[Nonfiction] Patpong • Katherine Yungmee Kim

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Photo: Soldier posing with a woman at a Korean brothel, 1952, The Korean War Photography of Hanson A. Willaims, Jr. [digital resource], Pepperdine University Special Collections and University Archives.

When I was 22 years old, I found myself on alone on Patpong Road. Patpong is a stretch of a street in the Bang Rak district of Bangkok where Thai women—biological and re-assigned (and I’m sure some men and children, too)—sell their bodies to travelers from around the world. At that time, the thing to do was to go to Patpong to watch sex shows. There was a popular one called a “Ping Pong Show,” where young Thai women shot objects, like white ping pong balls, out of their vaginas while people watched. The show has since evolved. Now other things are inserted and expelled from vaginal cavities: pens, animals and beer. I remember when I was on Patpong in the early 1990s, peering into an open doorway, too intimidated to walk in on my own and catching sight of the “Pussy Smoking Cigarette” show. To refresh my memory, I went online recently and found a dated, grainy video of a slight Thai woman lying on her back onstage, her knees bent like she’s having a Pap smear, or a baby. She scoots her vagina closer to the spectators, sticks one unlit cigarette into her vaginal orifice and lights it with another cigarette. Her vagina takes a few puffs and then “exhales.”

I was traveling alone. I had just finished a four-month temp gig for a pharmaceutical company, earning enough money to book a one-way ticket to Southeast Asia. My plan was to meet up with an old roommate who had been doing a study abroad program in Dharamshala. I arrived in Bangkok a few days before her and did some sightseeing things around the city, like visiting visit Buddhist temples and eat eating pad thai and krater prik from street stalls. I slept at a hostel and thumbed through the Lonely Planet guidebook. I got my hair braided into cornrows on Khaosan Road to appear somewhat summery and sexy. But when I caught a glimpse of my reflection, with the multicolored beads and all, I felt like a fool. 

That night on Patpong, I noticed a group of German men strolling by. One of them gave me a look—it was clearly a look of interest—but then I realized that it wasn’t a look of attraction. It was an assessment of purchase—whether or not that night I would be the one he was going to pay to fuck. This was a position I was unaccustomed to, being lumped in with the sex workers. But here on Patpong, I was regarded as just another Asian woman, available and disposable, nameless and for sale. 

I went on to spend a year in Cambodia, working for a newspaper with an office in a beautiful French Colonial hotel with faded paint and overgrown frangipani trees. It was a place haunted and dilapidated beyond repair. There weren’t many guests there because there were better places in town for foreigners that were cheap enough—a four-star resort with poolside service, guest houses and hostels that offered Western-friendly fare. One visitor—an American man in his late 50s—booked a room on the first floor for a few weeks. I would see him at the check-in, not even hiding the swarm of little boys by his side. He wasn’t the first Westerner I had seen who was there for the boys. They were there for overnights and Coca Cola. I remember him clearly though, new to town, sitting by himself at the Capitol Hotel. He wore sunglasses, a plain white shirt and khakis. “Former CIA,” my friend Julian, a Vietnam Vet who never left the region, leaned over and whispered to me slyly.

There were no legal ramifications. These men were halfway around the world from home. If there happened to be crackdowns that month in Bangkok, they would slip across the border to Phnom Penh, where regulations were even more lax. By the time the authorities caught on, if they bothered at all, the men would already be on the next flight out of the region, on to who knows where. 

Wherever there was nightlife, there was prostitution. There were many nights at The Martini, slow dancing under a mirrorball with escorts and expats. Oftentimes, the men didn’t know I wasn’t for hire. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this. As the months passed, I saw a lot of my colleagues—young and respectable, American and Ivy-educated—succumb to their loneliness and pay for a taxi girl. She’d stay a few nights, and if she played her cards right, they’d start dating and the relationship would last a few months. This was always the goal, this notion of job security. The more successful women were sharp and smart. They spoke great English, wore cute outfits and had a facility with Western references and slang. Some of them became friends and invited me to their families’ apartments, always asking me for money or a hookup—that magical connection to a long-term boyfriend.

