Friday, May 30, 2008

Let's balk about sex

“I don’t want to employ the services of a beautiful Chinese call-girl. I’m quite happy to stay ‘out of the game’, thanks very much. I have no desire to act on desire.”

This was the situation 22 I found myself in on another ‘business’ trip to Singapore - if being holed up in an office robot-editing stories for three days can be called corporate travel (and next time I’ll just get up early and do it from home). One evening, the insistence of hospitality ignored anything I’d like to do in favour of checking out the hotel bars where the aprostates roam. When will people realise that we don’t always have to act on our desires, that we don’t always have to serve these needs, that the deed once done returns a gruesome reality to life? I eventually managed to leave this pre-transactional parade, vocalising taut jungle beats down Orchard Road in riposte (and still being offered business).

Super-reality is Singapore’s forte. It is like one long episode of the Apprentice. A city-state sandwiched with British colonial help between Malaysia and Indonesia, it long ago sought economic primacy with culture and society running behind a distant second to discipline and the work ethic. You will all have heard the stereotypes – clean, boring, crime-free, strict, corporate, efficient, it is all these things and not a lot more. In 30° heat, I found the ‘no drinking’ on the mass rapid transit (SMRT) system particularly oppressive.

Yet you head into town on the Smart-link and see perfect advertisements for Cities in the Sky – whole districts chocked full of clean, functioning towerblocks with the requisite infrastructure nearby. There will obviously be isolated resistance to ‘the system’ mainly due to and expressed through Western youth culture, but there’s no way an underclass can develop, so let’s do away with the net. Just as Chinese, Malays and Tamils come together and avoid tension through the lingua franca English, corporate and entertainment culture combine so the business, hotel and resto district is Singapore’s selling point – come and have a look at supersized towers, get a nice meal, let’s talk business. The ‘oldest profession’ is not pushed under the carpet but is legitimised as all part of the service.

An expat band played funky hits as the men roamed and the girls waited until drink absolved any morals or resistance (the ladyboys I’m told were more likely to roam near the airport, by a taxidriver crank credulous of the notion that it’s just “the jews” who run all the businesses!). Europe’s grotty red-light districts have thrust similar stag-tour temptation at me so I was unlikely to say ‘oh sure, get me a whore’ even if there was more of a patina of glamour here, even if, as I was told, they were ‘flocking’ to me. A mid-30 average white boy being slightly higher up the aesthetic food chain than their stock middle-aged sweaty overweight trade. Apparently though it’s fine here as everybody, meaning those sweaty and overweight and the ‘mind on my money and my money on my mind’ call-girls, has been able to reduce it to a pure transaction, the justification you hear everywhere else.

There is no room for the uncanny in Singapore, or an appreciation that culture quite often comes from the margins, and can’t just be slapped on the populace. I found myself longing for a bit of London’s rough around the edges, its faded glamour, its dissolute attitude. Culture is a little more than fine food, wheels even bigger (but of course) than the London eye and impressive neon-lit views of the harbour from a hotel tower (I’d surprised myself by not going bandy after I had been persuaded to go 70 stories up). It is not all about the spectacle and - because you’re worth it - satiating desire (generated by all that work).

But in global capital, the machine needs all the cogs to work for faultless efficiency. And there were lengthy delays at Changi Airport on connecting flights – at last I had time to put on my the walkman and play some tunes. White Denim’s playful rock shapes were an enjoyable way of blotting out the entreaties to enjoy the Changi Airport 'experience' (when culture has been traduced as outlined, it is the same as anything outside the airport has to offer).

When it got delayed again, I had no music to match the fraught mood. I thought I would zone out with Liars’ 30-minute psycho trancer This Dust That Makes Mud, but it beat me about 15 minutes in. Singapore will never be able to degenerate culture this way.
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