The Good Sister
This is a continuation of the series of tales about some of the characters I met in Asia, only without the pretentious title of “People I have Known in Asia”. For these stories, I’ll just use a simple title about who they are.
For those who read some of my recent stuff, you know that after I moved to Singapore for a two-year overseas gig with my company, I found myself in Bangkok on a Saturday night in the Hard Rock Café, just as they were converting over from dinner to disco. I decided to stay to see what this was all about. As the tables and chairs were moved and the band set up, the place began filling up with people, mostly young Thai women. The lights were soon lowered and the band began to play. I made my way to the crowded bar, ordered a beer, and chatted with some of the girls. Their English wasn’t great so they mostly giggled at me. Then one girl emerged from the crowd and gave me a huge, radiant smile. I was frozen in place while I waited to see if she would talk to me. She did. She says her name is Lek. We talk a little and then dance. Soon we’re holding hands and kissing. Later on, we take a taxi to my hotel and spend the night together.
The next morning she tells me her family runs a restaurant near Udon Thani. She was visiting her sister when they decided to go out. In fact, she can’t stay long as she has to meet her. She showers and dresses and before she leaves we exchange mobile numbers. I say I also have to leave this afternoon to go back to Singapore, but she should visit me sometime. She says how about next week. As she heads for the door, I offer her taxi money; she takes it. Thus begins an almost two-year rollercoaster ride of my first real relationship in Asia.
We would travel to each other’s country whenever we could, me footing all the bills, of course. When she visited, it would be for 10 days to two weeks at a time. I asked how she got so much time off from work. She said it was the “slow season”. Seemed dubious but I never asked again. Instead I would give her a monthly allowance. The first time she visits, she brings her sister without telling me. Her name is Fon. It’s no problem, as I have a huge condo. When we get home it is early evening. Fon puts on evening clothes and leaves. Where is she going, I ask. Lek sits me down and says her sister is a working girl. She is a freelancer who works the better clubs and bars in Bangkok. I can see why – she is a stunner just like her little sister. Now she is working in a club called the Top Ten at a place called Orchard Towers. She can make twice the money as in Bangkok, Lek tells me. After dinner let’s visit, as I have never been there, I say. Lek gives me a strange look but agrees.
Top Ten is a strange looking place. There is a stage on the ground floor with a dance floor in front and a long bar beside it. To the right there are upward-sloping tiers of tables and cushioned seats, like a rice field. At the top level there is a DJ booth and next to that are the bathrooms. Except for the lighted stage where the band is getting ready to play, it is mostly dark. We use the step lights to make our way upward. Along the way I see beautiful girls looking at me so Lek grabs my hand firmly. When we get near the top, Fon comes running out a door and hugs us. She has added makeup since she left the condo and literally looks like a movie star. We sit down at a table, with Lek and her sister jabbering away. I order a beer and notice that many well-dressed men start to enter the front door. As they ascend the steps, they are greeted at each level by a different girl until they find the one they want. Then they sit, order drinks, and sit very closely together. It’s clear this a place where well-off western residents of Singapore come to meet beautiful women for hire. Now Fon has her eyes on someone who enters. She gracefully excuses herself and slowly makes her way down the stairs. Her new customer returns her smile and together they make their way to a table on the other side of the room. So this is prostitution Singapore-style; I am impressed.
A week later, Lek tells me she has to go back to the restaurant in Udon Thani. It’s a Saturday afternoon when I escort her to the airport. She gives me a big hug. What about Fon, I ask. How much longer will she stay at my condo? Oh, just a little bit more, Lek flippantly tells me. Oh well, no big deal. I’ve got lots of work to do so I’ll probably never notice she is there, what with her hours. I go home, watch a little Sumo wrestling on TV and fall asleep. Sometime around 4 in the morning I hear my front door open. I guess Lek gave her key to Fon. I hope business was good, I think before I falling back to sleep.
Over the next couple of weeks I get a chance to observe Fon, as I am mostly working from my condo now. She always comes home around 4 AM when I hear the front door open. I try to fall back to sleep but usually I give up around 5 AM and get up to make coffee. I work through the morning and notice Fon going to the bathroom around 1 PM. She showers, dries her hair with a blower and then out she goes. She returns in an hour or so with food and other snacks from the Thai shopping mall Golden Mile. She always offers me some of her food. Then she plops herself down on the couch and eats her food while watching some movie, usually American. I go to the gym at the American Club around 4 PM and return around 6 PM to find Fon ironing her clothes. At 7 PM she says good-bye before she leaves for work. This is the routine of a working Thai girl in Singapore.
