Chapter 8: An Oriental Interlude
I’d been toying with the idea of working in the Far East for some time. Singapore was the hub for oilfield work, so at the end of the North Sea diving season in 1980, I decided to give it a try.
I’d become firm friends with Graham G, who had been Renate’s original boyfriend. He had met her in Bremerhaven, when he was coming back from a job, she was a earning money as a waitress, waiting to start University the following year. He invited her to stay “in his pad” (the diver’s flat in Yarmouth) never dreaming that she’d turn up, until she did, causing the complications mentioned earlier. Oceantech was a small company, and everyone knew about the situation between Graham and myself. When I went on the first job to Ras Lanuf, in Libya, some diving work came up which required an extra diver. I sent a telex through to Oceantech, and of course, the person they sent was Graham. In spite of the initial bad feeling, we got on well together, became good friends, and worked together often from that point. He knew about my plans to go out to Singapore, and decided to come along. This was the era of cheap flights, started by Freddie Laker, who operated one way flights to Hong Kong for £99. We booked a similar one way flight with Caledonia Airways, for, I think £112.
When I told mum my plans, she told me I should look up my Chinese Auntie in Hong Kong. Now this was a surprise, a bit of a family skeleton, which I knew nothing about. Apparently, one of the many black sheep in our family, Uncle Herbert, had ended up in Hong Kong during the 2nd World War, and had seduced Marie, a local beauty from a well to do family, promising to take her back to his castle in England. She became pregnant, they married, and he brought her back, not to a castle, but a small, 2-bedroom terrace house in Brighouse. They only stayed a short time, but my mother befriended her during her stay, which resulted in yearly letters and cards each Christmas. Mum knew that Marie and Herbert had split up, Herbert had gone on his merry way, leaving Marie with 2 children. She worked in the export department of Jardine Mathieson. In 1980, Jardine House was the headquarters of the company, although I believe it has moved now. Jardine House is the iconic building, usually pictured in the centre of any Chinese calendar. Feng Shui was important in it’s design and construction. The windows are round, supposedly to let money flow in, but resulting in it’s nickname – the House of a Thousand Arseholes – a name reinforced by the numerous lawyers and bankers housed there.
We flew out from Gatwick, where we had met another diver, Ron, a Canadian, who’d decided to look for work in the Far East. He was a big clumsy bloke, who was a chaos magnet. He was asleep in the middle of the lounge floor, surrounded by his bags. There was a bit of a commotion when a girl nearby started to have an epileptic fit. This woke Ron up, and he decided to take charge of the situation. The quickest way to the girl was over a row of plastic chairs fixed to the floor. With a shout of “Make way, I’m a trained medic!” he tried to leap over the seats, tripped, and landed on the girl, knocking himself out in the process. Graham and I sorted him out, while a doctor attended to the girl. We very quickly decided not to team up with him, after he showed us his CV and certificates, which included cycling proficiency and swimming 100 yards in a school swimming pool while fully clothed when he was 15.
