Wednesday, May 1, 1991

The Music-Halls of Paris

Written for European Travel & Life in 1989, published in 1991

At the mere mention of Paris, a cliché invades your starving imagination. Not the cliché about the food; the one about le music-hall. Closely related to the other Parisian cliché about the women, the image is half Toulouse-Lautrec can-can, half a more modern vision of nearly naked girls with fascination in their walk and feathers on their heads. Partly to shatter these vague ideas, partly because my French friends insisted, I recently visited four survivors: the Folies Bergere, the oldest; the Lido, the most touristic; the Crazy Horse, the most devoutly erotic; and L’Alcazar—the youngest, most creative, most deeply Parisian.

The music-halls go back more than a century. Originally they were dance halls for the public. Professional performers came on toward ten in the evening. Toulouse-Lautrec was famous one day after his first poster for the Moulin Rouge; such stars as Yves Montand, Maurice Chevalier, Edith Piaf, and Josephine Baker made their names (and perhaps did their finest work) in the music-halls. Conventional wisdom holds that there was a golden age until WWII, when too much money (meaning American visitors) over-commercialized the music-halls, though what were they ever if not commercial? In the days when Paris was considered the hedonist’s capital of Europe, the music-halls were an early stop on any male’s visit. Today, too easily dismissed as fodder for tourists, one or two might still be considered necessary to an education. Meanwhile, Frenchmen who have never read her work know that the first bared breasts on a music-hall stage (the Folies Bergere, 1909) belonged to Colette.

The Folies Bergere, at age 103 arguably the oldest music-hall, has since 1927 illuminated a majestic art-deco theater whose lobby alone boasts mosaic-inlaid columns, gilded horses, and a Bal Musette accordion trio. The show thrives on the theater’s atmosphere; the lavish and lovely costumes, the insouciant mood are all from an indefinite Belle Époque—like the recreated can-can of girls in yellow and black who shake their bloomers (with the Tour Eiffel twinkling behind) to the thumping tunes of Bizet and Offenbach.

A family show, it had some daring moments and, surprisingly, as much male as female nudity, even a naked balletic pas de deux. Always famous for grand tableaus, especially for excessive decors that appear and vanish in seconds, this particular Folies en Folie ("Folies in Heat") included such stirring sights as a winter fête in the Tyrol, Venice at carnival time, four naked women in silver cowboy boots playing violins, a Viennese soirée at which Strauss creates the Blue Danube waltzes, a tribute to Josephine Baker and the Charleston, a fine abduction in a ship’s boiler room, a roller-skating duo, and a sumptuous Ancient Rome with everybody wigwagging in togas. It was rather like eating an entire dessert trolley. The Folies weren’t afraid to be a little silly, and this gave the kitsch a feeling of genuine music-hall, from a time when audiences were less jaded and in person was the only way to see something. Sadly, the talk is that the Folies may go under, though it was enthusiastically full the night I went.

The grandiose Lido, like the Moulin Rouge (now under similar management), takes the big-bang approach, so endlessly mimicked by Vegas and all the loud tourist nightclubs of the world that only its extravagance remains interesting. Electronic candles ascend and descend, an orchestra harrumphs along with a conductor; women in My Fair Lady furs, their breasts and buttocks barely showing, stroll beneath fountainous headdresses. Male dancers with toothpaste grins leap among them. Here the audience seems half foreigners, half French families from the provinces.

I sat at a table of three French boys in tuxes celebrating their school vacation. They enjoyed the inevitable salute to Broadway, the inevitable Polynesian panoramas complete with waterfall and erupting volcano, and especially the inevitable Chevalier tribute of thanking heaven for little girls who thankfully disrobe—though you can see more nudity on any French beach. Evening-dress couples descend stroboscopic staircases. An Ancient Egypt tableau features a delectable human sacrifice, a flaming inferno with a cobra, laser lights, and two camels; a pharaoh sings a torch song to a live mummy. In-between are bouncing rubberized acrobats, a genius who juggles ping-pong balls with his tongue to cha-chas, nude ice skaters, more acrobats, then some more acrobats. Each group tableau seems a finale, and the style is entirely derivative: everything but French. Like Liberace’s trousers, it is stupidity on an expensive, highly professional level.

