Cholon and Cochin-China 2

This was the first of such political experiences, and that night the second occurred in the most improbable way.
I had been invited to spend the evening with a French journalist and his Vietnamese mistress. It was evident from the start that it would follow the standard pattern: dinner at the Chalet, followed by an excursion to Cholon for a visit to the gambling casino and one or more of the nightclubs. Cholon is a purely Chinese city, about three miles from Saigon, which it overshadows in almost all activities. For some reason or other it is supposed to be more ‘typically Chinese’ than the great seaports of China itself, and one is told in proof of this that the city shots in some Flollywood epic of life in China were taken in its streets. There is a great, swollen wartime population of perhaps three-quarters of a million, most of whom live wretchedly, and an exceptional proportion of millionaires whose number is continually added to by black-marketeering triumphs arising out of the present war. The Chinese are go-betweens for both sides. They sell food from the rural Viet-Minh areas to the French towns, and the dollars smuggled in from France, which are needed to buy arms, to the Viet-Minh. As they are not affected by causes, either good or evil, they prosper exceedingly.
Cholon capitalises, to some extent, its exotic attraction for Europeans, but this is offset by the necessity at the same time to provide titillation for the rich Chinese, who form the bulk of the patrons at the places of amusement. The result is an astonishing pastiche. Our first visit on this particular occasion was to the ‘Van Canh Nightspot’, at which a certain Ramona was billed to appear each evening, ‘dans ses danses exotiques’. The band was Philippine and played with great feeling such revived classics as ‘September in the Rain’. Ramona, who was stated to be ‘direct from Mexico City’ but who, I noticed, spoke Italian to her partner, performed a hip-rolling fantasy of her own devising, inspired undoubt¬edly by the Bosphorus rather than the China Seas. The clientele was composed in the main of elderly Chinese rice-merchants, who danced with Chinese and Vietnamese taxi-girls.
After this, my friend was lured by his girl into the ‘Parc des Attrac¬tions’, where she, but not he, was frisked at the entrance for concealed weapons. Like most Vietnamese, she was a victim of the passion for gambling, and by limiting herself each day to a certain sum which she placed on well-known exceptionally lucky combinations, her losses were regular but not disastrous. On this occasion, influenced by her interpretation of a dream, she lost in record time. This was one of Cholon’s two great gambling dens, and here, in a cheerful funfair atmosphere, the wealth of the Vietnamese people, both high and low – since all incomes are catered for – drains steadily away into the coffers of the Chinese, who, of course, are made to pay very dearly by the French authorities for the facilities thus afforded.
We finished up at the ‘Paradis’, and it was here that the amazing circumstance happened. The ‘Paradis’ is favoured by the Chinese, who are attracted by the discreet indirect lighting, which is lowered as often as possible during sentimental numbers. Most of the girls – at least, the Chinese ones – who act as hostesses are supposed to have been sold into glittering servitude by their impoverished parents, and it is a polite convention to refer to this as soon as possible over the champagne, and to press one’s temporary partner for details of this romantic aspect of her past. A celebrated crooner, Wang Sue, was at the microphone, but it was ‘September in the Rain’ again, and while the powerful sing-song voice intoned ‘the leaves of brown came tumbling down’ my friends went off to dance leaving me to the mercy of the ‘taxi-manager’ who arrived with une girl they had secretly ordered for me. (Why has English been chosen as the lingua franca of such pleasures?) The fourth member of our party had the fragile aristocracy of manner of most Vietnamese dance- hostesses. Her features, powdered chalk-white, wore a kind of death-bed composure. She was sheathed in the traditional costume, in this case of white silk, had incredible fingernails, and every hair on her head was, I am quite sure, in place. The only human touch in this total of geisha perfections was a man’s wrist watch which bulked enormously on that lotus-stem wrist.
The two girls were evidently old friends, probably colleagues. They chatted happily, and once, from the oriental, fan-screened glances I intercepted, it seemed that I was the object of their remarks. When the other two got up again, the girl said, ‘You are English aren’t you? Do you think that we Vietnamese are as civilised as the French?’ Somewhat surprised by this first sample of small-talk in a Saigon nightclub, I replied, yes, that I thought they were. From this point on the conversation followed the lines of that with my chance acquaintance on the Dalat plane, although as the circumstances were more favourable, it was carried to a more profitable conclusion. It was through this girl that I was put in touch with the leading Vietnamese revolutionary-nationalists in Saigon.

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