About A Bargirl
The post war austerity years after WW2 had come to an end by the late ’50s in Europe. A new, young generation took over. The 1960s produced lots of changes. London was swinging. Fun-loving hedonism produced sexual liberation, cult of personalities in many sectors of society. Fashion icon Mary Quant, famous for designing the mini skirt, the celebrated models Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton. The Beatles, Savile Row Carnaby-Street, pirate radio stations, anti-nuclear protest marches, and much more. At first seen as countercultural revolution it soon became mainstream. The term swinging ’60s was coined and often referred to in later years, almost always in positive and sometimes most nostalgic terms.
Over the pond similar movements took place. If you’re going to San Francisco be sure to wear some flowers in your hair! Scott McKenzie’s anthem still rings in my ears to this day. The hippies or flower children, as called by the elders, did just that. Or if not with flowers they paraded the streets with banners saying make love not war. Not that it did any good or changed a thing. 50 years on as many conflicts or wars around the world are in progress right now.
I followed all these events mostly on TV and in newspapers. Yes, the youngsters of the ’60s and ’70s are my contemporaries. But my upbringing and education was conventional if not downright petit bourgeois. Consequently the path I followed as a young man was well within those parameters.
Discontent and dissatisfaction hit many years later. A slowly disintegrating marriage, many solitary evenings with hours to kill led me to read lots of books. Often novels by a new generation of writers. At first, espionage stories by Eric Ambler and later Frederick Forsyth. Irwin Shaw’s two best known novels. Eventually Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann. The latter two for the first time explicitly describing happenings between sheets in the bedroom or any other places for that matter. When the “rien ne va plus” situation became reality in my relationship I took the decision to travel. My first intention was to discover South-America. Then, on a 2-month consultant job in Egypt a friend handed me a book to read. It was a real life story by Thomas Thompson called Serpentine. About the life of the French-Vietnamese professional scammer and eventual serial killer, Charles Sobhraj. Much of the intriguing narrative taking place in Thailand and told by the excellent story teller Thompson was. Spontaneously I rescheduled my plans and would go to South-east Asia instead. My working stint over I booked a flight from Cairo to Bangkok.
Thus in 1988 I arrived in Thailand. Soon I discovered that this country was really an island. Nothing was the same than anywhere I’d been or had seen before. Even down to the short, well above the ears haircuts of men at the time when all western males carried long hairstyles. Fate took me to Phuket. Over the years I have often written about people, places, friends, my own fortunes and misfortunes, private and professional. But this post is about a girl, a bargirl if you like, for that is what she was, at least for a time.
Question: How many of you have known a bargirl for 30 years? I bet not many. Apart from those who are married, the union worked out and you are still together of course. Well, the story you’re about to read and I have titled “about a bargirl” is just that. Albeit, and more accurately it should be “about an ex-bargirl”. I need to stress at this point that this is not a composite of bargirl stories. It’s about a real person and the reason she has to remain anonymous. Today, in her 5Th decade she’s the respected manageress of a renowned restaurant in greater Bangkok. Frequented by Thai and farang patrons. Let’s call her Lek.
I first met Lek in a somewhat shabby restaurant at one of the smaller sois between beach and second road in Patong, Phuket. It was 1989. She came from Phang-nga or a small village nearby. Kitchen help, waitress, cleaning was her job. The food was good and cheap. That suited me. In time we started to talk. With hand and feet at first! But her desire to pick up English was genuine and so was mine to learn Thai. When Lek could not find the few hundred baht she had to send back home every week I helped out. When it happened again and then again Lek was embarrassed as she did not have the means to repay the loans. It’s your salary for teaching me Thai I suggested. It was little money lost for me but gained a lasting friendship with Lek. Sealed with no further strings attached.
