October 26th 1953
Just south of Hong Kong the estuary of the Pearl River creates an immense inlet in the coast, a sea lane reaching inland to the city of Canton. On the southern side, lies the tiny Portuguese colony of Macao, much older than Hong Kong but, likewise, also a port, where trading was permitted by the Celestial Empire. It is no more than a small town and its main fame today is as a pleasure ground for those in Hong Kong looking for a weekend of gambling or other more fleshly delights. It is an attractive little place, very Portuguese, with fine southern European buildings, a Catholic cathedral, churches and promenades and, behind its old-world charm and Sunday morning peacefulness, hide numerous dens of vice.
The ferry from Hong Kong sails out past the green mass of Lantao Island and, then, across the estuary. The far coast is hidden in haze; the water changes colour from a deep blue to a muddy shade of green, the sea being full of silt coming down from deep within China, and the numerous distant islands all belong to the Communists.
The passengers on board were as merry and bright as the islands shining in the sun. We five subalterns sat over the propellers, reclining in wickerwork chairs. Nearby, three Englishmen played poker and drank whisky with all the grace of reprobates off for a randy weekend. A beautiful Chinese girl in a scarlet and white European skirt and jumper posed on the rails to be photographed. Rich taipans, with seemingly redundant wives, sipped ‘cha’ in the first-class lounge. A young American asked for a glass of water and took pills for a sore throat, while his Chinese girl in a black, silky Chinese dress lay in a deck chair charming him. He was “just staying around these parts for a while” before moving on around the world. An English schoolmaster sat reading a novel, with the assurance of one who believes he will soon win back his fare at the fan tan tables. A group of young Hong Kong teenagers, both European and Chinese, chattered gaily to each other, showing off their mammoth model aeroplanes, while their leader arranged deck chairs, drinks and sandwiches for them. Below deck, a circle of coolies sat on their haunches, gathered round a great dish of rice and titbits, shovelling it out into little bowls and tucking in with their chopsticks.
From the sea, Macao first appears as a long peninsula, ridged along the middle and crowned by an attractive church. The waterfront or “Praya” stretches along the shore lined with verdant trees, behind which the gay green or blue sloping roofs of the houses give a Mediterranean appearance to the place. Rounding the promontory a row of warehouses, quays and jetties comes into view, with flat-roofed tenements and arcades backing them. The steel grey mass of the Grand Hotel dominates the front, overshadowing other buildings. The evening sun glistened upon its windows and lent a richer tinge of colour to the thronging people in the streets, the junks along the quays and a broad flat stretch of paddy fields, lining the shore of a small island opposite the harbour.
Our ship, the Tai Loy, trailing a wake, dark brown with disturbed mud, moved slowly up the side of the waterfront and closed on the quay below the Grand. The five subalterns awaited the landing with eagerness: Tom, broad and Germanic with a whisky-coloured moustache, Roger, dark and wiry, thickset, with an aggressive chin and friendly eyes, Arthur, dark with smoothly wavy hair, whose bleak eyes above an aristocratic roman nose would suddenly gleam with animation and Conrad, from regimental headquarters and, thus, the most senior among us, tall and lean, intellectual, with the mind of a journalist and the face of a boy, always a trifle bemused and – myself. On the quay, a string of coolies, ragged men and cowled women, danced a grim fandango across the planks as they hauled in our cables. We made our way down the gangway, where several Catholic priests were greeting a fellow from Hong Kong – one by one they knelt and kissed his hand.
We were spotted from the shore by a tubby little Portuguese, dressed in a grey uniform with an enormous coloured badge over the left breast, who came and introduced himself as a member of the Macao Tourist Agency. He advised us to book rooms quickly, either at the palatial Bella Vista overlooking the Pearl river from a magnificent cliff, the busy Central Hotel rattling with the sound of mahjong play or the Grand, so tall as to provide peace and quiet above the roofs of the tenements. We chose the latter and found the rooms pleasantly airy, each having a bathroom and lavatory attached. The beds were capacious and the views out over the roofs of the tenements attractive. The setting sun sent slanting bars of light through the latticed sun blinds. We had decided to do most of our exploration by ourselves, trusting to our own noses, so the tubby man who had come “with absolutely no obligation, Sirs”, left in the same state and we set about getting a meal.
