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2016 Globe Trot



My Work

Ismar Tirelli Neto

October 2016

from the October 2016 issue: In Those Days and These: Multilingual Singapore

In Those Days and These: Multilingual Singapore

Singapore was a multilingual island long before the concept was formally enshrined in its constitution in 1963. A short story by literary pioneer Makadoom Saiboo published in 1888 noted that to succeed on the island, one had to be fluent in Malay, Javanese, Bugis, Boyanese, Chinese, Tamil, Hindi, Bengali, Gujarati, Kannadam, Telugu, Marathi, Arabic, Portuguese, Dutch, Turkish, French, Spanish, Italian, and English. Seventy-seven years later, with Singapore’s independence, Malay, Chinese, Tamil, and English became the official languages of the fledgling nation, reflecting the ethnic composition of the island’s main residents and its history as a British colony.

Lacking in natural resources but blessed with a pragmatic and efficient government, Singapore embarked on an aggressive open-economy development policy. Now in power for over half a century, the government has been perpetually reinventing the island and its people to ensure that Singapore remains the preferred destination for foreign investors and tourists. This has made Singapore one of the most affluent and developed countries in the world but the success has come at a high social cost, not least in terms of the loss of its cultural and built heritage.

This issue features a selection of Singapore works originally written in Chinese, Malay, and Tamil. The authors of the four pieces of fiction were children or teenagers when Singapore gained independence and will remember the Singapore that existed before the period of rapid development and social transformation. In their works one can discern a common theme of change and loss, something often observed in Singapore’s post-independence literature. These pieces paint a picture of a Singapore that has ceased to be, but in doing so illuminate the state of the country today. The issue also includes translations of a Chinese play by the late Kuo Pao Kun and a Malay essay by the late Masuri S. N. Both men were doyens who left indelible marks on the wider cultural scene in Singapore. They were already accomplished artists when Singapore attained self-government, and their pieces provide the context of the processes at work that shaped Singapore and its literary scene in the early years of nationhood. Finally, the issue includes the translations of two poems by the esteemed Tamil poet KTM Iqbal, who reminds us that regardless of how much or how fast things change, there will always be certain things that are universal and timeless.

With globalization, many nations are now grappling with the forces of immigration, urbanization, industrialization, and modernization. Singapore’s size, location, and history have given it a head start in dealing with these developments and their consequences. Its literature reflects these experiences, and we hope that the works will find resonance with readers around the world.

© 2016 by Dan Feng Tan. All rights reserved.

October 2016
In Those Days and These: Multilingual Singapore
from the October 2016 issue: In Those Days and These: Multilingual Singapore

There Was a Bridge in Tekka

Latha’s elderly woman mourns her lifelong friend and the lost Indian immigrant community of their childhood.

Tekka is the colloquial name of an old Singapore precinct located around the area where Serangoon Road becomes Selegie Road after intersecting Sungei Road and Rochor Canal Road. Although the name comes from the Chinese dialect of Hokkien and means "the foot of the bamboos," the area has always been associated with the island's Indian community due to its proximity to Little India. The area holds special significance for many older Singaporeans because it used to be home to one of the most vibrant wet markets on the island and the former Kandang Kerbau Women’s and Children’s Hospital, where many of the island’s residents were delivered.

My breathing becomes more labored as I walk past the Selegie Road traffic light. I chalk that up to the years finally catching up with me. Even gentle slopes are a challenge for me now. I didn’t feel anything at first but it strikes me after several steps that something is different. I stop and look around, leaning on my walking stick, and then it dawns on me. The bridge is gone. The river is gone.

The area had undergone many changes over the years but Rochor River had always been left untouched. And now it’s no more. The river has been rolled up and tossed away leaving no clue as to how it was moved or where it might have been moved to. No one can tell that a river had once flowed there. In its place is a patch of grass. They have replaced a river with just grass. Well, it’s not as if they will grow jasmine in Tekka. Even if they do, will our people allow the plants to flower and thrive? They have added sand and leveled the ground. The road has been widened. It is as if the river has never existed. Looking at the landscape, one will think that it has always been like this. People are walking around casually, as if they have always been treading this level soil. No one seems to notice that there’s anything out of the ordinary. Not a single person pauses to stand there to look, to ponder. You get used to these things, I guess. Given time, everyone gets used to them. The mind tends to forget what things were like in the past.

The last time I was here, they had just started digging the road to construct an underground train line. Now, without even looking around, my body and my breath tell me that the bridge and the water are no more. The wind that circles around me brings the news that the water has been paved over and everything has been covered up.

Previously, one entered Rochor Canal Bridge by crossing the Bukit Timah traffic light after it turned green. Along the middle of the bridge were square stone tiles, laid next to each other with gaps in between. As one walked over those tiles, one had to be mindful of these gaps or risk having the heel of one’s shoe caught in the opening. That had happened to me once but fortunately I did not fall.

One climbed the slight incline onto the level surface along the middle of the bridge and then down again at the end of the bridge. By the time one completed the crossing, the traffic light at Serangoon Road would just have turned from green to red. One would have no choice but to wait for the next green light. I would always stare at the water flowing along the canal as I waited. There was a time when making one’s way across the bridge felt like traveling from one country to another country. Sometimes, the green light would change to red and back again to green while I stood there just staring at the water. At high tide, or if it had just rained, the river would be full. Actually, it was just a big drain for storm water runoff but in those days, we called it a river.

I remember that the water level was high that night. The current flowed as though it were a real river. Even though it was still dark, one could make out the swirls of little white ripples as the wind blew. Dawn had not yet arrived but one could make out the shimmering currents moving along quickly in all their glory. It had rained heavily for a week before the skies had finally cleared up. There was just enough chill in the air for your bones to feel it.

My Akka had not asked me to come along. I had trailed her without her knowledge. I had spotted her just as she left the house. I was never one who could fall asleep when my head touches the pillow and I wake up at the slightest sound. That night, I heard a noise but saw that everyone else was fast asleep. When I went out to investigate, I could sense that someone had just left the house. I walked out a bit more and saw Akka. I wondered where she could be going this time of night and followed her, until she stopped at the river. I froze. I had no idea what she was going to do. I thought of calling out to her but no sound emerged. I stood there behind her, out of sight.

The first thing she did was to toss the shirt she had draped over her right arm into the river. Then she took out a pair of pants from a bag and threw that in. A pair of slippers went next. After that, she unbuckled the shoulder holster with the gun and threw that into the river too. She flung them the same way one would throw prayer items used for last rites into the ocean. Lastly, she removed the cap from her head and tossed that into the water. It was only then that I realized that she had a cap on. As soon as she disposed of everything, she turned abruptly to leave. She didn’t even pause to give these items a final farewell or take in their loss. It was as if they were nothing more than rubbish to her.

It was then that she saw me. I met her gaze straight on.

It was dark, but I could see her blank face clearly beneath the streetlamps. Her eyes were expressionless and gave nothing away. Mine must have been just the opposite. I struggled to ask what I so desperately needed to know. How could she so easily discard these things that had once been part of her?

Do you expect me to get into trouble with the British? Do you have any idea how many people have been detained for resisting them? There’s a trial going on now in India. If we are captured, they’ll take us to India too. Do you want to rot in an Indian prison? Such a sacrifice would at least have been worth it had they treated us better in Netaji’s army.  

I had never seen that anger in Akka before, but it subsided as quickly as it came. By the way, I heard that your husband recently bought another cow. So now he works with four cows, if we include you, she said.

She knew just what to do to get me to laugh. And just like that, all my pent-up sadness vanished like darkness leaving at the break of dawn.

Akka must have been eighteen when I was sixteen. She was already married by then. There used to be a small newspaper shop along Race Course Road. Even though the shop sold magazines and other daily items along with newspapers, everyone always referred to it as the newspaper shop. That was where Akka’s husband worked. There was a Tamil association next door where many people gathered during the evenings. Akka’s husband taught English and mathematics at the association after work. He possessed a Higher Secondary Certificate and read widely, learning a great deal about many subjects in the process. He was the one who read the newspapers out loud to the illiterate to keep them up-to-date on current affairs. He would listen to the English radio station and translate the broadcasts into Tamil for the benefit of those who knew no other language. Singapore was under Japanese occupation and no foreign books or newspapers could be imported. Delivery of letters from overseas was also suspended. However, Akka’s husband could always get his news somehow. The audience for his evening news updates grew. Because the association had a license to teach the Japanese language, there were never any problems with the occupying authorities.

One evening, Akka’s husband reported that Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose would be addressing a crowd at the Padang the next day. The Indian nationalist had arrived in Singapore two days earlier and was recruiting an army to rid India of British rule. The evening audience at the association was enthralled as Akka’s husband repeated the words of the great man. Should India gain independence, we can all return to India. We need not toil here. There would be jobs for everyone. We would be able to live freely in our own land.

Akka and I were not present. Akka’s husband never brought her to his place of work. We heard about it from the boy next door, who had been in the audience.

The following day, Akka and I went on our own to listen to Chandra Bose speak. The Padang was packed with bodies. Netaji spoke with fiery passion. The crowd hung on his every word, riveted. His address was like a divine discourse, causing every fiber of our being to resonate with a desire for action. It was at the Padang that day that he promised, “Give us your blood, and in return, I will give you your freedom!” At the end of his speech, cries of Jai Hind rose from the people, becoming one voice. I was shouting, too. I had no idea what India was like, but that did not matter. Aren’t we all Tamils? As soon as Netaji spoke of the need to prepare for war, many people came forth to pledge or donate cash or jewelry to the cause. My Akka contributed her bangles and her earrings. I gave up just my earrings, for they were the only item of value that I had on me that day. No one thought twice about giving up their most valued possessions.

When we arrived home, Akka’s husband was silent but furious. We couldn’t tell whether he was angry because we had attended Netaji’s speech or because we gave away our valuables for the cause. Akka kept quiet, too, and went about her daily routine. We always knew when Akka’s husband was angry because their home grew completely silent. We all lived in a shophouse at Race Course Road. The shophouse was long and narrow with adjoining rooms, each housing an entire family. Not so much as a peep could be heard by the families in the neighboring rooms. There was one kitchen at the rear where everyone cooked. The people who lived in the shophouse mostly worked as day laborers. Before they came home from their work each day, Akka would finish cooking and bring dinner back to the room for her and her husband.

Akka had returned to the room that day with the rice and salted fish curry she cooked, but she ate her share alone since her husband had refused to acknowledge her at all. But salted fish curry was his favorite dish and the smell must have been hard to resist. He quietly wolfed down the food and left. Akka never asked him anything. We lived in the room opposite theirs, eight of us in a single room.

I left our room to go to the toilet at the rear, but it was occupied. I came back to find out from Akka what happened. She effortlessly sidestepped my question, casually asking what I thought of the embroidery she was working on, as if there was nothing out of the ordinary. It was July 5. The year was 1943.

Within a week, Chandra Bose announced that he was going to start a women’s army. The day he made the announcement, they started recruiting soldiers. Akka, myself, Kaali, and Pavunu all went. Sathiyavathi joined us as well. Akka was fluent in several languages, including English, Malay, Hokkien, Bengali, and Japanese. However, Akka only spoke to the recruiters in Tamil that day. They turned us down at first, when they heard our names and realized our caste, relenting only when we gave the name of our family friend, Uncle Veerappa. The name Veerappa Thevar still carried enough weight to challenge an age-old prejudice, at least in Singapore. 

