Sunday, January 17, 2010

Behind the Smiles

One of the things that draws Western men (and a few women) to Thailand is the availability of relatively inexpensive sex. From Phuket and Pattaya in the south, to Chiang Mai in the north -- and, of course, with Bangkok in between -- there are literally thousands of bars, brothels, "private clubs," "no-hands" restaurants, massage parlors, and other variations on the meat
market where the children of the poor, both male and female, go to sell their beauty.

One of the primary continuing characters in my Bangkok books is Rose, now the wife of my western travel-writer protagonist, but previously one of the most beautiful women in the most garish and raucous of Bangkok's bar areas, Patpong. This stumpy little road -- the longest short street I've ever walked -- is quiet and mostly abandoned by day, but at night Patpong is all bars. There are perhaps thirty of them and some of them employ 50 or more women, so we're talking about a lot of women. And tucked into the darker streets behind Patpong there are ten or twelve go-go boy bars.

The basic format doesn't vary much from bar to bar. Bad music played too loudly, raised stages, dancing women in abbreviated outfits, drinking men, the time-tested architecture of soft pink light on soft brown skin. Smiles, the ravishing smiles for which Thailand is famous, being bestowed lavishly on the customers, an unimpressive gathering of males (mostly) who are mostly middle-aged, mostly overweight, mostly drunk or on the way to being drunk.

And always the smiles. Many of the customers fall for the smiles, take their invitation personally. The smiles make these customers feel for the moment that they're attractive, that there's something different about them, something that sets them apart from all the other losers in the room, although of course, there isn't. But they believe there has to be something real, something genuine, behind smiles like those.

And there are: poverty and powerlessness. To the left is Isaan, in the northeast, where my fictional Rose, and virtually all the bar girls and boys, come from. It's the poorest part of the country, the only place in Thailand where rain is so scarce that only one rice crop can be grown each year. The families who live here work and scrape all year, on land they can barely be said to own, to raise that single, sparse crop, in order to sell it to a rice cartel that manipulates prices mercilessly.

Some families in Isaan survive on less than US $400 per year.

These Isaan girls are playing checkers. They're using bottle-caps for checkers and they've drawn the board onto the bench. They own nothing. They're wearing probably one-third of their total wardrobes; each of them is likely to own three T-shirts, two or three pairs of shorts, and a pair of flip-flop sandals. They'll go to school until, perhaps, sixth grade, with time out when the crop must be planted or harvested, and then -- what?

They're an expense to their families. Unlike sons, whose duty it is to take care of their aging parents, daughters are honor-bound to take care of their husband's parents. What can these girls do, when they turn 18?

Well, they can support their families. This little girl, standing in front of her house in Isaan, may, when she's eighteen, go down to Bangkok to work in a bar, where she can make more money in a week than her father earns in a year. If she does take that heartbreaking route, she'll send most of that money home to keep her younger brothers and sisters in school beyond sixth grade, to give them a better chance in life, and to help her parents establish a more secure old age in a system where there's neither health insurance nor social security. Once in a while, she'll go home to her village in her Bangkok finery, looking like a movie star, and other little girls will look at her and consider taking the same leap.

When one does, she'll be entering one of the more benign forms of the world's oldest profession. The bar girls have no pimps, keep all the money they earn, are free to change bars or quit whenever they want, and -- perhaps most important -- they can turn down any customer. If he's too belligerent, too drunk, too anything, or if she just plain doesn't like or trust him, the bar girl can say no. Some women eke out a living on the commissions they're paid every time a customer buys them a Coke.

But to send money home, the girl (or boy) has to say "yes" sometimes. She or he has to smile. So what's behind a bar girl's practiced smile is an innocent girl like the one above who's turned her back on poverty for herself and her family, and who has become someone she barely recognizes as the unworldly village girl she used to be. Behind her smile is the unrelenting, unsparing, soul-scraping grind of poverty.

