Karoake with Extras
Manila traffic flows like a blocked drain, a sense of everything backing up rather than flowing forward. I only have a few days to tolerate the slow torture of the traffic jam so it’s no big deal but, it must be a source of mental trauma for those enduring the daily commute.
Since the last time, Manila feels more substantial. The shanti’s less obvious, more residential towers typical of Asian cities added. This has thrown the infrastructure into overload and with no obvious public transport the arteries are blocked. Crawling along the city streets, I watch as dancing children are sent into the traffic by their cunning parents, eager to encourage me to part with cash. They knock on the window with hands cupped, their cuteness meant to guilt me into feeling sorry for them. I’ve seen many such tricks, including deliberately disabling limbs to engender sympathy. I wonder how I would see this as a parent whose only way to make a buck is to let her child dance in the middle of moving lanes of traffic. I’ve no right to judge, but I do have a right to turn away.
For this trip, I get to experience Filipino life on a UK timeline as work starts at 3:00 p.m. the day stretching beyond midnight. Whilst the morning feels long and relaxing at the hotel, time for gym and a long breakfast, the omission of a whole evening feels like time taken away. At least the roads are quieter with the commute outside of main hours. The office feels relaxed, a world away from the stress of clients in the UK, expectant and perpetually demanding. Here it feels like a boys club where no-one can see what’s really going on. They really are 10,000 miles from the cliff edge. It’s not that they don’t care, many work hard and are very committed. Long hours are frequently worked throughout the night. It’s just a sense that there is little jeopardy. The process of work is functional rather than enlightening. I enjoy the role because I enjoy engaging with people to get results. Here deep in offshore territory the role loses that energy. It’s just a job. As one of my team members talk about running a local property business with no interest in life outside of Manila, I get the impression that my attempts to empower success with great stories of travelling the world will have little impact.
As I’m encouraged to join a night out the boys on my team, I note the behaviour of the girls. I hadn’t thought much about it but the nature of conversation in the office is gender biased. Girls are very one track, professional. The boys much more likely to take the chat beyond work into sports and social etc. I am happy to go out for a night after the team dinner, after all, it’s better than working. We are heading to a Karaoke club but having been told I’ll enjoy it, I’m quite sure it isn’t just Karaoke, especially as the office females don’t join.
Into the bar, I am directed past an empty stage to a small room. Seven of us settle down in the room, a TV showing a live feed from the stage. I’ve guessed already what happens on the stage but just to confirm it, a woman steps up and begins to dance. I steal myself for the coming hours to make sure I don’t get taken down any avenues I don’t’ want. I know these people and they know me. I feel my ambassadorial role of all things English and professional is here to be tested. I’m in a place I wouldn’t chose to go. Their quiet confidence and nod to the owner shows they know the routine. I don’t want to be the embarrassed fool but I am also not going to do anything that I don’t want to. I also don’t want to be paying for whatever it might be.
The door opens with a drinks order, followed by a parade of seven girls. Each slim, tall heels and clothes made to be removed in rapid order. With some negotiations, two are picked for the room by my colleagues. Sophia and Sapphire are introduced. I learn that one of my colleagues has never been with a girl so another is requested just for him. Whilst Sophia and Sapphire settle down to chat, the karaoke starts. The new girl sits with the shy boy as he is encouraged with jeers to become more intimate. It feels like I’m watching a dating rehearsal, for when he would find a proper girlfriend. I consider whether this is a good thing or is it going to create an expectation of master and servant when it come to a real relationship. Would my first encounter with a girl be less awkward if I had a bit of a private rehearsal with a real girl rather than ‘the should I/shouldn’t I’ debates of the teenage frisky mind? But the other point I learn from this, is that despite the mixed nature of the office, girls don’t mingle with boys for social outings. Maybe that’s the problem with night shift working. After work drinks, the beginning of many an office romance, just do not happen.
For the moment, Sophia and Sapphire are happy chatting with my Filipino colleagues and I continue with my drink. They sing a few songs together on the machine and I feel relieved that this is all that’s going to happen. Sadly, my comfort ends and Sophia and Sapphire are persuaded to sit beside me.
It’s hard to describe my discomfort as two very pretty women begin to paw me expecting me to react in some kind of reciprocating way. All eyes in the room are on me. Nothing is quite so unsexy as a bunch of guys watching and judging you as you chat with a woman. I expect the score cards to come out. I’m not sure whether they are hoping I will go for the full blown stripper show or just happy to laugh at my obvious nervousness. Whilst cynics might think otherwise I actually believe they would be very excited for me to get the girl dancing, stripping or even take her off to a private room. That’s what supposed to happen.
In a million years I wasn’t going to do it. I can’t explain but more than anything I feel like the mug, the relatively wealthy English guy who the girls are happy to empty the pockets of. Then the local guys who want me to condone their naughty boy ways with my own deviant habits.
‘She will strip for you,’ I’m informed, like I need instruction.
I decide to engage the slightly more communicative Sapphire beside me. Apart from the heavy make-up, she’s wearing a studded black bra with a see through negligée over some trim black pants and fishnets. She grabs my hand to encourage me to relax and stroke her leg. I follow along for the sake of not being obstructive, hoping I can keep this encouragement within safe areas. Legs, arms, back… nowhere intimate please. It’s probably the first time I’ve known how it was for my 15 year old girlfriend with my hands circling those red flag areas. Best I don’t use this example to seek acceptance into the #MeToo movement, I’m not sure it would fly so well.
I try to speak words… ‘Hello, do you come here often?’ Anything to normalise the situation. I mean what do you say to a prostitute you don’t wish to do anything with? Maybe, ‘we’re both wasting our time here, right?’ Fortunately she cannot understand my English which cuts short the possibility of moving the debate on to politics and the state of Filipino economy. I suspect asking how much might be easier understood.
The Aircon system in the room leaks, and I get a drip on my head. It gives me an excuse to swap seats. Sapphire follows me but at least now I have only one girl to contend with.
I’m getting bored of it, they must be. It’s a crazy feeling. The girl is hot, I can in essence do what I want. Ask the girl to strip, touch her. But at the same time I can’t. It’s just not for me.
I’m relieved when the conversation moves back to karaoke and chat. In ten minutes we are packing up to go. I’ve survived without having to humiliate myself, either openly refusing to go with a girl or actually humiliating myself by going with a girl. It feels like this is the most difficult experience of the week regardless of all the work meetings I had.
I come away with much to consider. It’s not the first time in Asia and in Europe I’ve been faced with boyish bravado around prostitutes but probably the first time it’s been quite so in my face. It’s obvious that a large number of men, especially men like me travelling, use prostitutes. This market doesn’t exist for nothing. So in that sense I feel abnormal for not wanting part of it. But then again, going home and explaining to my friends and colleagues how many prostitutes I clocked up on a trip would seem distinctly abnormal. What goes on tour stays on tour I guess.
My first trip to Manila left me with a feeling of a city and a people emerging from a chrysalis. So much of the old Manila open to new investment. It was transforming, fun, exciting. It has great people, great culture and great history. My second city trip feels like a disappointment. The transformation is ongoing but feels homogenous with other Asian places. It’s like a line of moths on the window, I can no longer tell one from another.