On his way home that day, Akka’s husband was stopped several times by people who wanted to congratulate him. Everyone was filled with praise for his wife’s actions. No one knew what was on his mind. As soon as he arrived home, he took the radio and flung it to the ground, where it broke into several pieces. It had taken him a long time to save up to buy that radio, the source of the news that he would translate so that others could know what was going on in the world. It was one of his most treasured possessions. But blinded by fury, he had destroyed it with his own hands before proceeding to slap and kick his wife. Akka did not make a single sound throughout the beating. After that, she went about her chores as though nothing had happened, cooking and then serving dinner.

As for me, I was afraid but excited. I started imagining what it would be like to carry a gun and fight in a battle. I thought about how wonderful it would be to see India free from foreign rule. If the British lost, who would rule Singapore? The island would belong to the Japanese. We would all have to learn and speak their language. It would be hard surviving under their rule. There would be neither jobs nor food. But we would have an India of our own to return to.

Father refused to sign the consent form even though he was a staunch Indian patriot. Father had never been to India before. His father had come from India as convict labor and Father used to brag to everyone that it was his father who had paved the streets of the island. After my grandfather was freed, he married my grandmother, who had also been brought by the British to Singapore as a convict. Father had long desired to visit India to see the relatives he had never met. He also had deep respect for Chandra Bose and attended all of his speeches in Singapore. Father was a well-built man, a manual laborer who worked tirelessly. He never joined the army but volunteered his services in the kitchen because Chandra Bose’s cook was a friend of his. He would spend entire days volunteering there. Yet he refused to sign the piece of paper that would allow me to join the Indian National Army. But I knew what I wanted. I managed to get Mother’s thumbprint on the form since she had never learned how to sign her name. Mother was very different from Father. A highly intelligent woman, she always believed that girls ought to have an education and be independent. It was Mother who fought with Father so I could go to Balestier School. Two years ago, after I came of age, Father wanted me to stop schooling, but Mother disagreed. She continued to support my education. All this came to an end when the Japanese occupied Singapore. All local schools were converted to Japanese schools. Mother had wanted me to become a teacher one day. That’s why she gave her thumbprint the moment I asked.

That was how I joined Akka without Father’s approval. The famous Dr. Lakshmi, who had joined the Indian National Army earlier, oversaw our training. Female recruits had to run while carrying a gun and a full backpack. A few of us were assigned different duties, cleaning the training grounds and hauling equipment for the trainees.

We had only basic comforts in the camp, which was an old school building. Training began early in the morning and when the recruits returned at the end of the day completely exhausted, we would serve them thosai and a cup of tea. Contributing in these simple ways brought us joy. In those days, Akka’s face was always radiant. She was tall and her long hair was always neatly plaited and tied up in a bun. Without a gun or a backpack, she still cut an impressive figure. At first, the other people in our battalion were not friendly toward us. They protested that we shouldn’t be allowed to serve them food because of our caste. They stopped only when it became clear there were not enough hands in the camp to help out. But Dr. Lakshmi liked Akka a lot. She was the one who got her into a proper regiment to undergo military training. The number of Tamils training to be soldiers quickly grew, as people joined us from Johor, Seremban, Malacca, Kedah, and other parts of Malaya.

Soon after completing our training, we were deployed to Johor. Father came to send me off, his eyes brimming with tears. Mother was almost jubilant when she said good-bye, confident that I would return home victorious. However, Akka’s husband was conspicuously absent. He had not visited even once after she joined the army and was refusing to speak to her. Akka never mentioned this, and she didn’t appear perturbed at all.

We would sing as we marched. We had learned several patriotic songs, mainly in Hindi. It was only then that I realized what an amazing singer Akka was. She would always be in the front so she could lead us as we sang. Her voice could fill us with courage and make our hunger and thirst disappear. Hearing her energized us and made us almost eager to do battle.  

Once we put up a play at Victoria Theatre called “Chalo Delhi” to raise funds for the war. Akka was the star of the production, which drew a large audience. The play featured a song titled “Good-bye Mother and Father.” Hearing Akka sing this song on stage was so overwhelming that I could not hold back my tears. Akka, on the other hand, delivered the song flawlessly, seemingly immune to the hurricane of emotions that the song conjured.

Our unit was sent to Seremban first before proceeding to Thailand and then Burma. We traveled at night by train. Akka, I, and a few others were assigned a train compartment without seats. We had to sit on the cast-iron floor for hours at a time. There was no room to stretch our legs or to lie down and sleep. It was torture for the body. Jungle training was equally arduous, forcing us to deal with mosquitoes, leeches, and snakes at every turn. It was particularly terrifying for us since we were housed at the edge of the camp. 

A battle was raging in Imphal and our unit was supposed to join in the fight. However, we received word that the Japanese soldiers and the Indian National Army suffered heavy casualties. We were outnumbered by the British forces and defeat was imminent. Furthermore, our supply of food and medicine had not yet arrived and there was no other aid. In the end, Chandra Bose decided not to deploy our troops.

We stayed put in Burma. Dr. Lakshmi, now known as Captain Lakshmi, was extremely disappointed and disobeyed Netaji’s orders. She set up a makeshift hospital to provide medical treatment to our wounded soldiers. Akka and I would clean and dress the wounds. Some of the injuries were incredibly gory. We saw legs broken and abdomens torn apart by bombs. We would see scores of wounded at a time lying there covered in blood and sores. Sometimes, I couldn’t even bring myself to drink water after attending to them.

It was there that I first spotted Akka’s husband. He had sustained a head injury and was brought to our hospital in critical condition. We had no idea when he had joined the army. However, he eventually ended up on the warfront at Imphal. Tears streamed down his face when he realized it was Akka. He tried to lift his arms but they refused to obey. He had problems keeping his eyes open and the tears continued flowing even when he closed them. Captain Lakshmi informed us that he needed an operation. Akka prepped him, displaying the same tenderness and concern that she showed all the other wounded soldiers. She never wept even once. She had always been stoic even in the face of the most horrifying injuries and death. I would sometimes wonder how hardened and numbed her heart must have been. With her husband critically injured nearby, she continued to perform her duties, almost nonchalantly. She caught me weeping and reminded me, impassively, that we were giving our lives for a free India before walking off.

I remember a time, long before the war, when I had stood at this spot on the bridge with Akka. We enjoyed standing here watching the world go by. Every now and then, vendors would spread a piece of cloth on the pavement where they would display their wares. It was evening and the river had been reduced to a mere trickle. Rickshaws scurried past the few stalls that had been set up to sell household items and towels.

Akka had gazed at the moon while talking to me. When my father came from India, she said, he sold books on this bridge. I used to come here to be with him. He would tell me about his homeland. He would often mention how much he wanted to take me to India, she said. Well, that’s that. I wasn’t sure if she meant her father’s death or their never having visited India.

As time went by, it was I who stood firm on buying Indian brinjal and Indian ponni rice. Akka was never particular about things like this. She always bought rice from Thailand and whatever local vegetables that were sold in the wet market near her home.

The first time I traveled to India, I went with a large group. We wanted to visit the temples and the markets. Akka refused to join us. I invited her to join me on all my subsequent trips but she always declined. She only went to India after her son was involved in an accident while on a trip there and was admitted to a local hospital. Her son and daughter-in-law had asked her to travel with them to Tamil Nadu before but she had always refused. This time, the circumstances were different. She knew that all that had come before in her life had equipped her better than anyone to deal with this crisis. She immediately made plans to fly to India so she could calm her distraught daughter-in-law and ensure proper care for her son.

Akka and I had come to this part of town to buy her airplane ticket. The rain had been pouring down and the roads were slick with water. Even though we were careful, she slipped on the bridge and twisted her ankle. She turned down offers of help from passersby and hailed a taxi home. That was the last time I saw the bridge or her.

She flew off to India with her injured ankle. After her son recovered, they decided to give thanks to the deity at their ancestral temple in their hometown, located next to Puthukottai. That was where Akka’s father had been born and her husband, too. They invited all their relatives in India to partake in the offerings. It was nearly nightfall when they reached Puthukottai. The plan was to spend the night in town and set off for the village the following morning. Akka went to bed that night and did not wake up when dawn came. Her son completed the funeral rites in the town itself and brought the ashes back to Singapore. He sprinkled some of her ashes in the sea at Changi and cast the rest of her ashes in Rochor River, a request she had made when she was still alive.

I was ill in the hospital at the time and couldn’t even go to give my condolences to her family. It has become much harder for me to move about after my release. If I want to go anywhere, I need to ask one of my two daughters to drive me or take a taxi there and back.

It has been a long time since I’ve taken a bus and walked on my own like this. All I want is to gaze at the water that Akka is now part of. But the river has been buried and the bridge is no more. 


© Latha. Translation © 2016 by Yamuna Rajoo. All rights reserved.

October 2016
In Those Days and These: Multilingual Singapore
from the October 2016 issue: In Those Days and These: Multilingual Singapore

From “Opera Costume”

Yeng Pway Ngon’s aging opera lover struggles to recapture lyrics and memories of a thwarted star tenor.

Helpless before the heavens we part, what sorrow, what rage; the farewell heart clings to the drooping willow, goodbye tears splash the flowers—The old man struggles to remember the lyrics to Revisiting the Long Pavilion Willows, humming bits and pieces. It’s been too long since he’s sung anything, too long since he heard this tune. When he was young, he adored Tsuih Lau Seen, particularly her rendition of this opera. Then there was Siu Meng Sing. He listened to her Autumn Tomb all the time—now it completely escapes his mind. Not just the opening, but every last scrap of the lyrics. Yet when Kim Chau was a kid, he taught him the whole piece! Half a lifetime of encounters, allowing fondness to bloom, affection thickening, dawn stained with the mist of love, adoration filling the bosom. He sings a few lines before realizing abruptly—this isn’t Autumn Tomb, it’s Dream of Romance. This “horse trot” passage is also one he taught Kim Chau, but what about Autumn Tomb? He simply can’t recall. What a shame. Kim Chau was so talented, his voice as nimble as his movements. Everything about him—his eyes, his limbs, the way he stepped on stage—told you the second you laid eyes on him that he was going to be a big star. A pity he was born in the wrong place. His features were so delicate—perfect for young scholar roles. If this had been Hong Kong, surely he’d have become a movie star! And even here in Singapore, he ought to have done well. What other young performer here had his bone-deep good looks? Which ping hau vocalist was as talented as him? The old man wishes his childhood friend Tak Chai—Ching Siu Kai’s disciple, the new Siu Kai—could have seen Kim Chau. If that had ever happened, Tak Chai would definitely have helped him get ahead. The old man and Tak Chai went through all kinds of hard times together. Is Tak Chai still around? He’s a year older—even if he’s still alive, he too would be well on his way to the grave. At the age of twenty, Tak Chai left Singapore to settle back in their hometown, where he continued performing. They haven’t seen each other since.

