Friday, February 20, 2009

Taiwan culture: The gentleman's KTV

Highlights of this story of the gentleman's KTV: my first visit to an x-rated KTV; paying the Taiwan way; Taiwan gangsters; types of girls the Taiwan guys like - and, learning not to be so PC.

We had been sat outside in a night market eating some dumpling when a group of gangsters - sat in front of the seafood restaurant next door - started to toast us, before calling us over.

I don’t know to this day that they were actually gangsters, it was just they looked the part: crew cuts; loose, flowery shirts that were not tucked in – rumor had it so they could get to their guns easier; tattoos sticking out from the open top two button holes of their shirts, and protruding down and out from under their three-quarter length baggy shorts; and flip-flops, in particular I loved the flip-flops and the stereotypes they conjured up about Asians and fighting: I couldn’t kick someone in the head, or move easily from left to right, or grip well with a flip-flop - But presumably with their kung-fu training they could; I almost wanted them to get in a fight that night to see how they coped.

...Otherwise: an array of facial scars where hair didn’t grow. Skin deathly white in a country where there was a burning hot sun for ten months of the year – of course indicative of a life spent in illegal gambling dens, pool clubs, and karaokes. Finally, teeth stained red, lips protruding, and bottom jaw evolved out so that the bottom set of teeth touched ends with the top, the result of chewing too much betel nut. (Betel nut was a green nut split open and filled with a red paste; when chewed it acted as a spicy mild-stimulant. It was incredibly popular amongst the working class and an absolute must for any gangster).

I was with an English guy called John Matthews who wasn’t the typical Taiwan adventurer: degreeless, muscular and very working class. I was scared of the guys we were with, but I knew he was taking it in his stride.

Anyway, the guys insisted they join them, and now we were staring at a table strewn with half empty plates of stir-fried sea snails, clams, squid and prawns, piles of shells, hard and soft; packed ash trays; used tissues from wiping hands and mouths, chopsticks and toothpicks (The done thing was to cover your mouth with one hand, take a tooth pick in the other and thoroughly excavate between your teeth).

Actually, we admired John for his understanding of Chinese, or rather his ability to put into operation the information we all had.

I saw him go for his wallet and interrupted:“Let them pay, man. This is Taiwan, they love to treat the foreigner,”I said.“Gives them face.”

“Maybe they are just generous,”replied John sick of hearing hours of discussion and theorizing why the Taiwanese were so nice to them. As far as he was concerned foreigners should just count their lucky stars.

“You never let them pay. Taiwanese always have to return ten-fold so these guys will owe me big time. It is an investment if I ever need them,” answered John.

“If you understood these people,” I flipped back at him. This was his contradiction: he at once knew everything about the Taiwanese and said he was leaving because it wasn't his culture.

This is the bit i mentioned earlier about putting into action the information we had. I knew John’s point about treating was bold, lucid and commonsense but few foreigners bothered to follow it, including myself. I was aware of the gift giving ‘oneupsmanship’ that many Asians followed – it would be impossible not to be, unless I stayed in his room and never spoke to them - but as yet I had failed to take my place in the game. I wanted to, but somehow, like now, when presented with the opportunity to take a couple of thousand NT dollars from my pocket and reap the benefits later, I would tell myself: there was no guarantee, that I didn’t want someone owing me something. And so, like most foreigners I took the safe line: the Taiwanese would pay for a little and me nothing. Then there was John who had got off the plane and got straight into character, even though all John had known about Taiwan before he came was the price of the plane ticket from England.

"Boss! Boss! Six more bottles,” said John to the owner of the food stall. “And the bill.”
Unfortunately, one of the four spotted John trying to pay, and I sat in horror as John then wrestled two of the guys to the ground for the right to do so. In Taiwan the conversation over who paid wasn’t a simple matter of: ‘I’ll pay.’ ‘No, I’ll pay’. ‘Ok’. You had to slam each other against the wall, and throw your opposite number’s wallet out the window to show your sincerity.

John managed to pay the bill, but A-Hao, the only one of the four who could speak a little English, then rushed to the 7-11 across the road, and bought a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red label. Within seconds he was back on his plastic stool, next to John; ice cubes had been put in little plastic cups, the whiskey was being poured and there was no way they could leave.

I tried to make an excuse to cover my inadequacies: “Don’t you just hate that,” I said. “They don’t take no for an answer.”

