- The Intimate Economies of Bangkok: Tomboys, Tycoons, and Avon Ladies in the Golden City (review)
- Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia
- ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute
- Volume 20, Number 1, April 2005
- p. pp. 96-99
- View Citation
SOJOURN Vol 20, No, 1 (2005), pp, 96-118ISSN 0217-9520 Book Reviews The Intimate Economies ofBangkok: Tomboys, Tycoons, andAvon Ladies in the Golden City. By Ara Wilson. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. 272 pp. Ara Wilson's attempt to redtaw a cultural map of Bangkok from an "intimate' viewpoint makes her book a highly engaging read. Her premise is that Bangkok's economy should not only be viewed from a public perspective, from statistics and "hard" evidence officially approved by the government for press releases; intimait: realms, those that involve such hidden yet powerful issues as sexuality, gender, and ethnicity, should be considered alongside. This is made possible by her claim that the effects ofcapitalist modernity are far-reaching, entering the intimate geogtaphies ofdaily life and eventually breaking down the boundaries between the public and the private. It is her task to point out that certain facets of uiban living long regarded as ion-economic in nature are in fact deeply intettwined with economic developments. This dynamic interaction between economic systems and social life is the focal point ofhet book, from which she develops live main areas ofstudy. These "intimate realms" are themselves highly charged spaces involving complex negotiations and reorientations between economic impositions and personal life. The first is a case study ofone ofthe major department stores in Bangkok and how women featured in its development from a small shophouse to one ofthe biggest retail giants in Southeast Asia. The issue ofgender is related to that ofethnicity in this case, as the ruling family was part ofthe Chinese community who migrated to Thailand for economic reasons. That these women's contributions to the birth of this empire in its early phase were downplayed in some official narratives ofthe company is unquestionable Book Reviews97 and Wilson also focuses on analysing how women in later generations are more successful in making themselves seen and heard in public arenas and how this shift is related to Bangkok's capitalist modernity. Wilson then moves on to analyse the everyday lives of sex workers in Bangkok's go-go bars and how the issues ofgender and displacement influence their career adjustments. There are, Wilson argues, certain protocols that people in this intimate industry need to observe, even though these protocols and codes ofpractice are not easily laid down into clearly visible rules. Sex workers, especially those migrating from rural areas, need to learn new codes and reorient their lives around these invisible protocols, which inevitably entail negotiations with foreigners in terms of not only sexual practice but also other moral and psychological dilemmas. Unfortunately, due to her limited research period, Wilson omits the story ofChuvit Kamolvisit, a tycoon whose immense wealth was reported to have come mainly from Bangkok's nightlife businesses and who recently attempted to enter the political sphere by running as Governor of Bangkok. His story would have been an excellent example ofhow the intimate and public geographies interact within the economic framework. The space ofurban nightlife is no less intriguing and dynamic than that of the vibrant daytime commercial ground, the Mah Boonkrong Centre. Like go-go bars, urban shopping centres are the sites whereby the intimate interacts with the public as the force of global market economy shapes and affects our intimate identities and relationships. Wilson argues that the Mah Boonkrong Centre is a plural space that fostets and accommodates the emetgence ofvariegated identities and romances that do not conform to traditional norms. She particularly focuses on the notion ofthe tomboy and analyses how its emergence is related to that of the shopping centre and how this identity navigates through the construction of gender and sexuality, especially that of prevailing heterosexuality, in the deeply capitalist space emblematic of consumer culture. What is remarkable about Wilson's study is that with the analysis ofthe tomboy alongside that ofthe heterosexual couple, she manages to argue that the prevalence ofheterosexual codes is a pretty tecent phenomenon in Bangkok and that, with the aid of the media, 98Book Reviews these codes are no less an invention than homosexual ones. Wilson's next focus is the media. Based on her work experience as a translatot at the (now non-existent) IBC, a...