by Kimberly Hoang
One evening during my months of fieldwork in various strata of Ho Chi Ming City’s (HCMC) sex industry, a young woman returned to work after obtaining a rhinoplasty. With a bruised nose and along with strips of white bandages on her face, Diem’s nose became a spectacle among the male clients in the bar. Dong, a 60-year-old local Vietnamese businessman, explained to me: “When you bring in businessmen from Asia, you can say, ‘Look, this country is growing and developing so much that even the poorest village girls can afford to get plastic surgery.’ It shows them that we’re a nation that is growing very rapidly and there is a lot of potential in our market. [The women] represent Vietnam to the most important people, our investors!”
Dong’s explanation led me to understand the role that women workers in the sex industry played in reflecting Vietnam’s status as Asia’s second fastest developing economy. These sex workers employ various technologies and methods to transform their bodies to reflect Vietnam’s shifting place in the global economy. One bar where I completed my fieldwork catered to influential investors—typically from wealthier Asian countries—employed sex workers who observed and were present during investment deals crucial to attracting foreign direct investment into the city. As a result, it was important for the women sex workers to project a look that was similar to what was considered ideally beautiful in modern East Asian countries: light skin, round face, double eyelid crease, slim body, and firm breasts. As Dong had explained to me, clients who came to the bar to seal large investment deals needed to showcase the transformation of women’s bodies in order to allude to Vietnam’s rapid political and economic transformations as a nation.
However, the women and men I observed in HCMC’s sex industry did not always hold these ideals. Through my 15 months of fieldwork between 2009-2010 working alongside hostesses in different segments of Vietnam’s sex industry, I found that the hostess workers altered their bodies in different ways to cater to their clients competing desires. While women in the higher end bars that catered to wealthy Asian investors wanted to present a modern pan-Asian ideal, women in lower end bars that catered to backpacking and tourist Western men projected something very different. As one woman, Xuong, explained, the workers in these bars instead tried to look like they “just came up from the village.” These women oftentimes purposefully darkened their skin, wore more makeup, enlarged their breasts through implants, and wore less fashionable clothing to work. Their purpose was to appeal to Western traveler’s fantasies about what poor, rural women who’ve found themselves in a developing city look like. For these clients, these women represented the “authentic” Vietnam that was inferior to the West.
Sex workers who catered to Western men oftentimes pretended to be in more desperate economic situations than they really were in order to appeal to their clients desires or fantasies of Vietnam as a struggling, developing nation. As one man told me after spending a few days with one of the sex worker’s families (which turned out to be a staged encounter in a nearby village with fake members meant to illicit sympathy from the client), “There are so many things that we in the West take for granted.” The result was that these clients spent significant amounts of money providing financial support to these supposedly needy women.
The sex workers and their embodiment practices signified how larger global economic changes play out in the everyday interactions within the informal economies of sex work. This research shows that the worlds of high finance and benevolent giving are never divorced from the personal and intimate gendered spheres of the informal economy. Trends of Asian investment into Vietnam alongside the 2008 financial crises that heavily hurt Western countries mapped onto the women’s bodies through the different ways they interacted with and presented themselves to different groups of clients. Foreign direct investments linked to the purchase of sex in HCMC’s sex industry show that these are not just economic transactions – they are embedded in social relationships that reflect different perceptions of Vietnam’s place in the global imaginary as both a nation rapidly on the rise and as a poor Third World country situated among verdant rice paddies.
Kimberly Hoang is assistant professor of sociology at Boston College. Her article, “Competing Technologies of Embodiment: Pan-Asian Modernity and Third World Dependency in Vietnam’s Contemporary Sex Industry,” is published in the August 2014 issue of Gender & Society. To read the article, click here.