[This is the twelfth in a series of stories about interesting people I’ve known, called “Lives”. I don’t know whether you would call it non-fiction, or fiction. I’ve changed the names, and some of the details, so that the individuals are not identifiable. However, I think I’ve stayed true to the essence of what really happened. The point is what can be drawn from the story, and at least that part is 100% true.]
Dao is a Thai nickname that means “star”. Not star like a celebrity, but star like a light twinkling in the sky. Dao does my laundry while I’m in Bangkok, but that’s only a tiny part of her story, as I’ve recently found out. In her case, maybe both meanings of “star” should apply.
Star Laundry – a completely suitable name – is actually a hole in the wall shop on the ground floor of a ten story apartment building near Lumpini Park (in central Bangkok). There is no sign. There is a price list out front, in English, but then you have to go down a dark hallway, much like in a tenement, to get to her back room business.
Once you get there, you enter a room about eight feet by twelve, in which the back wall is all washers and dryers. The ceiling is no more than six and a half feet high. There is no counter. You enter her work area, and she is there working. She counts your laundry on her folding table, fills out a form with a carbon insert, and lets you know when it will be ready. All very business-like. Usually, there are two or three cats of various hues lounging about, supervising the transaction.
The first time you go into this shop, you don’t notice any of that.
Dao was, when I first met her, a tall, attractive, dark-skinned Thai woman in her early thirties, dressed for business: elegant skirt, blouse, heels, makeup, jewelry. Nine years later, she hasn’t really changed. A new customer will think, as I did, that she’s another customer, or maybe the owner of the business, or maybe the sales person, because clearly this is not the person actually doing your laundry.
Funny how we all have stereotypes. Dao tells me that one time a new Japanese customer came in, took one look at her, and walked right out. When he came back an hour later, and saw she was still there, he angrily demanded to know when there would be someone there to clean his clothes, because he wasn’t about to wait forever.
But it is Dao who washes the clothes. She just doesn’t see any reason why she has to dress “like a poor person” when she goes to her job in Bangkok. She has always loved fashion, even as a kid, and she tells me that coming to her business every morning looking good makes her feel good about herself.
This makes her already memorable, but there is more to it. Dao’s story does not include ever working in a bar. In this way, she might be seen to be atypical, but she’s not.
To understand why this is important, you have to know that Dao is from Isaan, the region to the north east of Bangkok. Many Bangkok tourists labour under the assumption that all attractive young women from Isaan work in the bars and other establishments where sex is sold.
That stereotype is quite consistent. Young girl grows up in a poor family in Korat or Khon Kaen. She starts working on the family farm when she is ten or twelve to help out, and soon drops out of school, never to get to high school. She learns how to work hard, but doesn’t have much formal education.
By the time she is fifteen or sixteen, she has started to show her good looks. That creates both a problem and an opportunity.
The problem is that the local boys come calling, and that is likely to lead to more poor kids.
Or, she can go to work in Bangkok, sending money back home every month to look after her family. That is the opportunity.
The core of this story is an Isaan culture (also common elsewhere in Thailand, and other countries) rooted in duty to family. A young person growing up in Isaan often sees looking after her family as the most important role in her life, and her parents and siblings (and neighbours and friends) reinforce that point of view.
The foreigner has an issue of “blind man and elephant”, so for him (or her) “working” in Bangkok means working in a bar, selling sex. That is the “opportunity” that draws young girls from Isaan to Bangkok. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of books have been written about the Thai bar girl, and she is always the poor girl from Isaan with a duty to provide for her family, and a desire to escape from poverty. (Do a Google search: it will blow you away.)
Thais, by the way, don’t make that assumption at all. They know better, and their paradigm of the young girl from Isaan, trying to make a go of it in Bangkok, is quite different. It is much more like Dao.
Which brings us back to Dao. At the age of fourteen, a very pretty young girl, she was the middle child in a family in a small village outside of Nong Bua Lamphu (a small city in Isaan). Most days they didn’t have enough to eat. She knew – as did everyone else around her – that someone had to go to Bangkok to work. Her older brother was needed on the farm, and didn’t really like to work very hard anyway. Her younger sister was still too young to leave home (and not really very pretty).
All eyes turned to Dao. And, more than either of her siblings, Dao felt the weight of her duty to her family.
So what about Dao? She had already left school (technically still a student, but not really), and for two years had worked to look after the chickens and cow and fields. In her spare time, she dreamed of being a model. She had the fine face for it, and she loved fashion. In Nong Bua Lamphu, though, she was never going to be a model. Ridiculous, and she knew it.
On the other hand, she was too young to work in a Bangkok bar, and in any case she was very resistant to the idea. She was willing to help her family. But sell sex? Not what she wanted in her life.
A cousin of Dao’s worked as a maid in Bangkok, and that family – an extended Thai Chinese family with a lot of money – needed another assistant maid to work and live in. Dao was willing, and twenty-seven years ago she left her home at age fourteen to work and live in Bangkok.
The job as a maid lasted a year and a half. It had the advantage that she lived in, and worked essentially around the clock. Because she was always on duty, she couldn’t spend her salary. She could send money – sometimes 3,000 baht (about $120) – back home every month. It made a big difference to her family.
The disadvantage was the same as the advantage: always on duty. Only a farm girl could work that hard, but it was still very hard.
On her sixteenth birthday, Dao moved out of that live-in placement and found a job working in a men’s store in a suburban mall. The salary was a little more, and the hours were less, but she had to pay for rent and food, and she still spent twelve hours a day, six days a week, on her feet. For that, still only 3,000 baht a month went back home.
