Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Light relief from the lady known as Angel

Dressed as an angel, a petite blonde Australian woman flitted about the auditorium, hugging participants and lecturing about the healing power of love and laughter. Australia's Susan Aldous prescribes laughter as the best medicine. Called the Angel of Bang Kwang, she is a ray of sunshine for underprivileged Thais - from inmates at a maximum security prison to women and children in shelters, writes Tibor Krausz in the Sydney Morning Herald.

At a recent symposium in Bangkok, hundreds of health-care professionals from across Thailand were treated to an unusual spectacle. Dressed as an angel, a petite blonde Australian woman flitted about the auditorium, hugging participants and lecturing them about the healing power of love and laughter.
Susan Aldous wore a white chiffon costume, with fluffy wings and a sequined tiara - a clumsy mixture, as she puts it, of Snow White and Bridal Best circa Word War II.

Yet the outfit wasn't simply a publicity gimmick.
Melbourne-born Aldous is widely known in Thailand as the Angel of Bang Kwang. She has earnt the epithet with her dedicated volunteer work with inmates - many of them serving life sentences for drug offences - at the notorious maximum-security prison outside Bangkok, where she is friends with prisoners and guards alike.
But she does so much more.
Invited to act as titular mascot for a Thai national hospital institution, the high-school drop-out was at the symposium to teach doctors and nurses about humanised health care.
Her credentials: decades-long devotion to helping the needy, the neglected and the down-and-out at countless hospital wards, women's shelters, refugee camps, or anywhere else she can find them.
"My past is my PhD in this work. In the course of my work I've been called an angel but I've never [been asked] to dress up as one," she laughs.
A few days later, Aldous demonstrates her modus operandi.
During her weekly visit to a women's shelter on the outskirts of Bangkok, she waves to a group of women - battered wives, rape victims, single mothers - unwinding in the shelter's shady yard. Children mob her. Some have been rescued from sexual exploitation or sweatshop-style slavery. Between hugs, Aldous hands them toys and chocolates - two each so they can donate one to a sibling or friend.
"This way they learn they never lose by giving, if only a smile or a helping hand," she explains before proceeding with an English lesson for them.
On weekends in Bangkok, Aldous also holds birthing and laughing yoga classes for expectant mothers and has parties for residents. Recently, as part of her drama therapy sessions, she staged a play with several battered children at the shelter to emphasise an anti-violence message. The children performed to popular acclaim at Thailand's National Human Rights Commission.
"Sister is so kind to us. No one else cares about us," says Oy, an emaciated woman at the shelter who has AIDS. Her 13-year-old son is cared for in a Buddhist monastery but she doesn't tell her family where she is, so as not to brand them with the stigma of her disease.

The two women hug, tears in their eyes. Momentarily, though, Aldous begins joking with Oy in fluent Thai and they both laugh, in line with Aldous's philosophy that laughter is the best medicine.
Everywhere else Aldous goes, from crowded cells to hospital wards, her bubbly, instant camaraderie seems infectious.
"She's relit my beacon," says Martin Zweiback, a Hollywood producer who met Aldous by chance during a holiday in Thailand. He credits her compassion and buoyant optimism with his revitalised will to live after his wife's death from cancer three years ago.
"I felt my life was over," he says. "Then I watched Susan going about the slums of Bangkok with a shining spirit and a bright smile. I saw her hugging a double murderer with such compassion. But forgive me for drifting into Pollyanna land as there's nothing Pollyanna about Susan."
A single mother with no income, Aldous, 47, lives hand-to-mouth in a small rented apartment with her 17-year-old daughter near Bang Kwang. She is a youthful, pretty sprightly woman who wears hand-me-down clothes and backpacker-style trinkets. Aldous lives on kerbside meals and walks a lot to save on bus fares. Her Thai neighbours often slip money in envelopes under her door.
"What do I need?" she says. "I'm 31 years down the road with [humanitarian volunteer work] but I haven't yet missed a meal." A born-again Christian, she still has in her some of the hellraiser she once was.
An orphan raised by foster parents in an upper-middle class part of Melbourne, Aldous became a rebel in her early teens. Dropping out of school, she was, at times, a spaced-out flower child with bird bones and feathers dangling from ears (Mary Poppins on crack, she jokes); a skinhead biker in military fatigues; and a proto-punk complete with tattoos, safety-pin piercings and shaved eyebrows.
She was nicknamed "Petrol Head" for sniffing petrol, glue and aerosols. She'd slash herself with razor blades.
"I was angry at the world and rebelled at a predictable life in the suburbs," she says.
Burnt out and jaded, she thought of suicide. Then in Melbourne's red-light district, St Kilda, she encountered Christian aid workers, one of whom suggested: "If you're going to throw your life away, why don't you instead give it away?" "Compassion has been my drug of choice ever since," Aldous says.
While volunteering as a welfare worker in South-East Asian slums and prisons, she arrived in Thailand in 1985 on a nine-day visit - and has never left. She has just launched a campaign to raise awareness of gender issues in Thailand, where spousal abuse of women is still widespread. As part of this drive, Aldous has also submerged herself in the marginalised world of the country's renowned third gender - ladyboys, as transvestites and transsexuals are known locally.

