Kimberly Hoang is a Vietnamese-American scholar, an associate professor at the University of Chicago. Dealing in Desire is the product of years of research into the sex trade in Ho Chi Minh City. She spent 7 months in Vietnam in 2006/2007, and then returned in 2009 for another 15 months. She actually worked in the bars and hostess-clubs so that she could observe and conduct interviews over a period of time. She finished her dissertation and published her book in 2015.
The sex trade is a very controversial subject. Countries like Thailand and Vietnam are not necessarily thrilled to be known as great places for sex tourism, and there certainly has been a lot of criticism of this trade coming from the West with concerns about trafficking, women's welfare, and the spread of some deadly diseases.
However, Hoang is very respectful of the women and men who work in this business and went to great lengths to determine if this was a choice that the women were making. She contends that it was - at least in the bars and clubs where she did her research. And she succeeds in doing a very fine analysis which looks at this as a business with niches, opportunities and risks at a time when the Vietnamese economy was booming. According to the World Bank they are still seeing GDP growth at about 6% in 2014 and the country is classified as "lower middle income."
How the economic and social mobility opportunities are leveraged in the sex trade is fascinating because as Hoang shows they are framed by: nationalisms; Asian, pan-Asian and Western identities; and socioeconomic status. In short, these entrepreneurs know their customers.
Hoang identifies these three niche markets in the sex trade in Ho Chi Minh City which range from the high-end, the most exclusive and expensive clubs, to the lower end which caters to the tourist or the marginal Western migrant/expat on a budget.
Exclusive Bars/Clubs: This is the high-end where a client only gets in if he's invited by another client. They are frequented by elite local Vietnamese businessmen who sometimes invite their counterparts from China, South Korea or Japan. These are places where men make deals and contacts in a relaxed and informal atmosphere: expensive whiskey and beautiful elegant Vietnamese women.
The bar where Hoang worked "generated around U.S. $150,000 a month in revenue from alcohol sales alone." (Hoang 2015:41) The women, who ranged in age from 16 to 22, did not earn a salary but were paid in tips: about 2000 USD a month for serving and entertaining at the bar and about 150-200 USD if they left the bar with a businessman. (Hoang 2015:42)
Viet Kieu Bars/Clubs: A level down are clubs that cater to overseas Vietnamese - migrants who left Vietnam (or their parents did) and have returned. Unlike the high-end bars Westerners were more welcome (sort of). At the bar where Hoang worked Viet Kieu with reservations got in immediately and everyone else had to stand in line outside to be seated:
"Though the length of the queue primarily depended on capacity, it was an unspoken rule that Western men generally had to wait in the queue unless they were accompanied by a group of overseas Vietnamese or local Vietnamese men. The symbolic and systematic denial of Western men from these bars made Lavendar one of the most attractive sites for Viet Kieu men." (Hoang 2015:43)This looks very much like some of the clubs in Tokyo where Westerners are met at the door with a "Japanese only"and denied entry. And I do wonder if the motivation is similar - the creation of a space where Western people get to experience a little of the discrimination that Asians have perhaps felt in Western countries. In Ho Chi Minh city, says Hoang, "Viet Kieu men displayed a class-based transnational masculinity by consuming alcohol and sex in spaces that were often explcitly unavailable to white men." (Hoang 2015: 68)
The Western Expat Bar: The lower-end. These are the bars where mostly Western men congregate. The owner of this type of bar Hoang says, opened it "in 2008, to capitalize on the growing number of Westerns transnational businessmen who had suffered during the 2008 financial crisis and traveled to Vietnam to rebuild their professional lives." (Hoang 2015: 46) The women don't make nearly as much money (about 250-300 USD per month which is about 10 times less than the high-end bars) but they have other ways of generating income.
