Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Beyond the Sleaze and the Wealth

I’ve finished a family holiday through IndoChina and made an interesting discovery. I’ve gone out of my way to get a rub in Siem Reap (Cambodia), Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon as it was known and Bangkok. Of the three cities, the only city where I was required to take off my cloths was in Bangkok, the most “developed” of all the cities.

OK, it was a family holiday and I wasn’t going out of my way to look for “special” massages. However, when you live in Asia for long enough, you become sensitive to the availability of certain things.

I mean, I’ve lived in Singapore for the better part of the last decade and I have in many ways become immune to the obvious signs of ‘sleaze.’ While Singapore’s public image is one of “sterility,” the place has obvious “sleaze” spots that have become tourist attractions. When you live in a city with such contradictions, you tend to become very matter of fact about certain things.

One of the ways in which “moral” Singapore deals with “sleazy” Singapore is by telling itself that the workers from the “sleaze” industry are from “other parts” of Asia. This happens to be a true fact. The majority of sex workers in Singapore are from elsewhere.

While this is true, it often gives us a rather misguided view of “other” Asians, particularly the women. Mention that you know a girl from China or Vietnam or Thailand and your average Singaporean has a wonderful orgasmic moment of moral outrage – “Oh women from China/Vietnam/Thailand, they’re just prostitutes,” being the usual remark.

So, you could say that when you are surrounded by this attitude, you’re going to be inclined to expect every massage joint outside of Singapore to be a front for a ‘fuck shop.’ Yet, I didn’t find this to be the case in either Siem Reap (tourist hot spot) or Ho Chi Minh (we’ve heard more than enough of what the GI’s used to get up to.) This was true, even in a place called “Virginy Massage” in Siem Reap. The girls in the ‘beauty’ parlours of Ho Chi Minh City were scantily clad but that was always a case of a uniform rather than an indication of what was to come – it was, dare I say it, pretty much like the SIA uniform.

If anything, after a few days in Siem Reap, Phnom Penh, Ho Chi Minh City and Bangkok, I’m inclined to believe that the sleaziest city in Southeast Asia is …….Singapore. My mum tried to point out at that we were staying in “nice” parts of these cities. Well, guess what – you have pretty sleazy bits of Singapore right smack bang in the middle of prime property. Then there’s the argument that there are no street walkers in the less developed parts of Asia because they’re all in Singapore.

While this argument might make sense from a logistical point of view – it’s kind of sad. If I take my few days in IndoChina as an example, I don’t believe that “other” Asian women are any more inclined towards prostitution than women from anywhere else. I was in enough situations where it was easy to be tempted. Yet, in both Siem Reap and Saigon, nobody tried to tempt me to do ‘extra’ for a bit ‘extra.’ By contrast it’s almost expected in certain parts of Singapore.

Could it be something to do with what we’re about? I mean, is Singapore just a place where people come here because there is “free” and “easy” money available. I mean, I often look at the crap that the Manpower Ministry and Immigration Department throw at people who happen to be a bit on the dark side of pale and wonder why they do it. Then I think of the bits of rural Asia that I’ve seen and I realize that it’s usually a no brainer for them - $350 a month as a maid versus $25 a month on the farms.

Then you look at what the “vice” trade pays versus what salaries for manual labour pay and once again, it is a no brainer as to why people do what they do. Think about it, an Orchard Towers hooker can make S$4,000 in a bad month while a maid earns $350 a month.

Let’s face it – there is money to be made in Singapore and you can’t blame people for wanting to claim it. However, it’s kind of sad to think that this is literally all that we have to offer both the foreigners and ourselves.

I mean at least the girls from China/Vietnam and Thailand end up doing things like supporting families back home. They do put younger siblings through to school. In short, they’re doing what dutiful people do for their families on limited resources.

By contrast, what do we have in Singapore beyond all the trappings? No wonder why we get so upset with people who dare do things that better their lives. 

