To the east of Jalan Sultan Ismail Road and the Bukit Bintang monorail station is generic modernity—office buildings, a grand Tous Les Jours bakery whose wifi doesn’t work, an Espressamente café at the swank Pavilion shopping mall whose does. A better indication of old Kuala Lumpur lies to the west of the monorail in a bustling rectangular-shaped neighborhood bounded along the sides by Jalan Bukit Bintang and Tengkat Tong Shin streets and Changkat Bukit Bintang and Jalan Tong Shin at the eastern and western ends. Drab and formless in the sweltering daytime, the area jumps colorfully to life in the evening with its cacophony of people and cuisines, and could be described as a microcosm of Malaysian society itself.
Much of the cuisine seems to be a cross between Thai and Indian food, with lots of fish and chicken swathed in richly spiced or coconut curries. By the time I leave two weeks later I’m still not sure what Malaysian food is. The overpriced Chinese restaurants lining one side of Jalan Alor, a third of a kilometer long and bisecting the length of the Bukit Bintang rectangle, upon which thousands of tourists descend every evening, have claimed the rights to the street itself with their outdoor tables, squeezing the shanty-like string of cheap Thai, Vietnamese, and Malay/Indian ethnic eateries against the opposite side. On Tengkat Tong Shin and surrounding streets, Indian restaurants predominate and seem to be the preferred local fare.
Bukit Bintang seemed central enough from the description in my guidebook, and I chose a hotel at random, with no way of knowing how conveniently located I was for informal ethnographic research on massage. As it turned out, I could not have been better placed, but the massage scene will turn out to be as mystifying as the restaurant scene. Not for any lack of such establishments. My guesthouse sits in the lanes between Jalan Alor and Tengkat Tong Shin. I quickly count fifteen parlors within a five-minute walk around the area; many more will later turn up over on Jalan Bukit Bintang.
I opt for a shop on Changkat Bukit Bintang. As with massage parlors in Thailand, the staff sit outside with a menu of services and call out to you as you pass by. At this shop they are mostly middle-aged and unattractive, with nothing to offer but their skills. I generally consider that a good reason to try them out. I quickly discern the RM 60 per hour for oil massage is standard for all the shops here, more expensive than in Thailand but less than in China. A fat elderly man leads me to a cramped cubicle formed by a pull curtain, and lays a towel over me after I mount the table naked. I thought he was the owner but he’s my masseur. He soon works his hands onto my cock and handjobs me. While the shop is Malaysian-run and staffed, he confides I’m lucky I got him, as none of the women here would do that. What disappoints me is the poor quality of the massage itself, monotonously repetitive and jerky.
They are mostly middle-aged and unattractive, with nothing to offer but their skills. I generally consider that a good reason to try them out.
I spend the rest of my first day walking. The Petronas Towers are stunning. Along the way is Jalan P Ramlee with its row of Western nightclubs and the notorious Beach Club Café, where customers don’t come close to outnumbering the sex workers. I had no sleep on the overnight flight and am not in the mood. The Fortuna wine is vinegary and I make the waiter to take it back. In that space of time, five prostitutes come up to me. I politely smile five refusals.
I head back toward the hotel. At a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf nearby, an attractive Malay woman in a blue dress at once loose and clingy and more my style winks at me while arguing with an elderly white foreign dude (I return there several more times in the coming days on the off chance she might be there). On Jalan Nagansari there’s a wine shop with a pitiable array of cheap wines. Thank the Muslim government for that. But then how to explain the excellent microbrewery pub across the street? An English friend assured me the 7-Elevens in KL had a decent wine selection but he must have gotten his countries mixed up. They have none. (You’ll find the best deal on 7-Eleven wine in Macau; the Portuguese are constitutionally incapable of making bad wine.) Next to the wine shop, a cheap hotel with elderly prostitutes signaling to me from the entrance. More women sitting alone in the open-air Indian and Arab restaurants who smile as I pass by.
The twisting hilly tree-canopied streets back into the heart of Bukit Bintang are lovely, and I think I’ve found a great new walking city (an impression that will turn out premature; the old city is entrapped in a surrounding spiderweb of expressways). I head up Tengkat Tong Shin for another go at a massage parlor. There’s a burger stand on the corner with a crazy selection of meats—deer, duck, rabbit, lamb, ostrich, camel, and otak-otak. Across the street: the Wong Fook Kee, a rather unfortunately named Chinese restaurant enclosed in a cage-like structure like some human holding pen from another era. An older woman standing outside with what looks like a restaurant menu gestures to me. At that moment a gal with a Chinese face and a jiggly body, her pants slipped down well below her butt crack, steps into an SUV parked in front.