The following year, I got a job as a reporter in Seoul. When  I went to Western hotels and nightclubs, I found myself surrounded by Korean prostitutes. I struggled to reserve judgment and tried not to appear morally or financially superior. I spent many nights on Hooker Hill, where I got to know the bars by their niches—this one served black soldiers, this one had the best fruit punch soju kettles, that one had the best after-hours dancing. Melamine counters, red lights and last calls. I knew it’d been like this since the Korean War, for forty-some years, when the brothels first sprung up around the camp towns. 

I grew up near an army fort in Massachusetts and we’d get our groceries from the only Korean market around. The grocery was in a shitass part of town, closer to the military installation’s main gate, and had come into existence for the GI brides. No frills, just a few rows of shelves under fluorescent lights, selling staples like barley, Korean seaweed and dried anchovies, with a few refrigerated sections for tofu and napa cabbage. I’d see these women there from time to time, and when my mom passed them in the aisles, she eyed them with pity and disdain. 

The other day, I looked up Patpong to see if it still exists. A bunch of online reviews bemoan the fact that it’s not the same as it was back in the day, when it was raunchier and sketchier. There were warnings to pay for drinks as you go, and stories about shakedowns and roofies, which are unsurprisingly common there. What changed, I wondered. Was it online porn or governmental policies? In Thailand, high estimates count one million sex workers—rural girls, city girls, moneyboys, ladyboys, migrants, orphans—all for the “two-week millionaire.” 

Someone posted a question on a forum about whether or not they would be able to see a Patpong sex show because they were only twenty years old. “Don’t worry,” Captain_Bob answered, eleven years ago. “You’re older than many of the stage performers. Stick together as a group and don’t accept drinks from strangers. Try Nana Plaza and Soi Cowboy if you want more sleaze.” A few comments down, someone contradicted Captain_Bob: the girls on Patpong were now “fat and old.” One woman, marley1, said she went with her husband one night, and though she felt sick and had to leave, he went back night after night, as apparently, he couldn’t get enough. She wrote that she personally found the whole thing disturbing, but agreed it was “a have to see.” 

Beerlao was the most matter-of-fact. He had a lager beer label for a logo and his online handle suggested that he had been in Southeast Asia for a while. He had the jadedness of the low-income retirees, the regulars from the U.S. or Australia who sit for the show but can’t afford drinks. These guys know all about the bill padding and scams and the notorious upstairs rooms. On the travel forum, in response to the questions posted by the underage boys, Beerlao recommended renting a few performers and bringing them back to a room for a make-your-own-sex-show stage. “par tay on,” he added cheerfully. “video the festival and post it on the net or take it straight to dvd. it’s a no brainer. everyone a winner.” 

Katherine Yungmee Kim is a writer and journalist based in Los Angeles, California. She is the author of Longitude (Datz Press, 2021) and Los Angeles’s Koreatown (Arcadia Publishing, 2010). She runs the Koreatown Storytelling Program and the K-Town is Your Town community photo project. Currently, she is the Senior Editor at the Koreatown Youth and Community Center, the nation’s oldest and largest Korean American non-profit organization.

Katherine was a reporter and editor at The Cambodia Daily, The Korea Herald, Yonhap News Agency, Far Eastern Economic Review and KoreAm Journal. She has worked extensively with youth in immigrant communities and edited two publications—Izote Vos: A Collection of Salvadoran American Writing and Visual Art, and Quietly Torn, a Literary Journal by Young Iu Mien American Women—with Pacific News Service. Her community journalism projects have been funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, the California Community Foundation, the Eisner Foundation and California Humanities.

She is the recipient of the Time Out Grant from Vassar College, a New America Media Education Fellowship, a Columbia University School of the Arts Chair’s Fiction Fellowship, and the Dorothea Lange-Paul Taylor Prize from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.

Born in New Jersey, and raised in Seoul, Korea and Harvard, Massachusetts, Katherine studied English Literature and Art History at Vassar College, Pomona College and the University of California, Berkeley. She has her MFA in Fiction from the Writing Division at Columbia University’s School of the Arts.

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