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Asian Journal of

Social Science 46 (2018) 111–131

Masculinity, Marriage and Migration

Farang Migrant Men in Thailand*

Patcharin Lapanun
Khon Kaen University


This article reviews the literature on masculinity and marriages, focusing on Thai
women-farang (Caucasian) men marriages and how these relationships have been
conceptualised. The review highlights the shift from emphasising the political, eco-
nomic and international-relations dimensions that determine marriages to agency
analysis, in which individual choices are informed by local and Western cultures/
norms, global opportunities and local constraints. While studies have focused on
women and their agency, men’s experiences are only beginning to emerge in recent
scholarship, indicating both the negotiation and vulnerability of farang men com-
ing from a more advantageous position. Studies of Thai-farang marriages have often
centred on the presence of American troops in Thailand during the Vietnam War (1965–
1975), while ignoring those that date back centuries. I posit that the history of transna-
tional marriage should be considered in terms of changing structural conditions and
that the balance between structural- and agency-centred explanations must be recog-


masculinity – transnational marriage – migration – farang men – Thailand

* This paper is supported by Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences and the Center for
Research on Plurality in the Mekong Region (cepr), Khon Kaen University. I am deeply
indebted to anonymous reviewers who provided invaluable feedback to this article.

© koninklijke brill nv, leiden, 2017 | doi: 10.1163/15685314-04601006

112 lapanun


In recent decades, transnational (or international) marriages have become

more common in many Asian countries, including Japan, Taiwan, South Korea,
Singapore, China, Vietnam, Philippines and Thailand (Cheng, 2010; Consta-
ble, 2005a; Jones, 2012; Faier, 2009; Lapanun, 2013; Lu and Yang, 2010; Maher
and Lafferty, 2014; Sunanta and Angeles, 2013; Thompson et al., 2016; Wang
and Chang, 2002; Ishii, 2016). The emergence of these marriages coincides
with increasing mobility across national borders and with gendered migration
patterns in which brides from less-developed countries marry grooms from
economically wealthier locations. Constable (2005b) calls these gendered pat-
terns “global marriage-scapes” (Pp. 3–7). In Thailand, this type of marriage is
common, especially between women from the north-eastern region (Isan) and
Caucasian men from various countries in the West who are known colloquially
in Thai as farang.
Studies thus far have explored the socio-cultural and economic backgrounds
of women and men involved in international marriages, as well as the pat-
terns and characteristics of such unions (Jones, 2012; Jones and Shen, 2008).
This literature has also focused on the motivations and aspirations that influ-
ence women and men to opt for such unions and how they negotiate their
desires and social relations in their hometowns and abroad (Cheng et al.,
2014; Constable, 2005a; Jongwilaiwan and Thompsom, 2014; Lapanun, 2012;
Suksomboon, 2009; Smutkupt and Kitiarsa, 2007; Tosakul, 2010). Some works
also focus on encounters in the “contact zones”, where the transnational rela-
tionships were initiated (Brennan, 2004; Cabezas, 2009; Davidson, 1995; Gar-
rick, 2005; Lapanun, 2013; Walker and Ehrlich, 1992). These studies reveal that
transnational marriages are shaped by diverse motivations, including local and
Western cultural norms, ethnicity, class and gender. “Social locations” in the
global hierarchy also influence these relationships—“social locations” refer to
a “person’s position within power hierarchies created through historical, politi-
cal, economic, geographic, kinship-based and other socially stratifying factors”
(Mahler and Pessar, 2001: 445–446).
Initially, examinations of transnational intimacies and marriages tended
to focus on the women involved and their agency. Men’s experiences have
received less attention as the men are normally viewed as coming from a
more advantageous position than women in transnational intimate liaisons.
Recently, however, a small number of subsequent studies have emphasised
men’s roles and experiences in these relationships. Despite the limited number
of works, studies on Thai women-farang men relationships reveal that the
men could also be in a vulnerable position and subject to negative stereotypes

