A TASTE FOR THE EAST by Peter Nolan Smith

My first trip to the Orient was in 1990. A round-the-world ticket. One destination was Singapore. The Straits city was already undergoing its metamorphosis from a colonial port to a gleaming metropolis of skyscrapers. Raffles was closed for renovations. I stayed at a cheap Chinese hotel in a decrepit godown. The walls climbed toward the ceiling without reaching their destination. A yard of wire covered the gap. The bedding was soiled by a thousand weary bodies and the fan spun with lazy fatigue. I left the room and walked toward the harbor. A rickshaw driver stopped me.

“You want ma.” His clothing was shredded by a decade of useless washes. His body was desiccated to bones wrapped in parchment. His eyes shone with a dull want.

“Ma.” Horse in Chinese. The word had one meaning in New York City. “Where?”

“I know place.” His claw of a hand beckoned to accompany him. Drugs were contraband in Singapore. The penalty for possession was death in the most grievous cases. A long prison sentence for anyone else foolish enough to challenge the system. Most arrests came from informers such as this rickshaw driver, who said, “I not police.”

“I know.” Snitch maybe, but the appeal of opium was an old friend. I climbed into his vehicle and we traveled into the night far from the new towers of glass and steel. The streetlights were dim in this neighborhood. Several doorways were populated by Indonesian transvestites. Others by Chinese whores. Men drank openly on the sidewalk in rebellion against the Singapore leader’s draconian measures for public behavior. The rickshaw driver braked with a whining screech.

“Here.” He looked over his shoulder to check for anything out of place. “My name Rami. This place good. Give $10.”

I handed over the money and bought a sheet of aluminum foil from a tobacco shop. We entered the battered house. The smell of opium greeted us. I tapped Rami and gave him another $10. “One for you. One for me.”

“You good man.” Rami smiled with two front teeth. The rest were brown as cigar butts.

An old woman of indistinguishable racial origins led us into a tiny cubicle. The furnishing were two wooden benches and a wax-covered stool. Sweat shadows marking the proper position for lying on them. Money passed hands and she shut the door. Rami produced tin foil, which he tore into two separate pieces.

“Sorry, no have pipe.”

“I know how to chase the dragon.” I opened my packet and dropped the black ball on the aluminum foil. Rami rolled two paper tubes. A candle was lit on the stool. Rami was an expert and I followed his lead.

“Good horse.”

Within minutes we were transported to another century before planes, telephones, and movies. Opium was king and I was its slave. Years later I went back to find the opium den. A shopping mall was standing in its place. It was selling nothing I wanted. Only fancy perfumes and expensive shirts. It was better that way for the rest of the world and I went to Raffles for a Gin Sling, looking for Rami every step of the way.

He had to be in the shadows somewhere.

Men like him never die.

Not if they know what is good for them.

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