Sneak Peek

Excerpt: from the chapter titled "Cunning Linguists"

Sugar girl dancingOne evening at Club Shanghaied, Renata entered the karaoke room quite late. The place was packed, but all the sailors were already busy with women. She skulked around a while, looking for an opening with a man. She waylaid them on trips to the toilet and winked at them from across the room, but no luck. With women draped around their shoulders, the men seemed content. Renata stood by the bar and listened to the seamen sing karaoke numbers for a while. Then she placed a request with the DJ.

When she took the microphone and stood in the middle of the room, no one noticed at first. It was fairly common for the women to sing too, usually American pop songs. But after she sang a few verses in flawless Mandarin, the men slowly turned their attention away from their women to Renata. The Chinese sailors gawked in amazement as Renata traversed the complex tones of a syrupy sweet ballad. The women wrapped their arms a little tighter around the men, burrowing their heads into the sailors' necks. But the men started singing along with Renata, encouraging her. Without missing a beat, she ramped up her performance, pretending to be a lounge singer from yesteryear. She glided around the tables with a sleek and sexy gait, sat on guys' laps, blew puckered kisses across the room and took command of the scene. For a few minutes, all eyes were on her.

When the song ended, everyone clapped and raised their glasses. The Chinese sailors were especially pleased. Their chests swelled to see this woman honour their culture with such a fine recital. They felt momentarily superior to the other nationalities in the room, who were reduced to mere spectators. They showered their praise on Renata, and for the rest of the evening she was welcome at any of their tables. The men fussed over her while the other women's faces started to sour.

This was a major power play. Though verbal arts are usually best employed in one-on-one encounters, Renata used them here to cut into the other women's attention monopoly. If she had tried to interrupt a lady and her guy directly, she would have ignited bedlam. But because she disguised her stunt as a public benefit, none of the women could claim that she had directly interfered with their business. Rather, Renata maintained her innocence even while turning the men's attention towards her. If the sailors invited her to join them afterwards, that was their prerogative.

The ploy paid off. At the end of the evening Renata went off with a man who had been previously occupied with a woman who couldn't speak Chinese. Once his attention turned to Renata, it stayed on her. All that the other girl could do was grumble, curse and drink away her frustration. Meanwhile, the Chinese man boosted his own prestige with his mates by going with Renata, who was now dear to them through her ego-boosting performance.

As Renata departed with her beau, I stared at her speechless. She was a 37-year-old coloured drug addict who slept between rock piles of the harbour breakwater at night - but she could speak, read and write Chinese. And as the rest of the women went off with their men, I heard them chatting in the sailors' languages as well. I had to stop and ask myself, "Where the heck am I?"

Without a doubt, it is one of the most arresting images of the dockside scene: working-class coloured women singing karaoke in Chinese, seducing sailors in Taiwanese, negotiating sexual contracts in Korean, eavesdropping on conversations in Indonesian, cursing stingy salts in Tagalog and cooing over companions in Japanese. It's well worth investigating why language is so important in this sex sector.

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