Black-clad bar girls skirt line between grief and risque job

Black-clad bar girls skirt line between grief and risque job

Entertainment restrictions leave some on Soi Cowboy struggling to earn a living

Soi Cowboy, an entertainment area off Sukhumvit Soi 23, has turned off the neon and turned down the beat, while the street's girls are still in risque outfits, only all-black. (Photo by Wichan Charoenkiatpakul)
Soi Cowboy, an entertainment area off Sukhumvit Soi 23, has turned off the neon and turned down the beat, while the street's girls are still in risque outfits, only all-black. (Photo by Wichan Charoenkiatpakul)

Bar girls in Bangkok's Soi Cowboy may be donning black clothes, as the country mourns the death of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, but they don't leave their sky-high heels and bunny ear headbands in their closets -- even on relatively quiet evenings.

"It's become deserted since the late King's death," lamented one hostess who asked not to be named.

The hostess, in her 20s, was making her way, perched on towering black boots, between the empty tables and benches. The usually animated street, packed with neon signs, tourists and dolled-up girls, looked a little dull on Tuesday night. Rather than blasting music, one could hear the impatient chatter of hostesses as few potential customers walked by.

Bars and nightclubs were closed for four days following the late monarch's death on Oct 13, the hostess said. When they reopened the following week, authorities came by with strict instructions, she said.

Everyone is to dress in black, mourning clothes of a demure style, while loud music is prohibited. Businesses must close at midnight, an hour earlier than usual.

Bar income and hostesses' wages are likely to plummet as a result, she added. Most people were reluctant to speak, as they fear further restrictions will be imposed.

"If business is bad on Soi Cowboy, I can't imagine how it's like in other red-light areas of Bangkok," said Oy, who withheld her real name.

The woman of an indeterminable age said customers usually came to her nightclub at 11pm. Now that she is forced to close early, her staff only have one hour during which they can make a profit.

The scene at Soi Cowboy these days is much tamer, almost empty on some nights, even after 9pm.

It is a huge contrast to the packed Sanam Luang across town where countless people have gone to pay respects to the late King each day.

"It's a stressful situation," said one hostess, sitting outside her workplace. "But we have to adapt, no matter what."

She waved to her colleague and complimented her choice of attire -- a black, sequined bra and hot pants. While she is accustomed to wearing colourful clothes while at work, she had to purchase a large quantity of black outfits like any other Thai.

The petite hostess, in her early 30s, said she felt terrible sadness when she heard of the King's death.

"During my entire life, I have only known one King," she said.

Nonetheless, the mourning period and accompanying restrictions have brought more pressure on her, she said.

"The news left me heartbroken. But it's not like I could stay home and cry," she added wistfully.

"I have to do my job. Like anyone else in this country, I have to earn an income."

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