Apple Women and Blended Fish People but No Stinky Tofu


I’d spider-scrawled the targets in pencil into my pink-swordfish and black-heart decorated notebook; Pool player, night market vendor, doorman and old expat were the soft ones. We decided to keep our eyes peeled for alcoholics, sex workers, homeless, 24 hour McDonald’s workers and convenience store staff. We dropped into 1980 to talk to the ‘Bar Owner’. 1980 has a motorcycle in it, three electronic darts boards and low chairs that swallowed you into their softness. We stood by the bar next to a couple of high stools. The bar smelt bleached. The ‘Bar Owner’ was behind the bar. There was a customer propping the bar up. Clean face, white t-shirt and neat product splatted hair with sharp, highly deliberate fringe spikes. A handsome guy with the kind of soft and trendy effeminacy that stamps QUEER onto your forehead outside of Asia or an art scene.

We explained we were going to a pool hall next. To a customer watching and listening to us it would’ve been quite obvious that we were from the little known island of Mime. Our English and Chinese were equally juddery and bumbling while our ‘mime’ was fluid and direct. The Bar Owner knew about ‘8 Ball’, the pool hall. Chris asked about a different one, a neon lit place. According to our Bar Owner it cost 3000 New Taiwan Dollars; you got girls and a 900 dollar bar tab. He pulled out the fake intro letter that we had given him last weekend and he asked about our expense account. When he realised that our fake magazine was such a stingy piece of shit and we were lowest of all the whisky stinking, imaginary colleagues that worked there he flapped his arms for us to sit down. He gave us a two Heinekens his beer fridge. Often Taiwanese bar owners serve out plenty of free drinks the first few times you go there but if he wasn’t just genuinely generous he was brilliant at his job. He took out the lighter from the Brothel Owner and it no longer worked. After this, despite translation stumbles, I succeeded in lowering the tone. I explained that to cover our expenses Chris could act as a man-whore. This could turn the Bar Owner into a pimp and so bestow him with the pimping fingers needed to work the lighter. The Bar Owner had been wearing a Ralph Lauren polo shirt both times that I’d seen him and he looks very preppy. At the interview he’d entered my mind as such a sweet little man-boy. However, I’d flushed the conversation level down the toilet and the Bar Owner had happily dived in after it. He took out larger and larger bottles and jars and mimed, with sex-rage face and violent twisting motions, how his customers would manage to get all these objects deep into Chris’ gaping arse hole at 600 dollars a pop.

The pool place smelt like a 3 packs a day, sweaty old smoker. The owner was busy taking apart and fiddling with a computer. His mouth was crusted with betel nut blood. There was a female worker in tight denim shorts, hacked out of jeans just below her little arse. She had smooth puppy fat over her thighs and unsculpted features with a cherub like glaze. She was pretty but looked like a 15-17 year old who looks like a 15-17 year old. Two white-shirt, dark-tie, pot bellied and flat haired businessmen were playing in a corner. We were sandwiched between the only other two active tables among the 15 or so in the place. Our neighbours looked like serious part-time sharks. They were keeping the magnetic score on the skimpy-clothed-girl scoreboards. We interviewed the guy that we wanted. He grabbed our attention and aroused our interview desires. Seduced by fucking hair…again. We were lucky he wasn’t another bloody hair designer. Had we learned nothing from last week? We played our usual pool game, Chris out playing me but never killing the game, me nervously fluffing shots with the knowledge that I had a lot of time to get some kind of rhythm going. I aim and play like a hip shooting gun slinger with school-boy accuracy. It’s a cowardly way to play. When I had one ball left and Chris was on the black, the Pool Player opened up. His table light blinked out while his mate paid the bill. We postponed our game. After our interview Chris potted the black.

We jumped on a bus for Rou Hur night market, the favourite hangout of our Coffee Shop Worker. We were trying to mesh her even deeper into our 101 story. She’s been in contact on Facebook. Perhaps we’ll take her out with us sometime. The bus was busy. A boy and a girl, just entering their teens, sat in front of us and the parents next to us. The mother smelt like those tangy green apples. Her smell baffled me. I like apples. A few sets of gormless kids on my play course have innocently revealed that their parents have separate bedrooms. This couple conspired into each other’s ears. Surely this Chinese-Clark-Kent looking man still ran his tongue over his wife’s citrus flesh. But maybe he was bored with apples by now. They must’ve been able to smell stale pool hall and Chris’ gaping whore hole because they quickly split their family apart rather than sit next to us. I sniffed those apples as she squeezed by me. Oh you wily orchard temptress. We’d taken the wrong bus and had to get off early and walk. There were a lot of motorcycle shops and garages. The mechanics work in public view like Taiwanese dentists, Taiwanese foot masseuses and a lot of Taiwanese chefs. We stopped at a Yamaha garage and interviewed the ‘Motorcycle Mechanic’. The ‘Pool Player’ had given short answers and a pool hall name card as a gift. Our mechanic snatch, with his enthusiastic answers and generous gift put a little bounce into my step. I even did a hop and skip one time when Chris wasn’t looking.