After Tak Chai made his name as the new Siu Kai, the old man kept an eye out for news of him. He remembers the papers reporting that not long after the Japanese surrendered, the new Siu Kai moved from Hong Kong to the Mainland. Once Mainland China was liberated, the local papers rarely—in fact, practically never—reported news from there, so he had no way of knowing how the new Siu Kai was doing. There were rumors during the Cultural Revolution that the new Siu Kai had been badly tortured, both of his legs broken. “Tak Chai, you were an idiot,” the old man can’t help sighing. “Things were so good in Hong Kong, why on earth return to the mainland?” God, if Kim Chau hadn’t died young, if Tak Chai hadn’t left Hong Kong, their paths would surely have crossed. Kim Chau was brought down by love—a pity! But how did he die? The old man thinks hard, and his brain fills with memories of Kim Chau when young, striking poses as he rehearsed in their living room: pulling the mountain, retiring steps, revealing the appearance, seven star steps, waves across water, scooping step, little leap, kicking leg, kicking the armor, continuous movement, washing the face, flags in the wind, circular walk. He sees every detail of each move. His ears fill with the roar of the audience as Kim Chau shakes out his flowing hair in a gesture of despair, though he now can’t remember which show this is from. The old man dozes. Kim Chau, then Tak Chai, flicker through his mind. He remembers, like awakening from a nightmare: someone said that Kim Chau had become ill and died in a small hotel in Hong Kong. But who told him? What a shame! A wave of sadness washes over his heart. Not yet, not yet, not yet seen my love. Cursing, cursing, cursing the empty heavens. My eyes yearn anxiously, my eyes yearn anxiously. Such emotion trembles on my lips, waiting to be told—oh, oh, my heart is sour as the plum. These lyrics, like uninvited guests, burst into his mind without warning, then slip from his mouth. He mumbles them raggedly, but halfway through goes blank. Shutting his eyes, he ransacks his brain, finally unearthing the rest: saga seeds of longing, such jade green feelings, cruel separation, wild goose dreams—shattered—wild goose dreams shattered, what comes after dreams shattered? He can't go on, partly because he’s out of breath, partly because his mind is as muddled as a bowl of porridge. If Kim Chau had had someone to take care of him, he wouldn’t have died. All alone in Hong Kong. Who looked after his affairs? The old man mutters tearfully to himself.

“Grandpa, lunchtime!”

His granddaughter is calling. He looks up toward the dining room, where their Filipino helper is setting food out on the table. It is already noon.


After lunch, their helper does the dishes, and his granddaughter goes out, same as every weekend. The old man sits in the living room staring into space, assailed by yawns he tries to resist. Now and then, a line of Cantonese opera wafts into his head, along with a tangle of memories. How could he have been so careless? This world is full of traps, and even before his accident on the stone steps, he’d already slipped and fallen in the bathroom, leaving his buttocks aching for two or three months, though that hardly slowed him down. Who’d have thought this one tumble would land him in hospital? Though he escaped surgery, the broken leg feels devoid of energy, and he can only walk with a stick. He loathes the wheelchair, which he thinks makes him look useless. Yet the stick won’t do—it slows him down, and he can’t move far on it. Before turning seventy, he often bragged that he had the strapping figure of a young man, and indeed, his hair might have been a little gray, but his cheeks were ruddy and all the youngsters said he looked fifty-something at most. Once he turned seventy, though, his age began to reveal itself—his jowls drooped, the wrinkles in the corners of his mouth deepened, the salt-and-pepper hair at his temples rapidly turned all white and started thinning. Of course, his vision blurred, too, and his ears no longer heard so well. Still, he often went out, getting the bus to Telok Ayer.

There, he visited the places he’d once spent most of his time in: Chinatown and Tofu Lane (that is, Chin Chew Street). Often, though, this would be discomfiting. His stomping ground of almost half a century now felt unfamiliar, even alarming. Buildings he knew well would suddenly be encircled by wooden boards, vanishing before he knew it, quickly replaced by strange new skyscrapers. The same thing kept happening, another familiar shophouse row surrounded by a wooden fence, disappearing while cut off from view, succeeded by yet more high-rise towers. They were going to surround and tear down every building he knew, one by one, like a dictator’s secret police eliminating all opposition. There’d come a day when all the places he’d lived in would be gone, utterly transformed, nothing familiar about them at all. Each time he saw those wooden boards rise around a shophouse or street block, the old man’s thoughts turned dark. When this first started happening, he’d gather with his old friends at the coffee shop he once owned (not having a child willing to take over his business, he’d lost his temper and signed it over to a neighbor, after which it became a gathering place for him and his friends). He understood that eventually this old shop would be boarded up, too, then quietly vanish while hidden from view. And indeed, that was what happened. After less than ten years, or perhaps a full decade—he can’t quite remember, but what of it? It was finally unable to escape the wooden boards, the secret slaughter away from public view. The old man and his friends had to find another coffee shop. By this time, only Old Fong, Old Goh, and himself were left. The others, just like the buildings they’d once known, had departed this world.

The three men didn’t particularly like the coffee shop they ended up at—the servers were rough and rude, the owner unfriendly. A bunch of unsavory characters frequently gathered there, swigging beer and ostentatiously talking about Thai prostitutes, or exchanging lewd jokes. Sometimes they’d flirt obnoxiously with female passersby or customers. The old men’s social club disbanded after Old Goh’s stroke. That was just as well—when they met, there was nothing to talk about but when their next check-up was, or what ailments they’d acquired since last time. Gazing at the hideous decrepitude of his two old friends, final survivors, the old man might as well have been looking at himself. God knows they’d once been young, but those days truly felt like a dream—as if in truth, their current state had always been the reality, these heartbreaking, pathetic wrecks. Yes, better not to meet. To be honest, toward the end, the old man hadn’t felt much like going anywhere. Several times, he got on the wrong bus and was ferried far away, only managing to get home, completely exhausted, after a great deal of trouble. He can’t avoid the fact that he’s old. It’s not just his strength, sight, and hearing that are failing, but his memory too. Things he once remembered perfectly clearly are now murky. Since his fall, he’s moved around less, and senses himself aging even faster. Nothing is right. Every muscle and bone, every part of him, feels wrong. Sitting by himself, he hears his body gradually disintegrating, as if a termite colony is gnawing away at him from the inside. He needs assistance for many things—can’t even make himself a cup of coffee, needs to lean on the maid’s arm to get to the bathroom. For now, he can manage a shower or shit on his own, but what about the future? Imagining how he’ll become weaker and more useless, the old man grows frustrated and angry. The whole world is bullying him, setting itself against him—now even his own body is at odds with him. He can see his future. Existence will become more painful, harder to bear. He’ll put up with these torments, all so he can await the thing he dreads most of all: death.

From Opera Costume. © Yeng Pway Ngon. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2016 by Jeremy Tiang. Forthcoming 2017 from Balestier Press. All rights reserved.

October 2016
In Those Days and These: Multilingual Singapore
from the October 2016 issue: In Those Days and These: Multilingual Singapore

Hey, Wake Up!

Kuo Pao Kun exposes the personal wreckage left in the wake of the state’s aggressive pursuit of international financial status in the 1960s.

This was the first full-length play by Singapore’s theatre doyen Kuo Pao Kun and was a sensation when it was first staged in 1968, drawing rave reviews. Starting from the 1960s, the Singapore government embarked on an economic strategy of attracting foreign investors and multinationals, and building up tourism as an economic pillar, often at a significant social cost. The play struck a chord in a population asked to sacrifice their heritage, way of life and even their mother tongues in the national effort to become a modern metropolis serving the world.


Scene 3: The Interview

Chorus:                A distorted society
                            develops in deviant ways
                            The kind toil their entire lives
                            for just two simple meals a day

                            Most do not strive for a life of indulgence
                            why must they be consigned to the margins of
                            a better existence?

                            “To work hard” is now a symbol of
                            “To find a shortcut” is now the way to good

                            “Diploma, status, connections, money”
                            Why is it that the obsessions of our young are so

                            What is it that makes them lose faith in
                            their parents’ toil?
                            What is it that deadens them to their
                            elders’ labor?
                            Is it because the young today are born
                            without innocence?
                            Or is it because their minds have been
                            poisoned by some external influence? 

Curtain rises.

Pop music in the background.

Miss Lily TAN is being interviewed by Mr. LIM (the company director), Mr. LIEN (the manager), and Miss HAN (the secretary).

LIEN                   Let me be frank with you, Miss Tan. Your
                            qualifications are decent but we are not looking
                            for part-time staff. Those we recruit will need
                            to undergo training. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to
                            balance your work here with your job
                            at the beauty salon.

TAN                    Isn’t the work mainly at night?

LIEN                    Mainly, yes, but not always. Our timing is
                            determined by the needs of our clients.

TAN                     Oh! (Hesitates)

LIEN                    Do you make $300 a month now?

TAN                     Slightly more. How much can you give?

LIEN                    That depends on what you have. Ten bucks
                            an hour with a third as commission to
                            the company. How much you make depends on

TAN                     Is there a base salary?

LIEN                    No.

TAN                     Ouch, that’s quite harsh.

LIEN                    It’s free competition! Why don’t you think
                            about it? If you decide to come work for us,
                            report to our first branch office at 9 a.m. on
                            Monday morning. Thank you.

TAN leaves.

LIEN                    She’ll show up for sure.

LIM                      (To HAN) How about the next one?

LIEN walks over to HAN who hands over a photo.

HAN                    She’s a recent graduate.

LIEN                    She doesn’t look half bad. (Looking at photo)

LIM                      She looks like the bright and naïve sort. (To LIEN)
                            Be courteous. Don’t be too direct.

LIEN nods to HAN.

HAN                    (To the telephone) Number 65, Miss Lu Siow May.

MAY enters.

HAN                    Miss Lu Siow May?

MAY                    Yes. (Walks over to HAN)

HAN                    You’re eighteen?

MAY                    Eighteen.

HAN                    Unmarried?

MAY                    Unmarried.

HAN                    A Singapore citizen?

MAY                    Singapore citizen.

HAN                    Your ancestral home?

MAY                    Canton.

HAN                    Besides Mandarin, what dialects do you speak?

MAY                    Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese . . .

HAN                    English?

MAY                    A bit.

HAN                    Just enough to understand or can you converse?

MAY                    I can probably handle basic conversation.

HAN                    Malay?

MAY                    Just a bit. I’ve never had formal lessons.

HAN                    Do you have a driver’s license?

MAY                    No.

HAN                    Can you swim?

MAY                    A bit.

HAN                    Can you sing?

MAY                    A bit.

HAN                    Can you dance?

MAY                    Yes . . . what type of dance?

HAN                    Regular social dance.

MAY                    Oh, I don’t really know that.

HAN                    What type of dance can you do?

MAY                    The ones you do in school. Extracurricular dancing.

HAN                    Your height?

MAY                    (Puzzled) Five foot three.

HAN                    Your weight?

MAY                    (More puzzled) A hundred and six pounds. Why
                            are you asking these questions?

LIEN                    That’s enough, Miss Han.

MAY turns around and realizes that there are two men behind her.

LIEN                    (Stands up)
                            Miss Lu, please sit over here.

MAY looks uncomfortable as she sits down under the gaze of the two men and one woman.

The two men look her over for a while, confident but not crude.

MAY                    (Unable to stand it any longer) May I . . .

LIEN                    (Interrupts) I know you have lots of questions
                            Miss Lu. What sort of organization is this
                            “tourist assistance agency”? What type of
                            business does it do? What sort of employees are
                            we recruiting through our newspaper
                            advertisements? Why did we ask for your photo?
                            Why did we ask such funny questions?
                            Am I right?

She instinctively nods her head as he correctly guesses all her questions.

LIEN                    In other words, you find us deeply dubious.

