A Dump Called Nana – Another View
This is a response to the Stickman column “A Dump Called Nana.” I realise that Stick means well, and that on one level, a tidying-up of the environs of the plaza might appear to be a good idea, but it’s an idea that makes me a little worried. I’ll try to explain why it worries me. You’ll note that I do go well beyond Stick’s reporting of the situation and stated attitude to it in order to make a more general point, but I’ll try to make it clear where I do that. In particular, I’m going to rant about the dangers of reform and over-regulation and stuff like that so, if that bores you, now is the time to stop reading.
Nana Entertainment Plaza / soi 4 is the centrepiece of a red-light district in a crowded, polluted, hot, humid, alien (to farangs – at least, to those who haven’t lived there for years and years), endlessly colourful, fascinating, and wonderful Asian mega-city in what is still, for the time being, a developing country. Yes, it is a red-light district in a developing country. It’s grimy? Surprise, surprise!
Stepping into soi 4 is like stepping into another world, with its hordes of available girls and ladyboys, neon-lit bars, street hawkers selling insects and other delicacies, soi dogs, and farang men from all over the Western world in search of a night of adventure, fun, drinking, and – in many cases – female company for the night or for an hour. Nana Plaza itself takes it to another level. And, yes, it is seedy and dirty looking, but that is all part of its unique ‘charm.’ Or, if ‘charm’ is too strong a word, ‘character’. It is how red-light districts in developing countries are ‘supposed’ to be. On a personal level, it is where my first forays into Thailand’s ‘naughty nightlife’ were conducted, so I feel a degree of nostalgia for the place as it is.
Nana would lose something of its essence, its character, were it forced or coerced or regulated into cleaning itself up and being “nicer”. As Stickman points out, soi Cowboy is a lot cleaner looking than Nana. Yes, it's easier on the eye, but Stickman himself says the bars are not as good as in Nana. Perhaps these things are not unrelated? Stepping into Soi Cowboy or Pattaya's Walking Street is nothing like stepping into soi 4. The more it is cleaned up, the more Nana will attract mainstream tourists and the more it will lose this unique character. Yes, Nana Plaza would still be home to lots of girlie bars but it would be different, and not in a good way. It would be a loss were soi Nana and the plazato become a magnet for gawking tourists, like Pattaya’s Walking St. Something unique would be lost to the world, which would become a little less interesting and varied and colourful. This loss, of course, is the ultimate aim of every social reformer and urban planner all over the world.
Bangkok is a huge city, with bar options to suit every taste and every wallet. Nana provides an option that is perhaps not available elsewhere, in quite the same way. There might not even be anything quite like it anywhere in the world – and I include Fields Ave. in Angeles, P.Burgos St. in Manila, Pattaya’s Walking St. and soi 6, and Singapore’s Orchard Towers in that. Those are unique ‘institutions’ in themselves, but they are not Nana Plaza / soi 4, and they are not in Bangkok. Why cannot those in search of a more genteel atmosphere in which to do their drinking avail themselves of other options in Bangkok, and let Nana be – especially if they are not looking for female company? I like to visit a range of places, but it is nice to know that the ‘seedier’ but fascinating option of Nana is available, even if it looks like it has seen better days.
I’m not sure what the intent of Stick’s column was. If it was just an observation, a piece of photo-journalism, then fine. But I would be nervous if the journalism had taken the form of an editorial incorporating cries of “This is terrible! It needs to be fixed up!”, or if the intent in writing the column was ultimately to get something done about the situation. To be fair to Stick, he doesn’t call for anything to be done about the situation, at least not explicitly. He just records his observations and his attitude toward the state of the Plaza. But I can’t help getting the feeling that the take home message is “Something ought to be done about this”. Given that most readers of Stickman aren’t really in a position to do anything, perhaps the column was aimed at the bar owners of Nana?
Here is where I start to go (even more) off on a tangent. Ultimately, what I am writing about today is not the issue of whether it would be good to clean up some rubbish and replace some burnt-out neon signs in a building full of girlie bars in Bangkok. Or at least, it is not only about that. It is about an attitude, a way of interacting with one’s urban environment and society. One way, the Western way, is to say ‘I don’t like X. I want X to change. I’ll make a song-and-dance about X, and see if I can get enough people to agree with me, and together we can get X changed.’ I admit that I am no expert on Thai culture and attitudes, but I get the impression that a typical Thai view would be ‘I don’t like X. I would like X to change, but X seems to suit a lot of people, so I won’t say anything. I’ll either put up with X, which isn’t so bad really, or I’ll just look for alternatives so I’m not in a position for X to bother me’. Or maybe it would be ‘I don’t like X, but I can’t be arsed to do anything about it’ or ‘I don’t like X but I’m a little guy and if I complain I might cause a big guy to lose face and get myself squashed’, or even ‘I don’t like X, but I’m not being paid to care about it, so I won’t. Whatever, the bottom line is that they don’t do anything about it. That’s part of the reason, I expect, that many Thai cities are eyesores with traffic problems and stray dogs everywhere. In summary: Western way = try to change it; Thai way = adapt to it. I stress once again that this is just my take on the way Thais seem to think.
