I’ve tried all the guides on Singapore. Nope, none of them float my boat. On this trip I’m taking with me The Girl in the Window and using Google Street View. I’m a timid traveller. I easily get lost, but with a little bit of help of a real travel guide and the latest map technology, I might be able to see another Singapore.
Now the guide is a fictitious character. But he’s real enough for me. They don’t promote these kinds of tours in Singapore. They should, but they don’t.
Not wanting to fall into the trap of locking myself up in the hotel, I google the first attraction. It’s just down the road from my hotel, on the Singapore River. ‘A must visit,’ says most of the drab travel guides.
Large monsoonal clouds jutted towards the Mandarin Skies as I reached my destination (they even showed up on Google Street View). Rain wasn’t far away. It looked just like my guide said it would. It’s a diminutive bridge with an Arabic name. I sat down at one of the cafes lining the promenade and opened up my book to see what it said about this iconic Singapore Bridge that spanned the iconic Singapore River – which really is just a cemented channel spruced up by a fancy name.
‘It wasn’t even much of a bridge,’ informed my guide book. ‘It was only a narrow pedestrian walkway that would have been ignored by everyone if it hadn’t been for one thing. In what had apparently been a desperate effort to brighten up the neighbourhood, some urban planning genius had decreed that it be painted in bright pink, iridescent blue, and puke green with scribbles all over it which looked like drawings done by a kid who had flunked out of kindergarten.’
I had to give it to the author, he certainly saw things differently. But I was a bit pissed off I couldn’t light up. He had something to say about that too. Soon, they’d ban you from smoking in private. Already the hotels had banned us from smoking inside. I guess I can’t complain. ‘If you want to smoke, get back to Malaysia,’ said the crusty old waitress, an Indian, who told me to put it out. I was trying to light up on the sly. But I’m not ready to cross the causeway just yet. I’ve still got a few sights and sounds to lap up.
With the right guide book, this travelling business could just get interesting, I thought, as I flicked a few more pages wondering where Tay would take me next. It was a hotel off Serangoon Road called Fortuna, a five story garish building painted in a sickly red. It had a closed off entrance door on the side, next to the Western Union. I zoomed in on the map. Yep, it still existed, and on the side street of Owen Road, the view of the entrance to the hotel was spot on.
This Needham character had done his research. And next door was a rundown apartment with Indians hanging outside the liquor store. A sign on the wall said ‘Liquor Control’ Zone. It didn’t stop the Indians pissing it up outside on the pavement. The only control there seemed to be was finding a bin to discard the empty bottles of cheap Indian Gin they were guzzling. The Chinese who ran the liquor store wouldn’t have it any other way. He didn’t carry a cane stick for decorations. The Indians love those beatings. If only they’d use the bin.
Across the road from the Fortuna was a series of old store fronts, belonging to another age. They were two stories high and run down for Singapore standards. They consisted of cafes, noodle stands and perhaps a travel agent. Google Street View revealed a rundown building that was on the other side of dereliction. It had a For Sale sign nailed on the front door.
Certainly this building had to be something of significance, I thought as I ordered some noodles. Despite high costs of accommodation in Singapore, the street food is quite reasonable. You are only paying three times the price you would pay across the causeway in Johor.
I honed in towards the emergency exit of the Fortuna hotel. I could only see it from a building directly across from the hotel on Serangoon Road. It was the same shop houses where I was having my noodles. ‘The space, now empty, had once been something called the Mango Travel Service,’ wrote my guide, ‘but now nothing was left of that doomed enterprise other than a sun-faded sign in the front window and the few pieces of abandoned furniture.’
That about summed it up as I got off my seat and walked next door. Sure enough it was the same building the writer was describing. I looked through the boarded up windows and I could see a stair case at the rear of the room. The place looked dusty and dirty. I zoomed in on Google Maps and saw a sign on the second floor. It was Mango Travel Service. I wonder what enterprises had gone on in this building. It was harking back to another age when Singapore once had character. All that was left now was a name.
I opened up a Tiger beer and pondered over my delicious noodles with chopsticks. Certainly the author was hinting of the old Singapore that Tay once had fallen in love with. Now, almost gone, only remnants of it exist. Soon this building would be pulled down too in the name of progress.
I flicked back to the section on the Alkaff Bridge.
‘What Singapore got for all the money it had poured into the project was a pedestrian bridge that was both ugly and useless,’ wrote my guide. ‘Chalk up another one for the boneheaded bureaucrats who dictated nearly every detail about the appearance of his city.’
I ordered another Tiger and lit up a cheap black market cigarette I bought at the liquor store. The Chinese owner of the noodle store had migrated from Johor, and he said if I wanted a smoke, ‘then you can have a fucking smoke.’
Luckily the old Singapore ways haven’t quite disappeared with progress. Some old habits die hard, even in an island State that frowns upon any irregularities of trees that defy to grow in any direction, other than up.
Then I got a tap on my shoulder. It was an undercover customs guy so I quickly put away my hard copy of The Girl in the Window and put out my cigarette and hid the packet down my underwear.
And I ran. I ran so fast that the customs guy didn’t even bother about the chase as those juggernaut monsoonal clouds decided to dump their payload. I’m sure I had another sight to visit this afternoon. I’d have to lay off the beer and take this sight-seeing a bit more serious.
The rain came tumbling down for twenty minutes and then just stopped. There was no sign of the customs guy. I’ve got smart and bought a packet of local cigarettes. And the Chinese from the liquor shop sold me some illegal cigarettes with the numbers printed on them. ‘They won’t be able to get you now,’ he says. Unless they check up those numbers on the system. ‘I highly doubt it,’ he says, ‘that’s why you have to mix the original with the fake ones.’
He says everyone is just getting smarter in Singapore. ‘It’s the only way you can beat the government revenue makers.’
I’ve been to Singapore a few times. The place just confuses me. It’s supposed to be a tiny island state, yet it takes almost an hour by taxi from the airport to Malaysia. It’s a bit too sprawled for me. The area names seem a bit too foreign to me as well. One area is named by a Chinese name while another is distinctly British; then you got the Indian and Malay named areas. Is this island trying to say something?
I’m not bought on the multiculturalism of it for one moment.
I’ve ran the train lines. Even getting from A to B takes too long. Maybe the town planners should have made the island smaller. That way the island could truly have the convenience tag.
Then the sun drew back the moisture in steam that rose from the paved roads. I was ready to jump into a taxi and explore Tay’s neighborhood and escape the sauna bath outside.
If it’s about convenience, then Tay would know all about it. He’s a classy man after all. He’s a low paying Singapore detective but apparently lives in one of the best neighborhoods in Singapore. How could that be?
The Umbrella Man might have something to say on that. Now first I remember my hotel key. I’m not even sure what area I’m in. I’m in an upmarket part of town. I gave the hotel owner some cock and bull story about how I was writing a series on Singapore. I said if he let me stay a few days, I’d heavily feature him. Those Singaporeans are so gullible.
Now why am I coming clean on a few trade secrets? Oh never mind I mumbled to myself as I jumped into a taxi. A Paki was eating nuts and the taxi smelt like stale curry. ‘Are you being racist?’ Kind of I said as I told him in a no-nonsense tone to take me to Emerald Hill. ‘I’ll take you to my local mosque first, and sort you out for your Islamophobia.’
I said no thanks. And that this was Singapore and would you really want to jeopardize your Permanent Residency for the sake of a few perceived slights? He was bought on that. ‘You aren’t in Karachi now,’ I told him. ‘So let’s get a move on.’
He wanted to take me the long way and get a longer fare. I’m aware of the one-ways and dead-ends and I just wasn’t going to fall for that trick. I told the thieving Paki to drop me off at Orchard Road. I’d walk the rest of the way, I said. He dropped the Islamophobia quick smart once I paid him up. He dropped that smug smile even faster when I pulled out a detonator with a red button from under my shirt.
‘Allah Akbar,’ I said as I pressed it. He laid a turd there and then. I bought the toy detonator in Johor and thought it might come in handy in Singapore.
‘Only fucking with you,’ I said. ‘Now tone down that Islam shit before one day someone actually does it for you.’ I was in control now as I got out of the taxi. He’ll think twice about promulgating Islam in a Mandarin State.
I made a mental note of his number plate. I might even make a few inquiries to Tay about him. That is if I ever ran into him. He’s a recluse but he’s been dropping clues all over the place about his residence. His Marlboro Red hang out, is the way I like to see it.
The entrance into Emerald Hill was yuppy central. Every second person was a cashed up Western tourist. They certainly weren’t of the same pedigree that frequented Johor across the causeway. Art galleries, cafes, trendy bars, I’d give them all a miss.
Staring at me was a place called Cold Storage. Now is that some kind of storage area for frozen goods, or just another bastardization of the English language by the Chinese? Inside, it was like a mini Harrods; they even sold caviar and smoked salmon from a separate deli.
I grabbed a Starbuck ice coffee and a jar of Skippy peanut butter, Tay’s brand, apparently. That was Cold Storage out the way. I was on the Inspector Samual Tay trail. According to my guide book, I was only 100- yards away from his house. It said it was a three-story townhouse, with a large front white painted wall and small garden, and an even larger rear wall that surrounded his back garden.
I had the guilty pleasure of being a stalker. I needed to know where Tay went and the kind of things he bought. It fascinated me. One recluse to another, I was just paying my respect.
I wonder if Tay would open the door. I could only try.
This is silly, I thought as I knocked on the door.
A fat German opened it.
‘Another fucking odd ball,’ he says. ‘And I didn’t appreciate Needham having that sniper bitch test her cross-hairs of her Remington on me.’
I get it, I thought as his little plaything poked her head out of the doorway to see who he was talking too. She looked Thai, or she could have been Filipino.
‘What’s up honey,’ she said. She gave me a wan smile. Was she inviting me in for an orgy?
Now I got it.
He was the German who was exercising his prostate at the Fortuna Hotel I had visited earlier this morning.
‘And if he writes anything else about me,’ said the fat German – his face was going a deep tomato red, classic symptoms of taking too much Viagra -‘ or if I get any more visitors from the Tay Brigade,’ he continued, ‘then I’m tracking that yank down with my own cross hairs.’
‘Is there a problem?’ The young sex doll had a syrupy American accent; yes she was a Filipino, most likely his maid.
‘He’s shagging every whore in Serangoon Road,’ I said.
The German raced me out the front garden, another acknowledgement of guilt. I looked back, how could I not. He looked like a giant hard-on with clothes on.
I guess a coffee was out of the question I said as I legged it back towards Orchard Road. Maybe it wasn’t Tay’s place after all. It was mentioned that it was only 100 yards down a cul- de-sac.
I flicked through my guide book. A Chinatown in a Chinese city, now this could be a novel idea.
My guide said the ‘ narrow streets of Chinatown were lined with small shop-houses and filled with restaurants and souvenir shops.’
Now this could be interesting. I had Chinatown in Kuala Lumper to gauge this one. I’m sure this one would be lower key, but it would have all the usual suspect vices.
A sign for Dorothy’s Bar said just follow the yellow bricks upstairs. Perched above the sign outside on the second floor were four empty bottles of Tiger – it looked like a whore house to me. And competing with it across the road was a British pub called Knobs N Knockers – how did that get past the Chinese censors?
I tossed a coin. I’d give them both a miss.
Now this area is looking very familiar.
That’s my hotel. The irate owner has thrown my stuff outside and he’s berating me.
‘I’m sick of conmen.’
‘You don’t even write for Air Asia.’
I never said I did.
He was expecting some bum fluff gloss for their in-flight magazine. Now there’s a good sales pitch for the next hotel I check into.
‘Sorry, just not my style,’ I said, as I picked up my bag and checked into a hotel across the street.
I opened up my guide to see what it said about it. It said the Temple Street Inn, just east of New Bridge Road where I was standing, consisted of ”four shop houses, each three stories high, joined together into a single structure.’
Perfect, I said, as I checked in. I dumped my stuff and hit the street again. The touts were out, the usual suspects, Indians, Chinese from across the causeway, and I’m sure a few undercover coppers.
