Read Private Dancer

Private Dancer by Stephen Leather is a book that has been tremendously well-received in Thailand. Bernard Trink from Bangkok Post believes that “Private Dancer ought to be made available to every tourist at port of entry” and Pattaya Mail wrote that the book “should be compulsory reading for all first-timers to Thailand.”

I totally disagree with these opinions, but we need to have one important thing in mind! Are you coming to Thailand as a sex tourist, interested in engaging in sexual intercourse with as many Thai bar girls / boys / katoeys as possible? If the answer to this question is “Yes!”, then you’d better get your hands on the book and read it before you bar fine your first girl. If your answer is a definite “No!”, then you’re better off reading any other non-go go bar girl book about Thailand. For starters, I recommend The Occidentals by Caron Eastgate James.

But to have two major English-language newspapers declare that Private Dancer should be compulsory bibliography for everyone landing in Thailand it’s just wrong. I mean, do they really assume that all tourists who arrive in Thailand come here for the girls? Has Thailand really become a destination known just for its red light districts? I wholeheartedly hope not! There are thousands of other things Thailand can offer, apart from Bangkok’s three main red light districts and Pattaya’s Walking Street.

Having said all these, it is now time to look at what Stephen Leather tried to do in Private Dancer: my personal opinion is that he tried to shock and to warn the naïve sex tourists of the traps that they might fall into if they start a relationship with a bar girl. It is exactly what happens to the main character, Pete, who falls in love with Joy, one of the many bar girls from Nana Plaza in downtown Bangkok. 

Their abortive relationship is a rollercoaster of physical and emotional pain. The reader is drawn into their stories from the very first page: “She’s dead. Joy’s dead. Joy’s dead and I killed her.” It’s a great beginning that hooks the reader and makes him curious about how it all happened...

Pete, an English writer, is sent to Thailand to update a travel book and, while he’s at it, he gets infatuated with Joy, a prostitute from the northeastern part of the Kingdom. In his naivety and willingness to believe her, Pete tries to find reasons to ignore all the signs that warned him not to get involved with Joy. Still, even though he “never had the feeling that she was being one hundred per cent honest,” Pete gets tied up in a relationship he is unable to escape. For Joy it makes perfect sense to lie and deceive Pete in order to keep him giving her money on a regular basis. When Pete finally finds out that his prostitute sweetheart had been lying to him from day one, he tries to forget her, but he just can’t: “There was something inexplicable about the way I felt about Joy…” Joy became Pete’s Achilles heel.

Joy’s character is an intriguing one, although sometimes hard to believe. Raped at an early age by her father, then by her brother, then by her brother’s friends, she sees no choice in making enough money to entertain her violent boyfriend and to meet the demands of her family other than by working as a hooker in one of the many go go bars of Bangkok’s red light district. Although at first she sees in Pete another “ATM machine” – a source of incoming cash –, towards the end of the book she wishes to settle down with him and stop working as a prostitute: “I was tired of supporting my family, tired of all the demands they kept making on me, tired of my friends asking for money. I wanted to leave Thailand, I wanted to start my life again.” Too bad it was too late.

Stephen Leather’s Private Dancer is an easy read, with short sections, each presenting the story as it is seen through the eyes of the different characters that litter the novel. I would have liked to read more about what was on Joy’s mind and less of what the other expats had to say about the Thai go go bar scene. However, especially while I was reading the first half of the book, I had to put it down on several occasions and find reading pleasure elsewhere: the drama was at times too much to bear.

But, there’s a twist in the tail and, although towards the end the narrative kind of loses focus, the message of the book is clear: you’re never going to win an argument with the Thais. Unfortunately, the book doesn’t make justice to the millions of ‘normal’ Thai women who live a decent life, and keep away from drugs, orgies and prostitution. Private Dancer has a brilliant cover (photograph by Paul Owen), which suggest exactly what the book is all about.

Ever since it’s first publication in the early 2000s, the book has been a constant bestseller in Thailand and Southeast Asia. Private Dancer is available for download on the author’s website, but the download doesn’t have the Epilogue that tells the reader what happens to all the characters. Stephen Leather has published many other books, among which Confessions of a Bangkok Private Eye.

Simon Dan

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