Yin Yang Tattoo
Yin Yang Tattoo, my first foray into fiction, was published in 2010 by Sandstone Press and received positive reviews in Asia and Britain. Adhering to the old saw that says ‘write about what you know’, I placed the story in South Korea with a photographer at its centre. In the protagonist Alec Brodie I set out to create a character who would be difficult – if not impossible – to like, and I might actually have succeeded. Any similarities between Ron and Alec are, of course, entirely coincidental.
“….the kind of hard-boiled thriller that would normally have attracted the attention of big publishers looking for the next Len Deighton.”
“An unusual setting with an authentic feel makes for a superior thriller.”
- Scottish Review of Books
“an intriguing plot written in a highly readable style.”
- David Simmons, Asia Times Online
“McMillan’s eye for detail, whether aboard a transcontinental flight or in a Seoul blues club, weaves a rich background on which increasing layers of intrigue develop.”
- Joe Cummings, Bangkok Post Magazine
“…a delicious literary dish.”
- Groove Korea Magazine
Graphic artist Azlan McKechnie worked with me to create this promotional video for YIN YANG TATTOO:
The opening pages from YIN YANG TATTOO:
Part One: Seoul, Korea 1990
Pushing midnight and the Hill is the usual weekend war zone, music bleeding from club doorways held open by battered beer crates. Hank Williams, Wham!, AC/DC – and Stevie Wonder, who just called to say I love you. The street runs high on alcohol and the pressurised din of the clubs. Bar girls screech welcomes to regulars and brassy whores yell sales pitches in shameless, broken English. Syntax doesn’t count for much when you are touting ‘ten dalla’ blowjobs.
Darkness turns the Itaewon shopping district into a neon-tinged labyrinth of nightclubs and restaurants and bars and brothels that feed the elemental needs of thousands of American soldiers, civilians and spooks from Yongsan Military Base. None of whom I belong among, but in Itaewon at this time of night, I feel alive.
Polarised by race, clusters of frighteningly fit GIs cut shrapnel tracks through the throng, intent on bar or club or short-time cathouse.
Four red-eyed white boys tumble from an army base Chevrolet taxi. The tall GI from the front seat calls out for contributions towards the fare while his friends laugh and skip out of range. He pays the Korean driver, shoves his wallet into the back pocket of his Levis and raises his arms in mock ire, just as his long step is broken by a jarring collision with a small dark-haired figure.
‘Man, why dontcha watch where -’ He swallows his anger as the little Korean with the withered leg and the tortured eyes backs away, one hand high in supplication, the other hanging low behind him. The GI shakes his head and calls out to his buddies, already climbing the steps to the King Club. ‘Dyoo see that crazy gook motherfucker?’
I take a swallow of beer. ‘Crazy gook just motherfucked up his night.’
‘Yep,’ says Bobby, ‘the little guy’s got balls.’
We watch him shuffle in the direction of the main drag. A familiar sight in Itaewon, he won’t be on the street again tonight. For sure there is pain in those eyes, but not of any kind that the big GI would understand, and the brain behind them knows not to be around when the American discovers he no longer owns a wallet.
I nudge Bobby with one elbow, pointing with my chin.
He looks at me as if I have lost my marbles, I feign indifference, and he sneaks a streetward glance. Fanned out in a line are six more soldier boys in full cavalry uniform, black felt hats clasped gently to the fronts of starched shirts in the manner of the parading Orangeman and his bowler. One of the troupe solemnly aims a white-gloved hand towards the pharmacy at the corner of the Hill. Hooker Hill is busy enough even at this time of night to support its own drug store, and as four cavalrymen join an orderly line, the other two stand easy.
