Tonight is an unexpected pleasant evening after the rains. I make my way along beach road towards the plaza before the Central Festival mall. Tonight will be the reveal of the statue in honor of the one who made Pattaya great again. It seems that I am not the only one: the elite of the city will be there, some Bangkok socialites, the press is in full swing and of course any Thai who feels like a party. I realize that I am getting late. I am still not used to walking slower now that I have to use a walking cane. And I spend a bit too long with Ming in the teahouse bar. Got distracted by the happy Chinese families who make up the crowd on lower Walking Street. Still, the joy of their children is contagious.
Bo Chen is the man who made Pattaya a vibrant tourist town for the Chinese. Tonight we honor him with his statue. No-one would have thought when he started his first business half way through the 2020’s. At the time he bought a failing restaurant in the middle of Walking Street, the common opinion was that a large scale Chinese family restaurant would not work there. This opinion was reinforced when people saw that half of the restaurant was converted into a kids’ playground. I was there on opening night. One other table with another lonely Farang. Three Chinese couples. A few dozen empty tables. Two Chinese kids shouting their joy for having the massive playground all for themselves. The next day I had stomach cramps from the spectacular Chinese spices. The day after the place was sold out. And it has been ever since. As has the one which copied the success and the others which followed with more and more spectacular kids play equipment.
You could describe the decade of Pattaya’s transformation as the time before, and the time after the arrival of Bo Chen. The early 2020’s saw the steady decline of the town. Traditional white visitors left: the holiday families because there was better value elsewhere, the single white males because they were out-priced, had seen it all or simply because they died out. The streets were taken over by a few families from India and China, but especially by single men from these countries. Men from the desperate brackets of society. Meaning: more drunks in the late evening. Less pleasant atmosphere in the bars. And since these men did not care, the owners of businesses stopped caring. Which led to the good customers leaving, irritated men and street fights between Indian and Chinese youngsters. For one year, these fights were the only exiting thing happening in town.
With his family restaurant, Bo Chen showed that there was a market for a place which provided value. By unclear connections & favors he could get part of the beach cleaned and organized, and have the undesirables removed from Walking Street. This created space for his new business ventures. He seemed to have a fine sense of the wishes of the middle-income Chinese independent travellers, and these became more frequent visitors. And when their numbers grew, Bo Chen’s business empire grew too.
It was not for long that every business owner who wanted to get out, tried to sell his business to Bo Chen. Among the first were the gogo bar owners of Walking Street. The high days of Farang tourism over, these bars were empty places with bored girls looking at the few bored farang who were still around. That changed when Chen started his Chinese-style gogo bar. Seats replaced by comfortable sofas. Karaoke, shoulder massage, some food and plenty of alcohol all night. And every half hour a line-up: The women walk on parade through the bar. Men choose a number from the line, pay the bar fine and be off. This way of working proved to be a big success. And success copies: after one Chinese-style gogo, many tried to copy the format. Those who got the service and the line up right succeeded, the rest would compete for the few farang still left over. But they were seen in the Chinese-style bars more and more. For a simple reason: when there is competition, customers flow to places that set themselves apart. One way to do so is the beauty and dress of the line up. When there is much competition, this leads to the unavoidable: the parade in the best bars is now nude. Why nudity is allowed in these bars, and not in the few gogo bars still targeting farang? That is unclear connections & favors.
My memories are disturbed by a group of young women chatting and making jokes in Thai about this old white man walking on his own along the beach. I have a hard time placing them. They dress expensive, but without class. Thus, they are working women. Looking good, thus might be Chinese gogo. Bit darker skin tone, side soi. Definitely not beautiful enough for the teahouse bars. It is funny how the female world is nowadays ordered by beauty types. The most beautiful and educated work in the teahouse bars on the Walking Street. The good lookers and low-educated in the Chinese gogos on Walking Street. The group just below: Chinese gogos in the side sois. The group dark skin, good looking: soapy massage palaces for the well to do Indian visitors. The plain and ugly: soi 6 and the other massage places serving the undesirable Indian tourists. The Rohinghya and left overs: the run-down gogo bars in soi LK Metro for the farang retirees. There are still a few of us around. Most have left, or died.
