12. Girlie Bars
Mel dropped me at the swanky New World Hotel, where I met Alex. Educated, cultured, and extremely well-mannered, somewhere in his late 20s, a mix of Japanese and Filipino, speaking English like an American, he smoked constantly, but was one of those for whom smoking seemed natural - neither a chore nor a desperate necessity. As long as you were in a well-ventilated place, you hardly noticed he was smoking at all. His manners, however, belied his cravings. He was so addicted, he confessed, he once had to light up in the bathroom of a transpacific flight to Buenos Aires. The scolding he got from the flight attendant had embarrassed him deeply, he said, but he had no choice. He was addicted.
We talked about his book project. I asked him what motivated him to do it. Starting a corporation in the Philippines cost only about $100, he said. “I figured, why not start a publishing company?” To spend only one hour in the Philippines is enough to know what kind of person talked like this. While the majority of Manileños hung their laundry to dry outside their windows in the grimy, sooty streets, a few others threw off lines like this in the bars of the city’s top hotels. Later, however, he would also mention that he had no air conditioning in his apartment. A lower-level member of the upper class, perhaps. Maybe slightly less cavalier and slightly more ambitious than his manner let on.
We drifted onto other topics, and then on our second drink drifted back to the guidebook project. He had written to me before saying none of the other writers wanted to touch the subject of girlie bars, would I be up for it? I wrote back saying I guess I would, we’d talk about it when we met. We both left it at that. He broached the subject now, diving straight to the heart of the matter.
“It would be better if you got some,” he said bluntly.
Well, a part of me thought, yes, it surly would. But then, a part of me was always thinking that. But what about disease? I thought, not to mention all the other questions. “I think I can convey the atmosphere without actually doing the deed,” I said.
He took a long pull on his cigarette, one of the few times I was actually aware of him doing so. “But it would be much better if you got some,” he repeated.
Even if I did, I thought, what did he want, a blow by blow account, so to speak? I was starting to understand why all the other writers had shied away. “Well,” I said, “we’ll see, I guess.” Once again, we left it at that.
EDSA Entertainment Complex
After our second drink, Alex suggested going to a few of these girlie bars, and so we made our way to something called the EDSA Entertainment Complex - essentially a little strip mall of bars with dancing girls for hire. Walking into the corridor you would feel you had a tough choice to make, but Alex made a beeline for a bar called Firehouse.
Inside, it was plush and dark. About ten bikini-clad girls stood up on a stage in front under the lights. Some were dancing to the music pounding away on the sound system, others swayed gently to and fro, still others simply stood still, looking as if they were waiting for their sentences to be up. There were still other bikini-clad girls scattered throughout the bar, and most all of them, along with the girls on stage, perked up when we walked in. Though it was a Friday night, and well after 10 p.m., there were very few customers around. It seemed old Mel the cabdriver was right, the ratio was about eleven to one. Maybe he’d gotten his figures from hanging around EDSA.
We ordered drinks and the ritual began. Girls came up and introduced themselves, asking our names and where we were from. If they could interest us in conversation, we’d be asked to buy them a “lady’s drink” - perhaps double what we paid for our drinks, but still only three or four dollars. If it wasn’t the girls coming up to introduce themselves, it was the mamasan beckoning a girl to sit beside us.
There were different reasons why the mamasan would step in. Perhaps the girl was new and shy. Or perhaps she was lazy or uninterested or deep in conversation with her friend. The mamasan’s job, at least as far as her relationship with the customer was concerned, was to beckon, to match, to intercede on behalf of her charge for a lady’s drink, and then another drink, and then perhaps even the ultimate step - the bar fine. The bar fine was when you agreed to depart with the girl, and you paid the bar a fee, ostensibly for the loss of her “dancing services.”
The Mamasan and the Institution of Prostitution
The mamasan wanted to see you happy, but she would also attempt to push more and more onto you as time passed. If you sat with a girl without buying her a lady’s drink, the girl would soon enough disappear, which was only fair. If you’d been descended on by a girl you really weren’t interested in talking to, and were asked to buy a lady’s drink, an acceptable response was perhaps, “Maybe later.” If the girl continued to hang on even when you’d done your best to participate as little as possible in the conversation without being rude, thereby showing her you weren’t really interested, another “Maybe later” response to a second request for a lady’s drink would let everyone know exactly where you stood. You could also outright request to talk to another girl who had caught your eye, even while the present girl was doing her best to engage you in conversation. And there would be many girls attempting to catch your eye.
Alex and I went through all of this, politely refusing the girls’ petitions for ladies’ drinks, politely refusing the mamasan’s matchmaking services. We had gotten deep into a conversation, naturally enough, about prostitution. Prostitution in the U.S. and prostitution in the Philippines seemed like different animals, my argument went. In Asia, in general, the institution seemed more accepted.