An enterprising American named Brian rented the house at the top corner of Bangla Road and Patong’s second road. He turned it into a bar and go-go bar on the first floor. I forget the name of the place but it was possibly the first go-go bar in Phuket at the time. Lek was hired as a waitress. It did not take long for her to hear the stories of the easy made money going short or long-time with farang by the go-go girls. One of them had come down from Bangkok telling her a proper rags to riches story based and attested to by her bankbooks showing tens of thousands baht transferred over the years by farang she had entertained and made all sorts of promises when they returned to their homelands.
Young, poor and pretty it took but a few weeks for Lek to move upstairs and join the go-go girls. Given her attributes it was not surprising that Lek soon became one of the more popular girls. Barfines and earning had allowed her to open a bank account and have some savings of her own.
After less than a year she informed me that she was travelling to Bangkok for a scheduled meeting. She was to be interviewed at the Italian Embassy or Consulate in view of obtaining a tourist visa. Invited by one her former dancer friends now married to an Italian she would spend a holiday and return after time was up. I was not convinced that was the real reason for her travel. But then, weeks after her departure she sent me a photo of two happy smiling girls in a Venice gondola signed Lek and friend plus the caption “dolce far niente” in perfect Italian.
For a year or maybe two I had no news from Lek. Then came her letter from a Scandinavian country. It may have been Finland or Norway. It sort of confirmed my earlier suspicion prior to the Italian expedition. The short message simply said that she was now married and learning the local language. Another year passed and a new letter again accompanied by a photo showing her leaning against a car. It was a Saab. This and the letters stamp with the Sweden King’s head clearly indicated that she was now in Sweden. This time the letter simply said how much she missed Thailand. For emphasis a caricature drawing of a longhaired but crying girl dominated the top of the letter. Another yearlong silent period followed.
Then suddenly a surprise telephone call. Unlike us, taught to say who we are first when calling on phones, Thais just start to blabber away and I had no idea who I was talking to for a while. It’s me, Lek, she repeated several times. When I finally got wise who I was talking to I became even further intrigued. It did not sound a faraway call and Lek added I’m here in Phang-nga, I’ve come to see my daughter and my mother.
A few days later I met Lek at her old restaurant in Patong. 5 years had passed since her departure for Rom. She was accompanied by a little girl about 7 or 8 years old, her daughter. You never told me about that, I said. I was seduced by the village beau when I was 14 years old. Eventually became pregnant and gave birth to a little girl. After the child was born my mother sent me to Phuket to earn money for the upkeep of the child. I had no choice and was so embarrassed. I told nobody during my time in Phuket. Now she was married to an older Swedish man. A kind man that she felt indebted to but did not love. Fate or Buddha, she told me that day, has only given me an old man but I must be grateful for he is a good man.
Together with her partner on a holiday staying in a Karon Beach hotel. But Lek spent much of the time in Phang-nga with mother and her daughter. I met Lek on one more occasion together this time with husband Sven at a bar near their hotel. A pleasant man. He had a fun time with the bargirls, they called him seven or seven-eleven unable to pronounce his name properly. When the time was up they returned to Sweden and for a time there was little news from Lek. The advent of internet changed that soon. Letters and for Lek mostly photos could now be exchanged easily by a simple klick on the keyboard. The years passed. By now Lek had learned to speak Swedish and much improved her English as most Swedes are also proficient in English. She now had a job. A simple job on a manufacturing line but she gained her own money and more than once mentioned how proud she was when being paid her monthly salary.
A new figure appeared in Lek’s letters more and more often. A younger man she sometimes met for a joint lunch during the midday break. Lek was now 35 and Rolf about the same. The inevitable happened. Two young people falling in love. But it was not a joyful and happy time for her. An immense feeling of guilt now became overwhelming for Lek. In many, now often rambling emails to me she talked about her tormented frame of mind. She could not abandon Sven. He loved her and had been so good to her for well over a decade. Even helped her trough the difficult steps to obtain citizenship in the adapted country and financed the building of a new, much improved house in Pang-Na for her mother and her daughter.
Eventually she could no longer deny her true feelings and left Sven. But the feeling of betrayal remind and grew stronger when he was taken ill and hospitalized after a time. Her mails during those months that should have been a joyful period for the young couple became sombre and guilt-ridden. And then they simply stopped coming.
