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Bangkok blues - A first-hand account of one man's indoctrination into the Thai sex industry

Related book: Bangkok Boy

Misery memoirs - depressing tales of youth corrupted, misfortune rampant and lives gone bad - have come more into fashion in recent years. Despite the book's somewhat misleading subtitle and jacket cover, and the predictable early line "Learn from my mistakes and my suffering won't have been lived in vain", Bangkok Boy by Chai Pinit, with its occasional notes of optimism and fascinating, honest revelations of less glamorous facets of Thai society, is better than many of its genre.

BANGKOK BOY: The Story of a Stolen Childhood Maverick Books, 240 pp, £7.99 ISBN 978-1905379514

Ghost-written by Soshan Itsarachon, this is a gripping account of one man's indoctrination into the Bangkok sex industry. Most interesting is that it isn't a childhood of misfortune or poverty that drives Chai to vice and prostitution but simple "bad karma" and a series of poor life choices. From a well-to-do family in Si Sa Ket province, he is raised in relative comfort; his father is an ex Muay Thai fighter with a fierce determination never to lose face and his mother a spiritual medium. At 15 Chai goes to a male teacher's home to be fondled and collect 100 baht. Although he is more straight than bisexual, to the teenage Chai it doesn't seem too bad a trade-off - he gets a bit of sexual release and money in the process. With the benefit of hindsight, though, he and his friends never took "into account the incalculable cost all this was incurring to our innocence." In the future, Chai will make many similar choices, sometimes out of desperation but more often out of convenience and laziness.

In his hometown he gradually acquires a reputation as a bit of a delinquent and a bit of a thug, so his family send him to an uncle in Pattaya, where he works as a cleaner and as a waiter, only to discover that selling himself to rich old farang is more lucrative. He needs money to finance his many vices - cigarettes, alcohol, gambling, women and, above all, feeling superior to the less fortunate or affluent, for which he needs to flaunt bling and wads of cash.

A stint as a student in Ubon Ratchathani later fails when he gets drunk and breaks a window - he is arrested for attempted robbery. The 48 days of incarceration are served in a setting so corrupt, brutal and disproportionate to the crime that he wonders how anyone could ever be reformed by the Thai criminal justice system. The worst part is that he must carry this stigma with him, come up against the assumption that he was guilty as charged whenever he returns to the Northeast.

Although the book is often critical of other facets of Thai society - education, for example, for not taking adolescent sexuality into account, for it being a means to better jobs and higher status rather than an end in itself - it is the stratification of Thai society that is the biggest force against him. In his family and village there is an emphasis on appearance over substance, on ostentatious displays of wealth over quiet spirituality. When he goes to the capital, he feels strong pressure to make his family and his village proud of his success. How success is achieved is a secondary consideration. He can earn 5,000 baht a month slaving as a supermarket bagger or waiter, or he can earn that in a night as a Soi Twilight "go-go boy". He can forever be looked down on as an ignorant country boy from Isan, or he can earn respect by flaunting his wealth and the automatic status it entails. Even his fiery sister recommends that he take the latter option rather than continue to be a drain on her, their parents and society at large.

Along the book's refreshingly honest tangents are a few surprising admissions. Although from the Silom sex industry he must overcome sexually-transmitted disease, rape, a hard, fast, prematurely-ageing lifestyle and eventually a beating so severe he barely survives, Chai credits the scene with reforming his thuggish tendencies, teaching him about the ways of the world by letting him sleep with men and women of all walks of life and backgrounds, of all races and dispositions, and introducing him to a handful of very gentle and generous patrons. He blames his own greed and weaknesses for ruining every good situation he ever has. Later he is abusive and violent to his wife, his father is murdered and one of his brothers - both of whom he introduced to the industry - is killed in a road accident. He acknowledges his own culpability, his own faults and vices but manages to end on a note of optimism.

Bangkok Boy is well-edited and honest; in its pages are many personal revelations on the good and bad of human nature, and on the laudable points and faults of Thai society. Above all, it is a quick and compelling read. "A man in an insane asylum," writes Chai, "when questioned as to why he kept banging his head against the wall, replied that it felt good when he stopped." Perhaps that is also why misery memoirs sell so well; once the book is read, the gloom and depression on its pages make our own lives seem much brighter and more secure in comparison.

Review by EZRA, January 19th, 2009 in the Bangkok Post

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