A Filipina Jazz Singer in Japan, Manila and Hong Kong
I met Nickie at Tago. She and her mother both live not far from me in Tagaytay, a beautiful vacation and tourist spot well outside Manila. This interview took place at my house. Unfortunately, photos of Nickie’s early singing career were lost in the 2009 Ondoy flood.
When I was twenty-one I was performing at five star hotels, the Mandarin Hotel and Philippine Plaza, and a Japanese agent saw the show. We had a meeting with him, my Filipino agent and me. A month later I was in Japan. I worked there from 1985 to 1992.
My first job was in a small bar in Kumamoto City on Kyusho, a very conservative place compared with Tokyo and Osaka. Other Filipinos were also working there as dancers, while I was singing with a band. The yakuza were everywhere, the gangsters who call themselves the Japanese mafia. Once a guy came into the bar wearing expensive clothes—his coat, his shoes, everything. I think he had a very high position. The waiter said this guy wanted to meet me, make friends with me. I agreed, but then I saw he had three fingers missing, and I realized he was a notorious yakuza. I asked what happened to his fingers. That’s how I learned that if you did something wrong you were forced to cut off your own finger and give it to the superior. I asked the waiter to get me away from his table. I’d already heard that he had had a Filipina girlfriend, he’d given her money and jewelry, and when he found out she had a boyfriend back in the Philippines he hurt her pretty badly. I didn’t want that to happen to me.
He said, “Why are you trying to avoid me?”
“I’ll be honest with you. I’m scared. I don’t want you to be my friend. Your missing fingers make me think you’re a very scary person.”
I tried to ask around about how the yakuza families lived. I found out that their children are not accepted in schools, so they had to go to their own school. The parents are recognizable because of their shaved eyebrows [with fake eyebrows painted on], their clothes, their speech and their last names. The lower-level yakuza wore curly, kinky hair and either all black or all white clothing. Their speech contained none of the respectful parts of the language. I can speak Japanese, but I couldn’t imagine myself talking that way. I could easily tell just from the language.
In 1989 I moved to Osaka to perform at one of the big hotels, the Hankyu Hotel for three months and then the Shin Hankyu Hotel Annex [New Hankyu Hotel Annex]. Every Saturday night after work at the Shin Hankyu Hotel—this would be about midnight—my pianist and I had to hide on the street corner because the yakuza had a kind of street parade. The boys on motorbikes rode by first holding sticks or tubes, and if you were blocking their way they would whack you. After the motorbikes came the cars and then one very expensive car, probably carrying the boss. It was really frightening.
Then two friends of mine, a Filipino couple, went to Japan to perform for six months. A group of yakuza went to their bar to have a drink and asked the couple to join them during the break. When the yakuza saw they were husband and wife, they tied the guy’s hands and held his head so he would have to watched as they touched his wife. She was screaming and begging them to stop. This was right in the bar where other people could also see. No one stopped them. The yakuza could kill you at any time. When they were done the yakuza gave the couple a huge amount of money which they accepted because they thought they would be killed if they refused it. The experience was really terrible.
I had a Malaysian friend who was very beautiful. I heard that in Malaysia she was a commercial model. She called me when she was on her way to Japan. I was excited because I was also on my way back to Tokyo. When I arrived I called, and someone took down my number. Three weeks later I got a call from her. She was crying.
“Help me. I need your help. I’m having a horrible time here.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’ll tell you later. I’ve got to go.”
A couple of days later I got another call from her. She’d run away and was hiding in a telephone booth. She’d found out she was working for the yakuza. They slapped her. They put their cigarettes out on her arm, her stomach, all over. When they got drunk they were violent like a bunch of maniacs.
So I said, “All right. What do you want me to do?”
“Just help me, help me get out of here.”
“Okay, I’ll talk to my boss and see what I can do.”
My boss felt sorry for her and agreed to help her, but unfortunately the yakuza caught her. I waited another few weeks until she was able to escape again.
“What do you want me to do, Mei-mei?”
“I just want to go home.”