MAY                    That was not what I meant—

LIEN                    (Interrupts) There’s no need to explain, Miss Lu.
                            It’s natural you would think this way. I would have
                            the same concerns if I were you. It would be
                            strange not to be suspicious! Especially
                            since you’re young and educated. It’s inevitable
                            that you would be suspicious of what you do not
                            understand. There’s no need to apologize. It’s

MAY                    (At a loss for words) Can you tell me what you do

LIEN                    Of course! An interview is an opportunity for two
                            parties to share their thoughts and ideas. I will
                            first introduce our organization and then it’ll be
                            your turn to speak. All right? (Pause) In recent
                            years, a new industry, the sightseeing industry,
                            has emerged on the global scene. Some call it the
                            “tourism industry.” Most people here still think
                            sightseeing is simply going on a tour of different
                            places, looking at scenery. This view is out-of-
                            date. By its definition, sightseeing should mean
                            allowing the person to experience different
                            lifestyles and cultural traditions in different places
                            and countries, to indulge in what he cannot enjoy
                            at home. Not only does this involve the promotion
                            of our country’s culture, it can also be an
                            important economic force. It has become a pillar
                            in some economies that have a developed
                            tourism industry. For example, Spain possesses
                            the most developed sightseeing industry in the
                            world. Tourists contribute to 82% of its GDP. A
                            Spanish poet once said, “If we Spaniards want to
                            make a living in front of the Lord, our children
                            need to work as hard as women, our women need
                            to work as hard as men, and our men need to be
                            as fierce as beasts.” That is because Spain lacks
                            natural resources and it’s hard for its people to
                            get by. But Spaniards today say, “When we want
                            to make a living in front of the Lord, we only need
                            to smile. We just have to take good care of the
                            tourists and that is enough.” That is the motto of
                            our organization.

MAY                    I see. You’re a tour agency!

LIEN                    (Joins the other man in laughter) No, Miss Lu.
                            What we provide is a complete “cultural and
                            lifestyle experience.”

MAY                    (Bewildered)

LIEN                    Giving tours is just a small part of what we do,
                            Miss Lu. Our organization owns swimming pools,
                            bowling alleys, hotels, yachts, nightclubs, and
                            various performance troupes. This tourist
                            assistance agency is just one of our many
                            subsidiaries. The Golden Hotel downstairs
                            belongs to us. We have more than 600 full-time
                            employees and 400 part-time employees. We pay
                            millions in income tax alone each year. You can
                            just imagine the scale of our operations.

MAY is flabbergasted.

LIEN                    Miss Lu, I’ve gone one big circle to tell you all this
                            because I want you to understand that we are not
                            a run-of-the-mill company. We do not engage in
                            run-of-the-mill business. We do things very
                            differently from others. You may have heard
                            rumors about the sightseeing industry, especially
                            scandals involving tour agencies. I can tell you
                            that there is much truth in them. However, we are
                            not part of that. Those are not things that an
                            organization of our size engages in. You can put
                            away any suspicions that you have about us.

MAY                    What sort of employees are you recruiting?

LIEN                    That’s hard for us to answer because we do not
                            know your preferences and what you are most
                            suitable for. Even if you make it through this
                            interview, you will need to undergo a period of
                            training before we can decide. We are looking for
                            talent. We are looking for new blood who have
                            different types of skills and who want to develop
                            careers in this industry. We are especially strict in
                            selecting our talent because we take our work
                            seriously. Help us understand your background
                            and thoughts now, shall we?

Not expecting the conversation to be so blunt and direct, MAY is caught unaware and does not seem to know where to start. Four eyes bore into her as the secretary prepares to take notes.

MAY                    I don’t come from a well-to-do family. My father
                            was a taxi driver who died when I was eight. I’m
                            an only child and my mother brought me up by
                            working as a laundry woman. I have always done
                            well in school but I had disappointing results for
                            my final examination. I wanted to be a teacher but
                            I failed to qualify. I don’t know what I want to do.
                           I can’t continue to study but I’ve yet to find a job.
                            When I saw your advertisement, I had no idea
                            what sort of person you wanted. I sent in an
                            application just because it was there, not even
                            knowing if I qualified . . .

LIEN                    Qualifications? That’s something one can acquire.
                            What’s important is whether one is willing to
                            learn. You’ve just left school and your
                            understanding of society is, if you may pardon my
                            saying, lacking. However, if you’re willing to
                            learn, you can join our training course to give it a
                            try. What do you think?

MAY                    (Happy and at a loss for words)

LIEN                    Please report to our first branch office at 9 a.m.
                            on Monday. The receptionist outside will give you
                            the address. (Shakes her hand) Good-bye.

MAY leaves.

LIM                     We can put in a bit of effort on this one.

LIEN                   (Gives a knowing smile and walks over to HAN)
                            Send the next one in.

Light dims. Curtain falls. Chorus for the next scene begins.

Scene 4: The Training

Chorus:               They say
                            this is a place filled with opportunities for
                            They say
                            this is a paradise for making money and

                            treachery thrives when there’s “free competition”
                            and a preoccupation with profit is what comes
                            with “investment promotion.”

—They do not care if this brings a blight upon others.
—They do not care if this goes against the moral conscience.

Our young have been given the chance to study
this does not mean that they can think.
To pass exams and get a diploma is easy
this does not guarantee anything.

What happens when naïve youth
meets the dirty and dangerous world?
The case of May is a good example.

Curtain rises.

A newly renovated office, with pop music playing in the background.

The secretary Miss HAN arranges some documents while Uncle BOCK repairs a filing cabinet on the side.

The phone rings.

HAN                    (Answering the phone) Tourist assistance agency
                            first branch office. Good morning!

                            Oh! It’s Mr. Wong. How are you? Let me check.
                            (Checks her record book) She doesn’t have an
                            appointment tonight. I’ll inform her. What time
                            and where? That’s fine. If it's difficult for her to
                            get there on her own, we'll have the driver take

                            Another three ladies? What dialects do they need
                            to speak? Do you want to choose them yourself or
                            should we do that for you? That’s fine. You’re an
                            old customer so we won’t just send just anyone
                            over. May I enquire about your friends’ status? I’ll
                            let the girls know to get them mentally prepared.
                            Thank you. Not at all. Certainly. (Records the
                            information, picks out some names and calls)

                            Hello, is that the garage? Andrew? Go pick up
                            Chin Mei at 8:30 p.m. An appointment with Mr.
                            Wong. Yes, the same one. Have her at Dragon
                            Palace Night Club at 8:45 p.m. Swing by here to
                            get Miss Lam, Miss Chian, Miss Soon, and Miss
                            Mok before you go. Mr. Wong is entertaining
                            guests today, Indonesian customers. I’ll get them
                            to wait downstairs at 8:15 p.m.

LIEN brings a group of new girls out from his office.

LIEN                   Remember, the basic objectives of entertaining
                            tourists are to make them happy with their stay
                            and ensure that they get the experience they
                            want. But there are two other goals we want to
                            achieve. What’s the first one, Miss Tan?

TAN                    To get them to stay as long as possible.

LIEN                   Good. And the next one, Miss Lam?

LAM                    To leave them with a deep impression so that they
                            want to come back again.

LIEN                    Why, Miss Lu?

MAY                    The longer they stay, the more they spend. And
                            leaving a good impression is an investment for
                            the future.

BOCK shows surprise when he notices MAY in the group of girls.

LIEN                    These principles are easy to understand but I
                            often find that we forget these fundamentals and
                            start neglecting our clients over time. Never
                            forget, our entire economic foundation—the
                            company’s and yours—is built on the satisfaction
                            of our clients. The customer always comes first.
                            This is of the utmost importance under any
                            circumstances. All right, you can go with Miss
                            Woon now for your data processing class.

                            Please stay back, Miss Lu. Have a seat.

After the others have left and the conversation is about to begin, the phone rings for LIEN.

HAN                    Mr. Lien, it’s the nightclub manager, Mr. Ho.

LIEN                    Hello, old friend! Not yet. In a few days, perhaps.
                            They just started. They’re still learning the basics.
                            I know. Who was the one who asked? Mr. Tay?
                            The businessman? Give me a second, I’ll talk to
                            you inside. Pardon me, Miss Lu. (Goes into his

HAN                    How has it been so far, Miss Lu?

MAY                    It’s all right. I’m not too used to this.

HAN                    You’ll need time to adjust. You’ve just left school. I
                            was just like you.

MAY                    You don’t go out into the field?

HAN                    Hardly. I can’t leave this office.

LIEN                    (From his room) Miss Han.

HAN                    You see? Keep an eye on the place while I’m
                            gone. (Goes into LIEN’s office)

BOCK                  (The opportunity finally comes and he puts down
                            his work)

MAY                    (Surprised) Uncle Bock!

They are interrupted by the phone.

MAY                    Hello? Yes, this is the tourist assistance agency.
                            We have many. Of all races. Conversant in all the
                            dialects. It’s ten dollars an hour with a minimum
                            booking of three hours. Photographs? Yes. You
                            can come choose them yourself. Our service ends
                            at midnight but the office closes at ten. May I have
                            your name please? Hello? That’s strange . . .
                           (hangs up the phone)

BOCK                  Are you working here, May?

MAY                    I wouldn’t say working. I’ve only been here for
                            slightly more than a week. I’m still in training.

BOCK                  What do they do here?

MAY                    They’re a tour agency.

BOCK                  What does that involve?

MAY                    They bring people sightseeing.

BOCK                  Oh, they bring foreigners around!

MAY                    Not always. They also have local customers.

BOCK                  Why do locals need a guide?

MAY                    Some have friends from overseas but no time to
                            show them around . . .

BOCK                  Is it good work? Going out with people . . .

MAY                    You don’t understand. This is a very big company,
                            not the shady kind. They have strict regulations.

BOCK                  Oh . . .

MAY                    Where’s auntie working today?

BOCK                  In Tanglin.

MAY                    Hasn’t that hotel been completed?

BOCK                  They’re rushing like mad. They have to work till 8
                            or 9 p.m. every night. I hear that the hotel and
                            your agency share an owner.

Miss HAN appears, interrupting their conversation.

MAY                    Someone just called but he hung up halfway.

HAN                    Oh. (Not too concerned)

                            (Turns to BOCK) Hey, are you done?

BOCK                  All done.

HAN                    How much?

BOCK                  Thirteen dollars and sixty-five cents.

HAN                    Why so much?

BOCK                  It’s not much at all. The materials cost five dollars
                            and sixty-five cents and I’m just charging you
                            eight dollars for labor.

HAN                    Eight dollars for something so simple?

BOCK                  It’s not expensive. The going rate is nine dollars
                            for a day and a half of work.

HAN                    Doesn’t matter. I’ll pay you thirteen. It’s a nice
                            round figure and our manager hates dealing with
                            small change. (Her decision is final and she passes
                            BOCK the money)
. Sign here.

BOCK                  I’m not good with writing. Can I not sign?

HAN                    These are our regulations. Just make any mark here.

Finally, BOCK leaves, giving a slight farewell nod to MAY.

Several women dressed in gaudy clothes enter. Some go into another room while the others walk over to collect their pay.

CHIAN                 Is my pay for yesterday ready?

HAN                    It’s here. From 8 p.m. to midnight, twenty-eight
                            dollars. Andrew will come get you at a quarter
                            past eight tonight. You’re going with Chin Mei to
                            Mr. Wong’s party at a quarter to nine.

CHIAN                 (Counts her money and signs on the voucher)
                            Where are we going?

HAN                    Dragon Palace Night Club.

CHIAN                 What sort of people?

HAN                    Three Indonesians here on business.

Miss CHIAN leaves and Miss SOON and Miss LIAO enters.

SOON                   The one from the day before. We went together.

HAN                    Blue Sky Nightclub. Three hours in all. Twenty
                            dollars each. Sign here.

MAY takes in all this and is impressed.

SOON                   Nothing for me today?

HAN                    Oh, yeah. You’re going with Chin May. Wait
                            downstairs for Andrew at a quarter past eight.

LIEN appears.

LIAO/SOON         Mr. Lien.

LIEN                    Miss Soon, Miss Liao. No difficulties recently?

