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Investigating the Grey Areas of the Chinese Communities in Southeast Asia

Arnaud Leveau

The Papers

The Chinese diaspora and prostitution at the Thai-Malay frontier (Hat Yai, Sadao-Dannok, Betong and Sungai Kolok)

Emmanuel Dialma et Pierre Le Roux

Texte intégral


1This article seeks to portray a realistic picture of the current situation af the Chinese diaspora in this frontier region and perhaps defend the reputation of this community, the members of which are often systematically accused of being implicated in the flesh trade, in their capacity as the main people concerned as well as participants, for if some members of the Chinese community are indeed involved in prostitution and flesh trade, all are not necessarily concerned and there are reasons why the Chinese community is concerned by the sector of prostitution in one way or the other.

Chinese diaspora in Thailand, “condemned” to the “grey areas”?

2This article seeks to establish that there is a “historical” link between the Chinese diaspora in Thailand and what can be called “grey areas”. Not that the Chinese community particularly chose to flourish in these zones but history (Thai ultra nationalism at times anti-Chinese, particularly between 1920 and 1930) as well as the singular method of operating in networks that structured their work (cultivation and selling of rubber) or their identity (including religious identity) forced them to do so. The «grey» colour of the Chinese community’s area of work in Southern Thailand is therefore not a choice but an obligation for them to find a foothold in a field of activity that did not yet exist and where by definition there was neither much competition nor many regulations: for example the flesh trade, to avoid the possible consequences of Anti-Chinese nationalism (carrying out humanitarian work), to facilitate their integration and to preserve their cultural and religious identity. This is how historically Chinese immigants in Thailand have specialised in:

  • businesses not held in very high esteem by the other minorities in the South (rubber cultivation, sex industry for example). Their techniques and singular networks were far more effective (in purely economic terms) than those of their rivals from other minorities.

  • In “public service” for the local population, particularly through charity houses that were also structured in networks. The arrival of the Chinese migrants was to be overseen by triads but they fell into decline and at the same time the shan tang (philanthropic institutions) made their appearance.

3These fundamental structures of the Chinese diaspora in Southern Thailand serve today as the backdrop to the flesh trade that flourishes along the border with Malaysia. The point of contact between the zones of Buddhist and those of Muslim civilisation in Asia, the growing sex industry, a prominent grey area, is also organised and managed by the Chinese, Thai, or Malay diasporas. Forming a chain of brothels along the Thai-Muslim border, paradoxically, the development of this industry is proportionate to Malaysia’s austere attitude towards sex, on the other side of the border.

Grey areas, Chinese and minorities: preliminary elements of definition

4“Grey areas”, “Chinese”, “minorities”: the notions and categories used here need preliminary definitions so as to avoid any amalgamation or confusion. A rapid presentation of the Chinese in Thailand can be made.

Grey area

5In this article, by “grey areas” are meant hidden aspects of social life, parallel activities, that are underground as they are forbidden or not yet regulated (thereby taking advantage of what is called a “legal void”); examples-trafficking of any kind (we are particularly concerned here by trafficking of humans for sexual exploitation and prostitution). Let us recall that the legal definition of “trafficking” is “illegal trade”.

“Chinese”, “Jawi”, “Thai”, “Malay”

6“Chinese”: This term is used to refer to the minority of Chinese origin in Thailand (therefore Thais of Chinese origin). Similarly and in keeping with a widespread habit of the Thais themselves, the word “Jawi” refers to the Muslim Malay minority in Southern Thailand); whereas “Thai” will be synonymous with “Buddhist” here and the term “Malay” will be reserved for Muslim citizens of Malaysia.

Minorities: relativity and the numerical strength of the diaspora

7Relativity and variability of being a minority: everything depends on the place and the moment. The Jawis are a minority, but in Yala and other Southern provinces, the Chinese constitute a minority when compared to the Jawis who in their turn are a minority in Thailand, probably even when compared to the total Sino-Thai population. The majority of the population in the Betong district (province of Yala) is Jawi. However, the city of Betong itself and some of the neighbouring cantons are almost exclusively populated by the Chinese (coming originally from Malaysia when rubber cultivation started)

8The Chinese in Thailand are essentially Teochiu: in 1955, the Teochiu represented 56% of the Chinese in Thailand, the Hakka 16% in the same period, originating from Fujian just like the Hokkien, the second largest Chinese group in Thailand in terms of numerical strength.