So I sent her some money, and she went back to Malaysia safe and sound.
That’s why every time I went to Japan I checked out the hotel. I usually performed at a first-class jazz bars or five-star hotels where the yakuza were not allowed. I performed in a first-class bar twice in Tokyo. In a small town bar you could end up working for a yakuza.
The bar where I worked in Tokyo had a door from the dressing room to the back of the bar. I was in the dressing room when somebody knocked. I opened the door to a man with a bouquet of flowers which he asked me to give to my boss. When I handed over the flowers, my boss said, “Oh my God!” The flowers were a message that it was time to pay the protection money.
Yes, the yakuza have tattoos, some of them are all over the body. I only saw one when a guy rolled up his sleeve and there was a snake on his forearm. And yes, some establishments do not allow the yakuza to be around or anyone with tattoos, especially the five-star hotels and the first-class bars and restaurants. The thinking is that those are the places where foreign tourists would go, so they’re off-limits to the yakuza.
The last time I was in Japan my agent, who was such a nice guy, checked in on the talent sometimes. Sometimes I’d see him talking to someone and then they’d leave the bar quickly, and sometimes I’d see him outside talking to yakuza. Sometimes I would see him talking to a policeman or a politician. The government people were very well-groomed, and they bowed a lot. I wondered why the boss would be talking one minute to a yakuza and the next minute to someone who looked so decent.
After I’d been there a month or two, he said, “Hey, Nickie. I know you’re bored. I know you’re lonely. How about shopping or going to the grocery store after work? My treat.”
In the car on the way to the grocery store, he said, “Let me tell you something. In addition to being a talent agent, I work as a mediator between the yakuza and the government.” He said that in the event of a conflict he talked to each side and tried to get them to reach an agreement. He also said that sometimes the yakuza could be quite helpful. For example, once he had two clients who had run away because they were at the end of their six-month visas and they wanted to stay in Japan. Filipinos would call them tago ng tago [always hiding]. He asked the yakuza for help, and in two days they found them.
In Japan entertainment visas were only good for six months of work at only one place. After six months back in the Philippines you could return to Japan. I was paid in US dollars, about twice what I made in the Philippines. During that time I was one of the highest paid singers. My monthly salary was $2,500 plus a food allowance of ¥40,000 and a transportation allowance of ¥20,000. Housing was free. Plus tips. A single tip could be as much as ¥50,000 [$459 at today’s rate, roughly the same then] or ¥30,000 or ¥10,000. Or jewelry. So I was earning a lot. In Japan before you left the country they gave you a one-month cash advance so you could go shopping. At that time my adopted daughter was a baby, and I’d call my mom to ask what she needed. Then on your last day you were given the rest of your salary. I kind of liked it that way, getting $12,500 all at once.
I had to work in evening gowns, and since I’m a lesbian I had a terrible time because of that. I had men running after me. Oh, God, one guy was smelling me.
“No, I don’t have any cologne.
He gave me ¥50,000. “Tomorrow you go buy Estee Lauder.”
Okay, I went to the shop, but I bought the small bottle and kept the rest of the money. Or someone would say he didn’t like my watch. I should buy a Calvin Klein. He’d give me money, and I’d get a cheap one.
Japanese men can be very generous. They’ll give you everything. But in the end, they say, “You’re mine now.”
The other Filipinos pleaded to be taken out to buy things without knowing it was a trap. But I might say, “No, you might ask for something in return.” Or I’d say, “I don’t know. What do I have to give you?” I never asked for favors.
In the Philippines audiences are really attentive. Even if you make them sing and they can’t sing on key, they can tell if you’re really good. They listen. In Japan the audience was like a group of robots. They talked to each other throughout your song, but when they heard it was finished they clapped. I would ask my pianist why they clapped when they hadn’t heard it.