The Crazy Horse Saloon isn’t really a music-hall. Cabaret-size, it calls itself erotic theater and boasts "the most beautiful femmes fatales in the world." Its origins lie in striptease and burlesque, but its high style is very much its own, continually under the guidance of its founder, Alain Bemardin. Since it opened in 1951, the Crazy Horse has become an institution in Paris nightlife and its lighting effects copied worldwide; faithful followers have included Dalí, Balanchine, Gene Kelly, Bob Fosse. (Woody Allen built a scene in What’s New, Pussycat? around the Crazy Horse.) Inside, the theater was surprisingly small, the stage downright tiny. It was easy to pick out the French: veterans, they were at the bar, paying less for an equal view.

How to describe such a spectacle? For nearly two hours one’s senses are blasted by variations on a single theme: eighteen naked young women with perfect bodies more individual than their faces, very close yet not close enough. This you cannot see on any beach.

After a disappointing gym-class opening the solo acts began: Bernardin christens his girls with names like Zaza Vesuvio, Charly Commando, Polly Underground, Tiny Semaphore. A brunette with foaming hair did an incandescent striptease lying against a tilted platform while op-art circles of black and silver swirled across her. (Already the newlywed American bride seated next to us looked nervous.) The Three Graces, wearing only pearls, rotated to classical music. Lina Peccadillo in space helmet and space boots flew to Venus, amid interstellar smoke. A couple of expert magicians came on for comic turns. Vanity Obelisk sang I’m a good girl and recalled affairs with "a cute ayatollah, an emir or two". The fantasy of the girl in a cage became a fantastic rhythmic ballet of a naked beauty throwing herself from bar to bar. In group numbers the girls wore multi-colored or matching wigs, which made their faces fade into mere prettiness so one could concentrate on what Kenneth Tynan called their "incredibly healthy" bodies.

I spoke with Alain Bemardin, an elegant man in his late sixties whose work evidently keeps him several decades younger (he recently married a Crazy Horse star named Lova Moor).

"In 1962 we did a Nazi parody. The music was a German military march; Bertha von Paraboum wore a G-string in the shape of a swastika. The Americans were shocked, the Germans were shocked, the French were shocked. The publicity was enormous."

I asked what it took to be a Crazy Horse girl.

"First, she must have marvelous breasts. Then, she must have trained already as a dancer; this is why we have many English girls, because they’re better dancers than the French. She must be tall, say 5’6 "or 5’7" at least. And she must be a ‘good girl’. I don’t find them, they find me. From all over Europe. We have also girls from South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Russia; from Poland, Hungary, Romania. Since we have a corps of twenty-four girls, and they average about five years with us, we take about five new girls a year. Afterward they might become singers, or dancers on TV. Others get married. But everyone knows there’s no question of meeting the girls. The girls know and the clients know."

The net effect is a stunning, sublime eroticism; the tone is never leering, more a kind of holy lasciviousness. One marvels at the imaginative lighting and is disappointed by the acts which too easily fall short. But one goes for the superb girls, after all.

L’Alcazar, which calls itself proudly "Le Plus Parisien des Spectacles," is the music-hall least known to foreigners. Less than ten per cent of its clients are tourists and indeed, someone who doesn’t speak French will miss some good jokes. Here I found at last the creativity, wit, surprise, and joie de vivre that were the reasons the original music halls flourished.

The immediate difference, in the opening, was the sense of many characters: a grande dame, a vedette, a singing curé, a floating transvestite, a flamenco dancer. The intimacy of the place was one of the more cunning aspects of the show; the moment a young emcee came on, the waiters began to shout and scoff. Obligingly he introduced them as "our real stars" and insisted they come up onstage to do a disgruntled cancan, balancing their trays.

To the emphatic "The minute you walked in the joint. . ." there was a retelling of the famous murderer Landru, who burned beautiful widows in his oven. In L’Alcazar’s witty version, five widows stride on in black and do a competitive strip while Landru, looking suspiciously like Toulouse-Lautrec, covetously collects their black silk undergarments. ("Look!" calls out one waiter. "She lost her trousers!") The proud widows walk naked across the front tables then hop willingly into Landru’s oven. He closes it on all five but instead of turning up the flames—hops in after them.

A Cotton Club scene (the emcee announced that Coppola had been there the night before, directing) was a brilliantly detailed period piece. And for the first time in my music-hall week, the inevitable can-can recreation that followed was wonderful: the frou-frou girls protesting, waving their legs, squealing. ("Pigs!" screamed a waiter. "Please," implored the emcee.)