For several years I heard nothing from Lek. Friends of hers told me she’d been in Phuket twice with her new companion but Lek did not contact me. Instead I met Sven on a solitary trip he made to Phuket. A malignant growth had been diagnosed in his abdomen. A surgical intervention had to be performed and he came to rest and recover here. We had little in common apart from his former wife. What I remember most is him taking out his wallet and displaying a series of photos of Lek and him in happier times.
Years passed by and finally a short mail from Lek and a photo attachment showing her with a lovely, tall young girl. Lek’s now grown up daughter. Another 2 or 3 years later another photo showing her daughter being handed over a diploma by Princess Sirindhorn. No comment this time. Lek’s pride was shining bright through the picture of her daughter’s achievement, no words were needed.
But a reply was warranted this time. I thanked Lek and congratulated her for her daughter’s diploma even though I didn’t know exactly what it was. Now being curious myself I asked her more news about her own life. How was she? Where was she? Still in Sweden? Or perhaps in Thailand on holiday I added as an afterthought remembering the photos of her and daughter was taken locally. The return mail had again a photo attachment. This time of herself with an elderly lady, presumably her mother. The short text indicated that she was now living in Bangkok, working as a sales rep for real estate agents.
By now I was myself retired but still living in the south of Thailand. I retained a small apartment in the metropole. It was high time, I replied, that we now met to update on our respective lives journey. Lek immediately agreed. When we did meet I encountered a still youthful looking Lek. But the shy, unsecure Lek of long past was now an accomplished and self-assured Lady. I expected her to wai me but she embraced me with kisses on both cheeks in a very European style fashion. Once settled I had but three words; tell me Lek!
The union with Rolf lasted several years and was not an unhappy one. But, she said, it started under the wrong conditions. Consumed by guilt and remorse over her betrayal of Sven she know believes it was cursed from the outset. All the more when Sven, that she continued to see, insisted to help finance her daughter’s education then starting studies in a prestigious university in Bangkok. But why leave the good life in Europe? I’ve missed my country all along, she replied, missed my mother, missed my daughter, missed the nearby sea in Pang-Na, the food, the climate, the people and so much more. Finally a harrowing event at the end of her time with Rolf decided her to leave. What happened? Tell you some other time, Lek replied. She will not, I know. There are things people don’t want to talk about and that’s that. Besides, Thais never or rarely say no to your face.
I’m happy to be here now. I want no more men in my life she continued and looked at the somewhat chubby younger girl that came along with her. A Thai lady about 30 or a little more, just sitting quietly next to Lek, occasionally looking up to her or gently stroking her hand. I understand, I said and I did.
Earlier this year I met Lek in her new job at the upscale restaurant. Busy as she was I still heard the latest news. Her daughter had secured a junior position in a IT Firm. The mother was somewhat ailing but alive in Phang-nga. Sven had died the past year. Rolf was in a new relationship and planning to get married.
Time came to leave I asked for the addition. There is no bill, Lek announced, it’s high time repaying the money I’ve owed you for 30 years.
Comes to mind that old Barry Manilow song Copacabana: …her name was Lola she was a showgirl! The song’s lyrics in the later part says: now 30 years on her club has closed and turned into a Disco. But Lola still sits there in her faded feathers and her fancy dress: “losing her mind, drinking herself half blind” as the song concludes. It makes me think of all the showgirls or bargirls around the world that can’t let go when their time is up.
Not so Lek. She made it out of the vicious circle of prostitution just in time. Admittedly her stint as a bargirl, go-go dancer was a short one (less than a year). And luck was on her side meeting the right man.
Addendum; if it wasn’t for Thomas Thompson’s book Serpentine mentioned earlier in the story I probably would never have set foot to Thailand. I suppose that’s fate or Karma too. Thompson has written other, excellent real-life stories. “Hearts”, “Richie”, “Blood & money” and “Lost”. He sadly passed away at the young age of 49.
The author can be contacted at : [email protected]