Snuggled between a souvenir shop and a trendy eating place called ‘Inconsequential, ‘ was a Thai massage parlour. Chinatown isn’t complete without one of these.
‘Happy Ending Mister?’ Was that a question or more false promises?
‘It will cost you,’ said the dodgy Chinese pimp. It always does, I said, now fuck off before I tell that undercover copper standing next to me to arrest you for harassing respectable tourists.
Chinatown was really starting to grate on my nerves. I’m not sure if I could put up with it much longer. This was kindergarten compared to Johor across the causeway. Maybe it might be a good time to piss off for a few days and collect my sanity.
Now now, don’t jump the gun. The guide mentioned a narrow alley way that cut through from Temple Street to Pagoda Street. It had to be the tourist lane. The street of Kitsch, Fu Manchu Lane, whatever name you wanted to call it, it certainly lived up to its name.
My views of the alleyway just got better as I put out both my elbows and aggressively rotated them. Damned if I was going to play slime and rub up against other fat tourists who had nothing better to do than to buy cheap trinkets made in China and walk slower than a snail pace.
Rupert, I yelled. Now the shopping horde would really take me serious. I looked towards the end of the alley and yelled out to my fictitious friend again. ‘Rupert, it’s me.’ The ocean of blubber in cheap K-mart and Big W clothing – mass produced in China – parted like I was Moses about to impart the ten cardinal tips on bargain shopping.
‘It’s all junk,’ I said to the bewildered shoppers, some doubling up from the ribbing I gave them. The vendors weren’t impressed, but most of them were immigrants and even saying ‘hello’ was stretching their English abilities.
Well fuck a duck. I’ve just taken a short cut and arrived back at my hotel. There had to be significance in this. I referred to my guide. Some kind of ‘Snatch’ Operation was going down. Going down to Chinatown. I giggled at my cheesiness. You couldn’t make this shit up. There was more to Singapore, than Singapore was letting on. I’m just so glad that I decided to buy a copy of The Girl in The Window. It took the ‘bore’ out of Singapore.
On Google Street View I keep on seeing the same respectable Malay looking tourist. First it was on Orchard Road at the entrance of Emerald Hill. Sticking out of his designer backpack was a map. He even had a bottle of water stuck in one of those webbing pockets. I noticed him while walking town the alleyway. What was in his bag? It wasn’t packed just for a day trip. I also saw CCTV footage of a similar tourist moments before the Erawan Shrine bomb went off in Thailand. He was wearing the same cap and dark sunglasses as he was today.
I also saw CCTV footage of the bomber in Jakarta. They all dressed the same, unassuming and blending in.
You can never be too careful. Noordin Mohammad Top, a mathematician cum bomb maker lived just across the causeway in Johor. He looked harmless enough. He dressed in designer clothes, manicured fingernails, and a respectable haircut; he seemed to fit into Singapore quite well. He’d fit into anywhere well. The Malaysian bomb maker eventually made his way over to Batam by ferry then took a flight to Jakarta where he bombed a few embassies and five-star hotels. He knew all the routes and used them often on his fake passports.
I just hope I bowled over that Malay cunt while doing my rendition of Rupert.
‘You did better than that,’ said a Chinese guy who was observing me. ‘When you did the elbow dance, you actually knocked over that suspicious tourist we have been monitoring for days now. He was just about to press the detonator.’
Did it have a red button, I wanted to ask him.
‘Enough explosives to blow up half of Temple Street.’
Well fuck a duck, again.
He wouldn’t tell me who he was except that his name was Rupert. But he said as a thanks from the Singapore government, they’d cover my accommodation.
‘We have a tab at the Temple Street Inn,’ he said.
‘And room service and a stocked up mini-bar fridge?’
‘That’s all on us too,’ he said. I liked Rupert more and more.
‘The lobster soup is quite nice too,’ he advised.
I don’t believe in coincidences. But something was going on. I just couldn’t put my finger on it. I’d have to consult my guidebook. I’m sure Inspector Tay had the answers.
Or could Noordin Mohammad Top actually be Abu Supraman, the Indonesian terrorist that Sam Tay is hunting down in The Girl in the Window. It’s a leap of faith for sure, but perhaps I was onto something here.
I pulled out my guide book. Jake had a few things to say about the Indonesian terrorist, and most of them were not nice. ‘Abu Supraman called himself a Muslim cleric,’ informed my guide book, ‘ but nearly everyone else thought of him as a violent, remorseless murderer.’
He said that Abu Supraman had been linked with nearly every outbreak of sectarian violence in Southeast Asia for over a decade. ‘He was the messianic leader of a radical band of misfits who styled themselves as jihadists and took credit for every outrage perpetrated against non-Muslims in Indonesia or Malaysia or anywhere else in Southeast Asia.’
He continued to write that sometimes Jemaah Islamiyah claimed the credit. ‘Sometimes it was Abu Sayyaf or Mujahidin Indonesia or even occasionally Lashkar Jundullah or the Moro Islamic Liberation Front or the Legion of the Fighters of God.’
He said regardless of names they used, ‘you could bet Abu Suparman was somewhere in the mix.’
It just sounded like Noordin Mohammad Top to me.
‘Or Azahari Husin?’
Good point Tay.
‘No, it’s Rupert. But I was just listening into your thoughts, fascinating. Just drop my name at the Thai Massage Parlour, and say the Happy Ending is on me.’
I never bowled over a Malaysian terrorist. I never met Rupert. I was totally engrossed, deep under cover on Google Street View. I was getting lost in the writings of Jake Needham. I was down the rabbit hole. The Girl in the Window was pulling me in. This was the real Singapore. It wasn’t Malaysia, but it was.
‘Just a cleaner version.’
I travelled the same streets as Inspector Tay. I took the same taxi routes. So that’s where the Australian High Commission is?
And that ghastly grey bunker?
That was the American Embassy, but the manicured garden made up for the prison inspired architecture.
I spent another afternoon outside the Fortuna Hotel where I was looking for the Mango Travel Service. Of course it was in Chinatown but I just liked the idea of transplanting it to a seedy Indian location.
I had seen intrigue over a vegetarian dish. I had been threatened, ‘I’ll call the police if you don’t put that cigarette out.’ I was following very closely in Tay’s footsteps. Everything was real, right down to the scratch on that railing outside the Fortuna Hotel or the rust stains running down the wall from the leaky air condition units on the old rundown apartment across the road from it.
This was real, realer than any travel reports I’ve read on Singapore. It was so gloatingly real that I wondered why Needham’s books were shunned in the Island State.
And I also wondered where Tay lived. I didn’t get it right the first time. Maybe his house doesn’t exist, but the Alley Bar does.
I turned right from his fictitious house and walked in the direction of Orchard Road. As I passed through Preranakan Place, I spotted the Alley Bar and like Tay, was surprised to see it wasn’t very busy.
‘It was high-ceilinged and pleasingly dim,’ wrote my guide – you’d think he was doing a review for Time Out, it’s that sleek – ‘and the long bar with the big mirrors behind it stretched for what must have been fifty feet until it almost disappeared into the cool interior shadows.’
I’ll have a beer please.
‘We don’t serve white scum who enter bars wearing flip flops.’
He just didn’t like my Malaysian tracksuit pants. I bought them over the causeway. Singaporeans don’t like Malaysians very much.
‘You’re nothing but a fucking racist,’ I told the Indian, whose hair was so sleeked back with oil, I was almost tempted to call the Environmental Protection Agency to clean up the spillage that was running on the marble floor.
My guide continued waxing lyrical about the Alley Bar as I chucked a hissy fit. ‘Somehow the scarred wooden bar and hazy mirrors and under-lit interior of the place all combined to make Tay think of what he was sure had been better times, although more and more he wondered if those times had ever really existed.’
The Indian barman called his manager. It was a ruddy faced Irishman.
‘Get out now, before I call the coppers,’ said Paddy.
But I’m only following the Tay Trail. Think about it, I said, this could be a real draw card.
‘We don’t read him on this island,’ he said, as he grabbed me by the scruff of my neck.
I let him do his thing. I was prepared.
But he wasn’t when I put my Taser Gun, which I bought across the causeway in Johor, right into his balls and let those volts work its magic.
‘For the love of Mary,’ screamed Paddy.
‘You don’t even serve Powers whisky you fucker,’ I said, as I hoofed it out of the area before the pigs arrived.
It was true, they only sold Bushmills.
Singapore attracts a certain type of tourist, and apparently I wasn’t one of them.
I’ve read Jake Needham’s other three Inspector Tay books, and I’m well aware that Tay ducked over to Johor, across the causeway. I’d take the chance to visit a few of his haunts there. Not many tourists know about Johor. They should.
‘Just on the other side,’ wrote my guide about Johor, where I was heading on a very illegal route, ‘ indistinct in the afternoon haze, loomed the buildings of Johor Bahru, the slightly shabby Malaysian city at the other end of the causeway.’
I jumped onto the train, wanting to miss the traffic, and got off at Singapore’s Heartland – Woodlands. This was my territory. Every day I’d wake up to the view of those apartment buildings, cloned from each other. The only relief was the balconies painted different colors.
I stayed in Johor for three months, and my hotel faced Singapore. I’d admire the nationalism of the island state. On those colored balconies were Singaporean flags. ‘We are Singaporean and don’t forget it.’
The Singapore dollar was far too high and it was deterring quality tourists like myself.
A year ago I had entered Singapore, via Malaysia, without my passport. I had hugged the water pipeline, on the east side of the causeway which is never paroled by the Navy or fisherman – the waters are too polluted. The pipeline stands at two meters in height, and over three in diameter – great for cover – and provides water for most of Singapore’s heavy industry. I had sneaked back into Malaysia on the same route. No one was the wiser. Now if the terrorists wanted to take out Singapore, all they had to do was blow up the pipeline. Now there’s an idea for you budding terrorists, and less human collateral damage that way.
The Woodlands HDB apartment was in some ways the real Singapore, far away from obscene billboards advertising SWATCH and HUGO BOSS — now who the fuck wore those watches anyway.
Now what is that stench coming out of Block B? I bet it had to be another floater. Floating in its own piss and shit, I mean. And right now, at this stage in my guide book, Inspector Tay was breaking into the apartment of the manager of the Fortuna Hotel. Tay’s trail was getting very warm.
Now I don’t need Google Street View for crossing over to Malaysia. Behind the Woodlands HDB apartments, next to the mosque, the squalor of Singapore begins – sewage drains that run into the Strait of Johor.
I slip down the embankment and through a fence with a hole in it. This looks like the migrating route for the illegal Bangladeshis who work on the city’s construction sites.
The Singaporean Immigration Complex is on the causeway, where I’m heading, but I’m making my way down to the pipeline. The entrance to the causeway isn’t protected in any way except for old Banyan trees that I use for cover. Why would anyone want to sneak out or into Singapore? Not even the Malaysians are that stupid.
Two kilometers across the bridge Johor winked at me. I’d be joining you soon, I said and winked back.
It was a doddle. I learned from my last trespass into Singapore, to hug on the side of the pipeline, which would conceal me from the traffic on the four-lane causeway. I’ve done this a few times, so I’m no stranger to this ‘no man’s’ territory.
I’m told that if I get caught, it could be a caning or death by M16’s, the preferred weapon of Singapore Border Police. On the Malaysian side, the Border Police prefer roaming the air-conditioned hallways of the Malaysian Immigration Complex.
The causeway made its way into a bend, winding into the Malaysian Immigration Complex. I kept on moving right of it, near the train-line, and ducked through a hole in the fence courteously made by other illegals. I was in Malaysia now. I wouldn’t have to worry about renewing my Singapore visa when I returned.
Perhaps I’m not the kind of tourist that Singapore really needs. I know Malaysia welcomes me with open arms. Down another road, a construction site, mega apartment complexes rising, built on cheap Bangladeshi labour, I’m on the home stretch.
I wave at the train that makes its way across the causeway. They think, Dumb Western Tourist.
Back in Red Light Central, I hit my local cafe. I think I really earned that tee tarek, pulled milky tea that was placed in front of me. Johor, man I’ve missed your easy going desperation.
