Corner of Patio da Dissumulacao and Rua da Felicidade. Somewhere in the endless season, which goes on for too long to all be called summer. Just when the sun begins to slink from the alleys. From the hot and humid air, snippets of a robust dialogue translated from the Mandarin and vernacular into English idioms of rough equivalent.
‘All men are bastards, how can you imagine there are exceptions?’ ‘I don’t imagine, I know… At every stage of my life there have been men who have shown me kindness, as well as the other kind. And now of course…’ A kindly glance cast in the direction of the disreputable loiterer on the next corner goes unnoticed. ‘And which, one might ask, was the rule, and which was the exception?’ ‘I would say that the good were rule and the bad were the exception. Humans are basically good, even sometimes despite themselves.’ ‘Oh spare me, take off the rose tinted glasses. Occupation: Let’s see, you’re profitably engaged in the business of bringing out the best in men? I suppose it was your idea to come here, your vocation of choice? ‘Well, it was me or my little sister and she was just too young... ‘I knew it. A martyr. There’s one on every street. The good prostitute! Doesn’t it wear you out being a cliché?’ ‘Better a cliché than a… monster.’ ‘I don’t think we’re the monsters in this game. Wait on, here’s a thirsty looking fish…’ And instantly she is across the street accosting the pedestrian male, who could be an innocent tourist, a man looking for a girl in general or in particular, or on the one hand a third floor resident of the building opposite… Only one way to find out.
‘Anmo? Massagey. Do you want to go? Only a hundred for a short time… You’re very handsome. You like massagey?’ Arm in arm until he forcibly frees himself and then our conversation can resume. While she’s still half way across. ‘O.K., now so you tell me who’s a monster and who’s not, I’m genuinely interested.’ ‘All right, so men are born with some monster business in them. It’s how they’re made. Not their fault. Men need milking. Babies milk us and we milk men. Some girls aren’t very good at it or don’t like it or are too busy and there’s an opportunity for a girl in need who has time on her hands… ‘Supply and demand?’ ‘Law of the jungle.’ ‘To be rich is glorious?’ ‘It would be too.’ ‘I see a ship about to dock, a rich cargo being loaded ashore.’ ‘Go, go, go. He’s yours.’ ‘Why did the chicken cross the road? Rhetorical question.’ But the other’s out of earshot now anyway.
‘So, men are supposed to be benevolent and women are supposed to be obedient. Let me get this straight. As long as everyone’s sincere everyone can be happy…’ After a sigh laden pause. ‘I don’t know about that obedience stuff, it’s a bit old fashioned these days. But there’s a man over there who’d agree with you I think.’ Head motioned sleepily in the direction of the pimp. ‘He’s not all bad you know. He has to make a living too.’ ‘As the meal said to the cannibal, this conversation is becoming one sided.’ ‘I’m sorry, I’m just a little sleepy that’s all.’ ‘Too much action again? Milking all that human kindness. It’s tough on a girl. But you’re a regular Florence Nightingale, aren’t you girlie?’ ‘Couldn’t you think of someone Chinese for me to be?’ ‘You’re Kungzi and Mengzi rolled into one. I went to school too, you know, Xunxi’s. But I do see where you’re coming from. Do you know the story about the girl who was standing just where you are – and the only reason she was here was to pay for the coffin to bury her father? It’s true. It’s true. There’s some filial piety for you. But how sincere do you think these men are being to their wives? Or do you think the problem is that their wives aren’t obedient enough at home or in bed or…?’
‘I don’t know what these men get up to or don’t get up to with their wives. But I do what they ask me to do and… ‘Keep that up and you might not be alive much longer… ‘Most of their requests, dear, are not only reasonable, I would say that they are quite natural, even wholesome. A man has certain needs after all and if they can’t be met somewhere then they’re bound to be met somewhere else… ‘Pelease! Didn’t you do any Marxism classes at school? Don’t you know what capitalist exploitation is? Don’t you realise sweetie that this is not a healthy occupation?’ ‘Shhh, pimp’s coming.’
