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Posted January 17, 2011
This story has a wonderfully consistent tone and the voice of Maria ("Mary") is pitch perfect. You'll never doubt you're right there with her as her saga unfolds.
From the Philippines to Hong Kong and back again, this true account weaves intimate personal details with cultural tidbits. Chapter 1 (Simpler Times) sets the stage, showing the close bonds between members of a large Filipino family, particularly the maternal relationships between Mary, her eldest sister, and their mother. The story is set in motion when the elder sister becomes pregnant, ensuring that Mary will have to go to Hong Kong to work as a dancer and make money for the family. Chapter 9 (Mudslide) and Chapter 10 (Barking Dogs) are the "pressure cooker" chapters. Mary has mounting problems, desperately needs money, and is being bullied by the Chinese mamasans. She is in over her head. Mary becomes smarter as the novel unfolds but her ability to live life on her own terms is a cloud that she can't hold onto.
I especially enjoy books that affect me on an emotional level and also give me a chance to ponder social issues. Bars of Steel forced me to question who was responsible for the situation Mary finds herself in when working in the bar. By the end of the story I came to realize that everyone has a share of the blame, as each participant in this story has contributed to it both positively and negatively. Mary and her family are benefactors of the money she earns. Can we really call Mary or her fellow bar girls victims? Bar mates Sheena and Baby are by her side throughout, but they and the other bar girls are also a source of the problem--they exert peer pressure to go out on bar-fines and make even more money to send home to their families. The organizers of the promotion in the Philippines, who send the girls to Hong Kong, could not operate if the girls' parents did not give their okay. The Chinese mamasans are obvious antagonists, but they are only facilitators; they did not create the bar system nor could they continue it by themselves even if they wanted to. The foreign businessmen who frequent the bars are obvious participants, but their patronage hardly qualifies them as perpetrators.
Some years back, I saw the movie El Callejon de los Milagros ("Miracle Alley"). It tells the story of a woman named Alma who "works" the streets of downtown Mexico City. The movie celebrated the different perspectives of each of several main characters. I loved this film (debuting Salma Hayek), but the idea of telling a story from multiple perspectives has been cinematically overdone. Bars of Steel is refreshing in its approach. Telling the story from a single viewpoint makes the transformation from naïve girl to guarded heroine psychologically revealing. I think this book should be considered a top read for anyone wanting to understand the plight of an Asian woman caught in the grips of "grey" prostitution.
This book is memoir at its best. The story stays with you. You'll find yourself thinking back upon the story with a shared sense of wonder and optimism about Mary's conflicted days spent as a bar girl.