Anyone who has visited a “girlie bar” in Asia has no doubt come across in some form or other the ubiquitous mamasan. Some people hate them and try to minimize their dealings with them whilst others swear by them and see them as a nice people who can help them. In this article I will look briefly at the history of the mamasan position and then examine in detail the mamasans role in the bar as well as highlighting the typical good and bad points mamasans tend to incorporate. There will also be a section on what makes a good mamasan with a spotlight on some of the better known mamasans in town and their effect on the bar they work in.
The term mamasan has its derivatives in the Japanese language and originally referred to the Asian equivalent of a European ‘Madam’ or the female head of a brothel or house of ill repute. In the old days the mamasan would be the connection between the establishments working girls and the customers as well a type of authority figure and mother figure for the working girls as well as overseeing the running the entire operation. In today’s environment especially in the Philippines the mamasans role incorporates all of these factors and even more.
The primary role of any mamasan working in a girlie bar is to create for want of a better word a “stable” of girls that are loyal to her, will follow her instructions and will work in whatever bar she works. As has been noted many times the most important factor in any girlie bar is the quality and quantity of the girls that work there and since the mamasan influences this she is directly influencing the bars financial success. Basically the mamasans determine the quality and quantity of girls and in so doing directly influence the number of customer’s and their enjoyment which in turn influences how much money the bar generates. To create her stable and maintain it a mamasan must have one very important skill and that is the ability to recruit girls or at least have close working contact with someone who can recruit girls. This ensures a regular supply of girls keeping the number of girls in the bar steady and counters the natural rate of attrition as girls leave the bar or stop working for whatever reason.
Mummy Stella at Golden Nile one of the few Mamasans who can actually recruit girls.
Generally speaking there are two types of mamasans. There are those that want to be everybody’s friend and do not enforce bar rules, regulations or policies. This type of mamasan will normally take the side of the girls should there ever be a confrontational situation and her relationship with her girls will be one of an elder relative an aunt or older sister and sometimes she adopts the role of surrogate mother. The other type of mamasan is the one who rules with an iron fist. These mamasans will normally be the older type who have been around a while and rule the roost by fear and intimidation. Basically these mamasans instill fear in the girls and this is interpreted as respect. For these mamasans every whim or command must be obeyed or there will be consequences to be paid. Normally these mamasans will have a right hand lady who enforces her rules this will often be a head waitress or someone in a similar position.
The mamasans relationship with ‘her’ girls is often intricate but in my opinion a very necessary one to understand. The mamasan – working girls relationship is complex and works on several levels. On one level the mamasan is an authority figure who is older and has had more experience in the business as such she is someone who is respected and obeyed by the girls. On this level the mamasan is viewed as the boss and the girls will follow her instructions before anyone else’s. She is the primary authority figure whom the girls will obey. In most cases the mamasan is a lady who has worked in the bar herself and as such is in a position to draw from her experience and be able to advise the girl from an position of experience.
On the other level the mamasan is viewed as a mother figure and becomes almost like a surrogate parent. The surrogate mother role takes on substantial significance for the girls especially when they are new to the business and far away from their family and social network in the province. Whenever the girl has a problem the first person she will normally turn to is the mamasan her surrogate mother figure. A classic example of this is the financial problems that invariably plague the working girls. Normally a girl is working to earn money for the ever demanding family and when she has financial problems she will often turn to her mamasan. In most cases the mamasans are only too eager to loan the girl money as it strengthens her ties with the girls and in turn the girl’s obligations to her as she has to work extra hard to pay back the loan.
Mummy Sheila adopts the surrogate mother approach. She does not have many girls but those she does have are fiercely loyal and tend to stay working with her a long time.
The relationship between the girls and mamasan can be superficial or it can be quite deep and long lasting based on genuine friendship and mutual respect. Some girls develop a loyalty to their mamasan which verges on dependency and the same can be said for the mamasans when it comes to their special girls. The deep relationship is understandable when you consider the girls situation. The Mamasan will feed and house the girl when she first arrives often paying for it out of her own pocket. Of course the girl has to pay it back and it is often at exorbitant interest rates but this is besides the point as the mamasan has helped her when she was alone and nobody else was there for her. In most cases the mamasan will demand and receive a portion of the girls income beyond the regular commissions earned, as a form of respect or through intimidation. The logic is keep the girls poor and in so doing keep them working hard for you.
The relationship between a mamasan and her girls will normally over a period of time evolve and change. What starts out as surrogate parent – offspring arrangement will develop into a sort of casual business relationship where the girl and the mamasan work together for each other’s financial gain. This can occur in many ways for example I have often seen girls find a good spending customer and then introduce this customer to their mamasan who will then also receive some ladies drinks. Often the relationship between a mamasan and her girls is long lasting and it is not unusual to see a girl who has quit work some years previously return, together with her husband or partner, and spend money ringing the bell, partying and buying drinks for her former mamasan.
The famous Mummy Rose in Blue Nile. This lady is one of the few who strikes a balance between being the voice of authority and a mother figure.
