Sunday, September 26, 2021

Henry Trotter and Billy Monk in the Tavern of the Seas

As published at Unz Review, 9/27/21:

With a wicked sense of humor, God has made me a warlord, for I now have a growing army of Angry White Pussies! They’re joining me so fast, I must turn most away, on grounds of physical or mental deficiency.

Of course, even those who can handle a few pushups and some crude English, which is their native language, after all, are useless, for they’re only adept at blathering about sheboons, ragheads and chinks, and IQ too, oh the irony, as they cower, incontinently, in their rapidly darkening continent. Russia, China, the Taliban or even army-less Tuvalu has nothing to fear from such an unmanly force, for it flinches before any transsexual Jew can throw a punch!

Thank God I’m in Cape Town, for here I’m surrounded by real men and women, of all colors. This is a tough, no nonsense place, and yes, its violence is real, I’ve never denied that, but it hasn’t made people hysterical or even uncivil.

After minimizing their chances of having house invaded, car jacked or body assaulted, they calmly go about their business. In bars and cafes, they joke and laugh. They jog, walk their dogs, stroll on beaches and even greet strangers on sidewalks. Taking out the trash before dawn, I was startled by a white man, “Good morning!”

Three taxi van drivers have just been shot to death, with a fourth injured. Of course, it’s horrible, but when I lived in Philly, only slightly better news greeted me most days. Cape Town is actually safer than Saint Louis, with Juarez the deadliest worldwide. Both cities are well worth visiting, of course, especially festive Juarez.

While wandering around Juarez with a white American friend, I was told that whenever he went there with his teenaged son, many locals would smile or nod at the young man, with some openly greeting him, “Finally, I realized my son had been coming here [from El Paso] to get laid!”

The key refreshment station for ships sailing between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, Cape Town was called Tavern of the Seas. Although the Suez Canal eliminated much of this traffic, the arrival of Asian fishing vessels half a century ago pumped new life into this gem of a city.

In his endlessly fascinating Sugar Girls and Sea Men, Henry Trotter explains, “With friendly diplomatic relations in place, Japanese companies secured Cape Town as a base for their South Atlantic tuna fishing operations. Since then, Asian seamen have streamed into the Cape Town docks. Locals remember the Japanese invasion of the 1970s to the 1990s as a golden age. The sailors came from the most dynamic economy in the world with pockets bulging with yen, and everyone wanted a piece of the action. The dockside sharps rubbed their hands in anticipation. Cabbies clamoured for the seamen’s fares. Club owners bowed and scraped for their patronage. And prostitutes bleached their hair, catering to the men’s desire for blondes. The Nipponese responded with cash—lots of it. They played with rands as if it were Monopoly money and they paid with wads rather than notes... So the story goes.”

They were joined by Korean, Taiwanese and Chinese trawlers. To reduce cost, Filipino, Indonesian and Vietnamese fishermen were also employed, so there were lots of Orientals passing through Cape Town. During the last two decades, Chinese tourists have also flooded in. Covid stopped all this.

Only unthinking ideologues deny biological differences between ethnic groups. Khoikhoi and Zulus, for example, are not remotely the same. You also have cultural differences, as sustained by history, traditions, geography and language.

Hanging out with Cape Town’s prostitutes for a year and half, without touching them or even drinking, so unlike, say, William T. Vollmann, Trotter records their sociological, anthropological and economic discernment:
Over the years, dockside women have created a mental database of stereotypes to deal with each nationality. This allows them to size up their options quickly with the incoming crews […]

Japanese seamen are the alpha clients of the dockside trade: they’re considered the richest, kindest, cleanest, most generous and most prestigious […] They’re also said to be completely loyal to anyone who is honest with them. If they like a cabby, he’ll be theirs for life. The same often goes in their relationships with the women […] However, the bouncers say the Japanese are useless in a fight, describing them as ‘butter.’

Taiwanese sailors rank just behind the Japanese […] Though the women think they’re unimaginative sexually, they’re seen as good fighters.

Koreans enjoy a high status similar to that of the Taiwanese […] But they’re also highly volatile. The women say, ‘Don’t make a fool of them or they’ll make a fool of you.’ They don’t take kindly to taunting or disrespect, and they’re abrasive and possessive. The bouncers say they ‘act like shit when they’re drunk’ and ‘fight like demons.’

Filipinos make up the largest national group among seafarers, but they’re a diverse bunch […] Some are cosmopolitan coastal dwellers, while others are upcountry hill people. But they’re considered the most romantic seafarers: like Manuel, they say the sweetest things to the women, often inviting them home and promising marriage. They’re also very sentimental, depicting their lives in highly melodramatic tones. The women consider them big liars, though, because they almost never make good on their boasts. They seem to have a fetish for white women, paying between R400 and R800 for the privilege of going with one. They’re also good fighters.

