I wasn’t even supposed to leave the hostel.
I had planned to spend my last night in Bangkok curled up on the communal couch, catching up on work, and eating copious amounts of Cadbury chocolate back at my hostel. I wanted nothing to do with people, street food, cultural experiences, or lights and sounds of any kind. After ten days of field work in a rural village along the Thai / Burma border, I was emotionally and physically exhausted and ready to completely withdraw from all things human being.
So I was rather surprised when I found myself just a few hours later in the heart of Bangkok’s Red Light District hanging out with transgendered go-go dancers.
But I suppose I’m getting ahead of myself …
I had reached the last leg of a nearly two-week trip in Thailand; a trip whose primary purpose was to conduct field research for an NGO working along the northern border with Burma to develop sustainable agriculture programs among Shan, Karen, and a number of other people groups from Burma who have re-settled in a small mountain village since fleeing their homeland. After making my way down from the country’s northern tip, hopping on and off multiple varieties of bus, train, and tuk tuk, I was utterly exhausted and ready for a relaxing evening at the Lub d hostel.
After grabbing my key card from the front desk, I stumbled wearily into my simple, but chic dorm room, slumping my over-sized backpack up against the wall before collapsing onto an empty bunk, staking my claim. I lay there for a few seconds, heart thumping loudly inside my chest, and slowly stretched my body as far as I could in either direction, attempting to gain back the two inches of height I seemed to have lost while crammed between two broken seats for the obnoxious twelve hours it took to get from Chiang Mai to Bangkok on the overnight coach. Traveling on the cheap certainly has its down sides — the constant need for chiropractic readjustment being one of them.
As my spine popped and expanded in relief, the metal door swung open and one of my dorm mates filed in, displaying an arrival routine strangely similar to mine as she collapsed onto the bed, loudly exhaling in relief.
“Hello!” I greeted her, as my body rose begrudgingly from the sheets.
“Ah, hi there,” she answered in surprise. “I didn’t realize there was anyone else in here.”
“Sorry to startle you. I’m Ellen,” I said, offering my hand to greet her.
“Bridget,” she answered. “Where are you from?”
I hesitated. I had so much trouble answering that after not setting foot in my home country for nearly two years. “Well … ” I stumbled awkwardly. “I’m from America, but I actually live in China.” I explained. “I’m just traveling in Thailand for work. How about you?”
“Germany,” she replied. “China, that sounds exciting. What type of work are you doing?”
“Oh, I’m doing some consulting for various NGOs that support displaced populations and women who have been trafficked for domestic or sex work.” Her eyes widened in surprise. “It’s rewarding, but exhausting,” I explained. “How about you? What brings you to Thailand?”
“It’s funny you mention working with women in the sex industry,” she started. “That’s actually why I’m here, too. I’m a documentary film maker working on a project that explores the lives of sex workers in Bangkok. Tonight I’m actually heading down to one of the Red Light Districts to interview and film the workers as they get ready to go out to work for the evening.”
“Really?!” I exclaimed. “That’s amazing!”
She looked at me inquisitively, no doubt startled by my enthusiasm over her difficult and gritty task.
“What are you hoping to show through your documentary?” I continued. “How have the women responded to your presence? What types of questions are you discussing with them? Do they have objections to being filmed? How did they come to work in the sex industry?”
“Wow! You’d make a great journalist!” she observed. “You’re full of such great questions.” I peppered her with inquiries for another fifteen minutes before she looked at her watch, saying she needed to get ready as she had to head out for the night in just a few minutes.
“Oh, I’m sorry — please, I won’t take any more of your time.” I apologized, and turned to leave the room so she could finish her preparations. As I grabbed the door handle, I turned. “I was wond –” I hesitated. She looked up, expectantly.
“I mean … ” I stuttered some more. “Do you possibly ever allow anyone to come with you for your interviews?”
She hesitated, looking back and forth between me and her briefcase and then back and forth again before responding. “You know … people ask me that all the time, believe it or not. And in the past, I’ve always said no.” My heart sank as my eyes shifted sheepishly toward the ground. “But you seem different. You have experience in this field of work and you understand professional boundaries. So hell — why not?! I’ll meet you in the lobby in fifteen minutes. Just be sure to eat something before we go — it could be a long night.”