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masculinity, marriage and migration 113

both in Thailand and in their home countries. Generally, these studies, like
the works focusing on women, tend to explore men’s experiences in particular
social contexts and not how masculinity relates to transnational marriages. By
concentrating on Thai society, this paper aims to assess various contexts and
conceptualisations of marriages between Thai women and Western men. Most,
if not all, current studies on such marriages connect them to the presence of
American troops in Thai territory during the Vietnam War in the 1960s–1970s.
This review shows that transnational unions can be traced back even further
to the early 16th Century and the arrival of Westerners in Siam.1
Interethnic marriage (or intermarriage) has a long history in Thailand. Cur-
rent transnational marriages are intermarriages in the sense that they are mar-
riages between people of different ethnicities or cultures. However, transna-
tional marriages have an additional extraterritorial dimension, in which hus-
bands and wives move regularly between and maintain relationships and net-
works in the home countries of both spouses (Lapanun, 2013). Acknowledging
these connotations, this paper uses the term “intermarriage” to refer to older
marriages between Thai women and farang men and “transnational marriage”
to refer to more recent marriages between these two groups. Drawing on the
available literature, I categorise four perspectives through which relationships
between farang men and Thai women are conceptualised: international rela-
tions and trade; militarisation; transnational tourism; and individual choice,
agency and masculinity. This dynamic perspective traces the transformation
through changing contexts from previous eras to recent years.

International Relations and Trade

Intermarriages are related to the immigration of various ethnic groups into

the country. Immigrants in Siam included Chinese, Indians, Persians, Japanese,
Arabs and Turks, as well as people from various countries in the West and
from the neighbouring countries of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia (Skinner,
1957; Wyatt, 1994). The Chinese represented the largest group of immigrants
and were the first to arrive in Siam in the 13th Century. When the first West-
erners came to Siam in the 16th Century, the Chinese had already established
their businesses, for example, mining in the southern region of the kingdom
(Skinner, 1957: 2–3). From the 16th Century until the Vietnam War (1965–1975),

1 Siam was the name of Thailand before 1939. In this paper, Siam is used when referring
historical periods before 1939.

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Westerners in Thailand were predominantly Europeans of various nationali-

ties, most of whom were envoys and merchants.
The Portuguese were the first Westerners to arrive in Siam after they cap-
tured Malacca in 1511. During the reign of King Ramathibodi ii (1491–1529), the
Portuguese sent their first envoy to Ayutthaya.2 Then, Portuguese merchants
established residences in the kingdom and were granted special trade privi-
leges and religious liberties. In return, Siam was assured supplies of guns and
bullets (Wyatt, 1984: 88; Hutchison, 1985: 22). Some Portuguese merchants mar-
ried local Siamese women, who provided daily assistance with household and
business affairs. It is estimated that at the beginning of King Narai’s reign (1657–
1688), as many as 2,000 Portuguese lived in the country, including those whose
ancestors were mixed Portuguese-Siamese. The decline in the number of Por-
tuguese and Portuguese-Siamese residents and their commercial influence was
evident when Siam signed trade agreements with various Western countries as
a result of the Bowring Treaty (Weisman, 2000: 156–160).
In 1608, the Dutch set up a trading station in Ayutthaya and, in 1612, British
companies also established trading connections there and in the southern
city of Pattani, which was then an independent Malay kingdom (Teeuw and
Wyatt, 1970). By 1662, a French missionary had arrived in Ayutthaya (Anderson,
2002; Wood, 1926). During the reign of King Narai, foreigners from various
countries, most of whom were engaged in international trade, settled on the
banks of the Chao Phraya river close to the docks (Lapanun et al., 2007).
Europeans in Siam, as in other Southeast Asian countries, were almost all male.
Many of these men were already married when they came to Asia, but their
wives did not accompany them. For example, in the case of the Dutch East
India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, or voc) in Southeast
Asia, only employees who were ranked higher than merchant (koopman) were
allowed to bring their families with them. Andaya (1998) points out that having
a relationship with and marrying a local woman were temporary but effective
ways for these men to establish connections, obtain assistance and satisfy their
sexual desires. Andaya also notes that Alexander Hamilton, an experienced
trader in Southeast Asia, observed that European men benefited greatly from
their relationships with local women. As wives, the women took care of them
and performed all household chores. If their husbands had goods to sell, they
set up shops or bartered for goods that could be sold in the foreign markets in
which their husbands had connections.

2 Ayutthaya was a Siamese kingdom from 1424 to 1758.

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masculinity, marriage and migration 115

