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29 January 1999

When first-world man met third-world boy

Jeremy Seabrookpaid Jun's college fees but declined sex in return. Now he questions his own motives

By Jeremy Seabrook

I met Jun in a gay club in Manila. I was staying on the university campus, and my friends were keen to show me that Manila’s gay scene was a match for anything in Asia. The club turned out to be an oppressively hot room, cigarette smoke forming skeins of blue and red in the strobes, a sound system that would have shattered the eardrums in Wembley stadium.

A cramped, furtive place: a locked door, a grille, a recommendation, then upstairs into an enclosure of heat and noise; a tawdry imitation of the tawdry clubs of Bangkok. Jun (not his real name), along with half a dozen other young men, was moving among the drinkers, wearing only white underpants that appeared blue in the fluorescent light.

He was then about 20, uncomfortable and out of place: sturdy peasant feet that should have been standing in flooded paddy fields shuffled to the music. He was small and stocky with clear skin, a round face and straight hair that fell over his eyes.

Although he had lived in Manila all his life, he had, like all young men who work in gay bars, started work only last week. Of course he didn’t like it. This was a temporary job, to pay his university fees. He was at a private business university, and he was working for a diploma in business administration. With that, he would be equipped to face what he called the challenge of globalisation – commerce, catering, tourism. He would lift his family out of poverty. Born under the astrological sign of the market, he was a true believer.

He was not gay. He saw an advert in a magazine, a club looking for “receptionists”. Most sex workers in gay clubs were straight, he explained. It was easy money, though very competitive. Customers looked at you, and if they didn’t like you, their cash bought them the right to express their contempt.

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I made it clear I wasn’t thinking of engaging his services. His evident disappointment was purely professional. We talked for half an hour. I gave him 200 pesos. Impulsively, I asked if he would like to meet outside. He said: “The owner will not allow it.” A punter had to pay the bar if he wanted to take a boy off. I said: “It’s an arrangement between us. It isn’t business.” Hesitantly, he agreed.

Two days later I sat in Jollibee, a fast-food restaurant in Cubao, wondering whether Jun would turn up. They are all called Jun, said my friends cynically.

Cubao is a fun area of Manila – a plaza occupied by McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, Wendy’s, Texas Pancakes and Jollibee, a Filipino version of the same thing, whose logo is an outsize bee with friendly smile. The restaurant was yellow and red, harsh white light, idealised images of the dishes available on illuminated panels above the stainless steel counter. The young people serving there are representatives of the Have-a-Nice-Day culture, a mixture of indigenous amiability and US-inspired training. Cubao is also the site of much small-time prostitution and a number of sex cinemas. By day, it is an ugly mass of concrete, overhead pedestrian crossings, tangles of sagging cables and congestion of the ubiquitous painted jeepneys. Manila was destroyed almost as completely as Warsaw in the second world war, and was rebuilt with wilful ugliness, of tear-stained stone and concrete, slums on bamboo stilts wading suicidally into Manila Bay and Imelda Marcos’s fantasies in cement.

Jun was a few minutes late. He had been looking after sick twin babies – they belonged to his aunt who had gone to Japan as an entertainer – and he had been waiting for his mother to come home from selling fruit on the street. Jun, as the only male, had a strong sense of his responsibility towards the family. They lived in a small annexe attached to the house of his paternal grandmother.

His mother was one of 14 children, who came from Iloilo to work as a domestic servant when she was 13. Later she worked in a garment factory, and then met and married a technician, the son of a lawyer. This marriage was vehemently opposed by her in-laws, who nevertheless allowed them to construct a shed-like structure alongside their stone-built house. Jun’s father went to work in a factory in Taiwan, and never returned.

The grandmother wanted them out. Her house is a substantial villa, mildewed by the monsoons, but an imposing contrast to the shack where Jun, his mother, the aunt and the babies live. Their home is wood and plastic, with a perspex roof. It straddles a drain which floods in the rainy season.

Jun carried the books he was studying. All published in the USA, they had titles like The Small Enterprise and Secrets of the Market. Business culture had come upon him as a revelation. We live in a single-world market, he said, and must adapt or die. Only the fittest survive.

Jun was as proud of his studies as he was ashamed of his work in the gay bar. Devotion to his studies was not an affectation. He talked with enthusiasm about finding a job in retailing, at first perhaps just serving in the shoes or shirts department of a big store, but eventually managing a boutique for one of the big European names, Armani or Cerruti.

