It takes an ugly photo to realise that you can’t grow a beard.
It takes a stroll around Chinatown to realise you’re not that Asian.
It takes a con man to realise how stupid you are.
In just two short days in Malaysia, I’ve learnt a lot about myself.
Up until this point, my covert aim for this trip was to grow facial hair. And by facial hair, I don’t just mean Year 9 “OMG, I have a whisker under my nose” facial hair, but a semi-respectable chin of armpit fluff. This short-term ambition shouldn’t be too surprising. After all, my reputation is on the line here; it is vital that I meet prior standards.
Seemingly aware of my limitations, I decided to get off to a head start two weeks ago. Since then I have been observing the maturity of my “beard” with great interest. In each of my appointments with my vanity mirror, I have been greeted with a reassuring thumbs-up.
Yet all it took was a simple click of a button. A flash. A shutter. A photo. It was only then – upon inspecting that unphotogenic disgrace – that I came to see what my Mum has been telling for eons. Don’t grow facial hair.
My insipid efforts at achieving a beard are probably the best indication of my heritage, at least from a biological level. That is, I am Asian. Prior to the trip, I assumed that this demographic trait would serve me well in Malaysia. After all, the only thing separating Singapore from Malaysia – apart from a mutual detestation of one another- is a bridge.
Yet five minutes of pacing around Chinatown reconfirmed that my heritage exists in Australia alone. Not only was I the only Asian wearing shorts, but I couldn’t even locate a place to eat dinner. That’s right, an Asian failing to find Chinese food in Chinatown. Fail.
When I eventually did find a restaurant, my greatest flaw was unleashed to the public. During icebreaker games, my token fact is that I am an Asian that can’t use chopsticks. It’s always funny at the time. In Malaysian Chinatown, though, when you’re struggling to get through your meal it’s not funny; it’s public humiliation.
With this in mind, I set off on my second day’s journeys in full tourist attire. From my backpack down to my white socks and hiking shoes, I epitomised the token Anglo-Saxon traveller. Aware of my personal appearance, I knew that there was little point pretending. That morning I had no hesitation in pulling out my camera or reading my cumbersome tourist map in the full public spotlight, for the same reason that Buddha doesn’t need to wear a nametag.
I was staring a big chunky “You are here” sign when I met my newest friend. After a morning spent pacing across the widely spread Kuala Lumpur city, it was refreshing to make small talk with a stranger (let’s call him Brian).
Brian, with his bumbag around his waist, was a tourist from nearby Sabah. Despite residing in the same country, he had only visited mainland Malaysia on a few occasions. This visit was for the sake of his 23-year old daughter, who now lived in suburban KL. The same daughter, it turned out, was about to make her way to Australia. She had been offered a nursing position at the St. Vincent’s Hospital. I responded to this news by informing Brian of the close vicinity between St. Vincent’s and my Uni.
That’s when he asked me whether I would like to meet his daughter.
“It would be great for you to meet up and tell her about Melbourne,” Brian cried. He seemed so ecstatic about this idea that I couldn’t help but smile in return.
“Could you spare thirty minutes to chat to her over lunch?”
I humoured him and offered a non-committal “maybe”.
“Oh, I mean now,” he continued. “And then, I can order you a taxi back to Chinatown.”
It was at this moment that I began to feel a little funny. Not only would this detour throw off my day’s itinerary, but so many questions remained unanswered. Where would we be going? What help could I offer the daughter? Could I trust this stranger?
Yet, for reasons I cannot muster, I didn’t bother with these follow-up questions. I just went ahead and gave him a reluctant “Yeah, why not?”
I am such a moron sometimes.
Five minutes into the taxi journey I couldn’t help but notice the city skyline fade away into the distance.
“Where are we going?” I asked Brian. I repeated the question to my taxi driver, who I assumed was a neutral party in this operation. Both gave me ambiguous answers, halfway between broken English and Malay. I sat in my seat, cringed, and convinced myself that Brian was a genuine bloke.
To my relief, the taxi parked outside a reasonably well-off house, 6km east of the city. Here I was not introduced to Brian’s daughter, but to his pleasant wife (Janette?) and affable father (Dong?). The daughter was finishing off her shift at the hospital and was making her way home.
Whilst waiting for the daughter I took a seat next to Dong. After some standard small talk, he too shared with me his connection with Melbourne. As a blackjack dealer, he had worked at Crown Casino numerous times. He talked himself up as a dealer, and boasted about his ability to rig games at will. I found his story to be quite impressive, and Dong correspondingly sensed my enthusiasm. With that, he rushed off into his back room to pull out a deck of cards.
