Hong Kong was a bore, utterly, and Singapore not that much better. Very commercial, very strict and not very musical. I met some very nice people, and had a fairly good time, but it wasn’t the exotic Orient. They were business centers, hardly different than the City of London. I’m not even sure that there is an exotic Orient anymore.
Twenty five years later, on assignment in Sri Lanka for the Washington Times, I came across a similar Asian businesslike mentality, recalling Nietzsche’s remark that “everyone wants to live by trade.” The mercantile mindset in Sri Lanka was such that their internal terrorist checkpoints—the poor country suffered a civil war from 1983 to 2009—sold advertising space on the metal barriers. While the teenage soldiers were searching the bus you could read about Singha Beer.
A month or so after Singapore, I got to Burma, aka Myanmar.
Burma, at that time, was still a rigidly neutral country, terrified of getting mixed up in another cold war stumble, and maintained cool, correct relations with both the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Westernization was frowned upon, which meant that there weren’t very many cars or modern buildings. Indeed, the mahogany counters and bamboo walls and horse-drawn buses and taxis put one back into yet another shard of the Raj. Every time I went inside anything official I expected a pukka sahib with a linen suit and a pith helmet–white ducks and a topee–to come out.
I was enchanted with the place. Pony-pulled taxis, city buses in Mandalay pulled by horses or even oxen. There was one open-air stagecoach, pulled by animal power, with a Burmese folk orchestra on it. They were movable buskers. They played extremely intricate and beautiful national music as they went down the street, and stopped every so often to let the dancing girls come out and collect tips.
I just stood there, stunned, comparing that to a gig I’d played in a sweaty bar in East Oakland. The parting words of the guy who booked us were, “You motherfuckers don’t think I’m paying your asses for that shit, do ya?”
I was writing road stories for an inconsequential experimental music magazine called EAR at the time, which gave me, if nothing else, press credentials. So I went to the Burmese People’s Ministry of Culture and asked if I could see some national music worth writing about. They hooked me up with a music school in Mandalay. I took a pony cart over, and was greeted by the director, a beautiful, smiling 30-ish looking woman who could have been a garage pinup in Chinatown. I was, yes, enchanted.
I was taken to a classroom, and several teenage prodigies showed me their considerable stuff on traditional Burmese instruments. It was all accompanied by smiling and bowing, and it was actually one of the most satisfying afternoons I’ve ever spent. There was no hustle involved in any of this, as there is so often in developing world societies. It was simply a group of lovely people, fortunate enough to be living in a time and place where artistic talent is nurtured and appreciated. I don’t know if it lasted. This, sez I, was more like it.
I think I wrote about this for EAR, but I honestly cannot remember. But if I did, my clip has gone into the same black hole as the magazine itself. But my short visit to Burma set me off on another track altogether.
Brothels of the World
Sin Repression Digression
I have always been pissed off by the policing of morality, or, what the majority’s idea of morality should be. Laws against sin, jail time for human nature. There are certainly types of human nature that we have to be protected from—Thuggee, serial killers, thieves, muggers, rapists, robber barons, Nazis, all of that—but humans seem to enjoy setting up prohibitions and they don’t seem to know when to stop. The list of stupidly prohibited human behavior is well known, the most egregious example being American alcohol prohibition. In fact that’s a perfect and well-documented example of how dangerous this practice can be. Alcohol prohibition, along with setting up an era of almost unprecedented lawlessness, was the bump that gave organized crime enough money and power to build their assets and become—and remain–a serious force in the American style of life. A playah. Peter Maas once estimated that if the income from the Cosa Nostra—just the Italians, not counting Colombians, Nigerians, Russians—were properly taxed this would give the rest of us a 10 percent reduction of what we’re already paying. I would imagine that there will be an even worse legacy for drug prohibition.
I have a short example of the sort of thing that one can expect when you outlaw the wrong things.
Arthur Flegenheimer (1901-1935) took the name Dutch Shultz and went into the rackets during the halcyon days of Prohibition. Brutal, sadistic and smart, he made his reputation with an admixture of cunning and simple, unadulterated cruelty. In the world of crime that the puritanical laws had created, one must be feared first. He had two serious assets; a partnership with accounting genius Otto “Abbadabba” Berman, and a mean, vicious streak that would have raised eyebrows in Himmler’s SS.
Early in his career, he came up against two Irish bootleggers, John and Joseph Rock. One of them, taking the Dutchman’s measure, decided to find some other line of work. His brother kept on. This got him kidnapped one night in the 1920s. He was hung up on meathooks and beaten until he was crippled for life. Then Dutch’s goons taped a blindfold, thick with gonorrhea-infected pus, tightly over his eyes, causing him to go blind. Shultz then charged his family $35,000 ransom to get him back.