“You want a lady?” the woman asks.
Did I hear her correctly? “Was that girl just now yours?”
“Yes, but I have prettier ones, from Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma. Have as many hours as you like. 200 per hour.”
“I want her. But I’m too tired tonight. Maybe tomorrow.”
My real reason for hesitating is I’m worried they won’t let the girl past reception in my guesthouse dressed like that.
Further up the street on the left, a massage shop called The Tropical Sun. On the right, The Tropical Spa. I go into the former, which has a pleasant lobby with traditional Thai-style teak woodwork. Two women working behind the counter are explaining to a female customer the various treatment packages. I wait for one of them to notice me and quickly grow impatient. Obviously one of them should be attending to the new customer. As neither woman shows any signs of acknowledging me, I walk out. You see, I’m liable to believe the quality of the massage follows directly from the quality of service in reception. It seems to be a morale thing, bad management; the unoccupied massage girls in the lobby don’t greet me either.
The Tropical Spa across the street is also New Agey but with a more stripped-down decor. Masseuses of varying years lounge about on a bench past the reflexology recliners in the front room. The attractive Burmese receptionist informs me my assigned masseuse is from Vietnam, as are all of them at this shop. A middle-aged woman leads me to a private room. The treatment is acceptable. Despite her elaborate draping procedure with the towel, she proposes a “special massage” for another fifty RM, which I turn down. The only truly happy ending is the one that’s given gratis, as a gift. One of my goals in each new country I visit is to see how often and under what circumstances this happens.
Too tired to do anything except get massaged but not yet ready for bed, I head further up the street. Backpacker hostels alternate with upscale guesthouses catering to Westerners, and more massage parlors, or “reflexology centers,” as they tend to bill themselves here, with a stylized neon foot displayed out front. The next place I try has a spacious A-shaped upper room with exposed rafters and cubicles divided by curtains. My masseuse this time is from Bangkok. Her English is sketchy but good enough to explain that the competition in Bangkok drove her down to Malaysia. I doubt she’s from Bangkok; Thai masseuses are almost all from Isan, the rural northeast. Minutes later another foreign guy arrives in the booth flush next to mine. We are so close I can make out all of their whispering. His masseuse is from China, she tells him. “Beijing?” he asks. “Yes,” she replies.
The only truly happy ending is the one that’s given gratis, as a gift. One of my goals in each new country I visit is to see how often and under what circumstances this happens.
After two decades of living in Beijing I have yet to meet a Chinese masseuse from this city. As in Bangkok, they’re all from outlying areas. She answered in the affirmative because it’s the easiest answer. Mine tells me the girls at this shop are mostly from China and none from Malaysia. Her boss is Chinese as well.
Toward the close of the hour I hear my neighbor negotiating over the price of a handjob. I too am being massaged erotically, thoroughly around the balls and butt cheeks, but my girl wants double the fee for more. She is disappointed I don’t cooperate and ignores me on my way out. I’m beginning to wonder if I will succeed in getting a memorable massage from someone in this country.
The closest I have ever come to sex with a Malaysian was Vena. I’m still tortured by her. I met her online ten years ago in Beijing. She had only just arrived in the city with her Canadian boyfriend whose company had him transferred there from Kuala Lumpur. We met at the Drum Tower and hungrily locked eyes. I took her to the famous No-Name bar in nearby Houhai, a string of small interconnected lakes surrounded by residential alleyways or hutong, the gem of old Beijing neighborhoods.
The area has undergone a momentous transformation over the past couple decades. When I first arrived in the mid ‘90s, it was devoid of places to eat or drink. I would ride my bike there for the romantic peace and quiet. There wasn’t much to do but wander around the lakes, and there were few other people about apart from the residents who mostly stayed behind doors.
Once near the end of my first stay in the city, in what now seems the remotest of eras, I brought a 24-year old Beijing woman and ex-student of mine I was dating to Houhai. Tina had never previously been there despite being a Beijinger. While tall and glamorous, she had yet to date a man (this was not unusual at the time). I knew she was a virgin and was reluctant to push things, given that I was soon going back to the US. Chinese females then were both sexually naive and free in equal measure; the delightful combination of these two qualities is called “pure.” Parents stepped in when they sensed danger. Tina had told them all about me and my inviting her to Houhai. They showed up as well (as they later informed her) and peered at us from behind some trees as we sat on a bench together and I took hold of her hand.
