From the airport to downtown Kuala Lumpur it is 70 kilometres. Along the immaculate six-lane highway, gardeners were at work, strimming the grass along the hard shoulder and cutting the hedges in the central reservation. As mature coconut plantations gave way to some incredible postmodern architecture on the outskirts of KL, one gained the impression of a state infrastructure that has been devised and built entirely from scratch within the last five or 10 years and that all it needed now were the people to fill it.
It is my first visit to Asia. I'm staying at the Hilton Hotel in Kuala Lumpur with a trade delegation from Manchester. According to my guide book, "Kuala Lumpur", means "muddy confluence of the rivers". "Manchester", by the way, means "the Roman encampment on the common". The week-long schedule of events, called NW-SE: Manches-ter in Malaysia, is designed to encourage Malay-sian businessmen and women in the belief that Manchester is, to quote a press hand-out, "a dynamic fusion of traditional and cutting-edge art and culture, a world-class centre for the arts, entertainment sport, fashion, heritage, shopping and youth culture."
The Hilton is one of about 20 enormous five-star hotels grouped around the business district in downtown KL. I check in and go for a swim. Floating on my back in the outdoor pool, I can count five other hotels towering above me, two more under construction, plus the famous, futuristic Petronas Towers . If I put my head right back in the water and look vertically upwards, I can see a tiny blue oblong. This, presumably, is the sky. Beside the kidney-shaped pool, there is an outdoor restaurant and a row of white, plastic sun-loungers, but there are no other people at all, not even a pool attendant or a passing waiter.
The first press conference of the week isn't until tomorrow morning, so after my swim I go and sit at the exact half-way point of a long, empty bar and drink beer and then whisky for about three hours and then I go out looking for a woman to take back to the hotel room. It is dark outside by now and still unbelievably humid. Declining the concierge's offer of a taxi, I walk down a wide concrete ramp and a flight of concrete steps as far as the main road. At the bottom of the steps there is a young lady wearing a short skirt and low-cut blouse. She's no oil painting but she looks pleased to see me.
"Hello," she says.
"Hello," I say.
"Massage?" she says.
"OK," I say; and we go back up the steps and the concrete ramp, past the concierge, who looks horrified but doesn't say anything, and then we take the lift to the 17th floor, where my room is.
Looking at her closely under the bedroom light I can see that she is considerably older and uglier than I had first perceived her to be.
"How much?" I ask her.
"Fifty," she says.
A quick mental calculation tells me that it's about eight quid. A snip. Her face reminds me of a death's head. I take off my clothes and lie on the bed.
Before she starts the massage, she gestures that she wants us to have a beer each from the mini-bar. I decline. I've had quite enough to drink already. Actually, I'm feeling a little queasy. She insists. I refuse. She insists again. All right then, I say; and she pours us a glass of lager each. We chink glasses to cement our business transaction, and as I take a sip of the beer I notice a hard, intense look come into her eye.
Well, she gave me a massage of sorts and I think some other gratification. But my memory of the actual events is unclear, a) because I was drunk, and b) because, as I now realise, she had slipped me a Mickey Finn. The last thing I remember was staring up at the little golden arrow that points the way to Mecca that was painted on the ceiling, and having difficulty focusing on it.
I woke up about 20 hours later. The woman had gone, as had my cash (pounds 250), my mobile phone, my tape recorder, my black Levi 501s, my multivitamins (with minerals and Siberian ginseng) and, worst of all, my Adidas swimming trunks.
Professionally, it was a bad start. I'd missed that all-important first Manchester in Malaysia press briefing, held downstairs in the Hilton's conference room. While the rest of the press contingent were on the case, leaning forward, asking pertinent questions, and in some cases even filing copy already, your man was lying naked, drugged and penniless on the floor of his executive suite, with the curtains drawn.
In the wake of the recent Commonwealth Games and the Queen's state visit to Malaysia, the DTI, the British Council and the British High Commission have organised a series of events under the general title "Britain in Malaysia: Just Between Friends". In the words of the DTI-produced brochure, this was to be "a celebration of the long-standing, strong and successful partnership between the two countries, and a demonstration of Britain's commitment to Malaysia". For "long-standing", the cynics among you may read "colonial".
The Manchester in Malaysia delegation was the culmination of this "celebration"; and ostensibly it was here to receive the Commonwealth flame of friendship from Malaysia, who hosted this year's 70-nation extravaganza, and take it back with them to Manchester, where the next Common-wealth games will be held in the year 2002. On a more pragmatic level, of course, it was all about trade and commerce. Manchester is in the process of transforming itself from a crumbling manufacturing centre to a first-rate international venue for cultural and sports events. And if the truth be told, Flames of Friendship will always come a very poor second to Naked Capitalism in the 100-metres dash. As Lis Phelan, the chain-smoking deputy chief executive of Marketing Manchester, told me after I had emerged from my drug-induced coma, and tried to catch up on what I'd missed so far, "British cities are now beginning to realise that 'events tourism' is the way to go. We might have failed with our bid to host the Olympic Games, but the extent to which it has raised our international profile has surprised a lot of people.