LIAO/ SOON        None at all. Thank you. (Leaves)

LIEN                    You’ve been training here for a week now, Miss
                            Lu. Are you still interested?

MAY                    It’s been interesting.

LIEN                    Are things different from what you first

MAY                    I had no idea that there’s so much to learn for
                            something like this.

LIEN                    I’m happy to hear that, Miss Lu. I need to ask you
                            again. Are you certain you want to work in the
                            office and not go into the field?

MAY                     . . . Yes . . .

LIEN                    Is that what you really want? Or is it because
                            your mother disapproves?

MAY                    My mother . . .

LIEN                    . . . still doesn’t understand? (MAY nods) Did you
                            try explaining to her?

MAY                    I . . . I feel it’s more practical for me to start
                            working in the office.

LIEN                    You have a way with words, Miss Lu. That’s
                            certainly a polite way to say it. I hope we can find
                            a few girls as quick as you are in this new batch.
                           Of course, I won’t force you to do anything you
                            don’t want to. I just think it’s a shame. You’re
                            giving up ten dollars an hour. You know, office
                            work pays just a hundred dollars a month.

MAY                    I know.

LIEN                    (Sighs) It’s hard cultivating new talent. Of course,
                            it’s partly the fault of some bad apples in our
                            industry. Their dubious dealings have made
                            things more difficult for the rest of us. Fine then. I
                            won’t insist. But I hope you’ll continue the basic
                            tour guide training with the rest of the girls. You’ll
                            be prepared should you change your mind in the
                            future. That’s fine, too. You can go now.

MAY                    Thank you. Mr. Lien. (Goes for her class)

LIM walks in.

LIEN                    How’s work proceeding at the site?

LIM                     You need to jump on them every day.

LIEN                    Can we make it for the opening of the tourism

LIM                     Probably. Hey, I heard Chin Mei entertained a
                            client without informing the company yesterday.
                            Andrew just told me. He saw it with his own eyes.

LIEN                    Oh? Was it with that Wong fellow?

HAN                    I don’t think so. Mr. Wong called just now to
                            book Chin Mei and another three girls to go to
                            Dragon Palace tonight.

LIM                     Then who could it be?

LIEN                    Miss Han, go check the files. Take down who
                            she’s been with.

Miss HAN leaves.

LIM                     Our approach to monitoring is still too weak. It’s
                            too easy to go behind our backs. See if there’s any
                            way other than tailing every single one.

LIEN                    These double-dealers think they can profit at our
                            expense once they’ve learned the ropes.
                            Unfortunately, we’re at a time when our veterans
                            have turned yellow but the new girls are still too
                            green. We’ll have to be careful not to promote
                            these new girls too quickly.

LIM                     How is that Miss Lu doing?

LIEN                    She certainly has qualities. Very quick and good
                            poise. But she’s still too wary. Refuses to go into
                            the field.

LIM                     She’s adamant?

LIEN                    Very much so.

LIM                     She can’t be induced?

LIEN                    Probably not at this time.

LIM                     (Picks up and flips through the customer
                            registration book. Thinks hard)
Try my way.

LIEN                    And what’s that?

LIM                     Give her an official assignment.

LIEN                    (Thinks) Ah. We can give it a try.

LIM                     But a gentler approach, all right? So that even
                            if she refuses, she won’t be scared away.

LIEN                    OK. (Picks up the phone) Get Miss Lu in here.

The two men wait calmly as MAY enters.

MAY                    Mr. Lim, Mr. Lien. Are you looking for me?

LIEN                    Yes, sit down. There’s something I’d like to
                            discuss. Miss Lu, you’ve been here more than a
                            week. You should know how we do things here.
                            We don’t force anyone to do what they don’t want
                            to. But there’s a matter now that we hope you will
                            give due consideration to. The company has seen
                            a sharp rise in its business recently and we’ve had
                            a deluge of clients, more than what we can
                            handle. There’ve been occasions when we’ve had
                            to turn some away. We received a call just now.
                            There’s a party that requires girls who can speak
                            multiple dialects fluently. We’ve assigned
                            everyone at our main and branch offices. We only
                            have our new recruits left. We respect your
                            decision but it’s really hard to find anyone from
                            this batch that’s as good as you. We’d like to
                            solemnly request you to consider helping the
                            company just this once. We’ll even waive our
                            commission, which will go to you, as a gesture of
                            appreciation for your help. As for your mother,
                            it’s just this once. It doesn’t matter whether you
                            tell her or not. Can you help the company in this
                            time of difficulty, Miss Lu? (Pause) I can send you
                            there and pick you up when you’re done.

MAY                    (Struggles with conflicting emotions. Finally nods)

LIM                     Miss Lu, the company is indebted to you.

LIEN                    Thank you. You can pick out a set of clothing
                            from the women’s section on the third floor and
                            charge that to the company. I’ll come and pick you
                            up at 7 p.m. sharp. We’re going to the West 
                            Ocean Club.

MAY                    There’s no need. I’ll come to the office.

LIEN                    That’s even better. I’ll wait for you here.

MAY goes out. HAN walks in with some files.

HAN                    Are you referring to these records, Mr. Lien, Mr. Lim?

LIEN                    (Taking the files) This can wait. Assign Miss Lu
                            and three of the new girls to the reception at West
                            Ocean Club tonight. Send the original four girls
                            somewhere else.

HAN goes to make a call.

LIEN walks over and shakes LIM’s hand.

LIM                     It gets easier once one begins.

Lights dim, curtain falls.

©  Kuo Pao Kung. By arrangement with the estate of the author. Translation © 2016 by Dan Feng Tan. All rights reserved.

October 2016
In Those Days and These: Multilingual Singapore
from the October 2016 issue: In Those Days and These: Multilingual Singapore

The Withered Cherry Tree

Sa’eda Buang’s starstruck girl lives in a Bollywood fantasy while abuse and deception rage around her.

Translators’ note: the following kinship terms and honorifics appear throughout: wak, used for elderly men or uncles; kak, sister or more senior female; kak long, oldest sister; kak ngah, middle sister; abang, brother or more senior male; nyai, elderly Javanese woman.

Mila danced happily down the steep knoll. She had memorized every inch of that hill. Her tiny bare feet safely avoided the puddles and the thorns of the mimosa plants that were scattered on the slope of the hill. She continued to hop and skip while imitating the Indian dance moves from a ten-cent Hindustani film she had watched from her mother’s lap a few months ago.

She could not stop singing the “Sangam” sung by Vijayantimala. Her curly tousled hair fluttered untidily in the wind, like the plaits of Vijayantimala being caressed by her lover.

“Where are you going?” Mila suddenly stopped dancing. Damn! How dare anyone disturb her dancing on the steps of Taj Mahal!

“What do you want, eh, Botak?”

“I want to come with you.”

“You can’t! Don’t bother me.”

Mila closed her eyes tightly. Botak was not supposed to appear in her Taj Mahal. A ruby stone glittered on her forehead. Both her arms and her chest were adorned with gold and diamonds. Today, Mila was wearing a scarlet sari festooned with golden embroidery and glitter. Her yellow silk scarf was decorated with emeralds and pearls she had added with great care. Beautiful.

“I don’t care. I don’t have any other friends.”

Mila’s eyes grew wide with anger.

“Eh, I don’t want you to come with me. Don’t you get it? Go play with someone else. I don’t want you to come with me.” Mila stood with hands on her hips like Mak Dara in Ibu Mertuaku. Botak grinned.

Mila bent down to dust off the dirt that covered the floral henna on her feet.

“Eeeew . . . Smelly! You’ve got chicken shit on your feet . . . chicken shit!”

Botak, who had been observing Mila for some time, shouted with glee at her comeuppance as he tried to run away from her. Mila had rejected his offers to play together. Served her right.

“Stupid Botak. Your face is chicken shit.”

Mila snorted as she picked up the silk handkerchief Dev Anand had given her and wiped her feet again. The red silk handkerchief was as crimson as the evening horizon blanketing the sun tired from playing the whole day. Mila continued her dance as she glided down to the foot of the hill. She had to hurry before the sky grew darker. As they’d been in preceding days, the moon and the stars were too lazy to come out to play. They preferred to sleep beneath the thick blanket of clouds. Mila did not want her beautiful hennaed feet to trip over the rocks in the dark.

“Wak, one Hindustani chocolate, please!”

Mila proudly took out two five‐cent coins from the folds of her red sari. Today, she was the richest girl in the world. She could afford a really expensive chocolate.

Wak Seman smiled and handed the chocolate over to her.

“Wow . . . you seem to have a lot of money today. Have you sold all your epok‐epok?”

Mila didn’t reply. She grabbed the chocolate and left the small shop. Space inside the shop was becoming tighter and tighter, as the merchandise outside had been brought in for storage. 

“Share your chocolate with your sisters, OK? Don’t keep them all for yourself!” Wak Seman called after her. Mila pretended not to hear him.

Mila wanted the chocolates all to herself, as she sat between the boughs of her favorite cherry tree, admiring pictures of the Hindustani actors and actresses that she had been collecting for some time. Mila always encountered her hero while singing Hindustani tunes on that cherry tree. She also sat there for hours, swinging her feet back and forth, surrounded by handmaidens who obeyed her every wish. Mila enjoyed the delicious special treat without being disturbed by others. She closed her eyes as her hero fed her. She savored every bite. She did not want to share this dish with anyone else. Botak must not find out about it. Nor should her sisters.

Damn! Mila’s moment of satisfaction was interrupted by whispers from under the tree. The louder the whispers, the more the cherry tree shook. Mila held on to the bough to prevent herself from falling. Every now and then, squeals erupted and the whispers continued. Mila held on tighter. She could hear the faint call to the Maghrib prayer from a distant surau in the western part of the kampong. Mila dared not breathe. Her heart was pounding. She closed her eyes as she prayed that Dev Anand, who had somehow vanished, would return to rescue her from that unpleasant situation. She pulled her clothes tightly around her to avoid attracting the attention of the whispers under the tree. The cherry tree continued to shake until she heard the reverberating call to the Isyak prayer. Mila avoided looking down. How disgusting. Breathing in slowly, Mila devised a strategy to hang spikes on the trunk of the cherry tree so that nobody would dare whisper under her forbidden tree anymore. The next day, Mila would command her army to hang the spikes there.

Soon after the whispers stopped, Mila swiftly jumped down from the bough of the cherry tree and ran home. Mila no longer cared about her hennaed feet. She had to quickly climb the hill to go back home. The sky had turned pitch dark. The dim light of the kerosene lamps from the houses at the foot of the hill was of no help. She would be lucky if she didn’t step on pieces of broken glasses or thorns. She would be lucky if her father returned late from the surau. Otherwise, Mila was prepared to run around the kampong, trying to save herself from her father’s caning. But not to worry, a white stallion would be standing by to whisk Mila away.

“What took you so long, Mila?” her mother’s voice called from the kitchen. Kak Long, Kak Ngah, and her little sister were busy peeling potatoes and chopping onions to make the epok-epok filling. Her mother was kneading the dough.

“You said you only wanted to go to the shop for a short while. You took hours. It’s past Isyak now. Look how dirty your feet are. You probably stepped on some chicken shit. Go take a bath! Soak your clothes in the bucket.” Her mother’s tone grew more and more stern. Mila obeyed while stealing a glance at her little sister, who enjoyed seeing Mila getting scolded.

“You were eating chocolate, right?” Kak Ngah asked jealously.

Mila remained silent.

“Whose picture did you get?”

Mila tried to slip away.

“You big booger! Scrooge!” taunted the offended Kak Ngah. Kak Ngah pinched Mila with all her might. Mila tried to escape Kak Ngah’s firm grip but failed. She was forced to save herself by biting Kak Ngah’s hand and running toward the well behind the house.