The Chinese restaurant of the hotel was partitioned into little cubicles with swing-to doors. We found ourselves peering over the edge of a little balcony into another restaurant below, where Roger and Tom, having opted for an English meal, were regaling themselves. Our “chow” was inordinately long in coming, so we set to with a bottle of “vino tinto”, very cheap but almost as harsh as vinegar. We chatted and sang songs, merrily flicking toothpicks into the whirling fan and sending them spinning into the room below. The white wine that followed was better than the red, a bit rough but enjoyable. But still no food, so we had a third bottle and were halfway through when the food arrived, two piled plates of chicken and noodles for Conrad and myself and a fried rice dish, ‘Yeung Chow Chou Fan’, for the others. We ate and drank happily until the other two joined us. We all rolled out into the street a trifle bleary.
Within ten minutes of fixing our rooms a hotel “boy” had poked his head around the doors – “Nice girls – very good!” Before dinner we felt this suggestion somewhat excessive and Roger had driven him off with epithets. Out in the street the pace was hotter, however. Several Chinamen stopped us; “You want look see?” and “See special film?” were the main suggestions. We chose the most absurd-looking cove, with a comical grin and dark hair standing up vertically in a great tuft. He told us his name was George and he took pride in showing us a letter of recommendation from a captain in the French navy.
“It’s a French letter!” said Conrad.
George was an excellent guide, the captain told us; he would take us anywhere and show us anything we wanted. George’s toothless grin widened as we accepted his services.
“I show you nice exhibeesh!” he announced.
“What kind?” asked Conrad.
“Boy and girl,” he told us.
“That’s no good,” announced Conrad. “It’s girl and donkey I want to see.”
“But Señor, Sir, no donkeys trained plopaly in Macao!”
The main streets of Macao were ablaze with lights, bank upon bank of flaming neons, yellow, green, blue and violet; street signs in all colours, in Chinese, Portuguese, and English. The streets were narrower and the tenements less tall than in Hong Kong, so that they seemed even more animated and full of colour. In the back streets, the lights decreased in number, the shops, dim and shadowy, opening widely to the pavement where much of the merchandise was displayed. Over the cobbles the clip-clop of Chinese wooden shoes echoed flatly from wall to wall. Alleyways twisted up a hillside in a maze of forked turnings, while darkened windows gazed on the passing throng, small groups of people gathering and dispersing in the patches of yellow light pooled upon the cobblestones. Foul drains gurgled and a light litter of paper shavings and vegetable waste lay around in the corners, whence dark passages and stairways led off from the road.
George led us swiftly between the rather sinister houses. The Chinese looked impassively upon us as we passed and one or two old crones and children ran a few paces after us, holding out begging bowls and crying pitifully “Gumsah Gumsah!” Coolies under wide bamboo hats passed us, swinging along in a springy trot, carrying heavy loads on the ends of bamboo poles slung athwart their shoulders. Some were bearing broad pans, on which a most extraordinary mixture of objects were spread out, tins, old locks, nails, keys and rusted metal scrap of all sorts. Each of such men carried a little tin plate and advertised his presence by banging it vigorously with a spanner wherever he went. Bicycle rickshaws bumped precipitately down the steeper stretches, amid a violent clamour of bells, while people jumped aside to avoid them. When the cyclist attempted to go uphill, a group of children would gather behind the sweating man and help push him up to the top.
The miasma in front of my eyes was clearing quickly and I began to appreciate the strangeness of our situation. I doubt if any one of us alone would have dared follow a Chinaman into these streets. Around their murky, ill-lit corners anything could happen to an unwary European. Indeed, only a few weeks before, an American visitor had been found beaten up on the Praya one morning, with all his money and most of his clothes stolen. As it was, we kept close together as we hurried along. At last, George stopped in front of a vegetable shop, where baskets and ropes hanging from the roof cast vivid shadows upon piles of boxes, wicker baskets and vegetables laid out before the entrance. The shopkeeper was squatting upon a little stool talking with some friends. I have rarely seen a more shifty-eyed, lecherous-looking devil, short and broad, whose eyes never steadied on one’s face for an instant, sensual mouth, flabby cheeks and receding forehead. He waved his hands dramatically at our guide “Nothing less than ten dollars!” We stood firm at seven apiece. No, ten was the limit. We shrugged our shoulders and walked off. The guide followed us; he thought eight would do. We stopped while he ran back again. Yes – eight would do it. We stuck at seven until at last the shopkeeper agreed and led us even deeper into the dim streets until descending a cobbled hill, we came to a sign on the wall, “Hotela Chau”. In the foyer, he made a few brief arrangements and hurried us conspiratorially down a passage, so narrow it would have been necessary to squeeze past had anyone been coming the other way. On either side opened little rooms with curtains instead of doors, somehow highly suggestive of every sort of irregularity. Everywhere the lamps were of low wattage and the whole place shadowed in dim light.