And now an homage to the tango. Before you: Buenos Aires, suggested by a street scene of men inventing a few steps for each other as women joined them, to the strains of accordion and violin. (The musical arrangements here were in a class of their own.)

An enormous man named Badabou came on dressed as Ines de la Fressange, the Chanel model. Unspeakably done up in wig, slinky dress, and plumed gloves, he mussed the hair of several men in the audience. ("Old friends?" suggested a waiter.) After a salute to Edith Piaf (an impersonation that stayed on the side of tribute) the emcee improvised a routine with—or against—a famous French radio personality in the audience. A dignified black singer in tails, tap-dancing brilliantly, explained "what they mean when they say gay. . . Paree." Blindfolded, the emcee did a mock ESP act with someone in the audience, ignoring her denials and protests.

To Sayonara, a samurai opera buffa: Badabou in a blue kimono and her warrior paramour crashed around the stage in a romantic, martial-arts pas de deux, using poles, daggers, and swords to demonstrate their love while silly geishas twirled umbrellas.

For Alice in Playback-land a schoolgirl listening to her radio summons up an Elvis impersonator, followed chronologically by an Alice Cooper and gang; a Boy George; Whitney Houston and soul singers; then Badabou as Madonna, followed by—James Brown!—while mini-skirted girls frug away with men in inflatable suits that suddenly inflate out of control. Prince struts on, accompanied by chicks in yellow leather and black stockings, then Michael Jackson. The schoolgirl remains bewildered.

Like many Alcazar acts, Alice works as tribute and very funny parody simultaneously. Afterward I spoke with the director and choreographer, Dominique Conte, about L’Alcazar’s special atmosphere. "What’s important is that the performers are involved with the spectators. This is very Parisian; the intimacy is what makes the real camembert."

She’d worked at the Folies for five years—"a good school." L’Alcazar had begun in 1968, "the year of France’s second revolution. Many numbers were derisive, like a nude girl singing in a bath with pictures of politicians. Now people don’t go to cabarets so much, it’s less a reflex, people think they’re dirty. We often do matinees for groups of elderly at low prices. They love to see the old days evoked, as in the Piaf songs. I try for fifty percent comedy; I want people at least to smile. One must always turn things upside down, otherwise it’s boring. You have to modernize traditions and hold on to them at the same time. The artists here stay sometimes a year, sometimes four years. The problem now is that young people would rather work at videos, or ads. The danseuse myth is finished. Here it takes a special esprit and fourteen hours’ work a day. I like tenacious people; I’m lucky to have some who wanted to do this all their lives."

Last year an effort to do L’Alcazar in New York failed; the promoters wanted to reproduce the idea and the costumes, not bring over the show and the incomparable performers. "They couldn’t keep their hands off it. In the end it wasn’t French. I wanted to export the real camembert, but it wasn’t to be." To this visitor, it was gratifying to find in the music-halls something still too Parisian to export.

Saturday, March 2, 1991

Aphrodisiacs of the East

Written for U.S. Gentlemen's Quarterly in early 1991. 

Having recently recovered from a sojourn in the Levant investigating the current status of belly dancing, and with some time on my hands, I decided to undertake a journey of considerably greater duration, scope, and scientific magnitude, a voyage deep into the very navel of Oriental wisdom:  those potions and pellets devoted to inspiring the bedroom arts.  Envisaging a selfless quest that would take me through the seedy alleys and steamy fleshpots of Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Burma, and Thailand, I wired ahead to my man in Calcutta to pack my steamer trunks and prepare letters of credit, letters of transit, and letters of introduction.  I then took passage east in full tropical kit and settled down to the prospect of several months’ arduous research.

As Aristotle remarks somewhere, the beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms.  Let us begin by defining broadly what we mean by aphrodisiacs, those of Southeast Asia in particular.  I will not speak here of the sudsy pleasures of the wriggling Bangkok masseuses, nor of any other live specimens.  As Aristotle might’ve added had he been better travelled, the first quality of a good aphrodisiac is that, once located, you can conveniently bring it home without violating any customs regulations.