9However, there are more Hokkien in the south. The Teochiu are predominant particularly for historical reasons: after the defeat of Siam by Burma in 1767, its grandeur was restored by Thaksin, son of a Teochiu tax collector adopted by a Siamese family, who then ascended the throne thus giving a decisive impetus to the immigration of the Teochiu group, coming from the north of the Guandong province, in China (Chaozhou region). Another remarkable example is the existence at Pattani of the cult of Chao Mae Lim Khao Niao, a young woman in all probability Teo chiu, who committed suicide in the 17th century to honour the memory of her ancestors, refusing to accept the conversion to Islam of her elder brother, Lim Tho Khiam, an engineer who had brought and offered to the Pattani Sultanate the technique of smelting metals for melting marine canons to which Pattani later owed its glory. (P. Le Roux, 1998, p. 142 sq.).

1025 to 30 million Chinese live overseas (hua ch’iao) and can be found all over the world. However, 80% of them live in Southeast Asia, outside Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao. Their per capita GDP is between US $ 10,000 and 20,000 (500 according to classical accounting and 2900 in terms of “purchasing power parity”), according to Pierre Trolliet (1999b, p. 51).

11Predominantly Teochiu, the Chinese in Thailand are also primarily city dwellers and traders: more than 50% of the city dwellers of Thailand are of Chinese descent.

1270% of the Hua Ch’iao are to be found in Bangkok and in the Central plain. 60% of them are engaged in trade. As Bernard Formoso (2000) points out, the Chinese community is the biggest cultural and religious minority of Thailand. In 1974, although they represented only 8 to 15% of the population, the Chinese in Thailand accounted for 90% of the commercial and industrial investment of the country and held 50% of the financial and banking assets.

Huge Compatibility between business and the Chinese

13It seems that there is a huge compatibilty between “economic success” and the Chinese diaspora, particularly in the view and the collective consciousness of Thai’s and even all Asians. Apart from being culturally (Confucianist individualism) and religiously predisposed, which we will not elaborate upon here, it appears that the Chinese “economic success” is due to cultural and historical circumstances (Jean Baffie, 1992, 1994).

14The Chinese population in Southern Thailand is primarily made up of traders, a profession which by definition leaves the door open for “grey areas”. Let us illustrate this state of things by presenting two institutions that are predominantly Chinese, commercial and linked to the grey areas: the “taokhae” and the “shan tang”.

The taokhae, a typical institution of the diaspora

15The taokhae is an economic institution in Southeast Asia who controls economic production upstream through usury and keeping a hold on the client. He is a kind of trader-entrepreneur-risk taker, who is generally and historically Chinese. Today this notion has a broad connotation: entrepreneur, rich and boss… Consequently the word refers to the “manager, proprietor” of a business, legal or otherwise.

16The Sino-Thai diaspora exerts a great influence in the country and is very powerful (despite the efforts of the Siamese to divert their wealth towards an «indigenous» bourgeoisie) and is far better accepted than in other countries. The Chinese slip through the mesh of the nationalist net and are more easily accepted than the other communities particularly thanks to their singular structures, the shan tang, which are institutions whose activities are humanitarian, religious, economic and directed at preserving their cultural identity. By doing this, these institutions and their singular way of functioning ensure that the Chinese community retains its dominant position in the sectors of trade, finance and industry

“Success” of the Chinese in Thailand in general: example of the “charity houses”

17If the Chinese integration in Thailand has been relatively well accepted (Jean Baffie, 1999), it is due to a series of factors – their renunciation of politics (at least within the formal local political system) as well as their involvement in local public service particularly through charity houses. Why the sector of charity-welfare-philanthropy? Because, since the triads became non grata during the Chinese emigration, it was a sector that was still almost “virgin”. Moreover, the Chinese did not project themselves as political competitors of the Thais, which contributed greatly to their integration in Thailand. We will note however a marked tendency amongst the rich Chinese taokhae to turn to politics, for example, the case of the Yaha district in the Yala province, an important Muslim centre for rubber cultivation. (Le Roux et al., 1991).

18Thus, the Teochiu diaspora developed an original strategy in order to facitilate their integration and to sidestep Thai nationalism that was sometimes anti-Chinese. They established «charity houses», shan tang in Mandarin, hsiang t’üng in Teochiu and muni thi in Thai (B. Formoso, 2003, p. 833 sq.). Thailand had adopted a more or less anti-Chinese policy between 1930 and 1950 (1938-1958: a succession of Siamese nationalist governments; 1955: implementation of highly restrictive immigration quotas) and the Chinese has to avoid the consequences.

19The shan tang, or the charity houses were the privileged institutions for facilitating Chinese integration and they carried out economic, social and humanitarian activities. These charity houses thus reflect the territorial and economic expansion of the Chinese in Thailand. They represent elements of the cultural identity of the Teochiu group (Teochiu cults transposed overseas) as well as of their socio-political integration in Thailand, particularly through philanthropic work:

  • ambulances;

  • rescue teams;

  • occasionally hospitals... which help the population in the event of a catastrophe or an accident;

  • providing free care and bare necessities to the poor;

  • interring in their cemeteries people who died without any kith or kin.