Indonesians typically stay in port for four to five days. They have money and want to spend it quickly on the women. They find it easier to connect with coloured Muslim women because of religious similarities. But the women claim they’re playboys who like to take a different woman each time […] They’re considered the prettiest boys of the lot and average fighters.

Chinese crews have become prominent on the trawlers over the last decade […] They stay in port for a long time, and most of their evenings at the clubs are spent drinking and flirting, not making sexual contracts. The women complain that the Chinese sailors don’t clean themselves properly; even worse, they’re rough and grabby, sometimes even trying to trick the ladies into cheap sexual hook-ups. The Chinese fight well but not to kill.

At the bottom of the prestige pile are the Vietnamese sailors, who make very little money. The women say they’re cheap, always trying to scam them for free sex. At the clubs, they buy the cheapest liquor and pay only R200 to R500 per sexual engagement. According to the bouncers, they’re extremely dangerous: they have no fear whatsoever and boast a lethal knowledge of anatomy.
Since I’m not rich, a pretty boy or much of a fighter, I must be at the very bottom of the Vietnamese pile, but hey, at least I have a bansheeing rabble of Angry White Pussies, always on my tail to sniff for anything untoward. I’m a leader of half men.

A deft storyteller, Trotter crafts unforgettable vignettes. Here’s one:
One evening at one of the clubs, I watched Renata—a coloured veteran who’d been in the game for years—enter the karaoke room quite late. The place was packed, but all the sailors were already busy with women. She skulked around a while, looking for an opening with a man. But with women draped around their shoulders, the men seemed content. Renata stood by the bar and listened to the seamen sing karaoke numbers for a while. Then she placed a request with the DJ.

When she took the microphone and stood in the middle of the room, no one noticed at first. It was fairly common for the women to sing too, usually American pop songs. But after she sang a few verses in flawless Mandarin, the men slowly turned their attention away from their women to Renata. The Chinese sailors gawked in amazement as Renata traversed the complex tones of a syrupy sweet ballad.

The women wrapped their arms a little tighter around the men, burrowing their heads into the sailors’ necks. But the men started singing along with Renata, encouraging her. Without missing a beat, she ramped up her performance, like a lounge singer from yesteryear. She glided around the tables with a sleek and sexy gait, sat on guys’ laps, blew puckered kisses across the room and took command of the scene. For a few minutes, all eyes were on her.

When the song ended, everyone clapped and raised their glasses. The Chinese sailors were especially pleased. Their chests swelled to see this woman honor their culture with such a fine recital. They showered their praise on Renata, and for the rest of the evening she was welcome at any of their tables. The men fussed over her while the other women’s faces started to sour.

The ploy paid off. At the end of the evening, Renata went off with a man who had been previously occupied with a woman who couldn’t speak Chinese. Once his attention turned to Renata, it stayed on her.

As Renata departed with her beau, I stared at her, speechless. She was a 37-year-old coloured drug addict who slept between rock piles of the harbor breakwater at night—but she could speak, read, and write Chinese. And as the rest of the women went off with their men, I heard them chatting in the sailors’ languages as well. I had to stop and ask myself, “Where the heck am I?”
Cosmopolitan Cape Town, that’s where, the legendary port city. Speaking of language, most black Africans are fluent in at least two, so that’s two more than your average, well, you know who… A typical Kenyan kid speaks three languages, with many knowing five! During my two years in Italy, I was often astounded by its Africans’ comfort with la bella lingua.

Although Billy Monk died in 1982, 15 years before Henry Trotter, an American, arrived in Cape Town, their arts overlap wonderfully. A bouncer at The Catacombs in the late 1960’s, Monk photographed an earlier bacchanal of groping, dancing, kissing or passed out sugar girls and sea men.

Drifting from job to job, Monk had been a traffic cop, railway worker, leather goods dealer and cray fish poacher. Arrested for burglary, Monk was jailed for two years. Inside, he sold cigarettes and cans of condensed milk, and learnt to box. Likely gang raped, Monk emerged a bisexual.

Men and women loved this stocky, blond haired and blue eyed man with a gentle smile that masked his toughness. Monk had two children with a colored woman whom he couldn’t marry because of Apartheid.

Although Monk took photos to sell to their subjects, he also had an artistic quest, it’s clear, for his images are astounding. Cape Town and the world are lucky to have such a portfolio of this disappeared universe.

Despite jumping live jazz and “A PURE HEART AND CHEERFUL SPIRIT” as its motto, The Catacombs wasn’t exactly sunshiny. With kitschy, incongruous murals and coffin shaped tables, it was a “dark, dismal place that stank of beer, piss and brandy,” as remembered by David Goldblatt in Craig Cameron-Mackintosh’s tribute to Monk.