Now you might well argue (as the Chinese have for centuries) the sexual virtues of shark’s fin soup.  You might equally argue the similar properties of an expensive soup made from rare birds’ nests plucked, at great danger, from the dizzying heights of Thai island caves by daring men scaling rotten lianas.  But what good are such delicacies if you have to fly a woman ten thousand miles to find them reliably on a menu?  And then run the risk of her not ordering them?  No, a good aphrodisiac should fit in an effective quantity into one’s vest pocket.  My own personal rule of thumb is that it should at the very least be more portable than the person for whom it is intended.

I hope I may be permitted, in the interests of scholarly discussion, to include in this modest study not only those items of seduction, but also those of mutual enhancement, and finally, those of self-reinforcement.  Lest this latter category embarrass a few readers, let us remember that even the luscious Kissy Suzuki had to use a cunning Japanese mixture of electrocuted frog’s sweat and powder of dried lizard to revive an inactive James Bond in You Only Live Twice.

Prior to embarking for the Orient, I took the trouble to call upon an old school chum who has worked for some years in the arcane corners of the legitimate pharmaceuticals industry.  Before tracking down some aged apothecary in Hua Hin, I reasoned, why not see what Western medicine had to offer in the way of aphrodisiacs?  It is all very well (I pointed out to my friend) to be able to put a man on the moon, but what good is modern technology if it can’t come up with a foolproof elixir, a few drops of which will instantly turn the person of choice into a willing, even eager, sexual slave?

“Precious little use, bub,” was his quick reply.  “There is one item we’ve come up with called MDA.  For a few years it was a recreational drug of choice, especially among yuppies.  It’s about a hundred times more powerful than valium—we use it to ease the pain of terminal patients.  Supposedly it has aphrodisiacal qualities as well, but you’d probably be just as happy to roll around on the carpet with the dog.  Personally, I’d head east.”

Steamer trunks in hand, I began my investigations in Singapore.  On infamous Decker Road, I decided to confine myself geographically and passed up the opportunity to buy kangaroo-hair ticklers imported from Australia.  The next morning, however, in the rickety Chinese quarter, my eye was caught by a promising street-side stand.  Piled high with boxed powders, there was also a crude carved wooden man, whose healthy protuberance could not be misinterpreted.  Had I struck paydirt already?  The mustachioed stallkeeper assured me profusely that he purveyed “only best powder, sir,”  and recommended a golden box with two dragons and Chinese characters on the front.  “One teaspoon in boiling water, twice a day,” he intoned.  “Better you take ten box.  Special price for you, only eighteen Singapore dollar for one box.”

I peered closely at the back, where an English translation was thoughtfully provided.  It promised to cure “overfatigue, poor memory, maldevelopment of sexual organs, sexual debility, aches in loin, night emissions, etc.”  Well, I thought, I do have a bad memory.  I peered closer.  The ingredients were the classic Chinese restoratives: herbs, wild ginseng, sea horse, hedgehog skin.  More to the point, the powder also contained deer penis, spotted deer antler, donkey penis, dog penis, ox penis, sheep penis, and for a little flavor, snow frog.

Tempting as this concoction was, I decided to experiment several days with one box before investing heavily.  In water its taste was unexpectedly bland; it had no ill side effects.  In fact, it seemed to have no effects whatsoever.  At least that I can recall.

Somewhat chastened, and unable to locate the unscrupulous tradesman, I flew south to Indonesia.  Because that archipelago contains thirty thousand islands, and life is short, I decided to pass up Borneo, Bali, or Sumatra, and made for Java.  Traditionally, an Indonesian girl hides her underwear in the clothing of the man she wants to seduce; I was unable to confirm if this still occurs.  In Jogjakarta I saw a shadow puppet show caught in an untimely monsoon, but otherwise came up high and dry.

My extensive readings had suggested, however, the attractions of a smaller town called Solo, whose lovely women are said “to prowl the streets like hungry tigers.”  Figuring some secret recipe might lie behind their feline insatiability, I explored the very busy Solo night market but turned up no tigresses.  Solitary, I sampled a so-called “male virility tonic”  called Susu Itb.  Perhaps, had I stayed longer, I might’ve had positive results, but, unable to buy the stuff by the bottle for more rigorous scientific trials, I  headed north to Malaysia.

At this point it struck me as highly possible I was being followed, so I disembarked the train by night and proceeded by horse cart to Malacca, that charming ex-Portuguese, ex-British town of the fabled straits and the enchanted name.  Its sleepy waterfront was as soothing as ever, but I came up with no magic serums.