“Of course, yes, thank you,” I replied soberly. “I’ll see you in a few minutes!” On the exterior I was careful to display and emphasize my professionalism and preparedness for such an experience — but on the inside I was giddy as a schoolgirl wanting to skip my way across the playground.
I threw some supplies and my identification into my day pack and darted down the street to grab some food. With no time for real food, I had to settle for what I could eat on the go: a Cadbury “Bubbly” chocolate bar. Traveling on the cheap also has its upsides — like chocolate for dinner!
Fifteen minutes later, I returned, fully caffeinated and waiting in the lobby with my little L.L.Bean backpack. Bridget arrived and quickly downed a steaming plate of Pad Thai before we hopped on the train just outside our hostel and made our way deeper into the city. Ten minutes later we found ourselves waiting on the steps outside the entrance to one of Bangkok’s famous shopping centers, waiting on Bridget’s Thai translator, an aspiring young filmmaker from Bangkok.
The three of us pushed and shoved our way through Bangkok’s bustling streets, teeming with street vendors selling everything from delicious Thai dishes to pointless souvenir trinkets of Bangkok as the flash of neon lights assaulted our senses from every angle. We took a right down a foot-traffic only boulevard with tent vendors set up all down the middle selling male lingerie in one stall and “I LOVE BANGKOK” T-Shirts in the next. Tourists were everywhere — many of whom had their young children with them, a strange juxtaposition considering the area we were in.
We shifted our path up closer to the walls of the buildings lining either side of the vendor stands to avoid the brunt of the clogged crowds. Flashes of pink and blue hued neon strobe lights and the pulsing bass of the latest dance beats bombarded our senses as we brushed past the open doors of the ubiquitous nightclubs. Inside, empty stages snaked their way through a tangled mass of equally empty tables and chairs. With no clients there was not yet a need for dancers. The night had yet to come alive.
We ducked quickly into a narrow corridor where we took a small elevator up to the second floor of a grungy building, typical of Bangkok.
“Where are we going?” I asked Bridget.
She hesitated. “You might call it a hair salon,” she replied as we wobbled and shook our way up the narrow elevator shaft.
The door to the tiny elevator struggled open and we stepped out into a dimly lit, gray-tinted room filled with swivel chairs facing cracked, rusty mirrors coated in years of grime.
“Sawatdikah!” Bridget called out. [hello in Thai] No answer. “Sawatdikah?” she called again, a little louder this time. We heard scuffling in the back and a tiny woman with a nest of salt and pepper hair shuffled her way into the room.
“Sawatdikah!” she greeted us in return and held her hands up to her chin, clasped together as if in prayer, followed by a small nod of her head. This gesture, called the “wai,” is a traditional Thai greeting and a symbol of respect offered to anyone you greet.
Suddenly the quiet room transformed into a cacaphone of various languages and high-pitched tones as Bridget attempted to find out the dancers’s schedule for the night.
We were above the lights; above the seedy establishments below that populate this, one of Bangkok’s notorious Red Light Districts, business is booming … it’s just business of a different kind. Above the bars and brothels, above the clubs and cafes, are the entrepreneurs who help keep these businesses running: the beauty parlors and makeup artists who get the ladies of the night ready to perform.
We were here to talk with the workers about their experience in the industry — how they got involved, how they feel about their work, and what would they do differently if they could. We were about the see a side of these women and men that most people never see — their make-up free side; their fully clothed side; their human side. For us, they wouldn’t be just warm-blooded objects standing in a window or dancing on a stage for strangers to lust after; for us, they were human beings, just like us, with joys and sorrows, hopes and dreams, and we wanted to hear their stories.
All we could see was the back of her head. Her long black hair, smooth and shiny as the silk on her dress, settled perfectly beside her cheeks and onto her shoulders as the beautician turned off the hair dryer. A bit of touching up to her rouge and that was it, she was ready. Seeming satisfied with her work, the beautician handed the girl a hand-held mirror to conduct a 360-degree examination for herself. She pursed her bright red lips together a few times, flipped her hair off her shoulder and nodded, handing the mirror back to the beautician in silent approval.