20These widely publicised activities, an ostensible proof of their civic sense, were and continue to be huge factors that contributed to their integration (their popularity amongst the Thais). These institutions are often run by Teochiu businessmen who have proved their mettle in the private sector (for ex: Têk K’a [De jiao], at the head of charitable institutions in Thailand, a movement that is established in Malaysia as well as in Hong Kong, Singapore, Laos, Taiwan, United States and the People’s Republic of China more recently; those in Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia have integrated emblematic figures of Lao Tseu, Confucius, Buddha and Jesus, into their cults and pantheons… thus functioning in a syncretic mode) This religious syncretism is also one of the key factors that contibuted to Chinese integration in Thailand..

Growth in the economic power of the Chinese community in the 60’s

21The economic clout of the hua ch’iao grew from 1960 due to many reasons:

  • the ostracism practised against the Chinese slackened in the 60’s;

  • a series of favorable factors: American aid, correlated growth in export oriented agriculture and industry culminating in a high growth rate (around 8% per year).

22Due to their dominant position in the sectors of trade, finance and industry, the Chinese like the Sino-Thais benefited from this growth to a larger extent than other groups in the Thai nation (consequently a small percentage of the hua ch’iao became very rich).

23The shan tang are a means of garnering symbolic capital, a proof of respectability. But they can also for this very reason serve as a screen for activities that are less laudable including money laundering.

The success of the Chinese when compared to other ethnic groups: example of the Betong triangle22

  • 22 Pierre Le Roux et al., 1991

24The link between the Chinese communities and the grey areas can only be understood by studying their economic success which is necessarily relative. We wish to illustrate this fact by taking the example of the “Betong triangle”, where the hua ch’iao diaspora stands out clearly from the other communities particularly Thai and Jawi. After the presentation of the “Betong triangle”, we will compare the success of the Chinese community with the other communities, which it particularly owes to a singular method of functioning. Then the information presented will be completed and reinforced by the example of the Yaha district.

Preliminary presentation of Betong

25The Betong district is remotest area in the whole Yala province (the only enclosed province in Southern Thailand, with no access to the sea, hence its nickname: “Betong triangle”). The majority of the population in the district is Jawi. However, the city of Betong itself and the few surrounding cantons are almost exclusively inhabited by the Chinese (coming from Malaysia when rubber cultivation started)

26This Chinese municipal enclave or the “Betong triangle” is an exception in Southern Thailand mainly inhabited by the Jawis, who are themselves one of the biggest minorities of the country: nearly 2 million Muslims of whom 75% are concentrated in the South alone and 99% are Sunnis. Hence, in the Betong canton, the proportion of the communities (48.9% Jawis, 35.7% Chinese and 15.3% Thais: synonym of “Buddhists” here) is very different from the usual Southern norm: respectively 75% Jawis, 5% Chinese and 20% Thais in the Pattani province.

27Betong city subsists mainly on trade (98% of the frontier trade concerns latex the cost price of which follows the variations of the Singapore market and is relayed daily in Chinese by Singapore radio) and on tourism (1,000 visitors per day in 1990, coming mainly from Malaysia and Singapore: a tourism that is essentially linked to sex and Betong is a kind of a specialised centre). The Chinese are dominant here to a large extent: in terms of numerical strength, economically and even politically. The economic might of the Betong triangle makles it possible for them to do so. On the other hand and on another note, Betong was till 1989 the fiefdom of the small Malay Communist Party, the MRP, a group that was considered illegal in Thailand and in Malaysia… However, as pointed out by Jean Baffie (2001, p. 131), the Thai Communist Party, whose leaders were Chinese from Thailand, launched its guerilla in the North and Northeastern regions where the Chinese community was smaller but the people, who were abandoned and disinherited, were more hostile towards the capital.

28The development of cassiterite (tin) mines having caused a veritable rush towards this grey gold on the Eastern coast of Malaysia and Thailand was initially due to the Chinese pioneers, who lived in very miserable conditions (malaria, massacres, slavery, etc.). The Chinese developed economic enclaves with their particular networks and techniques. The still virgin soil of the Betong region offered them the possibility of settling down and cultivating the land as they wished. Thus, “foreigners” in huge numbers succeeded in acquiring property rights that were almost identical to those of the Thais.

