Behind the bar
Hong Kong-based writers Paul Strahan and Brandon Royal say they have captured the female voice in their 'memoir' of a Philippine prostitute working in Wan Chai, writes Alister McMillan
IT'S AFTER LUNCH, but Paul Strahan and Brandon Royal have yet to reach the point in a day when the tie loosens. They could pass as the kind of men who undo the top button only as a show of relaxation when boozing with business contacts late at night in girlie bars. It takes more than a second look to identify them as authors who wrote in the voice of a poor Filipina forced to work as a prostitute at one such bar in Wan Chai.
Strahan's shy eyes lift from his beer only to adjust his glasses or check for fresh company. On the neighbouring barstool, Royal controls the room, using first names as he shuffles staff and friends around like the pile of business papers spilling out of his part of the bar. Together this pair of Hong Kong opposites produced a book based on a true story, which is the subject of negotiations with an American film company. They describe Bars Of Steel as a memoir.
The central character, Maria, joins a dance 'promotion' as a 16-year-old from a poor rural family. Strahan and Royal follow her through a year in a Hong Kong bar, describing the loss of her virginity to a customer and abuse by others. They show her struggling with the strictness of the bar managers but also making friends and discovering she is strong enough to handle the harshest start to adulthood.
The authors make no apologies for writing from the point of view of a young, poor, Asian woman. Strahan, 54, finished the first draft 10 years ago after listening to cousins and friends of his Filipino wife recount their lives in Wan Chai bars. One of the women became Maria. But the book only left his writing desk when he met Royal, 39, in January 2000.
As a teenager in the early 1960s, Strahan wrote a novel, which never surfaced. In the 1970s one of his children's stories was accepted by the publisher of a collection. Strahan has yet to check whether it made it into print.
'I've never written with any determination,' he says. 'It's always been more of a hobby. I've always been more of a corporate worker.'
Working as internal control manager for the AIG Consumer Finance Group has prevented him from reading enough to even name the authors who influenced his writing. 'I'm told that a man using a female voice is one of the hardest ways to write. I don't know. But because the story was told to me, I automatically had the voice and the information.
'I spend a lot of time with the people in this book. I have a house in the province where the girls come from. The style came straight from my conversations with the girls and my wife. The first time Maria goes on an escalator she thinks she is going to be swallowed up. These girls have never seen some of this technology. I took my wife's mother to Manila. It was the first time she had been there, the first time she had seen an escalator. That gave me insights into how the girls in the bars respond when they come to Hong Kong and see escalators.
'But how can any man say what it feels like for a woman to lose her virginity in those circumstances? That was difficult to write but in a sense it wasn't difficult to get the information. Filipinos are very, very graphic in the way they talk about these things.'
None of the women in the story have complained about the book, he says, largely because it avoids judging the characters' choices. 'The hardest part wasn't writing a book but giving it some flow: a start and a finish and something interesting in the middle, which is what readers want. That's where I needed Brandon.'
The pair met through a mutual friend at Dublin Jack's bar in Central. Royal had also arrived in Hong Kong hungry to write. After summer courses in fiction writing and scriptwriting at Harvard University he started a Wan Chai novel, Joy Girls, in 1995. It was less than half finished when he read Strahan's manuscript.
'I think Paul thought that I could publish the book,' says the education consultant who has published four books on learning.
'But I said to him that it'd be easier for me to finish his story. I thought my book could help streamline his and make it more suitable to be adapted into a film.
'It was a perfect joint venture. Paul had everything that I didn't have and I had everything that he was missing. Together we had a coherent story.'
Royal says his greatest fear is that the book will be dismissed as 'just another Asian bar novel'. To avoid that, at the start of each chapter he introduced Strahan's simple, first-person prose with passages of his own, full of symbols for nature as the 'invisible force' and posing questions of fate and free will.
'We'd love to see what a university women's studies course would do with this book,' says Royal. 'It's done from a psychological viewpoint, not so much through the physical experience. Because it doesn't really draw firm conclusions for the reader, it asks all kinds of questions: Does Maria have an obligation to her family when she goes into this type of work? How is free will different to freedom? Is Maria being exploited?
'We didn't want to answer any of that. We wanted to tell a story and put it out there. No one is holding a gun to Maria's head. She is not sold into slavery. She can leave Hong Kong whenever she wants. We wanted to show a person who has free will. We then asked: if she can't exercise that free will, does she have freedom?'
Royal reaches for his notes on the book and reads: 'One thing I like about the book is that it doesn't let anyone off the hook. No one is held blameless; every character has a share in the story, contributing to it both positively and negatively. In this respect, this story is simple but complex. The girls and families are benefactors and victims; the mamasans are perpetrators and supporters; the system is the real antagonist, but even it can't exist without people.'
Strahan admits that his corporate life involves visiting the bars with clients. Royal says he was too busy when he first arrived to be part of that lifestyle. 'But that may have helped the book, because I came at it as more of a satire,' Royal says. 'I was interested in the idea that naivete was part of the girls' attraction for the men who go to the bars. As the girls become more seasoned, how do they keep that sense of naivete and maintain their value in the bar?''
With the book to be launched in Hong Kong tomorrow night, Royal is looking to use his scriptwriting course on Bars Of Steel with a seasoned film director who 'won't just turn it into another bar movie'. 'Everyone knows of the story, but almost no one knows the story. To get a story like this it has to come from the girls in a cohesive manner. That's why it has caught the eye of Hollywood. An LA film company is moving to option the rights for it.'
Bars Of Steel Hong Kong launch will be held in the Albert Room of the Foreign Correspondents' Club at 6.30pm tomorrow.