A few nights later, after dinner at a restaurant not far from her home in Chaoyang District, we took a walk to a park and sat down. It was dark but there were a lot of people around. She assured me we weren’t being spied upon this time but it was she who wanted more privacy and led me to a large clump of bushes with a cavity inside, and we crawled in. We commenced making out for the first time. I had just gotten my hand down her pants when a motorcycle crashed into the bush and a group of men wearing red armbands surrounded us and pointed flashlights in our face. They checked her ID and asked her if we were acquainted. Both shocked and reassured to discover a foreigner (as opposed to an anonymous rapist), they let us go, warning Tina that women had been assaulted by strangers in the park recently.
A lot of people miss the tranquil Houhai of old. But even then I felt it was too bad it had never occurred to anyone to open up a cute little teahouse, café or bar in so picturesque a location, where people could relax in more civilized fashion. I wasn’t terribly surprised by this, given that there were few teahouses or bars in the entire city at the time, much less a single coffeehouse. But did the communist war economy really need to go on forever? It all changed a few years later, and the first café in Houhai, converted from an old house covered in vines, opened up in 1998, a stone’s throw from the very spot where Tina and I had sat nearby Silver Needle Bridge. It didn’t have a name and thus became known as the “No-Name” café-bar (the difference between Western-style bars and cafés not being all that clear to locals). A Chinese businesswoman I was having a fling with who ran a string of designer clothing shops took me there in 2001. The coffee wasn’t very good back then but the windows opened onto the lake a few meters away, gorgeous in the flower-scented breeze, which mixed with the marijuana foreigners would light up in the bar because the staff didn’t know what it was.
It was back in Beijing for the third time in late 2003 when I met Vena. Winter had arrived. I remember her black jacket and shapely hips in taut slacks at our rendezvous point in front of the Drum Tower. The entertainment scene was arriving with a vengeance, and we walked over to the No-Name via Pipe Street, now surrounded by scores of imitator bars. The café was crowded yet poorly heated by coal briquettes in an old-fashioned iron stove standing in the middle of the room. We sat at a little table next it. She related she wasn’t happy with her controlling boyfriend, and was moreover bored out of her mind staying in his apartment all day in a strange country with no friends or job of her own.
“Let me show you around the city on our next date,” I said, opening up a map of Beijing I had with me.
A non-practicing Muslim, Vena was refreshingly direct on a topic Chinese women find it difficult to open up about, once we had inched sufficiently close to bringing it up. “I love sex so much,” she said, smiling and taking my hand. “I love sucking cock. Are you big?”
“You can see for yourself.”
The map was still on my lap. She moved closer so that it covered us both, reached under and began squeezing my hard-on. One of the bar servers was lolling about close by and could see what was going on. Now, he shouldn’t have been too surprised. This was after all a bar, and all kinds of stuff goes on in Chinese watering holes. Once in a Moroccan restaurant in Beijing where customers reclined on pillows, a woman I was dating took out my cock and sucked me off in full view of other customers; decorum dictated that they pretend not to notice. And then there was the time in a bar behind the Drum Tower called The Bed when a Korean date pulled her pants off and fucked me on one of the Qing Dynasty antique beds they had outfitted the place with: we took them at face value. Though we were alone, the staff up front had a clear sightline on us through the window of our room and were happily taking in the show.
So this guy had a lot of nerve in pulling his chair right up in front of us to gawk and sneer. It prevented Vena from the next step she would certainly have taken, going down on me. If she had been Chinese, she might have pierced him with a stare like an icicle. I proposed another bar, but she announced she had to get back. It was only a getting-acquainted date, and we could meet again soon enough.
It was not to come to pass. She emailed me the next day to say her boyfriend had wised up to her little outing and wasn’t letting her out of the house anymore. Maybe for the better: I struggle to comprehend the voluntary slave mentality.
A few years later the No-Name bar was razed to make way for the so-called beautification of Houhai. Today hundreds of bars line the lakes and it’s so crowded you have to stand on tiptoe at the highest point of Silver Needle Bridge to make out someone you’re meeting from among the churning mass of tourists.