In addition to commercial motives, the myth of Europeans as wealthy

“stranger-kings”, also stimulated temporary marriages between the indigenous
women of Southeast Asia and men from Europe. voc employees working in
Ayutthaya, for example, lived in luxurious conditions and had relations with
local women. Ten Brummelhuis cites an account by Gijsbert Heeck around 1655
indicating that “most of them [voc employees] had concubines or mistresses
in order (so they said) to avoid the common whores, and they maintained them
with all necessities, buying or building houses for them, each according to his
means” (1987: 59–60). Indeed, the perception of Westerners as wealthy peo-
ple persists, whether true or not, and is an important factor in the popularity
of transnational marriage in current times, although motivations propelling
women and men to enter into such relationships are diverse and complex
(Lapanun, 2012; Suksomboon, 2009; Tosakul, 2010).
These conjugal relationships could not have occurred without the compli-
ance of local women. Involvement with and marriage to foreign men provided
these women with access to desired goods, as well as opportunities to become
agents and sole sellers. Skinner (1957) points out that Chinese men preferred to
marry Thai women, because the women often knew more about business than
the local men did. This explanation is also relevant for cohabitation between
Thai women and European men. For example, Jua Sote was a Mon3 female
trader who did business with the voc Company and had liaisons with several
voc officers. After her death, there was an argument over whether her children
should stay in Siam or be sent to Batavia to be raised as Christians, as the voc
demanded. This case and others like it caused friction between local commu-
nities and European administrations (Andaya, 1998).
Accordingly, King Ekathosarot (1605–1620) issued an edict forbidding Sia-
mese women to marry foreign men, citing national and religious security issues.
A Thai woman marrying a foreign man was likely to convert to the religion of
her husband. They might also reveal information affecting national security.
Foreign men mentioned in the law included those from England, Holland, Java,
Malaysia and India. An article of the edict stipulated that if parents allowed
their daughter to marry a foreign man, they would be punished, in some cases
even sentenced to death. In a sense, the act was a deliberate attempt by the
state to control personal relationships and the sexuality of its female citizenry,
as it dealt only with marriage between local women and foreign men (Mat-
tariganond and Thongyou, 2011). It was also racially biased, because Chinese

3 The Mon are one of the ethnic groups in Thailand.

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and other ethnic groups from neighbouring countries were not included in
the law. The Chinese were privileged as migrants, and intermarriages between
local women and Chinese men were encouraged under an assimilation policy
(Lapanun et al., 2007). The different views and approaches of the Siamese
state toward intermarriage reflect how gender, ethnicity and sexuality were
integrated into the social, political and historical contexts of the time.
Along the course of history, an increase in the number of Europeans and
other foreigners in Siam was particularly evident after the country opened
up in 1855 as Siam signed the Bowring Treaty, a significant trade agreement
with England. As a result, the number of liaisons and intermarriages between
European men and Siamese women increased. Many descendants of these
marriages became successful in government and business (see Lapanun, 2013),
even though Thai-farang marriages were bound by rules and regulations, as
well as ambiguous views.
The perceptions of farang men and their relationships with Thai women
in bygone eras were complex and contested. While these relationships were
seen as a means to create and strengthen economic connections for state ben-
efits and a strategy for modernising the country, intermarriages and the farang
men involved in them were suspect on the ground that they might desta-
bilise national and religious security. The complex and ambiguous nature of
intermarriages is inherent in today’s transnational marriages. However, in the
present context, these marriages have affected individual lives at the grassroots
level. Marrying a Western man has become viewed as a means to having a good
and secure life. Yet, such marriages are often viewed as being associated with
the sex industry. This perception developed in the context of militarisation.

Militarisation: Servicemen and Intermarriage

The presence of Dutch prisoners-of-war in Thailand during World War ii (1939–

1945) and American troops in Thailand during the Vietnam War (1965–1975)
changed perceptions of intermarriage. In these contexts, these marriages are
better conceptualised in connection with militarisation. As noted, most studies
on intermarriage between Thai women and Westerners have centred relation-
ships with America troops, while ignoring the substantial number of intermar-
riages with Dutch prisoners-of-war after World War ii—the phenomenon of
the Siamese “war bride”.
After World War ii, thousands of war prisoners were living in Siam, some
of whom married Thai women. Citing Dutch documents, Ten Brummelhuis
(1994: 5) estimates that there were about 2,000 Thai-Dutch marriages in 1945–

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masculinity, marriage and migration 117

