By Karien van Ditzhuijzen
Ever since Rob arrived in Singapore, he feels as if the climate is choking him. With every breath in this city, he must inhale five million people's sweat, there is no escaping it. Rob walks out of his hostel, into a hot night. The lanes of Chinatown surrounding him are bursting with merchandise about as colourful as they are pointless. The consumerist excess reminds him of the one person he does not want to think about, the person who would have loved it: his ex-girlfriend Lola. He has come to Asia to get away from her, her ambitions for his career, and her clear wish to procreate. Do they really need more people on this overpopulated planet? Rob knows that one day he will have to deal with the future, but tonight he wants to forget.
When the Chinatown bustle gives way to more quiet lanes, Rob perks up. He has read there were amazing bars here before the Singapore government swept them all up; something must be left. He has seen enough of the overpriced tourist haunts on Clarke and Boat Quay.
Sweat ripples down his sides in the still sweltering night air. He really needs to get out of this heat. Rob stops when he spots a bunch of Chinese guys in shirts and ties in front of a shophouse, its ornamentally plastered façade painted a flaking egg yolk yellow. There are red banners with Chinese characters alongside the doors. Above it, a sign promoting Chivas shows the name of the place in roman script: Utopia17. The only window has shutters, so he can't see inside, but the door is covered in a promising Foster's ad. The group of Chinese seem to have made up their mind, and reach for the door handle, which is embedded in the layer of foam on a giant beer glass. If anything, the place does look cheap.
Rob walks up and nods at the guys shyly: "Is this a good bar?"
The short, older guy in front, in a pinstriped suit, looks back non-plussed and giggles. Rob wonders, are these guys tourists like him, local businessmen, or Asian expats? A taller and younger guy steps forward from behind the old guy: "What you looking for?"
Rob answers, "A good bar. You know, not for tourists, but a real one."
The tall guy grins: "You're in the right place. This KTV has it all, karaoke, pretty girls, good whiskey. Anything a guy needs, it's here."
He turns towards the door. Short old guy sticks up both his thumbs. "Pretty girl here." Rob follows the group through the narrow door, where a broad-shouldered bouncer scrutinises him up and down, his eyes resting on Rob's combat shorts. Only after the tall guy says something to him in rapid Chinese, Rob gets a sullen nod, and is allowed to follow through to a smoky room. It takes a while for Rob's eyes to adjust to the dark, cut through by stroboscopic flashes. Music bangs his eardrums, and a blast of cold air hits his sweat-soaked shirt. At least it is cool inside, and Rob tries to block thoughts about the amount of energy that the aircon must consume. The place is larger than he had expected from the narrow facade. At the side of the room, a narrow stairway winds up.
"Find yourself a table, a girl, and enjoy," the tall guy shouts over the loud music.
"This place is paradise!"
"Utopia, you mean," Rob says, thinking of the sign outside.
"Same, same. Either way, you'll find your delights. I'm Marc, by the way."
"Your friends, they speak no English?" Rob shouts to Marc.
"These ones? No dude, and not my friends too. Need to entertain them for work. Always mix business with pleasure, right? They stupid PRC, cannot speak English."
When Rob looks blank, he explains, "People's Republic, you know? China?"
They had all looked equally Chinese to Rob, but now he sees the difference between them and Singaporean Marc, in their suits, their haircuts, but mostly the way they take on the room around them.
"Most girls here China girls, or Vietnam, Thailand. Cannot speak much English too, but who needs words lah."
Marc laughs raucously.
Acclimatised to the room, Rob sees the men Marc came in with, pulling off their ties one-handed, stuffing them in pockets and ruffling hands through their slick hairdos. Each one of them has a mini-dressed girl swarming at him, or wrapped around his torso already.
"Aren't there any Singapore girls here?" Rob asks.
Marc shouts: 'For Singapore girl, go fly a plane.'
Rob finds an empty table in the corner. As soon as he sits, a girl comes up and asks if he likes a drink. "You buy me drink too, sir?"
"Sure," Rob nods, worrying his wet armpits will squeak if he tries to shrug.
He orders a beer, and tells the girl to name what she likes. An older lady comes up to present him with a bill. 'You wanna make tab?' she asks. 'We take credit card too.' Rob takes the receipt from the woman, while he pulls cash from his short.
"What the fuck,: he exclaims. "Fifty bucks for a beer?"
Rob groans. This is worse than Clarke Quay. But the stern look on the old woman's face leaves him little choice. "Just this," he mouths at her. "No tab."