We checked into a cheap hotel in Kowloon for 3 nights in Hong Kong. We hadn’t slept on the non-stop flight, and had been drinking most of the way. After a long sleep, Graham went out to sort out our onward flights to Singapore, while I went in search of my Chinese Auntie. The Jardine building is right by the famous Star Ferry. I went into the lobby, thronged by a mass of people, running about like ants, who all seemed to know where they were going. I found an information desk, and told the man there who I was looking for. All I knew was that she worked in the export department. He was very helpful. He pulled out quite a thick telephone directory, and started to search. There are 52 floors in the building, housing thousands of employees. When built, it was the tallest building in Hong Kong, and has banks of elevators throughout the lobby, in all 24 zoned lifts. After a few minutes searching through the directory he was sorry to report that he could find no trace of her. I thanked him for his efforts, and started to walk away, when he stopped me, and said “One moment! One more directory!” He pulled a vey slim directory, leather bound, with only a few pages, and found her almost at once. “Very good! What is your name please?” I told him my name, and he directed me not to the banks of elevators, but to a door almost hidden in a corner. As I left, he was reaching for the telephone. I went to the door, which was in fact a lift. I pressed the call button, and when it arrived I was surprised to find there was only 1 button on the inside, which I pressed. The lift took me to the top floor, and when it opened, I was met by a uniformed security guard with a gun, not exactly pointed at me but still quite ominous. He politely asked me for my passport, and whom I wished to see, then escorted me to a sofa, and asked me to wait. I was quite thrown by all this, a bit disorientated. I had expected Marie to be working in a conventional office – when I looked round, this place was the whole of the top floor, absolutely massive. Most of it was small areas of sofas and coffee tables, similar to a hotel lobby. In the distance were discreet closed offices. Everything was top quality, and I felt quite shabby in my jeans, check shirt and Levi jacket. Soon after, a small Chinese lady walked towards me, followed by a uniformed girl. I stood up to meet her. Marie introduced herself, asked me to sit down, and would I like a drink? A coffee would be good, I said. She despatched the girl for coffee and biscuits. She gave me back my passport, and told me how delighted she was to meet me. She was the Assistant to one of Jardine’s directors – very high powered, a truly charming lady, who knew a lot about both me and my sister, Laurette, from Mum’s yearly letters. She had a house on the peak, where she lived with her 2 children. I spent about an hour with her. She was very interested in what I was doing, and gave me lots of advice about Hong Kong, if I was intending looking for work there. She had fond memories of Mum, and Brighouse, she said, in spite of her poor introduction to the place. She told me that one fortunate outcome of her marriage was her British passport, giving her the right to live in UK, which she in fact did before the Chinese took back Hong Kong in 1997. She moved back to Brighouse with her son, her daughter was a doctor in San Francisco, I think. She stayed in the UK for 2 or 3 years before moving out to stay with her daughter. Mum was happy to meet up with her a number of times during her stay in Brighouse.
Back at the hotel in Kowloon, Graham had booked our flights to Singapore. He’d decided we would have a short stopover in Bangkok, Thailand, before doing the rounds of the companies.
Round about that time, Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia were acquiring reputations for beautiful women, easily available for comparatively cheap amounts of money. And yet, it wasn’t like prostitution in the Western sense of the word. Before I went out to the Far East, I’d never paid a woman for sex in the conventional sense, (although I’d spent lots of money on the women I got involved with). Bangkok was a real eye opener. On the flight down from Hong Kong, I ended up sitting next to the Bangkok Chief of Police. In conversation, he suggested we stay at the Grace Hotel. He said there were plenty of girls there, and it was safe. He said only girls with an in-date medical could go there – the medical being a weekly check for any sexual disease problems. Also, the hotel was configured so that once you’d taken a girl to your room, she could not get back through security unless you were with her, ensuring you could not be robbed. All of this sounded quite exotic, and I was looking forward to a few nights in Bangkok. He also suggested we pay a visit to a particular massage parlour, which he gave me a business card for, and recommended I ask for girl 63.