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Year Zero

I’m currently with the mother, stepfather, aunt and siblings in Ho Chi Minh City. We’re on a family holiday in IndoChina. Mum decided that after many years and with all of us “growing-up” it was time for us to have a family reunion of sorts.
The trip started in Siem Reap, Cambodia. The place is something of a tourist haven thanks to its biggest asset – the Angkor Wat. We spent three days visiting temples and trying to discover the Khemer culture and for me, it was a few moments of being able to offer some prayers.
Then it was off to Phnom Penh, the capital city. I don’t know why but it seemed necessary to visit Tuol Sleng Genocide museum. The experience was depressing. As my sister says, “There’s some seriously bad ju-ju in here.”
Unlike the more sophisticated tourist industries of Greece or Italy or even Thailand, Cambodia’s industry is fairly raw. Yes, there is some restoration work going on at the Angkor site but by and large things are left pretty much as they’ve been for the last few centuries. If you look at the Acropolis in Athens you can’t tell the restored stuff from the originals. You’ll get to see lots of reenactments of people in ancient costume. You don’t get any of that in Cambodia. Things are as they are.
I guess that made Tuol Sleng all the more harrowing. There were no sophisticated audio visuals or wax works depicting things. There was just an old building, filled with empty iron beds. There were a few signs telling you what went on and boards of a few faces, telling a few stories.
Somehow, this lack of sophistication created a realistic connection with the ghost of people who had been murdered because some mad man they never met decided that they were people he didn’t like.
I’m not going to retell the story of the Cambodian civil war. Plenty has been said about it. What I will say is that history only hits home and becomes relevant to you, when you feel the ghost of the lives that history has claimed. Tuol Sleng is inhabited by spirits who cannot rest.
The events that took place in Cambodia were not that far away. They’re a little under 40-years ago. They’re about my age. For all the complaints I have about Singapore, I bless the fact that I was born there. Say what you like but I grew up in a place that there is a peace of sorts. I could have been born a few hundred kilometers north – in a place that gave us the Killing Fields. That little accident of history gives me the opportunity to bitch about the things I haven’t done as I approach my 40th birthday. Had I been born in Cambodia instead, I might be blessing the fact that I’m going to see my 40th birthday.
However, I’ve not gotten over the fact that Singapore was opposed to the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, the invasion that removed Pol Pot and his goons from committing possibly the worst genocide in human history. For years, we cheered on the US and China in the UN for recognizing Pol Pot’s regime and the legal government of Cambodia.
I guess our political leaders at the time felt that it was the lesser of two evils. Perhaps it was the right decision in some sense of keeping the two big powers of the day (USA and China) on our side.
However, on a personal level, there’s something very wrong about this. Pol Pot wasn’t exactly secretive about his activities. Unlike today’s politicians who are all competing to create “economic growth” and “investment opportunity,” Pol Pot was very clear that all he was interested in was turning the clock back to the “Year Zero.” Whatever progress Cambodia had made from the moment he came to power was reversed.
Let’s leave the economics aside and think of the human cost. Sure, he killed less in absolute numbers than Hitler, Stalin and let’s not forget his patron in China – Mao. However, if you look at the total population of Cambodia (13 million according to the 2008 census), he killed a far higher percentage of his own people than any of the previous gentlemen.
I’ll give Western civilization this much – they’ve made it a point to try and remember their sins. The Germans have been exceedingly cautious not to let history repeat itself and the Western world won’t let them.
By contrast, we in Asia tend to ignore those sins. The Japanese, for example, don’t bother to appologise for their crimes and the rest of Asia never did much about it (with the exception of a few protests whenever some official visits the Yausukuni War Shrine). The reason was simple – Japan had the cash and we wanted her investment to “bring us into the modern age.”
Well we’re not going to shed any tears over Cambodia too. I guess you could say its all part of this thing called ASEAN unity. I’m glad we have it and I do think its better to move forward than back. However, I worry that in our mad rush to become rich and successful, we forget the human horrors that were inflicted on a people.
The Germans became prosperous and peaceful despite Auschwitz. Europe has not allowed them to forget that moment but it’s also allowed them to prosper.
What can be said for Cambodia? I entered Vietnam relieved. The Vietnamese are a more aggressive group of people. They are more pushy and in a way less given to the spiritual. Like the Chinese, they tend to pray for luck rather preparation for the afterlife. However, they are a people who have hope and a pride in the ability that future is theirs for the taking.
By contrast, I fear that the Cambodians are going to be in for a rough ride. The rest of Asia (lead by China) will prosper out of Cambodia’s official corruption. Western “do-gooders” in NGO’s will revel in their ability to help poor “brown people” and Western Business interest will compete with the Asian counterparts to screw the people. In the mean time, Cambodia is left with nothing much other than hope that the world will continue to have an interest in an ancient culture that once stood on their soil.
I think of the faces on the Bayon Temple and remember someone telling me that it reflected the spirit of the Cambodian People – smiling despite the horrors that ravaged their land. I only wish that the smile won’t have to hide the tinge of tragedy one day.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

The Language of Hunger

I am currently in Siem Reap, Cambodia with my mother and her side of the family. It’s what you’d call a long awaited family reunion. We usually gather at Christmas but during the past few years, Christmas meetings have become a little elusive.

Anyway, the purpose of meeting in Siem Reap is simple – we’re here to view the world heritage site known as the Angkor Wat. The building is amazing and as you walk through the place, you can’t help but be struck with the intricacies of the artwork that decorate the place. In the two days that I have been climbing up the temples, I’ve come to see the Angkor Wat as a symbol of the Cambodian or more precisely the Cambodian people. – This was the center of a great civilization that was allowed to decay. It has seen the best and the worst in human nature.  Ironically, it is probably the thing that will revive Cambodia or at least this part of the nation – Siem Reap is poor but you get the sense of an up and coming place.

The economy is being driven by tourist heading to the Angkor – the place is filled with all sorts of things a good tourist could want. This place is ideal for anyone on a budget – food and booze is incredibly cheap (drinking beer at $2.5 a mug)

One of the things that I’ve been impressed with about this visit is the linguistic talents of the tour guides in the Angkor Wat. As well as English, I’ve heard guides speak fluent Spanish, French, Mandarin Chinese, Vietnamese, Polish and Russian. You could say that they seem to have found a guide for every nationality that may visit the Angkor.

OK, speaking English isn’t special. English has become the ‘universal’language for the world (so much so that a Finnish friend of mine made the point that speaking English and your mother tongue doesn’t count as being bilingual). I guess French shouldn’t be such a surprise either, since Cambodia was a former French colony. Given the Chinese presence in Cambodia, you could say that some of them should speak the language. However, as my brother, Christopher points out – “How many Polish speakers do you expect in Cambodia?”

This ability to communicate is even more impressive when you consider Cambodia’s state of development – this is a developing country that has spent the last 40-years struggling to recover from a brutal civil war and a dictatorship that saw its government literally go to war against its own people. Pol Pot,the Khemer Rouge dictator killed a greater percentage of the total Cambodian population than Hitler or Stalin in their hey day. While Germany at the end World War II had Marshal Aid – Cambodia had nothing....

In a way, it puts Singapore’s inability to master languages into perspective. We are by far and away the most developed nation in Southeast Asia and yet we still need a endless of “Speak Good ....English, Mandarin and Malay”Campaigns.

Seriously – if people who are poor and struggling can learn different languages – why can’t we?