Patpong's Ping-Pong Show
My best girlfriend and I arrived in Bangkok after weeks of backpacking in a rural area of central Thailand. We had not encountered other tourists for many days. Our sunburns had turned brown and peeled off. Our guts had been scoured by bacteria and then socialized medicine—we spent a total of four dollars for a doctor’s visit and a prescription. We were eating only Thai food, with the customary fork and spoon method we picked up after embarrassing ourselves asking for chopsticks. We had stopped washing our hair. We rubbed coconut oil on ourselves in the morning and a tiger-balm-like potion on our mosquito bites at night. In Bangkok, we scoffed at the other backpackers on Khao San Road who seemed so much less, well, dirty than us.
Thailand’s capital is host not only to the industrial origin of the modern silk trade, the Giant Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho, and the precarious Floating Market, but to a few of the most famous red-light districts in the world. Patpong isn’t the largest or most populated of the city’s sex-business neighborhoods, but it is home to the most stalwart old bars, go-go clubs, and infamous Ping-Pong (normal slang: pussy) shows. When we went there in 2003, Patpong was something like Hollywood, California: crustier, less flashy, and strangely smaller than it seemed in imagination, and yet, it drew a crowd every night. Some writers predict that tourists will eventually abandon Patpong completely and move on to the cleaner and classier erotic entertainment venues. But I don’t think so. The gravitational pull of a Ping-Pong ball is inexplicably strong.
In Bangkok, a tuk-tuk is a three-wheeled, motorized taxi with a driver in front and a small, covered bench in back, like a motorcycle with a box to ride in; a wat is a temple, which is why Wat Pho should not redundantly be called “Wat Pho Temple;” and it is usually acceptable to negotiate once you are confident about your calculations in baht, the parti-colored national currency. A Ping-Pong show is…more difficult to define, although it is often held up as a defining moment for tourists.
Nota bene: I did not run out of the club in Patpong determined to shed light on the horrible lives of trafficked women. I did not leave Bangkok thanking my dear sweet Jesus for saving me from the embarrassment of having to show my face a second time to the same tuk-tuk driver who dropped me off on the corner near Patpong post-Ping-Pong debacle. Other white American female tourists did these things, and their blogs are easy to find.
During the winter of 2003, I was a full-time administrative assistant at a veteran’s hospital and a part-time stripper. I was not yet an activist for sex workers’ rights, I didn’t know about globalization debates or ongoing U.S. colonial projects, and I was still closeted about my growing attraction to women. I worked in a cozy, topless dive north of Los Angeles that catered to construction guys and Hell’s Angels. Three nights a week, I drank Coors Light, talked about action movies and fantasy-lesbian sex, played around on stage, and smoothed down a few small wads of singles.
I was getting sexually harassed at my day job and becoming increasingly impatient with sanctimonious friends who wanted to argue that I couldn’t strip and be a feminist. Finally, when my well-respected doctor-boss told me he liked my “slutty” skirt, I decided to quit the day job. I’d been saving for a Big Trip, and it was time to blow the wad on a few weeks' vacation with my close-as-sister BFF, Melissa. Afterward, my plan was to strip full-time until I decided what next to do with my life.
We were twenty-four, and neither of us had left the country. So, at first, Melissa and I tried to organize a traditional middle-class romp to Europe. Immediately, we were overwhelmed by the details, the pomposity, and the cost, and our vacation planning made us irritable.
I called an emergency meeting. We sat in my mother’s kitchen with a big map of the world. We agreed that Europe was not what we wanted. We came up with three shared priorities: warm beach, good food, and elephants. A sympathetic coworker at the VA hospital suggested we check out Thailand.
Because Melissa was still taking college classes, we walked into the student travel office one Thursday and booked tickets easily and cheaply to places we had never heard of—Koh Samui, Kanchanaburi, Sanghlaburi. We hugged, she ran to class, and I walked out of the office with the paperwork in my hand, trying to believe in it. The sky was that magic Los Angeles dusk pink. The air smelled like rock dust and sprinklers. I called my dad.