Guest of honor tonight will be Yusuf Demir, major of Antalya. When the Turkish economy finally collapsed under too much government debt half way the 2020’s he was looking for a way to fill the empty hotel rooms in his city. By unclear connections he got to meet Bo Chen, and the two quickly realised that there was a certain kind of white tourist which Pattaya could not use anymore. But the old Pattaya could be copied in any decent tourist town, and the various refugee crises would solve the problem of supply. So young European men party in Antalya now. Success is quickly copied: Libya, Tunisia and Algeria use the model to get out of the wars of the past years. Thus, the stream of Africans moving north continues. But where in the early 2000’s African families sent their sons to the Mediterranean in the hope of a crossing and money in Europe, they now send their daughters. Still in the hope of scoring European money. Success is copied. Venezuela needed a model to get out of socialism, the Caribbean to get out of hurricane damage. Antalya was the shining example. More young American men than ever have a passport. The websites for gender studies ask what we have learned now that MeToo is over a decade ago. Four years ago, the Stickman website wrote about “the start of a golden age of sex tourism”.
Success also creates envy. Pattaya is the main tourism city in Thailand now. And the main player here is Bo Chen. Native Chinese, with no known family ties to Thailand. And that creates rumors. Losing face about why the Thai could not create this success themselves. Rumors of various Thai groups trying to move him out. A bit too visible in the society pages. Threats of violence, only prevented by unclear connections & favors. Finally, some unknown members of the Chinese-Thai community finding a compromise: they would take over the business empire of Bo Chen, for an unknown but undoubtedly spectacular sum of money. And they would honor the builder of Pattaya with a statue, in a central place to be visible for 20 years.
I am just in time. Yusuf Demir is speeching about international friendship and collaboration and how we can learn from each other. On stage, the female major of Pattaya, a few of the high society, a minor television star, some representatives from the Tourist Authority Thailand. On the benches in front of the stage people who want to be seen, the curious ones and the ones who did not find anything better to do for the evening. Ms Wang invites me to sit next to her. A few years ago, when she was new in town, we met and I helped her to find her way around. Now she is one of the most successful in the teahouse bar industry.
The teahouse bars: the main success of Bo Chen’s empire. These are huge bars but by clever design look like intimate places. Each bar has many corners with small tables. At the table, a beautiful woman drinking tea. Men go there to drink (not necessarily tea) and have conversations. If the talk goes well, they go out to do an overnight paid arrangement. In the bar: strictly talking, holding hands but no further touching. Women are billed by their time, with the bar taking a cut. The success of the bar is made by the beauty and the education level of the women. And by the Chinese one child policy: too many Chinese men cannot find a bride in China, thus they come here. It started with Thai women. But when ASEAN opened the borders for labor, the Vietnamese and Filipino women followed. Nowadays, quite a few end 20’s early 30’s Chinese women come to these bars too: at home they are considered left over, but the men spending in these bars face family pressure too. This is where Ms Wang comes in: she is an artist in the traditional skill of match making. Dying out in China, here in high demand: if a Chinese man comes to Pattaya for a few days holiday, he does not have time to drink tea with too many women or choose the wrong companion for the night. Thus he asks a match maker to make a selection. Ms Wang knows most women working in these bars, and has an excellent sense of who fits with whom.
We come to the high point of the evening: the uncovering of the statue of the builder of Pattaya. The mayor of Pattaya has just finished her speech. She now carefully removes the cloth covering the statue. And tries to not show the shock on her face. An emotion more people are trying to hide. The statue shows a young female. Her rough features show hard labor on the land. She has this typical Isaan face which communicates farmer background. But the real shock is her outfit: she is wearing the traditional gogo dancer costume of string bikini top and short skirt. And she smiles. My god, that smile. It was that smile which made me retire in Thailand many years ago.