In Hong Kong I was singing in a jazz bar on Chatham Road. Most of the musicians were from different countries–Cuba, the US, the Philippines and China. I really liked the customers because I felt they were with me. They really listened, and if they enjoyed the performance they applauded. In jazz bars they were mostly foreigners, mostly white or black Americans. Very few Chinese, who probably felt too intimidated to go in. The customers enjoyed jamming, like starting with the blues and then making up their own lyrics, having fun. There was performer-audience participation all the time. You could become friends with everybody. I even met some guys from the US Embassy. We were like family inside that bar and partying practically every night.
In the Philippines I in the late 80s to the mid 90s, I had a regular following, fans who really listened. In those days singers and musicians had respect for each other. Like, for example, if we were both performing in this bar on the same night, back to back, and if we had the same repertoire, and you sang first, you might sing a song I had on my list. I’d erase that song because you sang it already. Or if I got sick I’d call a colleague and ask if she was free and could fill in.
I was lucky because I always had a gig, Monday to Sunday. When singers without jobs walked into the bar, I’d tell them what nights singers were needed or ask them to jam so the owner could hear them. But these days, nada. I don’t know what happened. I’ve heard that there’s too much competition. Even if you sang that song already I’d go ahead and sing it anyway.
I had a gig in Cebu with a one-year contract. The musicians were so thankful. They said, “Oh Nickie, we’re so glad you’re here. It means our music has changed. It’s totally different.” Like the Latin singers, if they sing “The girl from Ipanema,” they all sing it in English, while I sing it in Portuguese.
In the Philippines I would hang out with the musicians but not really with the customers. Especially in five-star hotels here we’re not allowed to mingle with the customers. We’re not even allowed to walk back and forth in the lobby. We just stay in our own rooms. Once we were performing in the Manila Pavilion Hotel, and we invited some guests to come to watch our show. When they came, we were told we weren’t allowed to talk to them. We were so embarrassed. The band leader even said, “Okay, if that’s what they want we’re going to put some chairs and tables onstage and entertain our guests there.”
In Hong Kong they didn’t care. After you sang you could go straight to your customers and talk to them. Here you don’t get to talk to your customers unless they’re your friends or they want to meet you. Most of the time musicians just talk to other musicians.
In Japan it would depend on the place. Since I was considered a class-A singer I wasn’t allowed to sit next to customers. They only got to see me during my show. But if a VIP customer walked in, the manager would tell me to join the customer at his table. There was one in the diamond business.
Once he invited me, another singer, the hotel manager and my agent for barbecue at his house. He showed us a large room full of boxes of diamonds. Shelves of them. Oh my God, I wanted one. He was a nice guy who tipped me ¥13,000 yen every time he came to the hotel, but I wanted a diamond. He introduced his wife to us, but instead of joining us she served us food and tea while kneeling on the floor, sitting on her feet with her back straight as if she were wearing a kimono. I felt so sorry for her but you couldn’t do anything about it.
One of my girlfriends went to Japan as a professional dancer. She got a job in a first-class bar. I had to take a plane to see her. I went to her club and ordered some food. I had to pay for my table every hour, and when I did that I asked for her. After she danced she came over and she was kneeling in front of me.
“What in the hell are you doing?”
“This is part of my job. I have to kneel.” She was serving me a drink.
“Would you please sit next to me? I can’t stand looking at you when you’re serving me like this. I don’t want that. I’m not Japanese.”
I talked to the manager. I said, “Look, I don’t want to see her kneeling in front of me. Just let her sit next to me.” He said okay.
The first time I had Christmas and New Year’s in Japan I was so lonely. You know how the holidays are in the Philippines. In Japan Christmas was an ordinary work day. Lunar New Year was the saddest part. It was so quiet everywhere. Shops are closed. There was no place to go. The Japanese went to the cemetery to honor their dead. That was the first time I saw Filipino men crying. They missed the fireworks and the family reunions and the drinks and food and the parties. We were together in one place, the dancers, the singers and the band. We were so quiet doing our own little count-down on Philippines time.
It was such a lonely place. But as years passed I got used to it. What can you do? Here you can light your own fireworks, In Hong Kong you can only go out on the street to watch, which I think is a lot safer.