For readers with good Mandarin—back-alley Mandarin it might be—the significance of the term is perhaps apparent. The guess would be street language passed into the halls of the Imperial Palace; never formally inscribed in the lexicon. Hokkien, Cantonese or Teochew, might possibly be insufficient and an gweilo, an ang moh red-head-not, might be able to elucidate.
Fine, hearty laugh was raised from the China gal there at the stall on the hot spot corner near Aljunied that afternoon. Almost not a single, solitary word of English. At least a few months ago that was the case; recently the woman had acquired “beef” and “fish”. For anything further some inventiveness was needed.
Elbow-wings for breadth and stoutness. Head down on encircling arms, eyes shut. Followed by finger waggling for whereabouts. Shoulder shrug, head loll, up-raised shaking hands put the question…
Pretty much right off she got it, bright gal. The big beefy sleepy-head on the day-shift, where was he?…
Almost certainly the chap was her partner. Husband or lover as well as biz partner. It was her he had on the rear of his bicycle a few times going up Geylang Road at the end of their shift. Some interaction between them during work hours backed up the impression. They had something going.
A good pair. Somehow she was quite impressive, in manner much more than looks. The ease and accommodation the woman displayed there behind the food counter on that particular corner was really something. Minor hair colouring and some curling was the extent of the beautification. With the same settled bearing she could have worked in a deafening industrial precinct, a sea-side resort, or as here opposite her countrywomen of precisely her own age doing tricks in a foreign land.
Beast was the wrestler type. Not exactly sumo, but big fella, tall as well as broad. No one would mess with him if they could avoid it. Commonly the man could be found there after lunch either dicing vegetables, or else face down on one of the tables resting on his fore-arms. Sometimes with a spread of newspaper below. All sorts of noise and activity all round—on he dozed unconcerned. It seemed incredible that anyone could sleep in the midst of all that hustle and bustle. Once or twice when the chap had to be called for something his re-surfacing showed to what a depth he had descended.
The woman gives a warm, free laugh at the sketch. Tickled and surprised, her finger goes out to a place by the central pillar.
Ah, yes, there the villain indeed was found, not easy to make out in the scrum. Head flat on the table, under-arm hair sprouting and arms encircling. Sleeveless singlet, basketball shorts and sandals. Three others at the table for four. There was barely a free seat along the rows that afternoon. Their Chinese stall sat in the middle of a cluster, two dozen tables spread down the slope and out front to accommodate three food and one drinks outlet. That corner lorong always found a brisk trade.
Beside the Bruiser sat one of the older China gals, a cheeky, venturesome thing like most of them. This one needed to put out if she was going to reach the customer. Late thirties and not the prettiest on the block, sunnies this afternoon despite the cloud masked the lady. Taking a call she blared into her cell-phone. No disturbance whatever for the Beast.
The China girls were interesting in their particular way. Unlike the trafficked young girls from other countries of the region, who flitted through the night staying one step ahead of the police with the help of their pimps, these China ladies of the afternoons were in their mid-thirties and beyond. They had come down to the magnet of Singapore by other arrangements, shady of course, but much less fraught. The house-wife, divorcee, factory hand and farm labourer could be seen in the gathering. Alluring dress, jewellery, hand-bags often appeared as something of a parody with them. And more often than not, through the thin persiflage, the simple, given character clearly emerged. A customer might receive some conversation and caring in those hands.
Opposite the big fellow sat two older “uncles”, local Sing crocs who hung on that corner by the look of them. On that corner the entertainment was cheap, whether one was buying or merely observing. Lots of the old men sat over their dollar coffees and teas surreptitiously assessing the trade. Many looked quite openly, sometimes a little open-mouthed, at some of the shenanigans employed by the lasses. Usually it was not so crowded. A Saturday lunch-hour; rain earlier.
Such a Bruiser; so child-like vulnerable in that pose, as Anais Nin commented on sleeping men. The baby-face was still discernible. Awake an occasional smile produced the effect most clearly. More than likely a Mainlander; the locals wouldn’t work those kind of hours. And not a word of English either. Locals of his generation had at least the bare minimum, especially those in any kind of business operation. The Bruiser and his girl had found each other in Singapore; working visas were not granted to couples at that end of the labor market. The construction work-gangs would have the fellow going well before dawn with all the preparation for the counter; two o’clock he was invariably dead on his feet. You couldn’t blame the man. And not done until after dinner. For this sort of activity you needed to be rake-thin, supple and agile. Chap had earned his beauty sleep.
A loud fellow with his feet up on an adjoining chair wouldn’t take the hint from the waitress. Paid for his coffee, had every right he thought. Liberty principles he gave her, in English for the benefit of bystanders.
The waitress had tried to shame the man; he returned as good as he got. Laughed unflappably at the side-joke about not being able to act like that at home. However that may be, here he chooses comfort and relaxation, so there. At least the feet were washed.