As she stood to leave, she turned, reaching for her purse to pay the beautician for her services and my eyes locked on her; I was stunned. She had the face of a child in an adult’s wardrobe; she did not look a day older than 15.
“Would you mind if we ask you a few questions?” inquired Bridget boldly as our Thai friend translated.
Sheepishly, she agreed and we retreated to a secluded corner away from the others to conduct the interview.
“How old are you?” Bridget began.
“Nineteen,” she replied.
“How long have you been dancing?” Bridget continued.
“Only about a year,” she answered.
“How do you like working here?”
“I enjoy it a lot. I make good money to help my family.”
“And the dancing? How do you like the dancing itself?” Bridget pried.
Pausing, she looked down. “The dancing I like ok, but the touching I don’t like. I like to dance and move to the music, but I don’t like it when the clients reach out and touch me.”
“Why don’t you like it?” Bridget continued.
“It scares me. A few times they have tried to hurt me. I would prefer just to dance and nothing more.”
“Have they ever succeeded in hurting you, or have they just tried?”
“They have only tried. I have not been hurt,” the girl assured Bridget.
Bridget looked at me and raised an eyebrow. “Do you have any questions to ask?”
“If you weren’t working here, where would you like to work?” I asked.
She took a moment before responding. “I don’t really have any other place I’d like to work.”
“You want to dance?” I confirmed.
“Yes. It pays very well and helps me take care of my family,” she reiterated.
“If there was another job — a different job — that would pay you just as much as dancing, would you like to do it?” I continued.
“Yes, I suppose if there was another job that could pay well, I would do it. But I don’t know of any such job, so for now, I am enjoying dancing.”
Bridget had thought of more questions. “The men who come to watch you dance … what do most of them seem to be looking for? Why do they come here?”
“Most of them I think are looking for just friendship,” she responded.
“Friendship?” Bridget replied in surprise. “They aren’t looking for anything more? Maybe a girlfriend?”
“Well … some of them are maybe looking for a girlfriend but I think most just want friendship.”
“Do they ever want sex?” Bridget inquired further.
The girl looked down, fidgeting with her hands, her distorted face revealing her discomfort. “Maybe they want sex sometimes, but only with the older girls, not with me.”
This seemed an odd point to clarify, since she had assured us she was of legal age to be working in the industry. “They don’t want sex with you? Why?” Bridget asked.
“They only want friendship with me. Never sex,” she assured.
Just then, a young man with suave hair and stylish clothes appeared at the door, motioning emphatically for her to come out.
“Who’s that?” Bridget asked.
“My boyfriend,” she replied. “It’s time for me to go dance.” And with that, she was gone.
As most of the workers had already prepared for the evening, we decided to make our way down to the clubs to find some other women to talk to. Bridget was particularly interested in talking to a “Lady Boy,” or a transgendered dancer.
“This bar has plenty of them!” our translator piped up, leading us down the street to one of the clubs. When we arrived at the door, he went straight to work explaining to the bouncer what we were doing there and why we wanted to interview the dancers. After a few minutes bantering back and forth in Thai, they disappeared inside the club. “Wait right here!” he called as he disappeared into a sea of neon lights and fabricated smoke.
Minutes later, he reappeared, waving us into the club. “You can talk to her, but she has to continue getting ready or she will be in trouble with her boss.” He led us to through the club to the back room where the dancers get ready. “This is S. She’s interested in being interviewed, but she’ll have to keep getting ready while you talk to her,” he told Bridget.
As Bridget began asking her basic introductory interview questions, S. revealed that she was actually transgendered. She had been born as a man but identified as a woman. She had undergone breast implant surgery and was taking hormone supplements, but she had not yet had genital reassignment surgery and was unsure if she would ever be able to.
Bridget’s interview turned more casual as S. was very relaxed and very eager to share herself with us. Soon the three of us were giggling together and playing with each other’s hair and earrings.
