From Sex Worker and Inmate to Award Winning Writer
By Chit Hnin Aye | Nov 15th 2016
This article was written for a weekly assignment in JM 311 News Editing course by Lecturer Sanitsuda Ekachai, BJM Program, Faculty of Journalism and Mass Communication, Thammasat University, Thailand.
She came from an abusive family; experienced teen pregnancy and severe poverty. She had been forced into prostitution to fend for herself and her family. She had almost face her dead at the hand of the yakuza. She had fallen off her wagon into drugs, gambling and thrown into jail multiple times.
Today, she is 47 and an award winning writer and an inspirational speaker.
Meet Thanadda Swangduen.
“I was only five, but already, I remember my family not being so well-off. In other words, we were poor,” said Thanadda, dressed in her stylish skinny jeans and black heels.
Growing up on the outskirts of Bangkok, around Wat Toong Kru, life was harsh on the young Thanadda — father was a carpenter and loved his alcohols; mother was a hardworking woman who worked in textile factory. Being the youngest in the family, she has one elder brother and two elder sisters. She wrote in her first book, I Am Eri, an autobiography that even though they lived Bangkok, they never have any electricity at home because her parents’ income combined was never enough for them to live on.
“This was always a sore point for me and I often asked myself why we were so poor. I wanted electricity, a TV set and everything else others had, but I knew that it was impossible because my father didn’t have his priorities right. On top of that, he loved to gamble. We were so poor that sometimes we didn’t have enough food to eat. But my brother, sisters and I were too young to feel like we were suffering,” she wrote.
But they all soldiered on.
On top of severe poverty, young Thanadda did not have a support system from her family as well. On top of everything else, her father loved to gamble and had a mistress who came to live with them, and her brother was very abusive and would beat her at every chance he got.
“I came from a dysfunctional family. My father had a lover, we were poor, there was no love and warmth in our family, there was no form of guidance to show me the way — only physical abuse.”
Things took an even ugly turn when she got pregnant with her boyfriend while still being in high school. The first thing her brother did when he found out was to beat the life out of her while her mother and aunt just looked on.
She was just 17 then.
BABY ON BOARD
Thanadda knew there was no way she could bring a baby into her world on top of everything so she tried to abort the baby many times — three time to be exact but the baby stayed.
Her life was put on hold as well.
She had always wanted to become an engineer or an architect. She got into Fine Arts Department at Don Muang Technical College the same day her family found out about the baby.
“With the cost of school supplies, uniforms etc., I knew right away that I’d never get to continue with my studies because I came from a poor family.”
Her boyfriend was not in the picture as well.
If thing couldn’t get worse than this, it did.
When the baby was born, Thanadda found out that she had contracted syphilis from her boyfriend and passed it onto her child. The baby was very sick because of the syphilis and all the attempted abortions, and she couldn’t breastfeed him as well because of the syphilis.
Money was so low and she needs to make money to buy milk powder for her baby so she started working as a sales girl in Central Chidlom one month after giving birth. But her income wasn’t enough so she decided to take a bartender job in Pattaya which she later found out just a facade for prostitution.
LIFE IN THE SEX INDUSTRY
Her “bartender” job turned out to be a job where she needed to sit in the glass box and wait for bar patron to pick her. She finally got picked after four days of working, but till then she didn’t know she needed to sleep with him.
When the time came for doing the deed, she freaked out and started crying. Her client was so nice and gave her 4,000 baht to go home. She realized that if she can make 4,000THB a night, she can make a lot in a week or a month so she decided to stick around.
“Compare to other jobs, this job pays a lot so at this point, money is desperately needed so my dignity is not a priority at this point”
She worked at that job for 8 months.
One day, a man named Mr. Kum came up to her and asked whether she would be interested in working in Hong Kong. He told her: “You’ll have to sleep with at least 40 to 50 people a day otherwise all of this will be a lost cause for you.”
The cost of her to go to Hong Kong was 150 clients — she needs to sleep with 150 clients to pay off the debt and she will only get paid by 151.
She didn’t even think twice and say yes.
