Watching Road House on Malaysian Cable

Pile of Cassette Tapes

I’m seated at a small plastic table at a curbside pub on my third bottle of Saigon Export, and Belinda Carlisle’s 1987 smash hit “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” is blasting from the restaurant’s stereo system as my fellow backpackers and I drink and smoke shisha and pointedly ignore the vendors wandering along the street peddling cigarettes, sunglasses and stacks of poorly mimeographed Lonely Planet travel guides. I remark to my friend that this is not the first or even the second or third time I’ve heard this particular American pop culture relic in Southeast Asia. Just the other day, in fact, I encountered this former Go-Go’s paean to carnal desire in a Ho Chi Minh City taxicab on the way back to my hostel from a gluttonous hotel free-flow champagne Sunday brunch.

“When I lived in Japan,” my friend says, “I was surprised to discover that the band Mr. Big is still huge there. Remember them? They were like a soft rock hair metal band in the early 90s. Just awful.”

“Yeah, I guess so,” I say.

He takes a long drink, emptying the green bottle, and then looks thoughtful before saying, “I wonder if there’s any pattern to it. Like how do some forgotten songs from the US or England find a second life way the hell over here while others don’t?”

“It’s a good question. It feels arbitrary,” I say.

“I think it is,” he offers. “I think it’s completely arbitrary. Like one guy in Cambodia or wherever has a specific pop song on a mixtape or soundtrack and maybe it’s his only CD with songs in English and so he plays it at his club to pander to foreigners and then it catches on with the locals.”

On the street just then, a group of drunk rugby bros in matching white tank tops and red shorts leap up and down as they pass through the motorbike congestion, yelling “Oy Oy Oy Oy” and howling with laughter. No one else reacts. Across the street, five or six prostitutes loiter outside a club propositioning a few ruddy, sunburnt old men.

I laugh and say, “There you go. I think you’ve solved it. The Case of the Ubiquitous New Wave Schmaltz is now officially closed.”

My friend thinks about this for a minute. “I’m not satisfied,” he says. “I don’t want to live in a world so ruled by chaos. There ought to be a system to this. Songs like ‘Heaven Is a Place on Earth’ should rightfully be forced into extinction. Better songs should be the ones that live on on the other side of the world.”

“Better songs such as?” I ask.

“I don’t know. What about ‘Pulling Mussels from the Shell’ by Squeeze or ‘Running Up That Hill’ by Kate Bush? I’d love to hear something like that right now.”

I nod appreciatively and say, “I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this. The universe is cold and indifferent to human attempts at imposing order. Heaven is a place unreachable by Earth.”

Just then a young waitress in an impossibly small, tight dress advertising Tiger Draught comes to our table and brings us two more ice cold beers. Then, she pokes around in the ashes of our shisha, smiles at both of us and walks back to the kitchen. My friend leers after her like a predatory cartoon wolf.

After a few moments of reverent silence, I say, “The other morning, I caught Delta Force on TV in my room. A few days before that, it was Road House. They were on some movie channel out of KL.”

I can see my friend struggling to recall. After a moment or two, he asks, “Now which one is Road House again?”

Incredulously, I say, “You don’t know Road House? Oh, it’s a classic. Patrick Swayze plays Dalton, who works as a…consultant bouncer, I guess. I don’t know. It seems like a weird profession. I think he travels around the country doing professional development workshops for bar security personnel on proper ID checking protocols and how to deliver optimal groin kicks. I’m sure Post-Its and butcher- block paper figure into it. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, which makes it delightful. Anyway, in the end, he has to fight some corrupt Republican fat cat trying to…I don’t know. It’s incomprehensible, but it’s amazing.”

“Is this the one where Swayze tears a guy’s throat out?” my friend asks.

“Yes,” I say. “Indeed it is.”

He laughs and observes, “This feels like the cinematic equivalent of ‘Heaven Is a Place on Earth’ to me. Movies like Road House should never grace a TV set in a Southeast Asian youth hostel.”

Mimicking offense, I ask, “But why not? Patrick Swayze is a gift that belongs to the whole world.”

“Because people here don’t have the context to appreciate these cultural artifacts ironically,” he says. ”And without that context, terrible action movies and shitty pop songs misrepresent the creative aesthetics of the West. People here encounter these examples and conclude that the West is where art of no value comes from,” he says.

I look at him and try to figure out if he’s joking and then say, “Or…maybe without that context, people here just watch Road House and think it’s a profound meditation on masculine violence and social stratification. And that Belinda Carlisle is a master at conveying human emotional fragility.”

Just then, the opening notes of “Come on Eileen” grab our attention. We both smile and begin to nod along to the song’s lilting melody. At a table nearby, a young Vietnamese man sings, “Poor old Johnny Ray sounded sad upon the radio, but he moved a million hearts in mono.”

“Great song,” I say.

“Fantastic song,” my friend agrees.

Around us, some of the waitresses begin to dance and sing along. The lyrics are sometimes garbled or unclear, but it’s a beautiful sight regardless how the women sway in time to the music in those little dresses as they wander among the tables delivering beer and shisha coals.

“Is this Heaven?” my friend asks.

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