She’s not your quintessential tabloid media creation, and this is far from any middle-America small-town pageant show. It’s not even America’s Got Talent.
Vanussanun Junnim is a beauty pageant contestant vying for the title of Miss. Bitcoin Thailand.
If literary classics such as “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged” had been written about the rise of the digital economy instead of the industrial one, and if Ayn Rand had emerged from today’s Asian economic leap into the future instead of the mid-20th century American Dream, then this story could be something straight out of one her neo-libertarian fictional adventures where heroism is never the call-to-action, but always the action itself, however dubiously it arises.
Under the glare of stage lights where I sit with laptop open, squinting hard to remain focused on the towering figure before me while trying to transcribe her every word, relayed to me by a male translator, the 23 year-old business school graduate bashes her long eyelashes expertly, while rainbow-colored shards of light shudder randomly over her body, glimmering off her sequin cocktail dress.
A bouquet of pastel-colored flowers is balanced gently in place across her lap. The rolling cameras circle a few laps around both of us – unlike me, she takes no notice of them. She might have a business degree, but it feels as if this girl was born to bask in the media spotlight.
Twenty years ago, women such as those before me were one of many poor girls in the country just trying her luck again, perhaps with the ultimate goal of marrying a middle-aged down-and-out western expat attempting – with whatever money he has left after the divorce – at starting a second life fuelled on booze and sin. Not today.
If people view her as a sex object, then herein lies her opportunity to catch the quick attention span of one the country’s many newly-minted entrepreneurs and political shining stars who obediently seek their mother’s approval in their selection of marriage material. Her life lies ahead of her, full of promise: she talks about her ambitions to play a leading role in the economy of the future, with women at its forefront.
“In Thai the word mother sounds like the word for river – and so that’s how it is and how we think of it in our society: feminism flows into the culture like a life-giving force,” says Vanussanun. “There’s a saying in Thai; that when a man marries, his money is no longer managed by him any more. It’s the woman who manages it.” A couple of the judges laugh and nod approvingly. I really don’t think I could feel this confident as a woman in any other country in the world right now.”
Vanj Padilla is a short-haired, no-nonsense Filipina tech consultant and political journalist whose practical-looking, deep red cotton windbreaker is pulled over a pair of worn Levis: appearing nothing less than tough-minded in the crowded bistro where we shake hands formally, she’s known for her combative anecdotal feature articles that run in serious national newspapers. In her downtime she reads white papers and goes for coffee with United Nations chiefs – fighting the root cause of inaction by attempting to cajole those who characterize its very existence into effective action.
For despite appearances, Padilla makes it clear that here in the Philippines, there’s little girl power to speak of. Indeed, Padilla complains about the decades-long creeping epidemic of feminist disenfranchisement in her country.
It’s partly a consequence of so much attention from UN officials, who make it their objective to debate ways and means of economic improvement in lengthy legalese while real life too often bypasses the cause amid the din of the country’s male chauvinist political leaders.
Year after year, the same organizations rail against corruption, seemingly believing the notion that high-minded ideas might pose a genuine threat to the unstoppable power of taking quick and dirty action. What’s needed are practical means of changing things for good however, Padilla declares.
In a Man’s World, There’s a Woman’s Economy
Padilla asks me for my perspective on financial literacy among women in South Asia, and how bitcoin can help change all that. As a financial journalist makes my opinions important, she tells me, straight-faced.
I think back to the conversation I had with the runner-up for Miss. Bitcoin days before and the approving look in the eyes of the male judges who seemed to agree that theirs has no longer been their own financial destiny since the day they got married, and I suggest that for feminism to take root in any society, men must also be complicit in the act of espousing it.
This meets with Padilla’s approval, although unlike in the quiet convention center, it’s much harder to engage in the conversation here to the same degree. It’s cramped in the small venue where we sit around drinking coffee, and noisy. We huddle around a single table in a café on the corner of a busy street in Manila, and Padilla struggles to make her voice heard over a crowd of rowdy male foreign exchange traders and tech nerds loudly mucking about in the background. The group is arguing in animated fashion about various ways in which they might all – but one senses above all, individually – be able to turn a quick buck in the go-go Asian economy using the internet as a springboard. Even I have trouble hearing what I am saying over the throng of voices.
