Lady Don't Fall Backwards
A NOIR TALE SET IN YANGON'S NEAR FUTURE
April 8 saw the final episode of The Chronicles of Bei Ka Street, which related the adventures of Yangon’s first and only private consulting detective, U Sha Lok, as imaginatively recorded and embellished by his faithful companion Dr U Wa Zone, with translation and editing by leading criminologist Ko Nan Doi.
The series ended with the death of U Sha Lok and his brother Dr Moe Yat Ti, known as the Genghis Khan of Crime, who drowned together off Monkey Point as the detective tried to stop his brother from making off with the Great Bell of Magwe, one of the nation’s treasures. He succeeded, but only at the cost of his own life. The Bell took both of them down to the bottom of the river.
In anticipation of the outraged reaction of readers to the sudden end of this entertaining saga, The Myanmar Times has been urgently seeking a replacement series that would supply the same qualities of readability, drama, literary flair, and occasional resemblance to the truth. However, we could not find one.
We therefore settled for the next best thing. Courtesy of Myanmar’s foremost exponent of noir fiction, Ye Mon Chan Dala, The Myanmar Times presents, starting from next Friday, Lady Don’t Fall Backwards. This is the story, set in the 2040s, of a tough guy in a tough town. The Yangon of the future that he inhabits is a bigger, faster, grittier and more complex city than the charming and intimate theatre of operations in which U Sha Lok clashed with the villainous Moe Yat Ti.
Though it is as vibrant and cutting-edge as any major city in Asia, Ye Mon Chan Dala’s Yangon is recognisably the descendant of the town we all know today. Some of its problems have been solved: its freeway system, the envy of Asia, has cut traffic congestion to almost nothing, even as the city is now connected by high-speed road links to Mandalay and Nay Pyi Taw, and to the giant Thura U Shwe Mann International Airport in Bago Region. Its extensive subway network is fast, clean, cheap and virtually crime-free.
Still, as we shall see, there are shenanigans galore – certainly enough to keep our new hero, private eye U Mar Lo, busy. Though his office is in the Old City, known today as downtown Yangon, much of the action takes place in the glittering new Southwest New City that has risen from the empty fields of Twante township.
Join the story as Mar Lo is hired by a crusty old war hero to find out what happened to his wild daughter Ma Doris, who has eloped with the cheeky English lethwei fighter Jack Lenihan, who goes by the ring name the Liverpool Lasher. Worse, Ma Doris has taken with her the family heirloom – the Laukkai Jade. As if that were not enough, Mar Lo also has to contend with the General’s other daughter, the equally wayward Ma Mildred, whose underworld connections start to get nervous as the private eye’s investigations take him ever closer to their big-money operations.
Ye Mon Chan Dala takes up the story: “Southwest New City was as new and sharp as a sickle moon. They built it fast, and they built it high. Thirty years ago, they say, back in the twenty-teens, the paddy farmers in the empty fields around Tamartagaw or Tamangyi village would gaze eastward across the Hlaing River at the rising towers and bright lights of the old city, wondering when their turn would come. Now the people of Kyeemyindaing and Ahlone townships look up westward beyond the Bakara A Latt Bridge at the cloud-capped towers of glittering Southwest New City. And these days, K1 billion won’t even buy you a parking space in Tamangyi.
“The broad avenues and boulevards of SNC run north-south, and its narrow streets run east-west. The high-flying finance boys and girls, the pin-striped lawyers, the corporate planners, the software engineers, spend their days grafting away in those lofty megaliths. Come sundown, they descend to the narrow streets, and the cellars below, looking for fun. SNC after dark is ground zero for the night spots, the jazz clubs, the gambling dives, the dance halls, the drinking dens, the places of ill-repute with the huge reputations.
“Everybody knows who rules the broad boulevards – the Wanbaos and the Huaweis, the Kanbawzas and the Toyotas and the Maxes, the Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Indonesian, Vietnamese and Myanmar giants of finance and banking and IT and shipping and bio-engineering and aerospace.