‘Couple of philosophers are we? All this noise you girls are making. It’s… unattractive. You need to be as attractive as you can, and frankly girls, with faces like yours, you’ve just got to be trying a little harder… You should look where you’re painting, dear…’ She winces as he touches her face. ‘That’s come up nicely. But you should try with the eyeliner over the eye, leave the cheek out…’ ‘You bastard! You know that’s where you…’ ‘Oh, little chicken’s getting all upset. Do you want me to make you symmetrical?’ She simmers, bites lip, and through a superhuman effort, instantly comes off the boil. ‘That’s better, slut. Remember your place. And look at the way you stand. You want them to think you have tits, at least before you take them upstairs. No more fighting, OK? It will drive customers away. And you know what? That makes me unhappy. And when I get unhappy I can get ugly.’ ‘Well, you couldn’t get much uglier than you already are.’ ‘You just couldn’t hold your tongue, could you? How can a girl like you make a man happy. It’s ten minutes work half the time, but you’re just too proud…’ But this time she manages to say nothing. ‘Watch it bitch, Keep your big trap for special occasions. I’ll save you for later, tonight.’ Leers with much menace, stalks off to threaten some others.
In a whisper at first. ‘Give me the “told you so” look, will you?’ ‘Well, it’s better to say nothing from the start. Can you deny it?’ ‘And men are basically good and the world will be fine if we do what they say?’ ‘Change what you can change.’ ‘Platitudes are great if you’ve got an office wall to hang them on.’ ‘Might be even more helpful if you don’t.’ ‘How about some sympathy? Or is that only for members of your immediate family.’ ‘No, sympathy’s helping you not get hit.’ ‘Helping me to help myself, love my neighbour, turn the other cheek. You’re not a…’ ‘Not at all. I’m just a practical girl. I try to make the circs work.’ ‘The thing is…’
Impatient now. ‘The thing is what? ‘The thing is I’d rather have it out, bring things to a head, be beaten senseless if necessary. I just don’t want to rot in this place.’ ‘Just the one visa, right? We can rot somewhere else next?’ ‘That’s just it.’ ‘The thing is he’ll beat you senseless and then he’ll find some sicko bloke who can only do it with a girl someone else has beaten senseless. Don’t you see, you can make it better or you can make it worse. It’s the same when you’re with them, every time… ‘That’s right, because they’re all lambs aren’t they?’ ‘Most of them, most of the time.’ ‘Oh, I get it. Your face is so sweet you only get the wholesome types, the scumbags are all looking for a slut like me but every trick you perform is on some innocent hayseed who just happens to have won the village lottery and you just happened to be the prize…’ ‘With that attitude you can get through life.’ ‘Please, I’m going to throw up.’ ‘You’re just a drama queen. Tell me, what’s the use of being the only revolutionary on the block? Didn’t you learn anything in history classes?’
Stalemate. Thus they fade with the street into the dusk.
Twenty four hours later. One seated, one leaning over. In a dark doorway, their shift of spruiking done. The odd weary sigh from each.
‘You’ve seen too much action, dear.’ ‘That’s it, action. Most of it up here. The mind is a maze. So much happening, the things they tell you. The things they want, different every time. It wears you out.’ ‘Different every time? You’re kidding.’ ‘No.’ ‘I mean, just take these men. They’re all the same. You couldn’t tell them apart.’ ‘Oh, I could.’ ‘Well dear, you don’t know them to begin with, so how could you tell them from each other?’ ‘I could tell them from themselves.’ ‘Now that is cryptic. What on earth do you mean?’ ‘I mean – take the regulars – each is different every time.’ ‘I see. You can’t sleep with the same man twice.’ ‘Exactly.’ ‘We’d have a hard time disproving that, wouldn’t we?’ ‘It could kill some time.’
‘But it’s ridiculous.’ ‘More ridiculous than “they’re all the same because you don’t know them”?’ ‘Touchée, my dear, touchée. And still I maintain…’ ‘Different every time?’ ‘That’s it… Take me for example.’ A wig is removed revealing a short crewcut. ‘Not what you’d expect.’ ‘You don’t have...?’ ‘Cancer, no nothing like that. I’d be living it up, wouldn’t I.’ ‘Would you?’ ‘Well, I don’t suppose…’ ‘Lacking the wherewithal?’ ‘Got me on the “objective conditions”?’ ‘No contradiction simpler than a man.’ ‘And none more easily resolved.’ Another wig comes off. ‘You?!…’ ‘Well, now everything’s out in the open…’
‘Do you know I actually fancied you for a while back there.’ ‘The compliment’s mutual, I’m sure.’ ‘You’re not?’ ‘Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got nothing against gays, but you know a wife and kids back in Guangxi and a girl’s got to make a living after all.’ ‘Too right. C’est la guerre.’ ‘My sentiments exactly.’ ‘You know, I knew we had something in common.’ ‘Is that right? That pimp, he doesn’t know, does he?’ ‘No. It’s amazing. But then how many of your clients ever twig?’ ‘Don’t even have to be drunk.’ ‘Dark room. Reassuring voice. What would they know?’ ‘Really just a matter of not losing your nerve.’ ‘A girl’s got to do what a girl’s got to do.’ ‘You haven’t had any operations?’ ‘No, no. Nothing like that.’