If it is, then I think the Thais are on to something. I feel this way whenever I read about farangs complaining about the lack of efficiency in Thailand, the lack of interest in good customer service, the lack of industry among the Thais, and the like. Maybe the Thais have just realised that the things we get ourselves so worked up about just aren’t really worth getting worked up about. From what little I’ve seen, Thais seem to keep the interior of their homes in reasonable shape. If there is some rubbish in the public areas around the house, so what? I keep my own place, and its environs, clean and tidy, but if I am travelling to someone else’s neck of the woods, and their place is a bit grimy, so what? Why let it bother me? It’s not my place, and it’s not my place to tell them how to run their affairs. You can go on about rats and cockroaches, but it is not like Western cities are free of these anyway.
I know: I look at the wild tangled bunches of electrical wiring in the streets and the broken footpaths and so on, and it strikes me as an eyesore too. But then I think, ‘This is the way Bangkok is. Accept it as it is’. Yes, it will be a long, long, time before Thailand lands its first men on the moon, but so what? Maybe they are happier than we are, simply because they seem to have an attitude of adapting to their surroundings and trying to enjoy themselves and have fun rather than trying to change little things they don’t like.
Would things be better if Thai cities (including the bar areas) were regulated to be cleaned up (of actual dirt / rubbish), and made prettier? If there was a massive increase in police presence on the roads, to enforce traffic rules? If the soi dogs were rounded up and destroyed like they are in the West? If police and other officials didn’t take bribes, thereby giving an advantage to those who can afford to pay them? In a way, yes. Granted. But there are costs, and perhaps the costs outweigh the benefits. First, there is a financial cost. Carrying out reforms takes money, and that money ultimately comes from the pockets of taxpayers and customers. The more Thai cities become nice and clean and regulated, the more expensive they will be to live in, and the more tax the residents will have to pay. And the more taxes they pay, the more time they need to spend working just to get the same take home pay. And what would a highly regulated, clean Asian city that is expensive to live in be like? Welcome to Singapore. Singapore used to have character. Now, apart from a few pockets like Geylang, nearly all of that character is gone. I am not talking just about “naughty nightlife”, but the organic, slightly disorganised nature of Geylang that isn’t as evident in the parts of the city that have been cleaned up and modernised or even gentrified over the past few decades.
The other cost of regulation is less tangible. It is the cost of living in an over-regulated environment, of being less free. Again, welcome to Singapore. Or just look at your Farangland society. Isolated attempts at reform probably don’t do much harm, and might do some good – if for example, the hue-and-cry is over the plight of malnourished orphans left to fend for themselves on the streets. But a little dirt in a red-light district in a developing country? Nah. You might say that I am extrapolating wildly from Stick’s implication that the Plaza could do with a clean-up. You would be right, but I did warn you. Once enough people get this attitude of wanting to reform this and that, the whole thing just snowballs. Even worse is when these people get into power.
Getting back to Nana in particular. Stickman does make a good point about the rubbish cluttering up the exits. That is an example of one of those cases where lives are on the line and it is a good idea to try to effect change. Blocked exits are definitely a hazard to life and could lead to disaster should a fire break out in a bar. No one wants to be BBQed in a disco inferno. This is one area in which I agree some regulation would be a good idea, if the bar owners are not moved to do something about it themselves – but I agree only because there is a very real threat of massive loss of life, or lives being severely f**ked up. Another case of good regulations are those designed to stop underage girls from working in “the industry”. No argument there. Yet another is the campaign to discourage drunken driving during Songkran. Again, saving lives.
