From her hotel window in Demarang Minou had a view of a square where vendors sold coconuts, mangoes, soda, rice and goat wrapped in banana leaves. It was very hot and at street level the sir smelled of motorbike exhaust and close cigarettes. Sometimes the class to prayer from a nearby mosque woke her being scouted, last minute revisions were being made on the script, and shooting was therefore behind schedule. The film was a thriller, but only a small number of cast members were needed for the parts being shot in Indonesia. There were scenes in the jungle, on wharfs, the sultan’s palace, in kampungs in Semarang where contacts were made and liaisons uncovered. The leading character in these scenes was a Burmese drug smuggler working out of the Golden Triangle. Abducted and beaten, he whispered his confession to the shards of his platinum watch lying on the ground beside him in a cell which was only a jute covered set.
The actor who played him was Hawaiian, and in an adopted accent he revealed the identities of his international connections: an American vice president, an evangelical talk radio host, and some other characters in various positions of authority. Terry, the actor who played this role, was a loud, happy man who did imitations of a Chinese Mr. Ed excerpted from a comedy routine he used to do in hotels in Honolulu. In his combination of brashness and bonhomie he stood close enough so that one could always identify his smell of mouthwash and chlorinated water from the pool. They were supposed to practice kung fu scenes together which he was very enthusiastic about. Minou punched and kicked the air as if she were actually leveling Mr. Ed.
Her character, Flora Chang, was from Hong Kong, half English, half Chinese, and in this part she had many costume changes which reflected the protean nature of her role. European clothing meant to be severely business like (about power) but tight and sexy at the same time, jungle combat fatigues, tattered sarongs of the kampungs all hung in a trailer waiting for her. Flora Chang occupied a universe of conundrums easily solved by daring, nerves of steel, and physical prowess. She was able to defy gravity in every possible sense of the word, but an undefined longing gnawed at the edge of her character. She was in love with a man who appeared only in scenes not yet shot, and even then he didn’t have much of a part. From the script Minou had trouble figuring out much about him except that he was a painful memory for Flora. The man was stuck wasting away in jail, wrongly accused of murdering his former partner. She tried to give him a personality, because avenging his honor and getting him out of prison were part of Flora’s motivation in the movie, but it wasn’t really working out. Schemes for plumbing the persona of men she actually knew in order to give her interpretation of Flora Chang more life was one technique, but these images somehow resisted being superimposed over the idea of Flora’s jailed boyfriend. He was not like the sound man she had briefly lived with, a strict vegetarian who smoked only organic cigarettes. She tried thinking about her neighbor in Brooklyn, a high school basketball coach who was dedicated to his job, and addicted to watching sports on television. They had conversations in the hall and at the mailboxes about martial arts. He was an admirer of the skill and level of concentration required and recommended what he called “Eastern training” to his students. Minou knew a little about kung fu, enough to talk to her sports addicted neighbor (although she could summon no passion for him) and enough to get the job as Flora Chang. Her character was from Hong Kong, supposedly half English, half Chinese, and because of her origin she was able to pass as many things she was not, just like Minou herself.
Terry, on the other hand, had been doing ethnic character parts for years and made jokes about as many stereotypes as he could get his hands on. Charlie Chan, of course, was his stock in trade. Once when Minou was preparing for her part, trying to get into character, he made fun of her in front of the director, the crew, everyone.
“So, you Lady of Shanghai who feels as at home in the gambling dens of the Tong as in corporate towers. You jockey for power with dealers of financial abstractions. You speak of honorable derivatives and futures, but you meet violent death, missy, if not careful.”
Everyone laughed except Minou.
“Minou,” he said, “what’s eating you?”
After this Terry tried even harder to include her in his carousing. He bragged to her about drinking snake blood from a stand in a market, watching impassively as the snake’s throat was cut, and its blood joshed into a small glass while still writhing to free itself from the merchant’s grasp.
“Cook, huh?” He said casually undoing and retrying his sarong in front of everyone as if he were changing trousers in a dressing room somewhere.
She believed he really had drunk snake’s blood, but in the telling the strangeness, what he meant to vaunt as the foreignness of the act was reduced to something carnivalish, a kind of pumping iron display, life surfing a particularly deadly beach.
