Lightening strikes again

The controversy over the Thai ad about light and dark skin, which zipped across the world last week, threw up so many questions besides the obvious one about stupid executives of skin-lightening products having too big a marketing budget.

In 2016 have we progressed in our attitude towards, and treatment of, women? Some days I think Thailand truly has, but then along comes a day where I see an ad for a frivolous product about dark skin that plunges us back into the dark ages. But then again, I have women on my mind this week thanks to my location.

Your correspondent has been hanging out in a swanky hotel on Phetchaburi Road for the past five days running an English camp. It’s been a hoot, but this column is not about hooting nor about English. It’s about hot tubs and prostitutes.

Despite its close proximity to everything inner city, I haven’t really spent much time on Phetchaburi Road in, oh, 25 years.

Back in 1990 I was living in Huai Khwang, an area just off Ratchadaphisek Road. It wasn’t the most luxurious part of town; locals referred to it as Bangkok’s largest open-air prison, thanks to the proliferation of dubious types who made their homes there. The fact my friendly next-door neighbours were robbers and murderers didn’t disturb me. It ensured I wasn’t ever robbed or murdered myself, since I was often helping their offspring with their English homework just to be neighbourly.
Then I landed a job on the other side of
town. It meant I would have to tearfully farewell my robbing, murdering neighbours and move elsewhere, but for a couple of months before I found alternative lodgings, I had to journey down Ratchadaphisek Road, turn left on Phetchaburi Road and catch a bus to my work.

That was my introduction to Phetchaburi Road, 26 years ago. I would wander down to the bus stop at 8 o’clock in the morning, which was just about the time everybody else on that road was knocking off work. That’s because Phetchaburi Road was a centre for Bangkok’s monolithic massage parlour industry.

Those of us brought up in white Anglo-Saxon Protestant homes tend to imagine massage parlours as seedy, cockroach-infested places with flickering neon signs and girls who, as Gilbert and Sullivan famously said, may very well pass for 43 in the dusk with the light behind them.

Nothing was further from the case on Phetchaburi Road.

I generally saw it at 8am, but on some nights going home I experienced it when it was all lit up like Christmas trees. I was reminded of my first trip to Disneyland in Anaheim, with wall-to-wall establishments complete with massive neon signs, blinking and cascading and vibrant in their colours.

They had names like Cleopatra, which was the biggest one at the time and the one I was very familiar with, though not for any untoward reasons. My bus stop was smack bang outside the front of it.

Massage parlours are called arb ob nuad in Thai, or “Shower Sauna Massage” if translated directly. Sounds clunky, I know, but it’s still shorter to say than “sexually transmitted disease”.

Twenty-five years ago we were in the early to mid Aids era, and things were even more conservative than they are today. Social values dictated women should be chaste on their marriage day, for instance.

There were two common comments one would hear as a Western man in Bangkok back in 1990. The first was: “Well, you know, Aids is a foreign disease brought into Thailand by Westerners.” The second comment was this: “In the West, you have free sex,” spoken by Thai men whose eyes would glaze over in envy.

It revealed the fact that paying for sex was the norm, and it usually happened along Phetchaburi Road.

The incredible thing about these places was that every one of them boasted dozens, if not hundreds of girls. I know; I went inside one in 1990.

One of the guys I worked with was turning 25. Six of his friends and I went out to dinner to celebrate, drinking copious amounts of Mekhong whiskey, until one of the friends announced we’d be taking our birthday boy to Phetchaburi Road.

Half an hour later we ended up at a place called “Beauty Fun” (as opposed to, say, “Ugly Fun”?). We were ushered inside to a room with a giant glass pane. Behind that pane were about 60 girls, with numbers attached to them, sitting on tiered platforms. They all stared in our general direction, but none were interested in us. That’s because there was a television right in front of us on the other side of the giant window pane; the girls were watching whatever soap opera was popular at the time.

They were seated under three big signs. To the far left was a sign above the girls saying ha dao, or “Five Stars”. These women had applied their make-up a little better, sat a little swankier, and generally held a more fashionable disposition. They had lighter skin, something very appealing to Thai men.

In the middle were the girls below a big sign that said dara, or “Stars”. These two dozen or so girls were pretty, but clearly had lost the gene pool lottery to the girls on the left.

But the most tragic sight could be found to the right.

That was a group of girls sitting beneath a glittering sign that read, starkly: thammada. “Average.” These were the girls with buck teeth or a small but unsightly wart on the neck, complete with stubborn little hair sprouting out of it. They were more dark-skinned and thus less attractive.

After much jostling and cajoling, my friend chose number 62 from the “Stars” group. A young man in a waistcoat nodded, pressed a button and spoke into a microphone: “Number 62.”

The look on number 62’s face said it all. Without taking her eyes off the TV screen she sighed, reached for her handbag, slung it over her shoulder and stood up. She muttered something to the girls next to her (“Tell me what happens” no doubt), and made her way towards the back and disappeared from view, reappearing a few minutes later to greet my friend.

That was my one and only foray into a Phetchaburi Road massage parlour.

In September 1990 there was a terrible accident on Phetchaburi Road just down from the brothel strip. A liquid petroleum gas tanker running a red light overturned and exploded, burning 90 people alive, most of whom were sitting in their vehicles in a traffic jam. It was a horrible accident and in a strange way caused a shift in the Phetchaburi Road dynamic.

Times change. Thai men no longer have to seek sexual gratification in concrete monolithic brothels. The notion of free sex being a Western ideal has died, though HIV certainly hasn’t, but at least it is no longer of epidemic proportions or considered a farang disease.

So many of the Phetchaburi Road brothels and bars have disappeared. The area has an urban decay feel about it now, with car rental shops, government offices and mini marts now dotting the road. Cleopatra is long gone, though the building remains and is still an entertainment palace.

But are the monoliths in our mind still there? Do we still make girls sit underneath signs that deem them five-star or average based on their skin?

Maybe not, but we still torture them with abhorrent social values that equate their self-worth with the colour of their skin. Sometimes the monster just morphs into another shape; in this case, concrete monoliths have shape-shifted into tubes of lightening cream. Shame on those stupid executives.

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