1947. Ooms (2002: 116) approximates that in 1946 alone, up to 500 Dutch Indies
troops registered their marriage at the Dutch diplomatic mission in Bangkok.
According to Ooms (2002), some Thai-Dutch couples settled in Thailand, and
others moved to the Dutch Indies (Indonesia), the Netherlands and other
European countries. On their journey to Europe, a number of Thai women were
left behind and stranded in Indonesia, Singapore and Port Said in Egypt. Some
of these women became prostitutes in order to survive. When news spread that
Thai women had been abandoned by their Dutch husbands in foreign lands,
the popular reaction was one of outrage. Thai columnists demanded that the
government investigate such cases and return these women to their homes.
The Thai government’s response was unclear, but Dutch officials provided the
Thai press with letters from 100 Thai women living with their Dutch partners,
showing that the majority of them were living happily with their husbands.
However, a later study (Ten Brummelhuis, 1994) shows that some war brides
living in the Netherlands struggled with the presumptions among the Dutch
that Thai women were associated with the sex industry. These women reported
that this stigma could not be eradicated.
Experiences of these war brides echo Stoler’s (1992) insightful work on how
sexuality, gender and race were linked to politics, which in turn influenced indi-
viduals and families in the colonial context. Stoler (1992) explains how colonial-
ism facilitated inclusionary impulses (e.g., militarisation in the case of Siamese
war brides) and exclusionary and discriminatory practices through the rejec-
tion of métis (mixed bloods), who were viewed as an affront to European pres-
tige and as corroding European identities. In the case of the Dutch, Siamese war
brides were excluded from Dutch society, showing how these intermarriages
were conceptualised beyond economic and international-relation dimensions.
Later, the Vietnam War (1965–1975) provided another context in which ser-
vicemen arrived in Thailand. Several Thai localities hosted American troops
during the war, offering rest and recreation (r&r) opportunities. Four out of
seven us air bases were stationed in strategic areas in north-eastern Thailand,
and the other three were in Bangkok and other provinces in central Thailand.
Entertainment businesses were established on these bases to serve Ameri-
can servicemen, creating opportunities for women to interact with Americans,
mostly through the service and sex industries. Some of these relationships
involved cohabitation, and some women provided sexual service and domestic
work in exchange for payment. This rented or hired wife relationship is called
mia chao and was understood to be temporary, through it usually involved some
emotional attachment on both sides (Cohen, 2003; Van Esterik, 2000; Wies-
man, 2000). Unlike the envoys and merchants who came to work in Thailand
and stayed on after marrying local women, the servicemen, most of whom had

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been drafted into military service, came to Thailand for war-related reasons and
returned to their country when the war ended. If their relationships resulted in
lawful marriages, the couples left Thailand and settled in the United States after
the husband’s tour of duty. Many couples later returned to live in Thailand after
they retired.
In the mid-1960s, about 6,500 soldiers per week visited Thailand for r&r
(Weisman, 2000: 182). However, it is not known how many women left Thailand
and settled in the United States with their American husbands or how many of
those couples resettled in Thailand after their retirement. Studies reveal that
the couples who resettled in Thailand had comfortable lives and supported the
wife’s parents, relatives and village (e.g., Lapanun, 2013; Smutkupt and Kitiarsa,
2007). These studies provide examples of “successful” cases, which stimulated
transnational marriage in the decades that followed. Similarly, in various other
Asian countries, including Japan, South Korea and the Philippines, interethnic
marriages facilitated by militarisation are seen as a backdrop to international
and transnational marriages in recent decades (Cheng, 2010; Constable, 2003;
Lu and Yang, 2010; Tolentino, 1996).
However, another aspect of local women’s relationships with American ser-
viceman concerns the “mixed” children or luk krueng, who were left behind to
fend for themselves after the Vietnam War. The Pearl S. Buck Foundation, which
supported and sponsored Thai-American luk krueng of the Vietnam War, esti-
mates that in 1969 up to 2,000 children had been deserted by their American
fathers (Wiriyaphinit, 1969). The mothers had limited occupational skills and
low education and, thus, could not pursue opportunities to improve their lives
and support their children. In addition to economic limitations, these women
and children struggled with the social stigma of the mia chao relationship that
associates these women with prostitution. Yet, Reynolds (1999: 170–271) asserts
that since the 1990s, luk krueng have become a Thai public fascination. Actors,
singers and supermodels who are luk krueng have become part of the commod-
ification of beauty in Thai popular culture.
Drawing on a gender perspective, Weisman (2000: 8) argues that luk krueng
reminded Thai men of their loss of control over Thai female sexuality, because
women took control of their female identity by entering into sexual relation-
ships with American servicemen. The current popularity of commodified luk
krueng images represents a reassertion of Thai control over female sexuality
in the context of social and economic transformations in Thai society. Overall,
the ways in which farang men and their relationships with Thai women were
perceived is ambiguous. On the one hand, such relationships emphasise a con-
nection between prostitution and marriage to Western men that has persisted
in the Thai collective memory and continues to influence perceptions of all