We edged over a deadly crossing, the green man flashing at us sardonically, where the drivers got too much road to pick up speed after their right turn. Taxis came bombing over the crossing. Yellow cocks! Across the road we passed a sinister place. It had old Japanese curtains and a door lifted from Lin Shen North Road’s red light district. We looked at it curiously. Middle aged women at the bus stop seemed to be watching us, knowing we were ravenous for the debauchery that lay on the other side. We were tongue swinging wolves slobbering all over the road.

‘What was that place? Let’s go in,’ I said, foot tapping, hand wagging, buzzed up on mechanics and adventure.

‘It’s probably filled with old men and half naked old women singing KTV,’ said the hesitant photographer.

‘So? What’s the worst that’ll happen? If they’re old you’re not gonna be tempted into shagging one and we won’t die. We can just walk straight out if it’s bad. The worst that’ll happen is we’ll feel uncomfortable and they’ll feel uncomfortable and then when we leave they’ll laugh and we’ll laugh.’

‘OK.’

Through the door was another locked metal door and a barred window. It was stuffy inside. Perhaps you had to mumble an Arabic password through the bars to enter this prostitute teeming place. A memory of an old ‘pawn shop’ display at the Hong Kong Story museum started to resurface as a light came on and a big guy thudded downstairs. It was indeed a pawn shop. No sucks and fucks for sale here. The owner gave us a lot of time, air-conditioning and an even better gift upgrade than the mechanic. We should pass through unwelcoming doorways more often.

We walked into the night market. There were kids been spun around by one and a half metre tall, coin operated Ferris wheels. I pointed out a wide Taiwanese man in a Manchester United shirt. Chris didn’t find it remotely interesting. My stomach felt like it had a hole in it and was bubbling around trying to dissolve itself and mumbling, ‘Feed me Lewis.’

‘Fuck you stomach.’

‘Feed me Lewis or you won’t be able to drink any beer tonight without going completely mental.’

I got Chris to go into an ‘India and Pakistan food’ restaurant. Chris was reluctant. He’d been there before. I hadn’t had any traditional British cuisine like this for a long time. There were Koranic scrolls on the walls. The waiter went to the shop to buy us some beer because they didn’t stock any. They cost a little more than convenience store prices. We thought that a Pakistani in Taiwan would be an interesting expat. I asked. His English was more broken than mine and he couldn’t understand my Chinese mime. The waiter smiled and seemed to understand.

Then his eyes flared open, ‘Who’s this for?’

‘Not many people.’

‘No, I can’t. No card.’

‘You don’t have an ARC (a work visa and resident card)?’

‘Yes, I have an ARC. You need to ask the boss.’

‘OK, I’ll interview the boss.’

‘The boss isn’t here.’

Another waiter served us after that. He looked bug eyed, intense and manic. I was over polite to him hoping to crack his scary shell. Before he left he returned my grin but it made him look worse. He looked slightly mentally disabled. He had probably been told, or learnt not to smile at the customers. Somewhere in Hollywood a casting agent was desperately searching for someone like this guy, for next summer’s terrorist-blasting action blockbuster. Chris told me about India. I’ve only been to Mumbai, he’s been all over. He said that I’d find it really interesting, he said not fun, interesting. Only desensitised sex tourists can find absolute poverty clean-fun. We talked about roadside bandits and a Russian Hari Krishna we had both met who was sick when he got back from his Krishna-pilgrimage. Chris said that if you didn’t go to stupid places it was reasonably safe. The restaurants food wasn’t great but there was a lot and I enjoyed it. Surely, even British racists love curry. Coming to Taiwan and turning my image of British-Chinese food into oily, beansprouted shit has boosted my curry love even more. I can’t imagine the UK without wafts of saffron, paprika and Indian spices.

We headed up stream to find a stinky tofu seller. The people at the market had spontaneously organised into a one way system looping round the stalls. It took a lot of child dodging and belly bumping before we realised and moved into the right lane. We bought an umbrella that looked like a wine bottle with flowers painted onto it from a bargain store. We were onto a really good gift chain started by the Cleaver Masseuse whereas all our other gift exchanges had turned into business cards so we decided to double our chances of a keeping it going. The umbrella was twice the price that we thought by looking at the label. We weren’t cheated it was just that the price tags weren’t in the right place. We left the shop and our noses found a stall. Chris could read enough characters to confirm it sold stinky tofu. The seller must’ve been over 60. She had a nipple like mole on the corner of her top lip. I asked to interview her. She was immune to my toothy smile. The following conversation was in Chinese:

‘What do you want to eat?’

