6th September 2018
Montalivit Les Bains, Aquitaine, France
We have a weather blip here at the moment.
Yesterday afternoon turned overcast and there has even been some rain in the night.
Much cooler and still overcast this morning but the forecast is for wall-to-wall sunshine to resume tomorrow.
So, instead of just relaxing on a sunny beach yesterday afternoon I sat down and wrote up yet another Singaporean recollection that took place in the early 1990s, when I was still in my prime.
Today's story, 'Chasing Dragons', is a chronicle of a visit to Thailand with a wealthy Chinese businessman, James Wong:
Singapore & Chiang Mai, Thailand 1993
Outside of business I never got to know many Chinese Singaporeans, theirs being really quite a closed community to westerners, but one notable exception was James Wong.
James was the owner of a very successful Singapore based plastics factory and was, consequently, distinctly well off. I was introduced to James by my Danish colleague and friend, Morten Nielsen but where Morten originally met him I have no idea. The first time I met James I seem to recall Morten and I were enjoying an early evening relaxing intake of alcohol in a downtown bar somewhere when James came in and introductions were made.
We all seemed to get on tolerably well so after a couple more drinks we collectively decided to go on to a restaurant of James’ choosing for a bit of nosh. Needless to say then, it was a deep-throat Chinese establishment, Morten and I being the only non-Chinese in the place.
We were seated at a big round table, the centre of which could be rotated 360 degrees and was soon filled with plates of Sichuan Chinese food. Now, my Idea of Chinese cuisine at that time was based on what was available in the UK and I very soon realised that the food in front of me bore no resemblance to anything I’d ever seen back in Blighty!
Mostly, I didn’t know what it was and I didn’t ask - ignorance being bliss and all that - but I did know it was terribly rude in Chinese culture to refuse anything offered by the host or fail to clear one’s plate.
Particularly testing, I recall, was the fish head soup - a great delicacy - a dish where I was expected to pluck what little flesh there was on the fish head off with chopsticks and consume together with the head’s contents and it’s eyeballs. I did joke that ‘at home’ we ate the rest of the fish and threw this bit away or gave it to the cat but that didn’t go down all that well as it seems the eyes are particularly choice and it was a great honour to receive them.
I later learned to dread the word ‘delicacy’ in Singapore restaurants as it always meant something I wouldn't want to eat. Eggs pickled for an eternity in horse piss, lovely chickens feet that have been scratching through all that wonderful ‘nutrient’ for their entire life and were, therefore, full of therapeutic minerals by osmosis - and so on and so forth.
The Chinese can eat pretty much anything and do, but I did learn they won’t touch a cats head - that must be one uber unpalatable morsel ‘cos those guys will literally eat everything else including, but not limited to, many insects, live skinned snakes and monkey brain scooped directly out of the poor creature’s still warm head.
Interestingly though they, as a generalisation, can’t take anything dairy. This is due to the fact that, historically, there is no dairy culture in their society and therefore don't get lactose introduced into their digestive systems beyond mother’s breast milk. As adults they simply can’t hold down cheese, milk, etc as I found out to my considerable cost when I had the ‘brainwave’ one day to import a container full of ice cream machines to fill, as I wrongly thought, a huge gap in the local market.
As Homer Simpson would say ‘DOH!'
Back at the restaurant with James and Morten I just ate everything that was put in front of me and washed it down with gallons of cold green tea - alcohol not being an option in such restaurants - and was mighty glad when the ordeal was over.
It was good training though as I soon learned that Chinese businessmen were well aware of the western aversion to much of their native cuisine and would insist on dining European businessmen at a local indigenous restaurant before concluding any deal with them.
A sort of test they were required to pass if they wanted their contract signed.
After the restaurant James insisted he take us to his club, which turned out to be an exclusive ‘gentleman's’ club of the old British colonial skool. Opulent doesn’t even begin to describe it and it's members (and their guests) were attentively waited on hand and foot, quite literally. We spent some time in the Turkish baths, followed by the plunge pool and thence to the lounge to sit enveloped in armchairs each as big as a small sofa whilst dressed in the biggest, softest, fluffiest robes I have ever encountered anywhere consuming glasses of brandy that was laid down when Napoleon was attempting to sack Moscow.
It was during one of those glasses of priceless cognac that I rather recklessly agreed to accompany James on a short forthcoming business trip he was taking to Thailand to buy dragons.
I really only agreed as he was intending to go to Chiang Mai, which being situated in the relative cool of the mountains to the north of the country I was curious to see. Previously, I had only ever been to Bangkok in Thailand which was unbearably hot, very polluted and massively congested. It could take half a day to get from the airport to the city centre - or vice versa - due to the ceaseless chaos on the city’s roads - day or night!
