Roger, the Information Bank
Ever since I began studying Chinese, Roger wanted to take me to a Sing-Song cabaret. “Good way learn Chinese,” he said. The Saturday after we had dinner at the Djungs, Stevenson and I conceded and Roger took us to a cabaret. I guess I was expecting something like the Follies in Paris, with dancing girls kicking their legs above their heads. We soon learned a Sing-Song cabaret is nothing like that. There were no women kicking their feet up high. In fact, the only woman was a lone singer on stage. The audience was made up solely of Chinese men in long robes who sat at tables about the size of postage stamps drinking tea and eating sunflower seeds. I hoped we’d sit far in the back but Roger lead us to a table right in the first row in front of a raised dais, which served as the stage. We could not have gotten any closer without sitting on the stage.
We were the only Westerners, and felt very much out of place, until the Chinese bowed when they saw us and gave smiles of approval. Stevenson gave a deep bow from the waist, holding his barracks hat across the chest.
I couldn’t make out if the songstress was pretty or not. She wore a long, white silk dress with a high collar, and she was so heavily made-up it seemed that if she smiled her face would crack. Her lips were painted fiery red like rose buds, and her face was so white with powder she didn’t look real. Her hair shone in the light, and she had bangs that reached down and covered her eyebrows. She stood in front of a microphone that was so outdated the only place you see them is in silent movies. Two musicians sat slightly behind her on high stools. They were playing fiddles of sorts. One instrument had half a dozen strings; the other only two. “The one with more stlings call qin in Chinese,” Roger explained. I had never seen him so excited. He was actually bouncing up and down on his seat as he tried to explain it all to us. “Vely old, most old in China. Other call erhu, two-stling. I teach you how play.” We had to calm him down.
Behind the singer and the two-piece orchestra stood an old man wearing a worn western suit coat much too small for him. In each hand he held a huge brass cymbal which he brought crashing together making an ear-shattering noise that vibrated across the room and rebounded off the walls like cannon fire. When the clanging stopped, the fiddlers began playing in tones so high and so shrill they gave the same effect as running fingernails over a glass plane.
After short pauses, the songstress would begin. No one but the Chinese trained from youth can sing with such startling high soprano voices. How totally alien to foreign ears. Although her voice was high, extraordinarily high, it was not shrill. It remained at the same high pitch level without vibrato or variation. Each time she paused, the musician with the cymbals would clang them together several times, and the fiddlers would begin their duet. At other times the songstress would continue with her singing, higher and higher, and then the two fiddlers and the musician with the cymbals would all try to out “noise” one another. One might expect the audience to be elated, to applaud with enthusiasm, but they didn’t. They remained dispassionate, unmoved, without apparent feeling. They continued drinking tea and splitting sunflower seeds with their teeth, and showed no emotion or indication that they either liked or disliked the music. What they lacked, Roger made up for in enthusiasm. Even out in the street, after we had left the cabaret, he sang in high soprano, like the woman on the stage, for all in the street to hear. Stevenson and I picked up the beat trying to imitate him. Everyone on the street who saw and heard us must have thought we were drunk. We were drunk, but not from alcohol.
After the Sing-Song cabaret, Roger insisted we visit a few of the more popular bordellos in town. “You learn more, like in school, but only lookie see,” he said. We then became sunflower seed eaters and tea drinkers, sitting with strange women in incense-filled rooms, making small talk and holding conversations we never would have had at the Djungs. Once again Roger became our teacher. “Girls come from country when maybe ten years old,” he said and introduced us to Sue- Lee. She was incredibly shy, especially for a girl in her trade, and she couldn’t have been over fourteen. “You furstay Chinese people, boy Number One, no girl Number One. Pay mama-papa money for girl. Like shoes, like hat, you buy girl. She work fur other girl, wash, empty pot. She get fourteen, she now sleep wid man. You first time sleep girl, pay ten dolla mecan money. No one dollar. Maybe twenty doIla girl Number One.” One dollar for short time; one and a half dollars for a long time, meaning an hour. Virgins went for ten dollars, or twenty if they were pretty.
We left Sue-Lee standing in the room, with the mamasan yelling obscenities at us, and went to another house. Every bordello we visited had four floors with open balconies that faced a courtyard. When a customer entered the courtyard, hundreds of girls, those who were not occupied, appeared at the railing waving and shouting. You felt like a matador standing in the center of a bullring, looking up at an audience cheering you.
“Buying and selling humans, do you agree?” Stevenson asked as we took seats in another room and ordered more tea. I couldn’t answer him and Roger didn’t quite understand. .
