I recall Charles’ advice not to consume any Chinese tea in lady-barber salons as it may be laced with black magic to make the patron come back again and again. ‘Coca-Cola, cold’ I say. Though I believe that black magic can only be effective if the sorcerer knows the victim’s name and date of birth, I don’t want to take the risk.
‘Haircut and wash?’ Her face is oval, with big eyes, emphasized with matte eye-shadow and perfectly drawn arched eyebrows.
‘Sure, give me a trim at the sides and back, then a wash.’
The lady barber brings my soft drink and puts it on top of the styling station. She stands behind me to look at our reflections in the mirror. ‘Want ear-digging?’
‘Yes. How much for everything?’
She holds the back of the barber chair casually. ‘Seventy-five.’ Fine wrinkles cover her hands, probably due to the constant exposure to shampoo.
‘Okay’ I pause. ‘Your sign says got karaoke?’ Muffled music is coming from somewhere.
‘Yes, behind.’ Opening a drawer, she takes out a pair of scissors and an electric clipper and lays them on top of the styling station. ‘I can go with you after the haircut. You need to tip me.’
She drapes a white sheet round me and starts the haircut, finishing it quickly. Next, she leads me to a sink for the shampoo and wash and back to the barber chair for a blow dry. When it is done, she asks me to lean backward, and she reclines the chair. She extends the foot-rest and calf-rest so that I lie almost horizontal on the chair.
She pulls a movable lamp near my right ear, whose glare makes me close my eyes.
First, she shaves my earlobe using a small razor (ee doe). Using a small, sharp, anointed stick (It’s called ‘ee fin’, she says.), she loosens the wax formation. The process tickles and sounds like a cave-in. Next, she uses the ee chiam, a pair of small tweezers, to take out the fairly big pieces of wax. She follows up by using the ee waa, a miniature spoon-like tool, to scoop out the tiny bits. Then, she cleans the ear with a ball of cotton wool dipped in an antiseptic, holding it with the ee chiam. Finally, she dusts my ear with a small brush. ‘This is called the ee so’ she explains. She moves the lamp to my left ear and works on it the same way.
She adjusts the chair so I am upright again. She holds her open palms together, and karate-chops my shoulders for a few minutes, moving her hands from side to side.
I pop my tin of Coca-Cola, and take a gulp. ‘Can I see the karaoke section?’
‘Sure.’ She gathers her equipment and keeps them in the drawer of the styling station. ‘Please follow me.’
My companion-to-be carries my Coca-Cola, leads me to the back and strains to push open a heavy door. We enter a room, about half the size of a tennis court, occupied by five or six sofas. The sources of illumination are a thirty-inch TV monitor and a rolling-ball water fountain in a crystal bowl sitting on a frosted-glass base atop a decorative stand. A lot of fondling and petting are taking place in the room judging from the way two women are entwined with their clients.
The lady barber and I sit down near the door on a sofa with fabric cushion-covers. A moment later, she disappears and returns with an A4-size PVC folder containing plastic pockets. ‘Want to sing? Mostly Mandarin songs, but there’re several English songs’ she says, and hands me the PVC folder.
I flip the plastic pockets holding Xerox sheets with lists of songs, while she shines at them with her cell phone’s LED torchlight. All this while, the first customer is croaking a Mandarin song from the Sixties, Fu Xin De Ren. His rendition is terrible, and when he is midway through the song, the second customer laughs: ‘Haw! Haw! Haw! Haw! Haw!’ I look in the direction of the laughter. The second customer is now taking a long draught from a big Anchor beer bottle. The first customer finishes his song and the second customer laughs again: ‘Hah! Hah! Hah! Hah! Hah!’
The first customer yells profanities at the second customer, and his female companion asks him not to start a quarrel. The second customer rises from his sofa and scolds an obscene word at the first customer, prompting the lady barber beside him to pull him back down. I continue to scan the song menu. Another Mandarin song plays and when the second customer starts to sing, the first customer heckles: ‘Boo …’ His companion gently clamps her dainty hand over his mouth.
Jesus Christ! A brawl may erupt any moment, and I imagine beer bottles being used as missiles and fists as weapons.
Closing the song menu, I toss it aside, and walk out the door with nary a word.
‘Aiyoh! Lou sai! You’re leaving?’ the lady barber follows me out. ‘Don’t worry, it’s just a small argument, small matter only.’
I pay her for the haircut and leave the premises, the sun making me squint momentarily.
My watch reads nearly 2 am, and Kelab Ria in uptown Kuala Lumpur has attracted a good crowd, judging from the cars double-parked on the side of the drag. In a glass case at its entrance are pictures of female singers – past and present, I presume – and a band. After buying a ticket for RM15 which entitles me to a free drink, I enter, pushing apart a cretonne split-curtain hanging in the doorway. A TV monitor is playing ‘Kereta Malam’, with its singer Citra Monata gyrating away. The furniture comprises oblong coffee tables paired with sofas and small, square tables with metal chairs. Wall-mounted fans swirling from side to side help circulate the air from the air-conditioners. All the GROs, ranging from twenties to thirties, are scattered on six or seven sofas, chatting with customers.
A dark, short-necked, bespectacled man is sitting at a wall-side table with a sallow-looking brown girl, probably in her late twenties, and I settle down at the table next to his. In his fifties, the man has a receding hairline and a neatly trimmed goatee. Seated opposite him, the sallow-looking brown girl is wearing a low-cut t-shirt and a miniskirt with a braided belt. A waitress sets my drink on the wood tabletop, and folds a paper cocktail napkin beside it. I lift the glass to my lips, and as I swallow the first sip, one end of the adjacent table jerks upward for a moment, accompanied by a muffled thud. Curious, I look at the underside of the table. With his slip-on sneaker removed, the bespectacled man is using his bare foot to stroke the leg of the GRO!
On a TV monitor, musicians playing an accordion, a violin and drums discourse a dance song. Five GROs, each with a male partner, scuttle to the dance floor to sway their hips, move their feet forward, sideways, backwards, and spin around. They repeat the steps, occasionally placing a hand on the hip, and the other hand on the shoulder, and thrusting the hip sideways thrice. Their ability to be nimble on their feet even while wearing high heels impresses me. The band, comprising two guitarists, an organist and a drummer, now resumes playing after having taken a break. They play Malay songs, Javanese songs and Indonesian dangdut. On the dance floor, pairs of dancers sway back and forth, but never touch.
Soon, it is closing time. The bespectacled man pays his bill and leaves. I follow him. He walks to an old Volvo and waits, leaning on its bonnet. A few minutes later, the girl he was with comes out and goes to his car. They enter the jalopy and drive off. I hang around the kerb, pretending to read text messages on my cell phone. As the lounge empties itself, more customers come out, seeking their cars. A big-bellied man, clad in a safari bush jacket, struts out hand-in-hand with a coffee-brown girl, wearing jeans and bare-back halter top, and they slip into a Mercedes with a chauffeur. They are heading to a hotel or some cozy place. Another GRO emerges, her hand holding the waist of a handsome young man, and a handbag is slung over her shoulder. They enter an SUV, which speeds off as if the hunk is impatient to do whatever he has in mind.
Kelab Ria in uptown Kuala Lumpur has attracted a good crowd, judging from the cars double-parked on the side of the drag. In a glass case at its entrance are pictures of female singers – past and present, I presume – and a band. After buying a ticket for RM15 which entitles me to a free drink, I enter, pushing apart a cretonne split-curtain hanging in the doorway.
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