“Didn’t you ever say no to something, and then wished there had been a second offer?” said John. “They are just being friendly – We don’t live in world of perfect reactions.”

The drinking rules were also hard to adapt to - Everytime you wanted to drink you had to raise your glass and toast someone. I was drunk and tired having had to down about twenty glasses of beer in the last hour, and the sea snails with garlic and oregano was a little too salty. I raised my glass desperately wanting to slow down and savor a mouthful of whiskey by myself but that was not the done thing: “Hey! Cheers them. Don’t just drink your drink,” scolded John.

“Cheers,” shouted John for me, and everyone emptied their cups of whiskey.

“What a country, eh?” said John laughing at the pain on my face. He appreciated the communal way of drinking.

“Hey…Hey…Hey…Big brother,”he shouted now fighting them, like he had done all evening, for the privilege of pouring the whiskey into their cups.

“Let them pour it dude. And what is with the big brother and boss shit?” I replied thinking John was going a little too far with the performance.

“Da Ge? It means big brother doesn’t it? Is my pronunciation right?”

“It is right. I think you have impressed them.”

“What the mutha is wrong with you? I thought you loved Chinese culture? These people like to be respected; they like their titles. Don’t you understand that? Didn’t you ever have parents? Didn’t your father like your friends to call him sir?”

"Doesn’t make it right,”I replied.

“Ok. We go. Please…Sing song,” said A-Hao the one of the four who could speak a little English.

“What a people, eh?” cheered John as A-Hao’s forced English reminded him they had all been together for more than three hours, happily drinking, laughing, and they probably had only had a couple hundred shared words between them. “Makes the tears well up, the humanity of it all.”

Hao picked up the bottle of whiskey which was now half empty and him and his three friends back slapped and fought each other for the right to drive dead drunk, and risk losing their licenses. As I sat in back of the car, I was aware it was wrong to drink and drive, but God it made you feel alive.

Half an hour later we had taken up positions on a black leather sofa in a small room when five girls dressed in only underwear and negligees came in the room and stood near the entrance. This was a gentleman’s KTV.

My idea of KTV before i came had been an open plan bar atmosphere with a microphone on the stage at the front, but I had been corrected: that was karaoke not KTV. The Taiwanese preferred KTV, a private room for family and friends. KTVs occupied whole fifteen storey building, each floor divided into hundreds of rooms of differing sizes, and each room had a fifty inch TV, leather sofa hugging the walls, and coffee tables in the center, and dark wood walls.
In this case, the adult KTV - due to questions of legality - operations had to be a little more low-key. Outside a building would be a neon sign, and a couple of guys at the bottom of the building in white shirts and black pants, usually standing behind a desk offering valet parking. As they arrived tonight the guys got on their walkie talkies to report the number coming up, and they then had taken the lift up past Acer on the third floor and British Airways on the fourth to this KTV on the sixth floor. The first time they had walked past these places they were surprised that they advertised in any way, but then they found out they were paying the police. Still a floor of a building was sufficient, because when elections came around the police apparently had to pretend to close them down for a while.

Everything about the decoration of the gentleman’s KTV room was the same as normal KTVs, except that a couple of young, barely-clothed girls would accompany you as you sang.

“When in Rome…” answered John because I was frowning at him for taking a betel nut. I was frowning, like so many foreigners did, because you chewed it and it made your teeth go red and black, and you had to spit out the pulp. Outside the roads appeared covered in blood, but you soon learnt that wasn’t the cause of the red stain.

“What? So it is alright to inject your drugs, snort or smoke them? That is what civilized people do,”said John.

“It doesn’t leave such a mess for everyone else,” I replied.

“Ever found a needle in a park? Ever been held up by someone high on betel nut? No…Now shut up, and choose.”

John loathed the constant talk on whether he was living in an evil, racist, materialistic hell that was destined to lag behind the West because of things intrinsic to the Chinese Confucian character that would forever hold them back. He knew his wait-and-see policy was a controversial one - He was viewed as an aloof, dithering bastard because he wasn’t prepared to join the other Western guys in the hostel, who believed unpacking your bag was sufficient time to make an assessment about the Taiwanese character. In the hostel, that afternoon he had passed a comment that he wanted to find a sandwich without toasted bread or toothpicks, and he got the half-an hour diatribe on how the Taiwanese would never truly enter the First World until they came to terms with modernization and westernization. He often replied: “You dumb fucking arrogant little college boys. The fact that you get bread at all…Can you prepare fucking dumplings, dick?”