The crazy Malay with a pineapple tucked down his shirt comes up to my table.
‘Got one Ringgit?’ he asks. He’s always asking that one and made a fortune from me in the past.
Man, I had missed saying that to him. I hand him a Ringgit note for old times sake. I was back in the land of the ‘Other Singapore.’
I spent a few hours drinking tee tarek. Wired and witless, I made my way back to Singapore the same way I came.
I don’t run into any Bangladeshis while hugging the water pipe across the causeway into Singapore. They must do the night run. I hear the local mosque across the causeway charge some kind of tariff. Everyone was on the hustle in Singapore. If I was spotted, they’d leave me alone. Everyone ignored white guys in Singapore, even the Muslims who wouldn’t want me to jeopardise their lucrative people smuggling sideline.
I was nearing the end of my tour in Singapore. I could feel it. Something was about to go down and I wasn’t going to miss it for anything.
How do I know this stuff? It’s all in The Girl in the Window. It’s not only a guidebook but a thriller novel set in Singapore. Tay was about to face his maker. The critical crunch was arriving and I wasn’t going to be a passive tourist. I jumped in a taxi. Abdul, the Paki driver recognized me. ‘No silly buggers this time,’ I said, as I pulled out a realistic hand grenade I had bought at one of the street markets in Johor where they sell sex aids.
He was compliant.
‘You scared the shit out of me last time.’
You didn’t see what I did to Paddy at the Alley Bar, I said.
‘I could just imagine.’
We were the best of pals. I was really getting into the Singapore swing.
And I bet you have been hovering around the mosque to pick up some illegals.
‘For a dumb white tourist,’ he says, ‘you seem to know what makes Singapore tick.’
Money, I said, now drop me off. He didn’t bother charging me a fare.
‘You are my brother now.’
And I promise I won’t snitch on you. He was reassured. And so was I. I had more important things to do than report a dodgy Paki taxi driver.
That’s it, I said, as he pulled into Telok Kurau Park. My guidebook spoke highly of it. I couldn’t pronounce it for the life of me, let alone spell it.
‘In Hindi, it means the place of little significance.’
Now who asked you?
I shook his hand and touched my heart with my right hand, at least pretending to show solidarity to Islam. Who knows, I might need this guy’s help in the future.
He was touched.
‘Here’s your fare.’
He kept on refusing but I handed him a Singapore note.
‘$100 dollars,’ he said with surprise, ‘too much.’
You deserved it, I said. Besides, I felt sorry for scaring the shit out of you with the detonator trick.
‘My seat is still stained,’ he said, as I thanked him and walked towards the playground in the abandoned park with the unpronounceable name.
I just felt like getting on the swing and seeing if my weight would make or break the made in China piece of crap.
It held. I better swing harder until it breaks. I’m on the floor. Never mind. No one uses the park anyways. It was dead quite. Ahead, residential Singapore ended down a rectangular cul-de-sac.
It’s the location of Tay’s final showdown with the Indonesian terrorist.
I visualized the scene as I read it. I could see Tay looking up at the roof, then ducking back to safety. I could see the girl in the window, her name was Claire. I could see a clump of banana trees at the end of the identical houses. I even could see the getaway bike, a Kawasaki. I was playing omnipotent. I could see it all fold outwards as that bullet reached its mark.
I could see all this on Google Street View. I knew Tay had used it too as he staked out the house, where his sergeant was tied up with duct tape. I could smell what Tay smelt. I could feel what he felt. Imagine dying with sweaty underpants.
I walked back to China Town. No that is not a Hi-Lux van trailing you. No, you aren’t under surveillance. I continued walking to Emerald Hill Road. I was on Orchard Road now, and really getting a good sweat-out. I had the coordinates of where Tay lived. Jake had kindly posted them to me. The place was for rent. I could do with some downtime in Singapore. A month in a nice townhouse would do me the world of good. Who knows, I might even get a visit from his dead mother.
Get real. I couldn’t even afford to rent the place out for one night.
I felt washed up and spat out. Maybe I’d just go back to the Alley Bar. I heard that Susan Hoi, the pathologist, sometimes hung out there, in the hope of seeing Inspector Samuel Tay.
I was minding my own business over a Tiger. I could feel someone behind me.
‘Don’t move.’ A female voice said.
‘Then I’d have to kill you.’ The voice had a raspy albeit sexy edge to it. And the hint of formaldehyde wafted on the wind. It jolted me. It enveloped me. It triggered a chemical reaction I was prepared to let it run its course.
Boldly I took a quick glance behind me. She was wearing a baseball cap with a red Dolphin emblazoned on it and holding a bunch of red helium balloons.
Susan, I asked?
She pulled out a packet of Marlboro from her purse.
‘Would you like one?’ she asked.
Would I like one? Well is the Pope fucking Catholic?
It didn’t hurt to be forward on a smart number like this.
“Care for some cold cuts down at my office.’
I cared a lot. I even knew where it was.
‘But don’t be put off by the mortuary sign outside my office.’
Don’t be put off. Not if you keep on showing those long legs.
Paddy came up to me.
‘I told you not to ever come back here.’
But I’m with this gorgeous professional.
‘Not that I can see,’ he says. ‘Only losers sit by themselves.’
I pulled out my toy hand grenade.
‘Oldest trick in the –’
I put my hands up.
I get it.
Most don’t but I did.
Get the fuck out of here and fast.
Johor was waiting for me. I had followed the Tay Trail very closely to it’s climax. It was time to get back with my own kind at Johor Bahru, or JB, or the ‘Other Singapore.’
I had a date with destiny -the world’s dirtiest toilet. It was an Indian joint across the road from a mosque and the prices were reasonable. I wonder if I’d run into Abdul?
‘Most likely,’ says Mustafa, the owner, who said he was his brother.
And I wondered if I’d find anything sordid that matched their toilet.
‘Plenty,’ said Mustafa. I looked around, there seemed to be more Bangladeshis here than what was considered normal.
‘By tonight they’ll be smuggled over the causeway.’
Just as I thought, I said to Mustafa, who was happy to see me again. It was a year since I ate at this place.
Now I wish they turned down that fucking loud praying in the mosque.
It was nice to be back where I belonged.
I was back in Johor’s bosom. So long as I had cold cash, I’d never be booted out of any establishment on this side of the causeway.
Maybe I am overthinking this. I overthought everything, didn’t I?
‘Now stop stealing my lines.’
Got you, I said to Tay who popped in for a milky tea.
‘I’m no stranger to these murky waters over the causeway,’ he said.
I bet you aren’t, I said, as I handed Tay a cigarette.
We had lots to catch up on.
Johor, for all its shabbiness, was a happy place.
Every second person you met worked in Singapore, legal or illegally.
It’s a cashed up little town.
‘We cross the causeway to take their money then do most of the fun stuff here.’
Fun stuff? I could just imagine.
On the other hand, the Singaporeans come over here for shopping.
‘They’ll buy up big on things like coffee and chocolates, and take it back to their little secure dwellings. ‘
To understand Singapore, was to understand Johor.
That much I knew. And every Johorian will tell you the same.
‘They think they are using us, but it’s the other way around,’ said one of my cafe buddies, a Malay who worked as a cleaner at Changi Airport.
He continued to enlighten me.
‘We earn the top Singapore dollars and get three times as mileage in our own country.’
He said buying anything in Singapore was bad form.
There was some good working logic in that argument.
‘Go down and check out the land reclamation project, the code name for ‘The Other Singapore’,’ said Mustafa. Not only was he as dodgy as hell, he was doing his best to get my Ringgits with his superb milky tea and Indian cuisine.
It was only two hundred meters out from the original coastline when I was here last.
‘It’s nearly 500 meters now,’ he says, ‘or about 50 meters short of the line that divides the two countries on the Strait of Johor.’
The cheeky buggers, I thought. Maybe this was Malaysia’s warped answer to the long Woodland Jetty in Singapore that faced Malaysia like an accusation. Inferiority complexes are expressed in many ways in Asia.
‘The Sultan has backed this new city,’ informs Mustafa. ‘He said if he can’t get Singapore back, he’ll build his own.’
See what I mean?
Saudi-backed funding? I asked
‘Of course,’ he says. ‘The King didn’t visit Johor just to buy a petrochemical company.’
Singapore is fucked then if this is true.
‘It’s the Sultan’s aim,’ he says. ‘He’s even inviting all the Chinese from Singapore over to Johor. He says they’ll be better treated than under any Mandarin dictatorship. ‘
Singapore was doubly fucked.
I was liking the Sultan of Johor more and more.
Mustafa went on.
‘Johor is the fastest growing Malaysian city. Many Singaporeans are jumping ship and buying up here.’
Johor the shabby now the beacon of Asian modernism.
I could see it creeping that way very fast.
‘We also have even cheaper labor here,’ he continues, saying it’s ‘another incentive for Singaporeans to invest without the worry of the Nanny State taking their cut.’
Oh the Nanny State, I said, as I inhaled deeply on a cigarette inside his shit hole restaurant that comfortably lived up to its reputation.
‘You can’t do that shit in Singapore, can you?’
That’s the Johor’s drawcard, I said, as I threw another butt on his dirty floor, not even bothering to put it out with the toe of my foot.
Mustafa said he use to be a taxi driver in Singapore.
Now he’s a Jahorian and Paki to boot. He gives me that look to watch myself. He must have been speaking to Abdul.
‘The demand for cheap labor feeding Singapore construction sites was too lucrative,’ he says. ‘So I left my brother Abdul over the causeway to take care of transporting them.’
And I bet you cut those holes in the fences, on both entrances to the causeway?
‘For a dumb white tourist, you know a thing or two.’
Now let’s not go there, I said.
There are no secrets in Johor. It has got that ‘we do things our own way’ feel to it. Singapore should be worried.’They are,’ said Mustafa. ‘Johor isn’t a copy of Singapore. We’ll never let any Mandarins get in the way of our Muslim pleasures.’
The Indonesian whores were out in force tonight, and so were the Thai and Vietnamese women of the night. Meldrum Street was booming with drunken Singaporean Indians and circumspect Chinese Singaporeans who were carousing the street bars.
The friendly owner of the world’s dirtiest toilet says at least the Singaporeans know they won’t be fucked over in Johor like they are in Batam, Singapore’s ‘whore’ island in Indonesia, a 45 minutes ferry ride.
Only if they don’t act the maggot, I said.
Johor prided itself on its sense of fairness and the cheaper whores thanks to the dodgy Chinese Malaysians, the fixers of the ‘other’ businesses that Singaporeans are famed for using.
Mustafa says by the time they put in piers on the land reclamation project, ‘you’ll be able to throw a fishing line over to Singapore.’
It’s a metaphor the Sultan is certainly following.
‘The Singaporeans smell money,’ he says. ‘When they found out that the King of Saudi Arabia threw in a few billion US for the ‘Other Singapore’ project,’ many of the loyal Mandarins jumped ship.’
It’s exciting times for Johor.
I wonder what Singapore’s response will be?
‘They’ll just keep their heads in the sand,’ speculates Mustafa. ‘By the time they realize what has happened, it will be too late. The only traffic on the causeway will be coming from Singapore.’
And who has invested the other US 3.5 billion for ‘The Other Singapore’?
‘Najib, of course,’ he says, winking at my clever question. ‘Everyone knows he wants to out do Mahathir’s Twin Towers. This project is the only thing that both the Sultan and he agrees upon, to screw the Singaporeans over at their own game.’
I’m getting this off my chest. My cock’s bigger than both Najib and Mahathir’s.
Mustafa goes quiet. It’s a long pause as if he’s buying some time to process what I’ve just said.
To help him along, I say it’s s a pissing contest.
‘You are very good,’ he repeats, ‘ A pissing contest, you are very good.’
I’ll take credit for that, I said. And your conversation shined some light on some dark corners.
‘No no,’ he says, ‘the dark corners are in Kuala Lumper.’ I knew exactly what he meant.
And the next tee tarek is on you, I say as I excuse myself to take a slash in the word’s dirtiest toilet. Even the blue neon light couldn’t disguise the rancid smell of piss. But I’m not going to hold that against Mustafa.
I’m back into my routine.