We descended some steps into a larger room; the door was locked behind us to ensure privacy and we were told to keep quiet lest we attracted police. It was a sparsely furnished bedroom, on one side of which stood a vast bed with a matting mattress, with no bedclothes but with several bamboo leaf fans spread about on it. The shopkeeper set up a little 35mm projector and, motioning me to turn out the light, began to project a film on the grimy wall.
He showed us two films and during the running of each reel went outside to keep watch. The first reel began with a medley of this and that, presumably to obscure the true nature of the film. Soon a youth and a girl appeared strolling along a sea beach with the waves seething in the sand. Undressing piece by piece, they eventually sprinted into the sea, playing among the surging waves. They came to grips, struggled, clasped again and the lens closed in to reveal the tantalised boy’s organ and the joyful writhing of the girl, as the film followed in intimate detail every movement of their bodies. It had a naturist clarity and freshness about it that had us all aroused. The second reel was less good. It was a bedroom scene with two women and a man lusting together. There were close-ups of the man’s penis, while the man gave electric shocks to the women, whose faces writhed in an agony of desire. It was plain pornography and none of us enjoyed its vulgarity.
The “exhibeesh” was to follow. We were once more led along the grubby passage and past sordid lavatories to a room in the innermost recesses of the establishment. George told us to wait, which we did rather apprehensively. He returned with a young girl. We were surprised by her youth and poise but it was evident she did not relish the prospect before her. Even so, she did all she had to do without losing a quality of dignity, maintaining a passionless reserve throughout the operation. I was moved greatly that so pretty a girl, with those large pathetic eyes, should have been so degraded as to have come to this. The need for money must have been very great.
A man entered and, with the same disdainful lack of passion, copulated with her. Lying naked on the bed, they went through a variety of positions, while I found all emotion stifled within me by the almost medical demonstration. Intriguing it certainly was; the rhythmic motion of the thighs, the slight sucking sound as the penis slid in and out of the vagina, the girl’s fingers replacing it when it had slipped to one side. They showed us five different postures, before they separated and the man washed himself in the basin to one side of the room. The girl dressed, smiled at us at last and went out.
We filed out silently, chilled and without desire. In the foyer we were offered a girl apiece. Conrad and I felt it would be worth looking at them for the interest’s sake. Five girls were brought into the room. The first two looked pale and diseased; the other three were nicely dressed and smiling, just like any Chinese girl one could see anywhere in fact. George informed us that the first two were “second class” and the rest “first class”. They sat a trifle ill at ease around the room, as we thanked them and withdrew. Not good enough – we told George.
We had satisfied our curiosity and I felt we had been brutal. In displaying themselves and in being found wanting, even a whore may feel some shame. By withdrawing so, had we not insulted them, I wondered. Surprised by my own dispassionate interest, I felt like some newspaper reporter doing anything for a scoop. The world seemed cold and reptilian as we emerged again into the dingy, cobbled street.
Several hundred yards up the main street from the Grand stands the Central Hotel where the fan tan tables are. We shot up several stories in a lift and entered a wide hall containing four gambling tables surrounded by people, standing or sitting on little stools, with score cards in their hands. The tables were marked out in large, green squares, subdivided into numerous numbered rectangles. Stakes were placed upon the numbers while a bell rang to indicate that stakes might be laid. The majority of the gamblers were Chinese, putting a dollar or two here or there. A well-dressed businessman sat at a side table and crossed to the fan tan tables at intervals to place a hundred dollar bill or two. When the bell stopped, a croupier seated near the centre of each table spun the dice in a glass container covered with a black cloth. Calling out for attention he uncovered the container and shouted out the score. It was a simple matter of odds or evens and losses and gains were, as a result, fairly balanced. We met the English schoolmaster from the boat winning back his fare and, while we watched, the businessman won several hundreds. Arthur put down a few singles and came away without loss.