The Americans had hotel rooms with working ceiling fans, or they congregated in clusters beside the outdoor pool. Frogs found their way into it at night, and when the pool was drained dead animals and flakes of turquoise paint drifted to its bottom, collecting in corners until it was filled again. Few of the guests saw this. During the day it was a magnet for the American cast and crew who put every possible desire on the film company tab.
“Come, join us!” They shouted from beside the pool. Drinks without ice were raised in a gesture of inclusion, but Minou shook her head, and left them to their gossip and their boredom with the heat, rain, and gear of amoebas. They listened to the radio, or read newspapers, but Minou concentrated on Flora Chang. Unlike Flora Chang who defied corporate power, Minou had recently performed in a Dunkin Donut commercial because it paid well, and she wasn’t in a position to turn down any work. It was easy to smile behind the counter and hand an invisible customer an empty styrofoam cup and bag. She had also performed in basement clubs standing on aluminum buckets, balancing on the back of sewing machines saying lines which at first seemed to have no relation to the props that surrounded her. When she described her previous jobs to Terry, his only comment was, “You have to live.”
Another film crew moved into the hotel. They had been shooting a documentary about the disappearance of the rain forest in Kalimantan and were on their way back to London. Their film equipment filled the space that functioned as a hotel lobby, but before the sleek black and silver cases were sent somewhere else, the men could be seen leaning on their stacks of equipment talking to themselves. During the stopover in Semarang they planned to shoot some footage outside an office building belonging to Pertamina, the national oil company. Just exteriors, it was no big deal. Minou tried to talk to one of them, but he was dismissive as if he knew instantly that she who wore a lot of gold jewelry wouldn’t understand the need to protect the ozone layer. They were big guys with ponytails who occasionally wore sarongs as they drove into the town or jungle, and in subtle ways made the actors from the action-thriller (especially Terry, Minou, the Chinese supporting cast) feel like pleasure seekers tramping from one tropical inlet to the next, a small mob whose hands were used only for rubbing one another’s oiled body parts. The two groups generally avoided conversation, only nodding in recognition at the hotel desk.
On a day off Minou learned her way around the city’s dirt roads, wandering past tailors, metalworkers, motorbike repairs, food stalls set up on after the next in uneven rows. She walked down a narrow street beside the Java Sea where prostitutes fathered, and into kampungs where raw sewage ran in ditches, and motorbikes, becaks, chickens, and dogs filled the streets. Down one dead end she saw a few men from the documentary gathered in one spot, bargaining over the price of some gamelon tapes. The young man squatting behind a bamboo basket shrugged off their haggling as if he didn’t understand the amount they thought a reasonable sum to pay. He rummaged around in it, pulled one or two recordings out, held them above his head, then struck on in a battered cassette player. In her aimlessness Minou was drawn toward the loud voices haggling in combination of Indonesian and English which carried above other sounds. “Man” this and “man” that. Although they ignored her, she blatantly eavesdropped on their transaction standing almost at the elbow of one of the Englishmen who, his sarong slipping towards the mud, described a ceremony he’s attended on a distant island in which he’s gone into a trance stepping on live embers but feeling no burning, no pain, nothing at all. The tape seller smiled broadly as if he understood and was interested in this feat. In the middle of the trance monologue barefoot children in tattered T shirts approached Minou, little boys saying in English hey, lady, where are you from? The Brit who’d shut his eyes in imitation of his trance turned around and looked at her, annoyed at the disruption. His friends stuffed their gamelon tapes into their bags and moved away from her as if she were an embarrassment to them. Her sunglasses were too big, her skirt too short and her arms were bare. Minou smiled stupidly, arms crossed over her stomach and stared at them as they got into their jeep and prepared to drive away.
The men reminded her of an incident during an anti-nuclear march she’s gone to when she was in high school in Brooklyn. It was an enormous event, people flew in to the city from all over the world to attend, marching from Wall Street to the United Nations. Minou marched for awhile with her friends, but feeling like she was going to throw up, she stepped out of her group and sat on the grass near the U.N., drinking from a bottle of water. When the German delegation passed her, a big blond man made faces at her, as if to say she could loll on the grass drinking while others engaged in more serious pursuits. She had walked over to the man and screamed at him, who the fuck did he think he was to make fun of her, but he continued to parrot her drinking from an invisible bottle. She wanted to tell the documentary crew to fuck off, too, but their dismissal of her was more elusive and the kick in the jaw she wanted to deliver remained a gesture restricted to Mr. Ed.