“We’re going to Thailand!” I shouted.
He couldn’t believe it either.
“We’re going to ride elephants!” I said.
“You can afford that?” he asked.
I told him I’d have the entire trip, including a food budget, paid for before we left town.
“Well thank God for the strip club,” he said.
In a move that seems at best tactless or, more accurately, Orientalist, The Lonely Planet cautions its audience that Bangkok is “a tragicomic confluence of human desires and aspirations best viewed through a detached smile.” On the bus from the airport to our hotel, Melissa and I passed a commercial zone where the sidewalks were stacked with various appliances. Here were washing machines, house fans, refrigerators, and more, in lime green, violet, periwinkle, canary yellow, crimson. It had never occurred to me that beige and white were boring colors for household machines, but instantly, I was sick of them, imagining the rainbow I could live in. Bangkok is a serious supercity, a stunning collage that includes enormous bustling downtown crowds, near-psychedelic vistas of colored lights and signage, cacophonous blocks of touts selling the tools and toys of urban living, and powerful smells.
After checking into our hotel, Melissa and I went to eat in a nearby café in the backpacker-friendly district of Khao San Road. We were joined at a large, low table by a small group of young Australian women, who were on holiday together after one them had graduated from nursing school. We drank, we chatted, we got onto the subject of Patpong’s nightlife.
“Guys always come home from holiday talking about the Ping-Pong shows,” one of the women said. She was freckled and cheerful.
“The what?” I said.
“You haven’t heard of the pussy shows?” The three girls made scandalized giggle sounds. Melissa raised her eyebrows at me.
No, I hadn’t heard of the pussy shows.
“Girls do all kinds of crazy things with their, you know,” she gestured at her crotch, “in these sex shows in Patpong.” Nods from the others.
I turned to Melissa. I had to see this.
“Of course we do,” she said. “But aren’t those kinds of clubs for guys only? Can we even get into the club without a man?”
“We’re tourists,” I said. “They’ve got to have seen some women coming here willing to drop cash.” Ultimately, I figured, our level of access would be determined by our willingness to spend a good chunk of baht.
We rallied the Australian girls and by the time we hailed the tuk-tuks, we were a slightly tipsy party of five in machine-washable traveling clothes, overpriced summer scarves, and unflattering walking sandals, on a mission to see a real, live Ping-Pong show.
Patpong is a tri-layered neighborhood. In the middle of the street, people walk at an intentional pace, crowd permitting. On the edges of this flow is the second layer: the night market. To navigate Patpong in this layer, one moves very slowly through fluorescent tents spilling out with sunglasses, blinking electronics, Diesel knock-offs, and piles of naughty T-shirts in thin plastic sleeves. Every few booths, an opening onto a walkway offers a chance to enter the third layer of Patpong: the night clubs.
The touts outside the clubs held laminated cards with lists printed on them. They seemed wholly unsurprised at our group of five women shopping for a place to stop and watch.
“Pussy show!” they shouted, waving their cards.
“For free! Pay for drinks only!” One tout got his card in my hands. No illustrations. No prices. Just a list of potential events.
PUSSY PLAY PING-PONG
PUSSY PEEL BANANA
PUSSY SHOOT DART
PUSSY WRITE WITH PEN
PUSSY BLOW OUT CANDLE
PUSSY SMOKE CIGARETTE
PUSSY OPEN BOTTLE
And more. I looked at him. Dark hair, big smile, white button-down shirt.
I asked how much we would pay for drinks. I don’t remember his answer. I only remember thinking it was advisable to move on.
“Don’t believe this bullshit about not paying for the show,” I told the girls as we walked. “We are all going to tip like crazy.”
The Australian girls agreed. Melissa patted me on the arm. We walked on. The lists and the touts were similar, with small variations in grammar or household object the pussy would manipulate.
We entered the third or fourth club, after Melissa negotiated a price for all five of us to sit and have two rounds of beers.