I am halfway there before Bobby can put his beer down. I try to melt into the surroundings while fumbling to check the light and fit a portrait lens. Bobby sidles past, and as he strikes up a conversation with one of the cavalry, I shoot frames sparingly, salivating at the aroma from mobile food stalls that every night roll into place just as darkness falls. Edging around, I can tie the stalls into the frame. Incongruous background, delightfully confusing context, and right now it smells like heaven. Deep-fried tempura vegetables. Chestnuts roasted in a hand-spun drum of shiny black stones. Ramyun noodles with processed cheese and pungent kimchi, the staple preserved cabbage Koreans eat with everything. Pig trotters served whole on Agent Orange melamine plates. Sliced fatty pork and marinated beef cuts broiled with whole garlic cloves in shallow pans over fiery coal briquettes, and dipped in a paste of sesame oil and coarse salt grains.
On a ragged line of wooden stools sit mostly young Korean women, stuffing food into brightly-painted faces. A distracting mix of whores, waitresses and young middle-class things on the run from the rig¬id mainstream of Seoul society.
‘We’re the 7th Cavalry, man,’ says the guy with the buzzcut so short I can outline the bone structure of his small head with its selection of faded scars. Evidence perhaps of a rural childhood spent tumbling from tractors and trees. ‘The 7th’s got history, we was once the mounted Cavalry, and go back all the way to General Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn – ‘cept now we’re a tank regiment.’
‘No shit,’ says Bobby, straight-faced, ‘Little Big Horn, eh?’
I switch to wide-angle, and move in closer.
‘Damn right. And the word is them limpdicks from Osan Air Base, goddamn chopper jockeys, they’re sayin they’re gonna kick some 7th ass. ‘Can you believe that shit?’
‘Woah,’ I say. ‘No way the 7th takes that from anybody.’
‘Damn right. Those assholes show their faces on the Hill tonight, they’re fuckin’ dead meat. R’you from England?’
I nod. Close enough. A cavalryman from Potatochip, Idaho, won’t be too interested in my views on Scottish nationalism.
‘What’s with the camera?’
I give him the friendly, can’t-harm-you look. ‘Just something I do. No offence, soldier.’
‘None taken, Sir.’
Sir. He calls me Sir.
‘Anyway, man,’ says Bobby, quickly. ‘Protect that heritage, right?’
We leave the cavalryman picking lint from his hat and head uphill towards the Cowboy Club.
‘Got to piss,’ says Bobby.
‘I’ll see you in there.’
I sit back on the ledge of a shop window full of baseball caps bearing trademark-infringing replica emblems of just about every American professional sports team I never heard of. A Korean beauty floats past in a cloud of perfume. She is in her mid-twenties, expensively-dressed in shiny black satin, unrestrained nipples drawing rapid, eccentric circles in the gleaming fabric of her sleeveless top. Hair in fashionable corkscrews pulled back in a thick haft, streamer-like tendrils tumbling from her temples. I spotted her in the food alley a few minutes before, slurping noisily at a steaming bowl of noodles.
She is headed for the Cowboy Club.
I judge my run to perfection so that I am just in time to pull the door wide, step back, and bow deeply like a nightclub doorman.
‘Oh-so-u’ship-shi-yoh,’ I say. Welcome. Very formal.
‘Koh-muh we-yo,’ she says, a familiar, almost insolent ‘Thanks‘. With a smiling backward glance she enters the crowded club, where the bass-heavy sound system shakes the entire room, empty glasses shimmying condensation trails across beer-splashed table-tops. B.B. King belting out a slow croon version of the Ivory Joe Hunter classic, Since I Met You Baby.
Plenty of Korean women come to Itaewon for a night out, but seldom alone. I don’t make her for a whore or a bargirl, so maybe she is here to meet some lucky bastard.
The Cowboy is a ramshackle hovel, one of the few low-rise hold-outs yet to be razed and replaced with multi-storey buildings coated in pink tiles. Its long history is written in multiple extensions, walls covered here in split log, there in dark green Formica sheets. Tables are of battered pine, chairs of rust-blistered chrome with herniated foam spilling from faded red fabric.