The girls here were even younger than at the first place. The mamasan wanted to know if we wanted a virgin, a young girl that just came in from up north. We declined, and she asked if we wanted instead a well-trained and experienced girl. As the girls came and went, Roger continued his conversation.
“I tell you this China now. Me no can change,” he replied. “And what is their future?” I asked.
“Their future is now. You alive, that is enough. This is China, under Generalisimo, remember?”
There were many questions we wanted to ask, but Roger’s English was limited, and my Chinese was not much better. Roger did manage to get his point across. He was a gad about town, a real Oriental playboy, but he was also very careful. He let it be known that the female companionship that Gls sought in bordellos was a risky undertaking in China. We were warned there were plenty of girls but there was also plenty of venereal diseases. Before the bordellos were put out-of-bounds by the Provost Marshall, every bordello had a pro station run by the U.S. military. When the bordellos closed, pro stations were set up at entrances to camps, and every Marine who returned drunk had to take a pro, whether he indulged or not. It was a messy business. The men had to insert a small tube-like object into the end of their penis and squirt in a dark brown liquid that looked like dye, and which burned terribly. He then had to rub over his entire private parts a white cream that played hell with skivvy drawers. It was the price one had to pay for love in the Orient.
“It’s better than getting bullhead clap,” Terry testified at one of our bull sessions. “The medics stick a tube up your dick all the way into your bladder. Then they turn a small knob that allows small knives to extend out the sides of the tube. The tube is withdrawn with a twist and a pull, opening up the tract.” Terry laughed aloud. “You can hear the screams clean out of the sickbay and all over the compound when this happens.”
“How do you know, Terry?” Chandler asked. “That’s what they tell me,” he replied.
It was a fact, everyone who played around with the ladies was worried about bullhead clap, yet no one really knew what it was. There were all kinds of scuttlebutt going around, that guys who had it when they returned to the States were sent off somewhere never to be heard from or seen again. Of course, no one knew where that “somewhere” was located. Nobody really believed it, but they all talked about it.
There was a sign above the door in the sickbay that added to everyone’s worry: “We treat sick liver, ulcerated stomach, splintered spleen, high blood pressure, weak heart, shattered nerves, diabetes, Bright’s disease, beriberi, rheumatism, insomnia, arteriosclerosis, piles, fistula, chronic dysentery, and constipation, but we have no cure for bullhead clap.”
Roger was really a phenomenon. If it wasn’t a Sing-Song cabaret or whorehouse he introduced us to, it was a medicine show or a sidewalk story teller. The medicine shows were fun to watch. Performers could do amazing feats of strength, like picking up weighted concrete blocks with their teeth. Meanwhile, their partners ran around selling snake oil guaranteed to cure everything from heart ailments to arthritis. It was touted that it could stop heart burn, that it killed pain for tooth, that it was goo~ for sprains and strains, that it prevented impotency, and that it could stop falling hair.
The storytellers were master showmen. They sat on dark street corners, and under the glow of a flickering oil lamp, they to!~ tales of daring feats and gallant acts of heroism. They kept their audience, sitting huddled around them, mesmerized, dwelling in a magic world of wonder. I had a difficult time understanding the Chinese they spoke, but it didn’t matter. The drama was captivating enough. Roger was worse than anyone and no help when it came to translating. He was too involved. His eyes were as wide open as the youngest tot in the audience, and his jaw hung lower than anyone else’s. It was like an Italian opera and you didn’t have to know the language to enjoy it.
Roger had answers for most everything. When I asked him about Lin Yu-tang and mentioned my discussion about him with the Djungs, he had an answer. “Your fiend, Djungs, they no likie him. Him go China to Melika. Him born Fukien. Now him live California. Him think no likie Chinese. Him think same same him papa, missionary man.” He was right. When I looked up Lin Yu-tang in the library, I learned his father was a Presbyterian minister, and like his father, he was a devoted Christian. I wanted to read more about Lin Yu-tang but the library had only reference material and none of his books.
I wrote home to my sister and asked her to send a couple of his books.
I never did understand why Roger hung around us so much, especially when he was openly snubbed and ridiculed by the other Marines, but he always took it without malice or complaint. We thought maybe he was just thick skinned and didn’t know any better, but he was sensitive to many things. One thing for certain, he was truly concerned about Ming-Lee and me. “She na’lice girl,” he assured me.
“I like her very much,” I said. It was a confession I didn’t care to make publicly. “Marines are not supposed to say they are in love.”
“You speakie only weak man know love?” Roger replied. “For Marines, yes, only weak men fall in love.”
I was saying words but idle words, words that I didn’t mean. We often say things we don’t mean. It’s another way of saving face. Mrs. Murray often tried to explain what face means to the Chinese. “You must understand,” she often said, “you do not want to make the Chinese lose face.”