When he sits back, he feels a hand creep along the side of his shirt. Looking around, Rob slowly starts to realise what that 50-dollar covers. The warm hand makes him tenderly aware of the chilling blast, and the wet fabric clinging to his rump. Even her cloying perfume cannot cover the stench of his sweat.
He pushes away the hand, and the girl looks up, with dark, stricken eyes.
"What is your name?" he asks her. She wears a silver, hugging dress, the shimmer of the fabric giving away the outline of her ribs, her puny breasts, a hint of nipple in the flashes of fluorescent light. He cannot see her face, but feels it all the more, as close as she sits.
"Me, Cherry," she answers, dabbing the cold sweat from his forehead with a cocktail napkin. Her closeness makes Rob tense, and he stands up. The too loud music renders any attempt at conversation intolerable.
"What wrong?" Cherry asks. "You no like me?" Her lips push into a pout.
She stands up too, and rubs herself against his side. "The music is to loud in here," he shouts. "How can we talk?"
"Wanna go private room?" Cherry asks. "Private room quiet."
She smoothes her hands over his backside, making the muscle tense up more. "No private room," he shakes.
"Go dance?" she asks. Despite the chilling temperature, Rob feels the obtuse air closing in on him.
To his relief, Marc shows up again, and pulls his sleeve. "Come, we got a room, let's go sing."
Rob feels the hand retracting from his behind, and is glad for the way out.
"And don't worry," Marc says, "I have a company credit card. My client seems to have taken a liking to you, pretty blond ang moh boy."
When he notices Rob's disturbed look, Marc grins, "There will be girls too."
Rob follows Marc upstairs to a small room. It has red velvet couches, and a large screen on the wall, in the middle a table, covered in bottles. No beer here. He downs the whisky and coke Marc hands him in one swig, and gets excited. The Cantopop and nineties hits that are ringing in his ears, the seedy goings-on in the dark corners of the room, a girl nudging up to him from the side, and the hand of old guy dangerously close to his lap. Slowly the tension eases from his body.
Nobody wants anything from him here, and Rob can unwind. He does not sing along, he barely moves, he is a spectator drinking greedily from the glasses handed to him by old guy, glad to have been invited into their inner circle. Marc is right, his intoxicated brain tells him. He has found his Utopia for one night.
Rob keeps convincing himself his travels are a quest to find some answers, but is painfully aware he is a walking cliché, like every dirty-haired backpacker from rich, white countries tramping over Asia. He laughed when he told his friends from business school he would not come back until he had figured out how to save the world, but he was not really joking. If the end of the world is coming, you better go and party like there is no tomorrow, they snickered, piling more clichés on him. He had smirked at the time, but afterwards the joke coagulated in his stomach, like clumps of clay soaked with acid rain. He is supposedly considering an additional degree in environmental studies, but is not sure what the point will be. The daily dose of depressing news on his Facebook feed paralyses him. Rob tries to dissolve the clumps in his stomach in alcohol. But clay absorbs all liquids, and Rob does not realise that the more he drinks, the more the clumps expand.
His new-found friends really do party like there is no tomorrow.
Jenalyn stands in front of the door, hesitating to open it. When she lays her hand on the solid wood, the beat of the music inside pulsates through her arm. It is not until the door opens from the other side that she tumbles in. Those stupid heels are too high for her to walk in decently. Then again, decency is the last thing expected from her here.
She scans the room quickly, face by face, assessing the situation. Men, woman like her in too short dresses, on red velvet couches matching her own dress. Red used to be her favourite colour but it has lost its lustre the past few weeks. When Jenalyn recognises the old guy, the one from last week, she flinches briefly. But she puffs up her chest. Be strong Jenalyn, she tells herself, as she steps further inside.
On his couch, Rob senses a shift in the air of the room when she comes in. He now feels the evening speeding up, sucking him in like a whirlpool. Rob is not the only one who has noticed her. Old guy swipes bottles off the table, the girl sways unsteadily on her stilt-like heels, and steps onto it. Rob's face is level with her knees, too close for comfort, and he does not dare look up. She scrolls through the list of songs on the screen, and when she starts singing a classic rock ballad, the whole room falls silent. The girl in soft red has a beautiful voice, gentle and sweet. She misses a note here and there, and every time she does, she giggles, and wiggles her bum. Old guy's jaw drops to the floor. Marc whispers to Rob, "This one, Jenny, is amazing. I met her last week. Good English too. Pinoy, I think."