The small boys had no interest in the men who had documented the erosion of the rainforest on an island they didn’t even know existed, but the jeep was a miracle of creation. There was little space to drive it in a kampung designed for bicycles and people on foot, and it had to be maneuvered slowly, a dinosaur lumbering between warungs and repair stands. The boys followed Minou for a while as she turned down another road, asking her questions in as many languages as they knew bits and pieces of: Dutch, French, English. They tried to sell her things, to carry her bag, to steer her towards warungs that sold drunks, fruit, cigarettes. She had imagined that because of her face, she wouldn’t stand out at all, and that it would be possible for her to blend in with everyone else in the city, knowing at the same time this feeling of inclusion was entirely false. The rain forest crew, big men in their sarongs and backpacks, exuded an enviable confidence. She wondered how many rupiah she should give the boy who was shouldering her bag. She had enough money to pay for anything she wanted, but didn’t know what her next job would be when she returned to New York.
At night Minou found herself in an area of kampung bars which were no more than a table set up in the street, covered by tarpaulin and separated from the other identical bars by partitions made of flattened tin drums, carboard boxes, or bamboo screens. Loud Indonesian pop music blared out of radios or tapes, each song blending into the next as she walked past. Stopping at one to watch a woman jaipung dancing, she saw two men from the film crew, local Javanese hired to set lights in place, enter the bar and order beers. A woman in a blue skirt and T-shirt put her arms around the neck and shoulders of one of them, then he got up and went behind the curtain with her. Two other women approached the second man, but he shook his head repeatedly. He didn’t seem to want to go behind the curtain with either of them, and they stared blankly at him not comprehending that he might want to sit by himself. One sat in his lap anyway, and so trapped he finally stood up and danced with her. Goats with faces like put bulls wandered by while the two danced together around the table.
“I like girls,” the man said to Minou as he danced past her, then they moved off, only to return a few minutes later.
“I like girls,” he repeated.
Minou finally understood that he hadn’t enough money to pay for the prostitutes. She gave them 10,000 rupiah so he could go behind the curtain. That was the price for the two women, about $6.25. As soon as money changed hands everyone disappeared, and Minou sat alone, thinking about what Flora Chang would do in this situation. What would her lines have been?
When the women emerged, they were wearing different clothes, other T-shirts with American cartoons on them. She didn’t know the name of the characters, some kind of bird like a penguin, some kind of dog colored sky blue. Long ago she had probably spent a torpid morning watching them, falling asleep in front of a television, dry cereal toppling to the floor. The women looked out into the street barely visible in the light of the petromaks. A few people stopped to talk to them.
Although night had fallen she identified Terry as he walked past on the far side of the dirt road. Since the bar was open to the street there was no less visible place for her to move from her chair, and so she could do nothing when he beckoned in delight at seeing her. He crossed the road in a hurry, grinning broadly. At the same time a man approached Minou.
“Not her, she’s mine.” Terry said in Bahasi Indonesian. Her toes curled inside drenched running shoes. Terry flashed an imitation Rolex and a gold tooth. He was in character, although the square emerald in his ear, he told her, was fake. The women in the dog and penguin T-shirts, the men who lit the petromaks behind pictures of the President, or who say in tiny warungs splitting fruit and smoking clove cigarettes—on whatever terms they imagined she left with Terry, all of them must have thought the two of them were from the same country, spoke the same language so it made sense that they would leave together.
Terry said something about lucky breaks as they caught a bemo back to the hotel. He was happy to work in a serious film after doing so much comedy. The van was nearly empty apart from a woman who clutched her son between her knees.
“Our business is fooling people. There’s so little work out back home. This is a lucky break coming here.” He rubbed his hands on his bare knees.
