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Virtual Bars ?

Bangkok, 17 September 2002
William R. Morledge

       The impact of the mobile phone and the Internet on Bangkok's middle and lower classes is no longer negligible.    Price and availability are now marching in lock-step with an increased awareness of the potential of these electronic media.   The significance of this "communications revolution" has not been lost on Bangkok's Night Entertainment sector.

As the price of mobile phones continues to plummet and the pay-up-front 'refillable' SIM cards become cheaper, lounge hostesses, pub receptionists, door girls, dancers, 'khon serb's and mama-sans can now be seen "packing a muu tuu" - either as a mobile phone pendant, a belt clip item or a telltale bulge in a jeans hip pocket.

Likewise, holidaying male tourists and resident expats have availed themselves of this now highly affordable and convenient means of communication, with the inevitable result; an increasing amount of contact between the Night Entertainment worker and customer is done by phone.    Initially, at least for the most part, the first contact is still made at a pub, lounge or a bar, but subsequent contacts and arrangements are now more often made telephonically.

The mobile phone, once considered a novelty in the Night Entertainment game, is now being talked up by many as a 'paradigm shift'.   Midnight Hour recently spoke with Frank B., a longtime A Go-Go bar owner in Pattaya.    His remarks were candid and more than a little surprising.    An edited version follows.
MH: I notice a lot of your girls are coming to work with mobile phones.
FB: Yes, very few don't have them now.    We tell them to turn them off when they get here, but they are always in the back or in the toilet talking to someone.

MH: Who?
FB: Husbands, boyfriends, girlfriends, johns.    Mostly johns.

MH: Sounds like that could be a conflict of interest?
FB: It didn't used to make any difference, but now we are definitely starting to notice a change.

MH: For the better, or...
FB: ...Worse.    Sometimes they will make a date with someone while they are here at work, then bar-fine themselves out and disappear, sometimes for days.

MH; But isn't that still good for the bar financially?
FB: "It would be great in the short term, or should I say, 'small term'?    But with most of the good dancers, the good-looking ones, gone most of the time, the bar doesn't have as much of a draw.    Some of them only show up a couple days a month.    We cut their pay when they're absent, but they don't care.    They're making much better money using the bar as their own personal escort service.    Or worse, if they are gone for more than a couple of days, they will tell the john to give them the additional bar-fines for however many days, but somehow they never get around to coming in to pay.    Then, when their john goes back home, they go to work at one of the other bars.   The girls talk a lot; friends tell friends - it didn't take our mama-sans long to figure out why there was such a high turnover of good dancers..."

MH: "What's the solution, then?"
FB: "I don't know if I know.    All the bars say they're having the same problem.    But we do have on our side the fact that the new tourists still have to have a place to come to make the initial contact.    Actually, this kind of thing has been going on all along, its just that mobile phones have magnified it.   We'll just have to keep looking for ways to stay competitive."

So there you have it.   Or at least half of it.   The other shoe, the Internet, has also dropped.    It is not a coincidence that Internet cafes have sprouted up in and near all of the major Night Entertainment Areas.   Even a casual glance will reveal that the clientele in these strategically located Internet cafes are mostly young Night Entertainment workers.    A more in-depth look at what is going on is revealing, if not surprising.

Gone are the days of the coffee shop letter writers who, for a small fee, would help the young, semi-literate Night Entertainment worker write a "Hello, My Big Big Honey" love letter to her 'boyfriend' working in Saudi Arabia, or Indonesia, or wherever.    For very practical reasons, the action, the center of gravity, has shifted from the coffee shop to the Internet cafe.

Sophistication has come quickly to many of the Night Entertainment workers; they are quite at home with their own Hotmail or Yahoo email accounts.   A typical scene would be a young Night Entertainment worker keeping in touch with her Japanese customer's flight arrival times and hotel bookings.   The girls will often plan accordingly, meeting their favorite customer at the airport, accompanying him for his entire Thailand holiday.   Many are already familiar with the small video cams provided atop the computer monitors by enterprising Internet cafe owners.    Some girls interviewed were keeping in touch, both by email and video cam, with as many as 10 "regular" customers.   Most are entirely conversant with which 'chat rooms' to go to when looking for additional prospective customers.

This shift, this quiet revolution, this increasing independence of the Night Entertainment worker is only just emerging.    While the trend is becoming ever more distressing to the Night Scene establishment, the young people who are the direct beneficiaries of these emerging media are not likely to give up this this new freedom to move, freedom to 'work' when they want; stay home when they want.    Freedom to associate with, or not associate with whomever they want.

A logical extrapolation of this new Internet Night Scene would be the "virtual bar", where Night Entertainment workers could be contacted on-line, and in conjunction with the mobile telephone, subsequent meetings could be easily managed.    But it is more likely that the Night Entertainment Venues as we know them will remain regardless; these venues serve as a neutral 'meeting ground' where the parties have at least a brief opportunity to evaluate one another in a sort-of social clearing-house environment before deciding; ...good vibrations? ...bad vibrations...?  As with anything else, there is inherent risk in 'buying' anything on the Internet unless it is a 100% known quantity.

 Datzit Fernow.

2002, Bangkok Eyes /

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