Commercial superiority of the Chinese in Betong

29The difference in the way the Chinese and Jawi plantations functioned can be explained by taking into account a series of factors:

  • the existence, in the Chinese plantations, of structures that are very different from the other agricultural farms, with land being relatively abundant when compared to the family work force that was relatively limited (often reduced to just the couple). Therefore, a greater capacity for capitalisation ensued in order to improve productivity of work, that is to say the “virtuous circle” of accumulation: creating paths that were rapid and could be used in any weather for having access to plots under rubber cultivation; investing in means of transport that were adapted (all terrain bikes); constructing trellises along contour lines and the steps between the rows of trees…

  • the determination to not partition the land when it came to inheritances so as to ensure that there was a sufficient area for some children to earn an adequate revenue without depending on another activity left to others; tendency to complete secondary and particularly higher studies so as to provide other children the opportunity of finding employment outside, “arranged marriages” which made it possible to consolidate or bring together plantations through alliances.

  • the desire of the Chinese immigrants to be self sufficient and avoid resorting to share cropping unlike the Jawis where community interest and social equilibrium take precedence. Economic solidarity which guarantees social equilibrium has a greater importance in the Jawi village which functions as a fraternal social unit where acquiring prestige by ostentatious expenses is widespread.

  • Economic singularity of the Chinese which is reinforced by their minority status as well as by the intelligent management of distribution circuits which go beyond a local perspective of economic phenomena, but weakened by the social rejection of which they are consenting victims in their capacity as the inevitable money lenders, pawn brokers or mortgage bankers (a very important role as Muslims cannot practise usury, for them Time belongs only to God and a mere mortal cannot take advantage of it…). Thus some Chinese proprietors turn their backs on production to resort exclusively to money lending.

The example of the Yaha district

30Having arrived about thirty years ago at the very moment when rubber was poised for growth with the development of the l’ORRAF (Office of the Rubber Replanting Aid Fund), the Chinese initially played the role of the rubber leaf pickers and later the Muslim traders opened their shops, hubs of their own growing network of pickers. Progressively, the Chinese wriggled out of the intermediate levels of the economic distribution chain and concentrated only on the higher echelons which were not characterised by high profit margins but proved to be lucrative in the long term within a network system of more complex and vast exchanges:

  • holding the client captive, a practise by which the planter is held hostage as his land is mortgaged or he is obliged to sell his entire production to a single buyer;

  • plotting, to destroy potential rivals who were financially less competitive and then restoring the balance by creating a situation of oligopsony at the local or national level;

  • creating interest groups, to bypass the existing distribution network and have a direct access to international trade. In 1989, the five biggest Chinese taokhae of Yaha dealing with the highest volumes of latex got together to set up a factory for drying and packing, against 22 Jawi rivals; they currently dominate the local market by selling more than half the latex;

  • investing, in the transformation of rubber for example, as in Tanoh Meroh (amphoe Betong) where 40% of the factory capital comes from the People’s Republic of China which in return has the priority for purchasing, proof of the economic solidarity that surpasses the local, even national situation (the taokhae in Yaha leave the intermediate and lower echelons to the Muslims thus avoiding tensions but at the same time they control the various stages of distribution).

31So, what explains the Chinese superiority in purely economic terms? The Chinese village appears to be more like a commercial interest group organised around an economic hierarchy (employees or proprietors, pickers, factories…..) having its own networks. In a certain way, it is a state within the State or an enlarged social space dominating the contacts with other spheres of action of the Thai and Malay social spaces, whereas the Jawi village is a social community that functions in the interest of all and which gives importance to priorities that are not always compatible with pure economic growth.

Networks and grey areas, necessarily arcane in the Chinese immigration in Thailand

32Taking into account the preceeding elements, it is clear that the strong link between the Chinese community of Thailand and the grey areas has been forged as much by the history of the immigration of the hua ch’iao in Thailand as by their cultural mysteries. Condemned to a discreet and efficient method of functioning “in networks”, the Chinese have thus been, historically and culturally, for religious reasons as well as for those that are linked to their identity, “condemned” to settle in grey areas, highly promising for their influence as well as economic success.

System of functioning in networks

33In Chinese numerology as in Southeast Asia and in Buddhism, the number 5 is the symbol of the centre, the quintessence of everything: there are four charitable associations grouped around a centre (for example for the charity houses there is one shan tang which has a special status: Po Têk Hsiang Tüng, which has a symbolical and hierarchical predominance, is managed and founded by some of the biggest bankers in the country; between 1983 and 1993 it collected 28 billion dollars and its fortune is estimated at 110 billion dollars. In its system of collecting funds and subsidies, the contribution of funds is hence a way of verifying the allegiance of the “vassals” that is to say, of the other associations). It is a unit with a global network and the main factor is the Teochiu identity of the majority of the founders and leaders of these institutions. Catastrophes and festivals are thus the occasion for these Chinese charitable/religious and commercial institutions to:

  • ensure the movement of labour

  • exchange information and experience;

  • give substance to the Chinese community.