We retired to a restaurant on a lower floor and had some drinks. After a strong coffee to clear my head fully we went upstairs again to the dance hall. Illuminated dice were changing colour and number at regular intervals above the band at the end of the room, apparently a method of screening results from the tables downstairs to gamblers on the dance floor. As we entered the hall, I suddenly felt giddy and nearly had a blackout but, once recovered, I found myself as sober as any judge in a night-club can be.
Conrad and Roger did not want to dance, so they returned to the Grand while the rest of us remained. Finding the dancing girls somewhat expensive, we looked around for unemployed talent. At the next table to ours sat an attractive Eurasian girl with her Chinese girlfriend. When they got up we found they could dance most attractively. Arthur said he wanted to dance with the Eurasian so, when she sat alone for a moment, he asked her. She thanked him in very good English and said she was frightened to do so in the hotel because she was not employed there. Arthur was crestfallen and after a while we decided to return to the Grand. As we left the building we found the two girls just ahead of us. Arthur intercepted them, just as two Chinese men were trying to engage their attention. In a trice, we were all trundling along together towards the Grand in a trio of bicycle rickshaws.
Back in the Grand, we went up several floors and emerged into the soft lights and sweet music of the hotel night-club, a small floor surrounded by alcoves. People were mostly in pairs with one or two parties scattered about. We sat down ordering “cha”, while Arthur and the Eurasian flashed amorous looks at one another and the little Chinese kept Tom amused by pinching his nose with her elegant fingers. Although not especially pretty, there was a naughty jollity about her that was very pleasing. The Eurasian was certainly quite beautiful, black hair, oval face and wide, attractive eyes. She kept apologising to me, saying she wished she could find one of her friends for me. I told her not to worry and, indeed, I was quite happy watching the dancing, leaning back in my chair and puffing on my pipe.
Our sedate ballroom dancing was rather slow for them and once or twice, when the band struck up in a lively jive, they excused themselves and danced together with a delightfully wild abandon, swinging each other around and cross stepping in the liveliest manner. I liked the idea that they cared more for the rhythm of the dance than the necessity of a man to dance with. Their friendship seemed important to them, more so than whatever engagement they might have with us. It felt right somehow that they should career gaily across the floor in so careless a rapture.
For a while Tom and I shared dances with the Chinese girl, until Tom said he had a headache and must be off for a massage and bed. Arthur was making it very clear that he and Julie were going to spend the night together. As Tom departed, Arthur told me I would have to cope with the situation however I pleased. The opportunity was not to be ignored and I decided that I should sleep the night with the Chinese girl but avoid any dangerous intercourse. Arthur too had said he would not “go too far” but I doubted the strength of his resolve.
After Tom had left us, the little Chinese and I began to notice one another for the first time, each knowing instinctively, I supposed, what was now inevitable and that we were to give as much physical joy to one another as we could. She could speak hardly a word of English but, by smile, touch and glance, mutual understanding was not difficult. Her name appeared to be “Mees” and as we talked she fed me little nuts held delicately between her exquisite fingers. By a mere gesture of one finger a Chinese can express so much, almost like an extra tongue. The long-painted nails on an English girl would have seemed excessive but on Mees they merely accentuated the grace of her hands.
As our dancing became more intimate, we made fewer mistakes, taking pains to follow each other closely, she my feet and I her every change of mood and movement. How lightly she danced; with what naughtiness she laughed in my face. She told me she liked me very much. Desire was growing within me, the slow sweet surge of affection and the longing to caress, and I did not care. All was as it should be. We fed each other on the little nuts and gazed smilingly into each other’s eyes. There was nothing affected about Mees, no pretentiousness of dress, no trying to be other than herself. I supposed she was a prostitute but sexual laxity was so prevalent in Macao that it had become difficult to define that term. I thought that all my education and upbringing, my “decent” conditioning ought to have made me despise both her and my own intentions but this was not so. She was so ingenuous, indeed obviously happy in my company and the gaiety in her eyes so fresh and pure that there was nothing sordid or vulgar in our actions. We were both young and vigorous and nothing seemed more natural than that we should enjoy the pleasures and beauty of our bodies together. It seemed a fulfilment of our mischievous delight in living and the logical completion of having met.