He was right of course: we were mostly immature young guys trying to have our authentic experience and home comforts at the same time.

The truth was i was deliberately stalling.“Quick! Pick yourself one and let’s get this over with. The gentlemen are waiting for you to choose first,” said John.

“Sorry man, I have never picked out a woman from a line - Apart from the nutter who mugged me…Whoever I pick, I’ll feel sorry for the others.”

John rubbed his forehead and shook his head. “They are professionals. They’ll understand if they don’t get your grubby, anonymous hands squeezing their tits in the next hour...Bloody middle-class liberals.”

“You sure, man?" I replied.

“I’m sure. I don’t think their tits will go unfelt in the next hour, it was pretty busy outside. No doubt she’ll have something to scrub off once she gets home.”

I finally picked the only girl with big breasts, and John chose the dark skinned one. A-Hao looked at our girls disparagingly. “You want?” he asked. Then embarrassed about his inability to communicate his ideas, he tried to push his one onto John.

“I like,” said John, but A-Hao didn’t appear convinced.

“We are foreigners,” I said in Chinese and A-Hao laughed and sat down.

No doubt five years later he will still be retelling the story of the time he went to KTV with a couple of foreigners and the foreigners picked the girls with dark skin and a full figure.

I looked at A-Hao and his friends with their pasty white and stick-thin girls, thinking the bright side was that Taiwanese and foreigners never need to fight over women.

“What’s up?” asked John to me. A while ago, he had spotted me seemingly treating my choice like my first girlfriend on our first date. Finally, he felt guilty enough to drag himself away from playing with his girl’s breasts and ask what the problem was.

“Man, the poor girl is working here to pay for her brother’s education. I can’t...” I replied.

“How do you know?”

“I asked her, mate...Why she was working here.”

“Do you know that girl?” John asked to the girl sitting on his lap. “Does she have a brother?”

“No, she have the two sister.”

“Bloody patronizing liberal. You’ve lost half an hour and it serves you right,” shouted John. “Maybe some girls are working here because they are desperate, but it is not the point: they had decided to work here and so the reasons are irrelevant.”

Years later John explained how he seemed to be able to understand what was going on. While at school he had often got into trouble and the teachers would give him the benefit of the doubt because he was working class, find any excuse to forgive his naughtiness. He had learnt to give these bleeding heart liberals the answers they wanted to hear. It only made him worse. Maybe, there were legitimate reasons for his bad behavior, but none of them stopped him. The only thing that did was some severe punishment and discipline.

“Man, how was I to know…”i replied.

Maybe, I shouldn’t have started that conversation about why she worked in this place, and I knew women were downtrodden in this society, I thought.

“Change her. Send her back,” shouted John, desperate to get back to his company. I sat dithering, unable to approach her with the soul-destroying news I didn’t want her company anymore, until A-Hao broke off from his game of paper-scissor-stone long enough to utter a couple of words that instantly sent her running away, and a replacement came in.

I looked at A-Hao and his friends now down to their boxers, losing various drinking games. It seemed they liked to pretend they were robbing innocence: while John had directly taken off the bra of his companion, they had spent the last half hour winning the right to see flesh through various drinking games.

The four girls were now down to g-strings only, hands were all over them, but I presumed they were having the last laugh: the job description had said show your breasts and ass, but none of them had any. It was money for nothing.

“So why do you work here?” asked John to his charge, Angel, first grabbing her left breast so the price to her of her occupation was at the forefront of her mind as she answered.

“Like her. I no study hard. I like the money. Gucci, you know?”

“I know Gucci. That is wonderful.”

“You want to sing the song?” pushed Angel.

“Instead of groping your breasts? No fuckin’ interest, but thanks for asking.”

But Angel wasn’t stupid. She asked A-Hao and his friends if they had heard John sing, and it seemed they were happy to be distracted from breast massaging to listen to their new friend. Or, I guessed, they came to this sort of place weekly so it wasn’t so precious.

“It’s not unusual to love…” belted out John because it was that, or the Beatles, Whitney Houston or Air Supply. They had no other English songs in the catalogue.

An hour and a half later and A-Hao had paid a bill of around five hundred pounds and they had swapped numbers. John had protested and tried to pay the bill, but this time he hadn’t been so aggressive. A-Hao had asked if they wanted to come to a restaurant for some more food, but unlike these guys, we had had enough entertainment for one evening.

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