Rob can not help feeling something about this Jenny is different, despite the obvious tackiness of her outfit, and her overly sexy movements, which turn him on in their slight clumsiness. He is starting to feel possessive about her, and uncomfortably Rob watches old guy get on the table behind her and lift up her dress. Underneath, she is wearing black lacy underpants. Old guy giggles, and pulls the dress up to the level of the matching bra. Self-conscious, the girl pushes back the dress. Old guy does not give up. His hands stroke her hungrily, and Marc cheers something Rob cannot understand in Chinese. Rob feels increasingly antsy. Another girl comes up to old guy, and strokes his hair. "She new, she no like. Come with me."
Old guy shakes his head, and keeps pulling at the girl's red dress. She tries to push him off the table playfully, without making him angry. In reply, he pinches her breast. Finally, Rob bounds up, and pulls old guy away from her.
"Can't you see she does not like it? Let her go."
Marc jumps up too. "Relax dude, don't make him mad, I have a large deal pending on this guy."
Marc distracts old guy with a fresh drink, giving Rob the space to take the girl aside. "Come with me, let's go someplace else."
When the girl looks straight at him without speaking, Rob feels the clumps in his stomach stir. The room starts to spin, and the thought of her inside it with old guy becomes unbearable. "Meet me later, tonight, or tomorrow. Please," he says.
Jenalyn, struggling to define her emotions, straightens her dress, and tries to straighten her back too, to match the height of the Caucasian. "Cannot, I'm working."
She is thankful for him stopping old guy, but she needs to keep her head clear. Focus, Jenalyn, she thinks, as she tries to see the colour of his eyes in the half dark. She considers his frayed polo shirt, his bleached curls, hanging uncut in his neck, so different from the neat black haircuts of the other customers. He is sort of cute, but she has no idea what to make of him. Jenalyn shakes her head. "It's not allowed to meet customer outside. Also, I'm here every night. No night off."
He looks at her pleadingly. "I need to see you. Don't make me come back to this place."
Jenalyn blows a wrinkle in the stagnant smoke sitting in the room. Just before he gets pushed out the door, she shocks herself by whispering into the blonde foreigner's ear. "Tomorrow, at 12, East Coast Park. Meet me at BBQ pit 19C."
When Rob stumbles into bed at the hostel, he recites what the girl Jenny said so many times he still remembers when he wakes up, his head a solid log. He glances at his phone, 11 already. He checks the weather report quickly – hot again today, before Googling the location of the park. When the taxi drops him, he spots her straight away, perched on a concrete stool. Her shorts and simple white top hide what he saw already last night, but remembering, he feels a quick twitch in his groin.
"Jenny," he calls out. She does not look up until he is right in front of her. Her cautious smile makes his legs jelly, and he is lost for words. He does not even know whether Jenny is her real name.
"What is your name?" he finally asks. "I'm Rob."
"I'm Jenalyn," she beams shyly.
"Shall we walk?' he asks, and she nods. They walk from the grassy area over to the sea, and Rob nervously recites what Google told him earlier. "This park stretches over the entire East Coast of Singapore. It is reclaimed land, it was not there before. The beach, the park, all artificial."
When he says it, looking around, at the park shaded by majestic trees, the families having picnics, the kids on scooters, and the groups of men and women sitting and chatting, he realises nothing about the park feels artificial. Even through his solid headache, it feels nice. It has been a while since something felt so real to him outside of a dream.
When they walk in the hot sand he takes his flip-flops in one hand, and feels her hand slip in the other.
"You are not from here, are you?" he asks.
Jenalyn shakes her head. "No, I'm from Philippines. Here to work only."
She points at the waves in front of them. "I'm from over the sea. My village is by the sea too, that is why I love to come here. The people, lazing around, having fun with family, it reminds me of home. I miss home."
"Then why did you come here? Why not go back?"
She looks up. "Cannot go back. No work there. I have my daughter to think about. I want her life to be better than mine."
Rob hears two voices clamouring for attention in his head. One shouts: "She just wants a rich, white husband, and will give you any sob story it takes." The other voice says very little, but resonates in her dark eyes, and the outline of her breasts under the white top.
He needs to ask the obvious question: "But why do you do this job? There are plenty of bars here, why not find one that is less demeaning, a normal waitress job? Your English is super good."
Jenalyn laughs. "It's easy for you white people."
She tells him about her visa status, that she is on a short-term visit pass only, and can not work in another bar. To come here, she had to pay an agent, and since she had nothing, she now has a large debt to the owner of the bar. Every night, she needs to sell a minimum of drinks, make a minimum of money. If she does not, a fine will be added to her debt. She stops walking and digs her toes in the hot sand.
