Monday 3 December 2012

One Leg Left

One of the things I think thin people cannot enjoy is a good massage. All those meatless body parts and sharp bone corners. It's almost like marinating fish or prawn and get poked here and there. I mean I would rather marinate a slab of three-layer pork. It is so luscious and "QQ" between the fingers.

The same for girlfriends, I suppose, especially those chubbier than Barbie. They are more fun to apply sunblock on.

When I was young, I was very skinny and viewed a massage more like a kind of paid molestation. I believe all skinny people still feel the same - that every touch is just too close to the bone. It's extremely ticklish too, which makes the whole exercise quite impossible to endure.

How to lie obediently on a massage table and let the masseur work his/her magic?

Given such reservations, it was thus no wonder that I seldom went out of my way to look for a massage before.

Growing up in Marsiling, I had a neighbourhood friend who would ride his motorbike into nearby JB to get his 'fix'. I put that in inverted commas because in JB then, a massage came with 'extra services' - the kind that's usually provided by the back-alley folks in Desker Road under certain red lighting conditions. The word "massage" became an euphemism for that sort of thing, oft-used on clients in karaoke lounges even.

My first massage did not happen in Singapore; it took place in Taiwan. I was there for my National Service and we had just wrapped up a two-week training stint and into our R&R (rest and recreation) break. All of us were expecting a three-day holiday in Taipei but for some reason, we ended up in Kaoshiung instead.

Our hearts sank a litte because we had heard of how fair the ladies in Taipei were as compared to the ladies further south. We had trained in the mountains of Hengchun near the southern-most tip of the Taiwan peninsular and seen folks so sun-tarnished that they could pass off as Malays or even Thais. And so we thought the ladies in Kaoshiung would be the same.

Fortunately, it turned out to be not true if the salesgirls serving us in the shops and departmental stores were anything to go by.

Even the girls we had seen riding on their scooters in the city streets were fair - being protected by long sleeves and gloves and sunhats during their rides. It was quite the sight when a bunch of them stopped at a traffic light. On a windy day, their sundresses would billow and their long hair flutter. It was exactly like some Kao shampoo ad on TV! I remember a similar scene in Ho Chi Minh City of girls in traditional dress and on bicycles.

Oh, before we SAF army boys were let loose in Kaoshiung, we were briefed by our platoon sergeant Staff Karu on what to expect and what NOT to do in that newly industrialised city. Or rather, what HE expected us not to do.

"Don't let me catch you in one of those barber shops. You botak guys definitely don't need a haircut. If you want "extra services" just answer your door at night in the hotel. It's not me knocking but you know what I mean." Chuckles all round. We had all been told that "xiao jie" (lady/prostitutes) would come solicit for business in the middle of the night. It happened at all the hotels... 3-star, 4-star not withstanding.

"And of course, don't forget to use this," added Staff Karu, holding up a packet of condoms for all to see.

"What I don't want you to do is go insult some hardworking mom hairstylist in this fair city. Not all of them want to give you "extra service" or cut your cock hair. Kabish?" We had yet to earn our officer-rank bars so we all nodded furiously in 'kabishment'. Got it! Keep away from barber shops! Of course, we all laughed at the cock hair bit. Our platoon sergeant was Indian, plump and hirsute (hairy); he conjured up quite the funny image. God save the lady in the barber shop who has to cut his, um, cock hair. Where to begin and where to stop?

Then again Indians were seldom seen in Taiwan at the time, so all things considered, they were exotic like the black negroes. Maybe even without asking, he would get an extended haircut and "extra service".

Someone shot up a hand and asked: "Staff, how about massage parlours?"

"I am going to one. If you see me, stay the hell away. I've seen enough of you guys for two weeks," said Staff Karu half in jest and half in murderous intent.

The rumour going round the camp at the time was about the fights the previous batch of NS men had gotten into. One was at the famous President underground departmental store; the other was outside a massage parlour. The NS-men were unit-level "Hokkien-peng" (dialect-speaking soldiers) and thus understandable. They would often "'pak" (fight) first, then talk later. We were officers-to-be and thus expected to behave better. But the fact is that we were all bookworms from an A-level Pre-U batch, so we were more likely to walk away from a fight than get physical. But in a foreign country, you never know what can happen.

So after reaching Kaoshiung and checking into our respective hotels, we each formed into our own pal-groups and went about exploring the city - Taiwan's second largest. The place looked neat and homey, so where were the barber shops and massage parlours soldier folks talked about?

