke her heart when he walked out with someone else, got thrown in jail, or better yet perished in a barroom brawl, a drug overdose, or an all-out shootout with police. One girl I met had the bullet wounds to corroborate the harrowing story. Entry and exit.

To be sure, the debauchery on permanent display at Nana Plaza is somewhat extreme, even by Thai standards, but similar scenes can be witnessed all over town. So for anyone who has ever spent any time in Bangkok, to read the ongoing debates on morality and sex in the editorial pages of Thai newspapers is essentially to venture into a parallel universe — a petty bourgeois black hole whose existence is quite distinct from the everyday reality of Bangkok’s busy streets. Even as the country was being transformed by its rulers into a degenerate open-air bordello — a veritable beggars’ banquet — the Thai press has spent much of the past century nostalgically lamenting the decline of Thai culture reflected in the much too revealing outfits now worn by city girls, the much too suggestive dances they can be observed performing in local discos, and the much too evident loss of propriety exhibited by teenagers who openly date their classmates in the absence of a formally proffered, carefully pondered, and solemnly approved marriage proposal. In those pages, one can find stern condemnations of “Coyote dancing” performed by bartenders in nightclubs as a practice that threatens to irreparably corrupt the city’s youth. Or one can find discussions raging on about the merits of the government-imposed ban on pornographic websites. All websites found to include obscene content, in fact, are blocked by the ever-blundering Ministry of Information and Communication Technology — a fancy name for “Ministry of Propaganda” whose most insidious, Goebbelsian aspirations are undermined by the comical incompetence exhibited by just about every government agency in Thailand. Laughably swept under the rug is the strident dissonance between the government’s ongoing moral crusade and the fact that even the most depraved acts featured on the world wide web are offered by scores of local women, at every hour of the day and night, to anyone in Bangkok with the means to afford an internet connection.

The government’s hypocrisy on matters of sex and prostitution has risen to new, dizzying heights in the past few weeks. Upon learning that cash-strapped, if notoriously consumption-crazed college students in Bangkok have increasingly taken to advertising sexual services on social networking sites, the government feigned alarm, indignation, and grave concern for the threats posed by the practice to the morality of the city’s youth and the integrity of the country’s social fabric. As if to highlight the severity of this gathering danger to Thai society, it was the puppet Prime Minister himself who took the time to personally reassure the country’s bourgeoisie that the government would swiftly intervene — cracking down through the usual admixture of underhanded censorship and wasteful re-education campaigns aimed at teaching students the “right values.” It’s anyone’s guess, really, where teenagers in Bangkok would have learned the “wrong” values. Most probably, it was the growing exposure to Western culture and media that tragically led them astray.

In a country where tens of thousands of young women — possibly as many as several hundreds of thousands — suck, fuck, and swallow for a living, one might ask what the hell is the point of imposing a ban of internet pornography, of lamenting the dangers of pre-marital sex, or of expressing alarm over a handful of students who screw their classmates to finance their weekend shopping. And if modesty, chastity, and innocence are so important to the idea of Thainess, it may baffle some that purists and cultural warriors would spend so much time fending off comparatively small threats to that ideal. What many foreigners do not understand, however, is that the filthy whores who have spent decades fueling the nation’s growth, keeping entire villages afloat, and filling to the brim the coffers of the state don’t count. Nor do the large numbers of provincial women in Bangkok — whatever their day job happens to be — who are well known to be available for liaisons involving some (if perhaps less direct) form of cash payment.

For the smug petty bourgeois, whose broken English is just good enough to read brain-dead editorials in the Bangkok Post or The Nation, provincial girls who live in Bangkok are not really citizens of Thailand. Or, at least, they are not citizens in the same way they are. These women, after all, belong to a social class whose sole prerogative is to grovel, in the heinous cosmology of the poo yai. It’s not merely to be poor — if not so poor as to inconvenience the highest authorities of the state into making token gestures of support — but rather to be content with the prospect of always being poor.

As such, debates in the Thai media focus almost exclusively on the sexual mores of middle/upper class city girls — and, occasionally, the peasant women who are still expected to serve as a symbol of cultural purity for the comfort of the Bangkok elites. The ubiquitousness of the sex industry in Bangkok is not inconsistent with the elites’ image of Thailand as a sexually demure, conservative country. Nor, for that matter, does it undermine their self-appointed role as the upholders of that myth. The army of streetwalkers, go-go dancers, and tentacled masseuses working in Bangkok, then, are not commonly regarded as the long forlorn daughters whom the double-breasted, uniformed, and garishly bejeweled fathers of the nation have sold into prostitution. Far from being gratefully acknowledged for the heroic contribution they have made to the country’s prosperity, they are rather more conveniently ignored — at least when they are not being patronized or scapegoated as the loafing, conniving reprobates single-handedly responsible for giving the country a bad name.

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