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Thai–Western marriages. On the other hand, Thais’ infatuation with luk krueng
demonstrates the desirability of farang partners.
This information illustrates the multi-layered complexities of intermarriage
facilitated by militarisation and it also underscores the need to look at the expe-
riences and perspectives of Western men who were involved in these intimate
relationships. Most studies of marriages or liaisons between American service-
men and local women centre on the women (Cohen, 2003; Cheng, 2010; Wies-
man, 2000). For example, Cheng’s (2010) study investigates the victimisation
and agency of Filipina female entertainers working in the bar area surrounding
us military bases in South Korea. The women involved had a variety of personal
reasons for choosing the profession, mainly economic, but also for personal
autonomy, freedom and hope for a better life. Through exploring these women’s
experiences, Cheng’s work reveals the uncertainty surrounding female sexual-
ity and victimhood ideology and agency; however, men’s experiences and ideas
are largely absent.
The relationships between Western servicemen men and Thai women were
bound to contextual specificities, including militarisation. In Thai society, per-
ceptions of this type of relationship and the people involved have changed over
the past decades, especially since tourism has become Thailand’s key industry.

Transnational Tourism: National Revenue and Intimate


Since the 1970s, Thailand has promoted tourism as part of its national eco-
nomic development. With support from local and foreign investors, the tourism
industry has been the country’s principal source of foreign exchange earnings
(Bishop and Robinson, 1998; Sunanta, 2014; Truong, 1990). Despite the diver-
sity of the Thai tourism industry, shifting from the exotic to the erotic, and
more recently to the therapeutic, which promotes Thailand as a centre of phys-
ical and spiritual well-being (Sunanta, 2014), the launch of this industry was
closely linked to the r&r agreement with the us military during the Vietnam
War. Entertainment and service institutions that were developed to facilitate
contact between Thai women and American servicemen helped to expand
transnational tourism.
Thai tourism began to boom in 1987—as a result of the “Visit Thailand
Year” campaign, which targeted foreign tourists to increase the amount of for-
eign exchange, especially tourists interested in sexual experiences. A principle
attraction of the availability of sexual liaisons with partners working in the sex
industry is circulated in the tourist brochures, travel guidebooks, elementary

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conversation handbooks and the diaries of the returning tourists. One conse-
quence has been a significant increase in the number of foreigner-Thai owned
bars and restaurants aimed at attracting their compatriots’ clientele (Bishop
and Robinson, 2002; Hamilton, 1997). Such developments have facilitated a
steady stream of encounters between Thai women and foreign male tourists.
In many cases, intimate relationships initiated in this context have led to long-
term commitments and marriages (Cohen, 2003; Lapanun, 2013; Walker and
Ehrlich, 1992).
Statistics reveals that since the 1980s, Thai tourism experienced seen a dra-
matic rise in the number of foreign visitors: the number increased from 629,000
in 1970 to 2.8 million in 1986, 9.5 million in 2000 and, finally, 22.3 million in
2012. Among these tourists, males outnumbered females at a ratio of two to
one in 2010 (Truong, 1990: 277; The National Statistic Office’s (nso’s) website4).
These statistics reflect a much higher number of foreign men in Thailand in
recent years compared to the number of American servicemen working in and
visiting Thailand during the Vietnam War. Also, the statistics reveal the shift
of foreigners in Thailand from active American military personnel to tourists
from various countries, mostly Europe, the United Kingdom and Japan (Cohen,
1996; nso’s website). In various European countries and in Japan, travel compa-
nies organise itineraries for male tourists to fly to various Asian cities, including
Bangkok and Pattaya, to fulfill men’s fantasies of an eroticised Orient populated
by exotic Asian women (Bishop and Robinson, 1998; Cohen, 1996). Tourism in
Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and other Asian countries has followed
this approach to earn foreign exchange and to create local jobs (Dahles, 2009).
On the supply side, various factors and conditions have facilitated the
growth of tourism, including sex tourism, in Asia. Ong (1985) views both indus-
trialisation and prostitution in south-eastern Asia as vehicles to modernisation,
whereby tourism-related prostitution can be equated with industrial labour, a
new form of labour in the international division of labour. Drawing on gender
perspectives and the political economy of globalisation, Sassen (2000) con-
ceptualises the growing presence of women in the global economy, including
migration and prostitution, as the feminisation of survival. Remittances from
women engaging in these activities are significant resources for their house-
holds to survive and for governments to develop and modernise the countries.
The development of tourism and the sex industry is also viewed in rela-
tion to specific socio-economic and cultural contexts. In Thai society, various
factors explain women’s participation in the sex industry: inequality between

4, accessed on 10 March 2016.

