Deena Guzder, for the Pulitzer Center
BANGKOK, Thailand -- Tiew prefers not thinking about the night when razor blades lacerated her vaginal walls during a "ping pong show" years ago. As much as she tries to forget, the petite 46-year-old migrant from Northeast Thailand with bleached blond hair and mahogany brown skin remembers every detail of the hellish night when police raided the Show Girls club where she was performing.
Having amused a largely Western audience by executing bizarre tricks such as using her vagina to extinguish a lit candle and her pelvic muscles to shoot live goldfish into a water bowl, Tiew prepared for her grand finale. Off stage, she implanted a tightly coiled wire with glinting steel razor blades into her vaginal cavity. Tiew planned to extricate the wire as she rhythmically danced around a pole in front of her inebriated audience, but never had the opportunity. Suddenly, the anemic music was cut and the tenebrous stage was flooded by fluorescent flashlights and metal batons wielded by the Royal Thai Police. Alarmed women groped for their clothes, customers began yelling their alleged innocence, and the brothel's manager escaped through a rear exit. Tiew, in mid-performance and completely naked, raced down the dilapidated building's three flights of stairs and out into Bangkok's notorious Patpong district. The blades sliced her open like a gutted fish. "My god, the pain," recollected Tiew with a stoic face. "I didn't know a person could even feel so much pain." Tiew used her meager personal savings to find a gynecologist, but much of the damage was irreparable.
Tiew was born in a city in Northeast Thailand called Buriram, which means "city of happiness" or "city of joy." However, Tiew's childhood was anything but happy or joyful. One of five siblings, Tiew helped her parents in the rice paddies since her family could not afford to send her to school. She never learned to read or write. In her early 20s, Tiew married an older man and gave birth to a daughter. Tiew's husband died shortly afterwards and suddenly she was a widow with no means of supporting herself and her young child. Hoping to find low-skill work in Thailand's capital, Tiew migrated to Bangkok and took a job at a plastic factory where she was paid 15 Thai Baht a day (roughly USD $0.44, adjusted for inflation). Unable to survive on the paltry sum, Tiew learned how to sew and became a seamstress. For every kilo of clothes that Tiew mended, she received 13 Thai Baht (roughly USD $0.38, adjusted for inflation). To save money for her daughter's education, Tiew moved in with her new boyfriend. As if following the script of a horror film, the man began womanizing and pilfering Tiew's earnings. When Tiew protested, the man became both verbally and physically abusive.
Desperate to save herself and her daughter from her increasingly violent boyfriend, Tiew looked for a new job. When a friend told her about an opportunity in the Patpong district, Tiew decided to try the life of a showgirl. "I thought it would be exciting and, if nothing else, at least help us survive," says Tiew. Walking along the narrow Patpong streets lit up like Las Vegas, Tiew passed neon signs yelling "Thigh Bar", "Pussy Galore", "Supergirls", "King's Castle," and "Super Pussy" before eventually finding the occult multistory building where she would eventually work. When she arrived, Tiew had no idea what was expected. "I asked one of the women and she started swearing at me, saying 'What the @#$%, you don't know where your pussy is!?'," recollects Tiew. "Maybe she was strung out on drugs."
