I Have a Dream
I have a dream that when the coronavirus crisis is over, the bar business will enter a new golden age. It is a dream that consoles me for my cancelled trip in April, and comforts me in the loneliness of my self-isolation. My dream is based on this fragile premise: that the bar business thrives when times are hard. The Vietnam War brought about the birth of the gogo bar in the first place, and the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997 brought about a golden age of low prices (so eloquently described by Stick contributor “Bahtman”). So perhaps the coronavirus crisis will result in another golden age: the baht and the peso will plummet, bars will lower their prices to attract custom, and many more girls, plunged into poverty by an ailing economy, will resort to the bars, offering bargain prices, long time, and even the late lamented GFE! – I have a dream.
When I dream the dream, over a few beers in my locked-down apartment, I usually base it in Angeles City as, these days, I know that place better than Bangkok or Pattaya. It goes like this:
Marife left high school at 18 having achieved honours in her high school diploma. She got a job at a call centre in Clark earning 620 pesos per day – twice what she could earn as a shop assistant. She sends 10,000 pesos per month to help out her family in Leyte, where her father and elder brother are sugar cane workers, with seasonal employment and low pay, most of which is wasted on tuba (coconut wine) and gambling on “fighting chickens”.
The coronavirus crisis hits China, and Marife and her friends have fun posing in face masks and taking selfies. A few months later, the world goes into lockdown, and reality hits home: her call centre loses two thirds of its clients, and two thirds of the staff are laid off, among them Marife.
She is devastated. Her family is devastated. The remittances have to stop, bringing to an abrupt end their comfortable life – and the gambling on fighting chickens. Marife can’t even pay her rent, so she heads back to Leyte – another mouth to feed.
The sugar market is down by 18%. Planters are desperate to reduce costs. Marife’s father and brother can’t get work. All they have is the small, subsistence farm that they live on – a hectare of corn rice, a pig, a cow and a few chickens. They get by (subsistence farmers will survive even if the globalised economy goes down the toilet). In true Philippine fashion, they help their neighbours, and their neighbours help them – but life is hard.
* * *
6,666 miles away, life is hard for Jim, too. He is in self-isolation in London. He has not joined in the panic buying of toilet rolls because his adventures in South East Asia have taught him that there are other (and better) ways to clean your bum. Nor is he, unlike some of his friends, experiencing financial problems, because he is retired and has a modest pension, but he is in deep depression because his next trip to the City of Angels has been cancelled. Manila and Clark airports were closed on March 17th, and his subscription to teenfilipina.com is no substitute.
* * *
Fast forward to July 2020. Most borders have reopened, and the world economy is slowly, very slowly, getting back on its feet. The Philippine economy has been particularly hard hit, and there are few jobs to be had. But Marife knows about Angeles City and what goes on there, because it is not far from Clark, and the girls at the call centre used to joke about it sometimes. Could she do it? She looks around her: the pig, cow and chickens have long been slaughtered, and all they have to eat now is corn rice, seasoned with a pinch of salt if they are lucky. Somehow, father and brother manage to get their supply of tuba, but without fighting chickens to give them an interest in life, they are morose and quarrelsome. Her little brother and sister look at her with sad, soulful eyes that seem say: “Help!”
So she makes her way to Angeles City and finds that it is a ghost town. Walking Street is almost deserted, and the door to every bar is locked and bolted. But wait! The door to Teen Angels (don’t go looking for it, reader, I made it up!) is open, and crates of beer are being wheeled in on a trolley. She peeks inside, and sees a western guy giving orders – probably the manager.
“Can I have a job?” she asks hesitantly.
The manager shakes his head. “I can’t pay you – I haven’t paid the landlord for months.”
“But I really need a job – my family are desperate!”
The manager looks her over with a critical eye: she’s young, pretty, has a well-shaped body, big tits, big doe eyes. She might tempt a few customers.
“OK, you can dance if you like. But I can’t pay you. You can have half of every lady drink – I’ve put them down to 120 now. If you get a barfine, you can keep half. But don’t ask too much – 2,000 for long time. You can sleep upstairs.”
Marife is so pleased that she forgets what she is letting herself in for – a high school girl with honours, selling her body.
That night a few Korean and western expats visit the bar. There are only three other girls, so they all get lady drinks in the course of the evening. By 3 am, when the bar closes, she has made 300 pesos, and has no outgoings (as she is living in). One of the other girls got a barfine, so her take for the evening is 1,000+. Things are looking up.
* * *
As soon as Jim hears he can get into the Philippines he books a flight. His friends tell him that he is mad. The coronavirus is still around, and what easier way to catch something than to sit on a plane for 14 hours breathing re-circulated air? But Jim couldn’t care less. After all, if you are planning an exchange of intimate bodily fluids with a complete stranger, and a foreign one at that, the hypothetical risk of catching what is, after all, just another flu virus seems laughable.
But he is less sanguine when, at 8 pm, he heads out of his hotel into Walking Street. There is a sprinkling of people around, mostly Koreans, and the Korean bars are open, if not busy. But as he walks along the street he finds that one after another of his favourite bars are closed. The few that are open have hardly any girls, and often no customers. Then he comes to Teen Angels.
Back in the day, when he first came to Angeles, it was the word “teen” that lured him in, though latterly, the “angels” had been overweight ladies whose teen years were a distant memory.
It is the same as the other bars inside, though – just a few girls and only one other customer. But he stays for old time’s sake, and as he waits for his San Mig Light, takes a closer look at the girls. There are only two on stage, and only five in the whole place, but every one of them lives up to the name of the bar. They are all of them pretty and petite, and are all watching him (and the other guy) with hungry looks.
He chooses Marife. She is grateful, she is humble, and she demonstrates it by giving him a back massage (for starters). He buys her a lady drink, and is surprised that it costs less than half than on his last visit. Tentatively he asks her about the barfine.
“2,000,” she replies.
Jim thinks that such a low price must be for short time, and a short short time at that.
“I like long time,” he says.
“I give you everything you want – long time,” she says (not realising that she is quoting from Jim’s favourite film).
To cut a long story short, Marife gives him what old Asia hands call the “GFE” (Girlfriend Experience), and she is so good at it that he keeps her for the whole week.
At the end of that week, Marife has made 16,000 (Jim tipped her generously for her devoted service) + her share of the lady drinks that he bought when they visited her bar each night.
* * *
Back in boring old Blighty, Jim tells all his friends (well, those who understand) what a wonderful time he had, and writes glowingly about his experience on the usual forums, while at the same time, Marife tells all her friends what big money she is making. It snowballs.
* * *
It is October before Jim has saved up enough for another trip, and he is to find that, though the coronavirus travelled fast in months gone by, word of mouth is even faster. Walking Street is heaving. Every bar is open, and every stage is packed with girls of the type that Jim likes: pretty and petite – not a fattie or an oldie to be seen. Prices have gone up, but they are still lower than before. But attitudes have also gone up. The girls are eager to please, eager to give the GFE, and perhaps hook a long time sponsor who will lift them and their family out of poverty.
Jim makes the most of it – but he will never forget Marife, and ends up back in her bar. To cut a long story short, he takes her out of the bar and marries her, and her father and brother will never be without a fighting chicken ever again.
* * *
That’s my dream. Probably the opposite will happen, and the coronavirus will kill off the Angeles bar business for good – but Martin Luther King’s dream, though it seemed impossible in 1963, came true – so maybe there’s a chance for mine.
The author of this article can be contacted at : [email protected]