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

 

Crazy Rich Asians – (book and film)

Crazy Rich Asians (novel) by Kevin Kwan, 2013 

Crazy Rich Asians (film) directed by Jon M. Chu, SK Global, 2018

I was no stranger to Singapore’s perks and quirks when I first heard of Kevin Kwan’s hilarious novel. I learned about the book from a friend who like me, had lived in Singapore in the 1980s and returned decades later to gawk at the Disneyesque additions to the island city-state.

In Singapore, I worked with 40 Singaporean journalists in a no-frills newsroom that resembled a factory floor. My coworkers were earnest, down-to-earth intellectuals, who slaved away at their desks while dreaming about getting away from Singapore on holiday. We had a couple of crazies in the newsroom but I doubt that any of my coworkers were crazy rich.

Author Kevin Kwan is an American citizen as well as a Singaporean. His engineer father relocated the family to Houston when he was a boy. Singapore apparently wants him back to serve the compulsory military service stint he has not served. Facing possible legal jeopardy, Kwan did not attend the Singapore premiere of the film.

Kwan’s first novel, Crazy Rich Asians, gives outsiders an amusingly encyclopedic insider’s look at the Republic of Singapore, a buckled-down single-party state smaller than New York City. While spinning a soap-opera love story, Kwan’s spot-on narrative tackles such topics as the richness of Singaporean cuisine, the challenge of adhering to ancient Chinese tradition in the 21st Century, and the fine art of cursing in surreptitiously spoken Chinese dialects.

At two hours’ running time, the movie can’t touch the book’s ability to serve up delicious detail about food and foibles, families and friendships.

CRA is primarily about Singaporeans, Americans are conspicuous by comparison. The movie’s rom-com plot hinges on whether a quintessentially American girl will be accepted by her Chinese Singaporean boyfriend’s ultra-rich social circle. Unlike Chinese Singaporeans, whose worldview is Confucian and class-conscious, the Chinese American interloper and potential wife (Oh my God!) embodies the openness and disdain for class distinction that most of the world admires in Americans.

Rachel Chu is no Ugly American.  I believe the author and the film’s director made a conscious effort to show Rachel as a natural beauty, confident and capable in her own skin. Early on, she is dining in a cafe with her Singaporean boyfriend Nicholas Young in New York City. The two are casual, carefree and spontaneous. With eyes only for each other, the cool couple is unaware that gossip-hungry Singaporeans have spotted them in a cafe and outed them in social media posts. When Rachel agrees to join Nick at a wedding in Singapore, she has no idea that her boyfriend’s uppity family has been tipped off about their relationship, and no idea that they’re so unlike Nick. They’re frighteningly stiff, extremely formal and tightly culture-bound.

Inside the palatial villas of the Young Family, Rachel is a Cinderella surrounded by ugly stepsisters – her boyfriend’s cousins and friends -who are not ugly but outwardly gorgeous. A wag at a posh party observes that Rachel is the odd-woman out in that she hasn’t had plastic surgery. Among wealthy Asians, eye jobs and boob jobs are as common as BMWs and Benzes. In one scene at a bachelorette party on a private resort island, Rachel reveals how un-Singaporean she is when she’s reluctant to join the rich but opportunistic women invited by their host to scoop up designer clothes and accessories for free!

Commenting on NPR, the Malaysian Chinese author Tash Aw put it this way: “Rachel’s squeaky-clean naivete is a clever foil to the intricate workings of the high-glamour Asian set around her. Chinese on the outside but all-American on the inside, she allows us to see the myriad nuances of intra-Asian culture that the novel goes to great lengths to show.”

Rachel is an economics professor at NYU. By Singaporean standards, Economics is a perfectly respectable field of academia, except that trickster Kwan has made Rachel a teacher of Game Theory. Being a Professor of Game Theory strikes conservative Chinese as an inconsequential and very American calling. I checked the NYU Course Catalogue to see if there is such a course. Sure enough, Economics 309 Game Theory and Strategy is “an applied overview of game theoretical concepts that emphasizes their use in real-world situations.” Though Rachel is mocked for being an expert at Game Theory it pays off in one of the film’s most dramatic scenes when Rachel is pitted against Nick’s mother, the imperious Eleanor Young, in a culturally loaded game of mahjong. Played to perfection by Michelle Yeoh, a former Miss Malaysia and a Bond Girl, Eleanor is obsessed by ancestral lineage. She is not alone. Alll the snoops in her social circle want to know if Rachel is a scion of the Taiwanese Chus, the Malaysian Chus, or some other fabulously financially successful Chus. Eleanor  is so desperate to learn the Chinese pedigree of her potential daughter-in-law, she hires a detective to trace Rachel’s Chinese roots.

Rachel is a luscious slice of apple pie as played by Constance Tianming Wu, an American comedic actress of Chinese descent who appeared in the ABC-TV series “Fresh Off The Boat.” Born in Richmond, Va., raised in the Bay Area and educated at Stanford, Wu is as American as chop suey and fortune cookies.

Rachel’s mother, the hard-working, self-made real estate saleswoman Kerry Chu, is played by Tan Kheng Hua, a Singapore-born actress who earned her American chops as a student at the University of Indiana. And while a Chinese Singaporean plays Rachel’s Chinese American mother, a Korean American plays her Singaporean best friend who has returned home to resume her crazy rich life. Singapore’s wackiest returnee from America is brought to life by Queens-born comedian and rapper Nora Lum (a.k.a Awkwafina), who was last seen in “Ocean’s 8.”

When the ancestry-obsessed Youngs learn the unhappy truth about Rachel’s lineage, a happy ending seems unlikely. Then again, “Crazy Rich Asians” is a romantic comedy about two kids who are crazy about each other, for better or for worse, for richer or poorer.

Both the writer and the film’s director are Singaporeans who choose to live in the United States for reasons that may be obvious to Singaporeans.

 

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