The cheapest aeroplane ticket to Ho Chi Minh City had been via Singapore. "You have a four hour wait in the airport Mr. Pointon, and then there's a connecting…"The lady who worked in the travel agents had been extremely bubbly and according to the tag on her shirt, was named 'Jenny'.
"Can I have longer?" I'd interrupted.
"Well, err… yes certainly Mr. Pointon, if you'd like. How long would you like to stay in Singapore?"
"Shall we say four nights?"
Four nights was what I'd said, but she was kind enough to repeat it and then type it into the computer, and so four nights it was.
That's why I was sat on that long train that had spent seven hours winding through lush jungle and villages ideal for a Somerset Maughan tale, and was now pulling into Kuala Lumpur Sentral station, a proud boast in steel and glass of Malaysia's great economic leap forward. The Chinese woman who'd sat besides me for most of the journey had kept me occupied. "When I went to Australia it was fantastic, but eating bread everyday! I couldn't face anymore at the end, I wanted rice… My daughter is on the TV you know, that's her. Do you know 'Oh Carol!'? Oh no, you wouldn't would you, it's only on Singapore TV. Anyway, she plays Liza… This is the book that I'm reading now. It's very good. It's American and about a truck driver who drank too much and played around with women. Then he found Jesus and now he goes around in his truck preaching the Word of God…" The book, like its reader, was Evangelical. She didn't push her beliefs though. I liked her.
But now, as I alighted at the grand new terminal of a modern Malaysia, I was alone. I was also thirsty. I spied an outlet of an American fried chicken chain. Normally I avoid such establishments, but experience had taught me that in this part of the world these were the only places where one could get normal, and not condensed, milk in one's tea. I headed over.
"Hello Mister! You are ok?" Three young ladies sat around an acrylic table nursing coffees. Their accents sounded Filipino and they looked like they might have come from down Manila way too. But the Malaysians are related to the Filipinos aren't they? All Malays. Of course they should look alike. Thinking about it, the only reason why they did not look local was because unlike most Malaysian girls, these three did not cover their heads.
"Where are you from, Mister?"
(Hello Mister Syndrome seems to afflict all Malays).
"I am from England, near to Manchester."
"Manchester! Really? My sister is going to work there as a nurse."
Was that true? It sounded fishy, but the world is smaller than we think and such coincidences are possible. Besides, I knew some Filipinos who did work there as nurses, so why not Malaysians too? Or perhaps these were Filipino after all? One had short hair and wore a cross.
"Please sit with us, Mister."
Fishy or not, sitting in the company of pretty girls, Filipino, Malaysian or otherwise, comes highly recommended even though it can lead to disaster. I ordered my tea, paid for it, received it and then returned to the acrylic table.
"So, you are from Manchester, eh? Can you tell us some things about it? We are worried for my sister you see."
"What would you like to know?"
"Well you know, where is good to go, where is not safe, that sort of thing. It is her first time out of Malaysia."
(So, they aren't Filipino.)
"Well, Moss Side is…"
"Oh no, not now, Matt," (I'd told them my name by now, and learnt theirs: Sarah, Dao and Elena). "She is working at the hospital now. Later, when she finishes."
"You can come over to our house. You have already booked a hotel or not?"
Now, this did sound fishy. I was torn. 'Never look a gift horse in the mouth' versus 'Don't talk to strangers'. Caution won the battle if not the war.
"No, I booked one already over the phone. It's the… I forgot the name, wait a minute." I dived into the guidebook and fished out a name. "The Heritage Hotel, that's it. And I'm busy tonight."
"The Heritage, we know it. It's in the old railway station. We can drive you there if you'd like?"
"Ok." (Risk scores a point now, it's one all).
And so they did. I'll admit that I was worried when I entered the poky Proton automobile. Would Dao pull out a gun on me and Sarah drive us to a secluded spot where they'd steal my wallet and all the twenty euros inside it and leave me for dead? Perhaps unsurprisingly, that did not happen and instead a grain of trust germinated. I agreed to meet them for breakfast the following morning.
They arrived prompto in the Proton at ten-thirty the next morning and I climbed into the back besides the delectable Dao, who I must add, was far from unattractive and more pleasing to the eye than the ageing Elena and short-haired, boyish Sarah.
"What did you do last night?" asked the tomboy behind the wheel.
"I went up Menara Kuala Lumpur and looked out over the city. It was pretty spectacular, especially the Petronas Towers."
"Yes they are. KL is a very beautiful city at night. They call it 'The City of Lights' you know?"
I did know, but at that moment in time my mind was far more focused on the future rather than what had been. I was still not entirely convinced that this lot weren't fishy and once in their home I knew that I'd be completely at their mercy. Not that I'd mind much being at the mercy of Miss Dao that is, but well, hmm… best not to think of any worst-case scenarios.
The house of the girls turned out to be surprisingly affluent. Not that Kuala Lumpur is a poor city mind; 'Boom Town' seems to be a far more accurate description, but perched on a hillside, with large balconies, a tidy garden and white pebble-dashed walls, this seemed more like the houses of the wealthy on Hong Kong's Peak than suburban Malaysia. I mentioned how pleasant their abode was to Dao. "It's not ours," she replied. "Our father is dead. We live with our uncle. You'll meet him soon."