It was approaching three when the four of us left the dance floor and stood waiting for a lift, Julie and Arthur clinging together in a passionately physical embrace and Mees and I more quietly close by. We were carried quickly to our rooms and I knocked on my door. From inside came a rhythmic slapping and thumping sound and, as we entered, we saw Roger and Tom lying on their beds all but naked, while two Chinese girls slapped and pommelled their muscles in an energetic massage, while two others, with more dubious intent, hovered nearby. Tom was nonchalantly smoking a cigarette. Mees looked most embarrassed and I too found it, to say the least – awkward. Tom told me to go next door where Conrad was lying in a darkened room. He opened his eyes as we entered, looked surprised, muttered a grinning “Oh God” and turned over. Mees pointed to him with amazement and laughed. “Not here!” she said. I told Conrad to go to sleep with his head to the wall for an hour or two. Placing two chairs between the beds and covering them with shirts and trousers, I showed Mees the screen. She frowned and then, smilingly, put her arms around me.
We fondled one another playing in one another’s arms at the foot of the bed. She zipped open her dress and for the first time I looked upon her breasts. How smooth and firm they were, how sleek her slender body beneath my exploring hands. She removed her dress and I took off my shirt. We embraced again and, as her hand slid down to my groin, we rolled over, cuddling one another in the throes of passion. Time passed unheeded, as we lay passionately together, naked, apart from the tiny silken garment I forbade her to remove from around her waist. Her fingers teased me until the tension within me became almost insupportable and we came together heaving and thrusting with violence.
We talked and she told me the names of the parts of the body in Cantonese and Portuguese while I supplied the English. When we reached a certain part of the male anatomy I said “Ah ha!” She laughed, delighted with what she took to be the name. “Ah ha!” she said “Ah ha.” I was so amused I forgot to give her the correct appellation and to this day I suppose...
Mees was writing Chinese characters upon my arm with brave little sweeps of her long fingernails; “I like you!” she said. “Do you like me?” I told her yes and we embraced again. Her pneumatic flesh was smooth and wonderful to caress. I had never experienced anything like it. Pretending to be swimming in the sea, we lay beside one another experiencing something of the uplift of surging waves. She knelt beside me on the bed and gave me a massage, her gentle hands pummelling my muscles. Pausing, she looked at me, letting her fingers glide over my legs, between them, easily over my belly and firmly around my chest. We kissed while she sat athwart my legs with my organ between her breasts, writhing in ecstasy together, our hands running wildly over each other’s bodies. As I wriggled beneath her touch she giggled and kissed me tenderly. At last we lay exhausted and dozed lovingly in each others arms.
At five thirty she was up saying she had to go. After a wash, she dressed and I gave her some money and, although she implored me to go with her, I said I must remain behind and sleep. She asked me for my Hong Kong address and I was about to write it down when Conrad turned over.
“For Christ’s sake, John,” he said, “don’t be such a bloody fool. You’ll be in an awful mess if she turns up at RHQ one day and asks for you. Give her a false name or something.”
Bowing to his worldly seniority and impeccable logic, I wrote down an assumed name and gave the address as Army Headquarters, HK. Immediately I felt terrible. It seemed a betrayal of our intimacy. I reflected that soldiers were always moving on and that she would understand that. In any case she would not be lonely for long at HQ. But all that was beside the point.
My main regret was that I had not felt able to give her as much pleasure as she had given me. I could not risk too much for fear of venereal disease, rife, of course, in the brothels of both Macao and Hong Kong. She seemed wary too for she did not try to persuade me and, when she had relieved me, took great pains to wipe her hands. She seemed surprised at the result of her manipulations, so much so that I suspected she was not a practised whore but much more of a novice. Indeed my precautions may have given her the idea that it was I who was protecting her from disease. Being puritans and fools none of us had thought of obtaining “precautions” from the MO before leaving. Sheer folly.
At times during the night, her tenderness for me had been very real and when I had gazed into her darkened eyes trying to understand this little person lying in my arms, to pierce our inevitable separateness, she would avert her face as if bewildered or ashamed. Once she said she liked my nose, another time that my hands were beautiful but, when I responded in kind, she would deny it all. Once or twice, she had turned her back on me, pretending to sleep and I had wondered what she was really feeling.