The chattering from the living room irritated her to no end, making it difficult for Mila to fall asleep. On her left and right, her sisters slept soundly. Just like other days, Mila had to wake up early. Tomorrow, Mila wanted to wear a green kurta embroidered with golden and silver spangles. While holding a feast for her subjects, Mila would also entertain them with her melodious singing and dancing. She patted the soft goose-feather pillow and then kissed her little sisters, who had foul saliva all over their faces. That night, she allowed her little sister to share the soft mattress in her chamber.

The chattering outside grew louder and was now accompanied by soft sobs. Mila could not restrain her curiosity any longer. She peeked through the crevices of the wooden panels of her bedroom. Vaguely, she could see her parents and Wak Seman, the ailing kampong chief, muttering something. A woman was sitting with her legs folded, sobbing. Her big round belly was heaving uncontrollably, as heavy as her sobs. Mila could not see her face, but the woman had to be Kak Hasnah, her most beautiful and stylish neighbor. Her own mother’s face was calm. Her father was rolling nylon threads to make a bird trap while muttering something. And Wak Seman was nodding.

Mila did not know how long the chattering lasted. Such late-night gatherings at her home between her mother and the other folks in their kampong and the kampong chief were not unusual. Although her mother did not hold any position in the community, she remained a source of comfort and refuge, especially for the other women. Mila didn’t get it. In all likelihood, her mother simply liked to help people. After the passing of Wak Seman’s wife, he began to hold frequent gatherings at Mila’s house, in private or otherwise.

When she woke up, Mila found herself lying on her little sister’s belly. And as happened every morning, the crow of the rooster behind her house was like an alarm clock marking the start of the day’s tasks.

In the kitchen, Kak Long and their mother were frying epok‐epok. Kak Ngah was getting ready for school. Kak Long helped their mother every morning, since in the afternoons she attended school. Her father had likely left quite some time ago to go to the end of the kampong to snare birds with two of his friends. Her father had been doing nothing else for the past two months. Mila did not understand why her father returned home angrily one afternoon, muttering “mogok.” Mila thought that “mogok” was some sort of mumps that often infected Mila and her friends in the kampong. What Mila didn’t get was why her dad was angry when it was the children who were infected.

Mila donned her shiny green kurta, ready to carry out her task. Two worn-out rattan baskets had been loaded with piping hot epok-epok.

“Mila, come here my child.” Mila walked over to her mother, who was drenched in sweat from the sheer heat of the epok-epok.

“When you leave, can you pass by Kak Hasnah’s house? Don’t enter the house, just pass by, OK?”

“I don’t want to, Mother. Abang Osman always shouts at me. He says that I disturb his sleep. Sometimes he pelts me with stones.”

“But just go past their house this morning. It’s important. When you reach their house, don’t call out. Just be quiet.” Her mother whispered this as she combed Mila’s tangled hair. Mother, don’t forget to use that fragrant MBR oil on my hair, Mila thought to herself. Let it be as thick and shiny as Mala Sinha’s plaits.

“I hate it, Mother.”

“Mila, listen to me, OK? Just pass by Kak Hasnah’s house this morning.”

Mila looked at her mother’s face intently. My Maharani, Mila thought to herself. How beautiful, just like Madhubala. The wrinkles on her forehead and around her eyes only add to her beauty. You are such a soothing sight, my Maharani, as soothing as the waterfall in Kashmir. There is nothing my Maharani does not know.

Fine then, I will do it. Mila danced as she carried the worn-out baskets in her hands. The diamonds embedded in her green kurta glistened beneath the sun, inviting her to play. She headed toward the surau on the western side of the kampong. It would be fun there. Surely one basket will be empty by then. Then my load will be lighter. After that, I’ll head east and then return home to load two more baskets. Keep going until they are sold. They all have to be sold. Otherwise, my Maharani’s face will lose its radiance as she wipes away her tears, hiding them from us, her children.

“Epok‐epok . . . epok‐epok . . .” Mila sang like Lata Mangeshkar. She continued singing from the west to the east of the kampong. As soon as Mila reached Kak Hasnah’s house, she stopped dancing and singing. Mila trod cautiously. Nothing was odd. Nothing was special. Although she had not been there for quite some time, there was nothing new—heaps of newspapers were still left untouched in the shabby ambin. At night, there would surely be two to three unfamiliar young men waiting for Abang Osman at the ambin. They would talk and laugh as loudly as they pleased. Mila had been told by Botak that those men in tight‐fitting pants came from another kampong. I’m not sure.

Kak Hasnah’s secluded house was still dark. The door and windows were shut tight. Wet clothes hung on the clothesline. Kak Hasnah must have done the laundry at dawn before she left for the white man’s house at the far end of the kampong, where she’d wash his clothes until evening fell. On an early morning like this, Abang Osman would still be snoring. I hate him.

“Were you scared when you passed by Kak Hasnah’s house just now? Don’t forget to pass by her house again, OK? Remember, you don’t need to do anything else, just pass by.” Her mother repeated her message as she loaded the empty baskets. Mila nodded while adjusting the sleeves of her kurta. A couple of diamonds had dropped off her sleeves as she danced with so much enthusiasm.

“When you return, I will sew that torn sleeve. Come here, let me pin it up first. When everything has sold out this week, I will give you five cents.”

Five cents this week. Five cents next week. That adds to ten cents already, and I will be able to buy chocolates again. Buy a chocolate and get the picture of an Indian film star. Hopefully I will get the picture of Rajendra Kumar and not MGR. When I’m done eating the chocolate and I get the picture, then I will show Kak Ngah so that she will be jealous. Mila sang at the top of her lungs. Her subjects ought to listen to her singing.

“Mila, I want to come with you.”

“Hey, Botak! You always want to come with me. Go and play with someone else. I don’t want you to come because you will step on someone’s chicks again. I don’t want to get beaten up because of you again. Go away.”

Botak scratched his scabby head. He grinned. Just like Mila, Botak had not yet entered first grade.

“I can help you carry your baskets. One for you, one for me.”

Mila was impressed. Smart Botak.

“Epok-epok . . . Epok-epok . . .” Mila and Botak sang together. They both skipped along joyfully.

As they were approaching Kak Hasnah’s house, Mila quickly put her hand over Botak’s mouth, just as he was about to shout. Mila forcefully pulled Botak by the hand. “Eh, what’s wrong?”

“If Abang Osman wakes up, he will start cursing me. My mother asked me to pass by their house and nothing else.”


“I’m not sure.”

“Let’s look around. I want to know what’s going on.”

“Are you crazy? He will beat you to death. My mother did not ask me to do anything. I do not want to. If you do that, I will not be friends with you ever again.”

Mila snatched the basket from Botak and immediately ran off, far away from Kak Hasnah’s house. Botak grinned. From afar, Mila could see Botak creeping up slowly to peek through the walls of Kak Hasnah’s room. Mila’s heart was beating fast. Without realizing, tears rolled down her cheeks. Mila waited for what seemed like an eternity. She felt waves of panic, just like the time she heard the whispers under the cherry tree. Botak, why are you looking for trouble? I don’t want to be your friend anymore. I’ll get beaten up because of you. But Mila still continued to wait for him.

After what seemed like hours, Botak came running toward Mila, panting. He could still manage a grin.

That night, chatter could again be heard coming from the living room. Kak Hasnah sobbed louder than before. Her mother hugged Kak Hasnah tightly. Her father and Wak Seman’s voices sounded serious. Mila cupped her hands around her ear and pressed up against thin wall.

“This time, Timah and him . . .” she faintly heard her mother say.

“Timah did not go to school this morning, but her parents didn’t know . . . We must tell them.”

“You and Wak Seman must let them know,” ordered Father.

“Aren’t you going to tell them?” asked her mother.

“I promised my friend I’d go snare birds in the forest behind the train station.”

“Can we believe Botak? He is just a child. He can’t be a witness.” Wak Seman seemed doubtful.

“What if it was true? We can’t just remain silent. When he did the same to Yam, he got away with it. He really made her suffer. Yam eventually went back to Johor to hide her shame. Timah is only ten, just like our Ngah. Take pity on her. Let’s ask Timah tomorrow. I will ask her to come by.” Her mother had decided on a plan.

Kak Hasnah was crying nonstop.

“What time does Osman usually return home at night?” asked Wak Seman. Kak Hasnah’s reply could not be heard. It was drowned amid her sobs. 

The following night Mila saw Kak Hasnah in her living room again. She was panting. Perhaps due to her bulging belly. Wak Seman looked really worn out.

“Timah came by your house twice when you went out to work. Two more times, when you were home, Osman brought her to the cherry tree,” her mother explained in detail. Kak Hasnah continued crying.

“Why? What did I do wrong?” 

“You did nothing wrong. Neither did Timah. Wak Seman and I informed Timah’s parents a while ago. They almost killed Timah but luckily Wak Seman was there to calm them down. I’ve already asked them to make a report to the police, but they refused. They were ashamed and fearful.”

“Be patient, Hasnah. We will wait until you have delivered before we take action,” advised Wak Seman.

“I can no longer put up with him beating me when he comes home drunk.”

“Be patient. He has a bad temper. He’s also a notorious gangster. Do you remember when he wanted to burn my shop because I reminded him of his debts? I don’t want to go hard on him or he will torture you again,” continued Wak Seman.

“Is there no way out?”

“There is, but let’s be patient.”

“I’ve always been patient when he acts up. Can’t the villagers help me? Where are all the men in this kampong?” Kak Hasnah raised her voice.

“I approached everyone but nobody dares confront him. Neither the young nor the old. We will help you, but you have to be patient.” Wak Seman appeared small and weak. His face wrinkled. Father kept himself busy with his snare.

Mila dozed off without realizing it. She had been dancing at the foot of the Himalaya Mountains and among the Casuarina trees that night. She made snowballs together with her beautiful handmaidens as they all sang sweetly. Her blue sari was drenched in sweet-smelling sweat as she danced and played. The anklets and bells jingled to the rhythm of her lively dance. Suddenly, a monstrous creature appeared and began to chase them. They ran everywhere, dispersing helter-skelter. Mila did not manage to escape by the white horse as her legs were already being pulled firmly in the grip of the evil monster. Mila was tied to the cherry tree. The monster began to sneer, ready to swallow Mila up. Its face became more and more frightening like Abang Osman’s. Mila peed in her pants.

In the morning, Mila’s sister screamed and scolded her. There was more work for her now as she needed to wash the flattened mattress and clean the floor. Kak Ngah had already left for school.

“Mila, today you will pass by Kak Hasnah’s house again, OK?” said her mother.

“I hate it. I hate looking at that house.”


“I’m scared. I hate it.”

“Abang Osman did not scold you yesterday, did he?”

Mila shook her head. Just like Kak Hasnah, Mila used to be attracted to Abang Osman, who resembled Raj Kapoor. But ever since he first scolded her, she became afraid of him.

Mila’s mother pulled her daughter close and hugged her tight. Mila then went around the kampong with a heavy heart. She was no longer dancing. She was still haunted by her nightmare. What if Abang Osman really did turn into a monster and run after her?

Mila went off to search for Botak, whom she had previously disliked so much. She searched in the huge drain where he might be catching eels. She then went to the tapioca plantation, but Botak was nowhere to be seen. Botak’s house was dark and quiet. If Botak were at her side, she would be less terrified.

Abang Osman’s house was quiet, as usual. Mila breathed in deeply and continued to walk briskly. Good, Abang Osman is not yet awake.