The Dutchman’s main racket was beer, for Chrissake. After that, it was the numbers. It raises the question: When was the last torture session, with or without the crippling and blinding, over a beer deal gone bad?
This is the sort of guy that rises to the top under sin repression. The pimps, and that includes Iceberg Slim, who turn young girls into whores and throw acid in their face when they try to leave, feel that they’re forced to do this sort of thing. Those that they fall out with can someday testify against them, making them dangerous and better off scared or dead.
As one (female) sociologist put in, women, when confronted with an impossible economic situation, “automatically turn to prostitution.” I’m sorry, but I can’t recall her name. But it makes perfect sense. Women are the non-violent half of the human population, without the flippant, casual attitude toward physical harm that has so distinguished the male half. Prostitution is a somewhat peaceful way of keeping out of the sweatshop, if indeed there’s even a sweatshop that’s hiring.
I do know that the need will always be there, and as long as the practitioners are treated like criminals, all sorts of attendant criminal behavior is inevitable. Whacko serial killing “avengers” are just one of the hazards that the girls on the street face every night.
Anyway, I think that instead of cultivating mistresses, men should simply utilize hookers, who are not known for calling the guy’s wife after he ends things, which is another cause of violence right there.
End Sin Repression Soapbox
I have always liked the idea of brothels. Jazz began in whorehouses, as did a lot of musical apprenticeships, including that of Johannes Brahms. They were so vital to the formation of America’s greatest art form that I wonder if it even would have happened the way it did without them. So, when I went to Asia for the first time, where brothels are usually legal, I made a point to go to as many as I could find.
I ended up writing some pieces about this for SCREW Magazine. I don’t read porn, for the same reason that I don’t read love stories. But I did read the Writer’s Market, the annual publication that lists thousands of magazines and journals and publishers, with hints on how to break out of their slush piles. The SCREW entry announced that all manuscripts were given careful attention. That stopped me instantly.
All manuscripts given careful attention? Did that mean they actually looked at work that came in over the transom? I haven’t submitted very much stuff, but even I knew that sending something in over the transom might as well be tossing your story into one of those abandoned Appalachian mine shafts that hillbilly children seem to get stuck in. With about as much chance of escape.
Well, I decided to try. This was the first and only time I ever submitted something in a genre that I hadn’t researched at all. Ever. And the first and only time I scored right out of the box. Ever. Go figure.
I knew nothing about the porn writers’ accepted style, suggested structure, what points must be covered, anything at all. You’re supposed to know that. You’re supposed to read a few issues of your target publication and get an idea of what they liked. And I knew that, too. It said so in Writer’s Market. But I couldn’t be bothered. I simply didn’t feel like reading any porn, and I figured that if I did learn how to do it properly I would be lousy at it. As somebody told James Thurber, when he was considering taking drawing lessons, “James, if you got good, you’d be mediocre.”
So I wrote a story about an encounter in a Burmese whorehouse and sent it in. The Hurry Johnny Hey lyric, from Brecht and Weill, amazingly when you consider that neither of them had ever been there, was still the mantra of the madams and the pimps and even the other customers.
Well, they did read unsolicited stuff that came in. And they read and selected mine. My title was “Is There Just One Girl in Mandalay?” from the Brecht/Weill song from Mahogonny. SCREW editors, mindful of their magazine’s prime directive (“I want raunchy”), changed that to Pacific Rim Job. They kept my title as the sub-head, however. In fact, their editing was some of the best I’ve ever endured. A gentleman named Manny Newhouse was editor-in-chief, as I recall, and I’ll work with him anytime.
I had a lot of digital trouble trying to size the SCREW piece down to fit into this format, and I finally said the hell with it. So I had it re-typed, presenting it just as it ran. The remarks in italics have been added.
So here goes, from July 29, 1991:
Is There Just One Girl in Mandalay?
BURMA is a land of jewels. Rubies and emeralds are sold as casually as hashish in Barcelona, and the prices aren‘t much different. The country has a natural sparkle, from the gilded pagodas to the flashing smiles of the locals to the jungle itself. Mandalay, second city in a land of gems, is just one more of them.
(The gentle reader is no doubt saying, “WTF? This is the lede in a porno mag? All I can say is that, yes, Mr. Newhouse and crew had a very light, very good editorial touch.)
The government actively discourages tourism or big development programs, which is probably the reason that the country still shines. Tourists are still only allowed seven days to soak it all up, so you have to pack a lot of sights and impressions into a very short week. I hustled on the black market. I got drunk with the mayor. I visited the open-air markets. I rode in the horse-drawn public transport. I got dysentery. I followed a 14-piece street band all over the city. I went to the National School for Burmese Culture, where the teacher brought out about a dozen gifted youngsters to play their instruments or to perform their regional folk dances for me.
