We cadets, of course, looked forward to our R&R at the end of our long period of Taiwan training. At the time, we weren't sure if our R&R destination was going to be Kaoshiung or Taipei. For some reason, we were told to expect the decision later. It turned out to be the industrial city of Kaoshiung. We were disappointed but not by much.
Before we left, we were given condoms to bring along. SAF soldiers were then known to be quite notorious in the red light districts of both cities.
I still remember that time we were given those lifesavers. We were all in our all-white PT kit sitting on those shared large wooden bunk beds cleaning our weapons for the very last time. In came our appointment-holder sergeant, a fellow cadet named Lim. He plonked down a plastic bag of condoms on the bed and ordered them to be passed around. "Each one take two, whether you are going to use it or not. I don't want any of them back," he said laughingly. Lim was efficient but also quite the joker. What he said was perfectly understandable. The Army had to be seen doing its job of offering sexual health aids to its 'blur', 'sotong' soldiers. And what would shy Cadet Lim do with all that prophylactics if we refused? Play stud?
I was amused at the time as I wondered which amongst us educated officer-to-be cadets would do the dumb thing of visiting a prostitute. I could understand if a Hokkien Peng soldier did that.. Not us so-called educated blokes who should know better. Of course, I was rather naive then. Visiting a prostitute has nothing to do with a person's education level. Just look at the scandal now enveloping the Civil Service in Singapore. Top civil servants involved in an online vice ring? And one of them an ex-principal of a well-known school some more. Who would expect that?
Of course, boys will always be boys. We opened the condom packs and started fooling around. Some made balloons while others showed how the condom could waterproof an M16 rifle, our wife. The Army was right: these sex aids were indeed very useful!
Kaohsiung City didn't turn out to be that bad at all. Even then it was already a proper city with wide thoroughfares and multistorey glass and concrete buildings (albeit just one or two though). Me and my buddies went to one (that looked like Takashimaya) and slurped up beef noodles at a foodcourt at the top level. The food court was an open-concept one right next to an amusement centre for kids. The noodles they served were fine (like our mee kia) and tasted handmade. It was famously from Taichung - a city we;;-known for its noodles. But the portions were small. I ended up eating three sets which drew wide-eyed looks of wonderment from that sweet girl serving us.
After the meal, we decided to look for a bookshop. At the time, Kaoshiung was the pirate book capital of Asia and I was under orders to buy certain texts for my brother's Marine Engineering course. He also advised me to pick up a title or two for my later Engineering studies at the local university. At the bookshop, we noted that a thick economic textbook was very popular with would-be students from Singapore. Another one was Grey's Anatomy, a popular but very expensive text (in original form) with the medical students.
I bought my school books (which were heavy) and also an extra lovely one on architectural rendering techniques. I still make reference to it even today. At the time I intended to make the switch from Engineering to Architecture if the administrative folks allowed.
Many of the pirated books were printed on cheap jotter paper and the illustrations in grey scale. Only the covers were of thick and embossed quality not unlike those offered by the photocopy shops in Queensway Shopping Centre. All the pirated books were priced at a fraction of the cost of the originals.
After the bookshop, we returned to our hotels to drop off the heavy items. We then went and explored Kaohsiung a bit more. At various trinket stalls, vendors were always trying to sell us "ma lao" or red jadite, which is still a major export product for Taiwan. That was not the first time we heard about such jade though.
Back at Base Camp, vendors were allowed to sell us cadet outside things in the canteen. Most sold ma lao and Cat's Eye - a dark grey or brown gemstone with a shiny slit band in the middle that made it look like the iris shape of a cat's eye, hence its name. They also tried to sell us all sorts of "kiam sern tee" or preserved tidbits. There were also local fruits.
Walking around the streets of Kaohsiung, we could not help but notice many Taiwanese girls riding scooters on their own. With a scooter, one could still wear a long swishy dress, still very feminine. Also, back then, helmet wearing wasn't compulsory yet and a few female riders could be seen wearing a sun hat or headscarf instead. It was all very charming and feminine. It was quite the sight when 10 or more scooters stopped at a traffic light.