“We are here for Ping-Pong,” I told our tout, just in case we were getting ushered inside for multiple opening acts we couldn’t afford.
“Yes, yes, of course,” he said as he led us past the doorman.
We went directly upstairs. The place smelled eerily like my job: old carpet, liquor, ammonia. We sat at a four-top, clustered so that we could view the empty stage. The room was a theater-in-the-round, with booths all along the back (and highest) row, plus two more tiers of tables descending toward the stage at the center. Directly across from us, a door opened into a curtained hallway. Cocktail servers, hostesses, touts, and performers all moved quickly through it and around each other.
Our table was bolted to the floor of the second step up, which made it possible for us to see nearly the whole room. We were one of five seated tables, and the only women, as far as I could tell in the dimness. Slow electronic music thumped through us. A small staircase accessed the eight-foot-square stage along the side nearest to us. A brass railing, resembling a stripper pole on its side, ran around the stage at breast level. The room was so dark we couldn’t see the faces of the people across from us very well, but the stage was lit with an elaborate and constantly shifting range of colors.
A barefoot woman in a black bra and black hot pants climbed the steps to the center of her stage. She unhooked her bra without a hint of tease and hung it over the brass railing. Her breasts were very small. My brain stuttered over competing thoughts: she struck me as “too old” because of how she hunched when she moved, and simultaneously she seemed “too young” because of how she was shaped. Both too old and too young for whatever she was about to do, even though I didn’t know what that was, or why I should have any say in it.
Her black hair reached her waist. She danced around the stage, swaying into the beat, with her knees bent. I was so accustomed to the way dancers looked in six- and seven-inch heels, I couldn’t stop staring at her bare feet.
She took a white hand-towel from a male gopher, lay it on the stage, pulled down her black shorts, hung them on the railing, and squatted over the towel. She started by flexing her lower abdomen and sending a pulsing wave of muscle contraction up to her ribs. She watched her belly muscles tighten in quick waves from her pubic bone to her breasts for a few seconds. Then she lay back on the towel with her knees wide open and her feet planted. I glanced at Melissa. Her eyes were wide, and she was smiling, stupefied. At work, I often saw other dancers in this performer’s same reclined posture, but my experience was with topless dancers who always had a one-inch strip of fabric neatly hiding their hairless genitals.
This time, I was looking at a vagina. The gopher reached in from his position on the side of the stage, lit a candle a foot away from the performer, and poof! A burst of air from that vagina extinguished the flame.
What noise did we make? Did we gasp? Did we jump? I remember the startle, but not how we showed it. We must have clapped eventually. The performer blew out another three candles in quick succession. She rose, danced a little more, then descended the stairs and slipped behind the hallway curtain.
We ordered our second round. The next performer’s dancing style was a little less refined, a little more comedic, but no less hypnotic. The gopher held up an empty basket in one hand, and in the other, a basket full of Ping-Pong balls. It was happening! Like the first, our Ping-Pong show performer squatted, rippled, and then reclined. One by one, she inserted five white Ping-Pong balls into her vagina. Then, she shot them into the empty basket, held aloft by the gopher at five different points on her perimeter. She did not miss. This same performer also inserted a beer bottle into her vagina and opened it. Our whole table flinched at the sound. I scanned the performer’s face for signs of pain. None. I looked for signs of boredom or fear. She was concentrating, serious, but with the same kind of spirit a school kid has practicing multiplication tables. She opened two more bottles, and we applauded vigorously.
The next performer lit a cigarette with her mouth, then puffed at it with her vagina.
Another inserted an egg in her vagina, and then slammed her pelvis against the stage so hard she seemed in danger of fracturing her pubic bone. She stood up, removed the egg, showed it to us, then put the egg back inside, raised a knee, and the egg cracked. It fell perfectly onto the plate, held under her by the gopher. Yolk intact.
“Holy shit,” Melissa breathed. “I really thought it was hard boiled.”
