Saint Jack – by Paul Theroux, 1973

Penguin paperback, 1976

Rereading Saint Jack after 40 years, I wondered what Jack Flowers would think about today’s Singapore. Clearly, he would despise the single-party island state for its strict Confucian / hyper-Catholic moralism and repressive regulations, although he might dig it for the innumerable opportunities to make oodles of money.

Flowers was a colorful character out of Boston who washed up in Singapore, much like Paul Theroux, who lectured at a university there in 1968. The author first introduces Flowers as an untrustworthy narrator of his own tawdry Conradian tale. At 53, after years at sea and 14 years in Singapore, Flowers is no longer a Devil-may-care American college dropout. He’s as dispassionate about his day job as an odd-jobber in a Chinese ship chandlery, as he is about his sideline, conscientiously providing Chinese and Malay girls for sailors and married men. Despite a well-earned reputation for provisioning ships and hotels with local women, he doesn’t think of himself as a pimp, merely as A Useful Man, with a reputation for having “a finger in every tart.”

Flowers fawns over his johns like a sycophant, unable to speak his own mind. Dining with one of his customers, he reluctantly passes up the seafood he craves because the customer suggests the food isn’t up to par. Flowers is wilting but not without hope, composing over and over in his mind letters congratulating him on winning a fortune in a hoped-for future.

Into his dispirited life comes a cool-eyed English auditor named William Leigh, who casts shadows like a funeral shroud over Flowers’ purposeful life as a part-time ponce. When Leigh’s heart gives out, Flowers mourns him and thus embarks on his own canonization. A second archangel appears in the form of a U.S. Army employee named Edwin Shuck, who ensures Flowers’ financial success, at least for a while.

Flowers arrived in Singapore just as it was emerging from the cloak of colonialism. Even so, barflies leftover from the Empire populate the bars, exchanging enough British witticisms to make an American reader want to dump a crate of tea in Singapore Harbour.

Having left home for good reason, Flowers didn’t really want to be seen as an American, lampooning his countrymen as “the glad-hander, the ham with the loud jokes and big feet and flashy shirts.” But his Americanness had advantages when it came to pimping. “Being American was part of my uniqueness,” he says. Against his will, Flowers purposefully exaggerates his accent and becomes known as The Yank, making his rounds on a well-upholstered trishaw, making friends with Chinese bargirls and foreign sailors in order to twain East and West.

Remaining at his day job to keep his visa, the streetwise pimp and porn-pusher opens his own brothel, poetically named the Dunroamin. The brothel is a big hit in the demimonde of expats but not the underworld of Chinese secret society gangsters, who kidnap and torture him, tattoo him with Chinese expletives and torch his bordello.

With money from the U.S. Army, the burnt-out brothel owner survives purgatory to become the glad-handing proprietor of the Paradise Gardens, which succors G.I.s on R & R from Vietnam for five days at a time. Happy in his Eden, catering to sexually starved G.I.s, Flowers begins to see himself as a saint awaiting annunciation. “I was the kind of angel I expected to visit me,” he explains. “I was a noisy cheerful creature. But the mutters in my mind told me I was Saint Jack.”

On this Earth, Uncle Sam giveth and Uncle Sam taketh away. When a change in Pentagon policy shutters Saint Jack’s profitable Paradise, Flowers seeks out Shuck, the Government man who once told him, “We’re all whores one way or another.” Funny that it’s Shuck, a decidedly Ugly American, who gives Saint Jack a shot at salvation.

 

 

 

 

 

Sex in Singapore! – Saint Jack (Part 2)

Saint Jack by Paul Theroux, book cover, 1973; film poster, 1979

The peripatetic world-traveler Paul Theroux has observed that in the world’s oldest and greatest port cities, brothels were always conveniently located. In Singapore, Southeast Asia’s premier port, a classic Asian massage parlor and brothel might be tucked away in a tiled-roof suburban mansion.