34Similarly as far as rubber cultivation is concerned, the Chinese success can be attributed to the method of operating “in networks”, an intelligent management of the distribution circuits that surpass a local perspective of the phenomena.

Grey areas: not a choice but a necessity

35From 1850 to 1950, the millions of Chinese migrating towards the Nan Yang (Southern seas) fled from the endemic poverty in their country of origin particularly in the coastal provinces of Guandong, Fujian and Hainan (in 1947: 8.5 million Chinese in the region with a third in Siam). An Eldorado, but in a favorable context where Thailand (particularly its rulers) looked benevolently upon the arrival of the coolies for the economic development of the country, till the Second World war (huge contingents were exploited by some of their compatriots to whom they were endebted for paying their journey)

36Till 1920, two thirds of the Chinese immigrants were young men, living in solitude (they had left their wives and children behind in their country): therefore they easily fell prey to gambling, alcohol and opium… Choice ground for the “grey areas”…

37At first, secret socities having international branches linked the country to the Southern seas to protect their members according to a system of patronage: according to John Mac Carthy, (1902, p. 3) all the Chinese in Thailand were members of a triad at the end of the 19th century). However, these secret socities clashed amongst themselves and they fell into decline at the beginning of the 20th century under the pressure of the local authorities; and at the same time, Bangkok witnessed the birth of associations based on a dialect (such as associations of those who spoke Haïnanais in 1900, Hakka in 1909 and Teochiu in 1918). This time, acting in accordance with the law they created social or cultural institutions which however were restricted exclusively to their members and then appeared the shan tang whose philanthropic action was directed towards the general public, including the local Thai population.

38After 1918, the network of Chinese associations witnessed an unprecedented growth as the Chinese minority became wealthy and also due to a harsh filtering process (as a result of which only a majority of prosperous Chinese stayed on). Moreover it coincided with the entry into the business world of children of immigrants who were born in Siam and so better integrated. Paradoxically, Thai ulranationalism, which became more strident between 1920 and 1930 with strong overtones of anti-Chinese sentiments, had a structuring effect. Particularly by inciting the wealthier businessmen to give ostentatious proof of their integration (which resulted, in a certain reproduction of the integration strategy used by the internal immigrants who had made a fortune in the wealthy Chinese trading centres at the end of the 19th century).

39Thus the plan of action of these founders of charity houses consisted of taking the place of the local authorities in the event of individual accidents and catastrophes, burying the dead, offering bare necessities to the poor as well as financing the infrastructure in abandoned rural zones (as in China). At the same time, these associations became the main religious hua ch’iao center of Thailand (spiritual as well as temporal power?), just like in Malaysia. The Chinese minorities of Thailand and Malaysia could thus link their networks independent of the Thai-Malay border for legal as well as illegal trade.

40The dominance of the Teochiu in the philanthropic associations of Thailand resulted in an unparalleled structure of cooperation which has no equivalent in Pre-communist China and in other countries where the hua ch’iao are established.

Flesh trade, prominent “grey area”

Sex tourism and sex industry in Thailand: clichés and taboos

Clichés: Patpong and other Pattayas

41As is well known, tourism is an important component of the Thai economy. And in this sector, contrary to the cultural and political stand of the kingdom which simply displays its tolerance, which according to some observers ought to be criticised, sex tourism occupies quite an important place, once again despite the reservations of the government..

42In the eyes of most foreigners in Thailand particularly Westerners, many places are considered, rightly or wrongly, shady or “red light” areas: the very famous but tiny streets of Patpong, Soi Cow Boy, Soi Nana in Khrung Thep Maha Nakhon (Bangkok), in the capital, seaside resorts such as Pattaya at Chon Buri or the paradisiacal islands of Koh Samui ou Koh Phuket…

43This is very simply due to a lack of visibility in the media, a certain lack of knowledge on the part of Westerners, and in particular journalists, regarding the reality of the places where prostitution is practised in Thailand. They focus attention on the eternal Patpongs and other Pattayas that are like the trees that hide the forest. In fact, serious reporting on the frontier region between Thailand and Malaysia is rare if not entirely absent.

44It is true that these highly touristic places are well known abroad for prostitution. But it is less well known in the West that prostitution exists elsewhere in Thailand on a far larger scale, but in places that are visited almost exclusively by a wealthy Asian clientele, both local (Thais, Sino-Thais) and international (Japanese, South Koreans, inhabitants of Hong Kong, Taiwanese, Malaysians and Singaporeans).

45For proof, it is enough to visit the Chinese district of Bangkok, teeming with specialised places, and to pass a few nights in hotels of good or less good quality that cater to a local clientele: They systematically offer company for the night often at far lower rates than in the famous spots known to the Westerners.