“Here, let me show how YOU can win any game. Easy.”
Dong led me into a side room with a table, and dealt out the cards. His fluency confirmed his legitimacy; the shuffling of cards and clicking of fingers indicated that he had shown this skill off to many before me. Sure enough, Dong could make any hand win. Even after shuffling the cards myself, Dong was able to weave his magic and deal me a perfect 21.
Having confirmed his ability, Dong proceeded to share with me his most recent triumph. Last night he was fixing a game with one Mr. Razzaq. Over the course of the lucky evening Mr. Razzaq was raking in the cash but had ripped Dong off, taking most of the earnings for himself. Dong was not happy with this and was keen to make amends. He was keen to make amends soon too; Mr. Razzaq was expected to visit.
Dong put two and two together. On one hand, he had a new protégée – a rich white kid with the ability to win any hand. On the other, he had a corrupt client, someone who deserved to be brought to justice. When Mr. Razzaq conveniently walked through the door a minute later, I too put two and two together. And I didn’t like the look of it.
Mr. Razzaq was a well dressed businessman. He came across as a jolly Asian fellow, complimented by his babyface, cheek-to-cheek smile and slightly chubby frame. I shook his hand and feared that I had just joined the set of Punk’d. Yet there was no sign of Ashton Kutcher anywhere. Dong was here, Mr. Razzaq was here, and Brian was also here. Other than that, the room was empty and the door was closed. I was the furthest from the door, sandwiched to my seat by these three conveniently placed gentlemen.
Dong drew up a chart, whilst informing Mr. Razzaq that Brian and I were going to play a game of blackjack against him. Overjoyed by this prospect, Mr. Razzaq conveniently pulled out a generous wad of US dollars – rolled up in a tighter bundle – and handed it to Dong. I could see what was happening. But I was having no part in it.
“No, I don’t want to play,” I intervened.
Dong didn’t look happy, but went on with the show. “That’s OK, you can just take one of the cards. Brian will take the other.” Mr. Razzaq similarly encouraged me to participate.
“No, I think I’ll sit out and just watch,” I reiterated. This time my requests were granted.
The game played out before me with Brian winning the first two rounds. Mr. Razzaq seemed frustrated by these losses but remained determined. He increased the stakes for round 3, putting all his chips in for an all-or-nothing risk. The rules of Blackjack, according to Dong, dictate that the opponent must likewise put in the same amount of cash otherwise he automatically loses. After repeating these conditions, Dong asked me what I could put in. Once again, I restated that I was not playing and that I didn’t want to put in any money.
“I’m only 20. I don’t gamble,” I informed them. Neither Dong, nor Mr. Razzaq – who has just pocketed a large sum of money – seemed satisfied by this outcome. Unsure of what to do, they let me go.
In the foyer, Brian reminded me that his daughter was about to arrive. Having spent over an hour with him now and been almost scammed by his “father” I saw no need to stay any longer. I just wanted this tale to end there and then. But one final chapter remained…
Instead of calling a taxi driver, Brian had called his friend. When the car arrived, Brian also jumped in. Yet to my relief this pair did not take me to some dingy back-alley in the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. Nor did they pull out a gun and demand that I give them all my money. Rather, they did the courteous thing and took me to the nearby LRT station, a few blocks away. They told me that the ride cost 50 ringgit ($17), an absolutely preposterous price, even for Australian standards. Having practiced in Chinatown the night before, I bargained the price down to 20 ringgit ($7) and departed at the first available opportunity.
I escaped without a scratch, yet I had been wiped of my pride. It’s moments like this that make you wish that you had followed the monkey…
If you don’t understand that metaphor, it’s because it isn’t a metaphor. Fifty metres away from where I met Brian, a rogue monkey danced around the KLCC gardens. On any other day, I would have been lured by the monkey’s charm. I would have taken creative photos which placed the monkey in the foreground and the awe-inspiring Petronas Towers in the background. I would have uploaded the photo onto Facebook and used the word “juxtaposition” in the photo subtitle.
But I didn’t follow the monkey. I followed the con man.
Its experiences like this, however, that wake us up. They snap us back into reality and warn us to pull our heads in. They enable us to change for the best. And change, I most certainly have.
That’s right. I’ve shaved.
I haven’t been the only person to have fallen victim to this scam; just google “Kuala Lumpur blackjack scam”. Apparently, these folks never physically hurt anyone; they scam who they can, and let the savvy(ier) ones go for. Either way, though, they make a fortune out of it and have been doing this for years and years.