"You never been to a KTV like that before, you don't know how it works? To make enough to pay off the debt, I need to do extras. I don't want to do extras."
Rob does not understand what she means, but before he can ask she goes on. "I'm stuck. I do extras, I pay him back, I lose my self-respect. Can I look my daughter in the eye? Will I ever find husband again?"
Jenalyn cries out: "What else to do, become a maid, someone's personal slave? Is that more respectful way to make money?"
She explains she can no longer do that because the salary would be so low it would take years to pay the debt to the agent that bought her here, let alone save enough for a future. Her daughter would grow up without a mother, like so many Asian children whose mothers do make that choice. She does not want to do that, so she needs quick money.
When Rob looks at her, hugging herself, her body showing through the stretched cotton, his own body tells him exactly what those extras are.
They sit down by the flood line. He lays a careful arm around her shoulder. He tastes the salt wind from the sea, and sucks up enough briny air to somewhat clear his brain.
"The world is just, ehm, bad," he says, for want of a better word.
He sketches his family for her, the degree in business management he finished, and how he has finally seen the truth; that all corporate business are just money grabbing schemes, making the rich richer, and the poor poorer. Poor people like her, he means implicitly. He ads that the natural world is so badly exploited it is losing its balance, which can only end badly.
Jenalyn looks at him, in her eyes a look somewhere between admiration and pity, and a pinch of not understanding, and clumps stir and crumble inside Rob, releasing their poison. He points at the beach behind them.
"You know what? It does not really matter anymore. In a few decades, climate change will change everything. This beach will be gone, and half of this island too. Resources will be so scarce there will be war all around, and it's not unlikely much of humankind will be obliterated."
Jenalyn's eyes become cloudy pools, and Rob realises these are the last things to say if he wants to make her feel better. He does not add the last sentence that has played in his head for a while: That he can't help wondering whether the planet will not be better off without humankind.
That thought that haunts his sleepless, alcohol stupor nights, freaks him out too much to mention in daylight. Lola blames him with commitment issues, and he can never get his words together enough to tell her the real reason he will never want kids. For his and Jenalyn's sanity, Rob says, "Let's talk about you. Tell me about your country."
Jenalyn looks at Rob, while the sun beats down on the both of them, him in his faded blue shirt, that matches his eyes, and she throws around thoughts in her mind. What to tell? Tell him about the unemployment, the kids taking drugs, the crime everywhere?
Her worries that her daughter will end up in the gutter or worse? Instead, she tells him about the beach in her village where families get together on Sundays to grill corn. She speaks of swaying palm trees and the mangos that grow in her back yard.
"Wow, I love grilled corn. It sounds like paradise," Rob says.
She smiles, a tiny glimmer in the corner of her eye.
"Why did you leave such a beautiful place?" he asks.
"A typhoon hit my village a few years ago. All houses were spoilt. We need new school buildings, shops, restart businesses. We need everything. But there are no jobs in my country."
When Jenalyn describes the women getting together, setting up cooperatives, and working with foreign aid workers to rebuild the village, Rob seems genuinely impressed.
"What about the men? The father of your daughter?"
"Pah. He good for nothing. He likes gambling, and drinking. He no good man."
She paints a wave in the sand with her toes. "The typhoon was horrible, but it showed us we can build the village again when we work together. We are a strong people."
Rob clears his throat. "There will be more typhoons. Like I just said, climate change will affect us all."
Jenalyn looks up to him. She has had so much shit happening to her she is used to it. "We don't have much to lose. We will get through."
Rob stares at the sea. Jenalyn nestles her warm body against his, making him feel conscious of the drops trickling down his back and side. Rob thinks about his parents' house, their books, their art collection, his father's job at an oil business, his pension. They have plenty to lose.
He pushes the thought away, and tries to see which angle would be good to approach her face for a kiss, when she suddenly turns.
"If they can make a beach they must be able to protect it too? Build a barrier? Stop the warming up? They can make that," she says, pointing at her phone lying on her lap, "a little machine that can call, make photo, search the internet. They can fix this? Right?"
Rob is amazed by her unwavering optimism. Her naiveté.
He says, "Maybe they could if they tried, but they don't, people don't give a damn about the earth going to pieces. They prefer to ignore it."
She asks, "So what about you? What do you do?"