One Sunday morning I wake up and head to the gym. On these weekend days, I usually do a much longer workout and then stop by the club bar for a couple of Tiger beers and a bowl of popcorn. When I get back to the condo, Fon is already up and making breakfast. I am watching television in the living room when she brings her breakfast in and sits beside me. We talk about stuff and I notice her English is very good, better than Lek’s. Then, for some reason, she starts to tell me about her life. She says that when she was a young girl, her father got a job in Japan in some factory and left the family to work there. A few years later Fon graduated high school and her father found her a job at the same factory. She didn’t like it very much as all the married Thai guys were always hitting on her. But she stayed on two years and saved a good deal of money. She used it to fix up the family home, something her had father had neglected to do. A few months later, her father announces he has a new wife in Japan and will not be sending any more money home. As that was the only money the family had coming in, what to do? Fon’s younger sister and brother were still in school. Her mother introduced Fon to an “auntie” who said she could make a lot of money in Bangkok. She knew what this meant, but as she was now the family’s provider, she accepted her new job without complaint. What choice did she have?
She said her first job was in a Thai whorehouse. The mamasan was mean and she hated the Thai men as they reminded her of her father. Then one day she met another girl who said that Fon was beautiful enough to make big money in Bangkok. Her friend offered her a place to stay and to get her started in the business. They left for Bangkok the next morning and by the evening they were already prowling the better clubs where westerners hung out. She liked these men as they were fun-loving and gentle. And, of course, they paid much more than Thai men. She started sending a lot of money home for the family. But now in Singapore, she could keep a little more money for herself while pursuing her ultimate dream: to find a rich western man to marry so she could leave the working life forever.
Sitting close to Fon, it suddenly occurs to me I have seen her before. I ask if she was with her sister at the Hard Rock Café? She says yes, but quickly adds her sister was just with her and was not working. In fact, she says, I saw you first walking up to the bar but Lek jumped in front of me. Oh, so it might have been you I met that night. Yes, she says sheepishly, but I can see now you like her best. It’s an awkward moment; one that Thai social mores prevent her from saying anything more.
But Fon's luck soon changes. She meets an American man who is on long-term travel to Singapore to help his company launch a new office. I tell Lek we should all go out so we can meet her new boyfriend. So a date is set for dinner at the East Coast Seafood Center. Fon’s boyfriend is the stereotypical blond-haired, blue-eyed southern Californian, talking with a slight valley accent but a very friendly person. His name is Chris and I am very happy for Fon. She has already moved in with him at his condo close to the American Club. Now, while Chris and I toil at work, Lek and her sister shop at Takashimaya and have lunch at Golden Mile. At night we all get together for dinners at Boat Quay and other venues. In many ways, this is my happiest time in Singapore.
The happy times only last for a couple of months. I notice Fon is now living with us again but I don’t have a chance to ask why. Finally, I ask Lek what is happening. She doesn’t want to say at first, but I’m persistent. Finally she tells me Chris is married in America and his wife came to visit without telling him. It was supposed to be a big surprise, and it certainly was for her. She cajoled the security guard at Chris’ complex to let her in to his condo. There she found Fon’s clothes in the closet and cosmetics in the bathroom. She took one of Fon’s lipsticks and wrote on the mirror, “I want a divorce!” She then left Singapore to go back to America. When Chris returned to his condo he knew what had happened. He asked Fon to leave until he could figure out what to do.
After that it seems Chris’ wife not only called an attorney but also called Chris’ home office and told them what Chris was up to. They immediately recalled him back to the States. Now, Fon was back living with us, only this time she mostly has her door shut and when I walk past it, I can sometimes hear her crying. I feel very bad for Fon because she lost her boyfriend and was back at square one for finding a western husband. She had no other choice, as no decent Thai man would touch her. It was a tough situation but there are more Chris’s out there for her, I tell myself.
A few weeks later, Fon is staying at my condo and I am waiting for Lek, who is in Thailand, to return my call. I want to know what day I should buy a ticket for her to return to Singapore. It’s a Friday night and I am impatient as a friend has asked me to join him for drinks at the Raffles Bar, a great night out. So I call her again and again and finally her phone goes dead. Oh well, she’s probably in a dead zone outside Udon Thani. I take a taxi to the bar and join my friends. A couple of hours later I call her again but the phone is still off. I finish the night and on the ride home, I start calling again with the same result. Now I start to worry; what’s happening to Lek in Thailand?