After weeks or even months at sea, adrift sailors were desperate to grab anything approximating, or just parodying, affection, to hoard and remember after their wearisome return to boundless emptiness and monotony. Monk captured this pathos.

A British sailor from the H.M.S. Eskimo stares at the camera, as another man, in black suit and tie, nudges his face, eyes closed, against an impassive woman with a hicky on her neck. His hand is on her upper thigh.

Below a painted escutcheon, with “DEUS DAT INCREMENTUM,” a white woman flashes her bra, while another shows her breasts. Their johns are Orientals in ties and dress pants, with carefully combed hair. God gives the increase, but of what?

Four older whores, two with big hair, sit at a square table, with no man in sight. All are chubby. One slouches. The wall behind them is barren save for some dark liquid stain no one ever bothered to clean.

In front of a faint pyramid, two white couples french kiss, like teenagers on dates, except half of this passion has been bought.

Let’s us insert here a timeless passage from Trotter’s book:
Alcohol’s mind-numbing effects are even more important in the bedroom. Gina the township tough said, “It’s not nice having to go with different men every night. Sometimes when I’m kissing them, I feel nauseous. Their mouths reek. Their chests are sweaty. And their private parts are all slimy and gross. If I’m drunk, I can handle it. But if I’m sober, I just want to die.”
Sometimes a Cape Town whore would profess love to a sailor, marry him then move to Europe or Asia. Just as wives can blossom into whores, whores can be sedated into wives, though it’s a rather risky proposition.

Since Apartheid outlawed interracial sex, how did Cape Town’s prostitutes get away with screwing Orientals? Easy, Japanese were somehow categorized as “whites,” while Koreans were “colored.” If a colored woman was with a Japanese, she could claim he was Korean. If a white was with a Korean, she could say he was Japanese. Of course, it was stupid. Basically, the cops left a handful of clubs like Catacombs alone. They became magnets, then, for all those who couldn’t quite fit into that overly intrusive and restrictive society, where even Pink Floyd was banned.

Since Monk could never hold any job for long, he quit The Catacombs after two years, and never photographed again, incredibly. If Monk’s negatives hadn’t been discovered by accident, his entire output would have been lost.

As Monk’s photos were finally exhibited, he was shot before he could even see the show, and it’s not clear what happened. It may have had to do with diamonds, or just some furniture, left in the rain. Of course, it was stupid. According to Monk’s son, his dad’s killer, a white man, pleaded drunkenness as a mitigating factor, so was sentenced to only six months, suspended, and fined 100 rands!

Like so many South African lives, Monk’s was cut short, but he left behind a legacy of nuanced, raw beauty and complex poignancy. The worst misfortune is to suffer without articulation. Art redeems.

When all serious arts have been banished from public discourse, your culture is dead.


Anonymous said...

Thanks Linn. Enjoyed the Billy Monk documentary, as well as the refreshing absence here of psychologically deranged, and pathologically stupid comments from Unz readers.

Linh Dinh said...

Those deranged commenters are enjoying each other's wit in that echo chamber!

Here's the best link to Monk's photos.

Martin said...

Billy Monk's candid shots look very much like Diane Arbus's freak show photography.

Dutch and English people naturally have a physical strangeness/weirdness about them, Billy Monk getting gritty flash photos of half-drunk English sailors and Dutch prostitutes in a dark, seedy, Cape Town dive bar makes for a worthy slice-of-life preservation of late 1960's South African human reality, it also makes excellent propaganda against White Supremacy: how can anyone consider these white people to be "privileged"? Of course, the quick reply would be that these whites squandered their privilege which non-whites never had to squander.

I can see why these people wanted to be drunk: imagine the horror of facing yourself living that type of life sober. In their shoes I, too, would want to be drunk all the time.

Anonymous said...

LD, I love your AWP meme, especially since if they really read your work, they would realize that at some level you are a sympathizer. However, them attacking you instead of the ones who have conquered and occupied their countries demonstrates their cowardice--shoot the messenger and all that.

I have to say though as funny as that shit is, that time some white broad tried to correct you on your city of birth was just too much--the pinnacle of arrogance. Anyway, when are you going back to Ho Chi Minh City? LOL

Linh Dinh said...

Vietnam is still closed, so I can't go back to Saigon. Vietnam is handling its Covid situation idiotically, with a lockdown that's doing tremendous harm to its economy. People are suffering horribly. All of this started with the introduction of American vaccines, which caused the spread of the "Delta variant." Vaccines cause health crisis, simple as that.