Tim - Sunday


  1. Thank you for sharing the truth about those smiles! Human beings should never be a commodity.

  2. Your story, coming in the same week as the horror that is Haiti, raises the same question. Is it possible to alleviate the poverty when it is those who run the country who profit from the misery and dehumanization of its people?

    Thailand's reputation as a paradise for men who eagerly contribute to the country's "gross" domestic product by renting the flesh of women and children, allows Thailand to list "services" as just behind agriculture in contributing to the economy,although one article suggests that tourists actually come for the beaches. How soul destroying must it be for parents to live off the prostitution of their children? What must it do to a father to have a child work in the sex trade so that his other children can eat? Most western babies are born into the world with no greater burden than their parent's dreams for their futures. The tears of joy in a delivery room in the west seem self-indulgent when compared to the tears at the birth of a daughter in Thailand.

    Are the children pictured in your "Jinger Ben" story protected from this? The smiles of the shepherds are breath-taking and heartbreaking in the context of this story.

    The girls and boys with their beautiful smiles are slaves to poverty if not to a pimp. If the men with money but without souls stop coming to Thailand, how then will the families in Isaan survive? Will the people who make fortunes on the exportation of rice be willing to give some of it to the poor who grow it?

    Here is another rhetorical question I have been pondering, especially because I live in Massachusetts and the Senate seat of Ted Kennedy is up for grabs. What is the disconnect in the American psyche that leads the American people to give generously and, in huge numbers, to the Haitian relief fund but will not lead them to vote for health insurance for their next door neighbor?

    No child is safe when greed is greater than compassion.

    Thank you for reminding me how fortunate I am.


  3. Hi, Dorte -- Unfortunately, people are a commodity everywhere -- it's just more conspicuous in the poorer areas of the world. Also, since the Thais lack the Judeo-Christian reticence about sex, they don't hide it behind veils of euphemism. They put it into neon.

    Beth, the collapse of the sex trade would be a tsunami of economic misfortune for Isaan, although who knows? In the long run, it might be the best thing. Thais are deeply non-confrontational; maybe the loss of this stream of income would push the poorest voters to try to take a stand for reform.

    Also, I have to say that the Thai authorities have done a remarkable job of stamping out (or at least driving deeply underground) the commercial trade in child sex. When I first went, 30 years ago, it was carried on more or less in the open. Now it's as hard to find in Bangkok as it is in New York or Los Angeles. And probably more than half the time, when the person who's looking for it finds it, it's actually a sting operation. (That's part of one of the plots of my third book, BREATHING WATER.)

    The Thais actually do deserve credit for the action they took on the child prostitution front, as well as for the skill and commitment with which they averted the widely predicted AIDS crisis, which simply failed to materialized due largely to the heroic actions of one man, whom I might write about next week.

  4. Tim - I hope you do continue the story.


  5. The peasant girls of Thailand who make their living in the bars situated along Patpong Road are infinitely better off than the peasants of neighboring countries who earn their living in corporate sweatshops. Slavery is rampant wherever corporations are largely unregulated, and nowhere is this more evident than in the places where poverty wages are the norm.

    That said, I must confess that I find Thai women to be among the most beautiful in the world (probably because they've perfected the art of the smile). Hey, Tim, please send me a dozen "Roses" along with an ARC of your next book.

  6. Awful, awful and to think that there are still idiots out there who believe these girls choose this profession and that they had other opportunities. It breaks my heart to look at the children in the accompanying photos, they are no different to their counterparts that I see every day - aside from the circumstances they have nothing to do with. I repeat my previous statement that life is a lottery in which the winners don't realise their luck.

  7. The sad truth of the Thai 'Service Industry' is that the greedy parents THEMSELVES actively HOPE that their daughter can make it in the Bar Industry..for no other reason than to get the FACE that comes with a new Toyoata Hi-Lux, perhaps a house or a new motorbike to ride around in the village. The GREED and self serving FACE gained by material consumer goods far outweighs any western moral notions right and wrong.