The same motherly Indonesian is still serving the same crappy food at the sidewalk cafe where I would sit for hours reading The Ambassador’s Wife.
There was nothing ambassadorial about this lady who says she is from Surabaya. But she laughs at my jokes.
‘Saya mao susu bisar.’ I’mpracticingg my Indonesian again. And she says they only have milky tea or coffee, but no milky ‘big’ breasts.
How could I have spent so long here and even longer in Malaysia? I had a few books to prove it. Teh Tarik, or Milky Tea, was a title I was quite proud of it. It got a one star review. And to think all the milky tea and packets of cigarettes that went into that book. The indignity of it all wasn’t about to eat me up today.
I had even polished up a few other books, one on my travels in Central America, (the cover was the foyer of my hotel) another, One Eye Open: The Other Singapore, a book on my time here in Johor. Nothing, no reviews, no downloads. But it was a productive three months in Johor. Then there was ‘Batam & Bintan’, another short book on those two Indonesian islands south of Singapore. Nadar again, no one is reading my crap.
Don’t forget Tramadol Nights: Bali Dreaming.
Yep, I compiled that here too.
But it got a mention by Inspector Tay.
It certainly did. And I rightfully mentioned him a few times in Fear & Loathing in Singapore.
‘Lagi?” asks the toothless waitress.
Make it two more milky teas. I know it won’t do my type two diabetes any good, but fuck it.
I’ve got my duty free cigarettes out on the table. I’m looking down the busy road that crosses Meldrum Street. Taxis are beeping horns, Indians are roaming back alley ways to take a piss and I’m just surprised that I’m back here. It’s a nostalgic moment. It’s the only place where everyone minds their own business. There’s no justification for anything. If you can afford to pay your bills, everyone just gets on fine around here.
I’ll just sit here a while and take it all in. Now my Kindle highlights don’t work.
‘I couldn’t give a shit,’ says a surly Indian. Oh it’s Bobby who went to St. Pauls in Kuala Lumper. He’s the Indian that wanted to fuck me up the ass. When I didn’t return his kiss he wanted to report me to the police for smoking duty free cigarettes that weren’t that duty free.
‘Now watch yourself,’ I say, exerting my right to blend in with the other misfits of this end of the causeway town. ‘I’m one phone call away from the police.’ I put my phone to my ear. ‘It’s on speed dial. And before you can plead your racist drawcard, the coppers will be here to lock you up.’
Bobby moves on. I’m glad he didn’t forget me. Now before that distraction, I was going to look up a quote I failed to highlight. I input ‘hell’ into search on the first of the Inspector Tay series, The Ambasasdor’s Wife, a Jake Needham novel. There it is. The sweet was dripping off me, stinging my eyes. Rain was on the horizon. The skies were darkening. Sunset wasn’t far away. And Johor could well just be Singapore, only a two kilometre stretch of causeway separated them.
‘If he owned both Singapore and hell, he would rent out Singapore and live in hell.’
Bobby had returned. He wanted another go.
‘You so think you are a writer?’
Not lately, I said.
‘Well you aren’t. You aren’t’ even a blogger.’
I knew where this was going.
He was a piss head and he was gin-deficient.
‘Here, go and get another bottle,’ I said as I handed him a 50 Ringgit note.
Bobby’s tune soon changed.
‘There’s lot of stories in this town,’ he says. ‘If you want to tap into any of them, just let me know. ‘
He was long gone. I wouldn’t have to worry about Bobby for a while. I was hopping he’d drink himself to oblivion – I had given him enough for four bottles of that cheap nasty made in India gin – so I could get back to what I do best.
I lit up another cigarette and watched the smoke rise and race off to somewhere prettier. No one could say that Johor pretended to be anything else but shoddy. Sure it had its shopping malls and shopping precincts, but in terms of pure sleaze and honesty about the image it was trying to project, Johor was truly humble about it.
Without the self-regulating cops, they were content collecting their payoffs every Friday around the street side cafes when the mosques were giving heated sermons, Johor on the most part was left to her own devices.
I was at loose ends. Meaning I had time on my hand. Now just because I was in Johor didn’t mean I couldn’t duck over the causeway into Singapore. I could do it five times a day, couldn’t I?
No, said the Malaysian Immigration officer. But if you can prove you are only on a day trip and have a receipt at the hotel you are staying at, we will let you back into the country.
He said normally I’d have to be out of the country for three days, ‘before we stamped you back in. But being Johor, we pride ourselves on offering a few extra liberties for our tourists who prefer to spend their tourist dollars here.’
I got it, I said. I’ll only be a few hours.
‘Don’t worry,’ he says as he stamps me out. ‘Now when you get stamped into Singapore, just ask my brother Abdul, and tell him you only want to stay a few hours.’
Everyone had a brother called Abdul, I just couldn’t believe it.
The Ambassador’s Wife is vintage Tay, the Singaporean detective, the offspring of a Chinese American and a Singaporean Chinese mother. Now that I got that out of the way, I got on Google Maps. Border Books in Wheelock Place seemed to be as good a place to visit. I could have visited the Brewerkz Brewery down by the Singapore River near the Merchant Court Hotel. Hell, I might even give that place a visit next time.
I was feeling like an old seasoned traveler in Singapore. I’d almost come across as local, I was that immersed in Singapore.
I like browsing books. I’d look at them wistfully, saying one day I’m going to buy them. I’d open up the books and read. I’d read until those hunger pangs forced me back on the streets. Those Buddhist shrines with offering to ancestor spirits kept me from completely starting on the streets of Bangkok.
I was snapped out of my Valium Daze, another title I wrote in another Malay city. Private Dancer looked at me. I wasn’t so concerned who wrote it. It’s just that a Thai girl was gyrating almost off the cover. Next to it was another book, Bali Raw. Interesting, I thought as I looked at the publisher. A Singaporean outfit. If they were publishing trash like that, then I wondered why they wouldn’t pick up Garuda’s Travels.
A quick phone call to the publisher.
‘We only like sex in our books, threesomes good, even orgies are permitted in our publishing house.’
There went my future in the exciting world of Singapore publishing.
The owner had a South African accent. He said basically a book that doesn’t talk about fallicio or cunnilingus every second page, ‘isn’t going to sell in Singapore, or airport bookshops we supply them.’
I didn’t even bother to see what was inside Private Dancer. I could only imagine. Boy meets bar girl, fucks her. Then he figures out how he can do it again without paying for it, one way or another.
They didn’t stock any of Jake Needham’s books, Pussy’s, I thought, as I ordered a coffee at Border’s Cafe, the outside area of the bookshop. They served a cappuccino in a giant mug – an excuse to charge me double the price no doubt.
A sign said no smoking.
I had a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees card printed up. It pays to join those UN forums. I figured if anyone asked questions, one I could flash the card and say, ‘I’m keeping all the Muslim refugees out of Singapore.’ Or if that failed, I’d just run.
I lit up a Marlboro with a blue plastic lighter. It was the same color as the Comfort Taxi I took back to the causeway and into Johor. It was just a quick trip over the border to flagrantly smoke in a public place and to check out what books the Island State stocks. But somehow it clarified a few things. I still hadn’t lost my traveling mojo.
There’s some kind of television warfare going on.
‘It’s the quickest way to get the message out,’ says Tan, a Chinese Malaysian who runs a noodle stand in the food court.
A Malay-Malaysian has been executed in Singapore. The circumstances are just bizarre, to say the least.
‘We don’t care what ethnic group he is,’ says Tan. ‘His execution could have been ours.’
The Singaporeans are giving this side of the causeway a miss this weekend.
‘They are wise never to come back,’ says Tan, who joins me for a Tiger.
He told me that the Malaysian on death row had to pose for a photograph two days before he was hanged.
‘It’s the photo they send to his parents,’ he says.
It’s the photos they send to his wife also, and it means, if you do what he does, you’ll also get hanged.
He apparently was carrying 22 kilograms of morphine in the back of his car.
‘They got him at the check point, on the Singapore side,’ says Tan.
‘Fuck Singapore,’ says a Malay who is sitting next to us.
Looks they just fucked one of yours, I say.
‘They’ll pay for it.’ He says his name is Abdul. What, another fucking Abdul?
‘It’s quite a popular Muslim name here,’ he says.
Now Mahathir is on the screen and admonishing Najib to swear on the Quran that he’s not a sly conniving murderous bastard. The food court is tuned into a Singaporean channel.
‘If it’s morality you want,’ says Tan, ‘then Singapore TV is the preferred choice.’
It was almost exciting as Animal Channel.
I had read somewhere, that Singapore was Disney Land with the death penalty.
Tan smiles at me. He’s reading something he shouldn’t.
‘We read Needham over here,’ he says. ‘As soon as we find out something is banned in Singapore, we usually embrace it here.’
‘No,’ he says. ‘We just share pirated copies. For some reason, his books aren’t for sale on Amazon Malaysia or Amazon Singapore.’
Sounds like some kind of geopolitical block the Singaporean have masterminded.
Now you would think I’m making this up.
‘I know you aren’t,’ says Abdul, who is onto to his third beer and a second Vietnamese hooker sits down at his table.
‘We are so sensitive in Asia,’ he says. ‘Bloggers are first to go down. Then writers.’
Now did that drug smuggler really drive over the border with 22 kilograms of morphine?
Tan looks at me and laughs.
‘We’ll never know. But it’s not the way I’d smuggle anything into Singapore.’
Abdul is also laughing.
‘It was a setup.’
Are you saying Singaporean officials are corrupt?
‘Only if they need to make a point.’ Abdul takes another swig of his beer and fills up the glasses of his Vietnamese companions who are in their early thirties and waiting for the go ahead to hit a shag hotel.
‘And this time the Malaysia government was in cahoots. ‘ Tan has closed shop for the night and joins me and Abdul. The Vietnamese whores might just get some pay dirt.
‘Are you saying that Malaysia couldn’t interfere with Singapore’s sovereign rights,’ I asked.
‘We both have the death penalty,’ says Tan.
‘But in Malaysia, you can pay your way out of the noose,’ informs Abdul, who I bet has tested those waters a few times.
So they hanged the poor fucker in Singapore?
They both nodded.
It looks like Singapore won’t admit it has a dependency on drugs.
‘It was a tough statement,’ says Tan, who tips the Vietnamese with a pink ribbon entwined in her long silky black hair.
‘Singapore has a drug problem,’ says Abdul who nods his head in disgust.
I said you don’t take someone out of their prison clothes and dress them up for a pre-execution photo shoot unless you have a drug problem. It just verges on the creepy side.
They both nodded again.
Singapore was well and truly on something, I said, as I ordered a few more beers to cheer the boys up. But I just wasn’t prepared to venture what it was.
I was minding my own business at Harry’s Bar, another developed tourist trap down at Boat Quay. I was wearing my Malaysian tracksuit pants and wrinkled black T-Shirt and Gucci Loafers. They are pretty relaxed her, so long as I sat outside, said the friendly head waiter, who had the distinct lilt of someone who wanted to fuck me up the ass.
‘If you mean that I’m gay, well I am.’
He said he was Indonesian.
‘My nickname was General Sukarno when I worked in Australia.’
I vaguely remember you, I said. You hated women and always gave the hours to your pets.
Obviously I was one of them.
‘Would you like another drink?’
What are you talking about?
‘You put your hand up,’ he said.
I looked at him. He wasn’t Indonesian. He was a Chinese Singaporean.
Sorry I said; make it another Campari and soda.
I’m going to have to get grip of these flashbacks, I thought, as I watched the barman pull a draft Tiger. I could do with one of those too.
If this was an indication of dementia setting in, I think I could have a lot of fun with it.
‘I bet you could,’ said this gorgeous Singaporean. I leaned over and spoke to the cleavage.
‘Now now,’ she said coquettishly.
And I bet your name is Lucinda?
She knew why I was here.
But I really didn’t have a clue. I was impressed with the way he dealt with you. She looked down at my shoes.
‘Gucci loafers,’ she said, almost surprised, but not quite.
I smiled. Hay, I could be in like Flynn.
‘You are an odd one,’ she said, ‘that’s what I always liked about Inspector Tay.
