peteg's blog - noise - books - 2015 04 24 KimberlyKayHoang DealingInDesire

Kimberly Kay Hoang: Dealing in Desire: Asian Ascendancy, Western Decline, and the Hidden Currencies of Global Sex Work.

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I heard about this book via the VSG mailing list, and of course remain curious about the underbelly of Saigon in the twenty-first century and people's experiences of it. In other words, adopting the same sociology-as-long-form-journalism perspective that I took to Mathews's Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong, and to Vũ Trọng Phụng's Lục Xì and The Industry of Marrying Europeans, I wanted to know about the economic prospects of the people in the South, and in particular from the Delta, and get some idea of the conditions and remuneration for working in vice relative to "honest" (non-stigmatized) labour (factories, housework, getting educated, etc.). It struck me that sex work for women from the Delta may be like finance for computer scientists: at this point in history you’d be a fool not to be in it, though the cost to the person and to karma is high; and can the money be washed clean? In any case there is a paucity of accounts of indigenous vice in Saigon, as Kimberly implicitly observes in her introduction [*].

Perhaps the first question that springs to mind is how Kimberly gained access to the four bars she studied: three had street addresses, two of which target Western men and the other Viet Kieus, while the anonymous Khong Sao Bar served the local elites. The link is the alcohol distributors, and the powerful men she befriends along the way, who see useful status in bringing her to business meetings due to her bilinguality and prestigious Western education. She discovered a culture of consent, and an absence of people trafficking, and specialized and savvy marketing to men of quite distinct backgrounds. Almost uniformly the work is considered socially beneficial as it enables a higher standard of living for more people than the alternatives (factory and domestic work are typical precursors). Unsurprisingly there is a selection bias at work (p114, p124) as it is probably difficult to interview people who desired but did not gain such employment, aged out of the scene, flouted protocols, and so forth. The work itself is uniformly hetero-normative: men buying women's consent for off-premises assignations. Interestingly the madams (mommies) mostly do not take a direct cut.

I struggle somewhat with the notion that Western men are contesting much of anything in Asia (e.g. p70), given that China already holds massive quantities of U.S. treasury bonds, and the mobility on offer (p75) is pretty much taken for granted in the West already; contrast it with the possibility of working wherever and whenever one wants, or even just residing in whatever (part of the) country you wish to. One technicality people from outside the city face is gaining a residency permit, or avoiding situations where one is required (p108). I had to wonder if the Johnny Walker Blue Label is authentic, and whether public shaming really does have the desired effect. Kimberly ably recounts much of the minutiae of drinking rituals and the somewhat subtle status indicators (p71): handshakes can be quite complex all by themselves.

For all that I couldn't imagine myself at any of these bars, which Kimberly tacitly acknowledges (p192) when she observes that many expats prefer talking to her as she can hold a far more interesting conversation than the bargirls. Perhaps that points to a gap in Saigon's bar scene. The flashiness of the cashed-up women returning to their villages (p166), laundering their wad, is a bit cringeworthy. But they've earnt it, I guess.

Things change rapidly in the developing world: since she concluded her fieldwork (~2006 to ~2010) the global economy has cratered and taken out the less resilient. China has slowed and Vietnam has gone through many corruption scandals, my favourites of which are the never-ending Securency scandal, entangling my favourite Australian powerbrokers, and the bankruptcy of Vinashin. Vietnam is far less tigerish now, as Kimberly observes in her Appendix. The high-end Khong Sao Bar is no more. Hopefully those ladies saved their cash and created something of durable value with it. The building on the far left of the cover is a bank that was under construction when I was last there in 2010.

I met Kimberly and her sociologist husband Robert briefly at the Association for Asian Studies conference in Chicago at 4pm on the Saturday March 28, 2015. I hoped to make it to her panel on the topic of her book but the AAS refused to allow non-registered people to attend, which seems crazy to me.

I close by observing that the Vietnamese mafia is almost certainly impenetrable by foreigners, so it seems improbable that anyone would achieve the blokey guerilla equivalent to Kimberly's work. Then again, the man from Freakonomics did cross perhaps comparable barriers of race and class.

[*] CHTN Nha Trang and W. L. Pensinger, The Moon of Hoa Binh (p461) suggest that Nguyễn Thị Thuỵ Vũ wrote a couple of books: Lao vào lửa (Embrace the fire?) and Mèo Đêm (Night cat) in the 1960s.