Top: Citylight Coffee manager Naphada Laoharaleeson
BANGKOK — Citylight Coffee, a 5-year-old coffeehouse, is on a dual mission in the red light district of Nana: to serve good food and drinks, and to help those who fled the slavery of forced sex work.
Located close to the “beer bars” (or thinly disguised brothels) on Sukhumvit Soi 4, bypassers may not notice anything special about this café from the outside. But once inside, a guest will be informed that the five-year-old coffeehouse only serves fair-trade coffee from Chiang Rai, grown by an indigenous group of Akha hill tribe people.
Run by a charity called Nightlife Foundation, the venue also employs former sex workers rescued from the flesh trade, which is rife with the scourge of human trafficking. In my recent visit, I met four staff members who used to work in the sex industry, but were given a second chance in life as coffee baristas. On some days, it doubles as a hair salon for sex workers.
“The foundation [also] helps women who have been assaulted, raped or homeless,” shop manager Naphada Laoharaleeson said. “Our café … was created to support an enterprise that benefits the staff, and to keep them employed.”
But Naphada, 43, said the humanitarian cause is just one of the two missions pursued by the establishment. The other is to stay afloat by selling quality coffee, food, and cakes at a fair price
“We do not want people to patronize us simply because they want to come and help,” she said. “We believe we have quality products to serve.”
Indeed, I ordered one pesto cheese Panini (170 baht) and it was delicious. Its home-made pumpkin and cinnamon bread (60 baht) was also tasty, and even better paired with my coffee – Americano made from double-shot, medium-roasted Arabica (medium size, 80 baht).
Naphada is also very protective of her staff, therefore this interview didn’t involve the former sex workers who now work behind the counter.
“Some have been physically assaulted,” she said. “Others were forced into sex trade.”
Experts say Thailand’s free-wheeling sex industry is plagued by human trafficking operations that forced women and underage girls into prostitution. Although police sometimes closed down venues and arrested alleged traffickers, critics say the investigations rarely involved the ringleaders.
What Would Jesus Drink?
Although the café lost over 100,000 baht last year, the business is kept alive thanks to help from a Christian group based in the United States, Naphada said.
The café itself could be called a Christian business. The coffee I sipped during the interview with Naphada – who identified herself as a devout Christian – comes from Abonzo Coffee, a fair trade venture run by Christian Akha people from Chiang Rai. The place also closes on Sundays out of respect for Christian values.
But despite its religious association, the café doesn’t make any effort to preach. On its mezzanine floor, only a single copy of NIV Holy Bible was found among the shelf filled with other paperback books like Tom Clancy’s novel, and Lonely Planet’s guidebooks on Thailand and Southeast Asia. No Jesus or cross in sight.
The café’s location in a red light district popular among foreigners is reflected in the demography of its clients. Very few Thais visited the place. Naphada said suspected it may also have to do with the fact that many Thais view sex workers as immoral.
“Most Thais think those [women] in the sex industry want to do it voluntarily,” she said.
Customers are not only welcomed to sit as long as they like to read a local newspaper or charge their smartphone battery, but they are also free to bring in their own food to have with their purchased drinks, though alcohol is not allowed inside.
“It’s our rule that even if customers bring their own food, we do not shoo them away. That’s because we believe in services and to give them the love of God,” she explained.
This “love of God” extends to sex workers who are still in the trade as well.
On the second flood, which is not opened to the public, the café turns itself into a pro-bono hair and nail salon for sex workers and food vendors in the area twice a week. The free services are available on Wednesday and Friday. They are not advertised, but known through word of mouth among the sex workers’ circles.
“We named our café Citylight to be in this dark area,” Naphada said. “We serve as a light to the community and give our love of God to them.”
Citylight Coffee is located inside Sukhumvit Soi 4 near BTS Nana and Ploenchit station. It’s a two-minute walk from the front of the road. Open Monday to Friday from 7.30am to 10.30pm, Saturday from 8am to 4pm. Call 02 023 2071 for details.