How Far Can The Yen Stretch?
Friday night was a very busy one in Nana. There were a few bars where I stuck my head in and immediately stepped back out because there was not a seat available. So I thought I'd try one of the less popular gogos and see if there was a diamond in the rough. I wandered into Hollywood Rock (a misnomer if ever there was one, given rock music has long since been replaced by melodically-challenged dross). It was as dismal as I'd expected – the two dancing shifts consisted of just four girls on a vast stage, as if to emphasize the financial failure of the place. A couple I recognized as former service staff, forced through desperation – theirs or the bar's – into dancing. Of course, dancing was an exaggeration, as mostly they shifted weight from one leg to the other, with their faces exhibiting the kind of sullen boredom that only a C-grade bargirl can conjur. There were only five other customers in the place – a couple of either Arabs or sub-cons, two drunk and tattooed yahoos, and an old guy trying to make his orange juice last. In that company I though I might be in pole position for the one attractive girl in the place. But not for long.
Enter the Yipoon.
The slightly bewildered-looking young Japanese, who had clearly got poor directions to Rainbow 2, was ushered by the ladyboy mamasan into a corner seat, the service girls dropped their nail files to rush over and solicit drinks and interest him in the ping-pong balls, and the girls on stage rushed over toward him with a speed that suggested the stage had been tipped over. In so doing, the girls literally turned their back on all the other customers. I watched all this like it was a pantomime in which the audience can see what's about to happen while the players are clueless. The Yipoon was persuaded to buy a Coke, while the mamasan and service girls hovered like the proverbial seagulls following a fishing trawler. Of course the guy made his exit at the first opportunity, and everyone resumed their normal positions – the service staff yawning and glancing at the clock, the feckless dancing girls weighing up the merits of kwayteow or som tum.
It was one of the more egregious examples of a tendency that is growing in the Thai gogos; the girls seek Japanese first and foremost and will only go with most farang as a fall-back option, if at all. For the A-grade girls, this makes sense and has long been the case, as they generally make twice as much money with Japanese customers than they do with farang. It's the old 4-4-4 maxim: 4,000 baht, four inches, four minutes. But now it seems to have spread down to the B and C-grade girls too. With them, it's not so much that they can make more money out of it – they might jag the odd old Japanese salaryman but for the most part their customers would be farang. No, with them, it's about face. Having a Japanese customer lifts their status in the eyes of their 'colleagues'. They start sporting the bouffant blonde hairdos to both identify and advertise themselves as being interested only in Japanese. Indeed, if there is one thing farang customers should look for when they do the five-second survey, sticking their head inside the curtains, it's the number of girls with big and / or blonde hair – if there's plenty, that bar's not for you. (That and a ladyboy mamasan, which is the surest sign of a bad bar).
Many of these B and C-graders would I'm sure prefer to leave the bar empty handed than stoop to going with a white guy, unless he's young or overtly wealthy. It leaves the farang customer in an invidious position. He's going to find it hard to get the better-looking girls in a bar, and even if he does get their attention, he knows deep down that she'd rather be with the Japanese guy a couple of seats down, which is hardly the recipe for good chemistry.
There was a time not long ago when there were pretty clear delineation of which were Japanese gogos and which weren't: Baccara and Rainbow bars mainly. The girls who worked in other bars weren't expecting them, didn't wait for them, and therefore would be eager to go with the farang customers. Now, that's all changed. Aside from the skankiest of bars, the Japanese are in strong numbers in just about all gogos, so the good-looking girls in just about all bars mostly look past any white guy and gaze toward the curtains waiting for Mr Miyagi.
So, to the topic of the email, just how far can the yen stretch? How many bars can survive chasing the yen and alienating whites? Along with the growing number of gogos, think about Thaniya, which remains strictly Japanese only, and soi 33 (I don't go there, but I'll take your word, Stick, that they're also turning Japanese). Is there really that many Japanese customers who can make all these places work while almost shunning farang? In many bars, you get the feeling that farang are tolerated more than welcomed, good to buy plenty of drinks but that's all. I wonder how far off we are from a situation where a gogo in Nana or Cowboy excludes farang as a matter of policy, like they do in Thaniya. If they can make a go of it with an exclusively Japanese customer base, I'm sure they'd do it, as their customers would prefer it. On the other hand, perhaps a bar or two might find a niche by excluding Asian customers and making it a more enjoyable bar for white customers.
Interesting times ahead.
There's much food for thought here.
That the Japanese pay more, often much more, than Westerners will always be in their favour. That the Japanese guys seems to understand Thai culture better may be part of it. That Japan is part of Asia and they are ethnically closer to the Thais than Westerners are may also be part of it.
When you talk of the future, for sure it's going to be interesting. If things do move in the direction they are moving, well, you might just be on to something about their being bars in farang areas where farang aren't allowed entry!