46Equally convincing is a visit to ancient Chinese settlements in Thailand and to the cities of Ranong (where most of the prostitutes of môn origin, come from Burma, and not having papers are victims of the trade) and Takuapa (where the oldest statues of Hindu Gods in the whole of Southeast Asia were found) and finally and above all to Hat Yai.

The Thailand-Malaysia border: the biggest sex spot of the country

47This second largest Thai city, Hat Yai, the economic capital of the South if not of the entire kingdom, is in fact famous for being a “Chinese” city, such is the extent to which the biggest ethnic minority of the country is dominant here in terms of sheer numerical strength.

48Hat Yai and its region are probably the biggest prostitutional “spot” of Thailand, far ahead of the places Westerners prefer to visit. Apart from this long established fact (since a few decades now), it is important to note a more and more marked Asian trend in Thai tourism: for example, in Phuket, according to the statistics of the Thai Ministry of Tourism, the number of visitors coming from Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia or Singapore, is rising to equal if not overtake the number of Western visitors. However, the average duration of an Asian tourist’s visit is shorter than that of Western tourists.

49Three parameters, economic as well as cultural, play an important role in attracting this clientele to red light areas that are different from those that the Westerners visit:

  1. the physical appearance of the young women generally corresponds better to “Asian” tastes. Clients of Eastern origin generally prefer young women with delicate if possible fair skin, devoid of tatoos or piercings, with generous curves whereas Westerners generally do not object to darker skinned women who are very slim and whose bodies are decorated with tatoos and metal rings.

  2. The right environment: The Chinese and the Sino-Thai just like the Malays and the Japanese generally prefer to mingle amongst their kind when they go out, in places that cater to their tastes. They prefer to avoid the presence of Westerners who have very different tastes as far as food habits are concerned. Apart from the language, the young women who specialise in the Chinese or Asian clientele do not have the same behaviour, gestures, way of speaking, dressing, eating and dealing with their clients as those who operate in the areas that are popular with the Westerners.

  3. The rates: despite having financial means that are as consequent if not higher than those of the Westerners, Asian sex tourists and the local brothel goers who are capable of spending far more than a Westerner should the occasion arise, prefer the company of young women whose rates are lower than those of the young women who cater to the Westerners: whereas the amount a Westerner would spend for “a short time” in Patong (Phuket) or in Patpong (Bangkok) could be between 1000 to 2000 bahts and above, the rate of a young woman working in Visu Kasat (Bangkok), in Saphan Kwai (Bangkok), in Hat Yai (Songkhla), in Sungai Kolok (Narathiwat), in Betong (Yala) or in Dannok (Sadao-Songkhla) is not generally higher than 500 bahts. Besides this tendency is theoretical to the extent that once the client is reassured about the rates being charged in the area, he could very well be systematically spending much more. All this is mostly hearsay therefore rumoured. As for the realities, they are all a little similar, everywhere.

Prostitutes, seasonal and mobile

50It must be noted that some of the young women working in Thailand in the milieu of prostitution as “freelancers” go from one place to another and are therefore highly mobile, with elaborate strategies and a very precise schedule. Thus, they can go from Bangkok or Pattaya during the rainy season to the South (which lasts 8 months in some places like Hat Yai, Dannok or Sungai Kolok) to Phuket, and Krabi, then when the rains arrive in the Phuket island, they go over to Koh Samui on the other coast where it is not yet raining before going down if necessary towards the frontier cities: Dannok, Betong and Sungai Kolok, that are far less popular as the clientele, mainly Muslim is said to be less interesting for the young women and certainly far less generous to them. However, this clientele is more regular and each prostitute has more clients which guarantees her more regular returns which makes up for the lower rates. It is not so in places like Patong, Krabi or Pattaya where there is stiff competition amongst the prostitutes and the number of clients is uncertain and very irregular acording to the season.

51As far as the mobility of the young women who take to prostitution in the above mentioned places is concerned, it must be pointed out that most of them come from North Thailand (Chiang Mai, Chiang rai), and particularly from North-east Thailand, the Isan region (Lao), which is immense and the most thickly populated region but also the poorest. Added to this, are the strategies and the local cultural habits that facilitate prostitution and perpetuate it through successive generations (on this topic refer to P. Le Roux and E. Dialma, 2004). Prostitutes coming from the Southern region (Chumphon, Nakhon Sri Thammarat, Phang Nga, Krabi, etc.) are a recent phenomenon which started only a few years ago (particularly since the 1997 crash).

52The excellent quality of the Thai road network and its extraordinary round-the-clock interregional bus services at very reasonable tarifs, ensures this mobility of the young women for whom it is an important element of their strategy.