But before I did any of that, I had to visit the local whorehouse. The neighborhood girls were all breathtaking, and they had a way of smiling at me that can wear a fellow down.
There were, in Mandalay, a lot of women on the street. I guess you could call them working girls. They were cleaning fish or carrying or selling things. They were friendly and flirtatious, but I know that type. They thought I had a cute passport. They wanted to go to America and live in a split-level house, even if they had to fall in love with me to effect it. They would have bent over backwards to convince themselves that my pale, undernourished body was “delicate” and that my piss-drunk fits of temper merely showed a creative soul seeking expression. They would be as tolerant as Jewish mothers. Had I thrill-slaughtered a shepherd boy they would have brushed it aside as a righteous act of vegetarianism.
I wasn’t looking for that sort of devotion. I was out for a quick hump in a ramshackle whorehouse, half-drunk on bootleg whiskey. Atmosphere, you know?
I was sitting in a cafe figuring all this out. The National Radio was playing some Burmese pop music, for piano and voice. Their idea of pop music is pretty refreshing; they seem to think that it all comes from the London music halls of King Edward. And they played it in a strange, original way. They favored an iconoclastic, atonal method that I’d heard a lot in North Africa. They had taken the straightforward British music and bent it around until it sounded right to Asian ears. And after the over-produced, synthesized crap of the New World, it sounded pretty good to my ears, as well. It isn’t every day a man can hear “Knees Up Mother Brown” played on the 12-tone scale.
Okay, you’re not believing that this sober discussion of iconoclastic, 12-tone scales and King Edward was purchased–and published–by a publication that cheerfully called its fare “jerk-off entertainment for men.” All I can say is that I didn’t believe it either until I got my check.
And look, there’s more:
Broken pianos are the key to this. After a couple of years the tropical heat and humidity, pianos acquire the musical equivalent of heat prostration. The pads rot and the strings shrivel and the wood warps up like Quasimodo’s spine. Everything that comes out of them seems to drift from an ancient, otherworldly existence, sounding like a bunch of Martians playing The Threepenny Opera.
That’s when I thought of the Brecht and Weill song. It was from Mahagonny, and the refrain had a gang of sailors lined up outside a Burmese whorehouse. They were singing, loudly and impatiently, “Hurry Johnny Hey! Hurry Johnny Hey! Is there just one girl in Mandalay?”
No matter what the people played on the local pianos, that’s the song I seemed to hear. It got me thinking that maybe the song was true. I had already noticed that the girls always called me “Johnny.” Maybe there was something to it. Maybe Bert Brecht, who never came within 5,000 miles of the place, knew something I need to know. And if there really was only one girl, I needed to get busy. There might be quite a line outside.
At dusk, I went to the center of town and hopped into a pony cart taxi. I don’t know if it’s the local socialism or national pride, but whorehouses in Burma are pretty much against the law and you can’t just stroll in off the street. But that’s why we have hackies, horse-drawn or otherwise. I told the driver that I needed the “bordello.”
“Hello, my flend,” he answered.
“Good evening. I need to visit the…uh…house of ..er..bad women?” That’s how they phrase it in North Africa, anyway.
“Welcome to Mandalay,” he replied, reaching the boundaries of his English.
“Maison d’ putain? Casa puta? Hurrenhaus? K’haab?” Christ, it sounds vulgar in any language.
“Hello, my flend.”
A long life of overseas traveling has given me a pretty good grasp of pantomime and international sign language. And there’s no gesture more international than the one I needed. But I had to be careful. The hackie might have thought that I wanted to fuck him. Worse, given the general poverty of the area, he just might agree. So I started slowly, making the universal coke-bottle sign for woman. I was just about to move on to the finger gesture when one of them approached the cab.
“Good evening,” she smiled, briskly. She was about 30, prim, graceful, bespectacled and utterly respectable. Either a schoolteacher or the third wife of a village elder. She looked like she hadn’t taken a drink since Independence.
“Perhaps I can translate for you. Where do you want to go?”
Well, there are some people you can make finger-fucking movements for and some that you can’t. I just smiled stupidly and said, “Derbnjhfgl.”
“Where?” she asked, in the purest innocence.
“Unnnhhhh….” I tried to think fast. “The Central Market.”
She looked surprised. “But the Central Market is merely one block away. And it is closed for the day.”
“Oh, really? Well, well. How about that. Gee whiz.” I started to leave my seat. “And here I wanted a native ritual mask for the wife and kids…”
I kept muttering things like that, and got out of the cart.
She spoke to the driver. He answered. They both shrugged. They discussed something. Probably the wisdom of their government’s anti-foreigner policy. She got in. As the cart pulled away, she stared back at me for almost a block.
I went and spent an enjoyable half hour watching the market people sweep up.