“I have a question,” I asked S. “Are any of the other women in this club transgendered?”
She laughed. “Yes, of course! But not all, only some. Can you guess who is a man and who is a woman?” she challenged me.
I scoured the room, unable to tell each dancer apart, let alone distinguish who was a man and who was a woman as they were all dressed the same. I panicked, fearing S. would be offended if I guessed incorrectly.
“I have no idea!” I finally blurted out in exasperation.
She laughed, pulled me close, and leaned into my ear. “To be honest, sometimes neither do I!” she admitted, laughing.
We had developed a very casual rapport with S., and for whatever reason, had seemed to have gained her trust. “Could we talk some more?” she asked quietly.
“Of course!” Bridget responded.
S. looked around to see if her boss was anywhere nearby. “But not here,” she cautioned. “Let’s go somewhere else.” She asked us to step outside for a few minutes while she asked permission from her boss to step away from the club for a few minutes.
While we were outside, two middle-aged Korean men approached the door to the club, peeking in. It wasn’t too long before they were noticed by the manager, who rushed to the door to coax them inside. She called to a few of the dancers to come to the door. She explained to the men something in Thai and pointed to each of the girls. The men looked them up and down a few times before snarling their upper lip and laughing, walked away. The girls looked disappointed, but returned to work, no doubt fearful the men’s rejection could put their employment status in jeopardy as they’d failed to convert the men into customers.
Suddenly S. barged out of the door, grabbing Bridget and I arm in arm and leading us a few doors down and around the corner to a small cafe. As she sank back into the metal patio chair, it was as if all her anxieties from being in the club melted away and her demeanor immediately changed; her eyes lit up, her eyebrows raised in excitement and expectation, and she began to come alive.
S. shared with us her story of growing up transgendered in Thailand. She had been bullied throughout her school years and called derogatory names by her classmates, who, though they did not realize at the time that she was transgendered, sensed something different in her and physically and verbally assaulted her.
“In Thailand I am called a ‘Lady Boy’,” she said. “But we prefer to call ourselves ‘transformed angels.’ ‘Lady Boy’ is an insulting term if it is said by Thais to other Thais.”
She paused for a moment, looking down at her lap. I noticed her eyes began to fill with tears.
“How do you feel about working as a dancer?” I asked.
“I hate it,” she confessed. “I don’t want to do this work at all. But being a transgendered person in Thailand, there isn’t much else for me to do.”
“If there were no limitations and you could do anything in life, what would you do?” I continued.
“More than anything I wanted to be a flight attendant,” she mused. “But they rejected me once they found out I was really a man.” She paused and her tears returned. “I never wanted this type of work for myself. Why would I choose it? Why would anyone choose it? I do it because no one wants me anywhere else.”
We sat in silence for a moment, giving S. a moment to cry and taking some time just to process the weight of what she was sharing.
“And to be honest, it’s like I’m not really even wanted here, either.”
“What do you mean?” I pressed.
“Sometimes the men, the clients, they want to take you home with them for the evening. They are expecting to have sex with you.” She looked down at her lap again, this time in shame as her eyes welled again with tears. “Only once they get me back to their hotel and they find out I am really a man down there, they don’t want me. They are disgusted by me and they throw me out. Other men are gay and they want me to be a man down there … but they also don’t usually approach me because I am dressed as a woman and I consider myself a woman. They want to be with someone who dresses like a man.”
I gulped, choking back my own tears this time.
“I have never had sex with any client,” she tearfully confessed. “They have all rejected me.”
My heart sank as the lump in my throat grew. It wasn’t that I wanted her to have sex with her clients, quite the contrary; but my heart broke as I listened to S. share with us of a life full of hopes and dreams crushed by nothing but rejection. I believe in a God who accepts, not rejects; who heals rather than wounds. To hear of this life that knew of no such unconditional love — from humans or from God — crushed me to my core.
“S. … ” I asked. She looked up at me expectantly, like a little girl waiting for instruction from her parents. I could hardly find the words and did not feel I had any right to ask such personal questions of her. “What is it that you want more than anything in this world?”