Tiew began to learn the tricks of the trade by observing her colleagues train their pelvic muscles to hold, eject, and blow objects out of their vaginal cavities. She watched women lace flower garlands, stuff them in condoms, and insert them in their vaginas before dancing in circles like swirling dervishes while slowly pulling out the garlands. She watched women hold firecrackers in each of their hands and then insert the lit firecrackers inside themselves during an erotic dance. In one act,Tiew learned how to place a lit cigarette in her vagina, inhale the fumes and exhale the smoke. In another act, Tiew mimicked a woman who inserted an unboiled egg in her vagina and smacked her body against the wooden floor multiple times before removing the unbroken egg. Tiew escorted male members of the audience to the dance platform, gave them balloons, and watched a colleague use her pelvic muscles to shoot darts at the balloons. During one show, Tiew observed a woman put a Coca-Cola bottle inside her and pop off the top with her vaginal muscles and then insert the bottle's contents inside her body, dance like an expressionless automaton, and later release the contents into an empty bottle to elicit laughter from intoxicated audience members. During another show, Tiew watched a woman stuff a bulbous, agitated frog inside her body and hold still as the ruckus audience counted out loud in unison, enthusiastically encouraging her to endure longer. [Note: this reporter was an eye-witness to these exact acts in Patpong, Thailand]
Some of the women were patient with Tiew since they too were once novices, but others were too overwhelmed by their own tragic circumstances to show her any sympathy. Tiew suspects some of the women she worked with were under the age of 20 since the club had no requirements except that "the women were not fat." Some of her colleagues looked too young to legally purchase alcohol while others had cellulite and stretch marks from childbirth. Many of Tiew's co-workers came from Thailand's poorer neighbors: Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia, and Laos. Tiew said she did not know if any of the women were trafficking victims since language barriers and overbearing pimps prevented the women from sharing more than a cursory camaraderie. A Modern Form of Slavery: Trafficking of Burmese Women and Girls into Brothels in Thailand, based on three missions to Thailand by Human Rights Watch Asia and Women's Rights divisions, documents over fifty cases of Burmese women and girls lured by unscrupulous recruiters to Thailand with promises of good jobs and a cash advance, often paid to their parents. Human Rights Watch traces the women and girls' cross-border transport and their confinement in illegal brothels throughout Thailand where they are forced to work off their debt, often with 100 percent interest, through what amounts to sexual servitude.
Tiew vividly remembers the acute anxiety she experienced before her first live performance. "I felt very embarrassed, ashamed, and afraid, but if I didn't do it I couldn't feed my child," says Tiew referring to her then 8-year-old daughter. Over the years, Tiew developed a pachydermatous layer of self-protection and learned not to make eye contact with audience members as she perambulated through her humiliating routine. Tiew tried not to share the accessories she used in her performances, especially the razor blades, to reduce the risk of sexually-transmitted diseases, but says she is still very scared about contracting HIV/AIDS. The sex industry has rapidly accelerated the spread of HIV after the virus first appeared in Thailand in the 1980s, but the Thai government is reticent to address the problem lest it scare away coveted tourist dollars.
Tiew says her body feels old, worn and destroyed. She especially hates performing the cigarette act since the smoke has left her vagina adust. "I use a feminine wash, but everything is hot, itchy, smelly, and dry," says Tiew with downcast eyes as her face begins to redden.
The show where Tiew performs costs 200-300 Thai Baht (USD $6-9) per guest. Tiew arrives at work at 6 P.M. and leaves at daybreak. She stamps a time card when she arrives and is penalized 5 Thai Baht (USD $0.14) for every minute she is late. Each month, Tiew receives two nights of vacation and, if she doesn't miss any additional nights, she earns 6000 Thai Baht (USD $181). The salary is more than Tiew has ever made in her life and, given her illiteracy, is probably more she can make anywhere else. Tiew is allowed to keep any tips she makes. "We do anything to amuse the men and make more tips so we can save some money," says Tiew. "We put frogs, fish, snakes, and sparrows up there." Not a single day passes that Tiew does not wish her life had turned out differently, that the world had been a little kinder. "If I had any other options, I would obviously leave," says Tiew. "I would leave without a second thought." She hopes her daughter, who is now 23-years-old, will have a chance at a better life.
Ever since the night when police raided the club where she was performing, Tiew says she only has sex with customers when she is desperate for cash. "It hurts too much and I hate it," says Tiew. "But I'll do it if the guy can pay at least 1500 Baht (USD $44)." Tiew says clients can become violent, but she is careful to choose only the ones she finds non-threatening. "I insist he comes to my apartment, not his," says Tiew who believes this practice is safer. "I try to get him to use a condom," she says, but admits that everything is negotiable for the right price when times are tough.
Tiew has two tattoos, one on each shoulder blade. Written in Javanese, the language of Indonesia, the first tattoo means "father" and second means "mother." When asked about the significance of the tattoos, Kiew responds with a forlorn expression, "They are for protection."
Special thanks to my Thai-English translator Faai (Kanokkwan) Thamavit.
Deena Guzder, for the Pulitzer Center