At our hotel, a rumour was going around that someone had arranged for a Tiger Show. For the blur sotong, a Tiger Show is not a Siegfried and Roy-type of animal circus. It is a cabaret show that featured a woman doing unimaginable but incredible things with her privates. She could swallow up a beer bottle; spit out ping-pong balls like a machine gun (like that scene in the movie Priscilla: Queen of the Desert), or snap a sugarcane in two. That last bit is worth the admission ticket alone, I was told. If she could snap a sugarcane in two, what about your less than iron-clad dick?
I heard a Tiger Show performer could even swallow razor blades with her incredible vagina - a fact that would make anyone go "ewww", cross their legs, and hope not to die!
Of course, I was both disgusted and fascinated by such talk. In the end, I decided not to beladen my mind with such memories and so did not add my name to the list of patrons. I was sure the performer could do with the extra money, but I just couldn't bring myself to watch something quite like that. Such Tiger Shows would become staple for subsequent SAF soldiers who went to Taiwan and remained talked about for a long time. (A female editor friend of mine at a magazine once arranged a Tiger Show for a girlfriend's shower here in Singapore. I believe it took place at The Mandarin. Needless to say, they were all traumatised by the event and one even threw up. But that did not stop my editor friend from writing about her experience in the subsequent magazine issue.)
Before we left for R&R, our Staff Sergeant Karu did warn us to be wary of midnight knocks on our hotel doors. My buddies and I were allocated a room on the fourth floor and worried about it. At around 1 am, sure enough, a lady knocked on my door and asked if I wanted "a xiao jie" (lady). I said no and went back to sleep.
The next morning, me and my buddy talked about it over breakfast. He was fast asleep and did not wake. We also saw a couple of xiao jies leaving the hotel. They weren't at all the skimpily-clad startlet sort with bad make-up. Most were plumpish and dressed like your average "da jie". She could have been my neighbour with a kid in kindergarten. I don't know, maybe I was too sold on 70's Hollywood image of a hooker back then.
The whole experience was rather startling. But if movies were to be believed, then the way the prostitutes behaved in a recent top-grossing Korean movie is even more unusual. In that film (titled The Chaser), prostitutes would even drive and pick up their clients and bring them to wherever they wanted the 'deed' done. This appear to make the whole economic transaction a 'buyer's market' in Korea. Is it really like that? Apparently the story was based on a real-life incident about a prostitute serial killer. (Now you can understand why it was so easy for the killer to nab his victims. They served themselves up literally!)
Another thing Staff Sgt Karu told us was to be wary when inside a barber shop. He said they provided more than just hair trimming services. It beggars the imagination of how big the sex industry was in Kaohsiung then. It would appear that every mother, daughter, aunt, hairstylist was involved in it somehow, maybe even the lady who served you beef noodles might throw in something 'extra'. The heresay and rumours became rather ridiculous (to me at least) after a while. But then again, without uniform servicemen, places like Bangkok and Subic Bay (in the Phillipines) might not have become so notorious and infamous. And we Singaporean soldiers training in Taiwan did do our part in helping create such a nefarious industry there. This aside, I remember coming across an adult cinema during one of my strolls through the backlanes of the city. It was small and seemed to be part of a dilapidated warehouse complex.
In any case, my overall R&R in Kaohsiung wasn't too bad. I really enjoyed the street food. The one thing I took away from that place wasn't the Tiger Show nor was it the brazen ladies-of-the-night calling. Nor was it the pushy salesgirls trying to sell me ma lao jade all the time. It was that traffic there could be a killer. Whether it was bike or taxi, the folks there drove with impunity, crisscrossing lanes and weaving in and out of traffic with no regard for rules or their own lives even. It was very similar to the traffic lawlessness in India or Batam today.
After a narrow miss waiting to cross a side street, I remember thinking how silly it would be for me to survive mountainous Taiwan army training to be killed like a stray dog on the street. That was something the good folks in the Army did not warn us about. No amount of condoms is going to help me with that one if I didn't open my own eyes to what's zooming about me.
Afternote: It would be 12 years later that I revisited Taiwan for army training. This time the R&R was in Taipei. Traffic might have improved but the same sexual activities still beckoned, including that infamous Tiger Show.
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