In a culture that sometimes (read: almost always) refuses to budge, feminism has taken on a steely, survivalist stance. And I honestly mean that in the most admirable way possible. More and more it feels like modern American feminism takes the role of the duck hunter: patiently waiting in the underbrush of social media, taking aim at the inevitable projectiles of misogyny and misinformation, and turning them into broken bits of clay. There has been a piecemeal approach to this movement as of late, and its strengths and weaknesses with this strategy are obvious. On one hand, this method has no massive manifesto for eyes to glaze over at the merest thought of reading. On the other hand, with every negative commentary on each addition to the cultural zeitgeist, even men who had believed themselves to be progressive and feminist in their leanings find themselves bellowing “Woman–what the hell do you want from me?” This is a natural progression: empathy eventually blooming from the inability to understand what a person of a different sex, race, or culture is going through.
Personally, I blame that feeling in particular for any difficulty we find in moving forward. People hate being told that they can’t possibly understand something. This goes double for white guys, who have pretty much been in charge since Noah put a couple of Anglo-Saxons in their own place on the Ark between the ponies and the flying squirrels. Does that make every white man’s life easy? No. But it’s a lack of perspective in the grand scheme of things that makes someone ask that question in the first place. What can I say? Our culture has a certain fondness for making their lives seem harder than they are. Complain publicly about your day at work and there are dozens of people ready to remind you that their own job resembles nothing less than the Bataan Death March at minimum wage.
It is the interest of never losing that worldly perspective that makes me read books like Hello My Big, Big Honey!, a collection of love letters to Bangkok call girls compiled by Richard Ehrlich and Dave Walker. The notion of a prostitution culture has always fascinated me, and in offering a glimpse into that world, this books delivers. The letters are sad, even when they are meant to be excited or uplifting. The conversation inevitably revolves around money or disease. Many of the men believe that they have fallen in love with these women, and beg them not to have sex with anyone else, sending money along to support them. The letters are all in a mindless, broken English, even when the writer in question is a native speaker. The desire on the John’s part, I suppose, is to make the letter easier to read for their call girl, who usually only speaks a smattering of English. And perhaps this method does work–but the effect that it has is insulting to the woman, however unintentional. Indeed, this unintentional disdain is ever-present in our own American arguments of gender and race. We want to/have to believe that we love the person next to us, despite any evidence to the contrary that there might be.
The potential of using a book like Hello My Big, Big Honey! as a preamble to a very important conversation is so tantalizing that its inability to follow through on its promise is what makes the read so disappointing. As a collection of letters, my immediate concern was that there was no index. Indeed, upon initial review there didn’t appear to be any sort of organization to the missives at all. Ten or so letters, then an interview with a call girl. Ten more letters, another interview. And so on, occasionally interspersed with pictures of various prostitutes, dancing in skimpy lingerie. The first fifty pages are enough to explain why there is no possible way Ehrlich and Walker could have collected these letters into any resembling themes or categories: these letters are all nearly identical. And by identical, I mean in language, style, and subject matter.
“Darling, I love you. Please make your clients wear rubbers. Do you love me too? I’ve sent money. I’m coming to see you again as soon as I can.”
And so on.
The interviews are the same way. The girls vary in ages and general demeanor, but appear to have the same general attitude. They’re hardened and jaded, but enjoy their work halfheartedly. They all seem to dream of the “big score”: some sort of foreigner that will come take them away from all of their troubles. The only difference in these interviews was one woman in particular who spoke of the American GIs during Vietnam, and how 2 to 3 year relationships (often littered with children) were cut short when the soldiers were called home, and never returned to their Thai families–a fascinating bookmark in the history of American/Thai relations that is brought up and then forgotten, like many other intriguing ideas in this book.
The aforementioned photographs are more snapshots than anything else, and fail to capture any memorable moments, instead serving only as momentary splashes of color within the same drearily repeated lines. The captions of these photos are embarrassing mock-sentimentalities that feel like a college student’s attempts at adding weight to a subject that needs no assistance.
If the reading of Hello My Big, Big Honey! feels like drudgery, it’s important to note that I don’t specifically feel as if it is time wasted. The John/Hooker relationship of Thailand is a fascinating subject, and worth documenting. But after three introductions by three different people that go into great detail about the gross physical and emotional implications that exist in the very fabric that makes up these peoples’ lives, I expected more… well… implying. We’re led to believe that the men who compiled these letters and interviews have a very specific worldview regarding the southeast Asian sex trade. We know this because they tell us. But when it comes time to analyze the specifics of these men and women, we’re left with nothing: no annotations, no footnotes. Just a collection of essentially the same letter, over and over again. This lack of oversight in the minds of the men who created this collection doesn’t feel like a “leave it to the readers” decision. It feels like laziness–like they have nothing invested in it beyond a desire to put something in print, despite what their actual goals might be.
Regardless, this book remains an intriguing idea, and at least an introduction to a world that might feel terribly foreign, but has more to do with our modern American sensibilities than we would initially realize.
Hello My Big, Big Honey! was written by Richard Ehrlich and Dave Walker, and is available on Amazon for the Kindle.