Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Other Side of Kuala Lumpur

EWE PAIK LEONG talks about the kind of research he undertook while working on his novel, A China Doll in KL

THE STORY is set in the seamier side of Kuala Lumpur, where China dolls solicit clients in an infamous food court called New Peng Hwa. Meisu, the protagonist, comes to KL from Guilin (China) to seek her fortune as a hooker. She falls in love with her client Alvin Au, an alcoholic artist, who has a studio in Central Market. Against the backdrop of their tumultuous romance lurks a serial killer with a troubled past. He has murdered three China dolls and is targeting Meisu as his fourth victim. Meanwhile, Inspector Daniel Chu and his sidekick, Sergeant June Qwong, are assigned to nail the serial killer. The story reaches its climax when Inspector Chu races against time to save Meisu from the killer.

This novel was partly inspired by an accidental visit to New Peng Hwa in Pudu district in KL. One evening, I stepped inside the food court solely for a quick dinner. Dozens of girls and not-so-young women, carrying packets of watermelon seeds, were milling around. One by one, they approached my table and asked in Mandarin, “You want to buy watermelon seeds?” Only then did I realise that they were China dolls. When I said “no”, their next question would often be “Do you want to buy me?” Other girls used innuendos like “Do you want to be happy?” I was shocked by their audacity. The other half of the inspiration came from two novels which I’d read several years back: The World of Suzie Wong (1957), by Richard Mason, and A Woman of Bangkok (1956), by Jack Reynolds. “Why not a Malaysian version of those two books?” I asked myself as I recalled the novels while watching a few China dolls gyrating with their clients to loud music from the band on the stage.

Subsequently, I made more visits to the food court, inviting China dolls for drinks or dinner so that I could interview them. Several were friendly and chatty; others refused my offer. I also mingled around with customers and prospective johns to dig as much information as possible. A few plied me with stories of local men falling in love with the China dolls. Such romances mostly ended in financial ruin for the men except for a few rare cases of happy marriages.

Meisu, the novel’s protagonist, is a composite character of three real China dolls. They spoke to me about their aspirations, motivations and backgrounds. At the back of every China doll’s mind is the hope of snaring a boyfriend so that she can razor him financially or hook a husband and settle down in this country to escape poverty. A big-time john once gave me a tip on how to spot a China doll from a poor village. “Ask her to remove her shoes and feel the soles of her feet,” he said. “They’re often as hard as leather.” He pointed out that in the poor villages of China, almost all children are barefooted.

Meisu’s love interest is Alvin, an alcoholic artist who’s struggling to come to terms with his addiction. As the novel is written in close multiple third-person POV, there are many scenes where Alvin is the POV character. Therefore, I needed to experience what it was like being dead drunk. I don’t drink much except for a couple of beers during Chinese New Year, so I came back one evening with two bottles of cheap made-in-Thailand brandy. Sitting in front of the TV after dinner, I started to gulp down the brandy. My startled wife asked, “Wazzup, darling? You never drink! Are you in a funk?” I told her that I wanted to be in the shoes of my alcoholic character and she quipped, “I hope he’s not also a wife-beater!”

“I can’t leave New Peng Hwa and solicit business elsewhere as I’m contracted to my boss,” said a China doll to me. Her answer indicated that organised crime and vice goes hand-in-hand in New Peng Hwa. Anyone who goes there can see the presence of thugs almost everywhere. Some hang around with walkie-talkies hooked to their belts. Since New Peng Hwa has links to triads, I created a subplot in the story. In Act I, Ouyang Lifu, the head of the Red Centipede Society, tries to extort protection money from Meisu, but she challenges him to a card game instead. During the final hand of the game, Lifu raises the stake to “loser chops off the last finger.”

An unforgettable incident was when the place was raided one evening. I was sitting in Kim Wah Café on the first floor of Ace Electronics Building, adjacent to New Peng Hwa (which houses the apartments used by China dolls), when a lookout employed by the vice syndicate shouted, “Run! Police! Run!” The whole place was in turmoil as all the girls started to stampede down the broken-down escalator. One China doll slipped and nearly fell facedown and several others took off their stilettos and ran barefooted. When I reached the ground floor, I heard the clumping of heels coming from the fire-escape staircase as more China dolls came scrambling down from their apartments. Standing on the sidewalk, I saw a police truck up ahead on the road, trying to manoeuvre through traffic. It was like a scene from a TV cop show.

A China Doll in KL is published by Monsoon Books, Singapore


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