"And, because Manchester's major assets are now seen as its sports and cultural facilities, plus its cutting-edge youth culture, this all ties in very nicely with New Labour's vision of a creative, sports- and service-led national industry.
"Already Manchester has received pounds 500 million-worth of investment for the 2002 games," she added, exultantly, between clenched teeth - for Lis Phelan is very committed to what she does. I asked her if she could lend me a few quid to tide me over, and she kindly agreed.
The first group outing for the eclectic, cutting-edge delegation of civic dignitaries, businessmen, disc jockeys, fashion designers, rap singers, chefs, PR people, footballers, and journalists was to a "cocktail reception" hosted by the Deputy British High Commissioner, Mr Richard Wildash, and his wife, beneath an awning in the grounds of their official residence in a suburb of Kuala Lumpur. Uniformed servants, many of whom I was on first-name terms with before the night was out, passed discreetly among us dispensing tall glasses of beer and spirits. An equivalent number of Malaysian dignitaries, businessmen and celebrities had also been invited, and the loud and convivial hubbub which soon gathered force on the floodlit lawn testified to the cordial, and hopefully profitable, relations that were being quickly and easily established between Mancunian and Malaysian; and was also perhaps testimony to the strength of the Deputy High Commissioner's cocktails.
I could get used to diplomatic cocktail parties. All you have to do is bowl up to anyone who catches your eye, say hello I'm so-and-so, and, you know, it's perfectly all right. I was absolutely in my element. The drugs administered by the prostitute had by now completely worn off, and here I was in Asia for the first time, a tall drink in my hand, the Ferrero Rocher about to come round at any moment, and all these fascinating people to talk to. In fact I can remember thinking that never in all my life had I met so many fascinating people, and I fervently hoped there was going to be dancing.
At one point I found myself standing near our gracious host, Deputy High Commissioner Mr Richard Wildash, so I went over to tell him about my unfortunate experience with the prostitute. Mr Wildash is a very thin, very self-effacing man. He struck me as being so singularly thin and self-effacing that I felt compelled to ask him whether or not he was religious, and he said he was. Nice man. He was in India before he came to Malaysia, and, in affectionate homage to his previous posting, he was wearing an intricately patterned Nehru-style shirt instead of a dinner jacket and bow tie. Although I went into great, and now I think about it, largely irrelevant detail about my sordid encounter with the prostitute, he heard me out with patience, sympathy and, just beneath the surface, I thought I could detect a well- developed sense of humour. When I'd finished, he said, "By Jove. What rotten luck."
When I asked him whether he thought there was going to be dancing later on, he said he doubted it.
The next morning, wearing duty-free sunglasses, I drove out of town with the former England, Manchester United and Manchester City player Peter Barnes to watch him conduct one of his soccer schools - a daily feature of Malaysia in Manchester week. As a regular in West Ham's Chicken Run stand during the Seventies and Eighties, I probably shouted abuse at Peter through the whole of his playing career. I can now see the error of my ways, however, because when you get to actually get to meet him, he is a very personable bloke - although he does get the needle a bit if you call him John Barnes by mistake, as I did, frequently.
As well as doing a spot of TV punditry and coaching soccer schools, Peter's company, Sport-ing Partners, is presently setting up a soccer veterans' tour of the Far East. This will be part football, part corporate entertainment. The tour will include a golf day, a race day, and a gala night - to give the corporate punters a chance to mingle for a week with the soccer heroes of their youth: former stars such as Stan Bowles, Bryan Robson and Frank Worthington. In my opinion, anyone wanting to gamble and drink away a week in the Far East with Stan Bowles and "Greaser" Frank Worthington must want his head examined, but I kept this opinion to myself.
"What are you going to do today then, Peter?" I said.
"Headers. Give 'em a few diving headers. Get 'em dirty," he said.
Which is exactly what he did. I helped retrieve the balls that went wide. And after about an hour of diving headers, when the lads were sweated up and flinging themselves at the ball as if their lives depended on it, who should turn up but the ruddy Mayor of Manchester with his chain on, accompanied by the Malaysian Minister of Sport, and followed by a retinue of dark-suited dignitaries and football officials. I saw them coming towards us down the touchline like a state funeral procession.
