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It’s odd to grow accustomed to rickshaw travel: the fresh air, the cruising under the night sky just a little buzzed after a stop at Shantou’s finest wine bar where elbows were rubbed against those of the budding bourgeois. Sometimes I think of the rickshaw as a time machine, transporting me back to a moment when the triangular straw hats and tattered short pants of the driver were no less obsolete than… rickshaws. Despite the allure, I think I’m witnessing the last days of rickshaw culture here in Shantou. Traffic is getting a little too car oriented and I can’t imagine this mode of travel making it very long in such a fast growing city. There are other bits of local culture in Shantou, however, that seem perfectly safe for the forseeable future, and one of those was exactly what I set out to explore on the back of my rickshaw last Saturday night.

All my local friends have assured me that KTV, or karaoke, is the best time to be had in Shantou. In my mind a karaoke bar is a big open room where people get sloppy drunk and sing their favorite Credence, their least favorite Fine Young Canibals or their hopeless renditions of Queen (which always begins seriously but quickly, upon coming to the realization that nobody can really sing those high notes, become hopeless), as friends berate their lack of vocal prowess, and at the end of the night everyone’s that much more certain of the fact that they made the right choice in giving up their operatic aspirations and going back to whatever tone deaf, sobriety laden occupation keeps them busy on weekdays.

But that is not this karaoke bar. ‘Bar’ is really not the applicable term. It’s a palace, reminiscent of the home of a Suadi Prince who fell in love with a Vegas based interior decorator. It’s divided into hundreds of private rooms like a hotel. These private rooms line the neon and mirror filled mazes of hallways on floor after floor of closed doors, the gentle whiff of John Denver or the Carpenters slipping from under the threshold.

I wanted in. KTV is supposedly a Shantou delicacy (though that seems to be the claim no matter where you go in Southeast Asia), and I wanted a big fat bite of some local culture that wasn’t coated in MSG (I love my MSG, but too much is too much). Alas, we, myself and three other Americans, were led down one of the long magical hallways and into our own private room. The room was ours for the night at 300RMB (about 50 USD) and came complete with 30 cans of Budweiser. There was even a bathroom in our room, which meant that for the next six hours or so, we had no reason to exit our private salon.

We turned on the machine to look through the song list. Chinese… Chinese… Chinese… Chinese… What’s this here “three little Indians.” In case you don’t recall your primary education in the days of zero cultural sensitivity that is the song that goes a little something like, “one little, two little, three little Indians, four little, five little, six little Indians, seven little, eight little, nine little Indians, ten little Indian boys.” Over and over again. And that was it. That was our English selection. Well, that and a couple of Avril tunes.

It was just as the confusion of the one-English-song karaoke machine was wearing off that the tray of six assorted varieties of chicken feet was brought in, and we were all forced to acknowledge that the next three hours, or however long it was going to take us to finish those 30 beers and six trays of feet, and we were determined to finish them, were going to be very long hours. Not so much because of the short song supply, or even the chicken feet, but mostly because we were going to be stuck with each other in a confined space with little to no odds of meeting new friends, girls, practicing Chinese… In short, all of the reasons that I go to a bar were locked away in identical, tantalizingly closed-off worlds, spread around this massive karaoke palace as if it were the honey-comb universe of Quantum Leap and I was Scott Bakula.

Ultimately, we were forced to breach the force field of the vigilant hallway security team by doing a sort of, ‘I’m just standing in the hall whistling and leaning… doing some fresh air… taken a break from the little Indian song…’ charade, and darting into random rooms as soon as security’s heads were turned. No one was fooled except perhaps us in assuming that they cared if we entered random rooms, but too much Budweiser mixed with the giddiness of four quasi-grown men thrown into what felt like grade school sleepover conditions, led to a little bit of make-believing. To us, these forays into the unfamiliar rooms were bona fide adventures.

Once inside, we were greeted with more Budweiser and chicken feet, and Chinese songs being calmly, sweetly sung amongst mostly sober friends who were caught just a little off guard by the beer filled, socially starved Americans who had sabotaged their gathering.

