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Martin Foreman

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Young Thais, Changing Ties
From old Westerners to young East Asians


January 2010: I'm back in Bangkok six months after my last visit, six years after I began living there and twenty-three years after my first visit. It's ten in the evening, the Other Half is at work and I'm meeting friends in Silom Soi* 4, the longstanding centre of gay East-West relationships.

It seems that nothing has changed. While bars on either side have come and gone over the years, Balcony and Telephone still face each other across the narrow lane like aging aunts or petulant Ugly Sisters - with Sphinx Restaurant in the role of Wicked Stepmother at the far end of the soi.

The outdoor tables at both bars are full. Gay Thais in their twenties flirt with thirty-plus gay Westerners, oblivious to the few women and straight men in their midst. Bonhomie floats thick in the air, fuelled by customers regularly downing cocktails and beer and by the broad smiles and bustling of youthful waiters.

Around midnight, Arne - a 31-year-old German with an unexpectedly British sense of humour - and I leave the party and stroll up Silom Road to Soi 2. There six bars jostle together under the one roof, all with the same owner and all offering different ambiences. If you're looking for karaoke, JJ Park on the right is your destination; if you're a twenty-something Thai out with your mates, head for Disco Disco and Expresso on your left.

My usual routine is to start at Club Caf, a Middle-Eastern style bar that is quiet enough to allow talking rather than shouting, but Arne has no time for such niceties and takes me straight into DJ Station, the largest venue in the block and the inevitable destination for every gay foreigner visiting Bangkok.

To enter is to dive into a sea of heaving nipple-to-nipple and groin-to-groin masculinity swaying and bouncing to the latest dance music. Rather than disappear into the crowd, we squeeze our way to the side and up to the first floor (second floor to non-Europeans) where it is marginally less crowded. Drink in hand - the customary one part mixer to four parts alcohol - we stand back and take stock.

The music is much louder than I remembered from six months ago and harsher in beat and tone. I wonder if my age is catching up with me but others I talk to later have the same impression. And there's another more fundamental difference - a change that I began to notice a year or so ago - which a short reconnaissance confirms: DJ Station has gone native.

For as long as it has been in existence, this nightclub has been world-famous as the spiritual home of older farang - Occidentals - who fancy young Thais; now most young Orientals who turn up are busy fancying each other. True, some young and older men on either side of the ethnic divide still cruise each other, but only in one corner of the first floor. Down on the dance floor the few farang in their forties who stand forlornly against the walls are ignored by young beauties surrounding them - and back upstairs more and more Westerners who have the hots for each other are locked in amorous embrace.

It's not only Thais romancing Thais. Each holiday season sees more visitors from Japan, Korea and the Chinese diaspora, lured by the Thai reputation for good sex and impressive physical attributes. In addition to the nightly celebration at DJ, circuit parties attended by hundreds of buff twenty- and thirty-something Orientals are regularly held in upmarket Bangkok venues. Forty- and fifty-something Occidentals, once the staple of the city's upmarket gay scene are increasingly out of place.

It was always only a minority of Thais and other East Asians who were attracted to older white men, but that percentage appears to be getting much smaller in recent years. So what's changed?

Firstly, the average young Thai is much better off than his predecessors. He is more likely to have gone to university and found a job which gives him somewhere to live, regular nights out and trendy clothes and electronic gadgets and other accoutrements of modern life. He has less need to turn to older farang for financial or emotional security.

Secondly, relationship with Westerners can bring many problems. Those who live in Bangkok are often tempted by the many opportunities for sex - commercial or otherwise - that surround them. If your partner lives abroad there are other strains: while Neil lives in Philadelphia and Nui in Phuket, there are few opportunities to get to know each other well and many a bureaucratic hurdle preventing Nui from getting a visa to live and work in the USA (although an increasing number of European countries offer visas to same-sex partners).

Stir into the sociological soup the changing youth culture in Thailand, particularly the Japanese, Korean and Taiwanese popsingers and boybands that flood the nation's airwaves. Add on the internet - not gaydar and other English-language sites, but a dozen or more Thai language websites bringing young men together in their own language and culture.

Put these and other factors together and you create a national and individual self-confidence that no longer relies on Westerners as role models for sex, love or self-esteem.When we lack status or material possessions we often transfer our emotions to those who provide them, but when we feel strong and self-confident we tend to seek partners who are equally self-assured. Young Thais today are far more likely to fall into the latter than the former group; we like you and welcome you, is the message, but we don't need you any more.

Thai sexual identity is only part of a broader shift of cultural perceptions in East Asia, led by China. The Indians may object that they too are a world power (shortly, maybe, but not yet) and Americans are still in denial (as we Brits spent several decades last century unaware that we had lost an empire), but this is the century of the Middle Kingdom. As China rises, all its neighbours reflect some of its glory.

I've seen this metamorphosis at first hand. I met the Other Half when he was in his early twenties and only white men over forty caught his eye. Then he began to look at older Thai men; now he only fancies Thais his own age. I don't investigate further - it's his life and we trust each other implicitly so his flirting with others is not a threat – but if I have any opinion about the matter it is that it reflects his own self-confidence and maturity.

Back in London there are similar changes. For over a decade Kudos, near Trafalgar Square, was the bar where Oriental students met Brits and other Occidentals a generation or so older. In the last year or so, however, Kudos has lost its popularity, partly because new management has introduced unwelcome changes, and partly because East Asians now melt into the crowd in gay bars across the city, finding boyfriends from across the racial spectrum who are their equals in age, wallet and outlook. Older Westerners, I hear, are now more likely to head to Cambodia and Vietnam for younger Oriental men.

None of this means that inter-ethnic and inter-generational gay relationships in Bangkok have come to an end. There are still many bars where poor young men sell sexual services to older wealthier customers. And some young Thais still find mature white men alluring without the attraction of money. But if you're coming to Thailand as a forty-something who thinks that hordes of handsome young men are waiting to fall at your feet, be warned: the world has moved on from ten years ago.
* Soi is Thai for an alley or narrow lane off a main road.

For more stories on gay life in Thailand, click here

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