When they reached our goalmouth, the lads had to suspend their diving header competition, which was at fever pitch, and stand back, panting and disappointed, while the Malaysian Minister of Sport showed the Mayor of Manchester around the goalmouth, as if neither of them had ever seen one clos e up before. Dutifully, the Mayor inspected first the near post, and then the far post, then he pointed to something interesting halfway along the crossbar, and the Minister nodded sagely and whispered something in the Mayor's ear. And then some bright spark suggested the Mayor of Manchester take a penalty against the Malaysian Minister for Sport. A football was placed on the penalty spot. The Minister squatted between the posts in readiness. Photographers clustered behind the goal. Britain v Malaysia. A perfect photo opportunity.
But instead of taking a run-up and hammering the ball into the top corner of the net, as one might reasonably have expected of anybody under 90 years of age, male or female, who comes from Manchester, the Mayor prodded feebly at the ball with the end of his shiny black shoe, and the ball had barely enough momentum to reach the goal. It was pathetic. My nan could have kicked it harder than that. As the ball bobbled towards his goal, the Malaysian Minister for Sport was faced with a diplomatic dilemma. Should he prevent the ball from crossing the line, or should he somehow contrive to let it in? He had plenty of time to make up his mind. Eventually he chose the latter course of action and pretended to dive the wrong way. The ball trickled over the line. There was a smattering of embarrassed applause. I turned away in shame.
When I got back to the Hilton, I had a swim and a sauna. After the sauna, I was towelling myself off when the bloke on the sauna desk came and asked me whether I would be having a massage "and maybe something else?" It was only then that I realised that instead of having to go to all the trouble of sneaking out of the hotel to find a woman, I could merely have popped down to the fourth floor for next to nothing and all completely above board and out in the open. Nothing sordid about it whatsoever.
Washed and scrubbed and feeling like a new pin, I put on my black suit and my West Ham tie, then went down to the foyer and ordered a cab. Tonight was Gala night - a fashion show and dinner, held at the Carcosa Seri Negara, which was the old British Resident's residence, now a hotel and conference centre, built in 1903 on top of a small hill just out-side Kuala Lumpur. The Queen and Prince Philip stayed there during their recent state visit.
The Gala night was going to be the highlight of the Manchester in Malaysia week. We were going to be fed by top Manchester chef Paul Heathcote, then we were going to sit back and watch top Man-chester models in cutting- edge Manchester fashion designs. Guest of honour was the Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad's daughter Marina. Afterwards envelopes would be distributed among the tables, and all moneys donated would go to the Malaysian AIDS Foundation. Although I was a bit short of cash, I intended to give generously to this cause, because you never know when you're going to need a bit of help yourself.
A red cab drew up in front of the foyer and I climbed in the front seat. Unusually, the cab driver spoke English fluently and idiomatically. "Sensible people sit in front, near air-conditioning. Only foolish people sit in back," he told me, somewhat taken aback by my democratic decision to sit up front, but giving me full marks for it.
His name was Joe. At the first crossroads, we were held up by smart traffic police while cavalcades of black limousines carrying heads of state bound for the upcoming Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit cruised past. While we waited, Joe and I talked about the nature of happiness.
He told me he was a Buddhist and that he used to make a living by robbing taxi drivers. He'd sit in the back, he said, then he'd put a "big knife" to the driver's throat, rob him, then throw him out of the cab. Put a big knife to anybody's throat, he told me, and they'll do anything you want them to.
Now he was a cab driver himself. He had been driving cabs for seven years. He ascribed this curious reversal of fortune to divine punishment for his previous life of crime. He believed this to be the case because the longer he remained a cab driver, the more he felt in his soul that his sins had been atoned for. His life was less exciting than formerly - he was 41 now and had a family to look after - but he worked hard and ate well and stayed out of trouble, and although he might only be a humble cab driver, at least he had finally managed to achieve a degree of personal happiness.
Joe was mostly Chinese, but his small black moustache, his hunched shoulders and his laconic manner reminded me of a Frenchman. I liked him enormously. As we talked, he took his eyes off the road whenever possible and looked me in the eye. It was a neutral, take-it-or-leave-it look, and the look of a man who had once resorted to robbery with violence for his daily bread. He had also been a pimp.
"I looked after some women. If men no pay, or they make trouble, I whack them," he said simply, giving me another one of his black looks.
To reciprocate for such frankness, I told Joe about being drugged and robbed by the prostitute on my first night in KL. He pricked up his ears at this, and questioned me closely about it. Plainly, prostitution was one of Joe's specialist subjects. Where did I pick her up? What did she look like? What did she steal? What sort of phone was it? What were her breasts like? How much did she ask me to pay?
"She asked me for 50 ringgits," I said.
"Not woman. Lady-boy," he said decisively.
"No, no, no," I said. "She had breasts and everything."
"You see underneath?"
"No," I said, "She kept her pants on."
"Lady-boy," he said. "Lady-boys cheap. Women expensive. 250, 300 ringgits. You have lady-boy. Pili-boys we call them."