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regions and between urban and rural sectors (Keyes, 1984; Lyttleton, 2000;
Phongpaichit, 1982), expansion of consumerism as a powerful force in encour-
aging and maintaining the sex industry (Santasombat, 1992) and Thai Buddhist
beliefs about women’s subordination (Hantrakul, 1988; Thitsa, 1980). In Thai-
land and elsewhere, sex work at transnational tourist sites is viewed as a prag-
matic means for women and men to enter into intimate relationships, pursue
global opportunities, fulfil personal desires and attain security (Brennan, 2004;
Cabezas, 2009; Cheng, 2010; Lapanun, 2013).
Destinations such as Pattaya and Patpong, which previously served as r&r
sites, have attracted foreign, mostly male tourists from various parts of the
world. Economic contributions generated from these tourist sites are impor-
tant for Thailand’s national revenue. However, the relationships between male
tourists and local women in these locales are more complex than simply the
exchange of sex for money. Manderson and Jolly (1997) describe such tourist
places as “sites of desire” for cross-cultural sexual exchanges. The resulting rela-
tionships are shaped by confluences of cultures, eroticism and border cross-
ings, not just economic incentives.
Unlike the American servicemen who resided and worked in Thailand at
least on an annual basis, tourists usually stay only for a few days to a few weeks.
However, some male tourists return to the same women every year or every
time they visit Thailand (Cohen, 1996; Sharron, 2006; Walker and Ehrlich, 1992).
Walker and Ehrlich (1992) compiled a collection of love letters that Western
male tourists from various countries wrote to women who worked in the bars
of Patpong, and it highlights the fact that these men kept communicating
or sending gifts and money to these women. Other studies show that male
tourists travelled to Thailand in search of love, intimacy and social belonging.
These intentions prompted the men to engage in sex industry tourism (Cohen,
1993; Garrick, 2005). Garrick (2005) examines Western men’s rationalisation of
their participation in sex tourism because of the racial stereotypes regarding
Thai women as affectionate, loyal, innocent and non-assertive. These men also
believe that Thai women recognise the superiority of white men, that they want
to marry a white man, and that they even want to be white themselves. This
rationalisation reinforces the notion of white privilege and serves to perpetuate
the patronage of the Thai sex industry. Davidson (1995) also reveals that British
tourists in Pattaya interpreted sex services, other forms of labour and even the
pleasing gestures of the women as expressions of genuine affection. These men
viewed the women as girlfriends, not prostitutes. Davidson postulates that such
feelings make it possible for them to pay for sexual services without seeing
themselves as the kind of men who hire prostitutes. The works demonstrate
how fantasies of the exotic Other came into play. This farang’s men perspective

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is shared among most authors writing about transnational prostitution and

transnational intimate relationships (Bishop and Robinson, 1998; Seabrook,
2001; Thorbek, 2002).
The money-love relation is problematic in sexual transactions between
farang men and bar girls. The girls may enter into relationships with financial
reasons, but emotional attachments may develop and play an important role.
Thus, the associations developed in transnational tourist sites can change the
lives of those involved when the encounters result in a serious commitment
and marriage (Brennen, 2004; Lapanun, 2013; Santasombat, 1992a).
Most literature on Western men sex tourists highlights the ways these men
have (re)constructed their masculinities through relationships with women in
the host country. Recent works conceptualise transnational tourism as a new
form of labour division on a global scale, in which local women are service
providers and Western (or foreign) men are clients (Cabezas, 2009; Sununta,
2014). More importantly, these studies highlight the economic value of the
tourism industry and the desires and practices of people involved in this indus-
try, including intimate and long-term relationships. Put differently, this per-
spective acknowledges the potential intermingling of sexuality, intimacy, com-
mitment and economics rather than focusing exclusively on the income gen-
erated by tourism. Moreover, this framework offers room to explore individual
desires and choices, as well as expressions of masculinity (and femininity) in
the context of transnational intimacy and marriage.

Individual Choices, Agency and Masculinity

The classic binary between agency and structure in the social sciences is a focal
point of scholarship in various fields. This binary perspective also frames the
narratives of transnational intimacy. Such analyses extend beyond economic
and other structural factors to individual choices, autonomy and agency. Most
of the works focus on the complex motivations and relationships of the indi-
viduals who engage in this intimacy, as well as on the ways in which they
manoeuvre and negotiate social relations and expectations in various contexts.
Recent scholarship highlights both the negotiation and vulnerability of white
men, who are normally in a more advantageous position in transnational rela-
Conducting research in Isan, the region where transnational marriages be-
tween local women and farang men are most prominent in Thai society, Lapa-
nun (2013) points to a diverse range of motivations for these transnational
marriages beyond economics and intimacy. The relationships are informed by

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masculinity, marriage and migration 123