The ambin of his house was just like yesterday, filled with stacks of newspapers. However, there was a pair of school shoes at his doorstep. Mila gathered the courage to take a closer look at those shoes. She stood there staring at them. She sobbed and ran as fast as she could, leaving the house far behind.

As soon as she arrived home, Mila ran straight to her mother and hugged her. She cried hard. Those shoes belonged to Kak Ngah. Mila could not understand why Kak Ngah was at Abang Osman’s house when Kak Hasnah was not there. Mila was trembling. She did not want Kak Ngah to be swallowed up by the monstrous Abang Osman.

Mila’s mother stood up in a hurry and ran to Abang Osman’s house. She asked Mila to bring Wak Seman over to Abang Osman’s house. When they reached his house, Wak Seman and Mila saw that her mother had become hysterical and was slapping Kak Ngah over and over again. She kept tugging Kak Ngah’s crumpled school uniform. Kak Ngah just looked down and cried. Her hair was a mess. Mila did not know where Kak Ngah had put her schoolbag.

“I just wanted some chocolate . . . just chocolate . . .” Kak Ngah sobbed as she was swamped with questions by her mother, who asked her over and over again why she was there.

Kak Ngah, Kak Ngah please don’t cry. I will give you some of my chocolates. We can both eat in the cherry tree. Kak Ngah, my chocolates taste better. My chocolates have wafers in them. Kak Ngah, Kak Ngah please don’t cry, Mila sobbed behind a tree in front of Kak Hasnah’s house. She wanted to hug Kak Ngah, but she felt paralyzed.

Abang Osman was shirtless, with his hands on his hips; he looked just like the demon Jin Ravana in the Ramayana. The neighbors merely observed from afar while whispering to one another. Wak Seman pointed his finger at Abang Osman’s face. Abang Osman did indeed look like the monstrous creature in her dream last night. He was horrifying.

“You’re inhuman! You don’t pity the girls. You don’t pity your wife. You’re evil, you monster!” Wak Seman shouted.

“What do you mean evil? I did not force them. They love coming here. It’s none of your business!” Abang Osman bellowed arrogantly.

“You are a beast! No human being would have done such a thing! Have you no fear of God? Have you no decency? Damn you, bastard!”

“Go to hell! I can do whatever I like. My wife still wants me. Do you have a problem with that? Get lost!”

Wak Seman grew even more incensed. He pulled up his faded kain pelikat and punched Abang Osman so hard that even he could not hold his balance. He fell to the ground, right where Abang Osman was standing. Abang Osman kicked Wak Seman ruthlessly. Wak Seman groaned in pain. Mila looked around at the people who had been observing the whole incident while praying for someone brave enough to help Wak Seman. No one dared move. With fiery eyes Abang Osman, glared at everyone there. They were petrified.

It has now been a month since Mila stopped peddling epok-epok. Nyai Kesum, the kampong midwife, had come once to her house. Her mother, Kak Ngah, and Nyai Kesum stayed in the bedroom from noon till dusk. Ever since that day, Kak Ngah no longer went to school and was also not allowed to leave the house. Kak Long was devastated when she, too, had to stop attending school. Her father just kept quiet and stared emptily into space. His trips to the end of the kampong to snare birds became more frequent. Mila’s mother had long since stopped crying, but her heart remained trapped in the waves of emotions. She had more wrinkles on her face.

It has been a month since Wak Seman closed down his shop and went back to Segamat to accompany Timah and her parents as they went to meet a prominent traditional healer. Timah and her parents had returned to the kampong but this time without Wak Seman.

Mila lay on her belly in her bedroom, organizing all the pictures of the Hindustani film stars on the floor. She counted the days until she could buy more pictures to add to her collection.

“Mila! Mila!” She heard a voice from outside her bedroom.

“What do you want?”

“Abang Osman and Kak Hasnah are fighting!”


“Near the cherry tree . . . come!”

“Near my cherry tree?”

Mila immediately ran after Botak, who was as swift as a grasshopper. All the villagers had surrounded the cherry tree as if to watch another of the magic shows that had been coming to the kampong every month. Mila followed Botak closely as they squeezed through the crowd just to get a better view, like first-class seats at a circus.

Kak Hasnah was already sprawled on the ground, wailing in pain and misery. Her pregnant belly bulged through her tattered clothes. With his thundering voice, Abang Osman cursed Kak Hasnah and hit her hard over and over again. Mila looked around. No one moved. She saw Timah in a sunflower dress not far away, crying uncontrollably. She was holding the wrapper of a Hindustani chocolate.

“You bitch! How dare you tear my clothes. I will kill you!”

“Have mercy, Abang . . . please have mercy!” pleaded Kak Hasnah.

“Enough, Osman! Have pity on her. She is pregnant,” said a trembling voice.

“I will kill you! How dare you attack me here. You insolent woman!” Abang Osman kicked the side of Kak Hasnah’s belly as hard as he could. Kak Hasnah yelped. The rip on the pocket of his shirt got bigger and three pieces of the Hindustani chocolate slipped out. Mila gasped. He bent down to pick them up. To Mila, a man as disgusting as Abang Osman did not deserve to keep chocolates wrapped in pictures of great heroes and heroines.

Kak Hasnah was still sprawled on the ground. Abang Osman continued to rage. The villagers remained quiet.

Mila could not bear to witness this anymore. It pained her to watch what had happened. Why is Kak Hasnah’s story as tragic as "Sangam"? In the end, shouldn’t the hero and heroine be united? Tears flowed down her cheeks. Standing next to her, Botak no longer grinned. His eyes, too, were filled with tears.

Mila pulled Botak and they left the cruel circus. Mila swore never to touch the Hindustani chocolates again. She would no longer go near the cherry tree. Mila just wanted to hurry home so that she could be in the arms of her Maharani. On the way home, Mila tore up the pictures of her film idols. None of them meant anything anymore. No princes had come to the rescue. There were no dance moves on hill slopes. No heroes. Botak sobbed. 


Translation © 2016 by Miranti Silasudjana, Nur Izzati Jasni, and Nurul Hannah. All rights reserved. Translated as part of Translators Lab 2015, co-organized by The Select Centre and Writers’ Centre Norwich. The Malay-to-English track was facilitated by Harry Aveling.

October 2016
In Those Days and These: Multilingual Singapore
from the October 2016 issue: In Those Days and These: Multilingual Singapore

Black Panther

Wong Koi Tet’s childless man, desperate for an heir, resorts to superstition to jack up his potency.

Ong Par had been waiting for over three hours, frozen in a squat among the chaotic shadows cast by the crisscrossing branches of the trees towering over him. One thought occupied his mind all this time: that he might not have a son to perform his last rites. He was light-headed from the smell of his own sweat mingled with the hum of the swamp insects and the humid tropical heat unique to jungles in low-lying areas. It nearly made him believe that he could see twenty years into the future, all the way to his own funeral.

He saw his wife, whom he had married when he was barely twenty, now wrinkled with the passing of the years. Whimpering softly, she inched along with the cortege of friends and neighbors, some of whom he did not recognize. They were like a loose army of ants trundling beneath a rumbling, leaking sky. Imagining this procession without an heir that would carry on his family line, Ong Par shuddered. He took a deep breath. The swampy phosphorous-tinted air bit sharply, immediately reminding him that he was in a deserted jungle in the northwest part of the island. His eyes locked on Or Soh, the fat black sow sprawled on the ground thirty yards away. Ong Par peered into the dancing shadows, hoping to see the telltale glint of light reflecting from the eyes of a black panther.

Or Soh was the size of a hippo. A nylon string around her leg tethered her to a peg that had been hammered into the cracked, dry ground. She had struggled and yowled at first, but her cries had soon turned hoarse and muddled under the burning sun. Weak and spent, she had flopped onto a tuft of grass, looking like a stack of burnt tires.

It had taken a lot of persuasion and an entire crate of beer, enough to get a few men drunk, for Ong Par to be allowed to take Or Soh out of her sty behind his cousin-in-law’s house. He had explained that the fortune-teller had suggested that proximity to a sow would imbue his wife with positive energy. But in fact, Ong Par had other plans. Ever since the panther had escaped from the zoo, it had been Or Soh’s fate to be tied up, deep in the rainforest, to be used as helpless bait.

Listening to his neighbors and chatting with fellow workers at the dock, Ong Par had managed to piece together the tale of the panther’s escape. The narrative hewed to the basic facts but did not sacrifice colorful detail. When Ong Par himself told the story, he too would sometimes get carried away in the heat of the moment, letting his imagination run wild. However, he was always careful to leave out one particular detail, which no listener would have thought to ask.

Earlier that year, he had gone to Lau Mok’s shop to buy the things needed for the Lunar New Year. The shop was small and run-down but within its plywood walls were pans, bowls, pots, and ladles, all the household wares that the villagers needed for their daily lives. This was where Ong Par learned for the first time that the government had started to clear the jungle near the village to build a ten-acre zoo. To the north and south of this area lay two reservoirs, while to the east sat a colonial housing estate and a club that admitted only the British and rich local businessmen.

“Animals locked up in cages . . . would anyone go see them?”

“I hear it’s like that in foreign countries, lots of animals, so lots of visitors.” The green veins on Lau Mok’s neck were showing. The usually poised and steady businessman was unusually excited.

“We’ve got lots of animals here, why would anyone go look at those animals?”

“All we’ve got here are cats, dogs, chickens, ducks, and filthy pigs. There, they will have tigers, grey bears, elephants, and lions. Have you ever seen those?”

Ong Par hesitated. He wanted to mention the five-foot-long crocodile he had once seen in the river near the village entrance. But he stopped himself, knowing his tale was not as impressive as the stories Lau Mok told about tigers, bears, elephants, and lions. The scar on his left ankle still hurt from the bite of a wild dog, and he could not help imagining a pack of wild animals breaking free from their cages.

“What if they get out?”

“Do you think those government officials don’t know what they’re doing? They have hired many foreign experts. Those cages are made of the best quality steel and the height of a few men. No matter how high the animals can jump, they cannot escape.” Lau Mok then started to talk about the old days when he worked on a rubber plantation in Malaysia. The surrounding forests were full of tigers, but the laborers were never afraid of them. The bolder ones even used their rubber-tapping knives to hunt the tigers, then skinned and deboned them to enjoy a tiger feast.

The villagers had heard Lau Mok’s tiger tales many times. Ong Par left the shop, raised himself on tiptoe, and stared in the direction of the impending zoo. He wondered if the appearance of such a newfangled development nearby would mean that the village’s days were numbered. Perhaps their world would change completely.

The new zoo would only officially open in the sweltering month of June but the nightmarish prophecy that had come to Ong Par so instinctively came true soon after the Lunar New Year. Prior to that, an Indian tapir and a spotted deer had escaped, drawing the concern of both the authorities and the public. This time, it was a young black panther that had just been captured in the wilderness of Siam.

In those days, the authorities still published a list of the year’s ten most wanted criminals. When the panther’s empty cage was discovered, they responded as if they were facing a similar formidable enemy. Several hundred policemen were swiftly deployed to cordon off the zoo and the surrounding forest. Countless traps were set. Dragnets were erected in the day, torches lit at night. Armed and tense policemen searched the stone ridges, low hills, and dense forests around the clock. Some people said they had not seen so many policemen enter the jungle since the extermination of the Communists. Others speculated that this was a conspiracy to stop people from going out late at night.