It was a city that literally never slept and I have been in what passes for a supermarket at 1am to buy toothpaste to see entire families complete with young children doing their weekly shop! The toothpaste was a revelation too - it may have said Colgate (or whatever) on the outside but the brown sludge it dispensed when I got it back to my hotel room bore no resemblance to any Colgate toothpaste I’ve ever seen before or since!
Morten didn’t come to Chiang Mai due to prior business commitments so it was just James and I that took a Thai Air flight from Changi airport that landed in the early evening. A taxi to the hotel and James insisted we go out immediately after unpacking to explore what the town had to offer.
By which he really meant (I soon discovered) we grab a passing tuk-tuk and get the driver to take us to a local whorehouse. Now, I’m not good with whores when they are working and it’s nothing whatsoever to with the morality of it or any such similar load of old rubbish. It’s just that, for me, there has always had to be an emotional connection with any lady I have ever been lucky enough to experience intimacy with.
In short, I simply find it impossible to ‘perform’ with professional ladies of the night whom I've only just met and I knew this very well already from past ill advised experiences.
I didn't wish to appear rude to James who insisted he would pay as ‘his treat’ so went along the cathouse where the proprietor lined up about 20 ladies for us to inspect. Having gone through the pretence of inspecting the ladies in question I discreetly mentioned to James that I was afraid none of them were to my taste.
He seemed totally unfazed by my conclusion and I thought as we bundled back into the tuk-tuk that we might now simply retire to a bar for some much needed refreshment. However, the driver was instructed by James to take us to another brothel where the performance was repeated all over again, except the proprietor at this establishment tried to offer me a very young virgin when I, yet again, declined all the other ladies on offer.
I could tell James was now getting a bit rattled as we clambered back into the tuk-tuk with further instructions to the driver to take us to yet another whorehouse. Just how many does this town have, I wondered?!
At the third bordello I decided I’d better get cute or James was going to be hard company to share the next few days with so, much to his evident delight, I quickly selected a lady and was subsequently whisked off to her boudoir. James, I noticed, simply picked the woman nearest to him and went off with her likewise.
My lady was young and extremely petite and was looking a bit nervous at my 6ft 4” frame as she produced the smallest condom I have ever seen - even if I had wanted to use it I couldn’t have! Fortunately she spoke just enough pigeon English to understand I was ‘too tired’ after a long jet flight to do anything other than sit on the side of her bed for about ten mins and have a nice chat. I explained that she would be paid in full and her sexual services praised highly to the proprietor which seemed to relax her visibly.
After what I thought was a respectable interval I ruffled my hair up a bit and walked out of her room with a big fake satisfied smile on my face only to find James already out too and looking impatiently at his watch as if to say what the hell took you so long?!
He was a happy man now though and that, as far as I was concerned, was the main thing. The rest of the night was blissfully uneventful - beer, bread and bed, basically.
The next morning the dragon chase finally began and I was introduced to our driver for the next couple of days, a young local man who immediately took us to the oldest, tattiest, rattiest, beat-up, practically antique Jap saloon car I had ever seen.
His pride and joy!
These days I wouldn’t be quite so shocked at the car’s decrepitude but back then I was part of a very different world where I routinely travelled in well maintained, spotless, modern German executive cars. I was genuinely worried for my safety, a fear that was in no way appeased by the driver’s habit (whilst the car was still in motion) of closing his eyes, bowing his head and taking both hands off the steering wheel to clasp them in prayer at every religious roadside icon we subsequently passed - particularly the ones situated on every single mountain switchback bend we encountered.
Of which, there were a great many!
Finding the dragons turned out to be quite easy as they were commonly made in small rural artisan workshops which I found hugely interesting to visit. I saw exquisite work done in gold and silver and much fine gold leaf craftsmanship. I saw beautiful hardwood furniture being made by hand and learned that all the timber was imported as Thailand had depleted it’s own indigenous stock of hardwood trees many decades earlier.
Over the next couple of days James gradually amassed the quantity of dragons he wanted for, as he explained to me, the dragon is considered to be a lucky guardian for Chinese people and well made, hand crafted ones sold readily to affluent Singaporeans for a very good price!
I saw a great deal of that part of Thailand and, thanks to the local knowledge of our impoverished young driver, right down at the grassroots level and in total contrast met several fat Malaysian factory owners. One in particular stands out in my memory as he didn’t even bother to dismiss his manicurist as James negotiated his deal.
James told me when we finally got back to Singapore that he was very happy with the outcome of his trip and that our personable young driver had been exceptionally useful in helping him to source little artisan factories well out in the boonies that he would never have otherwise discovered.
He was so pleased, apparently, that he’d given him a substantial bonus that should be enough for him to buy himself a ‘new’ old car.
And I wouldn't mind betting he’s still driving it!
Singapore 1994 Minneapolis Memories