Minou felt no one was fooled, but she didn’t know how to say this to Terry. On her first day in the city she had stopped at a market run entirely by women who sold stacks of round bamboo hats, bell-shaped cages for transport of chicken and roosters, piles of tiny chili peppers, and bright pink soupy coconut sweets. Minou bought a meal of rice and goat paddled into a cone made of banana leaves. Stopping in the shade of a banyan tree in order to eat it with her hands, the taste of hot chilies burned her lips and the ends of her fingers with a lingering heat. She had thought she could eat anything hot and laced with any amount of chili and spice but had been fooling herself. The film, on the other hand, contained no surprise heat buried in the rice.
Torrential rain further delayed shooting. Kampungs and rice paddies were flooded even surly documentary crew were stuck in the hotel. A few of them climbed into their jeep only to become mired in the mud road. Minou asked them where they were going as she walked past, thinking the environmentalists must have known the villages were only connected by pathways, but they were too busy pushing to answer her.
Terry found a man who, for a large fee, would make the rain stop, but the production manager turned him down, shaking his head and rolling his eyes as if to say what next? This was interpreted as a maybe, not a no, so the man lowered his price. Again the manager turned him down saying that he was fed up, gesturing impatience, running his hands through his hair. Terry shrugged, his bahasa Indonesian not up the task of completely translating refusal. Disappointment hung in the air. The sound of rain hitting the tin roof, felt comforting to Minou as she watched the negotiations back and forth. Finally the production manager asked if the man would pay them if his spell failed and the rain continued. Besides doubting the man would have any effect on the rainy season, the manager suspected someone in the crew would get a cut from the conjurer’s commission and he said so in a loud voice but Terry did not translate this last comment.
“We don’t need the show stopped for a bunch of hocus pocus,” the production manager said.
“It might be interesting to see what kinds of incantations or prayers might clear the clouds even if the spell doesn’t work.” Minou said. She felt sorry for Terry who seemed to have a lot riding on the idea of bringing the man in, but the overworked production manager wanted no part of him or his schemes.
The rain continued. They shot interiors: bugged telephones, love scenes, scenes with the informer who rats from a jail cell. For a scene in a restaurant Minou was served steaming prawns sprinkled with red, green, and black pepper which she would never be able to eat because she would be shot at and the table would be overturned. As usual the scene had to be shot several times. A pile of prawns lay waiting to be served and another heap, swept up from the floor, was put out the back door of the restaurant. She practiced her accent.
Why shouldn’t I be suspicious of you? I’m suspicious of the waiter. I’m suspicious of the cook. I’m suspicious of these prawns here, you know, the mouths and ears might still be attached. They might only be playing dead.
Despite the occasional moment of hesitation and reflection when a crescent of sunlight entered a dark room, Flora Chang was a woman of authority. Minou wasn’t always convincing in eliciting fear in the hearts of those she encountered in the movie. She felt her fellow actors kept seeing in her the voice of Terry’s imitations and no one could even imagine being afraid of her. A chance encounter with a soldier gave her a small window into the kind of fear an ordinary person can summon.
The scene had been simple and fast. Minou watched two men drive up to a warung on a motorbike, parking beside the stand. She couldn’t make out much of their faces, but the rider was wearing a green and yellow striped T-shirt similar to the one the electrician always wore. Once he came to a stop driver walked away, down the street, and into a shop. The soldier approached but did nothing, standing by motionless while the rider who had just gotten off the back of the motorbike went up to the warung and bought a soda and cigarettes. The man in uniform was very short, had a tight narrow waist, a moustache, and very short hair, but his authority was small potatoes. Not small potatoes intended to blend in like the beleaguered nice guy cops from the movie, men who sat behind cluttered desks drinking coffee out of styrofoam cups not available on the island, but the small authority with the power to put you in jail on a whim nonetheless, the power to make you disappear. When he did approach the motorcyclist it was sudden, as if acting on an unknown signal, coming up behind him and pushing him against a wall. Soda bottle shattered when it hit the ground, cigarettes were strewn all over the road from the force of blows. The face of the soldier registered signs of exertion in the heat, but little more, and as far as Minou could tell he remained almost expressionless throughout the short struggle. No one from the market crossed the road. Minou walked a little closer to the warung, close enough to see the man shoved into a car, but not close enough to identify him. In her next scene instead of imagining a tall, long Flora Chang, she was small, wound tightly like a spring. Terry saw her walking towards the set and said, “Hey, here comes Bruce Lee.”
Have you ever seen this man before?