By chance, on one of our clandestine missions into unknown territories we stumbled upon a couple of Chinese friends from work, and they came back to our room to get a little taste of what American karaoke was like. They told us that the spicy bird feet were good luck. I picked one up and asked if you were supposed to rub it, like a rabbits foot, our eat it for luck, but they didn’t seem to follow. I ate it, but then decided to name it Rub to be sure I was respecting both of our traditions.

It was time for Avril, and lets just say the gods of rock would have been pleased with the show we put on… The Chinese fan of karaoke on the other hand…

There was some fundamental misunderstanding here about the meaning of Karaoke, and beyond that about the meaning of going out. While it seemed that the patrons were fully attempting to create a barrier between their own group of friends and the outside world, that idea was the height of undesirable to my mind. I was going ‘out,’ after all, not staying ‘in.’ And yet, here I’d gone ‘out,’ just to end up being locked ‘in,’ and I’d ended up acting like my friends parents had gone to sleep and we had to sneak out of his room, and down to the pantry to steal more Poptarts.

I am not intending to make any judgments about who was wrong and who was right here. Actually, I’m pretty sure that if I were to make any they would not be in my favor. Among other things, I realized that my sense of social is completely distorted. I don’t claim to speak for Americans by any means, but I think that I have witnessed in many Americans (or maybe I’m projecting) a fear of intimacy that precludes the kind of deep friendship that most of us crave. Mostly, I spent a night being extremely immature, sneaking about like an interdemensional hopper from a crap sci-fi program, and shotgunning cans of beer like I haven’t since the last time I was in Indiana (long story), because the idea of being in a quiet room with three friends and no distractions (chicken feet and children’s songs excluded) made me quite anxious. But, I’m not going to be too hard on me. It was a pretty good time.

But, it’s true that intimacy is something other than what it used to be (or at least what I used to think it was supposed to be), no? We (I) are more self-absorbed in all the best and worst ways than I thought we (I) were. We don’t think of relationships in terms of self-sacrifice for the preservation of tradition, family, etc…, which as far as I can tell are still very much a part of Chinese society. For better or worse, I think I see relationships almost like the various rooms in this karaoke palace; we spend a lifetime wandering from one to another, learning the lyrics to Raffi, Green Day, Johnny Cash, Nina Simone and finally, morbidly humming the tune to some Requiem all alone, watching for the door handle to jiggle when the white gloved waiter walks in with the bill.

I’m thinking of friends who’ve said to me after particularly hard break-ups, “well, I guess you two had learned what you needed from one another.” After which I nod my head in agreement. On to the next room. Even serious relationships (and I am including friendships) lack intimacy when you expect them to end, when you remove the possibility of their being, for lack of a better word, eternal.

And, maybe, this makes relationships potentially stonger, more realistic, someohow more intimate in the acceptance of the joint limitedness of their partakers. But, usually it just taps into our insecurities and makes us avert our eyes, maybe drink faster, wish that Rickshaws didn’t have to go out of style instead of listening to the person who is sitting next to us in one, pretend that you are in an episode of Quantum Leap instead of taking advantage of some time with friends… Maybe it’s just me.

On the way out of the karaoke palace, we were all just a little bit wobbly, and in quick need of a rickshaw back home, potentially making a stop for some barbeque to reconcile the Budweiser and bird feet churning in our stomachs. There were, however, no rickshaws to be found. The rickshaw drivers, it would seem, had gone on strike at some point between 10pm and 3am. Maybe we would be seeing the end of that relic sooner than I thought. It looked like rather than cruising home pretending to be on the back of a very lo-fi time machine, we would be walking down the long road that passed Wu’s sweater shop. But atleast we were finally ‘out.’

Copy Watch?

By Ryan Day

Travel

“Sex finish?”

“Ummmm…”

“You want sex finish or you no want?”

“Ummmm…”

Suddenly the slapping and moaning from behind the curtain to the adjoining booth lost the innocence of some thin skinned newby to the Thai massage. I should have known something was up when my masseuse kept awkwardly letting her vagina rest on my upturned palm as she persisted in giving me what may have been the least effective massage a person with hands could give. But, you know, I thought maybe she was just one of the oblivious people. I sat up and unconvincingly waved off her offer while forcing a smile of disapproval. It may have been more tempting had my coworkers not been waiting in the lobby having just finished massages of their own. But even then, I wasn’t entirely sure this was one of the life paths I was willing to open up. I buttoned my shirt slowly, wondering if I was going to change my mind.