She was right. As I entered the house, I was greeted by a sprightly, perhaps effeminate man, with somewhat Chinese features who shook hands somewhat limply and with the wrong hand. He reminded me of someone but at the time I could not remember who. Later on, it came to me: A teacher that I'd once worked alongside in Japan.
"Hi! Welcome to my house. My name is Nazri bin Hussein, 'bin' is Arabic for 'son of', it's Muslim, but we're not. My father converted the family to Catholicism about forty years ago. (That explained the cross and lack of headscarves then). "Sit down, sit down! Do you smoke, Matt? No, oh well, how about a coffee?" No guns, no beating up. Just a jovial Catholic convert. So they were genuine after all. I sank into the leather sofa and relaxed.
"Do you know what my profession is? No, well, let me tell you. I'm a croupier at the casino. I used to be the best croupier in Malaysia actually, but then I had a motorbike accident so I'm not as fast these days." He held up his right hand. It had only one finger and one thumb. So, that's why he'd shaken with the left. "Yeah, I work at the de Genting Casino; actually it's the only one in Malaysia as the Muslims don't like gambling. Do you know of it?"
I had to admit that I did not.
"Oh, it's a fine place indeed. Why the things I see there, you wouldn't believe. Why, only last night Mr. Tanaka the Chairman of Sony lost a million dollars to Sheik al-Thani from Qatar in a single game. I dealt for a Mr. Bin Haji Mohd Salleh who owns a computer company in Brunei. He won thirty thousand dollars and called it a 'quiet night'. For people like that, thirty thousand is like chicken feed. But, enough of that, please, tell me about yourself…"
So I did, and about my job in Vietnam, and about my impressions of Kuala Lumpur. And then we sat down for a feast of traditional Malay fayre which was home-cooked and I have to admit, exquisite. As I devoured the last of the fresh fish and spicy rice I felt glad that I'd taken the risk as all had ended well and I'd chanced upon a most welcoming and jovial family.
"Now Matt," said Uncle Nazri as the girls cleared the plates away. "Since you are my guest, would you like me to teach you a few little tricks for if you ever go to a casino? You think that card playing is all about luck, eh? Let me tell you that it isn't. Not at all. It's knowing how to play, and knowing how not to lose." I doubted that I ever would be going to a casino, but a few tricks to impress the lads could be good. And besides, I wanted to see how a one-handed croupier actually managed to deal cards. He led the way upstairs to a room where a card table was set out. "I often have games in the houses with friends," he said by means of explanation. We sat down.
"We'll play Blackjack 21," he announced. "Here are the rules." I perused the sheet. It was Pontoon but the whole gambling side of things was unknown to me. My host explained things though and by the fifth deal I managed to win a hand. "Ok now," said the five-fingered croupier, "when we are in the casino, two gentlemen, say for example Mr. Tanaka of Japan and Mr. Bin Haji Mohd Salleh of Brunei, can request a private room and me to deal for them. There are no cameras in the private rooms; it's all based on trust. Then things get interesting."
"Riiiight…" said I.
"Watch this!" He dealt the cards. "Did you notice it?" he asked afterwards.
"Watch again." He dealt once more. All looked normal."
"No, sorry, I didn't notice anything."
Uncle bin Hussein sighed. "Ok, I'll do it slowly." Then I spotted it. In Pontoon the Banker, (that is, not I), is dealt two cards, one face down and one face up. With a sleight of hand he swiftly showed me the face of the hidden card as he dealt it. So, I knew the Banker's hand. It was a fourteen. Mine was thirteen. We had to get to as near to twenty-one as possible.
"Would you like another card, sir?" asked the croupier. I was currently in a losing position and even with fourteen I knew that the Banker could draw another card, (he is entitled to do so, so long as his score is less than fifteen. I asked for another. It was a ten. I was bust.
"So," said Uncle Bin Hussein, "just knowing the Banker's cards is not enough. If you'd have stuck and he'd have asked for another, even with thirteen, you'd have won."
He was right.
"So, I must also tell you what the next card is, and then you'll know whether to ask for it or not. And to do that, I can use my hand, for on my hand I have all the cards."
I didn't see it and told him so. He proceeded to show me.
The human hand has four fingers and one thumb. Each finger equals two and the thumb, the odd number. Therefore, if the dealer surruptiously holds up a finger that means that the next card is a two; three fingers then it's a six; two fingers and a thumb and we have a five. All outstretched is nine, but a closed fist is ten and the solitary thumb is of course, an ace. It is a surefire system and we practiced several times before I got the knack.
"Yes," I replied, thinking how useful this could be in a drunken party.
"Would you like to go to the casino then and try it?"
Alarm bells started ringing. I was still new to this and no gambler and apart from getting into strange Protons with bubbly Malay females, not much of a risk-taker either.
"Sorry, but I don't have the time to. As I told you before, my train leaves from KL Sentral at two." It was now half past eleven.
"Of course, I forgot. Well, let's play a little more until Lyana comes." (Lyana was the sister who worked in the hospital).