In my group were Eddy, Siew Chong, Yew Kuan and Tiah Ann. Eddy was the most talkative amongst the lot. Siew Chong had an angel face but in reality, a really filthy mouth like some Hokkien peng. He was usually a quiet chap. But step on his tail and he will bite like a rattlesnake.

Yew Kuan was always reserved and contemplative but would laugh at our jokes. Tiah Ann was neither reserved nor gay (happy outlook). He was a sturdy chap and very helpful. He would go the distance without complaint. Tiah Ann was also the "koon king" (sleep king) of our platoon and would soon fall asleep whenever he stepped into an army three-tonner. It didn't matter where he was sitting - on the floorboards or on the bench - he would immediately fall asleep once the vehicle got moving, much to the annoyance of our platoon sergeant. Not even the threat of "signing extras" could change him. In the end, we just let him be and made sure someone else sat by the tailgate (whose duty was to keep an eye open to make sure no one fell out of the truck during transit).

I don't know why we formed this group of mostly kwai kias (well-behaved kids). Perhaps they felt I was fierce and gang-ho and could take care of them. I usually got along fine with everybody and it didn't matter who was keeping me company. I could always chat somebody up - a trait that held me in good stead as a journalist later.

In any case, the few of us wandered around the city streets to take in the sights as well as to do a bit of window shopping. A part of Kaoshiung was very new at the time and reminded us of Orchard Road with its big glass office buildings and shopping centres. We guessed that Kaoshiung was doing well and industrialising and turning into a financial hub. But it was in the old part of Kaoshiung that we liked better to loiter in, where the small shops and eateries were. Lest they soon disappear, like what was happening back home in Singapore at the time.

In one old street, we came across an old zinc-sheeted warehouse that had been turned into a cinema. We were tempted to watch it but its promotional poster was half-torn leaving some words that confused us. We then asked a resident nearby what the movie was all about.

"Na ge shi yi fu san ji pian," was the old uncle's reply. That's a Cat III film, was what he said.

"San ji" meaning Category III, and "pian" meaning film. So it was a porno movie. We had heard of such "yellow" movie houses in Taiwan before. To come up against one was still gobsmacking. In Singapore, our film censorship was still the blanket type. The only cinema that came close to being nicknamed a Cat III one was Yangtze, where DOMs (dirty old men) would gather to watch "artistic" films screened there. Films that often starred Amy Yip and her famous frontal assets. The most popular movie was however "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" starring Daniel-Day Lewis and Juliette Binoche. I think the honest and explicit sex scenes did the trick, never mind the existential theme of the movie.

Still, for a group of army boys to find a Cat III cinema on their first trip out into town could be ranked akin to a prospector finding gold on the very first try. But funnily, none of us were keen to waste our time in some old building that looked more like a make-shift factory painted in rust-red. It was surprisingly located in a congested neighbourhood of stacked residential wooden homes and narrow alleyways. Well, in any case, I thought what a bunch of kwai kias we really were!

From the cinema, we emerged along a five-foot walkway by the main road. A couple of home eateries operated there. One sold beef noodles; the other sold the famous "mu gua niu nai" papaya milk drink. We ordered the largest cc one, which was huge, more like 500cc! That's how it was sold then, what was actually quite the novelty.

Afterwards, we walked a bit and came to a massage parlor. It was located on the ground floor of a small office building. We looked at each other as if we had hit the jackpot again. Tiah Ann was quick. He had already leapt up the few steps and turned around to report. "Staff Karu is not here!" We all "Wa lau eh!" and laughed at him for taking our platoon sergeant's comment so seriously.

"Hey, let's check and see how much they are charging," one of us suggested. We know we Singapore boys often got fleeced in Taiwan like any tourist in an unfamiliar place, so it was better to be sure first.

At the counter, we all ogled at the price list. It all seemed rather proper and agreeable. Each massage was not only time-based but 'parts based' as well, meaning we could specify whether it was Upper Body, Lower Body, Head, etc., that we want smacked and kneaded.

"Where's the charge for you-know-where?" someone joked, about a specific body part that was dear to us boys but not found on the list. I looked at the lady behind the counter to see if she understood what was being said. Nope, no reaction. As a matter of fact, she appeared rather impatient. I hoped no SAF unit soldiers had gone there before us to "spoil market" and her mood. We could then be in for one hell of a session. You know, bones and muscles cracked in furious and merciless payback fashion.

