Saturday, 28 May 2011
Vice, it's not nice
Hong Kong and Bangkok
‘Oh no, it’s happening again’ I thought to myself as I sat sweating in the humid waiting room of a massage parlour on the fifth floor of a building in Hong Kong’s Yau Ma Tei district. ‘Do you think this is one of those types of massage parlours’? Helen asked me as a slim Chinese lady walked past wearing a mini skirt and crop top. ‘Yeh, reckon it might be’. Once again, we’d blundered our way past the white tunic-ed and incense fragranced ground floor places with floor to ceiling windows, instead ascending in a stinky lift with a nervously smiling lady still clutching the photocopied brochure promising cheap massages that acted as our bait. In an earlier post I spoke of how the spa-brochure advert of relaxation is elusive to me, partly due to a previous experience that I promised to reveal in a later, adults-only posting. This is that posting, and although I’m pretty sure children aren’t regular readers, and could frankly find far worse on t’internet, if you are immature in years or outlook then it’s probably time to log off from this discussion about vice and look at this nice picture instead.
This previous experience that tainted my view of massages happened in Singapore, on the first night of our honeymoon a couple of years ago. We’d wandered around the Chinatown district in the sultry heat, floating on a cushion of jet-lag and beer, but still knotted up after our long-haul from the UK (Qantas A380 = ace). A massage would be just the ticket we reckoned, a full body one at that, and hell, for that price it would be rude not to. Ascending the stairs and into the dimly lit waiting room two attractive ladies re-arranged their short skirts, sitting to attention, with what were, in retrospect, bemused looks on their faces as they moved their gaze from me (male, makes sense) to Helen (female, not so much). Clarifying that, yes indeed, it was both of us who wanted massages we were shepherded into adjoining rooms, divided by a thin partition wall, with gaps at the floor and ceiling, and encouraged to disrobe in private.
Now, this is the first obstacle for the novice massage recipient – just how much do you take off? ‘Er, Helen, am I supposed to take off my pants’? I whispered through the thin wall. ‘No, course not you idiot, where do you think we are’? We were about to find out. Stripped to my pants (good ones, thankfully, this was a honeymoon after all), feeling stupid and self-conscious about my surplus of body hair and deficit of muscles, my masseuse entered the room, sliding the door closed behind her, and with a raised eyebrow asked me to lay flat on my front. I’ve subsequently learned that it is not common practice for a masseuse to sit on your buttocks whilst massaging your back, but my rationale for her sitting like this, as if she were riding a horse (or bear in this instance), was that I’m bigger than average guys (height, you perverts, height!), and needed to adopt this position to get the appropriate leverage. ‘Leverage’, now there’s a term I’ve enjoyed not using over the last few months.
Gentlemen, you will need to back me up on this. Having a rocking weight sat on your buttocks whilst your front is pressed hard against an unyielding surface generates friction, and the physiological impact of this friction has an inevitable, and unavoidable, result. This is not eroticism. In fact, in this instance it was quite the opposite. With panic setting in, I knew that any moment she was going to ask me to flip over and lay on my back so she could continue with the second half of the massage. A mental refrain of ‘think of dead kittens, think of dead kittens’ didn’t do the trick, and as I flipped over I fixed her with a sheepish gaze that I hoped would convey the sentiment ‘yeh, this is embarrassing for both of us, but it’s just the inevitable result of human physiology, so what do you say we just be cool about this and carry on like this elephant (OK, caterpillar) in the room isn’t really there’?
It didn’t work. ‘You very hairy, I like’ she whispered, playing with the hair on my chest in a way that I’m fairly certain does not grace the pages of massage textbooks. This reaction is not unique; it happened again two days ago when Helen and I had massages in Bangkok, this time in the same room, although on this occasion my masseuse went on to say ‘your wife very beautiful, you very lucky’ as she gazed over at Helen’s breasts being gently massaged by her colleague. ‘Yes she is, and yes I am’ I replied, thinking this to be a bit weird, but not a patch on the Singapore fling. And let us return back to Singapore, to a situation that was escalating as quickly as my heart rate. ‘Ooh, yes, you very hairy, you like that?’ she whispered, patting my penis as if it were her pet sausage dog. ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoaaa’ I whispered, keen not to disturb my new wife as she lay blissed out on the bed not five yards away, ‘I’m married’, urgently pointing at the shiny ring on my left hand. As it transpires I hadn’t been as quiet as I’d hoped, my wife hearing me let out what she describes as a ‘low, nervous laugh’. In a small part of my mind, right at the back, I was thinking that this was funny, but my predominant emotion was pure, unadulterated awkwardness, the Brit in me rising to the top in a tumult of unspoken um’s, er’s, and this is just not cricket’s. ‘Hand job, 50 dollar’ she said, making a movement with her hand that, even allowing for the mutual language barrier, was not wholly necessary. ‘No, no, no, married’ I whispered, pointing again at my wedding ring, and then onwards to the room next door. ‘OK, 40 dollar…30 dollar’ she whispered, more urgently this time. Part of me was thinking that if we carried on like this she’d be paying me. She had, after all, already mentioned how attractive she found my chest hair. Fixing her with my best serious stare I repeated ‘no’ and that was that, I thought, as she continued on the massage in a slightly sullen, but normal way.
Five minutes later she began working on my right arm, lifting it up from my side and moving along from the elbow to the fingers. Back on track, I thought, just as she grabbed my hand, turned it around so my palm was facing her and firmly placed it on her left breast. Leaning in to my ear, my hand still clasped against her breast, she whispered in my ear ‘me your angel, make you feel good’. Pulling my arm away and rigidly fixing it by my side I turned to my last trick; the disappointed look. With a frown and a sad little shake of the head I repeated, more gently this time, ‘no’. And you know what, it worked. The rest of the massage went off without a hitch, despite it being the most uncomfortable twenty minutes I’ve ever had.
