Sunday, November 09, 2008

Item From the Past: Singapore Sling

Once upon a time in the early '90s, while living in Japan, I pitched an article about Singapore -- which I had just visited -- to an editor stateside. She declined the idea, noting that it was "too exotic" a destination for her readers. Which was probably true. In my experience, people are fairly slow to update their stereotypes about far away places. In fact, Singapore is about as First World a city as you can imagine -- too much so, according to the city-state's critics.

I was, an am, on good terms with the editor (who hasn't been an editor in years), so I had some fun writing her back. I dusted off assorted old movie images and borrowed shamelessly from Chandler, figuring it might be one of the few opportunities I would have to do so. This is what I came up with:

Singapore Gothic. Or, True Stores of My Sojourn to Singapore.

It was a steamy mid-afternoon in the Chinese back streets of Singapore, dank, smelling of onions and oil and sweat, each nook and tiny sidepath thick with drying laundry and squalid secrets. Leathery old Chinese men in dingy cafes on either side eyed their mah jong tiles, or nursed their worm-eaten pipes, paying scant attention to the white stranger in their midst -- me.

Now and then a child would tug at my shirttail. "Hey Johnny, Johnny, gimme, gimme," was the chant they all knew. In more lighthearted moments, such as during strolls I'd taken seaside with the Eurasian beauty Andrea Lok Bok on my arm, watching the ships' lights in Singapore Harbour in the cool of the early evening, I'd produce a copper for the little beggars. Now, I brushed them off with a quick wave of the hand. It is serious business, going to see Foo Woo Fatt. Deadly serious.

Soon I found the landmark I was seeking: Two red dragons facing each other, snarling, as if they were going to contend for lordship of the plain black door they were mounted above. The location of the door had been whispered to me in a back room of the British Club, by an officer long in Her Majesty's service -- this was Foo Woo Fatt's door. The officer dared not ask me the nature of my business behind this ordinary yet sinister door.

The door opened with surprising ease. In a moment my eyes adjusted to the dimness within. A huge goon appeared without warning in the shadows, mere inches away. He was as big as a beer truck and dressed like a Mardi Gras fireplug.

"I've come to see Foo," I said, doing my best to snarl. "The name's Stribling." The goon said nothing. For a long moment, he didn't move either, just starring at me with an unreadable poker face. He had an ugly mug. Maybe it was the smallpox scars; or maybe the pallor inspired by too many long draws on an opium pipe. All at once he vanished behind some long silk curtains, exiting as quickly as he'd entered.

I waited. A minute passed. And then another. And another. There was nothing for it but to examine Foo's vase collection. I'm no Sotheby's expert, but I know pricey stuff from the junk they hawk to goo-goo-eyed suckers down as the Central Market. Obviously Foo didn't do his shopping there.

Suddenly my back stiffened up, a reflex pure and fast as lightning. A sharp pain shot from my left shoulder down my shine, reaching my southernmost parts like a telegraph signal. I turned. There was the enormous goon -- and a couple of more. All of them were brandishing Malacca enforcers. I heard a couple of thumps -- turned out to be a couple of enforcers, steel-tipped bamboo rods, making contact. With my head. I ducked to the floor. I grabbed the floor with both hands, and with great effort, pushing and huffing, got the room spinning. Soon I had it spinning real fast. Now there were a dozen ugly goons with hundreds of sticks. I was fast sinking into a big gray swamp. The last thing I remember thinking was -- Singapore ain't no town for tourists...



At 5:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Steve stared into her eyes and said softly: 'I'm an occasional drinker, the kind of guy who goes out for a beer and wakes up in Singapore with a full beard.'"

-- Raymond Chandler, "The King in Yellow"


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