When she left me I thanked her with emotion but she would have none of it signing goodbye with a wave of the hand. She had not even asked for money for, when Julie had discussed the price earlier in the night, Mees had told me secretly that she wanted nothing. She had with her a little coloured handkerchief containing a few dollar bills, mostly what I had given her, and I had the impression she had not much else in the world.
When I awoke, the sun was slanting through the blinds in parallel rays of gold. I lay half awake for a long time, regretting the day, regretting her absence, wondering where she had gone, regretting the pettiness of my reporter’s instincts the evening before. Was she a prostitute? Was she poor and in desperate circumstances? I was not sure of anything in this strange, cruel, loveable world I did not understand. I thought of some of the other girls we had seen; the “second class” ones, frail, ill, enmeshed in the trade and bandied about by pimps. Several of them had shown the same desperate pride of the girl in the ‘exhibeesh’. I marvelled at it, at the residual strength of human goodness. It seemed to me that Western and Eastern vice had a quality of difference, the whores of Macao and Hong Kong had not lost their humanity.
We got up slowly. Arthur had indeed “gone the whole hog” and his account of the night was lurid. He claimed to have learnt every possible trick in the business. Julie was evidently a lady of masterly attainment in the arts but Arthur was also apprehensive about his future. Roger and Tom had found their masseuses unwilling and a train of girls had pestered them into the early hours when, as they said, it was much too late anyway.
All these comings and goings had been witnessed by a little man seated, as a kind of guard, at a window near the stairway. Arthur had asked him for some change at three in the morning. “How much she want?” he had asked. “Mind your own business,” snapped Arthur.
After lunch we went for a rickshaw tour of the town. With its picturesque streets, little parks and the grotto overlooking the sea, where the Portuguese poet Camoens used to write, it is a beautiful little place. The ruined building of St Peter’s Church dominates the town, its baroque façade standing high and serene above the streets facing the sea.
As we were leaving a small amusement park, a little girl of about six started running beside the rickshaw. “Gumsah Gumsah,” she cried, as the coolie trotted on. “Gumsah Gumsah,” the piping little voice wailed beside us. Along street after street she persisted in following us. “We can’t give to everyone,” said Conrad, who was sitting beside me, “There are so many, just not possible.”
“Gumsah Gumsah,” shrilled the child more plaintively. The sound was a pain that broke the mind. Suddenly she fell beside a wall at the edge of the road weeping terribly, sobbing and choking. Next minute the rickshaw was around a corner and bustling amongst the traffic of a busy thoroughfare.
Never have I forgotten the terrible moment of not having given, the despairing scream of the child as she fell, the paralysis of my mind at that moment and the agony of awakening to the meaning of the event. I felt that never could I forgive myself for having been so cold-hearted.
Long afterwards, when talking of Far Eastern conditions with an American friend, he said, “It never does to come too close to these things, to see the tragedies of so many people’s lives close up. You can do nothing and it is so much easier to give a dollar a week to charity and forget all about it till the next appeal.”
The Tai Loy sailed late in the afternoon. The sun shone on the yellow wavelets while mountains lined the distant horizon. We sat on deck idly talking. Halfway across the estuary the ship’s bells began ringing and we made a wide circle to port. Some passengers showed signs of consternation because sometimes a communist gunboat stops the ferry to remove some wanted individual. Looking around, however, we could see no other craft near us. We slowed down until our movement was barely perceptible and some of the passengers began pointing and chattering. It was then that we saw it. Not far away a corpse was floating, rising and falling slackly upon the yellow flood. We dropped the lifeboat, amid a chaotic ringing of bells, winching and tugging on ropes. The passengers were quiet now so that a silence fell over the unmoving ship, a light wind sounding in the mast heads. The boat pulled away, the little waves slapping loudly against her sides. It was difficult pulling the body on board. It had been in the water for a long time, probably having floated several hundred miles down the great river and it was heavy. It had been a man, perhaps a fisherman. The lifeboat returned and the passengers leaned over the rails to see the stiff, half-clothed body, with a swollen, expressionless face, carried aboard and hidden from view. After a short delay we sailed on. The hills of Hong Kong rose before us.