A haggard, elderly shopkeeper did try to assure me that in his selection of handsome canes for which that seaport is justly famous, several could easily be put to aphrodisiacal purpose.  I could not agree with him on this, but I conceded that his well-carved canes were admirable works of art.

In Kuala Lumpur, I tried that fabulously repulsive and smelly fruit, the durian, on the basis of a Malay proverb which states, “When the durians are down, the sarongs are up.”  This may be so, but I found it difficult to get close enough to a durian to get one down in the first place.

In Penang—that island oasis of preserved colonial-era calm—on a sweltering Christmas Day I celebrated by making the rounds of Chinese medicine men and their immaculate shops.  One wizened patriarch’s unadorned cabinets held stretched snakeskins, dried spiders, porcupine quills, immobilized lizards like tiny dragons, and at least a hundred different insects in a kind of taxidermist’s nightmare.  I asked about aphrodisiacs; he merely grunted and offered me a sprig of betel to chew, then opened his jaw like a whale to show a mouthful of the stuff.

Undaunted by this failure to communicate, a little farther up the street I found a younger and seedier version of the same Chinese gentleman.  Seated in the shady recesses of his narrow shop with his wife, at first he said, “That against the law in Malaysia.”  When I started to leave, however, he darted out of the shadows and pulled me back in.  With a serious expression he extracted a small ring of knotted catgut, pushed it over the counter, and said brokenly, “Happy ring.”  He then indicated its purpose, which I had by that time divined, and he pointed out the deviousness of minute individual knots around its circumference.

For such a test I would, of course, need a female assistant, and fortunately such labor is easy to hire in this part of the world.  The tight little ring certainly seemed all that the doctor had ordered, but I realized that, rather thoughtlessly, even though he had made it clear to me when to put it on, I had neglected to ask him the more crucial question of when to take it off.  After wearing it for several days I felt my gait had become a trifle bowlegged, a problem resulting, in fact, from poor circulation.  In the end, to extricate myself from the fearsome contraption, I was forced to sever it with my Swiss Army knife.

Going back to lodge a complaint with the merchant, he was gentleman enough to offer me “at a very special price” four tablets he'd made, he assured me, “from all kinds of herbs.”  I must admit I was losing heart by this time, so I pocketed them somewhat moodily and headed for Burma.  In that remote country I hoped to purchase some of the love philtres mentioned by George Orwell in Burmese Days—“aphrodisiacs in the form of large, soap-like pills.”  In the Rangoon market I did purchase a number of large pills, but they turned out to be soap.

I had better luck in Mandalay, however, after a jolting nineteen-hour ride seated bolt upright in a pre-war railway carriage.  At the Mahamuni Pagoda I saw the reverence with which the local population treats two superb bronze statues of warriors pilfered from Angkor Wat in neighboring Cambodia five centuries ago.  The Burmese believe that rubbing a spot on the statues blesses their own health in the same body part.  Judging from this, the Burmese have quite a few headaches and belly aches; but for my own purposes, I was satisfied to note that one warrior’s codpiece had actually rubbed away, while the other’s belt region had been polished to a shine over the centuries.

Heading south to Thailand, in Chiang Mai I was fortunate to meet an American expatriate named Daniel Reid—author, translator, longtime resident in Asia and an expert in local herbs and medicines.  I was not astonished to learn that he imbibes daily his own elixir—for general health purposes as well—and that, mixed with rum and smelling of a dozen herbs, it also contains most of the unusual ingredients my useless Singapore powder had claimed to.  Daniel assured me that his mix contained only the finest dried and powdered animal members, and that any Oriental aphrodisiac worth quaffing was based on this recipe.  (Daniel’s is detailed in his book, The Tao of Health, Sex, and Longevity, Simon & Schuster).  He poured me a glass, mixed with a little cognac.  It rolled smokily, vaporously, down the throat, but otherwise seemed to do little else.  In a cynical abandonment of scientific principles, that night I downed the Penang pills that had been jangling in my pocket for many days and lay down to sleep my last sleep before leaving Asia.

But it was not to be.  I got no sleep that night; nor did my assistant.  Whether it was Daniel Reid’s revived ancient formula, or those pills, I cannot say; perhaps it was even a delayed reaction to the Singapore powder.  For anyone who wants to find out, I still have two pills left with which I am prepared to part for a very special price.