The next cabbie was the guy I needed. Or so I thought. I told him, in hushed undertones, what I was looking for. I was starting to feel like a pervert. And the hackie didn’t help matters.
“Aha!” he leered. “Johnny want fuckee-fuckee?”
He was the cabbie I needed, all right. A Tijuana postcard peddler couldn’t have made it sound sleazier. I sighed, thinking of the schoolteacher, and nodded.
“Okay, Johnny,” he giggled. “We go for good fuck-ee. Best girl in Mandalay.” It wasn’t until afterwards that I notice that he used the singular.
He slapped his reins and off we went.
We rode for 20 minutes, to the outskirts of town, which is practically virgin jungle. We stopped at a cluster of thatched houses, lit by kerosene lanterns. It seemed like an awfully respectable place. None of the houses looked as though any wild, half naked orgies were going on inside.
“Where?” I asked. I sure as hell wasn’t going to rattle each hut and ask for fuckee fuckee.
My hackie gave me a conspiratorial leer, hopped down and tied up the pony. He set off on a small, invisible path and beckoned me to follow. He kept on hushing me, although I hadn’t made a sound and his loud, sibilant shushing sounded like the pony cleaning its gums. Every so often he would turn and wink and grin, a filthy grimace that he probably considered to be comradely. Actually, it made me feel like we were going out to dig up corpses.
After knocking on two or three wrong door frames and getting directions, he found the house. It was in no way remarkable, and there certainly wasn’t any piano being played inside.
The hackie knocked on the door and about a half-dozen male voices erupted. He hushed them, much louder than he had done with me, and explained that he had a Western tourist he wanted to squeeze into the lady’s schedule. Again the singular. I was hiding in the shadows like Jack the Ripper.
This started a big argument, which became so free and animated that I was able to slip into the hut without anybody noticing. I was hoping the hackie’s usefulness was winding down.
I sat down on a mat. The hut was bamboo and wood, with an earthen floor. Three of four candles were burning, here and there, and I could just make out some illuminated faces. A couple of men were squatting at one end, and in another corner was a small, pretty girl, around 18 or 19. She smiled shyly when I sat down. Her golden skin, reflected in the candlelight, fashioned a sparkling hue that an impressionist would kill for.
“Hello,” I said. I lit a small cigar and held the match up. “I’m Johnny.”
It took a good half hour to clear the guys out of the room. They had been sitting around, amiably waiting their turn, and they didn’t appreciate any queue jumpers. But the cabbie explained that a white man was highly visible to the police and had to be serviced immediately and gotten the hell out. The other guys gave in, quite graciously, and remained seated. They wanted to watch.
I explained, hand over heart, that us Westerners had funny ideas about privacy and intimacy and the only time we ever did this sort of thing in public was onstage at a topless nightclub. They smiled and finally left. I stood up and carried all of the candles over to her corner, to see what I had gone to all this trouble for.
Under the stronger illumination she looked about the same as before, which was certainly good enough. When she undressed she cupped her hands—either artfully or instinctively—over her tiny breasts. She smiled again, revealing some missing teeth.
I paid her, and she barely glanced at the money. She was watching me like a cat. The first white body she had ever seen, I suppose. Since she’d never seen anything to compare me with, she pronounced me beautiful. In sign language, yet.
The night was suddenly very calm and sweet. Fragrant, even. All the nearby sounds were natural ones, nicely muffled by the tropical heat. The moon even squeezed through the gaps in the bamboo. And the lovely young girl, humming softly, opened her legs.
This, I thought, is a surrender to paradise.
“Hey Johnny!!” A loud, stupid crashing on the door pane. It was that thrice-cursed hackie, with more of his nervous bullshit.
“Hey Johnny!! Hurry Johnny!! Johnny, hurry!!”
“Motherfucker!” I screamed. “I’ll kill you!”
Then the other guys started banging on the walls, They were all yelling “Hurry Johnny” and even “Hey Johnny Hey!” It was the kind of howling panic you get when Godzilla comes around. The girl got scared and ejected me.
Paradise Lost. The song was coming true. Every god-damned nuance of it. Fifty years had gone by, 50 years and two major wars and the end of colonialism, and these yo-yos were still yelling “Hey Johnny Hey” and fighting over the only hooker in North Burma. I turned to her.
“Is this a hustle or are they all demented?”
She didn’t answer. She didn’t speak English, for that matter. She didn’t even really know what “Johnny” meant.
“Hurry Johnny!! Hey Johnny Hey!!”
I put on my clothes, cursing steadily. I pushed through the door and was immediately hassled and pestered to shake a leg to the cart because the police were coming. When we got aboard the hackie took off like a stagecoach driver escaping from a band of screaming Apaches.
And it was a long time before I went to any Berthold Brecht presentations.