“Nobody will tell you who owns the dark and narrow streets below.
“But I know. At street level, and below, the big boss was not some East Asian kingpin. The triads and the tongs and the yakuza had all tried and failed to muscle in. Down in the streets of Southwest New City, the big man was one of our own. The underworld bosses who had dismissed him as nothing but a two-pya hoodlum had all been crushed and discarded by this cunning, ruthless, tattooed, betel-spitting hustler, red in tooth and claw. Forget the multinational behemoths with their 20-foot-high logos on their signature buildings and their stock exchange profiles in London or Shanghai or Tokyo. The real boss of Southwest New City was Tough Eddie Htoo Htoo.”
But down these mean streets must walk a man who is not himself mean.
So get yourself down to Tough Eddie’s swankiest niterie, the Spearmint Bullock, on 13th Street in the dark heart of Southwest New City. It’s after midnight. Sweet-talk your way past the gorilla on the door, move along the corridor and down the dimly lit staircase. The band in the corner is playing something cool and moody, mostly tenor sax and Burmese harp. Slide onto a chrome-pillared bar stool next to private eye U Mar Lo as he swaps tough-guy banter with the wisecracking barman. Order yourself a Nay Pyi Taw Knickerbocker, a potent light-orange cocktail with a thick slice of lime. And get ready for fireworks as our hero confronts cops, gangsters and their molls and the hard men at City Hall to unravel the mystery of the Laukkai Jade.
When my daughter ran off, she took the Laukkai Jade,” said the general. “It's a priceless medallion that has been in my family for more than 100 years. It has inestimable sentimental value, quite apart from the price it could fetch on the black market. U Mar Lo, bring me back the Laukkai Jade and I will pay you K10 million!” I took a swig of my drink. It was early, but it’s never too early for Mandalay rum.
The general spoke. “Obviously I don’t want the police involved in this. Our family is very old and very distinguished and I want to keep it that way, at least while I live. After that …”
“So why would she take it? I mean, if she didn’t need the money?”
“Oh, she can’t sell it anyway. Any dealer would know of that piece and its provenance. Any reputable dealer would call me at once if he came across it.” “And the disreputable ones?”
“That will be for you to find out, Mar Lo...”
If Jack Lenihan was still in the lethwei game, I knew one place I could start looking for him. Back in the car, I headed east on Parami, turned south onto Weizayandar Expressway and on down to the Syriam Bridge. This time of day that would be the quickest way out to Little Tokyo at Thilawa Port, the location of the biggest stable of lethwei fighters in the country outside Mon State...
Kyaw, the old fighter at the lethwei heya in Little Tokyo, had told me Jack Lenihan’s new band did lunchtime gigs at a club in Southwest New City called the Tunnel. If I hurried back through the downtown traffic, I might just catch him. Unsurprisingly, the Tunnel Club was below street level. I bought a ticket from a hatcheck girl – Ma Cilla, her badge said she was called – and descended the concrete steps into the heaving mass of young people...
While Jack bustled up, uxorious, with a folding metal chair which he placed behind Ma Doris. Barely acknowledging her husband, Ma Doris sat down. She looked me straight in the eye as I handed her my business card. She glanced at it briefly before handing it back to me.
“My father sent you? Why?”
“The General was concerned for your health and safety.”
“Who’s going to hurt me? Them?”
She jerked her head, without looking at them, toward the three Scarabs, four now that Jack had rejoined them. The boy called Mac was crooning something, his voice a honeyed counterpoint to Lenihan’s vinegary bawl.
“SNC can be a rough neighborhood...”
The mid-afternoon traffic was light as I drove back over the Bargayar Street Bridge from the Tunnel Club, pondering my conversation with Ma Doris. So Jack Lenihan, the Liverpool Lasher, was now out of the lethwei game. He had briefly become an English teacher, to one of the city’s leading criminals yet, and had now taken up as a rock singer. Well, good luck to him breaking into that world. It’s hard to see how a foreigner from some obscure town in England can make much headway as a rock singer against the kind of musical giants we have here in Myanmar. But you have to follow your dream...