Friday, February 15, 1991

The Last Non-Sexual Massage in Bangkok

I was in Thailand in January 1991. I wrote this for the U.S. edition of G.Q (September 1991). The idea was to write sexily, not sexually. 

The best massage in Bangkok has nothing, I repeat nothing to do with a lissome naked Thai beauty soaping you to distraction using every inch of her skin and the only sponge nature has endowed her with.

Rather, depending on your definition of “best" (and, I suppose, your idea of  “massage”) it takes place in absolutely no privacy, in daylight, and both of you keep all your clothes on. And while it may not be as profound a religious experience as the famous Bangkok “body-body," this dry alternative occurs under the incurious gaze of hundreds of Buddhist monks.

It is available daily, 7:30 – 5, in one of the largest and holiest temples in Bangkok: the Wat Po (Place of Meditation). A Thai temple is characteristically a series of courtyards littered with glittering gingerbread pagodas, adored statues, and chanting shaven-headed novitiates by the dozen. The Wat Po has also one or two tables of fake Rolex watches being hawked at ten bucks each and a few palm readers with an impressive command of several foreign languages. The Wat Po also contains the biggest reclining Buddha in the country: nearly half a golden football field of him, counting the mother-of-pearl feet. This beatific Buddha looks as if he has just received the finest kind of classical Thai massage; on a recent Saturday morning I paid my respects, then went myself to the next courtyard to do likewise.

I must admit that having heard about Thai massage traditions going back twenty or thirty centuries, etc., conferring the same benefice on the giver as the recipient, etc., I was with customary barbarian ignorance prepared for saffron-robed monks themselves to be doing the kneading. This is of course not the case. But the Wat Po School of Thai massage, in two screened, slant-roofed enclosures, has been the finest in the country for at least three decades. Eighteen very hard beds with mattresses are laid side by side in each; fans keep the Bangkok humidity and heat at bay.

Nearly all the beds were taken by barefoot clothed bodies either lying prone for being gently bent, pressed, and squeezed by barefoot clothed masseurs. Both sides of this corporeal tug of war were of both sexes. My hopes for a pure massage, with no impure overtones, were dashed when (after paying my 140 baht, about six dollars) I was introduced to my masseuse. Instead of some wiry Thai who would wrestle me into shape, I was given instead a gorgeous young woman named Mon with big dark eyes and long black hair, slender in tight three-quarter trousers. Naturally, I felt surges of retrospective guilt at having put off a traditional Thai massage for so long.

Thai massage is based on the theory of ten primary and invisible lines of force running through the body. Pressure is never exerted on the bones, but exerted and released on the muscles after slowly loosening them. Another technique involves cutting off the circulation entirely in one area for a minute, then releasing. The movements and stretches are always gradual and subtle; you find yourself in positions with names like “the reclining cobra" without any strain. For anyone familiar with Bangkok traffic, the gentleness and flexibility of this massage will be a surprise.

What most astonished me, though, was how much pressure Mon could exert. She began on my feet and after popping my toes, worked her way very gradually up my legs; at times she simply leaned on me, and seemed to weigh as much as a truck. She would tug one bent leg up easily, give a disarming smile, then suddenly 10,000 pounds would be painlessly applied to a tight muscle I never knew existed. She would rock back and forth on my limb for a moment with the pressure on, then move elsewhere. It was less like a massage than like a highly skilled mechanic giving an engine a very thorough tune-up.

After my legs, she went to work on my back, treating it like a crossword puzzle, clambering all over me, up and down and across. Since it is impossible to say exactly what was going on, I can only state it felt as if she were leaning, walking, kneeling, and squeezing with her toes, fingers, and heels all at the same time. Eventually she took my arms, which by now had little fight left, and stretched them until they were each about fifteen feet long. Then she went to work relaxing my skull.

All the while she kept up a singsong twittering conversation in Thai with the masseur two feet away from me who was giving a comatose Dutchman the 100,000 pound treatment. Perhaps I looked soft, and that was why I’d been given this slip of a girl rather than someone who’d treat me like a twist-off cap? Anyway, the massage school in the Wat Po struck me as the most relaxing place in Bangkok; I left invigorated, not exhausted. I recommend this traditional Thai massage heartily—and should you decide to try the other kind of Bangkok massage, please, gentlemen, no matter what the weather forecast, even if you wear nothing else, be sure to wear your raincoat.