I call her 10 more times when I get home and 10 more times when I wake up. I am sure something terrible has happened to her. When Fon wakes up, I tell her what is happening. She says not to worry. She will call some friends and find out what’s going on. I relax a little and decide to go for a workout. When I return, it is early evening and Fon is having a small meal before she goes to work. She is very quiet. I ask her if she found out anything. She does not look up. Fon, I raise my voice, what is going on with Lek? She finally says I should not worry about Lek, she is alright. What does that mean? She will not say. Instead, she gets up and leaves for work.
I have been in Asia long enough to know that having your phone off for any period of time means you’re doing something you shouldn’t, which in Lek’s case means it must be another guy. I am boiling at first but after a while I start to relax. Ever since Fon lost Chris and our happy foursome was broken up, things have not been right between us. Also, a week ago the date for my departure was announced, some three months hence. I know she is worried about that, even though I have told her innumerable times I will send for her in America using the fiancé visa. Lek says she is not worried but I know better. There’s little I can do to convince her otherwise.
Oh well, it’s Saturday night in Singapore and I only have 90 more nights left in this beautiful city. What should I do? Now it’s my turn to cry on someone’s shoulder, but whose? Thirty minutes later I am walking through the doors of Top Ten while Kylie Minogue is belting out “Can’t Get You Out of My Head”, the de facto bar song at the time. I see Fon at the bar and she runs up and gives me a big hug. She introduces me to her friends as her new boyfriend. I am flattered, but I know it’s a face-saving thing with her co-workers. We chat a little but get right to the subject: what’s happening with Lek. Fon has had a couple of drinks already and tells me that Lek is with an old boyfriend, some banker in Hong Kong who she used to see until I showed up. He was richer but I was more reliable. Now that’s changed.
I buy her another drink and we dance a little as the band has started to play. Back at the bar, I notice her friends start to look at us. I know what that means. Why is Fon’s boyfriend still here instead of taking her home? So, I put my arm around Fon and tell her we should go home. She laughs and says no, she needs the $S500. I’ll pay you tonight, OK? She laughs and we walk out hand-in-hand to the taxi queue. On the ride home, I say I really meant it that I will pay her as Chris probably didn’t leave her with much. I pull the money out of my wallet and hand it to her. She says “thank you.”
Back at the condo, she cooks up some fried rice and other snacks. I open some Sapporo beer and find an old chick-flick on the cable. We talk a little about Chris and Lek, mostly about how much we miss them. But then we start to get into the movie. When it’s over and we are cleaning up, Fon becomes somber. She says that there is more to Lek than what I know, like they had been going together to clubs in Bangkok and she had other boyfriends before. I figured as much I told her. Anyway, when she comes back, it will be the same again, she says. Now I am silent. How can it ever be the same, I ask her. She doesn’t reply. I tell her it’s very late and I am going to bed. After I turn out the lights and jump in bed, she comes in and strips to her underwear and curls up next to me. And it stayed that way all night until the morning. And then it didn’t.
After we got up, we took showers and dressed. I made a breakfast for us of eggs and sausage. She looked radiant in the morning sun when she sat down to eat. She held my hand on the table while she sipped her coffee. It wasn’t a lover’s touch, but a sister’s. Was it pity-sex that happened last night? Sure, but it was mutual pity sex. She had lost the boyfriend of her dreams and I was losing mine. We were now alone together. But I was still Lek’s property, so there was no way Fon could move in on me, no matter what her sister had done. I don’t know who makes up these rules in Thailand, but clearly happiness is not a consideration. We both knew the score. It would never work between us.
Sure enough, after a week, Lek shows up all hugs and kisses, claiming her phone was stolen and it took forever for her to get a new one. She knew Fon and I would understand. We played along and things were back to normal for a while. But as my date approached, Lek became more anxious and with five days left, she bolted for Thailand. Now it is Fon riding with me to the airport. Driving along the East Coast highway, she says she wishes she had been quicker to meet me that night at the Hard Rock. I say I wish that as well. Then Fon says that maybe in the next life, things will be different. That’s Thai life isn’t it? Family duty, honor, and face in this life, so you can live your heart’s desires in the next. I kiss Fon’s cheek and say good-bye, never to see her again.
For a few years after I return to America, I keep in touch with Fon. She had found a new American boyfriend and he was giving her truckloads of money. I said I was happy for her but he’s married, she said. He only stayed around for a few months and then there was another boyfriend and then a few more after that. In between she cried for Chris who occasionally called but never did make it back to Asia to see her. She just couldn’t get over his blue eyes and the dream of living in California. I could envision her shopping in the chic boutiques of Hollywood and lunching in Thai Town with her friends. Now the happy dream tortures her in times of sorrow. And in all those conversations she never mentions her sister or what happened between us on that early morning. But that’s the Thai way, isn’t it?