Once I asked Dao why, at that point, she didn’t consider working in a bar. She had the looks, and she had the energy. She could have worked less, and earned more.
She told me she has been asked that question many times (always by foreigners), so she has given it some thought.
“If there was no other choice,” she told me, with a long sigh, “then I guess I would do that. I’m not comfortable with it, though. I’m not comfortable with sex with no love. That was always a problem for me.
“So, I made sure I had other choices.”
Dao was not quite nineteen when she heard about the laundry job. It was not really a laundry job. The absentee owner of an apartment building wanted someone there all the time to look after the building – like a superintendent – and when the person was not busy they would work in the laundry that was already renting space on the ground floor. It was two jobs, so it was a lot of work. But, also more money. Dao took it.
It was hard work, but it was made easier a year later when one of the apartments became vacant, and she was allowed to live there as part of her salary. She was still able to send money back home. But now her older brother was in Bangkok, and he sometimes needed money. She started looking after him too.
Pause for a second.
Dao was nineteen, alone in Bangkok for five years, and dedicated to looking after her family. She worked almost all the time. Once a week, she went out with her friends, and tried to enjoy her life. It is difficult when you’re tired, and you have no money.
She stuck at it, but when Dao turned thirty, she realized that she was not getting anywhere. She worked hard every day. She sent most of her money to her family. Her dream of being a model was dying. What was her future?
She went to the owner of the apartment building with a proposition. She would take over the laundry premises as the new owner, and continue to take care of his building. He would stop paying her salary, but give her a free apartment and free laundry premises. She would look after herself.
Otherwise, she would have to leave, because she had no future there. It was a gutsy ultimatum. Typical of Dao.
The owner said yes. The laundry tenants left, and Dao took over. The name of the laundry was changed to Star Laundry, and Dao was there every day, running it. Doing everything.
When I first met Dao, she had owned the business for a little less than two years, and she was already making good money. Today, nine years later, she is a successful businesswoman, with loyal customers and a healthy income.
But what is her life?
Dao is an intelligent and attractive woman with a successful business where she is meeting people every day. She even speaks excellent English. The first question for a Thai woman in this situation is where is the man in her life? She is a heterosexual with normal desires, and she has tried to find the right man. When I asked her what is the biggest change she would like to see in her life, she told me she wanted a man she could grow old with.
Even working as hard as she does, she should have been much in demand.
As she describes it, she has been “unlucky” with men. Many of her customers are foreigners, either ones who live in Bangkok full time or ones who travel there regularly. She says that they don’t understand her responsibility to her business. Also, she says, by now she is too old for many of them. (Sad.)
If you drop into her shop, and you take one look at her, you can only conclude that she gets approached by men once a week, maybe more. Not all of them can be pigs. (No, really.) She has just never found the right one.
Despite not having a partner in her life (she hasn’t given up), and now being at the point where she probably will not have children, Dao has fashioned a pretty happy life. But it’s not what you expect.
She wakes up at 5 AM, kisses her two cats, washes her face, and goes for a 5K run in Lumpini Park. By 6:30, she is in the gym, weight training. She has done both the running and the weight training every morning, seven days a week, for the last ten years. By the time she is finished, and has dressed (well) for work, she is able to arrive (with the cats) about 8 AM to open the shop.
Dao tells me that when she first started the morning routine, she often didn’t want to do it. Now, she says, she can’t stop herself. When she gets to work, she is smiling and happy and ready to face the day. Her morning routine does something to her, something good.
Star Laundry is open twelve hours a day, seven days a week. Dao is always there, except when she has to be elsewhere in the building, dealing with tradesmen, tenant issues (the tenants are mostly workers from Myanmar and Cambodia), etc. When there is nothing to do, she reads fashion magazines and tries to keep the cats from sleeping in the dryers.
Every day, she calls her mom in Nong Bua Lamphu and talks with her for twenty minutes. She has done this for twenty-five years, and she expects to do it for the rest of her life. For her mother, who went blind from glaucoma ten years ago, it is the highlight of her day. For Dao, her day would not be complete without talking to her mom. It makes her feel good.
If you ask her whether she is happy, she will say yes. Not every day. Not all of the time. But most days, and most of the time, she is happy.
If you step back and think about her life, it might not seem that great. She works constantly. She has never had the opportunity to have her own family. She closes her store for two weeks a year, one week to go home to see her parents, and the second week to lie on a beach in Koh Samet. Even when she goes out with her friends, she is tired, and she has to be home by 10 to get up the next morning.
But life is all about perspective. Dao, and many others in a similar situation, would have no hesitation in saying that she has a good life.
Dao has internalized her duty to her family, and she delivers on that duty. Her parents (and her brother, her sister, and their kids) all depend on her successful business. Her hard work is the embodiment of her purpose in life – looking after her family.
In an unguarded moment, she tells me: “Some people don’t know why they are alive. I see them every day… sad, sad, sad. I know why I’m here. Maybe that’s why I’m happy.”
Dao could have been a bar girl, for all the same reasons. She made a smart choice, and now in her forties she is still able to look after her family. And still happy.
What Dao is doing is not really different from what many Isaan natives are doing in Bangkok (or many rural natives are doing in cities all over the world). They are working hard to look after their families back home. It is their duty: the central reason that they are on this earth at all. Sure, a few of them are bar girls. Most of them, though, are housekeepers, and office workers, and retail salespeople, and factory employees, and other things, including business owners.
All of them are people who work hard and, like Dao, meet their family duty.
– Jay Shepherd, August 22, 2017