During these performances two club hostesses came to sit with us. They wore bikinis and heels and glittering lashes, my own uniform. They played with our hair and giggled when we spoke, as if we were male customers, I thought. Melissa and I tipped them as much as we could once we realized our Australian cohort was not responding well to the scene. They asked if we were ready to go after the egg show. I said no.
Sex tourism in Southeast Asia is characterized in the mainstream media by a racialized fantasy: a white Western man of means finds a dark-skinned Other to buy for a bargain. However, the common belief that all sex workers from poorer countries are trafficked is refuted by multiple organizations doing the difficult work of collecting stories and data from sex workers themselves. Nearly 80 percent of the customers in the Southeast Asian sex trade are locals, not tourists. Sometimes, both trafficking and legitimate, lucrative self-employment are happening, for different workers at the same club. In other words, one simply cannot know, while watching a show in Patpong, if this particular performer is a kidnapping victim, an independent sex worker, a mother with three other jobs, an immigrant paying back her travel loan, a college student, or…? Unless she has a reason for telling you.
While we were negotiating our exit, the male gopher distributed five balloons to customers seated in the club. I got one. It was a large, oval shape, yellow, and said I Love You in looping script.
The performer on stage, who wore the shortest hair we’d seen so far, in a shoulder-length pageboy, gestured with her hands that I should lift the balloon up high. I did. She lay back on her towel, balanced on one elbow, and held a foot-long piece of PVC pipe, maybe two inches in diameter, to the opening of her vagina. Holding herself steady at a forty-five-degree angle to the ground, she pulled something sharp and silver from a bowl on the stage, inserted it in the other end of the pipe, aimed it toward the audience, and undulated.
“Oh my GOD. That woman just shot a dart out of her vagina.”
“NO FUCKING WAY.”
POW-POW-POW-POW! Every balloon exploded, the music got much louder, and I was frozen for a moment. The performer stood, made an elegant bow, held her arm out for us to applaud the gopher, and a DJ’s announcement voice boomed over the room while the cast made their exit.
“I’m keeping this,” I said to Melissa. I folded the little piece of balloon into my wallet.
One of the other girls screeched, “But it touched her twat!”
No, it hadn’t, I explained, fishing a dart from under the table. I told them she held the pipe to her vagina, but these darts never touched it, therefore neither did the balloon. The dart seemed to be made from foil, very light, a small cone rolled together and Scotch-taped on the side. “Besides,” I said. “Who cares if it had? I’m not planning to eat it.”
“Yeah, don’t be afraid of a little pussy air,” Melissa added.
We agreed to leave as a group. The Australian women accused Melissa and me of contributing to the exploitation of women. We did not keep in touch with them after arriving back at our hotel.
Recently Melissa and I talked about whether we would return to Patpong, if given the chance to see Bangkok together a second time. I still resist the notion that offering a working woman my spending money and a few minutes without risk of unwanted touch is tantamount to oppression. Respectful customers are a boon, and the lack of them is not going to cure the world of its misogyny.
In other words, of course we would.
All human bodies conduct electricity, but not all people feel their own body electric. Therefore to "sing the body electric" is to call a person up into peak experience, into the realm of dreams and magic and mysterious powers, and strangely at the same time, to call them down into the folds and heat and strength and pains of the body living right now, bound to the earth.
Vanessa Carlisle works collaboratively within and outside the university to co-create decolonizing, historicizing, materially embedded, and community-centered scholarship. Her projects engage the motley archives of sex workers, anarchic and militant resistance groups, drug users, prison abolitionists, and LGBTQIA* collectives, and her creative work seeks to render exquisitely evocative characters who push the boundaries of the possible. Vanessa's writing has appeared in NinthLetter, Slake, Unbound Octavo, WordRiot, and elsewhere. Her first novel A Crack in Everything, has a cool cover she designed. She was featured on season one of the Showtime series Polyamory. Vanessa is currently working on her second novel, in which a dominatrix encounters the world of LA's Skid Row in a search for her missing dad.