Harry’s Bar was filling up with suitcase trendies and loud Australians. They won’t stare me down today, I thought. Not with this hot Asian chick giving me attention. They’ll be drooling and wondering about her tastes for white bar trash. This was Singapore after all, where outward sophistication was the benchmark for success in this fairy-tale city
It went a bit deeper than that, I wanted to explain to the trendoids.
‘You won’t explain anything,’ said the manager. Oh no, by the sound of his accent, he was another Paddy.
‘He’s my guest,’ said Lucinda. ‘And as of now, you are blacklisted in Singapore.’
Paddy just laughed. He wasn’t use to that kind of rebuttal. Being a white guy working in Singapore was a license to self-glorification.
Paddy changed tack. He went back to bar and retrieved an ashtray and then two Campari and sodas arrived. Maybe word got around about my Alley Bar exploits and Paddy the Second really wanted to hold onto his family jewels.
I had to give it to Tay; he just wasn’t a push over. People are looking at me. Am I talking to myself? Most likely. I took another sip of my Campari — weak as piss; I’d have to put in a formal complaint.
That was mistake number by the legal attaché of the American Embassy, saying that Tay was slow on the uptake but a wonderful fulcrum point to use as leverage. Was DeSouza aware that Tay had been tipped off by the author? Come on, that kind of cheating doesn’t go on in crime novels. But I had to admit, Tay’s asswipe detector is pretty refined.
I looked at my shoes, hoping it might elicit another response from Lucinda.
‘Are you trying to be cute,’ she said.
I agreed, Gucci Loafers weren’t really part of my traveling make up. But damn it was nice to be fitting in for a change.
I was talking to myself over another Campari. At this stage Lucinda moved on. The novelty of a weirdo following in Tay’s footsteps had worn off and now she just looked freaked out. She was back at the bar and playing with hear and giving Paddy too much attention.
I know, I was out of my league.
As I looked out to the Singapore River and the white-washed heritage buildings across the concrete drain, I thought about Ambassador Art Munson’s observations on this city:
‘Whatever Singapore really was, wherever it really was, it sure as hell was hard for him to think of it as being in Asia. Shoot, sometimes it was hard even for him to think of it as being on Planet Earth.
I just couldn’t help but see the author write himself into the bad guy role, if indeed the ambassador was at this stage of the book. Hay, I just could be wrong, couldn’t I? Munson’s thoughts in front of his staff bordered on clinically insane, pondering on their sexual life. Who was fucking who? Well never mind.
Perhaps I was wrong.
Are you saying Marc is fucking Cally?
Shut your pie hole. I’m saying Marc would fuck a duck if he had half the chance.
Well maybe it’s the coffee talking. Nevertheless, the Ambassador is being set up to be the biggest assole- evil calulating scum capable of anything.
Now that’s a broad statement.
Ok, I say, it’s exciting as fuck, who is fucking who. But do you think Cally had a lesbian session with Ambassador’s wife before she got brutally killed.
Not sure, but by the size of her knockers, I reckon she was screwing every Mujahidin in sight.
A great way to penetrate terrorist cells.
Yep, spreading legs in the line of duty is not beyond female spooks. And it’s the terrorist that penetrate her dopey.
I’m getting ahead of myself here, I thought, making a note I’d have consult the author of The Ambassador’s Wife on these raised points. Hadn’t he hinted in past interviews that he wrote himself into bad guy roles? Too right he had!
‘Stay off the Cool- Aid.’
What, who the fuck was that?
‘I’m Harry, now fuck off. We don’t like weirdos like you at our bar.’
Harry was Lebanese, a former Hezbollah gun runner who had reinvented himself in Singapore as a publican.
‘With pleasure,’ I said, while putting two fingers to my eyes and pointing at him. ‘I’ll be watching you asswipe.’
Word was getting around and at this rate I’d run out of bars to hang out.
‘Blacklisted,’ said the Lebo.
And with pleasure, I said as I hoofed it out of the machinations of my mind.
I could feel the Ambassador was around. He walked up to Harry. I could see that clearly.
‘You cocksucking rag head,’ said the Ambassador. ‘Anymore of this shit and our Embassy will find another place to drink.’
I liked Art a lot. He might be a sly son of a bitch, but his heart was in the right place. But I’m sure when Tay eventually met the Ambassador, I’d harbour some kind of fictitious grudge against him. That’s the way the show down was heading.
Singapore was getting madder by the minute. I put down by Kindle reader and ordered another milky tea. It was nice to be back in Johor, far away from the Nanny State. I think I’d be giving Harry’s Bar a big miss if I ever made it that way. Spending ten Singaporean bucks on a pint just seemed very unreasonable.
Planet Singapore it might be, but they weren’t getting my hard earned tourist bucks.
And I’d be having a chat to Abdul at the world’s dirtiest toilet. He might be able to help me put that Harry in his place.
‘Records you want, we have,’ he said as I ordered a milky tea and a plate of Masala chicken.
He said if I gave the word, ‘I have enough dirt on him to have him deported back to Lebanon.
It pays to be connected. I said I’d take a rain check and think about it.
He gives me a funny look, raising his eyebrows.
‘You have a very active imagination,’ he says. ‘My records show that a Singaporean owns Harry’s Bar.’
He must be a silent partner, I said. Now how is the people smuggling business going, I eventually asked. I was only making polite conversation and Abdul appreciated the fact that I made the effort. That’s half the battle to getting by in the this travel game. Show some interest and the stories just flow. And if they don’t then make them up.
I don’t usually get mail in hotels. But the dyke Chinese receptionist knocked on my door and handed me a post card.
‘Enjoy,’ she said. You could tell she was getting excited looking at the post card picture of lithe reptilian snakes on the dance floor in the form of pay-as-you-go sex machines.
I never thought I’d be in this shit hole again.
I caught the next flight out of Singapore that landed directly into Pattaya Playground.
There was nothing written on the post card on the back. But the ‘Welcome to our Fourth Anniversary’ on the front was a clue. The date was coincidentally dated today. I’d be there before Happy Hour began, I thought as the taxi dropped me off at Walking Street.
There was no rhyme or reason for this spontaneity I could think of. I opened my Kindle. I was about 48 percent though The Ambassador’s Wife, about the time that Tay visited Pattaya to meet a spook who would over the series be a very close ally of the good Inspector.
It was just a short trip. I really needed to get out more. It can get a bit boring sitting in cafes drinking milky tea. I have often thought that I might be losing that travel edge. I’m being hard on myself. But hanging around Insurgent infested border towns in little whore light areas wasn’t anything to brag about. If you weren’t in Pattaya or Phuket, you just weren’t going the extra distance.
Now I can drink a beer as the next man. And I’ve got my fair share of tall stories. But I was wondering how I’d be received in this expat domain. Would they race me out for being a bull shitter?
Not if I met Tay’s shadowy contact who ran Baby Dolls.
Some wonderful writing. This is a cinema in words. I had never heard Pattaya being called the Carnival of the Lost, but there you go:
It was a carnival of the lost and misbegotten. There were underage prostitutes on the hustle, over-aged hookers on the stroll, and incorruptible cops on the take.
And those lights bouncing off low clouds in the night, it really had to be Pattaya. The camera was always rolling, he could see her expression, now he couldn’t – it was too dark. If only the fuckers knew that Tay was born for investigating, they’d think twice about winding him up.
I arrived just in time. An Asian in black pants and a blue business shirt with his sleeves rolled up was looking very closely at a Western lady with wonderful calves in front of him. I could tell it was Tay; he’s a legs and cleavage man. It might sound sexist but he’s a sucker for pretty woman. He’s just not good at reeling them in.
A heavy black curtain opened up and they were lost in Baby Dolls.
I popped a Valium, thinking I’d need this. Fuck it; I popped a Tramadol for good measure.
The Carnival of the Damned, I thought, it had that lost world feel to it, as I was grabbed by long slender arms and pushed into the premises of Baby Dolls. I love the Thais forthright approach. Tay looked behind me. He knew I was undercover and continued making his way to an open balcony which led to a private alcove above the go-go stage.
I could see Tay sizing up John August. Well fuck a duck, I could hear him thinking, ‘he wears the same steel rimmed glasses as my creator.’ Agreed, he even had his hair slicked back. Tay thought he looked like a visiting Professor but soon dropped that thought as one of the lithe reptiles flashed her pussy like she was on a ‘Gynecologist Pet of the Month’ photo shoot.
Cally, one sexy babe, Tay was thinking. He’s on a role. First Susan Hoi, then Lucinda, now this bitch. Tay knew she was staking him out but wasn’t sure if it crossed over to the personal realm. Now, what the hell am I talking about? Read the fucking book. I’m just treading over impressions that grab me as a reader.
I’m not even going to try explain Pattaya. I’m leaving it to the best atmospheric writer around.
‘You couldn’t write your way out of a paper bag.’
That had to be Bernhard.
‘You did say to meet you in Johor,’ he said, that intrepid Kiwi miner who spunked up most of his hard earned cash in the flesh pits of Asia.
I put down my Kindle reader.
‘If you could write half as good as that bloke,’ said Bernhard who picked up my Kindle reader and flicked through some pages, ‘then you wouldn’t have to sell insurance anymore.’
Cut the crap, I said to Bernhard. I said he really had to meet Abdul, who ran this Indian restaurant next to a mosque.
‘I was thinking more along the lines of Pattaya,’ he said.
Next flight is midnight, you grumpy old fucker, I said. But I’m going to get some more dirt on Johor. At least it was real. Where neon promised those phantom fucks in Pattaya, neon here meant a cheap bowl of noodles at a street vendor. I just don’t think I was ready for Pattaya. I was more a duck into a border town type, and duck or dive out, depending which way the wind was blowing.
‘You fucking woos,’ said Bernhard.
Abdul put a milky tea in front of him and joined us.
‘You were talking about that Lebanese guy called Harry,’ said Abdul, well he’s just gone into the toilet.
Settled, I said. I got up and locked it from the outside. We drank many milky teas that night and eventually let Harry out just to see the expression on his face.
‘I’m really pissed off,’ he eventually said.
‘Now are you insulting my toilet,’ asked Abdul. He picked up a crusty hardened leavened bread and whacked Harry hard over the head with it. No one ever ate those crusty naan bread anyway, so it was good to see Abdul pointing them to good use.
‘Get back to Singapore where you belong,’ he said, as he whacked the owner of Harry’s Bar in Singapore a few more times for good measure. ‘This is no place for sissies.’
The former Hezbollah arms dealer was chastised and said if I ever return to his bar, ‘drinks are on me all night.’
That is if we don’t decide to deport your ass, I said.
There was justice in this world, said Abdul, ‘but it just needed helping along.’ A few more crusty and moldy leavened bread made contact with Harry’s head as he headed for the exit door.
‘And if find that you have replicated my toilet in your bar,’ said Abdul who wasn’t finished berating Harry, ‘then I’ll be wanting a commission for intellectual property.’
I bet that got Harry the opportunist thinking and in recognition of a great idea he turned his head around one last time in mid stride for the exit door. ‘Blue glow neon lights and grungy piss colored walls,’ were his last thoughts as he received another crusty frisbee in the back of his head.
‘That got him thinking about how crappy your naan bread is,’ said Bernard, who slapped his new Paki mate hard on the back before saying his farewell. He said he’d be at Baby Dolls in two hours.
Three if you are lucky, I said as I handed him the postcard in case he couldn’t find the address.
‘Watch out for that BJ bar on Soi Post Office next to Pizza Hut,’ I said.
Bernhard feigned perplexed.
‘Unless of course you want to share a beer with a German with a hard-on.’
Even Abdul enjoyed that one, as we both threw his abominably bad leavened bread at Bernhard as he made his way out of the restaurant with the world’s dirtiest toilet and over the causeway to catch that flight to Pattaya.
If Boat Quay wasn’t to my liking, maybe Orchard Tower would be.
I’m cheating on this one. I’ve got Google Maps pulled up and Street View.
As I said, I’m a very sheltered traveler. I’ve been to Singapore a few times but never heard of ‘Four Floors of Whores.’ This image of me being the wild boy of traveling really is just plain false, isn’t it?
