There has been some interesting challenges my whole time in Asia. A big one has been music. Apart from a short glimmer in Laos where I found an inspired but unidentifiable breed of bouncing electro, it has been nothing but love songs. If the corporate repetition of Adele, Beibs, Taylor Swift and Flo Rida can be narrowly escaped, all that is left is an unquenchable drenching of these morose ballads. Restaurants, bars, taxis, workshops, nurseries; from every speaker songs of ambiguous sadness and unlistenable schmaltz. Why?, I ask daily.
Especially that for such a warm and welcoming people there is little intimacy, love is not in the air. A handshake is an embarrassed afterthought. Hugs and kisses are consummated with tepid reluctance. Public affection is short of forbidden, a total cultural faux pas. Couples linger at dark lakesides or hilltops at night and kids in Hanoi peddle rented Swan boats half a mile into the misty Hồ Tây to effect any kind of private carnality. I’ve learned the early age of the average marriage and also learned with reserved judgement the frequency of multiple wives and infidelity. Romance seems to elude Asia, so why the sentimentality?
Here on this night some light is shed in a gloomy bar in Hội An. Hearing live music from a smokey bar, I duck in quickly out of the exhaust fumes. There is always time in life for one song. A soundtrack of chatter and clinking glasses fill the air, dense wisps of cigarette smoke lick the ceiling. Green and pink cabaret neon light up a dim room. Arranged in narrow pews, patrons sit cross legged with small tumblers and unreadable expressions. I am sat at a table of men in dark blazers with lined and gentle faces. One pulls softly on a cigarette, running a delicate thumbnail along his lip as he watches through the smoke. Another, his chin perched theatrically on his fingers, strokes his thin hair into a silkscreen combover. A man in a fedora shaded by its brim, a plume of smoke emerges from within.
I settle in. At the front, a band are in play. Lilting keys and gravel percussion, a Spanish guitar. In starched white shirts amongst the haze they conjure up a quartet from another era. A time of pressed linen, bourbon & soda in a cavernous golden hotel lounge. They play stiffly but melodically. A woman in a silk high-neck dress makes an announcement and others take the microphone. As they stare modestly past the audience, their thin crooning is the score of all Asia. But in the flesh something really sinks in. The outpouring of grown adults, solitary in their lament, is deeply touching. The songs are long and sung without indulgence. The band play without lifting their heads. Audience members rise from their seats at unscheduled intervals to take plastic flowers from a basket and press them to the singer to show their appreciation. A cheap but poignant gesture. What could be a more fitting promise of love then flora. The performer continues, alone in the spotlight like a jilted bride or an errant wedding guest with a caught bouquet.
A grown man fills the stage, his heavy set features the same troubled lovesick mask. His deep arioso voice reverberates through the microphone. Not a word do I understand, but here is a landscape unsuited to language. Through his paean, as bittersweet hardships of life and love are poured out in his caramel voice, I realise the stage is a gateway to a sacred world. A world of pure romance, lost through strife and upheaval and made flesh only in song. Through his words he returns the room to a time of grace, where hearts pressed close and chests rose and fell. To promises in blood. His eyes shining and creased, I see him hold tightly in his arms a slipping love. The heat of words against his cheek. He places his lips to a softness he has never felt. The final beat of a tender heart. In his deep serenade the whispers of urgent lovers are woven and blow away the hardness of memory. His are the eyes of determined longing, his darkness the pathos of a loveless people. It is Wong Kar-Wai, It is Michael Curtiz, Wim Wenders. Pointed emotion resonating through his empty fingers. A tumult of visceral images of beauty buried in the breath of the singer. The band plays out to silence, and he is on his own again.
One couple from Europe are nuzzled close at the back, all around me are the people of the town. Tailors, tour guides, shop owners, chefs, sergents, those that make an art of overcharging me daily. I feel a privilege to share the room with them. A tangible affection fills the air, even if it remains hidden. In my throws of sentimentality, the bubble is burst by a tap on the shoulder. “You sing? English? Is OK.” Before I even process such a ludicrous suggestion my mouth is to the rescue. “Erm. No, I can’t sing anything!” But in my thoughts, with my eyes still moist, I feel inspired to take the chance. Privately though I know that now is not the time, not at least until I know more than just the chorus of Kiss From A Rose.