Another important part of the mamasans job is to facilitate effective pairing between the customers and the girls. To do this the mamasan must know her girls and what her performance is like and she must also know what the paying customer is looking for. In my opinion very few mamasans can do this and they prefer to simply introduce the girl to the customer with introductory lines such as “she is a good girl” or if they know the customer well enough they will subtly raise the subject of sexual performance with lines like “this girls knows everything”. When it comes to facilitating interaction between the girls and the customers it is important to remember that for the mamasan this is a financial proposition as she will get a small commission on any ladies drinks you buy the girl and a bigger commission if you pay for the girls EWR or buy her a personal ladies drink. The entry of money into the process does to some extent make the process one of prostitution but it is a very understated form of prostitution and highly contestable in any court of law if it should come down to that. It is important to remember that selling or renting out the girls company and their implied sexual services is the mamasans primary source of income so when customers sneak the girls out they are affecting her income and as the old saying goes hell hath no fury like an angry mamasan.
The relationship between the mamasan and the bars customers is also multi layered. For example on the surface level the mamasan will simply treat you as a customer and see how much she can get from you in terms of ladies drinks but as she gets to know you she will often recommend good girls who she knows will meet your sexual requirements. Some mamasans verge on being famous whilst others verge on infamy. Some are well known characters around the Angeles bar scene and are actually a draw card for customers to come into the bar. Others are a reason for customers not to visit the bar. On many occasions I would see customers come into Neros specifically to see Mummy Perla and buy her a drink but on the other hand I would hear of customers who no longer visited Neros because they felt Perla had ripped them off. Some customers use the mamasan in an advisory capacity to help solve problems in their relationship. The logic here is that the mamasan being female and with similar experience to the bar girls, will be able to advise the customer on the best course of action to take with his girlfriend or wife.
The infamous and always colorful Mummy Perla.
For the frequent bar customer a mamasan can be your best ally or your worst enemy and when it comes to having sexual relations with good looking girls working in the bar I have always found it the best policy to befriend the mamasan. Some mamasans become attached to the customer and come to regard him as their own. On many occasions I have witnessed minor spats between mamasans and often the cause is access to a particular customer or as the cynics would say, access to his wallet. The mamasans sometimes become possessive and treat the customer as THEIR private customer. Remember if you are friends with a mamasan your spending gives her credibility and respect and most importantly FACE amongst her fellow bar workers. The working relationship between a customer and a mamasan can take varying degrees from virtually nonexistent and simple acknowledgement through to her being the customers’ advisor or the customer having her number on his phone and remaining in communication with her so she can advise him when she has new girls. Keep in mind also that should you anger a mamasan she has many means at her disposal to block your moves when it comes to the girls in the bar.
Some mamasans are invaluable to the bar because of the relationship they form with certain customers. An example of this is the mamasan from Lancelot who has a contact amongst the Korean community and this contact regularly feeds busloads of Korean tourists into Lancelot. More often than not the Korean customers will bar fine the girl and then return to their hotel as they are not into bar hoping but rather the sexual experience with the girl of their choice. Whereas many professional mongerers will tell you never bar fine from your first bar these Korean customers who visit Lancelot seem to have the opposite approach. They will visit one bar bar fine from this bar drink from this bar and then out the door in a group and back to the hotel room together with girls. This is not huge money but it is regular money and it is all because of the mamasans connection which she has maintained over several years.
Some customers dislike mamasans because they feel the mamasans exploit the girls and treat them more like ‘slaves’ or ‘pieces of meat’ than human beings. A classic example of this was the old mamasan in the Red Rooster bar in Pasay Manila. Here was a dinky little bar hidden in the back streets of Pasay and yet it had a steady clientele of foreigners and Filipinos alike simply because the mamasan stroke owner had that unique ability to get good looking girls. This lady would three times a year go down to Ormoc city in Leyte which is where she came from originally. Whilst there she would talk to her contacts and find some people who were struggling financially and were willing to literally rent her their daughters. The mamasan would then turn up at these peoples abode and dripping with jewelry would pay up to 5 thousand per girl to the parents and then after gathering about 5 to 8 girls she would herd them onto the ferry for the trip back to Manila. Once back in the bar the girls would start work as soon as they arrived and they would receive the massive salary of 60 piso a day. This was not exactly a substantial salary but for people who were used to having to scrounge for their next meal this was big money. Things would progress well for the first week as the girls learnt the ropes and earned money by going bar fine and making ladies drinks. Then on the second week the deductions would start first she was told she had to pay back the money that was given to her parents then she had to pay back the transportation fee then for the food then the accommodation (normally a sub standard “stay in” with rudimentary comforts only) then the new clothes and new shoes etc, etc.
This is the type of exploitation many customers dislike intensely but unfortunately to this day these practices are still engaged in by many mamasans and form part of the bars operational procedure and are part of the recruiting proceedure. The logic here is keep the girls poor then they will work harder and more often simply to get the money they need for themselves and their family to survive. In short the exploitation forces the girl to become productive and make money for herself and the bar. Whilst I admit I have seen this exploitation on many occasions I have also seen many times when the mamasans have genuinely helped the girls for reasons other than financial gain. For example I have seen mamasans help girls when they have an unwanted pregnancy and I have seen on many occasions the mamasans offering advice on various situations that are way beyond the girls experience. As someone who has worked in the bars for close on 18 years I find the behavior of some mamasans and their relationships with their girls dislikeable but at the same time I also realize this is to some extent the nature of the bar business and I doubt if it will change in the near future.