“Take a seat,” I invited my fragrant visitor as I ushered her into my inner office. Daw Mae East kind of flowed onto the straight wooden chair opposite me. I looked at her expectantly, but she seemed hesitant, reluctant to speak. She was holding a little lace handkerchief – I could smell that expensive Eau de Kachin on it – and was twisting it between her fingers. It wasn’t shyness. This lady was about as shy as a piledriver, though more elegant.
The flashback came as I drove Daw Mae East back down Bargayar Street toward the bridge to Southwest New City. It was a year ago. The client asked me to go to a Kachin restaurant in SNC, Blue Moon. He’d agreed beforehand that I could charge any meals I had there to expenses. At first the place is empty except for me.
When the pale, skinny kid with the lock of hair falling over his face stood up, pulled a gun from the waistband of his longyi, and pumped four bullets into his two dinner companions, sitting not five feet away from me, it somehow stuck in my mind. Those were my dark and bloody thoughts as I drove down Bargayar Street with Daw Mae East beside me, the glittering towers of Southwest New City looming up before us in the gathering dusk. Southwest New City was as new and sharp as a sickle moon...
I’ve been hearing some very strange things about Tough Eddie Htoo Htoo lately,” said my contact on The Myanmar Times, crime reporter Zone Lone.
“He had his teeth done. After years of chewing betel, nobody was redder in tooth and claw than Eddie. Now, when he smiles, he channels Liberace. The effect is no less chilling, I’m told.”
Whistling softly to myself, as if I was thinking of nothing in particular, I continued to rack my brains over what had happened in the Blue Moon. I never did find out who my client was, or what he or she really wanted from me. The day after the shooting I received my fee, one lakh, in cash, in the mail. No further instructions...
The man they called Ko Luka sat there on his plastic stool, looking at me with eyes even deader than Eddie’s. “Ko Luka’s from Shan State,” said Eddie conversationally. He flashed a brief, bizarre, grin at me, showing a mouthful of shockingly white teeth.
I stood there, my back against the wall, trembling slightly, my gun aimed at Tough Eddie Htoo Htoo’s head. He and his scary sidekick, Ko Luka, and his moll, Daw Mae East, who had lured me into this trap, just sat there looking at me, still laughing. I didn’t get the laugh.
He sudden entrance of this stately redhead transformed the atmosphere in the room. In astonishment, I watched first Eddie and then The Shan rise to their feet with a kind of sheepish alacrity. I decided I’d better do the same. Only Daw Mae East remained seated, her face an unreadable mask. In a voice more lead crystal than cut glass, the lady said, “Oh, am I interrupting something?”
My companions at the tea-table, the Southwest New City gang boss Tough Eddie Htoo Htoo, his henchman Ko Luka, his moll Daw Mae East and the mysterious auburn-haired beauty Miss Dulwich, all looked at me expectantly.
Down in the bar of the Spearmint Bullock, customers in evening wear huddled around small tables laden with glasses and bottles, some chatting in low voices, others gazing listlessly at nothing. There was a quantity of black bow-ties and enticing bare shoulders. The Bullock was Tough Eddie Htoo Htoo’s unofficial headquarters, the heart of his empire in Southwest New City...
And that’s where I hope you can come in, U Mar Lo,” said Miss Dulwich. We were sitting at the bar of the Spearmint Bullock, Tough Eddie Htoo Htoo’s joint in SNC. I couldn’t see where she was going with this. I knew, from my reporter friend, Zone Lone of The Myanmar Times, that Tough Eddie was trying to go mainstream, to slough off his violent crime background and reinvent himself. But why did he want me?
As far as redheads, that lady is in a different class,” declared Lenny the barman, deftly sliding a paper napkin, monogrammed with the logo of the Spearmint Bullock, along the mahogany bar in front of me with one hand and placing my drink on it with the other. With a third hand, or so his dexterity made it seem, he positioned a bowl of mixed and salted nuts the regulation seven inches north-west of my glass...