53The sites that attract them, apart from some of the spots mentioned above that are conventionnaly reserved for the Westerners such as Pattaya and Patong Beach, are essentially the old Chinese settlements. That is to say, places where the economy is developed, and even prosperous, and where there are enough hotels, coffee shops, and karaokés to guarantee a steady influx of clients and therefore prospects of earnings. But this promiscuity in places that appear restrained on the surface and that are not well known or listed by the concerned organisations and this specialised work of mobile women who are easy victims of the flesh trade, give rise to supplementary risk factors as far as the transmission of AIDS-HIV or Hepatitis C is concerned and pose further danagers for these young women as shown by the example of Cambodia (P. Legros et al., 2004; P. Gazin et al., 2004).

The “taokhae”, gold, gambling, drugs and debt: basic and mysterious institutions of sex trade

The taokhae and loyalty developping tactics

54We have already seen that in Thailand the major part of the economy is in the hands of the Chinese, the Sino-Thai or Thai of Chinese origin (for a realistic typology of the components of the Chinese diaspora in Thailand, refer to B. Formoso, 2000).

55It is important for these young women to feel relatively secure, hence the importance of networks, either informal ones where the young women mingle with relatives, friends, cousins, or formal ones like those of the taokhae or the Chinese proprietors whose family and economic networks have a far reach nationally and internationally, making it possible to contact the young women in their native villages thereby reassuring them. This structured organisation that the prostitutes are offered plays a very important role in developing their loyalty. Most of them prefer to remain where they first arrived as they know their boss, their place of work, even though it is deplorable and the health and social conditions are unbearable. They are scared of the unknown and most of them are incredibly ignorant of the mysteries and structures of their prostitutional milieu as well as the “tricks” used by their bosses and pimps to guarantee their loyalty.

56In order to do this, apart from passive pleasing tactics and the semblance of security, the Chinese boss can also keep these young women who work in his establishment captive by using more aggressive methods such as liberally supplying drugs, particularly till very recently, metamphetamines or ya baa (70 to 100 bahts for a pill) and currently ice or ya ice (500 bahts for less than 1 gram) as well as by pushing them into debt: all the brothels, all the karaokés, etc. are surrounded by expensive restaurants (where the girls and women take a break from their milieu even to the extent of spending a large part of their earnings), and stores where clothes, frills, furbelows and other fancy stuff are sold, which despite being expensive are very much in demand amongst the prostitutes who are permanently seeking their identity. Finally, there are the jewellery shops that entice these ladies as well as their clients, but specially these women to literally cover themselves in gold for which there is a a real craze amongst the young Thai women for cultural reasons.

The taokhae and the retention of “his” money

57This gold, as well as the earnings of the prostitutes, very often comes back to the proprietor of the establishment in which the girls work, through gambling, mainly card games that are theoretically banned in Thailand but are excessively indulged in, particularly in the red light areas, as they are often a means by which the proprietors and pimps retain and literally hold captive the young women who take to gambling. There are many of them. Sometimes they lose all their earnings, past as well as future to the extent of selling themselves into slavery for a theoretical period ranging from a few weeks to a few years. This is not rare. Debt and debt recovery are some of the most effective coercive means used by Chinese bosses to retain their prostitutes; all the more as the girls who are often illiterate or not very educated, trust their “boss” to keep an account of their borrowings and their earnings. It is rare that women keep their own accounts in order to verify if the earnings credited every month or twice every quarter by the proprietor correspond really to the services they have rendered.

A “sexual” frontier between Thailand and Malaysia

A frontier of brothels

58In the Southern region, apart from Hat Yai, there is this line of frontier “sex” cities, Sungai Kolok, Betong and Dannok, from the Western coast to the Eastern one. These are three important transit points for entering and leaving Malaysia.

59In fact, they are three brothels rather than three cities since the major part of the economy here revolves around prostitution. This reality is only a result of circumstances probably since prostitution exists here on such a large scale for one single reason: the prohibition and moral ban on any kind of licentiousness in the puritanical but highly hypocritical society of Malaysia, which is totally responsible for the situation as it is at the origin of this huge influx of Muslim clients who obviously wish to escape from the restrictions that stifle their day to day existence, particularly in the fundamentalist states of the Malay Federation: Kelantan and Trengganu.

60The most ancient site is probably that of Betong, as the Chinese settled here very early at the time of the tin mines in the 19th century and then from the time of the rubber cultivation at the beginning of the 20th century. Betong, a colony populated by workers from China, at the invitation of the English and the Siamese, has always been and will continue to be an important port of entry for clandestine immigrants. The Betong region is also well known for having been for decades during the 20th century the fiefdom of a Pro–communist guerilla, particularly during the Vietnam war. However, Betong is not the most important port of access to Malaysia. The road between Yala and Betong with many bends in the high mountains, along with the threat of the Communist guerilla that was virulent between 1970 and 1980, is probably the cause.