One of the gals on the corner lolled something in her mouth, brought it out on the tip of her tongue and turned over. You want some of that? she asked… Earlier the lady had sat at one of the tables. Many of the gals sat at those tables, where they took their food and at the same time fished among the fellows basking on the rocks. Their countrywomen serving showed a degree of indulgence, some sisterliness despite all, certainly in the case of the Bruiser’s woman. The Bruiser’s woman there had listened to woe and troubles aplenty. A dozen and more girls commonly hanging on the slope; more still around the corner under the walkway on the main road. Many got a hearing with their lunch at this stall in particular, from their understanding compatriot.
A few minutes later the gal tonguing put on a dance for a tall ang moh on a bicycle who had stopped. Loaded up plenty this lass. For a fellow who liked his women stacked, she was the one. Silicone possibly. Difficult to tell, even had she revealed her breasts entirely.
Half an hour later a van driver with his eyes out on stalks knocked into the cab in front.
…Still down the big fella, a solid hour. Chap wasn’t merely resting his eyes.
From the lazing, recalcitrant loud-mouth with his foot on the chair, a commentary had started up at some point, the buzz of a football broadcast or race-call not too far from the mark.
Did the ang moh know the charges here?… What you can get?… What to look out for?
Hourly rates— his own experiences hunting with his pals through the lorongs. (The pals provided cover for wives. I was out with…) On and on he went. No encouragement of any kind required.
Seated at an angle, swivelled around in his chair to face the girls directly along the slope, snout pointed across the table of his new-found friend whose ear he was bashing.
The girls leant against the sheeting that enclosed the shop veranda opposite. A knot of them stood up on the corner itself chatting among themselves, chatting up the passersby, swinging handbags.
— Eighty, revealed Loud-mouth casually after a short, unhelpful pause, uncertain how much of an impression he was making.
Come on fella! Tedious.
When he was told of the girls flashing two and five a little way along under the veranda, the man stood corrected.
OK, but they were unlikely to be China girls though, he added.
A mistake to have engaged the fellow.
China girls were really what the man was talking about; his specialty.
The hurry all the time; clock-watching. Watching your belongings while going to the bathroom. Unsatisfactory service and faking. The gripes went on.
Shut The FFFF up will ya please if you don’t mind!…
Messaging was useless. The fellow was not a mind reader. Body language, posture, signs of busyness, all ignored by this guy.
Twenty a day the pretty ones could score.
For crying out loud.
…Not an especially big number to accommodate for a willing lady. So much a month. Take it all back home if they were smart, tax free. In RMB good dosh.
Grrh! Wouldn’t give over. He was going to get it any minute.
For proper money one got real good treatment from those honeys. They could turn it on Hollywood-style, don’t you worry about that…
The fucker was impotent for a cert. Guaranteed. Sitting up there with his beer and fags, leg up, the fantasy of an adventure teasing him… Perhaps he was not past it after all, maybe? In the right circumstances, with the right girl?…
Eventually, when he was told more or less respectfully that he was providing cheap, common information, the man pulled his head in briefly. Briefly. One needed a baseball bat to stop this fellow in his tracks.
An older woman who worked the walkway came down by the tables to buy a drink. One or two locals in their sixties with an altogether different self-assurance kept along the front stretch of the main road.
Surely the ang moh couldn’t have known of the current PM’s discomfort a couple of years ago when it was reported Geylang was either the number four, or number five tourist draw in the country. Whether four or five the guy couldn’t vouch. It was top five. Reported in the newspaper. Immediate police raids following; deportations cut the trade in half for a while. It still hadn’t properly recovered…So much better back then, the choice had been far more extensive. And with those numbers the bargains to be had.
Chong was the name; John for ease.
Fifteen years in China had given Chong a thorough familiarity with these girls. The conditions at home, the decisions involved, what they earned there compared to here.
The show-girl opposite could easily be flashing silicone. It would not have surprised Chong, building up a head of steam again.
There were five surgical enhancements common in China, mark you.
An analytical researcher, the dramatic pause was a little beyond this Chong.
Eye-lids was one.
Nose jobs and breasts.
Chong was relentless. This information had not come merely from the newspaper. No. Particular info.
You could punch out the Dickbrain with a left, right, Waitress count him out and Bruiser scrape the remains and deposit in the dust bin, who would care. Steely looks and swivelling away in the chair water off a duck’s back for this man.
The fifth surgical item that emerged however was surprising and rather striking. It gratified Chong in no small part that he was able to hook his listener eventually. Cannily, the man had in fact progressed in ascending order.
The fifth procedure common for these China girls was a ligament job just below the knee. Chong didn’t know the proper term. On his own leg just to the side of the knee-cap he showed where the surgeon entered. An extension there at the ligament, a piece of high tensile material of some kind, gave the girl a full four centimetres. That was an inch and a half, Chong obligingly did the conversion. A significant, telling increase. The trade in that was as good as any of the other procedures on the Mainland, raising a gal to a level from which she could compete with the more naturally advantaged.
