By Trista di Genova
Wild East Rooftop Correspondent
“Do you have places like this in America?” the Madame asked me, in Chinese since her English is rocky.
I doubt it – we don’t have KTVs in the States, I told her. I haven’t visited the cathouses in America, and only read about the ones in Nevada.
Besides the barber shops in Taiwan that front for brothels, I’d been intrigued by reports of spas in Taiwan that are for men only. A young writer I knew stayed briefly at one of these spas, not for the sexy services they can provide but because it was cheap and convenient accommodation for someone new to town. But these bathhouse brothels are not open to women, or women writing about them, for that matter.
So I was lucky to be here. My writer friend ‘Cindy’ knew of my interest in this aspect of Taiwan culture. Cindy was good friends with the Madame, and even had worked as her assistant for a time, since she could speak English with their foreign customers, as well as Chinese and Taiwanese with the locals.
Off Linsen N. Road and near the Combat Zone that once tended to the R&R needs of US military, Cindy, a Taiwanese writer ‘Sam’ and myself took an elevator to the 10th floor, passed through a small lobby and were seated in a half-filled waiting room. It was a Saturday night, so we were waiting for a room to open up. A few working girls, all in the same skimpy white uniform, were speaking to an employee behind a counter. Suddenly a whistle was blown, and a naked, young Taiwanese fellow was led out by a cloth leash and walked past us, blind-folded and covering his modesty.
Next to me on the couch, Cindy had hit it off with a young, drunk Taiwanese, who turned out to be from Brooklyn, sent back to Taiwan to improve his Chinese. In a short time, she had jumped onto his lap and they were nuzzling and chatting like lovebirds. A room had opened up for them and he and his friend left reluctantly while trying to get Cindy’s number; apparently changing plans and sharing one of these rooms, was not an option at that juncture.
The Madame came over and spoke welcomingly with us, assuring us we’d soon be accommodated. Ten minutes later, we were led to a small studio-like room, with black pleather couches, a long glass table with plates of peanut, cucumber and dried fish snacks and a half-dozen Taiwan Beers in cans, and a large plasma flat TV screen. In fact, the place looked pretty much like a classy KTV. Upon entering, there was a strong whiff of a peachy perfume… perhaps to cover the smell of K cigarettes.
The Madame was going out of her way to arrange this special favor, said Cindy, since the rooms were usually 10,000NT (about US$330) for a few hours.
Soon, six scanty uniform-clad girls, all Taiwanese and about the same height and weight, filed into the room and lined up in front of the TV screen. Sam, sitting back on the couch with his hands behind his head in a classic dominating stance, challenged them with the greeting, “Good evening ladies, how are you?”
None replied; apparently their English skills were limited. In the uncomfortable silence in which we were supposed to choose among them for our night’s entertainment, they all had similar expressions on their face — serious, even twitching a bit with what looked like anger and discomfort. They must be wondering what two foreign women and one older Taiwanese man would want with them… and not enjoying contemplating joining us for a wild foursome with foreigners. We didn’t choose any of them, and they were led out again. A male waiter came in, placed a few buckets of ice with tongs on the table, entered digits on a remote control to play some karaoke songs for us, and left.
Then Lele breezed in, introduced herself and commandeered the servicing. Her English was also sketchy, but we didn’t grill her too hard on that point. She came and sat between Sam and me, first turning quietly but determinedly to serving beer, popping open the cans, filling up shot-sized glasses, adding a bit of ice. Then she took the plastic wrap off the plates of snacks and dumped out the ashtrays underneath the table. When there was nothing left for her to do, I engaged her in simple conversation. How old was she? 25. How long had she been working there? Eight years. Did she like it? Haihao, so-so. What would she like to do in future? Go into fashion retail, it seemed. “They all want to do that,” Cindy said, a bit cynically.
Then came the stroke of genius. Lele got up to stand before Sam, moving her hip up and down, rhythmically, like a pro against his inner thigh. He obviously didn’t mind, and I cheered her on as she got him to draw off his shirt and get naked above the waist. This would do wonders for Sam’s libido. And really, this series of actions appeared — to me at least — more liberatingly innocent and free than lascivious. She didn’t talk much but her actions were refreshingly loud and clear. She slipped off her white, beaded halter top, extended a hand to him and drew Sam before the TV screen, and they began to dance, awkwardly.
The Madame came and sat with us, constantly being interrupted by urgent calls on her cellphone, making plans to go with us to her friend’s KTV later, in ChongHe. Lele and Sam put back on their shirts, and Cindy’s young suitor managed to come join us. Cindy stripped down to her underpants, bra and I helped tie her blouse jauntily under her large breasts. The Brooklyner suddenly grew shy the more undressed she became. Then several middle-aged Taiwanese men came in, apparently to take over the room as we would soon be leaving. I got busy on the mic when a few English songs were finally sorted out for us; the new men seemed really pleased with my rendition of “Billie Jean.” It became the icebreaker and just as they were getting friendly with us we left for ChongHe.
This place was the lower end of the scale for KTVs. It was a neighborhood, 24-hour KTV, basically an apartment about the size of mine, with a filthy kitchen, tiny bathroom, monitors and mirrors placed around a small ‘dance floor,’ a barstool with two mics (for duets), surrounded by low, dingy tables for 4-6 people.
Cindy’s new boyfriend also showed up, and after some time they took off together, not to return. As the night wore on, a few people crashed on the seats, the singing grew at times unbearable, there was some dancing (kind of a loose cha-cha), and we sampled the typical snack fare of tofu, a mackerel, and white radish chunks. Three kind of rough Taiwanese men at one of the tables wanted to score some Ketamine, but didn’t have any contacts. They plied me with the local drink, Kaoliang (sorghum wine that tastes like jet fuel) flavored with plums. One of them got friendly with me, and began kissing me insistently; he must have been eating peanuts because bits of them would be left in my mouth after we kissed. When I extricated myself he went back to his table, sat sullenly for a short while, then left.
It was a fairly low-class joint, but we stayed there till dawn, when it became non-smoking.