61Today, with access routes that are easier, broader, more comfortable and safe, Sungai Kolok and particularly Sadao-Dannok, which can be considered as gateways, are visited far more often by all those who enter and leave Malaysia. To sum it up, people go to Betong just to have fun and get back to their homes, both from Thailand as well as from Malaysia.

62The city of Hat Yai was considered to be the most important centre of prostitution on the Southern frontier till early 2000. Muslim Malay clients and the Chinese from Malaysia used to go there for the weekend.

63Thus, there was a huge concentration of prostitutes within Hat Yai itself, as well as to a lesser extent in the city of Sonkhla which is a famous nearby seaside resort. The large number of hotels in these cities particularly in Hat Yai is proof of this. It must be pointed out that in Thailand, hotel generally means brothel. Propositions are made to the client at the lobby or the elevator itself: “Do you want a masseuse? A girl for a night?”. And should he prefer, there are many young ladies waiting for him in the coffee shops or the karaokés attached to these hotels. The client is spoiled for choice. He has only to pick the girl and the time, there is almost round-the-clock service.

The paradox of the flesh trade: forbidden here, flourishing there

Malay strictness and Thai laxism

64But since early 2000, for reasons that are probably linked to the internal policy of Malaysia, the site of Sadao-Dannok (Dannok literally means frontier), 15 km from the city of Sadao, in the no man’s land between Thailand and Malaysia, a veritable satellite city has mushroomed within the space of a few years, made up mainly of brothels, hotel brothels, karoké brothels, restaurant brothels and jewelery shops. This strange city grows a little more each night, as it is highly patronised by the Malay muslims far more than the Chinese of Malaysia (who prefer Betong or Hat Yai where they are more comfortable), since this site makes it possible for the Malays who live on the coasts right up to the island of Penang and even beyond, to have fun as they can make a day trip, thereby avoiding the awkward questions of their spouses on their return. This way they can have access to the artificial paradise that Malaysia refuses them.

65Thus the fundamentalism and the severity of Malaysians and Islam nourish the chain of frontier sex cities. The Chinese and people of Chinese origin are only taking advantage of this enormous constant demand.

66One of the reasons why the clients prefer to make a trip is that they can drink alcohol without fear at the frontier on the Thai side, and they can get into brawls all night if they wish without fear of the Malay religious police, that obliges them within a few minutes to go to the numerous clandestine brothels at Butterworth, Penang, or Kuala Lumpur…

67At Dannok, Sungai Kolok, Betong, Hat Yai, they can take the time to enjoy life as they wish. Finally the rates in Malaysia in the clandestine brothels are highly discouraging for the Malay clients: at around 100 ringgits (1000 bahts) for a sexual service, 350 ringgits (3500 bahts) for a night, it is expensive. At the frontier, the rates are 300, 400 or 500 bahts for a sexual service, and maximum 1000 bahts for the night. The hotels of reasonablly good quality, are clean with hot water, TV and cable and cost around 500 bahts per night which is quite affordable. When the clients cannot afford the price of a hotel room as well as of the sexual service he requires, the prostitute at the frontier at Dannok for example, lets him use her sordid little room which is more like a slum than a guest room, at no extra cost so as to finish the transaction.

68The huge majority of the owners of these establishments of the frontier zone are Chinese or of Chinese origin. And if it is true that they are pragmatic, rather than really evil, and fully take advantage of this manna from the Muslim Malays, they in their turn operate without any respect for public morals, serving solely their own financial interests, thus placing themselves in a vast shady zone with which they are associated in the popular imagery but from which they can easily extricate themselves by changing their field of work.

69Two factors can greatly help them do so: proposing laws that are adequate in a sector that proves to be a legal abyss, a zone where there are almost no laws, as AFESIP does in Cambodia for example (refer to Aarti Kapoor, 2004); and induce Malaysia to reduce its hypocrisy.

70For the responsibility of this critical situation does not lie solely with Thailand or even just with the Chinese diaspora in Thailand, but is to be borne equally by the self proclaimed prudish and licentious Malaysia that is pushed to vice by the very severity of its austere and extreme religious moral keepers.


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22 Pierre Le Roux et al., 1991

Table des illustrations

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Jurist, AFESIP Campaign Director
Researcher at the AFESIP in Cambodia completed the presentation of professor Chu by focusing on the sex business at the border between Thailand and Malaysia and how some Chinese roots gangs are taking benefit of this business in the kind of under law or no man’s land zone.

Ethnologist, AFESIP Research Unit Director
Researcher at the AFESIP in Cambodia completed the presentation of professor Chu by focusing on the sex business at the border between Thailand and Malaysia and how some Chinese roots gangs are taking benefit of this business in the kind of under law or no man’s land zone.

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