A former wedding planner observes the sex trade in Bangkok, as well as efforts to free women and children from prostitution.
The Grace Hotel in Bangkok was built in the 1940s for servicemen on leave and has never really been updated. A wide, curving, concrete driveway leads to an open lobby, white walls with dark wood ornamentation, matching railings, and Naugahyde chairs arranged in small groupings. The edifice reminds me of an aging cruise ship. The red carpet is threadbare and fading. Hallways on either side of the main lobby simulate an off-the strip Vegas casino. There is a bar complete with disco ball, a coffee shop, a bowling alley, a massage parlor, a karaoke lounge, an arcade, and booth seating in the middle of all the attractions. The front desk staff and concierge are not known for their hospitality and seem to only be there for appearance’s sake. Muslim men and their families appeared to be the only clientele.
I dared not take any pictures, I already felt like a spectacle, standing a full head taller than every female and the only blond for miles. My friends Troy, Debbie, Hannah, and I sat in one of the booths that gave us a view of the entrance. Troy moved to Bangkok in 2008 to start Speak Up For The Poor, a non-profit organization specializing in legal advocacy work for refugees and women trapped in the sex industry. Hannah and Debbie had been here before. They watched my face for a reaction. I understood their earlier warnings. I noticed that I was clutching my backpack and gawking.
We watched a Muslim family. The husband wore a black turban; his wife wore a light blue burka. They pushed an expensive stroller, checked in, and left their bags with a bellman. The family exited together and several minutes later, the same husband escorted a young Asian woman up to his room, while his wife and child, I suppose, were out shopping or eating dinner. His call girl was petite, in her early 20s, with fair skin. She wore a mini, strapless spandex dress with a fuchsia and white print. Her dark hair was long and glossy. She twirled it with their fingers playfully. She wore stiletto heels and dark red lipstick, heavy mascara, and very little jewelry. She spoke in whispers and only made eye contact with the man who had purchased her. I tried to reconcile this place with the definition of grace that I had memorized: to adorn or embellish, to confer dignity or honor on another.
I’ve spent ten years working in different hotels, as an event coordinator and later, a wedding planner. I remember many times (almost on a weekly basis), while working, a guest of the conference or wedding would slide his room key across the table toward me and ask if he could see me later. Most of the time this guy made no effort to hide his wedding ring. When this happened, I slid the card right back to him and said, “You’ll be needing that key tonight more than I will.” I started wearing a silver band on my ring finger to work. It didn’t seem to make a difference. My mother was worried I would never meet someone worth marrying if I wore a ring in public. The women here are facing a more complex issue.
Troy filled me in, quietly explaining that some Muslim men are very devout and require that a marriage ceremony be performed before having sex with a girl they have bought.
But, the condom part is optional. By selecting a young, inexperienced virgin there is less risk of disease.
“Were all these women trafficked here?” I ask. I couldn’t take my eyes of the man who has paid for this woman. His frizzy salt and pepper beard did not match his straight posture and thick, dark brow.
“For most of these women, the answer is: not exactly. Many moved to Bangkok from very poor villages and could not find any other work and now they cannot return home because of the shame they have brought on their families. Others were probably trafficked as children somewhere else. Now, they simply have no other prospects.”
“What is Speak Up doing about this?” I rifled through my bag for my notebook and pen even though I know this memory was permanently embedded on my retinas.
“There were a couple women from Uzbekistan who had been trafficked here that I helped resettle back in their home country a few months ago. They had been promised jobs in Bangkok but learned, once they were over the Thai border, the real reason they had been hired. They were trapped. After some undercover work, I was able to help them put the necessary papers together so that they could return home. Legally.”
“So, that’s two women. Now what?” We watched the elevator doors close and the girl disappears. Troy leaned forward and lowered his voice.
“Making a difference here means preventing the next generation of girls from this fate. We are partnering with the Alingon home for girls in Khulna, Bangladesh. It’s a safe house for girls whose mothers work in the brothels. The women who run the Alingon home require mothers to sign over custody of their daughters so that these children will receive an education and a future. Prostitution flourishes where there is extreme poverty and women are subjected to repressive laws. We have also started recruiting law students both here in Bangkok and in Bangladesh to educate indigenous leaders in these countries who will work to fight these injustices within their own legal system.”
My pen was poised, my face was flushed, and I was overwhelmed with the enormity of what women in 2012 are facing: discrimination, slavery, poverty, disease, rape … . I couldn’t even articulate my next question.
“The truth is,” Troy goes on, “when we tackle this issue, we are automatically changing a country’s economy, industry, crime rates, and governmental leadership—because officials can no longer be bought. Dismantling the sex trade touches the core of every negative aspect of our society for every future generation.”
We sat in silence on the train back to our hotel. I took a shower and discovered that my arms and chest were covered in hives. My skin was crawling. I went to bed with wet hair and sinister dreams where I was on display under black lights.
The next morning, we rode the subway to visit Night Light’s headquarters, which exists to rescue and reintegrate woman who have been enslaved in the sex industry by teaching and hiring them to make and sell jewelry. I met a young woman who had been rescued and was now employed as a jewelry maker. Through a translator, while her graceful hands assembled necklaces, she said that she’d been forced to marry four different clients over the course of her old career. She wore jeans, and a Night Light polo shirt. This was her new uniform and she wore it with pride. Her straight black hair was pulled into an efficient ponytail. She smiled cheerfully as she talked about how grateful she was for the life she had now and that her children would be free. She seemed to be in her early 20s.
Her skin was beautiful but her eyes conveyed a gravity. The event planner in me tried to imagine her hasty weddings to religious but horny foreigners.
Our group took turns browsing through the small storefront, touching every beautiful necklace, intricate bracelet, and delicate earring these women had made. My favorite pieces were the ones that had been oxidized from the extreme humidity. They looked antique. I picked out a chunky silver chain with a small skeleton key charm. I don’t normally wear much jewelry, quite possibly a direct result of my days in the wedding business. I opted for something simple while others chose long strands of mother of pearl or garnet or turquoise. Each one unique.
After lunch, our team had the chance to give these women a simple English lesson.
We brought a huge box full of card making supplies, rubber stamps, inkpads, colorful paper, envelopes, and markers. We showed them simple American expressions; I love you, Happy Birthday, I miss you, and Happy Mother’s Day. (Their Mother’s Day was a few weeks away.) My team of eight sat with these twenty-five women and only one translator, giggling as we designed cards for our mothers. We had been asked to refrain from taking pictures of the women as their lives might still be in danger if these photos were ever published. Instead, I took pictures of their hands at work, their tentative handwriting. Finally, I could not help myself. I pulled out my iPhone and recorded about a minute of their busy laughter. They were victims no longer. I needed to hold on to this sound of freedom.
Whenever I wear my necklace, someone stops me, asks where I got it, and I tell the story of the women I met on the other side of the world. They have survived violence, captivity, and greed. Now, they move in true grace just outside the shadow of the Grace Hotel.
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Image credit: permanently scatterbrained/Flickr