As a frequent visitor to Bangkok's Boys Town, a gay strip with rowdy bars and transvestite shows, she counsels ladyboys, warning them against prostitution and drug abuse.
She has just published a book of interviews with ladyboys, to provide a view past the stereotypes.
"Susan touches a lot of lives," says her Thai co-author, Pornchai Sereemongkonpol. "At first I was suspicious of her motives, then you see the way she treats people and how they light up at the sight of her."
Last month a popular Thai television series featured Aldous in a two-part program. It drew an overwhelming response from viewers, who called in from around the country to thank Aldous for her charity works and to offer support for her projects. "Everywhere I go, people now recognise me," she says. "They come up to me and say, 'You're Susan.' They shake my hand, thank me or give me free water and yoghurt to keep me going."
Yet Aldous is not basking in her fame. She has started visiting a school for disadvantaged children to teach English and give them books, toys and sport equipment, which she collects with help from friends and grateful former proteges.
A close friend and a helpful ally at Bwang Kwang is Chavoret Jaruboon, who was Thailand's chief executioner until recently.
"The inmates call us the angel and the devil," Chavoret laughs.
Aldous, though, rejects the angel moniker and says: "I'm not a little-goody-two-shoes, or a saint. I just believe that a smile and a kind word can change lives. They've changed mine."Source: The Sun-Herald

Friday, 25 July 2008

a former buffalo herder becomes a ladyboy prostitute

A fellow go-go dancer once told me that I needed to create a new name for myself, something feminine that would be easy on foreigners’ ears. ‘Mali’ is what I came up with. It means jasmine, a little white flower with a sweet scent. I was hoping the dainty word would add to my charm and take me one step further from the buffalo herder I used to be.
I’m a prostitute, but not a victim. If you entered the bar where I work, you would see ‘real’ women—worn-out, stretch-marked mothers weary of men and of life. And then you would see me: smiling, vivacious, positively shining with the joy of being a woman, even if I have to hide my genitalia to be one.
One of my earliest recollections is of my mother bringing me to live with my grandparents and a collection of aunts before I was six years old. To me, they are my real family. I don’t know who my father is, but it doesn’t bother me in the least. I vaguely remember that my mother had short hair, and wore a shirt and pants, unlike other women who had long hair, and wore sleeveless blouses and colourful sarongs. When I asked my grandmother (my ya) why my mae looked so different from other women she said that Mae wanted me to have a father figure. But Mae wasn’t around enough to instil masculinity in me; she was living with a female partner and pouring her time and energy into that relationship.
People sometimes ask me what made me what I am today. Growing up with no father and a mostly absent lesbian mother would be the easy answer, but I honestly don’t blame them. I was born to be a ladyboy just as sure as I was born in poverty-stricken Isan. There, in the northeast region of Thailand, my family have been farmers for many generations. If I’d had any masculinity to begin with, I was certainly given every opportunity to develop it. My family trained me to become a farmer and do manly things, but I showed my femininity from an early age. While other boys used banana stalks as imaginary horses, I tore the leaves into strips and wore them as a skirt. As far back as I can remember, friends and neighbours have called me a kathoey, and I willingly accepted the label. I can’t imagine a different identity.

Thursday, 8 May 2008

Heroin found me even though I didn't want it to!