Mummy Grace adopts the authoritarian approach and utilizes the microphone to control the girls.
In the bar it is a mamasans job to control the girls and this includes making sure they are dancing on time, making sure there is enough girls on stage at any one time, making sure the girls are on stage when they are supposed to be and not taking a break or hiding in the dressing room, making sure the girls are wearing the right uniforms and shoes, stopping fights between the girls, encouraging interaction between the girls and the customers, intervening between the customer and the girl should any problem or misunderstanding occur, looking after intoxicated girls, facilitating the EWR process wherever possible, drinking their ladies drink at a reasonable speed so they are not nursing it just to avoid having to dance, conducting negotiations between the girls and the customers (for example cherry girls who want to sell their virginity or customers who wish to pay a permanent bar fine), making sure neither the customer nor the girl are organizing a sneak out, organizing bar staff and a host of other duties. In many ways a good mamasan is all important to the efficient running of a bar and she has a direct effect on a bars income.
For the bar one very important aspect of the mamasans job is to make sure her girls regularly attend work. On the surface I realize readers will be asking am I serious, surely a simple task like making sure the girls come to work cannot be that hard. To these people I will simply say you would be surprised. The average Filipina will always exhibit the temporarily rich syndrome where they have a small amount of expendable income and suddenly all ideas of work fly out the window and it’s full on party mode until the money is gone and it’s time to go back to work again. A good mamasan accepts the responsibility of keeping tabs on her girls and will always keep current contact details so she can communicate with her if need be. These so called good mamasans in my experience are few and far between but when you find a good one she is worth her weight in gold not just because of the work she can save you from doing but also because of the money she can create for the bar.
There is a lot that goes on behind the scenes in the Philippine bar business and of course this includes the various government agencies that enforce the rules which all bars must adhere to. In the case of the Angeles bar scene this organization is called social hygiene and they initiate various rules and regulations that govern the bars. To instigate these rules and regulations there is regular correspondence between social hygiene officials and the bars representatives which in most cases is the senior mamasan. The mamasan in this role acts like a bars representative and an intermediary between the government organization and the bar. For example all girls working in a bar must display a license which is issued to them by social hygiene and another card which is issued them by City Hall. To get these cards is often a long drawn out process and will always involve the mamasans who know exactly what is needed, how much it will cost and the right people to expedite, or fast track, the procedure.
Mummy Rio runs a tight ship and is known for her sharp temper.
The mamasan is also responsible for making sure hygiene’s rules are instigated in the bar for example the girls wearing their ID and the girls attending social hygiene for regular checkups. For example each girl has a pro book which is basically a record of her appearances at hygiene for smear and check up. These pro books are handled by the mamasans and whenever city health officials visit the bar performing an inspection the mamasan is the first point of contact and it is she who provides the officials with all the information regarding the working girls. In short there is an extensive system in place all of which is overseen by the mamasan and the various public officials. To this end the mamasans even have their own organization which is called LACSOM and its primary purpose is to deal with any issues that may arise between the social hygiene agency, the bars and the girls that work in them. The social hygiene side of the bar business is very important as the social hygiene department are empowered to close a bar indefinitely should their rules and systems not be adhered to.
The Philippine mamasan is a unique breed and is some ways a mother figure, and an authority figure, she can be a customer’s best friend or a customer’s worst cock blocking enemy. The mamasans have a range of duties all of which are designed to support the bar system and help the bar as well as herself make money. Personally as a customer I quite like mamasans and find them useful in providing information about their girls but as a bar manager, I find them a valuable asset on the one hand and an annoyance on the other. Most mamasans in my experience are weak in the key areas of getting and keeping good looking girls and controlling their girls making sure they reguarly attend work. Most mamasans inadequecies become annoying for example the mamasans tend not to care about the quality of girls they hire because they are not paying the recruitment costs and they are not paying the girls salary, so even if the sub standard girl makes one ladies drink or goes bar fine just once in a year, the mamasan has made a profit. The mamasans are vaguely aware or in some cases completely unaware of a girls performance or productivity.
In most cases the mamasans activities are not confined to the guide lines of her job description. Most of them have side line businesses that run in conjunction with their duties in the bar. Typically these sidelines will include loan sharking (5-6 as the Filippinos call it), selling food, selling Avon products, perfumes, jewelry, lotto tickets, Jueteng (numbers racket), cel phone loads and more. The thought behind these activities is get a little bit every day rather than go for the big hiest in one big swoop.Throughout my years in the bar business I have heard many customers and bar managers complain about the mamasans and wish that there was an effective way to run a bar without being so dependent on them however, for me the mamasans are here to stay and I am yet to see any bar run effectively without them so it perhaps best to learn how to maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses as in most cases they are a necessary evil.