Obviously, if you haven’t been to Four Floors.
Apparently it went off at night time, but I wanted to check it out in the way time, for any quick escape routes. To know the night was to know the day. Whatever that was supposed to mean, I have no idea. But I seemed to be bought on the phrase. Besides, this was my gig, that’s what mattered, keeping myself appeased.
Now how could Singapore have their own Nana Plaza?
Don’t get ahead of yourself. A sign outside Filling Station, a Feng Shui inspired bar that guaranteed to bring in the bucks, begged otherwise. It was courtesy of Crime Prevention, warning of any ‘Outrage of Modest.’ Apparently they had caught 26 since last weekend.
Naughty Girls, on the second floor, didn’t hide its selling point. Artwork of naked silhouettes of dancing girls covered the entire window. It must be some kind of dance club. You buy me drink and we negotiate a price kind of place. I didn’t think Singapore had it in it. Discretion is the operative word to get around the tight control of the ubiquitous Nanny State that was watching everyone.
Harry’s Bar is situated on the corner of Claymore Drive and Claymore Road seemed as good a place as any to get the skinny of the area. Well not really a good idea. There was a CCTV print out of a customer who apparently wasn’t welcome at their establishment. That bastard Harry, I’d have a word with him. So much for all I could drink crap on his tab.
The Three Monkeys seems a more appropriate place for a coffee. It was at the back of Orchards Tower. The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf was across Orchard Road in front of the Orchard Towers, but you would need a pair of binoculars to really see what was going on.
All I knew was that Singapore was El Dorado for the Thai, Cambodian, Filipina, Chinese and whatever nationality. I know Nakita from Russia wanted to sell her services too. Those big tits and white skin and blonde hair. And an Adam’s Apple? You never know. Singaporeans swung both ways. If it was illegal to bugger someone, they’d get around it by buggering a guy that looked like a girl.
But what would I know. I was only gleaning this information from The Ambassador’s Wife. It didn’t balk at the blemishes of Singapore either. That was kinda cool in my books.
The Three Monkeys were charging three times the price. I had already packed a flask of coffee before I left my hotel in Johor. So I picked up a Three Monkeys take away cup from the bin and poured my coffee inside it.
They won’t even notice, I thought as I was about to take a seat in the outside section.
Another CCTV print out. Dam. Word was getting around. I’d have to buy a wig and apply make up at this stage.
‘Not if I’ve got anything to do with it,’ said a balding Yank, in his fifties, with a ruddy complexion that said I like a drink or ten.
‘Wrong on that account,’ he said, ‘but let’s say I like to drink and play around like the best of them.’
As repugnant as he was, I had to give it to DeSouza. He didn’t mind hanging around with lowlife like me.
‘I’d sooner not hang out with you,’ he said. ‘I’m here to eliminate you.’
Not until we check the bars upstairs, I said. I’m told that Naughty Girls opens up at midday.
DeSouza scratched his chin, rubbed his bald head and a big grin formed across his bull dog face.
‘Wow Nelly,’ he said, ‘you got to check out those lady boys. They make the Hooter Girls look like they are wearing training bras.’
For someone who was about to eliminate me, he quickly changed his song and dance routine.
‘You’d know,’ I said, as I flicked through my book to see what was coming up next. It always pays to pre-empt any erratic moves that could get you capped.
‘You been reading too much of that old fart Needham,’ he said. ‘The rounds are on me.’ He put his big fat paw on my shoulder and continued unctuously. ‘Why don’t you just take a little old seat next to me and be entertained by all the sweet kisses and silicon.’
‘But what about the surveillance going on by police friendly informers?’
‘Don’t you worry about that, sonny,’ he said. ‘I own the fucking bar.’
That was news to me. But it made sense.
‘Singapore only expects the best,’ he continues, ‘and when it comes to lady boys, the doctors in this town are the best at producing those curves, both concave and convex, if you know what I mean.’
I laughed at how corny he sounded. Hey, it could have been me speaking.
I had no idea where this DeSouza character was coming from. And I really didn’t want anything to do with him.
As far I knew, he was about to cap me. Luring me into a lady boy bar was the oldest trick in the book, wasn’t it?
Now I knew a whore at a blow job bar called the Hoover. And as I hoofed it the five kilometers down Balestier Road, I eventually stopped outside of the Hoover Hotel. Another sleazy Chinese district of Singapore, the sign outside didn’t say short time but I bet it’s where DeSousa took his Shim, or chick with dick, into one of its air-conditioned rooms.
This could be Malaysia or even Thailand. Where the Chinese were, arrangements could always be arranged for discretion. But Tay was staking this very hotel out. He was fumbling with a camera looking for some good blackmail shots. The early Tay swore his head off and so did the other characters. In some ways, The Ambassador’s Wife was a profane blast from the past.
‘Now who the fuck do you think you are taking photos.’ It was the guy I met at Orchard Tower.
‘And no I’m DeSouza,’ said the bull dog figure. He was British. ‘And I don’t appreciate you stalking me.’
I was only paying tribute…
“And here’s mine.’
I got a good hard thump over the head.
‘But she’s a chick with a dick.’
‘So what’s it to you,’ he said, as he put up his mutton arm for another slap to my head, ‘ besides, have you ever thought I might like chicks with dicks.’
Obviously, I said as I licked my wound.
I could either return back to the safety of Johor or continue this journey to its end.
Fuck it, the Tay trail was far too interesting to abandon it for some fuckwit Brit.
I took a few more pictures of Brit as he walked back into the hotel with his ‘Shemale’ who actually didn’t look that bad. I bet she was a Thai katoy.
I’m sure the Singapore Tattler would be interested in these, I said, as I held up my camera.
‘I knew I’ve seen you before,’ I said as I gave the dickwad my middle finger. He’d think twice about attacking harmless tourists.
He was the new manager of the Marriott Hotel.
As to DeSouza, Tay had his cross hairs on him. I knew exactly where my next destination would be as I jumped into a Comfort Taxi.
It was Abdul. Fuck you hang around like a bad smell, I said.
‘I’ll take you to the mosque…’
He just couldn’t wipe that shit eating grin off his face.
‘Yes, my brother has been keeping me updated on you. I always thought you were a crazy motherfucker.’
Compliments aside, I said put the pedal to the medal.
‘A beach side resort or something,’ I said.
‘Where the rich and corrupt live?’ he asked.
Sentosa Island, that’s right Abdul, I said as the adrenaline started kicking in. Then I heard a loud banging on the driver’s window.
‘I’ll take care of it boss.’
Abdul pulled out his Taser Gun.
The Brit was now lying on the pavement, groping for his fried balls.
You are learning, I said. Learning real fast.
But I was wondering if the ending of The Ambassador’s Wife was actually at Sentosa, an island resort off southern Singapore connected by a bridge. I could always check it out and see who I could piss off. The way things were heading, I’d bound to upset a few more asswipes.
“That was The Dead American, boss,’ said Abdul,’ wrong book.’
Now how the fuck do you know?
‘I drove Tay there,’ he said.
The showdown was coming, and soon. That’s all I knew, and I wasn’t going to miss it for anything.
My taxi ride to Ridley Park wasn’t anything to write home about unless you read the passages in The Ambassador’s Wife. It’s where reality blurs with surrealism.
‘I look at myself in the mirror and what do I see? A timid, fearful little man who can’t make up his mind about a fucking thing.’
Alright, wrong quote. But you get the drift. This is a man seething with self-doubt but with a little bit of help from the Spook Fairy, he may just pull this off.
‘The trees closed in and the vegetation thickened,’ Tay observes on his way to DeSouza’s house. ‘Ridley Park Road narrowed further and thick vegetation crowded in on both sides,’ he continued, and on the right side of the road, ‘a high wire fence caught Tay’s eye, ‘topped with coils of concertina wire.’
He said inside the compound the army barracks appeared, ‘they were long, low whitewashed buildings’ which looked ‘ghostly and abandoned.’ He half waited for sentries to run up to him and ask him what the hell was going on: ‘If any had, he would have had difficulty giving them a coherent explanation. He was even having difficulty giving himself a coherent explanation.’
Now that is one helluva trip down the River Styx don’t you think?
I’ve seen the same kind of abandoned army barracks across the causeway in Johor. And the tropical nights can be draped in stagnation and decay as those mosquitos swarm with dengue and the ants march back to their nests with organic evidence.
Tay shows a lot of fortitude for a man who has the demeanor of an accountant.
He’s not hiding in his garden of his terraced house in Emerald Hill. He’s moving in for the kill. It’s a suicidal mission. One he didn’t even mention to his sergeant, Kang. He alone is responsible for his actions. He feels in some way he was responsible for the death of Cally. Maybe he should have fucked her. Another regret.
Now the atmosphere leading into Ridley Park Road. The road gets narrower, the trees thicker and the over hangs heavier, those tunneling trees are an entrance.
I’m in Bugis Street and raise my eyebrows.
I have no idea why people find that funny.
What’s even more funny, this little trendy strip use to be the ladyboy beat.
Now choke on that.
I’m really getting to know Singapore.
Not just any Singapore, but Tay’s Singapore.
I just realize what a tardy traveler I am.
The Umbrella Man has taken me here.
I can’t find a shop front with a blue painted balcony.
It’s been pulled down. Replaced, is a sanitized version, it’s history buried forever in the name of cultural genocide. I know, it’s overkill but I’m trying to think how Tay would.
Down a lane off Bugis Street are four story residential buildings with outside spiral staircases. I’ve seen them before. It was a time when the same builders went over the causeway to build. Not all is lost and buried.
Thanks for the tip off Tay. The spiral staircases seem a Malay curiosity. A way to get out of the building if there is a fire or the elevator breaks. It’s a beautification of a building that was built not only to be lived in but to be admired.
I stayed in a cheap hotel in Johor and down the lane those same spiral staircases enchanted me. Maybe it triggered a primordial connection with the helixes of my DNA.
I think back to the burying of the Old Brickfields in Kuala Lumper. New windowless boxes called hotels replace old hotels that had windows. The hookers have left the street. The migrant workers have gone elsewhere. And the drunk Indians have moved on to a seedier neighborhood. Brickfields’s facelift took away its soul. It’s now just a ghost and will continue haunting me of better times.
I had some thinking to do. I’ll try and buy the first cup of coffee and get unlimited refills after that. Besides, this particular Mc Donald’s offered free WIFI.
I gulped the first cup down, for medicinal purposes, and asked for a refill.
‘You can’t pull that shit here in Singapore,’ said a young Indian Singaporean.
But the policy is unlimited refills after the first cup.
‘This isn’t Sumatra, buddy,’ he said.
It was worth a try. So I asked for a free cup of water. I’m diabetes and if you don’t give me a cup, I’ll bring you guys down to Chinatown.
He said bottled water was for sale.
But it’s just not the same when it’s not free.
He relented and filled up my coffee cup. Small victories are few and far between in this Island State, I thought as I reflected back to a few earlier chapters. Tay was sitting on a trunk. They looked like the ones he had in his spare room. It was just a ruminating thought, later to be a 3 am ‘germinating’ thought. He was also surprised he wasn’t banned when he entered the cordoned off bomb site, half of Orchard Road.
I took another conservative sip of my coffee, I’d have to make this last.
I couldn’t help think that the author was also ruminating about his own predicament. Was he banned from the Old Singapore he harked back to so often though his Inspector Tay? Hadn’t he fallen out of grace with the faceless rulers? Couldn’t the author really relate to Tay who was always being nudged out of the action for not being quite Singaporean enough?
‘Excuse me, Sir,’ said the Indian at the counter.
Yes, I said.
‘Either you buy another cup of coffee, or fuck off.’
I raised my eyebrows.
‘We don’t’ welcome freeloaders here.’
I could see his point. You don’t become the most powerful Island State in the region by giving out free coffees.
I played my decorum card. You can fuck off back to New Delhi, I said.
He was going to play the racist card. But I cut him short.