Over the next two days I investigate more massage joints on Tengkat Tong Shin. Adjacent to the parlor with the Vietnamese staff is a barebones shop with a single elderly Chinese masseuse. The treatment room is dark but for the blue glow of a mosquito-trap lamp; she keeps the door open and the massage chaste but provides a serviceable working over. Outside the shop next to it, a Chinese and an Indian man are aggressively hawking their own massage shop. This place is more popular and I’m led down to a maze of rooms in the basement, many occupied with patrons. My masseuse is a fat middle-aged Malay. Like many older locals here, she seems to have indigestion problems and is burping from acid reflux. As with the randy-man encounter on my first day, she jabs me roughly with her thumbs and knuckles instead of a more sensuous gathering up and kneading of the flesh in the hands. I’m left unsatisfied, a condition which can only be rectified by a better massage. At another shop across the street on the corner of Changkat Bukit Bintang, I get a girl from Burma. It too is wholly nonsexual yet surprisingly good. Attuned to the axiom that the fewer the strokes the better the massage—provided each stroke counts—she has superb technique and impressive leverage for such a small frame.
Across the street from the shop I visited on my first day is an unmarked massage parlor I didn’t notice until now, next to an Arab restaurant, with a dozen young masseuses sitting out front. I pick one. The place is quite shabby, unsanitary and claustrophobic inside. I regret entering but decide to go through with it. The massage tables are packed so close together the girls have to stagger their positions around them to avoid bumping into each other on either side of the pull curtain.
My girl opens a TV show on her cellphone and places it next to me on the table. I make her turn it off. She carries on a conversation with the girl in the adjacent booth in a language I don’t understand. I ask her where she’s from. Cambodia. She says the other girls are from Burma, Vietnam and Indonesia; none from Malaysia. The girl next to us? Indonesia. I am unable to resolve how the two are able to get on quite fluently, as Khmer and Indonesian are unrelated languages, though the latter is close to Malay. The only explanation is the Cambodian girl has been here long enough to pick up Malay. She is not very good at her job and fails to arouse me when she casually fingers my penis for a few moments before ending the session. Female patrons are also present and you couldn’t call this a sex massage parlor, but I have a nagging suspicion these girls might be underage and that has something to do with the shop’s absence of a sign. It’s a makeshift operation designed to fold up and disappear without a trace at any rumors of a bust.
I walk over to Jalan Bukit Bintang to discover a different sort of nighttime scene, an older street with an array of more established urban businesses, mid-range and budget hotels, restaurants and stores. Outside several of these hotels, some of which display a sign for massage and some don’t, Indian touts try to compel me inside for a massage. I’m also propositioned on the street by domestic transsexuals (a few days earlier a beautiful Philippine ladyboy attempted to massage me in her hotel room but I ended up having to teach her how to do it). I step into a drugstore to buy some ointment for the heat rash I often develop on my Southeast Asia trips. As I look for a clerk, an African woman comes up and offers to massage me. An Indian man outside holding a massage menu on a placard blocks my way as I exit the store. I give in and follow him up the stairs into the hotel parlor. The cashier and the masseuses are all Chinese and speak Mainland Mandarin. I fancy this street serves as some kind of conduit from China for supplying an untold number of female migrants to be tucked away in an infinite number of parlors through an interconnected system of tunnels and passageways.
My masseuse is from Jilin City and we have a friendly chat. She used to work in a clothing factory. She doesn’t like doing massage but the pay is good enough to save up to buy an apartment back home in a few years time. As expected, she’s disappointed when I delay her return to China by refusing to shell out more for a handjob.
The encounter leaves me with the same sort of sour taste in my mouth I got from my massage experiences in Singapore a few days later, where sex massage appears to be geographically distributed, which is to say the closer the parlor is to the hundreds of young Indian migrant laborers shopping for Chinese streetwalkers in the lanes just south of Geylang Road. I tried out a parlor not far away, a bit to the west in Kallang. A Chinese madam, and a record book, where I had to write down my name, nationality, and passport number. It’s a formality; if the Government really wanted this information, they’d make her check my passport. An unattractive middle-aged masseuse led me to a room with two futons on the floor separated by a curtain. Minutes later another foreigner arrived on the other futon but appeared mortified at his proximity to me, got up and left. My masseuse, from Thailand, handled me fully naked and performed an accomplished erotic massage culminating in orgasm, but only then demanded a fee. This violated the unspoken rule against manipulating male patrons into believing they’re getting a freebie when they’re not. A minor rule; I am willing to tip, if they’re friendly about it. But when she demanded a tip, I declined.