It was this memory that was triggered as my wife and I sat in the Hong Kong massage parlour waiting for our foot massage. A foot massage – what could go wrong? Nothing, as it turns out, my paranoia being just that, as the male owner rolled up his sleeves and attended to my hobbit feet, his female colleague drawing the longer straw and massaging Helen’s. As we sat there, still in their waiting room, our feet being pummelled into submission, we discussed the horse racing that was being screened from the Happy Valley racetrack, all of us placing fun fictional bets on the potential winner of race 8. We’ve cracked it, I thought, we’ve become street smart about vice.
Our subsequent experience in Bangkok’s Patpong area threw this theory straight out of the window and back into the gutter. Patpong is famous for a couple of things – its gaudy night market selling knock-off watches and clothes, and its alleyways of vice. As we walked up and down, left and right, through the streets stopping here and there for bites to eat, and just one more beer, we were constantly approached by touts promising us the fabled Bangkok ping-pong show. If you don’t know what this is then I’m sorry but I just don’t have the energy to describe it, other than to say that this is ping-pong minus the bats.
As one more beer turned into two, and then to three, we agreed that maybe we should, you know, have a look. It’ll be a bit naff, we reasoned, but we could always have a beer and leave. When a tout offered us free entry and beer at 100 baht (about two quid) we reckoned this to be a bargain, show or no show, and followed him conspicuously through the market and up some dingy stairs. Beers in hand we sat around a circular stage with four ladies lazily dancing, faces reflecting the same thought as the audience – we really don’t want to be here. It was all incredibly seedy, about as erotic as athlete’s foot as the ladies demonstrated their genital dexterity, and was carried out in an atmosphere that told me this wouldn’t end well. Waving away requests to buy drinks, a lady sat next to me and asked me to write my name on a piece of paper. Bemused, and yes a little drunk, my stunning logic was to write down a fake name – Bill – that’ll fox them! For the next ten minutes we sat, my eyes mainly fixed on the floor. I only raised them to watch two separate sets of tourists walk over to settle their bills, and explode with rage. These folk looked just like Helen and I – daft tourists who’d had a couple of beers and thought ‘this’ll be a laugh’ before realising this was unpleasant and exploitative and swiftly getting up to leave. Their explosive reactions to being presented with their bill gave me a sinking feeling that we were about to be ripped off, even more than I had mentally prepared myself for. At this point one of the ladies on the stage held up a piece of paper with the message ‘welcome Bill’. My brain clicking into gear told me two things: this wasn’t hand written, and we needed to get the hell out of there. ‘Not me, my name’s not Bill, must be someone else’ I shouted over the din, airily pointing into a different part of the bar. ‘Helen, we’re leaving right now’ I said, taking 200 baht out of my trouser pocket and shoving it into the top pocket of my shirt.
Bracing ourselves for the worst we approached the sneering lady at the pay station. Now, I was prepared to be a bit ripped off, this is how these places work, we’re stupid tourists, fair enough. But the itemised bill presented to me really knocked my socks off, and put into sharp perspective just why the previous tourists had exploded with a rage that seemed unnatural. For two beers which we’d sunk quickly in the ten minutes we’d been there, advertised as 100 baht each, we were presented with a bill for 3,100 baht (over 60 quid), made up of a random collection of fees including a per person ‘first look’ charge of 800 baht. I know a little bit about negotiation, and one immutable truth is that anger never works. So as Helen leant over my shoulder fixing the lady with a passive but dead-eyed stare, calmly outlining that two beers and no cover charge equalled 200 baht, I pulled the two 100 baht bills from my top pocket and told Helen to walk, quickly, towards the exit. I calmly laid down the bills and smiled, said that the 200 was all I had, and walked off. Approaching the near pitch black exit I saw Helen panicking and as I drew closer she turned to me, eyes full of concern, and exclaimed ‘they’ve locked us in, I can’t get out’! Reaching to my left I pulled open the door. ‘That’s a wall Helen, this is the door’. Taking two steps at a time, me behind Helen hissing ‘quick, quick, QUICK’ we dived into the market as a Thai man ran down behind us, and then off to the left. Not good, I thought, he’s going to get someone that I have no desire to meet.
Zig-zagging through the throng we got to the main road, paused for just a moment, realised we needed to keep moving and so shot across the road, down a well-lit road and into the nearest respectable looking bar. It turned out to be an Irish bar, virtually empty, but big enough and with enough dark corners to hide away. With our drinks we took up an elevated position on the first floor, facing the door, and turned to each other with raised eyebrows, our hearts still pumping. ‘You know what’ Helen said after a gulp of beer, ‘I thought I played that pretty cool, the way I looked that woman in the eye and didn’t react when she called me a whore’. ‘Yes, yes you did’ I replied, giving it a couple of moments before sarcasm got the better of me, adding ‘you were really cool, until you tried to get out through the wall’. Bursting into laughter we began to calm down, the adrenaline receding.
But it disturbed me. The massage story is funny I think, but the ping-pong story is troubling. The image that has been left in my brain is certainly not an erotic one; these young woman doing ugly things with their bodies for the largely disinterested tourist crowd is a side of Bangkok that I’m not proud to have contributed to, and I would urge anyone else to just stay away. The image that has been left is of the angry and sneering cashier, a middle aged Thai woman spewing venom at tourists night after night, some paying up, others refusing, all getting angry. It’s a character that is so far removed from the normal Thai character that is full of shy smiles and kind words, and it is a character that I fear this woman has been forced to adopt, pressed into taking one of the worst jobs in Thailand, and funded by stupid people like us.
Like I say, I’m not proud to have contributed to this. Vice, it’s not nice.