"I don't think this one is that sort of place. Look at the uniforms." It was true, the girls had on some grey-white cosmetic girl get-up. It all looked pretty professional except for the expression on their faces. They could be mistaken for running a funeral parlor.

"Look, Eddy, I think you have to do it yourself back in your hotel room," I smiled, as I ribbed him for making such a lewd suggestion. Eddy was actually not that sort; he was just being a smart-aleck.

In the end, only three of us opted to try. Yew Kuan and Tiah Ann decided their time would be better spent shopping for music cassettes, and so off they went.

I stepped into the massage parlour and took a sweep of the place. It was well-lit and quite spacious. It had about four tables side by side in a row. Above the head of each table was a TV set. Hmm, not bad customer service, I had thought then.

Do I need to change? I asked the masseur assigned to me in halting Mandarin. I thought I had to be butt naked and in a towel or something. It always was like that on TV or in the movies. That's how the hanky-panky starts, no?

I was in my OCS all-white PT kit. My masseur, a woman in her early 30s, told me I needed not strip. I thought it rather unusual but did not question her any further. In my mind, I was wondering what if she needed to oil me up. That would stain my whites, no? Platoon Sergeant Karu would not be happy about that.

More questions.

In any case, I lay myself down on the massage table as instructed. First prone and then on my back. The table was like any found in a doctor's office: rectangularish and cushion-wrapped in grey vinyl.

She started with my neck, then shoulders, then arms, then back. Lying down prone, I couldn't see the TV at all. I wondered maybe they should have one on the floor as well, you know, one of those portable 7-inch type, angled so I could be entertained in that position. But it was rather unnecessary as I began to feel drowsy from all my masseur's rolling hand-action. The last thing I remembered was if I should keep my wallet down the front of my pants, near my crouch. It would be safe from pilfering in that location. Right? Zzzzz......

I woke up to find that I was already flipped over. Did I...? Did she...? In any case, the masseur lady was already working on my right leg. She didn't seem in any particular hurry kneading it. In fact she was distracted by something in the ceiling. I look to where she was staring at and saw the TV that was there earlier. It then dawned on me that the TV was for her, not me. She was watching a daytime soap opera all the while massaging me 'blind'.

I felt ignored. But never mind.

Never mind that this was not an "extra service" massage parlour; the masseurs were not even particularly skilled nor customer-oriented. I think I could have done a better job massaging myself. I could have entertained myself too!

I was not alone in thinking that as I looked across to Siew Chong and he gave me that "what-is-going-on" look and shrug, as much as he could lying prone on that cushioned table clone. It was as grey and dull as our mood.

When my right leg was done, the masseur stopped and said, "Hao le."

What? What hao le (OK)? I asked.

"Yi ge cong tow dao le," she said, meaning my hour was up.

I checked my left leg. It was the same one that I had walked in with. The same one that had become tense after two weeks in the mountains of Hengchun. Tense still from that long bus ride to Kaoshiung. And tense still from the climb of steps into that massage parlour.

Mostly, it felt unviolated, untouched. I said this to the xiao jie: "Er, xiao jie. Ni hai mei you long je zhi qiao." (You haven't done this leg yet.)

"Shi jian dao le," she repeated, saying time was up.

"Ni na ni ke yi je yang zhou yi pan jiu ting?" (How can you stop halfway?)

She looked at me and saw that I was determined to get my other leg done. I was more pissed that she was watching TV and did not concentrate on her job properly. How could she leave me three-quarters done? It was like getting an half-ass haircut or being shooed from the cookhouse with still half a platter of food left. Not in the army, and certainly not in some massage parlour that I am paying my hard-earned NS dollars for.

In the end, the xiao jie relented and massaged my left leg. She did it in so perfunctorily a fashion that she might as well have just dug her nose. That would have required more time and effort!

After the session, the three of us gathered outside the parlour and exchanged notes. "That was some session, wasn't it?" I said. Siew Chong let out an expletive; he felt cheated. Eddy simply shrugged.

Later, when we met up with our other fellow cadets, our massage session became "incredible" (that the masseurs were so blase), "arousing" (only our intense displeasure), and "one-of-a-kind" (never again!) experience.

In a way, it was all true, which makes us wonder about all those "extra services" that the other guys bandied about. Perhaps they too were too embarrassed to say that they had been taken for a ride!

The next story: Vicks On The Bum

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