Friday, 7 December 2007

A brief encounter

Author Nicola Pierce on meeting the subject of her new book:

The first thing that struck me about Bua was how young she looked — about ten years younger than her actual age. I met her at the office of Maverick House Publishers in Bangkok where she arrives every evening at 7pm to be interviewed by Pornchai, the Thai researcher and editor. She stays for an hour, after first clocking in, and then must go to Patpong to get ready for the evening’s work. However, if a client needs her at 7pm she attends to him, cancelling us at the last minute, as he is her priority.
She’s tiny, with big brown eyes, prominent cheekbones, shoulder-length brown hair and has the most beautiful smile. Always shy at first it takes her a while to get going but once she does she is ready to laugh softly and make self-deprecating remarks about herself and her life. Not that there’s much to laugh about. She’s the mother of three children, the common-law wife of an unemployed wife-beater and a go-go dancer — she also needs to sell her body, at the very least, once a week to supplement her monthly income. It’s alright for me to sit there and stare at her, wondering how she does it but she doesn’t have the luxury of wondering, she just has to get on with it.
There are people ready here to help her do something else but she’s not ready yet to make a plan. The husband hasn’t beaten her in two months because she pretended that she rang a women’s centre who will take her and the kids away to a secret place if he hits her again. Last night she turned up with a badly bruised upper lip and started to cry when Pornchai asked her about it. I assumed it was the husband but no, she was beaten up in Patpong by a mafia-woman she borrowed money from a few years reviously. The woman’s henchmen surrounded the scene to prevent two western men, or anyone else, from intervening.
Pornchai took me to the bar where she worked. It was 10pm on a hot Wednesday night and we had to weave our way in and out of the crowds of tourists and hawkers selling their wares. There are also the noisy hustlers waving their price lists to entice you into their bar, promising sex shows and cheap drink. These shows take place upstairs and are performed by the less than perfect looking girls – once the girls begins to sag or put on weight they are demoted to the sex shows which they can’t afford to refuse or else they are simply fired. Bua works downstairs and talks vaguely about getting out of the industry before she gets too old.
Entering the bar was like crashing a party that was waiting to get started. The atmosphere was full of anticipation and there weren’t many customers yet. Really bad, and too loud, dance music greets you before you’re over the threshold. Immediately you’re warmly greeted by a waitress who leads you to a table to take your order. When Pornchai tried to ask for a soft drink he was effortlessly persuaded to buy a more expensive beverage. She checked back with us every few minutes, with the pretence of wiping down the table, picking up our bottles to see how much we had left and whether it was time to ‘suggest’ we buy another one. It was the friendliest place I’ve been in since my arrival in Bangkok, everywhere you looked a staff member was beaming in our direction as if they had been waiting especially for us. Of course when it became apparent that we were going to sit over one drink and just look at the girls without wanting to buy one the smiles dimmed just a little.
The narrow stage is surrounded by the bar which takes up most of the room. There’s no doubt about it the girls are absolutely gorgeous. About 30 or so young, slim, bikini-clad girls moved monotonously from side to side, alternating between hugging their steel poles and just holding them. Even if they wanted to dance properly there isn’t enough room, so they give up trying and simply stand there waiting to attract a buyer. In fact, some girls were sitting by the wall, moodily staring at the stage, waiting until some space was freed up. I was surprised to see one tall girl wearing a pair of glasses but you have to be able to see if a man is looking at you in particular in order to approach him at the break to either seduce him into buying lots of drinks – or just plain seduce him. You are constantly in competition with the other beauties beside you.
I’m not going to waste time here talking about my opinion of the sex industry. I hated it — no surprise there — but this is Bua’s book. She was delighted to see us and came over to clink our beer bottles, welcoming me, with some pride, to where she worked and introducing me to her best friend. She was a little drunk as she needs to drink to be confident enough to get up on stage. The make-up made her look even younger again. I have to say that nobody looked like they hated what they were doing. The girls appear to be great friends and greeted each other fondly, grabbing a few minutes of excited chat when the mamasan’s (the manager) back was turned. We could have been in a staff canteen anywhere except that most of them looked too young to be working. Two or three descended on a couple of middle-aged Japanese guys and they looked to be having a great laugh with one another in between massaging and flirting with the men. About ten minutes later the guys left with one of the girls, she was dressed in her own clothes and no longer smiling and laughing. The light seemed to go out of their eyes once a man had made his choice. Two tables down from us a girl was having her bare back stroked by a guy who was probably 30 years older than her. Bua’s colleagues melted away to find someone else and she was left staring into space, looking neither right nor left. The fun part was over. Bua was now on the stage and could see I wasn’t comfortable, I caught her eye and she shrugged as if to say, ‘Welcome to my world.’

- Miss Bangkok by Bua Boonmee and Nicola Pierce will be published by Maverick House in Asia (December 2007) and in Ireland and the United Kingdom (January 2008).

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