Another massage further west near Singapore’s Little India. In contrast to the dark and dodgy environment of the previous parlor, this place presented a clean, functional, almost antiseptic aesthetic. I still had to fill in my identity data. My masseuse this time was from Shenyang, China. It was a good treatment, though perfunctory, with an exacting attention to avoiding my genital region. A third massage venue near Arab Street was considerably more upmarket in decor and comfort, with yet another Chinese masseuse, from Jiangsu Province. She provided an unmemorable session and became very pushy in trying to get me to shell out more for a handjob. My interest in Singaporean massage was flagging. If anything positive can be said about massage in this country, it’s relatively cheap—only 40-50 SGD for a sixty-minute oil massage, on a par with Mainland China—compared to the high price of almost everything else from ice cream bars to hotels in the city state.
Back again in Kuala Lumpur. I decide to venture beyond Bukit Bintang over to Chinatown but don’t find much, which is odd given the Chinese dominance of the Malaysian massage industry, unless I’m missing the right streets. I track down an upmarket parlor with a male Malay at the cashier who assigns me a young woman from Burma. She provides an outstanding massage, skirting the erotic edge just deliciously enough to goad me into prolonging my stay for another thirty minutes.
All the shops inside the building are for massage, with fat matrons in headscarves peering out at me, next to empty beds and bottles of oil.
Wandering about the side streets further afield up in the gritty Chow Kit neighborhood, my instincts lead me to a massage center for locals, which is confirmed by the absence of English on the sign outside; only a picture of hands on a naked back. Unclear where exactly the massage facility is, I enter a dark, shabby little beauty salon by the entrance to a row of shops in the building. Several older Malay women are inside. One of them gets up and leads me to an adjacent room with cubicles. She instructs me to undress, and drapes a sheet over me on the dirty futon in the cramped space. She’s my first Muslim Malay masseuse—at least one wearing a headscarf. Once again, I get the usual relentless jerky jabbing instead of a proper massage. She avoids my genitals, before proposing a handjob for a fee in the last few minutes. Even if I wanted one I can’t get hard with such rough treatment. As I leave, I now notice that all the shops inside the building are for massage, with fat matrons in headscarves peering out at me, next to empty beds and bottles of oil. Down another side street nearby, there are more massage shops in tiny shanties, all for RM 70, as mine was, and oddly more expensive than the usual RM 60 in Bukit Bintang.
The city of Malacca a few hours down the coast from Kuala Lumpur has a famous old Chinatown district and designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. As I predict, there are many parlors, two of which encapsulate my entire massage experience in Malaysia. One is run by a middle-aged Chinese couple. The small shop has two tables in the back isolated by curtains. The wife carries out on me fully naked an ultra efficient treatment, with the bare minimum of perfectly placed strokes. She brushes against my cock but not insistently enough to get me hard. At the end, she offers a handjob for a fee and does not seem bothered when I turn it down. It’s curious that her husband, who is sitting up front the entire time, is in on this, as the sound of sexual stroking would carry throughout the shop’s intimate space and he could not be unaware of it. The other parlor is larger and New-Agey and run by a Chinese man, with fat middle-aged Malaysian masseuses. Once again, I get the jabbing treatment. My masseuse’s fiddling close to my genitals works up a strong erection, but she doesn’t offer to bring me off.
By now, a pattern has taken shape. Malays are incompetent at massage. While the proliferation of massage businesses confirms the importance with which they regard it as essential to daily life, they delegate the job to others, to non-Muslims, to the Buddhist cultures of China, Thailand, Vietnam and Burma, particularly China, with its long tradition and widespread expertise in the practice. There’s no edict against Malays doing massage, but a quarter of the Malaysian population is already Chinese and well established in the business. Moreover, to more sexually traditional Muslims, it’s not held to be an especially desirable or honorable job. Malay females who do go into the occupation are past their prime and only seem to be doing it because they have few other options for making money. None seems to have any massage training to speak of. The Indians in Malaysia, both Muslims and Hindus, both recent immigrants and those long established in the country, are even more hidebound in their conservative attitudes. Indian men were among the largest group of customers, but I did not see a single Indian woman serving as a masseuse in any parlor. I should stress that this traditionalism is not anti-sexual. Everyone seems obsessed with sex and this explains the widespread availability of massage in Malaysia. Yet the attitudes toward it vary greatly and this results in the outsourcing of massage work along ethnic and religious lines.
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