Jack Flowers, the back-alley pimp and shore-to-ship procurer, notes that Singapore in the 1960s was very old, “not in years but in attitude.” Unlike other world ports teeming with sexually famished seamen, “the completely Chinese flavor of vice in Singapore made it attractive to a curious outsider, at the same time removing him from guilt and doubt, for its queer differences made it a respectable diversion…”

In the early 1970s, America was pulling out of Vietnam (pun intended) while at home Americans were engrossed in a sexual awakening that produced a proliferation of sexually explicit men’s magazines, women’s literature, and socially accepted pornographic movies.

Published in 1973, Saint Jack gave readers around the world an insider’s look into Asian prostitution. The book and the 1979 film directed by Peter Bogdanovich provided far more revealing glimpses than “The World of Suzie Wong,” the 1960 film directed by Richard Quine.

Theroux’s descriptions can be visceral, as when he describes a room reserved for commercial trysts: “As in all brothel rooms, a carnal aroma hung in the air, as fundamental as sweat, the exposed odor from the body’s most private seams.”

Jack Flowers’ debut in debauchery begins in 1959, the same year Harry Lee becomes prime minister of Singapore in all its squalor. In Flowers’ view, prostitutes enlivened the port city. “…(N)oiseless and glittering and narrow as snakes, they looked like anyone’s idea of the Asian concubine.” The look was a mask depicting the client’s sexual ideal” just as white shoes marked Flowers as a pimp. He suggests that colorful silk dresses gave cold quick girls “an accidental allure, titillating by flouncy mystification…”

Other men sold ordinary souvenirs, Flowers sold what he called “the ultimate souvenir – the experience, in the flesh, of fantasy.” Flowers never stated a price for his introduction service but he was not, he said, a pimp with a heart of gold. As a sideline of his sideline, he sold pornographic photos and decks of cards from his back pocket.

Flowers says the girls he peddled were “practical and businesslike, obsessed with their health… and they treated their tasks as if they were a medical treatment or minor surgery.” “Many of the girls were modest in a conventional way, which even as a pretense, was compellingly sexy in a whore.” Their friend and protector would never say they were kindly and cheerful but he praised them, saying “they understood their cues and were dependable” as well as obedient and useful. “They believed in ghosts and had a horror of hair and kissing and stinks and dirt, and complained we smelled like cheese.”

“Some didn’t feel a thing, but just lay there, sacrificed and spread, and might say, ‘You are finished, yes?’ before a feller had hardly started.” Most did their job convincingly without having the slightest interest in it, he says. Indeed they had “the genius for being remote at the time of greatest intimacy.” They could be sensationally foul-mouthed in English, but spoke softly in polite Chinese among themselves.

Sharing inside information gleaned from running a wang-house, Flowers catalogues how American men differed from other customers: “The Chinese clients, of whom I had several, liked the big-boned Australian girls; Germans were fond of Tamils, and the English fellers liked anything young, but preferred their girls boyish and their women mannish. … The Americans liked clean sporty ones, to whom they would give nicknames, like ‘Skeezix’ and ‘Pussycat’ (the English made an effort to learn the girl’s real name). Americans, he says, “also went in for a lot of hugging in the taxi, smooching and kidding around, and sort of stumbling down the sidewalk, gripping the girl hard and saying ‘Aw, honey, whoddle ah do?'” When they leave town, Americans write letters back to their girls who can’t read them.

Flowers observes that Chinese customers plunged into it “with hare-like speed” and treated their visit to a cathouse as casually as one might pop out for a hamburger; Europeans considered the whorehouse experience as a kind of therapy. and Americans saw it as part of their education.

The year it came to power, the new People’s Action Party began raiding massage parlors, presaging the moralistic puritanical regime that would transform Singapore in a thousand ways. Hardly anything is left of Saint Jack’s Singapore. It’s a safe bet there aren’t any Americans pimping girls and selling pornography in the canyons of gleaming high-rise hotels and multinational headquarters. Singapore has the Internet now.