“Filipino women need more ways to hide their income from their husbands,” she says emphatically. “But also they need to be able to give that money they hide to their children if something happens to them – or their husbands will just spend it all and the family will have nothing. The children are left with … nothing.” She opens out her palms, empty-handed.
There’s no complicity in the crowd hanging back here this time: just the partying throng of day-traders behind us that are looking to cash in on ventures. Talk turns to starting online casinos and trading sovereign currency pairs. Some of them admit being tempted by the potential profits of running a bitcoin arbitrage scheme, but they can’t quite work out how to configure such a venture.
After a pause, Padilla frowns and asks another question for her recorded testimony of my opinions: “Tell me: what do you think the world would look like if women were in control of the money?”
Bitcoin: What American Geeks Made for Asian Girls
It’s not all a world of contrasts within this anecdotal tale of wealth for the up-and-coming ASEAN genders, however – at least, not when it comes to the subject of new money. In fact, it is on this very issue that the convictions of one Nunthawan Ruangrit, who I discover over the course of my interview processes, is Miss Bitcoin herself, and those of Padilla are indeed united.
For as it happens, despite the somewhat different circumstance both women agree that there’s one aspect of the new economy that can only spell (more) good news for women, and for their personal – albeit different – roles in their own two very different societies.
What is this aspect of shared unity between the empowered Thai beauty queen and the marginalized Filipino feminist rights journalist? It’s Bitcoin.
“This contest was a very unique sort of beauty pageant,” explains Vanussanun. “It was like no other beauty pageant in the world, since it was not just a beauty pageant alone, nor was it a talent show like the others you find. It was something that tested your financial knowledge too, because it was all about bitcoin. So it was something where you had to challenge yourself and use your head a lot of the time.”
Wait a second. Miss Bitcoin had to study up on virtual currencies and their role in the economy, first?
Check. According to Miss Bitcoin herself, that was a prerequisite.
“[In adjudicating Miss Bitcoin] the judges were looking for an ambassador to lead the policy effort to get bitcoin recognized as an asset class, so we all had to learn all about it first, and to embrace the potential ways of investing in this new financial market,” Miss Bitcoin says without looking my way at all. All the while I interview her, she smiles through her clenched Colgate-white teeth, looking straight ahead into the camera without missing a beat.
The third place runner-up, Wanpiya Oamsinnoppakul, maintains that she was able to compound to her knowledge of the Chinese economy by studying for the beauty pageant, no doubt aided by her mastery of Mandarin. As far as she can tell, if Thailand can get a grip on the new currency faster than its other regional neighbors, it stands a good chance of coming out ahead in innovation, especially as Thai women are more financially literate than say, their counterparts from the Philippines or Laos, for example.
“Bitcoin in Thai is ripe for the moment and with the AEC union coming up very soon the potential is exciting. I am excited – all my girlfriends are excited about what this could mean for us,” she says.
Padilla agrees the potential for women to take their financial destiny into their own hands has to be the most exciting development in the economy in many years. She says that the problem of women shouldering the brunt of the workload, and hence being the breadwinners of the family, only to deliver their earnings to their carefree – and in many cases, physically and emotionally-abusive – husbands, is commonplace all across the ASEAN region, and is not a phenomenon restricted purely to the Philippines. Padilla left me with the sort of parting sentence that night that only someone who’s been a few rounds with some pretty tough adversary leaves one with.
“It’s everywhere, and women need to take back their control,” she explained about the growing isolation of many third world women amidst the throng of neo middle class urban Asian development. “Of course there are a number of alternatives – things we can do, courses we can take. In fact, it can be anything to help turn this clock back on time as long as it works. But since it’s Bitcoin that is here, let’s use this. It’s what we’ve got.”
The words leave the impression of someone struggling but with the sort of resourcefulness and immediate call-to-action that led Ayn Rand on her fictional tours-de-force through the late revival of a sleepy capitalist society turning on the switch. If not so much of the pageant show, then of this valiant fight certainly, the world’s greatest-known libertarian thinker would have given occasion to rise in applause.
And it’s worth thinking about, too, I realize, amid the endless back-and-forth debates about security and financial value and user community adoption growth.
Bitcoin. It’s what we’ve got. So let’s use it. If I am reminded of anything meeting Padilla, it’s that there’s enough to do not to think too much about it.
At the end of the day, maybe it’s really that simple.