Western and local norms and practices regarding gender and marriage and dif-
ferent interpretations of such norms. Women (and the villagers in women’s
natal village) view these marriages as a means to obtain a secure life for them-
selves and their families and a way to escape local constraints and gender
inequalities. The Western men view these marriages as a means to obtain social
belonging and a masculine ideal that includes marrying a wife who is com-
mitted to traditional gender and family values. Studies of other Asian soci-
eties show similar findings (Cheng, 2010; Cheng et al., 2014; Constable, 2003,
2005; Piper and Roces, 2003). This transnational intimacy is also viewed as a
way for men and women to empower each other and to regain their denied
backgrounds and identities at home, as shown in a study of rural poor Isan
women and lonely, mostly blue-collar Western men (Tosakul, 2010). From the
farang men’s perspectives, the gendered stereotypes of Thai women associated
with traditional gender roles and family values, as well as gender relations in
Western societies influenced by feminist ideas, are a part of their motivation
to marry a Thai wife. Under such conditions, transnational intimacy allows
farang men to perform masculine identities that would not have been possible
in their home societies (Lapanun, 2013; Tosakul, 2010). Although these works
look at masculinity, most emphasise women’s experiences and the politics of
gender power relations.
Yet, there are studies focusing on the experiences and perspectives of farang
men involved in this transnational relationship that highlight both agency and
vulnerability. Smutkupt and Kitiarsa (2007) conceptualise marriages between
woman and farang migrant men living in Isan in relation to the global mar-
riage market, race, gender and sexuality. The authors define such marriages as
“gendered orientalising project[s]” of men who wish to have Thai wives and
to develop a post-retirement life and family away from their homelands. At
the same time, Isan women perceive these marriages as cross-border hyper-
gamy that allows them to obtain a better and secure life. In this context, local
women are prepared to assume homemaker roles by marrying farang men,
who are seen as rich, generous and rational providers. Together, the decisions
and actions of farang men and Isan women underscore a nuanced personal
agency that is informed by their desires for “good and secure” lives. In this con-
text, their choices are structurally and practically engendered and shaped by
local and Western cultures and norms, as well as the Western masculine imagi-
nary associated with wealth, progress, attractiveness and modernity (Lapanun,
2013; Reynolds, 1999; Suksomboon, 2009).
Thompson et al. (2016) further explore how Western men have negotiated
to position themselves as “good providers”. The authors drew on the accounts
of farang men living with their Isan wives, many of whom met at a tourist

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destination, particularly Pattaya, Phuket and Bangkok, although not all of rela-
tionships were initiated through involvement in the sex industry. This work
reveals men’s desires and attempts to position themselves as good men, which
is in opposition to their liminal positions as sex tourists and as farang khii nok
(bird-shit farang) who fail to support their family financially. These men expe-
rience a moral crisis as farang in Thailand, so they negotiate a position as “good
providers” by manoeuvring and negotiating their sense of self, their financial
support and their relationships with their wives and others in the community
where they have resettled. All of these conditions shape their masculine iden-
tities and transient subjectivities. According to these authors, emergent mas-
culinities (or masculine identities) are social and cultural formations, and the
transient subjectivities of men who experience them. Transient subjectivity is
individual and changes over time; emergent masculine identity is constructed
at a societal level. Men’s subjective experiences of masculinity differ from the
socio-economic and cultural formations of masculine identity. Thus, in theo-
rising masculinities, it is important to distinguish between these two concepts,
and at the same time to consider the relationships between them.
Scholarship on transnational intimacy and marriage, including Thai-farang
relationships, often focuses on the privileged position of Westerners and the
ways they negotiate expectations and roles of providers (Cheng et al., 2014;
Hamilton 1997; Jongwilaiwan and Thompson 2014; Thompson et al., 2016).
While Western privilege allows farang men to access transnational intimate
relationships and marriage, their autonomy and masculine identities are sub-
ject to change over time. Maher and Lafferty (2014) focus on this point and
reveal that Western men who resettle with their Thai wives in Isan commu-
nities personify “hegemonic masculinity”, in which they emulate neocolonial
ideals from their home countries. These men position themselves as “providers”
and “real white men” to enjoy marital intimacy and high status in Isan com-
munities. This privileged identity is in opposition to their disadvantages as
migrants whose lives were bound to social relations and hierarchies in their
home communities. On the one hand, their positions of privilege and their dis-
advantages are place-bound; on the other, they are shaped by social relations
and class locations in local and global economies. Their privileged identities
are subject to contradictions, especially in the long term as they experience
limitations, such as legal disadvantages and cultural displacement as migrants.
These conditions result in new forms of vulnerability over time. Maher and
Lafferty’s study reflects how the manifestations of Western masculine privilege
can vary across social space and time, thus both spatial and temporal dimen-
sions in the production of masculinities need to be taken into account so as
to capture diverse and fluid masculine experiences. While acknowledging this