She shifted in her seat, dabbing her eyes with a napkin, fearing her meticulously applied mascara would run.
“More than anything in this world I just want someone to love me. I want someone to come and rescue me from this awful place. I want them to care for me and to love me. That is all that I want in this world.”
We sat in silence for a moment, unsure of how to respond appropriately and sensitively to S.’s story, knowing there was nothing we could really do to help her in that moment. In just a few moments, we knew we would say goodbye and likely never meet again. We would return to our comfortable Western lives full of privilege and opportunity, and she would return to her life as a go-go dancer and an outcast of society.
S. jumped up, startled, as if she had become lost in her own thoughts. “Oh no!” she cried. “It’s later than I thought. I must return to work now or I will be in trouble.”
As she turned to leave, I grabbed her hand and pulled her close to embrace her. “Thank you for sharing so much of who you are with us. My life is better because I have had the chance to meet you.”
And with that, she scurried away, back to the club and back to the stage; a life she did not choose in a life that offered her few choices.
Before we left, Bridget wanted to try to get one last interview, as she needed a few more soundbites to fill her radio broadcast before she headed back to Germany the next morning. S. had told us about a hair salon that should still be full of customers this time of night, so we headed back upstairs to check out the lead.
Sure enough, the salon was teeming with dancers having the finishing touches put on their hair and nails. After our conversation with S., I was emotionally and physically exhausted, so I slouched down in a cushion chair and left Bridget on her own for the interviews.
One dancer — a “Lady Boy,” I deduced — came up and took the seat next to me, looking me up and down, smiling and nodding hello. I did the same to her, noticing her high and spotless heals. At that moment I knew it was too late; she would have already noticed my disgusting flip-flop clad feet that were stained black after four solid weeks trudging through Southeast Asia. I hadn’t showered in at least five days, and even then it was just a quick splash to rinse off the accumulating dirt and deet residue that had accumulated over my last ten days in the jungle.
But she didn’t seem deterred by my disgusting lower extremities and was instead fixated on my earrings. I may not shower regularly when I travel, but I never go anywhere without a classy pair of earrings.
She reached out and touched one. “Beautiful,” she said in English.
“Thank you,” I replied, still embarrassed over my rancid feet. We sat there awkwardly for a moment as I took mental inventory of every disgusting part of my body that she could possibly see or smell.
“Beautiful lipstick,” I offered, hoping for a distraction as I pointed to her lips.
“Thank you,” she smiled back, still giggling.
Although I had little energy left and her English was limited, we managed to somehow carry on a halfway decent conversation. She explained to me that she loves earrings and lipstick and can never have too much of it. She told me she works as a dancer and likes it much better than her other options. She had considered taking a job as what was essentially a prostitute, but ran away from it because she heard it was so dangerous. It didn’t sound to me like she had “willingly” been considering the position, and nor was her “declining to take the position” a decision she herself was likely allowed to make. I feared for her safety. But she just continued giggling and bantering on about all her favorite accessories.
As I sat there listening to her, halfway in a daze of exhaustion at that point, I was reminded of what a privilege it was to get to know her. She, like S., has likely had an extremely difficult life and I’m not sure she has the opportunity to share a piece of her heart with anyone, let alone a stranger and a foreigner. I was grateful for the opportunity just to hear her.
And that’s how I felt about my entire evening in Bangkok’s Red Light District. It wasn’t earth-shattering. We didn’t save any lives and none of the women we talked to experienced a change of circumstance or opportunity as a result of us being there. But sometimes, it isn’t so much about the “doing,” or the “outcome.”
Sometimes it really is just about the listening; about taking the time to hear someone’s story — someone with whom you share little in common and know little about, other than what is stereotyped of them; about connecting with a human you are typically tempted to judge rather than love; and to realize that your life will never be the same again.
I can’t “save” S. or any of the other women and men working in Bangkok’s Red Light District. But I can share their story. I can make sure their voice is heard. It may not seem glamorous, but the least I can do is honor them by telling others of their experience, of their existence. Perhaps that’s the first step.