We changed some money into the local currency, Thai Baht, then took a taxi from the airport to the Grace Hotel, on Sukhumvit Rd, and checked in around lunchtime. There were 3 types of room. We opted for the cheapest – about £8 per night. I was disappointed, and thought we’d been sold a pup by the chief of police; the lobby seemed to be a conventional middle order hotel lobby, but no girls in evidence, except the check-in staff. We sat in one of the comfortable areas until our rooms were ready, and were joined by an English ex-pat, who was also staying there. I told him I’d expected more action, and he said, oh, you haven’t been down to the coffee shop yet then? He explained that was where the girls were, and when you took a girl to your room, you had to take the lift from the coffee shop, which only went to the first floor. At the first floor, a security man checked the medical papers of the girl, and then you took another lift to your room. The process reversed when you left – she wouldn’t be allowed to leave unless you were with her. OK, this sounded better. I asked him if he’d be coming into the coffee shop with us, he said “Good God no! I’ve been here a week, and I’m just firing blanks now!” He was leaving later that day. We checked into our rooms, then took the lift back down, and walked down the steps to the coffee shop in the basement. Neither of us were prepared for what happened next. We opened the door to the coffee shop and walked in. It was huge, taking the whole basement floor. There were no windows, obviously, and the lighting was almost non-existent, and until our eyes adjusted we could see nothing, but we could hear a cacophony of noise – there were 4 jukeboxes in different areas of the room, all playing different music, and a babble of high girls voices, all shouting, or singing, absolute bedlam. More than that, because we were suddenly assaulted from all sides by small yelling females, although we couldn’t see them yet. Within seconds my cigarettes had gone, my lighter had gone and my wallet had gone, and we were being propelled by the mass of flesh in a particular direction. I was just beginning to start punching out blindly, when one of the girls said “No worry! All safe! These girls just want to be with you!” I relaxed slightly, and let myself be pushed up to the long bar, which had at least a little lighting, and by this time our eyes were becoming more accustomed. Once at the bar, the girl who had taken my wallet claimed the spot next to me, and shouted at the barman to come here at once – no need for that, he was already there, but she was just showing how well she would look after me. She asked me what I was drinking A local beer for both of us, and one for yourself I said. Again she shouted at the barman in her limited English, for 2 Singha beers, and a juice for her, and make sure he didn’t try to bloody rob the nice men, because she would be checking the change. The barman had heard it all before, the girl was preening herself that she was the only one of the crowd of girls to get a drink, paid the barman for the drinks, showed me the money taken and change given, which she put back into my wallet, then returned the wallet to me, at the same time possessively holding my arm, to show the other girls that she’d laid claim to me. Graham was having similar experiences. Next, when I patted my breast pocket for a cigarette, another girl miraculously appeared with my pack, opened it, took out a cigarette, and put it in my mouth. Girl 3 appeared with my lighter, and lit it for me. All 3 had apparently got first dabs on me, and hustled me over to a table, where Graham also appeared with his little entourage. Other girls also hung around our group, probably making about a dozen altogether, pulling up other buffets, and almost fighting to show off how much English they could speak. I was glad to have a drink, and calm down a bit, and have a look round. It really was an incredible place. There were at least a hundred girls spread around the room, and Graham and I were the only men in there at that time. The drinks were incredibly cheap, and we bought a drink for all of the girls at our table over the next hour. They all only sipped their drink occasionally, making it last as long as possible. None of the girls asked us for a second drink, although we had 4 or 5 beers each. The selection process was also quite interesting. None of the girls had really good English, but appeared to understand everything we said, although I’m sure they didn’t. They knew when you were making a joke, and laughed as if you were the funniest man alive. None of them made an overt sexual advance, but they saw immediately when you noticed one of them, and places would be exchanged amongst the girls until the one you fancied most would be sat next to you, almost a telepathic process. At that point, she might touch your hand when talking, or rest her hand on your knee, or let her leg rest against yours. All very delicately done, until the blood started to surge, and you took the girl off to your room. I wasn’t sure how the transaction was done. In the lift, I asked the girl how much she wanted. She looked slightly horrified, and said “You only give me taxi fare home, 200 Baht,” (about £5). As soon as we were in the room, she insisted that we take a shower together. I think most western men probably smell fairly bad to Thai girls, probably because of the different diet, and she also wanted to check me out and make sure there were no signs of disease. Only after that could we get on with the business at hand. She told me later that if I wanted her to stay with me, and “not be a butterfly (flitting from girl to girl)” there would be no taxi fares. She would stay in my room with me, I would pay for her meals, and she would show me round Bangkok. I decided not to take that option, though, not wanting to get tied down, (no pun intended). All the girls I met there were good fun, lively, good company, and incredibly attentive towards me, for minimal sums of money. No wonder so many Westerners marry oriental girls.
© mick binns 2018