She earned about 60,000THB to 70,000THB from the job. By then, she started to get herself suck into the world of easy-money-making industry. After giving some to her family, she spent all of her money in 10 days in Thailand.
Making money wasn’t a worry for her anymore.
“If I was desperate, I knew Hong Kong was always an option. Such was the way of thinking of women in this industry. We never saw the value of money because it was so readily available without having to put in much of an effort. We didn’t need brains, only courage.”
Next up was Japan.
She had to gather enough people with her who would be interested in working in Japan so she started rallying around in her old workplace, Pattaya. She managed to get a few of her friends to come with her.
“It was strange how all of us agreed so easily to go to Japan without giving it a moment’s thought. I guess we all knew that we were prostitutes and there would be nothing fancy waiting for us there except to be prostitutes. Whether there was more to this trip than that, we didn’t know. All we knew was that we had nothing to lose.”
She was 19 then.
JAPAN’S WAY OF LIFE
Life in Japan wasn’t as hard as in Hong Kong. She managed to pay her debt to the middle man who got her to Japan and she was also picked by the leader of one yakuza to be become the mama-san in his bar. Money wasn’t hard to get because the yakuza would shower her with what she wants as if she is his own daughter and she didn’t have continue working as a sex worker as well because her duty as mama-san is to organize and take care of the girls.
“Money was very easy so I spent it very easily by buying things or gambling. Every Thai women in Japan enjoyed the flashy lifestyle we did because they were able to make money so easily.”
By now, because she wasn’t running against the time to make money, she had started to reflect on her life.
“Being a sex worker is a lonely life. As a sex worker, you have to wait for somebody to pick you. Choose you. But when you are buying things with the money you earned, the power is in your hand. You’re the one who is choosing what you want rather than being controlled by someone.”
Being the mama-san for the yakuza wasn’t enough for her anymore. She was only 19 but Thanadda knew she didn’t want her life to be tied down to her job or someone. She wanted to leave this life and the only way for her to do is to run away.
And she did.
But her yakuza boss found her and beat her.
“He wanted to know why I wasn’t happy with him and how I could’ve done that to him. I told him I was bored of this sort of life. I had no freedom. After I said that, he beat me up even harder than the first time.”
“Freedom?” He asked. “You want freedom?”
But at some point, the yakuza stopped beating her and took her to his home and take care of her for two years without expecting anything from her. He treated her like his own daughter but one day, he got arrested and gave her 300,000 THB to go back home to Thailand, and to never work in the industry.
Thanadda decided to still stick around in Japan. She didn’t know it then that this decision would come to haunt her for the rest of her life.
FALLING DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE
After the arrest of her yakuza boss, she moved to another town to work in a brothel. The pay was good but she was at such a standstill in her life that she started to take sleeping pills to numb her brain every time she had to sleep with a client.
Her life was a whirlwind then.
She had also fallen in love with her client and started living with him. For her boyfriend, she tried to quit the industry and worked an ordinary job but at this point, on top of her addiction to sleeping pills, she was also obsessed with gambling. She needed money for her gambling obsession so she went back to working as a sex worker behind her boyfriend’s back.
But she got busted and thrown into jail in Japan before being deported to Thailand.
She went back and forth between Japan and Thailand after being deported for multiple times — even one of those time, she was going to Japan on official documents.
“Thai women always had problems with Japanese immigration and would often be sent back home. Come to think of it, it was like this in any country because they assumed all Thai women were prostitutes. Even though there were loads of Chinese and Filipina women, Thai women would be the target of prostitution claims more than anyone,” said Thanadda.
The lowest point of her came when she was sitting on the pavement in a soi in Silom — high out of her mind on sleeping pills.
“I was holding a sandwich while sitting and a dog came and nibble on my sandwich. I was so high, I couldn’t even bat the dog away. I thought to myself, why do I keep doing this to my life.”
She decided to turn her life around and tried her hardest to get back to Japan because her boyfriend and her were determined to get married.
This time, she never strayed off track and tried to be the person that her husband deserved.
But life never let her get comfortable.
“I was visiting the street I used to work and was there just saying hi to my friends and the police just cracked down on the street and I got arrested alongside with everyone else.”