The crowd is the norm for Itaewon, half Korean women, half Western men. Few blacks, but that’s more to do with the music than anything else, since this is not their scene. The Sunshine Club, only yards down a nearby alley, is almost exclusively black, jammed with loose-limbed giants wearing David Bowie suits and jewelled earrings that have to disappear before they return to Base.
As usual in Itaewon, the Cowboy Club has no Korean men – and nobody complaining about it. Put them in a situation where alcohol flows and their women don’t toe the local line, and the only possible outcome is trouble. It’s a cultural thing.
A small central floor is peppered with couples dragging their feet to the slow blues number. A crowd hovers nearby, impatient for something more up-tempo.
I look over to the DJ’s booth, where Myong-hee sits hemmed in by three walls of tattered LP sleeves and CD cases, a huge selection of albums filed alphabetically and tended with loving care. At the counter in front of her, Bobby is flicking through the dog-eared school notepad that is the handwritten list of available albums. I catch his eye and he fires me a self-conscious wink. He has been trying to get into Myong-hee’s knickers for months. He and half the Western population of Seoul.
I know that the B.B. King track is on vinyl when it jumps and squeals in pain. This happens often in the Cowboy, since the turntables are only a few feet from a misshapen toilet door whose every judder sends the needle skating across the long-playing record. It is the bane of Myong-hee’s professional life, but she smoothly switches decks and we get the opening bars of The B52s’ ‘Rock Lobster’, surely a request of Bobby’s; I see him smiling at her. The new track brings the crowd to life and the dance floor to heaving over-capacity, faces sparkling in tiny squares of light from a battered, old-fashioned ball of mirrors.
Miss Black Satin is now near the tall bar, still alone. She turns and casually scans the crowd, her gaze faltering as it passes over me. Promising.
My linguistic skills are near-exhausted, but I’m not about to give up on them just yet.
‘An-yong hassimnika,’ I bow again. ‘Ne irrum-un, Alec imnida.’ Hello. My name is Alec. Very polite.
Without a word she accepts my outstretched hand. Her grip is warm and confident, her long nails painted a lustrous charcoal grey. I try not to stare, and fail miserably.
She doesn’t tell me her name, and I pretend not to notice.
‘Mo joo-shi ley-oh?’ I wish for Would you like a little something from the bar? but have to make do with a quite abrupt What do you want? At least it raises a hint of a smile.
At the bar I order from Miss Hwang, who looks over my shoulder and gives me a subtle smile of approval. The staff at the Cowboy are very protective of their regulars, and Miss Hwang sees no threat from the lady in black.
I hand the gin and tonic to the one with no name, and she tips her head in silent thanks. I’m playing tennis with an opponent who has no racquet, but still the bloody ball keeps coming back at me.
‘Irrum-i moueyo?’ What’s your name? At least I might score marks for persistence.
Her eyes crease, and she reaches into a tiny beaded bag for a packet of Sol cigarettes. In a society with old-fashioned ideas about chivalry you never know when a light can come in handy, so I am in there before she finds her own lighter. In the glare of ultra-violet strip lights her dark red lipstick turns the shining black of the heroines of early talkies. Her nose has the perfection of line that comes only from the cosmetic surgeon’s scalpel, but the eyes are her own, elongated tear-drops rimmed with heavy black liner. She draws hard on the cigarette which, tugging at her lower lip, comes away crimped with dark red semi-circles. She stretches her head back and blows a stream of smoke straight up towards big fans that circle lazily in the toxic fog. Around her slender neck is a single fine gold chain. I am desperately trying to think of something clever to say when she leans towards me, a draught of sweet perfume cutting through the foul smoke from her Sol.
‘It’s a pleasure to meet you, Alec. You may call me Miss Kim.’
I can’t hide my surprise. She tosses back her head and laughs aloud, and gleaming white teeth, a little uneven, reflect on shiny-black lips.