Wednesday, January 23, 1991

The Coliseum Bar, Kuala Lumpur

Written in 1991 for G.Q.; published a decade later by National Geographic Traveler

"East? They wouldn’t know the bloody East if they saw it. Not if you was to hand it to them on a plate would they know it was the East. That’s where the East is, there." He waved his hand wildly into the black night. . . .

With this drunken outburst begins Anthony Burgess’ classic Malayan trilogy, The Long Day Wanes, set in the dusk of the British Empire. Three decades later, on any night of the week, no such accusation of ignorance can be levelled at the sprawling, half-cocked, half-crocked denizens of the Coliseum Bar in Kuala Lumpur ("Kuala L’Impure" to its friends), here in the capital of the Federation of Malaysia. These poor sods all know the East—top to bedraggled bottom, they are the bloody East.

This seedy establishment, officially the Coliseum Cafe and Hotel (it lets out a few bare rooms upstairs), has been going steadily downhill throughout the seven decades of its prosperous existence. Somerset Maugham, looking for stories, frequented and loved the place in better years. Today it has little in common with other former haunts of his—toity, posh K.L. clubs like the exclusive Selangor with its gentlemen, crickets, horses, and sultans’ sons. The Coliseum remains a watering hole for loyal and traitorous sons of the Empire alike, no matter what their creed, color, or disinheritance. It is one of the most democratic bars in Southeast Asia.

It inhabits a colonially-columned, tottering building fronting at 98-100 Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman. Every Saturday evening a boisterous local market throngs the street with vibrant Malay spicesand uproar. Inside the warm, wormy, smoky recesses of the Coliseum, however, all is fog, drink, and decay.

You push your way in through creaking, saloon-style swinging doors. At the far end, barely visible through the haze, past the Victorian coat rack, at an ancient, chest-high bar several old-timers, a silent ex-planter (one of the last) among them, are hanging on for dear life. They have been here since before lunchtime. The air is fumed with fresh tobacco and stale Tiger beer, churned lethargically by a wide-bladed overhead fan. A newcomer remarks on the grueling December heat; a sweating veteran with effort lifts his chin off the scarred bar, exhales one "Godormighty," and crashes his head down again. The talk, as always in such rare vestiges of an empire long gone, is of Getting Away.

A bottle of cold Tiger is bought for the newcomer by a still-upright Malay who speaks good English. In a low voice he takes a turn around the room:

"I know most of ’em. I’m not here all the time, you understand. Upcountry part of every week. You might say I’m a regular irregular. Now, the unconscious feller we’re a little worried about. Hasn’t changed his clothes since yesterday, which means he hasn’t been home. He’s a musician, some of the time. Now, they—"A group huddled in a corner, their skins ranging from pale white to dark teak. "Two of those are civil servants. Don’t know the others. Up to no good, plotting something, I imagine. The old bugger with the Nehru cap owns this place—bought it off a Chinese family years ago. Place is a bloody gold mine, if you ask me. About to cave in, probably, but there you are. . . Now this bloke here says he’s from Perth— aren’t you, Alf? He’s been out here donkey’s years. In timber. Originally from Calcutta, no matter what he says. Anglo-Indian: English, but born out East. When you going back to Calcutta, Alf?"

"Not bloody soon. You used to be able to cross the bloody street in Calcutta. Nowadays it’s bad as London. Why, the last time—"

Above the bar a sign assures the clientele that, for their benefit, only non-hygienic water is used to dilute the drinks.

In the restaurant adjoining, a waiter conscientiously knots an enormous bib around a customer's neck to protect him from clouds of hissing smoke when a steak is brought in, sizzling on a metal platter. As the evening declines toward the ten o’clock last call—for drinks begin early and end early in the East—the irregular regulars, most of whom are here every night, stagger into the restaurant for fortification against a humid, insect-ridden sleep.

For these weary men (not a woman to be seen among them), with their easy mingling of race with race and religion with religion, their doglike affection for each other, their heart attacks coming as surely as the holidays—for these men, will always be of Getting Away. But in these final dim outposts of a life long waned and gone, there is no Away, only the prospect. Meanwhile, the Coliseum—and "the bloody East"—will have to do.