But please, let us not wish Nana (and Thailand in general) to become over-regulated and over-sanitised and over-safe like our Western nanny societies. Let us recognise the need for some regulation, but try to keep it to a necessary minimum where it will actually save lives. A drive to clean up Nana, if that is what the column aims to instigate, is symptomatic of an attitude that threatens to introduce more and more and more regulation to govern every aspect of the lives of the populace. It would be one thing if the Thais were people who kept public areas clean and tidy generally, as an organic part of the culture, but they aren’t. Therefore, if they are to become like this, it must be imposed upon them. That’s where I start to have a problem with it. It would be something imposed on Thais in Thailand for the benefit of farangs.
It might seem a bit surreal to talk about over-regulation in Thailand, but the signs of change are already there. The over-regulation situation in Farangland has probably only really gotten out of control since WW2, so it only takes a few decades. Would it be good if Bangkok became like Singapore? No!
I think that for many of the farangs who go to Thailand, either to live or just visit repeatedly – particularly the men – a large part of the attraction is the freedom we get from the over-regulated nature of our own societies. I would say that coming to Thailand, for us, is like a breath of fresh air, except that the mention of fresh air in the context of Bangkok seems misplaced. When I step into soi 4, I get a great sense of leaving all that behind, albeit temporarily. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t spend a hell of a lot of time in Nana, but I try to drop by at least once or twice per visit. It’s nice to know that it is there as an option. I can understand that long-term residents might take a different view of it. I suspect that, once the newness wears off, one just sees the dirt and grime and can’t see the peculiar magic of the place.
Being human, we like to have our cake and eat it too. We’d like to live in a place that is exotic and relatively unregulated, and where living costs are relatively low, and we’d also like it to be spic-and-span, and well-organised and, frankly, a bit more like home with all its creature comforts and efficient service. But it might be that can’t have our cake and eat it too. Regulations, the government bodies to oversee and enforce them, and clean-ups all take money, and the more Thailand is regulated and cleaned up, the more it will just be an Asian version of a Western city (like Singapore) and consequently, the less exotic and exciting it will be. And let us not forget that if the mooted $2 million renovation of Nana that Stickman mentions should go ahead, that $2 million will, ultimately, be paid by customers in the form of more expensive drinks and bar fines. According to another Stickman column from a few weeks ago, Nana’s bar owners are already itching to raise bar fines. Why put a gun in their hands? Of course, those who frequent the bars, but don’t bar fine, won’t be concerned if bar fines do increase. But, as I say, why don’t these either do their socialising in a “nicer” area, or just accept Nana for what it is? Adapt to it, don’t try to change it. I think that is what the Thais would do, and what they actually do seem to do (notwithstanding that they are apparently barred from entry in many of the bars anyway).
Let’s just take Nana as it is, a unique place in the world, and one that is legendary in its own way. If the Thais get it into their heads to clean it up, fine, but let’s leave it “up to them” and not try to impose our farang way of looking at the world upon it, and upon Thailand in general..
To clarify my own thoughts, I personally don't care what happens to Nana. The particular column to which you respond, which I stand by 100%, was a photo essay outlining the current state of Nana and nothing more. If Nana closed down tomorrow, it would give me heaps of material to write about for a month. I visit the plaza once a week at most and ONLY to visit Dave The Rave, take photos and keep an eye on what is happening. For a fun night out, I do not go to the nightlife areas unless it is to take photos. That's the only thing that is fun in the nightlife areas for me so to get it out of the way, I have zero personal interest in what happens.
One may argue that if it were cleaned up it would lose some of its allure, but I don't think this argument is valid at all. Most bar owners, most of my Bangkok friends who go to the plaza and readers who have sent me email about the plaza have almost all been in agreement about the plaza, voicing anything from disappointment to disgust at its current state. What I think should be done at the very least is see it cleaned up so that it is a little tidier and cleaner, as it was say 10+ years ago. The grime, the graffiti, the illegal bar that narrows the entranceway, the filth and the rubbish all could do with being cleaned up. Look closely when you're next there and you'll see the plaza is absolutely filthy, is rotting and is and has always been a firetrap – the illegal bar in the entranceway that has no title and has been in business for decades does not help.
I think your ideas lack nuance. This is not about over-regulation. Cleaning up something doesn't make it sterile or mean it is over-regulated. Cleaning a place up won't necessarily take anything away from it. Installing a new electrical system, cleaning up the grime, preventing people from pissing in the stairwells would all help the place feel tidier and look and smell a whole lot better. I mean, come on, those steps on the right-hand side reek of urine – and more than a few foreigners wear sandals or flip flops and walk through that in a drunken state. That's the sort of mess that needs to be cleaned up and measures made to ensure it doesn't happen. Something can be rudimentary or basic, but surely you'd prefer it clean as opposed to being filthy?