The movie Saint Jack differs in many ways from the book. It’s set in a present-day Singapore with a lingering cloak of its colonial past. The likable, easygoing Ben Gazzara stars as Jack, who’s now an Italian-American from Buffalo. Bogdanovich, the film’s director, cast himself as a latter-day version of the original Edwin Shuck. Theroux earned a co-writer credit for the screenplay. Roger Corman is credited as producer and  Playboy‘s Hugh Hefner as executive producer. The movie was filmed in Singapore and banned in Singapore. Watch it online at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FxbfzGRVwiA

 

The Consul’s File – by Paul Theroux, 1977

In a New York Times review, British novelist Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange) muses that when Britain’s professional meddlers retreated from The East, Americans filled the vacuum. More recently, I’ve observed that when Americans left a void in Southeast Asia, Australians eagerly took up diplomatic, economic and cultural initiatives. Life goes on ob-la-di, ob-la-da.

In The Consul’s File, a youthful American diplomat who remains nameless narrates the comings and goings of Americans and British expats in the fictional town of Ayer Hitam. Never important, the tiny town is languishing as its rubber plantations, a symbol of British colonialism, shut down to make way for oil palm estates.

In 20 stand-alone stories, Theroux is at his best describing “the Empire’s orphans” – quixotic Malay, Chinese, Tamil and mixed-race characters – as they interact clumsily and cannily with each other and the expatriates who play fateful roles in their lives.

The polyglot locals are engaged in Chinese clans and secret societies, Communist cells and Indian sports clubs while the expats wile away their time smoking, drinking and playing tennis at the Club, where it’s perennially 1938.

Here and there, Theroux tosses in details of the ex-pat lifestyle: dealing with amahs and jagas, drinking Tiger Beer, smoking mentholated cigarettes, taking malaria-suppression tablets like Communion, and serving a 16-pound holiday turkey brought up from Singapore’s Cold Storage company.

Four women are notable among the Americans in the file. A shapeless, graceless teacher of English claims she was raped by an oily attacker, who may be a spirit. An anthropologist goes native in the jungle and marries an aboriginal chief. A skinflint travel writer’s shtick includes never paying for anything. An older-wiser U.S. embassy secretary, who had a fling with the consul in Kampala, invites him to the Raffles Hotel to discuss “diplomatic relations.”

Sadly, the “moderate and dependable” consul is a cheese sandwich in a land of sambal and spicy food. He makes a few tricky decisions but doesn’t embark on any real adventures. He’s nothing like Jack Flowers, who wheels and deals down in Singapore in Theroux’s Saint Jack. From the outset, the uninvolved consul senses that Americans won’t last as the professionals who pulling the strings in Southeast Asia. He begins by describing his assignment:

“It was my job to phase out the Consulate. In other places the consular task was, in the State Department phrase, bridge-building; in Ayer Hitam I was dismantling a bridge not a difficult job: we had never been very popular with the Malays.”

This collection was published in 1977 although some of the stories seem to have been written years earlier. There is an early reference to being in the Federation of Malaysia, which melded Malay sultanates with Singapore and Borneo into one country until it broke up in 1963. Theroux taught at the University of Singapore for four years beginning in 1968, the timeframe of these stories.  Mixed with his memories of Malaysia, Theroux shoots a few darts at the State Department for its failures and ignominious 1975 retreat from Vietnam.

A flinty U.S. diplomat named Flint complains that mollycoddled, malcontent Foreign Service wives in Saigon supported the Viet Cong by nagging and nagging.

“They talked about ‘our struggle’ as if there were some connection between the guerrillas shelling Nha Trang and a lot of old hens in the embassy compound refusing to make peanut butter sandwiches. It’s not funny. I knew lots of officers who were shipped home – their wives were a security risk.”

When a polo-playing American planter is hacked to death in Ayer Hitam, the Consul notes that a resurgence of revolutionary zeal is to be expected as “a natural result” of America’s collapse in Vietnam.

The consul’s ex-lover, who enjoyed a Saigon posting in an air-conditioned embassy compound, envisions a day when both she and the Consul are posted to Hanoi. “It won’t be long,” she prophesies.