‘You’ll never be Bumiputera here or in Malaysia,’ I said. ‘Deal with it. Blame the fucking English. But if you are having a bad day, I suggest you duck over the causeway and release your frustrations on either a Thai, Vietnamese or Indonesian whore.’
All eyes were looking at me.
‘I’m reading a Jake Needham book, fuckers.’
Apparently, from the response, I gather Jake’s books weren’t on their ‘must’ reading list. Maybe that’s what Tay meant about being banned.
He said you wouldn’t even know it if you were. I had no idea Singaporeans were that churlish. Another example of cultural genocide. If it didn’t conform to their brave futuristic vision then it just became out of vogue. You were left behind. In one day, out over the causeway another. Now there are worse fates to befall, right?
I zoom in on my old beat in Johor, the hotel opposite Citrus Hotel on Jalan Meldrum. It has a sleazy red ‘Hotel’ sign on its reception window. It’s also on the corner of a tiny lane that cuts through Meldrum to Jalan Wong Ah Fook- pronounced ‘Want a Fuck’. It’s on this lane that I admired the same spiral staircases of Bugis Street.
And on any given night, just outside the front of the Chinese restaurant on the corner of the lane on the Jalan Wong Ah Fook side, hookers ply their trade in the dark recesses of the street. Most of them are Thai ladyboys.
I’m really not making this up.
‘I know you aren’t,’ says Tay.
And aren’t those Indian ladyboys shockers?
We both laugh. I say the next milky tea is on me.
I really wanted to ask Tay about his retirement. He had never taken a life until book four.
‘Hang on,’ he said. ‘I could eventually turn up in Hanoi, who fucking knows. I’ve got some unfinished business to do there.’
That’s as far as I got. It was further than most and beelined to a Tay quote.
‘I found out I care about the law a lot less than I thought. But I care about justice a lot more than I thought.’
I got it.
‘Justice might be blind, but it didn’t have to be stupid.’
Tay had some unfinished business. Perhaps he was looking for his own spiral staircases.
On this side of the causeway, I had heard of Lego Land. I’d been through my building stage by about the age of eight, but visiting the place seemed an act of desperation in salvaging what was left of my youth – now a fuzzy distant memory.
I jumped into a taxi, ‘Take me to the Premium Outlet Center.’
I made sure he wasn’t going to give me a tour of Johor and said to take me to the highway leading to Kuala Lumpur. Half an hour later, we are still heading north.
‘No no,’ said the driver, who insisted he wasn’t cheating me. He was a Bangladeshi who must have bought his Permanent Residency. And he didn’t mind telling me how he had done it. Nor did he mind enquiring about if I had seen any religion lately. He had a Quran on the dashboard and I knew where this was heading. I could stand the overbearing smell of curry and knew exactly what he ate for breakfast by those well-guided farts that clouded up the interior, but asking if I had any religion?
I lit a cigarette just as he pulled into a large sprawling shopping precinct that could have been San Diego. White light, palm trees, and a low slung building promising Nike and Ralph Lauren dreams packed in Gucci bags and fragranced with Poison and Old Spice.
I wonder if they sold anything useful like electronics.
I waved goodbye to the taxi driver and told him I might catch up with him at Mustafa’s place. I winked, ‘We might even get a prayer or two in at the mosque next door.’ I can pray like the best of them. And if he was looking at brownie points in converting me, he might overlook my flagrant disregard to Islam.
There was nothing cheap about anything at this place. Even Starbucks promised to bankrupt me after one Frappuccino. Now I’d prefer to drop any reference to Italian tongue twisters and just get a coffee, straight up please. Nor do I want my name written on the cup – they’d only get a fake one.
I was drinking coffee from Starbucks before plastic cups used for ice-coffees were dreamed up. It was in Portland, in the 90s, and the straight black coffee served in a paper cup would kick my sorry ass as I trudged the streets looking for work.
I turn around. It’s a pretty Malay, say in her early 20’s. And wasn’t that smile and little wave directed at me? How else could I reply.
She gives me that ‘You Dirty Filthy Old Man’ look and invites her friend inside the Polo outlet. She’s obviously another hot Malay who looks like she’s been tarting it up over the Causeway. The local Malays never dress or act so sluttish.
‘Keep your opinions to yourself,’ says the one who flashed that ‘dazzling’ smile.
I always prided myself on being opinionated, but apparently this Malay couldn’t give a fuck either way.
I know I’m not getting any younger, but doesn’t having money, at least enough to travel here on a cheap Air Asian flight, qualify me to at least the illusion of being god’s gift to Asian women?
I slunk away. I thought being a white guy in Asia instantly got you in like Flynn?
I slunk even further into myself when I heard the conversation before they disappeared into the Polo outlet.
‘Fat white trash,’ said the one with the ‘dazzling’ smile.
‘And I could smell him from here,’ said the whorey looking one, ‘the way he dresses and smells, he must be one of those feral Ozzies who escaped Bali.’
I beelined back out to the car park. Mohammed, my Bangladeshi taxi driver was still waiting for me.
‘Home James,’ I said.
He knew where I wanted to go.
‘Back to trashy Meldrum Street?’ he asked by way of confirmation.
‘Too right mate, too fucking right.’
Hints of madness.
Is John August really real? Could he be just another voice in Tay’s head.
‘You got it. You got it.’
I’m not sure if I have, but I have my suspicions about Tay.
It’s those flash of geniuses he has. Maybe he conjured up a bad guy with good intentions character in his head to justify blowing the bad guys to the ever after. I’m just not sure about this. But I’m following the clues. Tay has a big selection of thriller novels. Surely a lot of his ideas come from them. Didn’t a John Le Carre line dictate his actions in tracking down that terrorist in The Girl in the Window?
We aren’t really going to know. But I like the idea of Tay visiting Pattaya sea side resort for some fictitious meeting with another fictitious character that only resides in his mind. John August could be his doppelganger, or perhaps his creator. It’s a moot point, aint it?
It’s just that Tay was so convincing on his second visit to the Polo outlet over the causeway. Was that lady with a dazzling smile just playing along with his fancy when she gave a half-smile. Or was that half-smile recognition of her nervousness around a mad man who actually believed he had a meeting with John August the day before and who was demanding one now?
And that shit about a meeting, and dropping Lucinda’s name in the next sentence. Didn’t Tay even say technically he wasn’t lying to Kang? And that he’d make a good lawyer in a future profession. Looks like we got a pathological liar on our hands here.
Mustafa was gracious as usual. Outside, Maghrib prayers drained out any space for a quiet conversation.
Then Mohammed my Bangladeshi taxi driver showed up. Apparently, they were the best of mates.
‘Fucking should be,’ said Mohammed, ‘the cunt charged me 10 000 US dollars to get my PA.’
That would be about right.
‘Got to make a buck somehow,’ said Mustafa. ‘Better in my pocket than that crook Najib.’
‘But the hajj quota is up, ‘ piped in Mohammed.
‘Only because Najib allowed one million Bangladeshi’s into the country under Permanent Residency status.’
I got it, so the hajj quote went up?
‘Yep,’ said Mustafa, ‘and it had nothing to do with how well behaved the Malays act abroad, according to the Malaysia Star.’
‘It does’, said Mohammed,’ over 1000 Malays fought in Syria and Iraq for the Caliphate.’
That might explain why the Saudis upped the quota, I said and ordered a milky tea. Now don’t short change me on the condensed milk and tea. You know what happens when I get served a piss weak warm tea?
‘Yes boss, yes boss.’
Cut the ‘yes boss’ crap and just get me a hot and milky tea you would proudly serve your grandmother on the first day of Idul Fitri. I might be an infidel but I know my fucking milky teas.
Mei Lin Lee knocked on the door. Tay hated her before he even met her.
In walks Mei Lin Lee, and out walks Tay’s hatred of her. She can even have ten minutes of the spot light.
He’s smitten. When he’s smitten, I’m smitten. She’s a mongrel of inter-breeding and radiates sexuality. Her Mona Lisa smile suggests cum to bed eyes. As I said I was so smitten that I was mixing metaphors.
A few chapters in, I’m informed that John August does exist. I’ll leave the acronyms to the big league, I’m only going to get lost in the terminology and currently I’m too busy tripping over my tongue that is hanging before Mei Lin Lee’s feet.
I spent the afternoon cruising the Marina Bay Sands. The atrium went up and up until it reached the surfboard on the roof. I was wondering if those posers in the pool could look down at me. I was at the reception area.
Now I’m into tourism, affordable tourism. But you would never get me up those elevators to the fifty-first floor. I just don’t get the idea of replicating an island beach resort on top of a skyscraper. For Christ sake, Bintan and Batam is only a 45-minute ferry ride. Or how about Sentosa island that has a few secluded coves with white sand stolen from no doubt a nearby Indonesian Island.
John August wasn’t a figment of Tay’s imagination, or was he? Maybe I was wrong. I was too much into Johor and its idiosyncrasies to be worried about what was really going on in Singapore. The One Party State. Sounded just like Malaysia. Section 55. At first I whispered it, then I voiced it and eventually, I yelled it until it echoed around the atrium. No one none was the wiser. That’s how secret those invested powers are that were passed on by the British.
‘Excuse me, Sir.’
Now who the fuck was that?
‘We’ll have to ask you to leave.’
Not if I can help it.
Too late. I was forcefully put into an unmarked car and unceremoniously dumped over the causeway.
“Now if you have a little common sense, ‘ said the nameless man who was wearing dark aviator sunglasses, ‘you’ll stop writing nonsense on Singapore and stay over in Malaysia where you belong.’
Are you saying my tourist dollars aren’t any better than those staying at the Marina Bay Sands?
‘I’m saying even Najib in Malaysia has been informed of your smear campaign on our twin cities.’
I only had a few chapters to go before I finished the book. Mustafa said they were a bunch of pussies over the causeway. And he said I could chain smoke, spit, piss and puke myself as much as liked ‘until you finish The Umbrella Man.’
Now how the fuck did you know I was reading that?
‘I know more than you’d believe,’ said Mustafa. ‘If it wasn’t for my intervention, you’d still be rotting in jail for the next two years, with an imminent option for another two years.’
It pays to befriend the dodgy Pakis. You’ll meet them at ever dodgy border town. And you can bet they aren’t just selling chicken Masala to get by.
He said I could thank Abdul, his brother and taxi driver, next time I go over the causeway.
‘I have him hugging your movements.’
Now what the fuck is funny?
‘Well, you have quite a large readership in Pakistan.’
‘You appeal, to shall we say, our bat shit crazy sensibilities.’
I was happy to have any readership at this stage.
Any mention of a fatwa, I eventually asked.
‘Nope,’ said Mustafa, who handed me a lovely hot cup of milky tea. ‘You aren’t Indian or Salmon Rushdie, and besides, your prose is better.’
Well fuck a duck, I was speechless.
Then Mei Lin Lee asks Tay when was the photo he was showing her taken.
‘May I know when this photograph was taken?’ she asked.
Tay was trying to figure out who was the old white guy who died in some run down apartment in Woodlands.
If an elderly fan man had asked him that, Tay would probably have snapped at him to shut because he was damn well asking the questions here. But Mei LIn was as far from an elderly fat man in the tree of evolution as it was possible to get and still be in the tree at all. Tay was helpless to do anything other than to answer pretty much any question she might want to ask.
‘In 1975,’ he said.
Now I’m laughing my fucking tits off here. I really am. Jake goes the long distance to actually make this work. He’s no slouch for building up a picture of a sad and pathetic inspector who turns into a blabbering idiot around any tight and neat skirt.
This is authentic as it gets.
Looking back at me in the mirror was Inspector Tay. Had I really become this miserable aging old fart?
‘Deal with it,’ said Mustafa who handed me another milky tea. ‘It’s not looks that count in this part of the world.’
Well, then what counts?
‘Money, and plenty of it,’ he said. ‘Then you can buy all the Mei Lim Lees of this world you like.’
I had to give it to my pragmatic Paki mate. He really didn’t mince his words. Money is what made Singapore tick and Mei Lin Lee wouldn’t be working in a bank if it wasn’t for, well money.
‘You crude little bastard.’
Who was that?
Just the Nanny Brigade, said Mustafa. ‘But you are safe this side of the causeway, trust me, very safe.’