‘I have to tell you though, there are some days when I don’t know whether I’m a man dreaming I’m a butterfly.’ ‘And let me guess… there are other days you think you’re a butterfly dreaming you’re a woman.’
Ladies’ spa of the Hotel Lisboa, later that evening. Undressing, the philosophers bump into each other, in what at first seems a coincidence to both of them.
‘Now here’s a horse of a different colour.’ ‘You know I really didn’t expect to see you in here.’ ‘Likewise I’m sure.’ ‘How can you afford it?’ ‘He had a few passes.’ ‘Right, that’s me too.’ ‘He probably has some crusty old farts lined up for us as soon as we walk out of here.’ ‘Could be, could be. Must be something special to go to all this trouble. “Nothing but the best for my girls.”’ ‘When he’s not starving you or beating you up.’ ‘There you go dwelling on the negatives again.’ ‘Meanwhile, you’re game, sweetie.’ ‘I could say the same of you.’ ‘You know they look very realistic. I knew you were pretty flat.’
‘Yours are quite… nice too. No injections or anything?’ ‘No, no, nothing like that. I’m a natural girl.’ ‘Me too.’ ‘You’re pretty well concealed down there. Just tucked away in the bushes, eh? Sure you’ve got kids? That wife of yours is into gadgets?’ ‘You’re shaved. I can’t believe it. I don’t mean to stare but… special tape?’ ‘No. Nothing special. Think about it, sweetie, the doctor’s certificates, the passport, pre-menstrual tension, period pain, pretty realistic, wouldn’t you say?’ ‘So in fact you’re not really…’ ‘No, not really. I was just pulling your leg. Taken in? Go on, admit it.’ ‘You were!’ ‘Well, I might have been for a bit.’
In the steam room, fits of giggling subside only to be recommenced, the only others present being speakers of Russian.
‘So why the short hair?’ ‘Lice.’ ‘Here? Now?’ ‘No. Back in Guangzhou. A gig a few weeks back. You?’ Pause, head down. ‘I guess I could say fashion or “I like wigs” but actually it’s chemo.’ ‘Shit, I’m sorry to hear that.’ Pause. ‘So you’ve got cancer and you’re still doing this to send the money back to your folks in the village?’ ‘Fuck them. I’m doing it to pay for a special herbal treatment – a traditional remedy – something you can only get in Macao.’ Thoughtful pause, languorous stretching. A few suggestive, if parodic, poses. ‘Like girls?’ ‘Mmmm. Never really...’ ‘Safer, no mess…I’ll take that for a yes.’ Holding hands. ‘Life is an experiment. Too short not to be.’
‘Do you know it’s just occurred to me that if we leave the wigs off, he’ll never notice us coming out, in fact he’d never recognise us at all.’ ‘But he’s got your family’s address.’ ‘No, he’s just got some bullshit I scribbled on a bit of paper.’ ‘But he’s got your family’s address?’ ‘Yeah, well fuck them. They’re the ones who sold me to the miserable prick, didn’t they?’ ‘You don’t think we should try our luck on White Horse Street, do you?’ ‘Are you really sure there’s such a street?’ ‘Well I’m sure it’s there but I’m not positive it’s a street.’ ‘You’re a dark horse, you are.’
Kit (Christopher) Kelen is a well known Australian writer and a doctoral student at the University of Western Sydney. Kelen teaches Comparative Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Macau, in South China. The most recent of his five published volumes of poetry are Republics(2000) and New Territories (2003). Apart from poetry he publishes in a range of theoretical areas including writing pedagogy, ethics, rhetoric, cultural and literary studies and various intersections of these. Kelen is the principal investigator in the University of Macau's 'Poems and Stories of Macao Research Project' and the editor of the university’s new on-line journal Writing Macao: creative text and teaching.