He repeated that he was not gay. He liked girls, but would not dream of having sex with one before marriage. Sex with men was not really sex. It was business. Sometimes the customers treated him roughly. They had no respect for the boys, who were at the mercy of the tip they gave. If they only offered 100 pesos he was in no position to argue.

Jun was charming. I wasn’t sure what I wanted from him. He had made it clear he was not gay, and I had declined the offer in the club to go upstairs with him to the cubicles where men could pair off with the bar-boys. His eagerness suggested he had read into it a commitment of some kind.

How much would it cost, I asked, for him to be able to give up the job in the club. Jun repeated he was doing it for the sake of college fees, which amounted to a few thousand pesos a year. He had few other expenses. “If I paid your fees, would you give up the work?” “Oh yes.”

In an instant I had established a future between us; and not just any future, but one in which I had defined the relationship. In our relationships with poor people in the third world, the roles are already written in advance, the scenario posted in the wings of the theatre. All we have to do is play them out. What puritanical exaltations was I indulging, what atavistic Victorian impulses to rescue the fallen?

I didn’t deny I was attracted to Jun, and yet I wanted to show – to whom? – that I could also be altruistic. It was the time when the papers started to carry articles about sex tourism, rich westerners who travelled to Asia to take advantage of the poverty of young women and men who could be had for next to nothing. I thought I would transcend this shameful category, exhibit a generosity that would be its own reward.

I visited the family, and was feted and fed as befits a benefactor. The role of patron is always available to anyone helping a poor family; no doubt, in this context, that of father figure, too. They were astonished to learn I had no kin – an attribute as pitiable as any other absence of identity. I became for them also an object of compassion. A strange symmetry was established. I gave Jun the next instalment for his studies.

I wrote to him regularly, warm letters though not effusive. His replies were coloured by business English. In each letter, he enclosed a picture of himself. These showed him in studied poses – in a dance studio with friends; on the beach; wearing a baseball cap, hair combed down, eyes smouldering; in swimming pants- images of seduction. There were cards – cute animals or flowers, couplets of sentiments that promised lasting affection.

A year later I went back to Manila. Within a couple of days, I had an accident. Making coffee, the cup fell, spilling boiling water on my foot. The skin was burnt and I couldn’t wear shoes or socks for three weeks.

It was June or July. The rain had started. Immobilised, I listened to the clatter of the tropical downpours on the tin roof. Frustration and boredom were relieved only by Jun’s visits.

He sat close to me on the sofa. Sometimes, his head would rest on my shoulder, or he took my hand. I was touched by his tenderness. He repeated his gratitude for my help with his studies. He would start some serious business, unlike that of his mother, now selling seasonal fruits, rambutans or mangosteens, at the mercy of daily loans from a moneylender that have to be repaid with interest.

A curious melancholy underlay our meetings. We played cards, listened to music, while the rain drowned speech and sent the flowers from the trees swimming in a torrent of red mud. I became irritated with the language of business in which he spoke. Every time he visited, he looked at me beseechingly, as though looking for an answer to a question he did not dare pose. But I had his assurances he was not gay, and I made no attempt to respond to what began to appear, even to me, locked as I was in a posture of philanthropic condescension, his overtures. At our last meeting, he was different. A sense of resignation, dejection almost. At the end, he put his arms round me, gave me a hug, and then walked off. Our eyes didn’t meet. He didn’t look back. I was not to see him again .

He finished his studies. He sent me a picture of his graduation; his mother and sisters dressed in their best, glowing with pride through the hazy Polaroid snap. After that, silence.

It was some time before I realised I had missed the point. He felt there was nothing I wanted from him. When he offered me the only thing he had – sex – I had refused it. That he didn’t see himself as gay was not inconsistent with thanking me in the sole way in which he felt supremely confident. Perhaps I had rejected his offer because, if I had accepted it, I would have forfeited my advantage and would have become far more indebted to him than he was to me by means of the few hundred dollars I had given him.

I later heard he was in the gay club again; applying, perhaps, the lessons he had acquired from the studies to which I had made so significant a contribution. I imagine he now sticks to strictly commercial transactions, untroubled by the strange psychic economics that had invaded and inhibited our friendship.