Now he came to mention it, she did look a bit like a man, and she was very insistent about keeping her pants on. This new and very surprising information that I'd been given an extremely intimate massage by a man was, without wishing to protest too much, a bit of a bombshell.
"Why you no go to police?" said Joe.
"Too ashamed," I said.
"You should go to police," he said. "Police will find him and bash him up. Crime against foreigners is forbidden. If I punch you, and you complain to police, I get three years in prison, no trial, just like that.
"I think I know this pili-boy," he went on. "He did same thing to American tourist staying at Hilton. Took laptop, credit cards, clothes, everything. Man without credit cards can do nothing. What time you finish party?"
"I come for you. We go pili-boy places. No charge. As friend. You see him, you point him to me, we get him in cab until he tell us where phone and tape recorder is. Think about it."
As I got out of his cab, Joe gave me his card and another of his black, neutral looks. The card said, "Joe: Sight Seeing, Airport and Special Service."
At the Gala dinner I sat between Laurence How, Branch Secretary of the Manchester United fan club in Kuala Lumpur (membership 8,000), and a Mr K Chandrashekran, who has a brother in Slough. Interestingly, Mr Chandrashekran told me of how the death of Diana, Princess of Wales set off a wild outpouring of grief even among those living without electricity in the rural areas.
The food was traditional Manchester fare: marinated salmon with citrus fruits; roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. During the post-prandial coffee and cigars, the Mayor of Manchester got to his feet and read out exactly the type of speech one might have expected from a man who has spent a lifetime in engineering and local government: it was earnest, platitudinous, wooden. Then Dr Mahathir Mohamad's daughter Marina stood up, and, without a note, made exactly the kind of speech one might expect from the young and beautiful offspring of a billionaire dictator: it was unaffected, bright, warm, humorous and effortlessly delivered in the most accomplished spoken English I'd heard all week.
I gave Joe a call at about 12, and he was there to pick me up in less than five minutes. I got in the front and we drove away from the Gala night without a word.
The first lady-boy hang-out he took me to was a taxi-rank beside a small park. They were about 50 of them perched like migrating swallows on a long, low fence. We kerb-crawled slowly down the line and I scrutinised each pretty, pouting face in turn, as if it were an identity parade. Many of them were so stunningly beautiful they wouldn't have looked out of place being interviewed by a dinner-jacketed Terry Wogan during the closing stages of a Miss World contest.
"Nice, eh?" said Joe.
"All men?" I said, incredulously.
Seeing all these lady-boys en masse made me realise that I had been robbed by what was probably the ugliest lady-boy in the whole of Kuala Lumpur, and the only one who looked remotely masculine.
"Mine was much uglier than any of these, Joe," I said.
"I think I know her," said Joe darkly, pushing the gear stick forward.
"Now we go to main pili-boy place. Maybe we find her there."
Then he drove me to a very seedy area indeed. We parked in a litter-strewn street, lined on either side with five-storey tenements, which were all lady-boy brothels. Actually, seeing litter in a street in Kuala Lumpur was almost as surprising as seeing it filled with lady-boys. There were 100 or so thronging the pavements and scores more hanging out of upstairs windows. With Joe beside me as my dragoman, I strolled up and down the street and scrutinised each pretty face that leered and pouted at me from every direction. Like the angel visiting Sodom, I was the centre of lascivious attention wherever I went.
No sign yet of our lady-boy, so we sat and had a coffee break at one of the pavement stalls.
"All locals here," said Joe proudly. "No tourists."
"See that one over there?" he said, suddenly pointing to an absolute darling. "Very nice."
"You're not telling me that you use lady-boys, are you, Joe?" I said, sounding to myself like a headmistress admonishing her head girl for being caught smoking in the toilets.
"Sure," Joe shrugged. "Lady-boys cheap."
This put the five charges of sodomy against the former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim in a different light. Perhaps these are not such grave or bizarre charges to be levelled against a deputy prime minister after all: perhaps sex with chaps is par for the heterosexual course in these latitudes.
"If you want to go with lady-boy, I can wait here, no problem," said Joe, waving me away over his half-full coffee cup. I thought about it and as I thought about it my moral and cultural circuitry was blowing fuses all over the place.
Eventually, I said, "No thanks, Joe," and took another sip of my coffee.
We sat there sipping and smoking and watching the lady-boys come and go until about four o'clock and then we called it a night. Joe dropped me off outside the glass-fronted foyer of the Hilton hotel. He refused my offers of payment for his time and his petrol. "This one for friendship: tomorrow maybe we do business," he said, giving me a final black stare. We shook hands. I got out of his cab. He drove away.
"You want one nice woman for tonight, sir?" said the crimson-suited doorman as he held open the door for me.
"No, ta," I said, and went in. On the way up to the 17th floor I looked at myself in the mirror and seriously thought about going religious. !Reuse content