No matter how much she tried to explain and beg — the police didn’t believe her.
And again she got deported.
This time around, her husband wasn’t eager to get her back to Japan so she was stranded in Thailand.
Old habits die hard and she went back to prostitution, and was addicted to sleeping pills again.
“I didn’t have a choice even though I wanted to stop doing this. I was alone and didn’t have anyone to look after me, so I had to fend for myself. This was my profession. I didn’t have to invest in anything except my body. Life wasn’t a bed of roses for everyone. If given the choice, I’d never be doing this.”
She thought there was no way life would drag her down further.
A year went by after her final deportation from Japan, her husband contacted her to come back to Japan.
She was just three-four days away from flying when she got herself into predicament which was out of her control.
“I was high on sleeping pills — trying to catch a cab Sapan Kwai. One minivan stopped and offering me to give me a lift. There were two other girls in the van so I thought it would be okay. But the guy took me to a motel. I was already so drowsy and the guy tried to rape me. I was trying my best to stay focus and negotiate with him. When I got my moment, I spike his beer with my sleeping pills.”
She ran away from the situation but the people from the motel wouldn’t let her and she was arrested for drugging a client.
In her book, I am Eri, Thanadda wrote that she blame three things for her plight.
First, the people from the motel who saw the guy dragging her and still allowed him to book the room. They didn’t ask her whether she was willing to sleep with the guy.
Second, the police officers who refused to listen to her side of the story and didn’t take her seriously when she said her actions were self-defense.
Third, the hospital who wouldn’t admit that she had been buying pills from them on a regular basis even though there was evidence.
So she was sentenced to three years and six months in prison.
Even though, she was hitting rock bottom, Thanadda is a life warrior.
She made the best out of her misfortune to help others in the prison. She was famous in prison for helping other inmates. She helped people who are facing a tough sentence by helping them write pleas.
“I worked for free because I didn’t see any point in rubbing salt in the wound — they were already in a bad situation and emotionally traumatized.”
Her life after prison was as almost ordinary as one can get. She met the love of her life, an art major university student from Bangkok.
She was 28 and he was 19. So their love life was doomed from the start but they loved each other so they both worked hard to support each other.
They were together for almost 10 years when she found out he was seeing another woman with the permission from his parents behind her back.
“I used to have the world — money, a business and respect. But it was all over. Was this the reward I got for helping others and for being honest?”
Heartbroken, Thanadda tried to move on with her life. She tried to do more day to day jobs — working as maid in serviced apartment to small hotels in Silom to big hotels in Sukhumvit.
But the world still function as the same as before she was a loved up woman — materialism rules; money still matters.
Again, she went back to the sex industry. This time, the location is Bahrain.
“Bahrain is a sin country — when the sun goes down, the whole city turns into red light district,” said Thanadda, who was almost 40 at that time.
Bahrain is a Muslim country so just as everything is very strict, the more precious the sex industry there it seemed it be.
Thanadda was deported two times from Bahrain before she decided to put a stop on her profession.
She owed a lot of money to many people who had helped her out with her deportation so her sister advised her to enter a writing competition.
“I have had experiences with writing pleas in the prison so I decided to take a chance but I didn’t know what to even write about.”
Her sister told her to write about the truth of her life.
So she wrote.
This was how the book, I Am Eri, comes to life.
This was how she won the writing competition and went on to become a national award winning writer.
Life is a rollercoaster. Life’s a bumpy ride. Life takes you to places you never expect.
For Thanadda Swangduen, life is the most bumpiest rollercoaster ride which passed along the worst stops of her life.
“All my experiences so far have taught me a lot about life — about humans, about the difficulties in every profession, about social discrepancies. I never looked down on any of the jobs I took — prostitution included,” Thanadda wrote in her autobiography.
When asked whether she regretted anything in her life, Thanadda doesn’t think twice in her empowering stance and said: “I wouldn’t want to change anything. I am where I’m today and who I am today because of everything I have faced in my life.”
Today, she saw the value in her life and how her life story has helped a lot of people, and inspired a lot of people.
She wholly believes she is on the right path now.