“It okay… You no have to.” She said with a smile. I was relieved. For a second there I thought it might not be up to me. But I left the booth, self-respect intact, even if my will had been called into question.

My coworkers were waiting in the lobby, looking refreshed from their massages. “How was it they asked?” I squinted and gave it three or four seconds of earnest thought. “Good.” I said. And I meant it.

This was Hong Kong in a nut shell. The night we arrived a friend and I asked the clerk at the hotel which was the best neighborhood to find a beer. He gave a sly smile and told us we had to go to Wan Chai. We looked confusedly at one and other, trying to divine the meaning of his smile, but without any other information to go on, and being a pair that prided ourselves on traveling guide-bookless, we took him at his word and started off on the walk to Wan Chai. It looked harmless enough. A big city neighborhood. It could have been anywhere really. We walked into a bar that had all the charm of an Applebees, because after a month on the mainland the prospect of a beer that wasn’t Tsing Tao was enticing. We looked over the full page beer list with stupid grins. I ordered a Hooegarden and my friend asked for a Pilsner.

I scanned the bar to see if there were any potential English speakers. I was hungry to have a conversation that wasn’t about the price of my taxi back to campus or trying to explain why I didn’t want pork in my chow mien without knowing the word for pork. But as I looked around it wasn’t potential English speakers that I noticed, but the fact that there were old business men at every table and every one of them was surrounded by young women. I’m not totally sure what doting looks like, but I think these women might have been doting. Still, nothing concrete registered. I looked at my friend and he looked back at me with an equally quizzical expression. “What’s going on here?” I asked him. “Don’t know. Must be rich or something.” Or something.

It was just about then that two women, two absolutely stunning women, came up to our table to bolster our denial of the situation before they shattered our illusions of being what my Chinese students might call luck-lucky boys. “Hello,” says the first. I have a prepared answer for these occassions which is to turn my eyes groundward, give a nervous giggle and mumble an indistinguishable “hi.” Fortunately, my friend was a bit more suited to these sorts of interactions. He asked them if they wanted to sit with us. They sat. They ordered drinks, expensive drinks and the bill was handed to us. My friend and I looked at each other and shrugged. Hong Kong’s not cheap and teachers don’t make a lot of money on the mainland. Still, here we were with two beautiful girls interested in us. We awkwardly did the chivalrous thing and offered to pay for half. We were met with silence and in a panic paid the whole thing.

“So,” said my friend, “what do you two do in Hong Kong?” They looked at each other and laughed. “Business women,” she said matter of factly. “We come from Manila.” “Oh,” I respond with all my previous suaveness intact, “Manila. That’s where they have all the…” All the what? Think fast. Faster. “Coups.” I hoped they hadn’t understood, but the immediate deflation of everyone’s giddiness led me to think that they had. “And fried bananas,” I added, my voice trailing off amidst the bars sudden silence. “So what sort of business are you in?” Asked my friend. Good one. The girl next to me opened her mouth and I could see that she had a pretty extensive set of braces. Still though, she was pretty. She paused, showing off her crooked, acrylic-coated teeth. “We good fockers,” she said plainly. I nodded. I always feel rude when I can’t understand somebody’s English. “And what’s a good focker do?” I asked. The girls laughed again. This time it had the distinct feeling of at-rather-than-with. My friend seemed to have processed things faster than me. He looked at me incredulously and somehow that drove the whole thing home. “Ohhhh,” I said.

So we headed back to the Chungking Mansion, our residence of necessity, all on our own. If you are not familiar with the Chungking Mansion I encourage you to become so on your first trip to Hong Kong. Book it for one night, and have alternatives. It isn’t for everyone. The ground floor is a haven for fake Rolexes and pushy tailors alongside samosa vendors and imitation ipods. You can’t get two steps without someone lunging in front of you, then suddenly becoming discrete, leaning in quietly, “Copy watch?” If you express an interest you are led through some back alley, up six flights of stairs and into an apartment. The best thing I saw on sale was a pair of spy glasses that had utterly indiscreet cameras half-heartedly attached to the sides of blu-blockers… Just so you don’t look creepy when you’re trying to video tape strangers from behind dark, over-sized lenses with AA battery sized recording technology dangling from your temples.

