I don’t like traveling and so when I do have to go on the road I typically work sixteen- to eighteen-hour days plus weekends, on the theory that if I can pack three weeks’ worth of work into two weeks, then I only have to be away from my family for two weeks rather than three. So a couple of days ago it dawned on me that for nearly a week I had not left my hotel here in Singapore at all, except for the daily trip to the office and a walk down to St. Andrew’s for church on Sunday. Also I hadn’t collected many pictures for Helen, who likes to see pictures when I come back from traveling but rarely gets to because I’m not much of a picture guy. (Probably has something to do with not being nearly as photogenic as Helen is.)
So I decided to take a cab down to 牛车水, which is Mandarin for “Chinatown” — but only in Singapore. (“Niúchē shuǐ literally means “Ox-Cart Water,” which is what the early Chinese settlers called the district.) I figured I would walk around and take a lot of pictures and then find someplace to eat more or less at random, and as I was carrying out this plan, I noticed a little hole-in-the-wall karaoke bar.
Now, I’m not big on karaoke, but Helen enjoys it, and I really like listening to Helen sing; so I’ve gotten to where I enjoy going with her down to the KTV establishments in Houston’s Chinatown and spending an evening listening to Helen sing well while random elderly Chinese gentlemen sing…enthusiastically. And I was, as usual, missing Helen pretty badly. So I decided I would just hang out there and have dinner and pretend she was sitting next to me listening to the other singers.
Now, from the moment I stepped into the room, there was no question of this place’s being a high-toned establishment. True, the locals were very friendly — the two guys playing pool stopped their game pretty much as soon as I came in to come over and introduce themselves and raise a glass in a welcome-stranger toast, for example — but…well, put it this way. Here in Singapore I expect to pay around 25 Sing dollars even for a hamburger, and every time I got a cup of coffee from the lounge at my hotel, they put ten Sing dollars on my bill. Here, I had fried rice and black-pepper chicken and a glass of Chardonnay…and the whole bill was $24. Vintage first-growth French wine it was not. Then there was the fact that I ordered off of their menu — and they promptly rang up a nearby Chinese take-out joint to place my order, which was duly delivered ten or fifteen minutes later by motorcycle.
And, also…they wouldn’t give me the wine or the food until I had paid them cash up-front. So, um, your typical clientele orders the Singapore equivalent of Thunderbird…and then tries to sneak out when you aren’t looking. Gotcha.
I’ve been in some dives, and I have pretty low standards given all the Third World travelling I’ve done, and I have certainly been in very much worse places than this. But a dive it most definitely was — a pleasant and clean dive with friendly people, to be sure, and no reason not to enjoy the unintentional karaoke comedy, but unquestionably still a dive. But after almost two weeks in the Mandarin Oriental, I was, frankly, enjoying the change of pace. The only disappointing thing was that when I tried to call Helen a couple of times I didn’t get through; but then as it was get-the-kids-off-to-school time back in Texas that didn’t surprise me.
A couple of people tried to talk me into singing, but I politely declined, although I did look through the English playlist out of curiosity, and I’ll give them this: they had a very impressively wide variety of English-language tunes. But I hadn’t come there to sing or get drunk and definitely hadn’t come there to pick up women, and I try very hard not to give Helen reason to worry that I will lead myself into temptation, as it were. So when one of the local ladies literally refused to take no for an answer and simply stuck a microphone into my hand, I politely helped finish the song and then excused myself on the, I fear rather transparent (since it was about 9:00 at night), pretense that I had to get back to the hotel for a business meeting. Still and all, except for the necessity of tact at the end, it had been a pleasant and enjoyable and even (astonishingly given that I was in Singapore) affordable evening. And I figured that by now Helen should be done with the morning rush, and I was only a couple of kilometers from the hotel. So I decided to top off the evening by having a pleasant walk back to the hotel while having a nice long conversation with my wife.
Helen answered this time, and the conversation was going swimmingly until I mentioned happily that, largely in order to be reminded of pleasant evenings in her company, I had spent the evening in a karaoke bar in Chinatown, and I was about to share the amusing bit about how lame an excuse I had come up with for avoiding the unwanted attentions of that one young woman (and thus tactfully to draw attention to my scrupulous marital fidelity) — but Helen abruptly seized control of the conversation. The dialog that followed ran more or less along the following lines:
HELEN [in a tone of voice that very clearly communicated the message, “Danger, Will Robinson!”]: You went to a karaoke bar? In Chinatown?
ME: Well, yeah, I’ve gotten to where I like going to karaoke bars with you and so even if I couldn’t be with you tonight it was nice to sit in the karaoke bar and think of you.
HELEN: But you are not allowed to go to karaoke bars, not in Chinatown. Don’t you know what those are?
Well, clearly I didn’t, and so she explained it to me, and it very quickly became apparent that I had basically just called my wife to say, “Hey, honey, guess what? I just spent the evening in a whorehouse in Chinatown because it reminds me so much of you.”
Well played, Kenny. Well played indeed.
I perceived that the story of the friendly young woman who had insisted on my singing with her was not going to be nearly as amusing as I had expected, as I was already quite clear, from Helen’s emphatic exposition, on her opinion of said friendly young lady, and I obviously could forget about collecting any scrupulous-marital-fidelity points for having left right away rather than enjoying the company of said FYL since I had clearly (however unintentionally) blotted my copybook, and led myself into temptation, and given Helen cause to worry, simply by being there in the first place. So I just skipped straight to the “I’m very very sorry, sweetheart, and I promise I won’t go back” bit.
I suppose at least now I know why everybody there was so friendly…
P.S. There is a postscript to this, which is that the next day I was walking through Chinatown with a local Chinese friend who was going to help me get presents for the family (I don’t bargain well in English, much less in Mandarin), and I brought up the karaoke debacle, just to check to see whether or not Helen was being, you know, overprotective. My friend’s verdict? “Um…no, she’s pretty much right. If you want to sing karaoke, I have some friends who go out and sing karaoke every now and then, and they always go to the same two places; so I can find out from them which places are respectable.”
About that time I happened to notice that ahead of us in the street was a signboard for a different karaoke bar than the one I had visited the night before — and this one advertised itself as “Family KTV.” So I pointed it out to my friend and said, “Well, now what about that one? That’s a ‘family’ karaoke place — that one should be okay, right?”
“Ummmm…[with a certain amount of amusement in her voice] probably not.”
(sigh) 我是真的傻瓜先生…I really am a idiot-husband…