Minou spoke harshly to Terry. Flora Chang knew when she was being lied to.
What makes you think I would tell you if I had? Terry looked cocky, blatantly folding the papers from the puppet and stuffing them into his shirt.
The choreography of their fight took hours. Circling kicks and jabs came close but never touched flesh or bone. Stunt doubles did the more difficult flips. Terry and Minou had a lot of close-ups. Finally Terry lay on the floor, looking at the electrical cord snaking its way around the room. It didn’t take much for him to break down, to blurt out everything he was supposed to keep to himself. The scene took place in a set that was made to look like one of the kampungs outside Semarang.
Okay, okay, he was trying on masks, and I remembered him because he had an American car.
Like that one?
For this scene in a shop full of masks, puppets, and Indonesian carvings, the props department had constructed large puppets equipped with elaborate headpieces. The puppet heads split into two halves, front and back. After splitting one, Minou would find papers hidden between the two parts. When released from the masks and held up to the light the papers retained the shape of faces: nose and eye sockets in shadow, mouth fixed in a smile. Writing, allegedly in code, ran across the cheekbones. Minou’s character thought the man who had disappeared, the one Terry claimed he had no knowledge of, might have been what was called a Cadillac communist. In an era before Minou was born, American advisors had evacuated Indonesia in a hurry, leaving their cars which were taken up, in turn, by the Communists. The props department had trouble finding such an old Cadillac. There were none left, and they were too expensive to import, even with Terry on the phone making deals with someone in Honolulu. Nothing came from his calls and faxes sent out as a favor to the director so the car was referred to but never seen.
The next day the electrician she had seen that night in the kampung approached her again. The rain had let up briefly and for a day shooting moved outside the city to an easily accessible part of the jungle. They were sitting above the deserted ruins of an abandoned village where Minou was due to find Terry hiding the papers discovered inside the mask. They would have another fantastic fight. Minou practiced her moves, kicking and punching the air. She had to wear a rubber catsuit for this scene. It had been specially made, molded to her body.
“I have something to ask you,” the electrician said, pulling a Statue of Liberty paperweight from a basket. I heart N.Y. was written on its base.
“What does this mean?” He shook the glass ball so snow fell inside it.
Minou tried to translate, pointing to herself, to her heart, then she pulled out her address book and pointed to her address.
“You are from Wall Street. I understand. America,” the electrician said, “superpower.”
Minou tried to explain that she wasn’t from Wall Street. She lived in an apartment in Brooklyn with a view of the Gowanus Canal.
“I live in rooms in another part of the same city.” She shoved the little book in a shirt pocket. The documentary film crew would say, of course, Wall Street, even everyone here knows Wall Street is the center of the universe, and they might be right, but she wanted, in the middle of the rain forest, to say something about the futuristic machinery that lined the canal making it look like a bit of post industrial Mars. Why she felt this impulse she had no idea.
The electrician took the paperweight, watching plastic snow fall as if something unexpected might take place in it. Minou tried to explain snow, but she didn’t know the word for crystals, only ice. She made gestures with her hands to indicate falling snow or ice while huge brown and white snails crawled up bamboo trees and pineapple stalks, and a few yards away the crew moved lights and equipment into place. The electrician returned to the others busy hanging lights or squatting at the edge of the set, drinking tea and talking among themselves. He was pleased with her answer about ice falling on Wall Street. Minou rehearsed her lines.
You can never figure out when he’s telling the truth. He has a long history of saying it’s not him, and he knows nothing about whatever it is you’re talking about, and then it turns out it was him all along. She didn’t feel like Flora Chang. Her rubber catsuit was a form of torture. It stuck to her like a second skin, but water trickled down her neck and back as if all the liquid in her body had migrated to the space between her skin and the rubber. Maybe it didn’t matter if she felt out of character, and the woman she played seemed so alien to her that her imagination, when she tried to be this woman, faltered. She recited her lines to the rain for the squawking sound of the words, not for their meaning.
Susan Daitch is the author of two novels, L.C., and The Colorist, and a collection of short fiction, Storytown. Besides the Rail, her work has appeared in failbetter.com, The Pushcart Prize Anthology, Ploughshares, The Norton Anthology of Postmodern Fiction, and featured in The Review of Contemporary Fiction.