“Draw up your chair to the edge of the precipice and I’ll tell you a story.”
“F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Crack Up. I wouldn’t have pegged you for a literary man…’
‘But it’s quarter to three, there’s no one in the place except you and me…”
It’s not the green lights winking at him from Orchard Gateway Building that has taken on any Great Gatsby meaning. That’s been appropriated by a disco ball hovering five feet in his garden. It does more than wink. It’s a portal to his dead mother. It’s where he gets access to a cheat card.
With the start of a new Inspector Tay book, there’s always a fresh start with unlimited possibilities.
With the start of each Tay book, and I’m onto the fourth, but the third in the series, The Dead American, there’s the resolution to give up smoking.
Fuck it. I’ll have another one.
It pained me to see Tay trying to salvage a cigarette after the shoot out in the brothel. It’s okay to smoke a broken cigarette, filters aren’t necessary.
Tay is by all accounts weird.
Weird in the way that he expresses those weird thoughts that most usually suppress for fear of being labelled weird. He’s a true independent man of his age. He has issues with authority but doesn’t mind wielding it when he can. It’s usually a spoof on those who actually take the power trip seriously.
Tay is an anomaly. And you got to love him for not quoting Shakespeare, that would be so cliche. And who the fuck drinks Earl Grey tea these days? Tay certainly doesn’t.
The Big 50 has arrived. Far from out of the game, and very far from looking good in a pair of lycra, Inspector Samuel Tay is going to take me places I’ve never been before.
Geylang of The Umbrella Man just upset my moral compass. Even on Google Maps I had issues. It looked like one of those nocturnal species who slept in the day. None of the satellite images taken during the day did the place justice.
A Red Light District without hookers, that’s what was bugging me. Four Floors of Whores, I got it, immediately. But Geylang, seemed like a place for octogenarian Chinese intent on finding their marbles in ‘Karma’ tagged Buddhist shrines. Even the hotels didn’t promise the usual sleaze you’d expect in a naughty Singapore area.
The uneasiness of the area dawned on me when I zoomed into a brothel. A CCTV camera was set up outside it next to the Buddhist Meditating Center. ‘POLICE SUPERVISED CAMERA,’ said a sign mounted on the all seeing eye. Now what kind of a Red Light District is it if the police are monitoring it?
Wait, this is Singapore.
New seedy dives to discover, come on Singapura, flower for me.
Tay nodded. He still had no idea what a driverless car was, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to know. The whole idea sounded like something a whack-job wearing a tin-foil hat started telling you about while you frantically looked for a way to flee.
Tay was beginning to think there was only one sensible thing for him to do here. Keep nodding his head a lot, murmur whatever platitudes might be necessary, and get this woman the hell of his house as quickly as he could.
‘You think they are working on a self-flying airplane?’
Emma just looked at Tay.
She didn’t even consider the idea. It was just slipped in like when John August said it was some pissed off Pakis who bombed the shit out of Orchard Road because Singapore was getting too cozy with The States. She was so self absorbed in her own theories that she didn’t want to waste ‘technical’ time on a luddite like Tay, who very early in the book picked up on the Big Idea.
As we know, Sam Tay and technology weren’t pals, ‘they weren’t’ even on speaking terms’.
‘My mother told me I ought to help you.’
That’s why Tay e decided to help the Wall Street Journal reporter on the suspicious death of an American IT whizz-kid.
Oh for Christ’s sake, I can’t tell Emma I talk to my dead mother. She’ll think I’m a complete nutter.
‘Is it difficult for you to talk to your mother?’
Emma prodded gently.
Okay, Tay abruptly decided, the hell with it. So he took a deep breath and he just told her.
‘Yes,’ Tay said, ‘it’s difficult. Because my mother is dead.’
There are some long pauses in a Tay novel, and that’s when you might pick up on the contradictions, vulnerabilities and home truths that Needham so carefully plants.
The question here, who is really wearing the tin-foil hat, and who is the fruitloop and who is the sane one? It’s really just too hard to tell at this stage. The most sane one of them so far is Tay’s partner, Robbie Kang, who is constantly getting a chuckle or three.
None of what I say will make sense unless you read The Dead American. Hint?
Download it here.
This is a very in-house world of Samuel Tay which it’s creator has kindly allowed us to enter, if we dare.
Be careful on those quite balmy nights on the streets of Singapore, the past has a way of haunting of you.
I’m ducking and diving. Now who the fuck is that mad cackling bitch on a broomstick trying to run me over?
‘Now you watch that foul mouth of yours.’
It could only be her.
‘And take that tin-foil hat off, you look ridiculous in it.’
Reminder, don’t’ fuck with Tay’s dead mother.
‘Holy Christ,’ August murmured. ‘How could we not have put that together?’
I was reading this aloud. Jesus Fucking Christ, I mumbled, wouldn’t that be more effective?
‘Are you blaspheming?’
What’s it to you bozo, I said to the guy who was making an issue with me.
He had all the quotes at his disposal but I wasn’t going to let him use them.
‘And the world was created in seven days,’ I said. ‘Now fuck of back to Sunday School before I start blaspheming again.’
You can’t win with these religious fruit loops, ever.
‘Jesus Fucking Christ, assole, get a life.’
This nutter was fuming. He had to be American. The type that endeared himself to you, then after a few Bourbons, the religious creep show began. I’ve come across a few Muslim and Hindu idiots with the same flame of fanaticism.
Tay doesn’t just narrate a story; he transplants us into the story.
‘It was the kind of bar in which Tay had a strong urge to wipe the rim of the glass with his handkerchief before he drank from it, but resisted.’
I had checked out the Highlander at Clark Quay.
Tay said the Highlander ‘was a rogues’ gallery of the intellectually vacuous and the socially grasping, all wallowing in a Eurotrash sea of greed and desire.’
What the hell has happened to Singapore?
I was asking the same question as I wondered what the coolies of the original docks would think of the refurbished area with bars called The Hospital. They laboured up to 16 hours a day so that these asswipes could sweat it out over Happy Hour in wheelchairs and served drinks by nurses in Victoria Secret outfits.
Good Lord, it was frequented by Asswipes of the Damned. Hadn’t Jesus died at the cross so I could curse, I thought as I legged it out of that area. I just couldn’t compete with those Blighty speaking stockbrokers in Hugo Boss suits.
Remember, there’s the Tay the Inspector, and Tay the narrator. Sometimes the two Tay’s don’t up. And thank fucking Christ for that.
Nonsense, one is public the other Tay is private.
The building was constructed entirely of concrete,(said the private Tay), with the floors painted in alternating bands of orange and pink in what was probably a misguided effort to make the place look cheerful. Tay now had a new candidate for the hotly contested title of ugliest buildings in Singapore.
It’s not only a really interesting story unfolding but the little side tours that make Tay such an interesting observer of Singapore. He’s local so I never question his opinion.
Tay and Kang eventually visit the office ‘Oh Kui Tao’ in a run down Industrial area of Singapore, where Wangster the hacker is trying to break an encryption.
Kang informs Tay that OKT stands for pimp, and Oh Kui Tao is Hokkien dialect for ‘someone who guards others.’ Needham doesn’t mind going the extra mile to set up the right cultural context. And Tay pulls it off with a straight face.
The Wangster looked exactly like Chairman Mao would have looked if Chairman Mao’s head been transplanted onto the body of a ten-year-old boy.
The Wangster voice seemed to come from someone else’s body. It was deep and resonate. His words rolled out in a reverberating bass that sounded like the voice of God in some old Bible movie starring Charlton Heston.
‘Please come into our office. I’d like to introduce you to my sister.’
Tay took a deep breath. This just kept getting better and better. After the Wangster, he figured meeting the Wangsterina was going to be a real treat.
And it was.
Tay hates one thing in this life more than anything else: people who got away with it.
Who was left to speak for Tyler and Emma if he didn’t? Maybe to some the idea of speaking for the dead was a lot of romantic foolishness, but Tay didn’t see it that way. He saw it as a moral truth that somebody had to do it. Maybe he didn’t believe in much, but he believed in that.
That’s Tay’s moral fortitude. He was looking at the ships coming in from the east of the Singapore Strait while smoking a Marlboro. And who says smokers are selfish assoles? I just don’t see it. Smokers are cursed with time to think about things. From lighting a cigarette to stubbing it out, great ideas come to those who are on the lookout for them.
Tay and Robbie Kang are working off the books. I suspect Kang isn’t as Singaporean as he lets on. The only time I ever heard Tay call his partner Robbie was when he was about to find out how Emma died. There’s a real working relationship going on here. Don’t let the banter turn you off, most of it’s harmless.
As the plane descended, I could see the lights of the supertankers below which awoke the wonder of the Orient I had read about in children’s books as a kid. I caught a taxi from Changi, a ten minute ride, to the same spot where Tay is smoking. It was here where Tay’s mothers use to take him out as a young kid for some chili crab.
It was here that I was raced out of the area for lighting up a Marlboro.
‘Think yourself lucky I don’t call the police,’ said the maître d’ of Jumbo Seafood. I wasn’t bought on his smarmy smile for one moment when he handed me the menu. He looked Indian, or he could have even been Iranian.
But it was here that Tay made his resolve with himself over a cancer stick. He was going to catch the cock sucker who killed Tyler and Emma.
Meanwhile, history blew in on the south breeze perfumed with cloves from the nearby Riau Islands as I lit up a cigarette.
I think it was nearing that time to have a talk with Jesus.
Cigarettes had become part of the furniture of his solitary and shitty, my italics, life.
I really didn’t mean to write myself into another great line.
Piece by piece, Tay informs us, they carried that building from Scotland.
From above, it could be an octagon, but from below, it still retained it’s charm. So much that Tay tapped on the green cast iron column, as if praising the building for at least containing some of it’s original charm, if you didn’t count the countless make overs. The cast-iron was shipped from Glasgow and if you look very carefully even the maker’s mark of W. MacFarlane and Co. is engraved on it.
I was almost waiting for the good Inspector to break into a Gene Kelly tap dance and rendition of ‘Singing in the Rain’ in a baritone voice.
‘From where I’m standing, the sun is shining all over the place.’
And I wanted to break into my own song and dance routine, we’re off to see the wizard, the wonderful wizard…
Wait, wrong book.
‘But very apt for Singapore.’
Now who the fuck was that?
Surrounding this almost symmetrical octagon shaped building from the Victorian age are skyscrapers made from glass and chrome but failing spectacularly to intimidate poor little Lau Pat Sat, a popular Singapore food market.
Now do you think I could remember the name of that market or even how to spell it? It was challenging to say the least.
Forget the Botanical Gardens and Orchards, I’m off to Fort Canning Park.
I beeline to a bench behind the Old Bill that’s now a Cultural Center. I had a quick mossy inside, no mention of it’s rich and bloody past. None what so ever. Only white washed walls and artwork with red dots.
I was somehow waiting for someone. They’d never come. But if they did, I’d know who they were. It was time to meet-and-greet-Jesus. That Goh, bad haircut, dodgy scar and attitude to match Tay, just intrigues me. Now how the fuck can you ever come up with a character like that?
He’s the biggest assole under the sun and in many ways, he’s running neck to neck with Tay to being Singapore’s biggest smart ass.
I lit up a cigarette and admired how totally addicted I was.
And as if I was picking up on some kind of conversation from the past on this very green park bench, I heard an address.
Goh didn’t hold back. He was wink winking and nudge nudging Tay all the way to Sentosa Island. You know you have hit a wealthy area when Google Street View doesn’t exist. It’s okay to expose the poor pimps of Geylang, but just don’t get too close to 237 Ocean Drive.
But first another cigarette.
I can see the Anti-Smoking Brigade marching up the brick path towards me, carrying pitchforks and Frappuccinos, looking to roast my ass for the simple act of smoking.
But no matter how horrid this scene might be, they aren’t going to deprive me of the sweet hit of nicotine.
All Tay had to do was take out his pack of Marlboros and light one, and then the universe was back in order again.
Then I decided another course of action , run like a son of a gun. Fucked if they were going to generate income for the city by nailing my fat ass.