It lands like a punch in Rob's stomach. What is he doing? He has no fucking clue. He stumbles his way out, rambling about eco-tourism, and how he is considering taking the train back to Europe across the Asian continent to avoid wasting jet fuel, and how he stopped eating carbon-dioxide bleeding meat, but he knows these are small efforts, not the answers he is looking for. But the bigger he thinks, the more paralysed he becomes. Then a thought hits him. What if the answer is smaller?
He closes his eyes and pictures her village on the beach in the Philippines. The simple life, in a simple hut. Grow your own vegetables, catch local fish, without Wi-Fi, or a disheartening newsfeed on your phone. No carbon footprint, so no guilt. He turns around on his haunches and kneels in front of her. It is ridiculous, yes, but he feels better already.
"Let's go live in your village together. The simple life. I know it is crazy, we only just met, but we can do it. I have enough money to pay your debt, I can use my travel budget.' He swallows the last phrase just in time, the 'Will you let me save you?" Because what he really wants to say is, can you please save me?
Jenalyn looks back at him with empty eyes. As a teenager, on her small island beach, she dreamt of the prince on the white horse, but in her short stint on this smaller island, she saw enough already. She looks into Rob's blue eyes, the pale skin under them, and the sweat dripping down from his brow. He would not last one day in her village, but she does not say that. Instead, she asks: "How will that save the world?"
Rob does not answer but leans in to kiss her. Jenalyn feels the sparks jumping between their lips, and for a minute she allows herself to dream. Not of a simple life in a village on the beach, but one in a cold, faraway country, where she wears woollen jumpers and sits by the fire in a big house, her daughter in a school uniform with a pleated checked skirt and starchy white shirt. But her faith in men got lost somewhere between gambling and red velvet.
Jenalyn picks up her mobile phone, and brings up a photo of a little girl standing in front of a bamboo house. The girl has plaited hair, and a frilly frock. "My daughter, Rosalynd. It was on the day of her graduation from primary. She needs go to secondary school now, but our village has no secondary. Maybe she will go and live with my brother, in Manila."
She does not mention Manila has the worst crime rate in the world, but hands the phone to Rob.
Rob has stopped listening. He stares at the phone in his hands with round eyes. The youth of the girl, the look in her eyes, full of hope and optimism, squeeze the sour clumps from his stomach to his windpipe. He stammers, and scratches his crotch. Panic rises from his fingertips, as if the phone stings like a jellyfish, and he juts it back at her. The hot wind feeds his headache, and the ridiculousness of what he just said suddenly makes his throat so parched he can not swallow.
Rob looks around, to the foodcourt behind them, past the grass. "Why don't I get us both a drink," he mumbles. "You wait here." He walks away without looking at her. The smell of fried curried seafood in the foodcourt makes Rob's hung-over stomach churn. "Sir," the guy in the drinks-stall barks: "what you need?"
Rob stutters: "Ehm, Coke."
"How many?" the man asks, more friendly now.
Rob takes a long time before he answers: "Just the one. With extra ice."
Jenalyn sits by the sea, the waves playing around her feet. She takes a hand full of wet sand, and lets it drip from her fingers, piling grains of sand in little towers, creating a fairy tale castle. Her mother taught her how to do this, and she taught her daughter on their own beach across the sea. She sits there until she knows for sure he is not coming back, the waves licking the castle, making it crumble tower by tower. She ponders. Will this beach really be gone in just a few decades? She thinks about her village, swallowed by waves, typhoons, and worse.
Jenalyn leaves her flip-flops on the beach and walks into the water until it is so deep her feet can't feel the sand anymore. She grew up on a beach, but is a lousy swimmer. A wave from a passing motorboat forces her head under the water. How long would it take? She blows up her cheeks, rolls her body into a ball and drops deeper.
In a flash, she remembers how her brother taught Rosalynd to swim last year. "When you come back from Singapore, I'll teach you too," he said. He thinks she works here as a regular waitress. Picturing Rosalynd's face makes the air she is holding in her chest suddenly want to come up, taking her stomach with it. She untangles her limbs and reaches up, up to the sky and the sunny air above. She gasps, and takes a deep breath.
Flapping her arms wildly, Jenalyn reaches the sandy underground again, and slowly she walks back to the beach. On dry sand, she sits until the hot sun has dried her clothes, then grabs her flip-flops to walk to the bus-stop. She needs to be at Utopia17 in an hour. Tonight, she will do whatever it takes. She can't afford to lose hope. It's all she has.QLRS Vol. 17 No. 3 Jul 2018