Alex disagreed. “I have some girl friends, friends who are girls, who would disown me if they knew I came to places like this.”
Still, I argued, for all the lax morals in the West, prostitution seemed less a part of acceptable culture. A typical prostitute in the U.S. was usually seen as someone caught up in an addiction to drink or drugs, or someone so psychologically abused they were acting out only God knew what kinds of exercising rituals. A typical prostitute in the Philippines, however, was usually just a dirt poor girl with little or no opportunity. And her average John was more than likely your average Joe - the bank manager, the grocer, the father of your best friend. Your average bargirl in the Philippines wouldn’t be a prostitute if given the opportunities your average American prostitute was given. More than likely, in America, she would be your average college student, with grants and loans and a part-time job in a restaurant.
Alex considered this whole argument, then finally agreed. It was that variable of opportunity that seemed to differentiate them most. And perhaps it was that same variable that differentiated the U.S. from the Philippines as a whole. But opportunity was a large and complex concept, created and thwarted by many variables itself, alignment of the stars possibly even one of them.
The Filipino Character
This got us onto the subject of the Filipino character. Alex took the example of the recent economic success of Korea, a situation, on the surface, not so dissimilar to the Philippines. There was a war which damaged the country tremendously, and in which America had played the key role. The postwar period was also dominated by America - protecting, using perhaps, abusing perhaps, supporting at times, thwarting at times, but now Korea was considered a success, and the Philippines was still deeply mired in challenges at every level.
“I think it’s because the Koreans can all move in one direction together,” he said. “They listen to their leaders. In the Philippines, if someone wants to do something, they laugh, they make jokes and make fun of them.” Filipinos were also too timid, he said. They just followed power, such as the U.S. had. They respected power, he said, perhaps too much.
I Remember That Girl
All this serious talk, we suddenly realized, was putting a damper on the evening. Here we were surrounded by fleshy, jiggling girls, and we were talking politics. We ordered another drink. I looked over to see a huge grin spread across Alex’s face. “What’s the big smile for?”
He was looking at a girl up on the stage. “I remember that girl.”
He indicated one of the girls, not the prettiest, but the one with the largest breasts.
“But does she remember you?”
He was still staring at the girl, still smiling, and then somehow his huge grin got even bigger. “Yeah, she does now.”
We stopped into another bar at the complex and found the same basic scene, very few customers and an eleven to one ratio. About four or five girls gathered around me as I sat on my stool, pushing right up against me, soft and warm like pillows. They were cheerful and playful and giggly, all in a good mood, it seemed, teasing each other with inside jokes. As the girls got commissions on their ladies’ drinks, we bought a few rounds and then decided to head on back to Malate.
The L.A. Bar - A Freelancer Bar in Malate
If I was up for it, Alex suggested, there was a “freelancer’s bar” open twenty-four hours not far from my hotel. The L.A. Bar, it was called. A freelancer’s bar was essentially a regular bar, but all the female patrons would be independent contractors. Some were fulltime professionals, some part-time professionals, some college girls looking to make tuition, some just “regular” girls with a wild side, a particular itch to scratch that night, and an eye for opportunity.
“Sure,” I said. “Why not?” I hadn’t expected to be making the girlie bar circuit that night, but once we got rolling on the theme, it was a little hard to break away from. Walking into a regular bar would not have you surrounded by soft, giggling girls within the minute.
No sooner had we ordered some drinks and some food than two not-very-attractive girls came over and started talking to us, trying to get us interested. I really wasn’t up for the game of politely pushing them away and so started speaking in my limited Spanish, telling them I was from Spain. Alex picked up on my game and told them I spoke no English at all. The thought was they would get bored with not being able to communicate and simply give up. The thought was a misguided one.
Not only were they not bored, they seemed even more intrigued. They continued to try to talk to me in English no matter how much I feigned incomprehension. They talked to Alex in Tagalog. The one girl who seemed to have her sights set on me told him she would go with me for free. This shocked him completely. He really couldn’t get over it. The soft and warm “pillow girls” at the other bar had said the same thing to me, but he hadn’t heard it. I decided not to tell him. We both knew what was going on here. If you were somewhat youngish, weren’t completely monstrous, and most importantly, possessed a white face, your opportunities were greatly expanded. I imagined he’d known that before, or at least had heard it, but now that he’d seen it in action, he was finding it hard to swallow.
We ditched the girls eventually by simply leaving and then went to yet another bar - a truly regular bar this time. Alex still couldn’t get over what he’d just witnessed. For me, it only went to prove my thesis that your average bargirl in the Philippines was more “average” than “bargirl.” That wasn’t completely true, I knew. A bargirl anywhere would most likely have a side to her that was pure business, hard and cold; but she wasn’t nearly the same thing as your average American streetwalker. Then again, the ratio in America wasn’t exactly eleven to one either.