‘We don’t want. We want to question you.’

‘What do you want to eat?

‘We want to question 101 different Taipei people.’

‘I don’t understand. What do you want to eat?’

She shook her head, body, arms and hands in refusal of our fake intro letter. She looked like a doll in a dog’s mouth.

‘I don’t want it. I don’t want it.’

Then she blanked us. We didn’t find another stinky tofu seller. There was a man making glass dragons. Transparent lettuce coloured dragons. Nobody seemed interested. Everyone walked on by. We tried to interview him while he used a blow torch on a tube of glass; dribbling eagle like claws onto the dragon’s foot. A crowd gathered to watch us as we yelled over the hiss of the gas fueled flame. They were amused and hollered out translations and corrections of our questions to the big glass-man, who was from another period in time. It turned out he lived in Hsinchu. That’s near Zhunan, where I live, and not Taipei. We cut the interview short. The people with the best English seemed to sigh in unison. The crowd dispersed, we smiled and shook our head at the pleading may-I-help-yous. There was nothing that could be done. No one bought any dragons.

There was a traditional Chinese ice cream stall. This type of ice cream is like the ingredients of fancy brand ice cream all piled on top of each other. I didn’t like it when I first arrived in Taiwan but I think that’s because I was given red bean flavour. We interviewed the stall owner and shared a bowl of strawberry and mango ice cream. She didn’t want a gift and was very reluctant about the photo.

We stopped off at Family Mart to rest and have some beer. Convenience store boozing is surreal. A city centre vibe and activity, lively music, air-conditioning, seats, cheap beer, bathrooms, quick service and hospital lighting that’s impossible to sleep to. When we entered the guy behind the counter was flicking his tongue in rock and roll cunnilingus fashion, at a male customer and possible acquaintance. We bought three Tsingtaos because they were on sale. A new Eminem song came on followed by the 2010 version of the England football song, Three Lions on a Shirt. Outside the window we were sitting at, a fat couple were drinking in the heat. A cockroach made a filthy flying lunge at them. The woman shrieked. The man eventually splattered it on the pavement with his shoe. The cunnilingus worker offered us a free sausage. Chris ate it. Then he vanished. A queue formed. He ran back into the store trying to put his uniform back on. I was becoming more and more sure he’d be up for an interview. A gang of young lads came in. I think they shoplifted some drinks. The worker didn’t seem to give them much of a glance. When all the thieves had left we started our interview. Now and again we got interrupted by bothersome people who had the nerve to try and buy things.

A little tipsy, but too full to be drunk, we got in a taxi. I sat in the back, had no idea where to go and was entranced by the free-to-play, touch screen video games on the passenger side headrest. I mashed me some moles. 700 points. During all this, with absolutely no help from me, Chris sat in the front and used his staggered Chinese and weak sense of left and right to send our taxi driver swerving around for a hookah place. It was after 1 in the morning so we decided to quit working. We went to ‘Player’. It was boudoir like, had bright orange fish, sexy baseful speakers playing Cuban, Brazilian and Spanish songs and 2 for 1 cocktails. It was so comfortable we ignored been ignored by the staff for around 30 minutes. We drank Long Island Ice teas, smoked a peach hookah pipe and talked. We discussed the snipe hunt of true-love, limp-communist fucks who asked to be made love to ‘like in the movies’, fat girls, semi-conscious on weed who insist you must finish BUT not on their big tits, cat costumed women who give you the horn and the women with varicose veins over their noses who you screw as a substitute when they slip away, whores, married friends and divorced and widowed parents. There’s all this rush of lives in the city and the scariest thing is they are all actual real people. We are putting personalities onto so many types of people it’s scary. They all seem so happy to interact. Many seem enthusiastic about the gift swapping. They are like the bright orange fish in the bar’s fish tank. Dunked into an unnatural and cramped place together. Swimming up, down, back and forth, incessantly, repeatedly, pointlessly. Occasionally locking lips in what looks like kisses but must be fighting or cleaning or feeding. And those dumb fuckers don’t even fucking speak to each other. Pretty orange fish with bulbous eyes. I once read about an edgy art exhibition with fish inside of blenders. If only someone could just come along and press our on button and juice us all together.

We went to 7/11. We talked about the writer Roald Dahl, about the hard methods he used to nurse his post-stroke wife and his adult book where love is found with one woman and continual sleeping around. We each drank one of the smaller sized cans of beer. Taiwan beer, Gold Medal. I ate some factory packaged, pre-cut apple slices.

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About orangetuesday

Chris Rawlins is the photographer. Lewis Hall is the writer. Taipei is the city.
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