Semester at Sea Fall 2006 Voyagebanner


One night in Yangon

Jessica Von Wendel

            As far as we understood our local friend was taking us to karaoke in Yangon, Burma.  We arrived at what looked like a huge country club.  Decorative lights hung everywhere and music was playing.  As we walked in and went up the stairs we looked down at the central stage.  A woman stood singing a Burmese ballad.  We sat down on puffy seats.  I looked around and saw only men.  Then my friend explained that this was not karaoke in the Japanese sense.  He had lived for ten years in Japan and knew what we were probably expecting.  He wanted to show us what Burma was becoming.  *Click here for short movie of the club scene.

In Burma there has been a recent backlash of the sex trade with Bangkok.  Many Burmese women are trafficked over the border, but the prostitution houses of Thailand are beginning to emerge in Yangon itself.  He clarified the whole process to us.  A man can pay money to request a song.  If he sees a girl he likes he pays around five US dollars, which is a large amount of money in Burma, to buy the girl a boa-like garland or a tacky hat similar to a sombrero.  At the end of the night the man who paid the most for the girl takes her home or to a hotel.  As I watched all the girls perform a dance number, I looked at each one individually.  One girl was dressed in Catholic school girl attire with her midriff exposed and pig tails, but the majority of the girls were primarily covered in modest ball gowns and cocktail dresses.  Burma is still fairly conservative, evidently this holds even when it comes to prostitution. 

I asked my friend how old he thought these girls were.  He said if you asked them they would say 22, but most were probably around 17 years old.  They primarily come from local villages on the outskirts of the city.  Some had energetic faces and smiled a lot, but most wore blank expressions that were indifferent to the fast beat of the music or the context of the song they were singing.  In Monique Skidmore’s article “Darker than Midnight: Fear, vulnerability, and terror making in urban Burma” she explains that “the vast majority of Burmese she met survive by adopting a blank exterior persona: listless eyes in wooden bodies.”  This is exactly the bank gaze that I saw on the women in this Yangon karaoke club.  These women must adopt this persona even more than the average Burmese citizen, because in addition to living under a totalitarian military dictatorship they also face sexual exploitation on a daily basis.  At the end of the number, the girl with the most garlands and hats was seated on a thrown and crowned like a prom queen.

I walked away from this experience completely amazed by the aristocratic openness of the sex trade.  Still the women at this Yangon club exhibited a distance in their faces that is universal to many sex workers.  They seemed unaware that they were performers in a surreal world.  In the Yangon sex trade, women don’t just sell their bodies down some dark alley corner, but actually go through an application process to be exhibited on stage and compete in a beauty pageant where garlands mean survival.    

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