The afternoon encounter had not been a waste; Chong saw he had made a mark.
Ah well, you had asked for it really hadn’t you.
Late fifties; Manchester U grad (Electronics). Married. Dyed his hair like most of his peers, educated or not. A wide mouth opened like a drawer gabbling. (Another of the cosmetic ops. in this region, not in the top five so far as the China girls were concerned, was “correction” of the prognathic jaw, for both genders. On another day Chong might have been served that to put in his pipe to smoke. Something outside his knowledge perhaps.)
Unremarkable in every way, Everyman Chong. Earlier he had smoked a cigarette at the table. Likely the waitress hadn’t noticed, being run off her feet that afternoon. The big Bruiser might have been raised from his cat-nap to deal with that one had there had been any argument.
Chong delivered his pièce de résistance last of all. It took a while to emerge in the unfolding. The reaction to the ligament extension had given the man encouragement.
After the ligament had followed the grim tale of his experience with the $200 young beauty a few years ago in one of the back alleys nearby, a perfection of a lass who couldn’t be resisted. Some extended admiration and likely bargaining, before Chong’s companion in the hunt encouraged his friend: Why don’t you take her?… Ah, O.K. Why not? Chong had answered.
Chong’s English was good, there was no stumbling for words. This seemed to be precisely how it happened, with this particular exchange. Or in fact didn’t happen, as it turned out.
Trouble was there was swelling and bruising Chong hadn’t counted on when he was preparing to begin. Chong knew the game more than well, yet this arrived as a surprise for the man.
For such a Beauty the lights must have been left on in the room and Chong’s keenness quickly blunted by what was revealed.
The lads previously, the fifteen or twenty accommodated before Chong, had been hammering away blindly without care or proper aim. Chong had twigged to the reason.
Hang-dog Chong. Poor man. Beauty despoiled seemed to be the rubric. Here was the prettiest girl on the block, the loveliest, freshest girl for months back, an utter perfection. Yet on closer inspection, so badly damaged.
Sometimes the trafficked young girls late night in the lorongs larked like schoolgirls at the beach; others raised the eyes like spectres reawakening from a dark, Arctic sleep.
For real delight, for top-notch service, one went for…Something garbled in Chinese from Chong or John.
Once the man was done with the unfortunate tale of misfiring with that loveliest of lovelies spoilt by her trade, Chong passed on quickly, almost without a breath.
This was something new and different; another matter now.
Did you know of it?… One Piece Dragon? Ever heard of that? One Piece Dragon, Chong wondered.
The blank look seemed to surprise Mr Chong. The assumption had been he was conversing with a traveler of the world, familiar with the flesh-pots of Asia. Certainly his interlocutor seemed well acquainted with Geylang.
A little narrative tease in the pause.
The yi kiao lung was spelt out carefully.
Lung was dragon. One could ask around. Anyone would corroborate on the One Piece Dragon.
In the time of the Emperor, One Piece was the Heavenly Being’s special privilege alone. An Emperor only received such delight. Now in more democratic times, it was within the reach of the common man. Two hundred and fifty dollars bought you One Piece Dragon in Geylang currently, according to informant Chong.
Delectation beyond all compare.
The girl started at the toes. All ten got the treatment one by one individually. Done there, the lass slowly nosed northward. Nosed slowly, but all the way. From the toes right up to the hair on top of the head, the girl didn’t miss any part. Pleasure recalled from years past gone cold now…Lowest south all the way to top-most pole.
Chong’s dental work showed. Blinking as if with modesty, eyes flickering behind steel-frames.
Anyone would confirm the truth of what he said. You could go ahead and ask around.
Chin nodding. Gratified. Pleased with himself. In the end Chong had succeeded in claiming his listener.
Many of the spectators on that corner, at the Eateries and loitering on the pavement, were ten, twenty, or even thirty years older than Chong. Well past it like him. No doubt like him they had the money most of them. Sitting there the men were like Chong remembering physical passion, recalling the stirring of desire. The time was not so distant, even for the great-grandfathers sitting high in their chairs looking as if they needed someone to feed them. Even now they were touched by memories that stood near at hand. With their slow-motion eye-blinking they did indeed resemble reptiles. Some of the grandpas went upstairs with the girls too for whatever comfort was available; one commonly saw them stopped under the verandas with a young, cajoling arm on theirs. When the big-chested gal did her wobbly jive for the foreigner on the bicycle one of the chaps at the tables watching had swivelled his head looking for his pals to share the moment. Did you see that? Something like a spectacular goal bent into the corner of the net.
Australian by birth and Montenegrin origin, Pavle Radonic’s eight years living and writing in SE Asia has provided unexpected stimulus. Previous work has appeared in a range of literary journals and magazines, including Ambit, Big Bridge, Citron & Antigonish Reviews. A mountainous blog holding mainly the Asian writing is here