Tio gong tao – A Hokkien term to describe someone who may be a victim of black magic or witchcraft (Mohsen 2016).
Tio gong tao is a narrative used to justify male victimhood when men spend excessive amounts of money on a foreign stage performer. It is a growing phenomenon that involves men developing an “unexplainable” infatuation with female stage performers, dancers and models when patronising Siam Dius (or Thai Discos). Siam Dius are drinking joints spaced around a stage that holds live band performances, all-female choreographed dancers of Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Thai nationalities and relatively cheap alcohol. Patrons are encouraged to tiau huey (gift a garland) to a stage performer he fancies on stage. In return, the performer is obliged to reciprocate by interacting and sharing drinks with the patron for 20-30 minutes during the song and dance breaks. These garlands range from S$50-S$20,000.
Note: Only the person who has bought the most expensive garland will have the accompaniment of the performer. Performers commonly face unsolicited sexual advancements and reciprocation is on the discretion of performer and patron, as it is with any other sexual relationship. I do not condone any vitriol against these stage performers, while my post is to better highlight the relationalities between witchcraft and male victimhood better.
The video below is an emic view of the venue and the lives of the performers.
While the conduct of siam dius appear to be derogatory and disadvantageous to women on many levels, why do men still rely on tio gong tao narratives to justify male victimhood?
Tio gong tao, like witchcraft, is a spatial imaginary. Like an anthropological field, one can visualise the consistent reproduction of imaginative nuances and material practices through various political, economic and cultural channels. Over time, the imaginary is identifiable as either an accepted or deviant practice, which is integral to how people construct meaning (Comaroff & Comaroff 1999, p.285). The tio gong tao field extends or shrinks according to how relationships between men and their companion performer develop. For example, should the companionship transit into a long-term relationship, the man is typically identified as someone under very strong gong tao and is at risk of getting his freedom, wealth and material belongings manipulated.
“I don’t think it’s a bad idea to date these girls. I give them money and they can send the money home to their families. I help them and they are grateful to me and show their gratitude.” – Jonah.
According to Jonah, the nature and terms of exchange between performer and patron are distinctively different as compared to sexual transactions. For men who repetitively gift garlands to performers for companionship, observers often see such behaviour to be incredibly artificial and driven by the need for sex. However, observers do not perceive the underlying relations as what O’Connell Davidson suggests: “an affirmation of a particular racialised and sexualised masculine identity” (1995, p.44). An affirmation is how men view themselves as “white knights” (Garrick 2005, p.502). White knights perceive the on-stage performers as helpless victims of circumstance and the knights are ready to “liberate” these women through material means.
I find many parallels between tio gong tao and the anthropological study of witchcraft. Edward Evans-Pritchard argues that “primitive” belief systems are just as logical as “modern” secular versions but shaped through different cultural and social conditions (1937, p.37). Gong tao or witchcraft are systems of values which regulate human conduct and contain rich complexities and nuances.
With these in mind, the discipline of anthropology may benefit from examining the link between tio gong tao and Evans-Pritchard’s ideas of witchcraft to better understand contemporary phenomena on masculine identity in Singapore.
Comaroff, J & Comaroff, JL 1999, ‘Occult Economies and the Violence of Abstraction: Notes from the South African Postcolony’, American Ethnologist, vol. 26, no. 2, pp. 279–303.
Davidson, O 1995, ‘British Sex Tourist in Thailand’, in M Maynard & J Purvis (eds), (Hetero)sexual Politics, Taylor & Francis, London, UK, pp. 42–64.
Evans-Pritchard, E 1937, Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande, Clarendon Press, Oxford, UK.
Garrick, D 2005, ‘Excuses, Excuses: Rationalisations of Western Sex Tourists in Thailand’, Current Issues in Tourism, vol. 8, no. 6, pp. 497–509.
Mohsen, M 2016, ‘4 beliefs about witchcraft found in Asia’, Yahoo Lifestyle, accessed June 5, 2019, from <https://sg.style.yahoo.com/4-interesting-witchcraft-rituals-in-asia-232102742.html>
Imogen’s piece on Anthropology’s history
Abbie’s piece on Emic/Etic
Maddie’s piece on Liminality
Julia’s piece on the Field