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masculinity, marriage and migration 125

analysis, I agree with Thompson et al. (2016: 61) that these farang men’s past
experiences in their home countries often include personal isolation due to
failed marriages, children who have left home and retirement. Davison (1995:
53) makes a similar point indicating that some male sex tourists have low levels
of social skills and physical attractiveness and, thus, were rejected by women
back home. Such experiences indicate that these men have limited space for
social success in their own societies.
Despite the small amount of scholarship focusing on masculinity, the studies
conducted thus far highlight the diverse and complex ideas, experiences and
relationships developed in transnational intimacies and marriages, as well as
how these attributes shape men’s (and women’s) marriage choices, social inter-
actions and negotiations. This perspective signifies the shift in conceptualising
masculinities and transnational marriages away from emphasising structural
factors, such as social, economic and political dimensions toward agency with
an emphasis on negotiations and vulnerability.

Conclusion and Further Research

This review uncovers three underlying contributions about masculinity, migra-

tion and transnational marriages. First, it shows that the various perspectives
of transnational intimacies and marriages, as well as the experiences of the
Western men involved in them are closely linked to the dynamics of Thai social
history. These perspectives present two basic dimensions of inter- and transna-
tional marriages: the meanings of these relationships and the ways they are
conceptualised. These marriages can create and strengthen economic connec-
tions and international relations for the state. They also provide opportunities
to escape poverty and obtain companionship, social belonging and security.
These diverse meanings are embedded in specific social contexts. Additionally,
the conceptualisations of this social phenomenon have shifted from focusing
on political, economic and social dimensions as structural factors that deter-
mine marriage decisions and social relations to agency analysis. This shift high-
lights individuals’ inspirations, choices and desires, as well as the social and
cultural contexts that shape the motivations and actions of women and men
involved in such relationships. Furthermore, the review has highlighted the
negotiations and sometimes vulnerabilities of farang men in these relation-
ships, despite their relatively privileged position.
Second, this article explored the deeper history of transnational intima-
cies that should be considered in term of structural conditions. Throughout
the course of Thai history, Thai-farang intermarriages have been taking place

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against the backdrop of changing national policy and international upheavals.

The ways in which these relationships and the farang men involved in them
have been perceived are complex and ambiguous. While they have been seen as
important in the social, political and economic sense, these marriages have also
been viewed with the suspicion that they might cause national instability and
religious insecurity. Moreover, the marriages and the women involved are also
stigmatised, as they are viewed in connection with prostitution. On the whole,
Thai-farang intermarriages are, to a considerable extent, socially acceptable
and the current phenomenon of transnational marriage is grounded in their
social recognition and historical roots dating back centuries. In the present
context, the impacts of transnational marriages on individuals and the wider
socio-economic landscape are far reaching. At the same time, the social actors
actively negotiate these dynamics in constructing their lives and fulfilling their
desires. Thus, a balance between structural- and agency-centred explanations
is needed.
Third, while this review uncovers various perspectives of masculinity in
interethnic and transnational marriages, it also underlines the imitated nature
of this literature. Only recently has research expanded to include the experi-
ences of men in transnational marriage and intimacy. More importantly, liter-
ature on masculinity thus far has focused almost exclusively on (Western) men
engaged in transnational intimacy, while ignoring the experiences of Thai men
and the “left behind” men in the West who are involved but do not engage in
these relationships. Men (and women) who do not participate in these unions,
but live in the communities where these marriages are embedded are also
affected by the social dynamics of these relationships. These men and other
residents must manoeuvre and negotiate social and gender power relations
that are influenced by transnational activities and ties as they live in the same
transnational social fields of those engaged in transnational intimacy and mar-
riage (Kyle, 2000; Levitt, 2001; Toyota et al., 2007). The existing studies, which
have largely ignored the experiences of men not directly engaged in these
transnational relationships, have left theoretical claims about masculinity and
gendered ideologies presumed disadvantages. This limitation is critical draw-
ing on the fact that currently transnational marriages have become an achiev-
able option of men and women in most parts of the world. This is where further
research is needed. Apart from this, the review also highlights the fact that
most studies of transnational marriages in Thai society focus on rural women
in these marriages, thus ignoring the middle and upper-class Thai women who
have also engaged in these marriages. Also, one can look at how Isan youths
think about Thai-farang marriages. These are areas for further research.

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masculinity, marriage and migration 127


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