Anyway, there is always a long line for the elevator. Yes, the elevator, which has a capacity of four and serves thirty floors of hostels. The line is sort of like a low rent model UN. Drunk people from every corner of the globe await their opportunity to ride four by four up to their tenement style residence in an elevator that averages three vomits an hour and a cleaning every eight. Low and behold while standing in line after having taken our own fair share of beverages, we met another couple of interesting characters. This time they were from Dublin rather than Manila, and male as opposed to female, but the temptation of English drew us in. On their advice, we abandoned the line and headed back out to the bars on the promise that after five am the elevator line was always vacant, which for future reference, is a lie.

The place we went to was crowded. As we got up to the bar to order I was fairly squished against a white haired man with coke bottle lenses in his glasses. He looked up at me as if it took him all the vision he had left just to penetrate his bifocals. He stared and then his head bobbled, He opened his mouth as if he was going to talk, then closed it, reeled his head around to the bar tender and shouted something indistinguishable while pointing at me. The bar tender brought me a scotch. I thanked the man with a nod. He waved his hands over the five cups in front of him and I noticed for the first time the menagerie of beverages he was selecting from. A whiskey, a tequila shot, a glass of wine, some sort of clear mixed drink and a beer.

He began to tell me about himself in almost unintelligible English. What I gathered was that he was the Vice President of a major US financial institution. I believed him… I think. Then he showed me his bullet wounds from his stint in South African intelligence. Maybe the two things were not mutually exclusive. I don’t know. I like to believe that he was who he said he was, because his decadence, his lonliness, his confusion, his blindness, his misguided pride in his violent past, hell, even his immigrant status seemed to me the perfect allegory to the American Financial institution he was claiming to be in charge of, and as coming days would show, that institution was just about as drunk as he was.

Everywhere I went there were people like this man. Sometimes younger and more put together, but those circumstances were only light cover for the vapid state of their industries and by extension their selves. I don’t believe that you necessarily are what you do, but surroundings in which you spend a vast majority of your waking hours must certainly make an imprint. By the way, the quickest way to end a conversation with a Hong Kong business type, is to say the sentence, “I am a teacher.”

I don’t want to simplify the whole of my experience in Hong Kong to the fetishization of commodity, or to the commodification of women, but I can say that it robbed whatever lingering sexiness there was for me in designer clothes, the lateset in electronics… well, even that pure and loveless sex that’s sometimes called fucking. I know several people in Shantou, where I live, who take regular trips to Hong Kong for the latest copied iphone, Omega watch, Italian shoes and oftentimes these people make a stop or two in Wan Chai for the girls from Manila.

I don’t have anything special to articulate about the relationship between the desire for material and the desire for sex; the desire to ease loneliness and the desire to surround one’s self by the newest and most desirable products; the connection between the seeking of copied products and that of imitated passion. I just want to point out that it is all there, bubbling around in the same pot.

I don’t think that prostitution is a capitalist invention, nor do I think that capitalism is the root of all evil, but I’ve certainly been brought back to what was an instinctual knowledge when I was younger: the pursuit of material is one without end. That simple conundrum, if such a thing can exist, may be the inescapable prison in which contemporary ideology has locked itself. But, even as you acknowledge your own confinement, it’s tough to completely disavow yourself from its appeal. And so I drank my scotch and let this man drunkenly vent his frustrations in his mostly indecipherable English for what turned out to be a very long time.

I had lost my friend. He was nowhere in the bar. I started back alone, but soon came across him stumbling back towards the hotel. “Hey!” I yelled. “Wait up!” He turned to me with a dopey smile and then fell limply forward without so much as putting out a hand to protect himself. His head went hard into the brick surrounding a storefront window. He was bleeding pretty badly. I flagged a taxi and we went to the hospital in the hopes of getting him repaired.

On our last night, my friend’s head all stitched-up, we sat scarfing nachos and margaritas, listening to French hip hop in a bar owned by a Malaysian Elvis impersonator. I was at a loss as to whether I felt empty or full, moral or depraved, predatorial or preservationist. All I felt for sure was hungry, and that if someone asked me how my trip was, I would probably squint at them, and after a little earnest thought tell them, “It was good.”