If anyone had told me when I was a child that I would end up a heroin addict, I would have laughed at them. You see, sport was my thrill. Football was how I got a rush. I was one of the best footballers in my area — better than all of the girls except for my sister Olivia, and certainly better than most of the blokes. Olivia and I would race home after school to change into our track suits so we could go down to the playground. I was always in goal and Olivia would lash the balls at me as fast as bullets. She was definitely the best footballer in the area, and we played football every single day as children. She’snow an international player on the Irish team.
I come from a working-class background, but I didn’t have a bad start in life. I had a structured childhood with set times for everything. I sometimes look back and wonder why I’ve led the life I have. I have to be honest and say I don’t have many answers for you. I don’t know where I lost myself but I know I did. I still wonder about the decisions I made, or if they were decisions at all. Was I even given choices about my life? I’m still tryingto figure that one out but I know one thing for sure. When I was young I never said to myself, ‘I want to be a drug addict when I grow up.’

Heroin wasn’t something that I planned to do. The drug was something that crossed my path. I never went looking for it and I don’t believe it came looking for me. My drug addiction was something that just happened. You have probably heard people say they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. I think I was one of those people.

by Julie O'Toole, author of 'Heroin; a true story of drug addiction, hope and triumph ...'.
For more see

Friday, 29 February 2008

Paradise with a twist

WHAT SPRINGS TO mind when you think of Barbados?Is it the warm tropical climate, the golden sands, or the clear blue ocean? Or is it the cool, laid back attitude and friendliness of the people? If you were asked to think of a single word to describe the island,most people would say the same thing: Paradise.

Over 500,000 people visit Barbados every year, and almost half of those are from the UK and Ireland. Most come back having enjoyed the holiday of a lifetime. Few, thankfully, get to see the truth behind the postcard image of this place; fewer still get to tell the tale. But those unlucky enough to fall foul of the law as I did are left in no doubt—this is far from heaven. Corruption, squalor, poverty, crime: they all raise their ugly heads in this place, and though I deserved to be sent to prison for a crime I should not have committed, nobody deserves to have their human rights taken away, and nobody should be forced to endure the horrors of that place where I spent more than three years of my life.

Yes, I have made mistakes, and I have paid for them, but I very nearly paid for them with my life, as I struggled to overcome disease, violence, and a fullblown riot in a place where there is one rule for the haves and another for the have-nots, where conditions are horrendous, and where there is no distinction between a murderer and a pickpocket.I have looked back over my life in an effort to understand where and why I went wrong, and I have come to realise many things about myself. Some things will remain unanswered for me—there are some things I will never know—but one thing I do know is that I never want to go back to prison, and I never want to go back to Barbados.

You might consider it Paradise, but I consider it Hell.

Extracted from Terry Donaldson's book, Hell in Barbados. Published February 2008 and available now.

Thursday, 3 January 2008

Misery memoirs don't take holidays

I arrived at my desk on the second of January to find that a mere 114 emails had made their way to me over the festive period. Not too bad, considering I had resisted checking them over the holiday period, and I was gone for 10 days.

Then I noticed that someone had tried to Skype me during the holidays. I was astounded to see that someone had attempted to call me on 25th December.
Who would call me on Christmas day, I wondered. As much as I love publishing, and love my job, I prefer to be receiving different types of calls at Christmas.
It could only be the Bangkok office, where they don’t celebrate Christmas. In fact, it’s hard to persuade the editor there, Pornchai, to even take a day off.
What was so urgent? He had just received copies of Miss Bangkok, our latest piece of non-fiction from our Thai office, and simply couldn’t wait to tell me how great it was.

And I must concur! I got my copies today, and it is a fantastic book. The beautiful cover belies the tragic story that lies within. Bua is a prostitute, working in the infamous red-light district of Patpong. Unfortunately, this is one book that doesn’t have a neat, happy ending. She remains in prostitution, and is still living with her violent husband. There has been a great deal of coverage about misery memoirs of late – all of it cynical; but this book is different. The money that Bua will make from the book sales really will empower her to change her life. I hope it will also change readers’ perceptions of Thai prostitutes too.
Bua admits in the book that she still dreams of a ‘farang’(foreigner) who will rescue her from prostitution, but in reality, the best way to rescue her from prostitution and poverty would be to buy her book. Sometimes, it's the little things that make the biggest difference.

Jean, Publisher.