Hoang calls it "benevolent remittances." The sex workers at this end of the market convince Western men to give them money for projects or for their families. As one worker explained: "If you make them feel sorry for you as a poor Vietnamese village girl, they will give you a lot more money." (Hoang 2015: 62)
If you are from Europe or North America you may have read this far and have the sense that the world has turned upside down ( perhaps you are simply offended by the blatant discrimination). Maybe you are asking yourself: Since when did white male Westerners lose some of their privilege in Asia? And the answer is: Since Asia got rich. The larger frame to this story, Hoang argues, is how Western investors were replaced by Asian investors and entrepreneurs, and this was particularly obvious in Vietnam just after the Great Recession.
Between 1995 and 2005, Australia, Canada and the United States were the largest providers of FDI in Vietnam. However, by 2009, Western nations played a much smaller role in Vietnam's market economy as countries within the Asia-Pacific region began to take over. And by 2010, the six leading contributors were Taiwan, South Korea, Malaysia, Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong." (Hoang 2015:8)There is a great story (or one that might make you wince) in the middle of Hoang's book that goes like this: after an evening at one of the high-end bars the businessman host pulled out his credit card and said "'Oh wait. These things don't work anymore. Americans broke the [global credit] system." He leaned back, grabbed his briefcast, pulled out a wad of cash, and instructed me to count out VND 42,000,000 (U.S. $2,100). Then he pulled out another wad of cash and tipped each woman two crisp VND 500,000 bills (fifty U.S. dollars). (Hoang 2015:54)
That reorientation toward the nationalities and classes that are perceived to have the most money is undoubtedly true of a lot of sectors (cars, pharmaceuticals, luxury goods, department stores in Paris, shopping centers in Osaka and so on) and so it should not be a surprise that the sex industry has done exactly the same thing. And, as Hoang notes, this has really destroyed the image of Western masculinity dreaming of "the world order modeled on older tropes of Western global power..." and allowed another image, an Asian one and equally masculine, to come forward. (Hoang 2015: 60)
Cynthia Enloe says that a gender analysis is not just about asking Where are the women? It's also about asking Where are the men?. So, how have the Western male migrants/expatriates in Vietnam reacted to this? Hoang interviewed those who hung out at the bar where she worked and she found an interesting mixture of resignation and defiance.
Most had lost their jobs in their home countries in the recession and came to Asia because they were offered work. One of the expats/migrants Hoang interviewed said: "None of the guys will ever say this, but we all sort of know it...The guys who are working here in Vietnam are men who for the most part couldn't make it in New York, Hong Kong, or Shanghai." (Hoang 2015: 64) There were also scenes she witnessed where the men made cringeworthy attempts to get the Vietnamese women sex workers to say that Western men were better in bed than Asian men. On the Vietnamese side Hoang saw Vietnamese men portraying Western men as poor and cheap (not willing or able to tip well).
These competing masculinities must have been very amusing to watch.
Back to the women. Hoang goes into great deal of detail about the women's lives and their aspirations. It's not a fairy tale profession, by any means. The women can't necessarily save as much as they would like; some tried to turn a client into a boyfriend or husband and were deeply disappointed; and they experienced negative reactions from people in their home villages when they went back for a visit.
And finally there is the problem of age. In the high-end clubs the women are relatively young, in the lower-end bars there were women in their 30's. But at some point the women are too old to work in the clubs or bars and Hoang doesn't go into details about what happens to them if they haven't saved enough money to invest in other businesses except to note that some are able to back to the village and get married. Some.
A very fine book on a subject that I have always shied away from or mentally shelved under "trafficking" or "sex tourism." Hoang does not glorify their work but she's not judgemental about it, either. At the very end of the book she talks more about how she felt doing this research - some of the biases she had, and some of the problems. For example she found it impossible to behave as a stereotypical submissive Asian female (in her role as sex worker in expat bar) with the Western men because "I was far better educated than many of them..." but some of them tried nonetheless to put her in her place. I'd say that with the very public exposure of their comments in this book, she has achieved a delayed but very sweet revenge.
I recommend and if any of you pick it up, I would love to know what you think of it.