The phone rang. "Excuse me a moment, Matt." He got up and disappeared downstairs and returned a moment later with the delectable Dao.
"Dao wishes to play with us. Madame, would you like to be the Banker?" he winked at me.
So we played and predictably I won. He was dealing again when the doorbell rang.
"Oh! Stop! Stop!" whispered Uncle Nazri, putting away the cards and folding up the table. "I have an important visitor and he cannot know that we have been playing. Here, have this!" he said, thrusting two hundred US dollars into my hand before going downstairs to meet his important visitor. Dao moved round the table next to me and pushed her thigh against mine. "Uncle is very kind giving you that money to play with," she said.
Kind? Play with? What the hell was happening?!
Bin Hussein reappeared with a strange, dark little man who wore outrageous sunglasses and carried a black briefcase. "This is Mr. Bin Haji Mohd Salleh from Brunei," said the croupier. "He owns a computer company and you won thirty-thousand last night at the casino didn't you Mr. Bin Haji Mohd Salleh.
"Yes, it was a quiet night last night for me. But don't worry, I have it here to play with." He opened the briefcase. It was packed full of bundles of greenbacks. It seemed like I had stepped into a Hollywood gangster film!
"Mr. Bin Haji Mohd Salleh, this is Mr. Pointon, a British engineer currently operating in Vietnam."
"Pleased to meet you." The be-sunglassesed Bruneian had a limp handshake and somewhat camp voice.
"Ok, shall we play, sir?"
"Yes," replied Bin Haji Mohd Salleh. "May I be Banker?"
"Erm, may I go to the toilet?"
I dived into the bathroom and sat down. Shit! It had been fishy all along! Fuck! What was I to do? Well, at least I couldn't lose any money at the moment since I had none of my own, but they had some ulterior motive. They must have, I was sure. Bin Haji whatever his name was looked decidedly dodgy and since Bruneians are Malays too, it was impossible to tell if he even was from where he claimed to be from, let alone that he was who he said he was. And he had a briefcase full of money! Shit! Fuck! What the hell was I going to do? I sat, sweated and tried to think straight for a moment. Then I worked it out. I wiped the perspiration from my face re-entered the card room and sat next to Dao who was to be my partner.
"How much money do you have, sir?" asked the croupier with less fingers than most.
"Only two hundred dollars. I lost heavily last night and am unwilling to bet heavily today."
"Yes, Mr. Pointon lost fifty-thousand last night. Here you are, sir." He handed me four tokens.
Bin Hussein dealt. I got sixteen. Bin Haji Mohd Salleh got thirteen. Uncle Nazri indicated that the next card up was a two. "Would you like another card, sir?" he asked.
"Should I?" I asked Dao in Japanese, (she worked for a Japanese company and we'd decided that tongue to be safer as Bin whatsisname allegedly didn't speak it.
"I'd go for it," she replied, rubbing my thigh.
The next card was a six. Bin Haji Mohd Salleh was on nineteen, we on eighteen. The computer boss raised a hundred dollars. I matched him. My money was now finished.
"Another card, sir?" asked the croupier, indicating another two.
"You sir?" Bin Haji Mohd Salleh stuck and raised two hundred.
"Match his two hundred and you've won," said Dao in Japanese.
"But I don't have two hundred."
"Don't worry, Uncle will give you credit."
A-ha! As I'd thought.
"Sorry, I don't take credit."
"But you've won!"
"No I haven't." I turned to the man from Borneo and switched to English. "Sir," (I didn't want to try and even attempt his name), "I fold. My finances have run-out. It was nice playing with you."
"You finished already?" asked the bogus Bruneian.
"You've, you've… folded?!" exclaimed an unbelieving uncle.
"Yes, of course. As I said before, I only have two hundred dollars to play with. I don't have the money to view the cards."
"But we can give you credit."
"Sorry, I don't do credit. My father always said beware of it."
And that was it. Bin Haji Mohd Salleh pocketed Uncle Nazri's two hundred dollars and Sarah drove me back to the station. I kept up an enthusiastic patter and apologised for being a bad gambler and not being able to meet with the Manchester-bound sister, but Dao made no effort to sit close this time and the atmosphere could have been cut with a knife.
I was dropped off at KL Sentral and waved them cheerily goodbye. However, as soon as they were out of sight, my bravado disappeared and my true state as a shaking, nervous wreck came through. 'Shit!' I muttered to myself, 'That was close!' Quite what their intentions had been exactly, I'm sure I'll never know, but they had obviously included me getting heavily into debt to a man carrying a briefcase full of dollars and God only knows what else. Looking back, the signs were all there. The pretty girl, fine welcome and a card game where I was completely at the mercy of a croupier who literally held all the cards. No, it had been clever, oh so clever, and I admired them for it. A braver man than I might have carried it further and won, or lost, a fortune.
But this chattering shell of a man was not brave or adventurous enough. He needed not to make millions, but to sit down and drink a nice strong cup of tea. Scanning the concourse of the station, I spied the American Fried Chicken outlet that sold good strong tea with milk and started to head towards it.
After a few steps though, I stopped. Maybe it would be better to try somewhere else.
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, August, 2003