People talked about the escaped beast as if they had seen it with their own eyes. The animal was magnificent and wild. It could smell humans from a distance away and flee. It could disappear in the blink of an eye into a cave or up a tree, vanishing without a trace. It could even move like the wind under the cover of night and appear right beside the men who were hunting it. Each day they speculated, huddling in groups: Has the devil-like panther perhaps been captured by someone else? Or has it left the jungle to wreak havoc elsewhere?

There were reports of panther sightings and tracks every few days. The constant speculation was ready fodder for those barren times, slaking the people’s thirst for distraction. Ong Par would get an immediate update whenever his nephew Ah Kun got wind of new rumors. They would set off the following day with Ong Par loading up the cart of his delivery tricycle with ropes of different sizes and colors, several not-too-sharp knives, a three-legged stool made from pieces of discarded furniture, and a bolt of tightly rolled mosquito net, squeezed into the cramped space that also held Ah Kun and Or Soh.

Ong Par had to rely on Ah Kun as his guide, the young man mapping their route based on the descriptions of the panther sightings in the news reports. Sometimes they prowled around the catchment on the east side of the swamp. Sometimes they ventured southward near the plantations just on the edge of town or delved into the fern forests by the lake. The panther seemed to be everywhere, causing unrest. It seemed the beast could leap out at you, from nowhere.

Once, Ong Par even bought seven or eight durians weighing about five catty, saying they could be used for throwing at the panther. In the end, both of them ate up all the durians after waiting futilely for an entire afternoon, while Or Soh chewed happily on the discarded seeds.

From where he was lying in wait today, Ong Par could clearly see the nonchalant sow in his sightline and glimpse Ah Kun hiding among the rocks. The light was fading. The birds flew home as the sun set, making raspy noises as they fluttered low across the canopies of trees. Ong Par stood up to signal to Ah Kun it was time to pack up and go home, and they hoisted Or Soh onto the pull cart. Vexed by yet another wasted day, Ong Par laid the blame, as usual, on his nephew.

“You must have read the newspapers wrong. There’s nothing here at all, not even the shadow of a ghost. All your education is good for nothing.”

Ah Kun, so exhausted he could barely open his eyes, decided not to rise to the bait. After all, it was harder to catch a panther than to see a ghost. Besides, he was accustomed to being the target of his uncle’s frustrations. Ever since Ong Par started taking him on these secret expeditions, Ah Kun had not seen his uncle smile once. At first, he thought Ong Par was after the reward offered for the capture of the panther. But observing the desperation in his uncle’s eyes, he knew things were not that simple. Still, he did not dare to ask for the real reason for fear of another scolding.

Riding his tricycle home with the sun at his back, Ong Par decided to abandon this crazy panther project before his wife and the villagers caught on. This endeavor had obsessed him for weeks and they seemed to be getting suspicious of his true motives.

Ong Par had always been bothered that he could recognize only the Chinese characters of his own name but no other. Following the affair, he comforted himself that it was his ability to recognize the character “par” for “panther” that allowed him to guess what the newspaper headlines were saying.

He was the only son in the family and was a boy at a time when those around him had just survived a terrible period of war and disaster and so understood the importance of being educated. His parents had always hoped that he would at least complete primary school. On his first day of school, he had brought along his schoolbag, but when the teacher with the thick reading glasses was not paying attention, he had taken off his pristine white shoes, placed them on his seat, and snuck out, disappearing like a wisp of smoke. He had run barefoot toward the village and dashed into his house, crying and gasping.

His mother had taken the cane from its place on the wall to whip him but the harsh blows had only caused him to stop crying and stubbornly wipe the tears from his face. His father, waking from his afternoon nap, had calmly appraised the situation, taking the cane away from his wife and eyeing Ong Par, who was cringing under the table. “If he doesn’t want to study, so be it,” his father had said. “A beast of burden or a man, it’s his fate.”

That was one of the few things that Ong Par remembered his taciturn father saying to him. He also remembered how his father had once guided his hand as he traced the strokes of his name, all the while reminding him of the origin of the “par” in his name and the “haw” in his sister’s. Their names mirrored the Chinese characters in the names of the wealthy Aw brothers, and he had wanted his children’s lives to be as illustrious as theirs.

Another time, Ong Par saw his father sitting in a dark corner by the well with Widow Chen. His father had hastily removed his hand from her lap before warning Ong Par not to tell his mother. A few days later, Widow Chen had waylaid him and shoved a handful of sweets clumsily into his pocket, rubbing his head and praising him for being a good boy, as Ong Par stared at the mole at the corner of her mouth, agitating like a fly in the throes of dying.

His parents had passed away before he got married. He often said to his wife, “My father once told me that it’s fate whether one becomes a beast of burden or a man.”

After he got married, Ong Par found work at the city harbor as a coolie, carrying sacks of rice. Later, when his sister entrusted her son to him, he worked together with his nephew to unload cargo from the lighters docked at the quay. The meager pay was barely enough to live on, but still Ong Par longed for a son. His sister had determined long ago with just one look that Ong Par’s wife would not bear children, though she had never once said this out loud. After almost ten years of marriage, Ong Par and his wife had not produced any offspring.

That year, the government launched a family planning campaign. The explosion in population had been like a wild beast that had broken out of its cage. Ong Par became the butt of jokes, the uneducated man who took the lead in complying with the government’s directive. Some people even speculated about his sexual potency behind his back.

He had gone to what was considered the most efficacious temple for three days’ worth of “holy” water, but this had not worked. Then, he spent half his savings on a checkup at the hospital in town. After examining the couple, the doctor had concluded that both were healthy and suggested that perhaps their problem was due to stress. Ong Par was so incensed at wasting such a large sum of money that he stormed out of the hospital and spat onto the ground. “What a quack! How dare he say I have mental problems? He’s the one with problems!”

In his heart, Ong Par remained cocksure that he would find a solution. He never passed by an opportunity to ask for fertility tips, and this resulted in his consumption of several recommended “ancestral recipes,” all supposedly foolproof. Among the things that went down his throat were: sea turtle eggs, shells and all, procured from heaven knows where by a friend; fat frogs stolen from a farm in a neighboring village; a brimming cup of steaming blood that had gushed from a python sold by a rural slaughterhouse; and all kinds of obscure roots and barks. These superstitious remedies occasionally left him battling diarrhea for an entire day and did nothing to temper his anxiety and confusion about the future.

Perhaps he had been more affected by what the doctor said than he was willing to admit. When it came to his marital duties, Ong Par was never in the mood anymore. Even when desire occasionally reared its head and nagged at him deep in the night, Ong Par preferred to get out of bed, gulp down some cold water, and go back to sleep. Of course, his wife started to realize that things were not quite right and even lost her temper once. Ong Par had moved as if to strike her but someone paying attention could not have missed the anguished self-reproach in his bellow: “Can’t make a baby anyway, what’s the point of doing it?”

It had occurred to Ong Par that he could try to follow his father’s example and find himself a mistress, or at least a cockwarmer. Even if he could not get a son out of the affair to carry on the family name, it would prove that he could still get things done in that area. He really thought he had exhausted all means until his friend Ban from the warehouse reminded him that there was a ritual he had not tried yet. But how on earth was he to find an animal’s penis? This question caused Ong Par quite a few sleepless nights.

“Any animal will do?” There was a sudden gleam in Ong Par’s eyes, as if he had sighted prey emerging from the fog.

“A fierce one is preferred. The more savage it is, the more powerful its thing will be, and that will definitely work better.”

Ban sounded so confident that Ong Par trusted him entirely. One night when he could not sleep, he strolled to the entrance of the village to have a smoke. His gaze lingered on the stray dogs scavenging for food. These dogs have spent too much time around humans, he thought. They have been tamed into submission and have lost their natural aggression. He found himself inexplicably panting, like how he had panted all those years ago when he ran away from school.

Only when news broke that a black panther escaped from the zoo did Ong Par realize that his prayers to the village’s earth deity had been answered. The first time he led the clueless Ah Kun into the jungle, Ong Par had even slaughtered a chicken first to give thanks at the temple. He asked the gods to protect him and give him courage so he could capture this ferocious beast alive and cut off the thing that protruded from its lower abdomen, hanging between its powerful hind legs.

Once the deed was done, he would follow the instructions he had been given on how to brew and bottle it, and consult a fortune-teller to choose an auspicious date to uncork the concoction and down it all. Then, after an amorous tussle, he would plant an Ong family seed in his wife’s belly, and they would have an heir to honor them and bring them offerings after their death, saving them from a fate of becoming a pair of lonely forsaken ghosts.

Not long after Ong Par ended his efforts to capture the panther and its penis, the zoo announced its opening. Ah Kun found a new job as a clerk and Or Soh gave birth to ten piglets. Ong Par adamantly refused to visit the zoo, and he was equally resolved not to touch his wife. A sourness lingered in his heart, and he could not forget that elusive black panther.

But time heals all, and the black panther that had struck fear into everyone’s hearts was no exception. The memory of the beast began to fade. Some believed it had perished in the jungle, or swum across the straits to a neighboring shore. Then suddenly one night, the panther came roaring back.

Almost a year after its disappearance, police found the animal in a canal near the race track. It had tried to shrink into the shadows but could not repeat its feat of melting into the night. The policemen started a fire on one end of the canal and set up a net on the other end, trying to force the panther to run into the trap. They even fired their guns several times over the canal.

But the panther’s wild nature had rekindled during its escape. It refused to budge, choosing to die rather than surrender and was burned alive a few hours after the standoff began.

The next evening, everyone gathered at Lau Mok’s shop to read the newspapers. The story of how the fearsome beast perished in the ambush was splashed across several pages. In the photographs, the animal lay on its back in the canal. Its stiff carcass had to be removed with a crane. Lau Mok said it was a pity that the panther had not managed to get farther away and had to end up dying like this; the authorities had had it in for the animal from the very beginning. The others chimed in, chewing over every detail, as if they were savoring a great upheaval that marked the end of an era. Only Ong Par pressed closer to the newsprint, scrutinizing the dead panther in the photographs.

“Why can’t I see anything?”

“What can’t you see?”

“Where is his thing, down there?” Ong Par picked up the newspaper and flipped through the pages with great agitation, his complexion taking on a greenish hue as if he were tangled in jungle foliage. Everyone looked at him, trying to get an inkling of what was going on. It was a laughing Lau Mok who solved the puzzle first.

“It’s female, how could there be anything down there?”

Ong Par stood on the sidelines while everyone else continued their heated discussion. Suddenly, the familiar sounds of the jungle began to reverberate all around him, enveloping him in the murmurings of its creatures. He felt as if he was turning into something completely alien.

That night, Ong Par got into bed after drinking himself into a stupor, waking his wife. Before she could launch into a tirade, he started to paw at her and she found herself pinned beneath his weight. She could smell the alcohol fumes coming off him, then came a hoarse cry like the keening of a broken beast. Ong Par’s wife came to know once more his bestial nature, and a year after the death of the black panther, the couple and their two-month-old son made their first visit to the zoo.


© Wong Koi Tet. Translation © 2016 by Hong Xinyi, Lee Chee Keng, and Tina Sim. All rights reserved. Translated as part of Translators Lab 2015, co-organized by The Select Centre and Writers’ Centre Norwich. The Chinese-to-English track was facilitated by Shelly Bryant.

October 2016
In Those Days and These: Multilingual Singapore
from the October 2016 issue: In Those Days and These: Multilingual Singapore

Malay Literature in the Wave of Singapore’s Cosmopolitanism

This piece is an edited and revised excerpt from Singapore Malay literary doyen Masuri S.N.'s paper “New Malay Literature in the Wave of Singapore’s Cosmopolitanism,” delivered in Malaysia in 1982. Singapore had separated from Malaysia just seventeen years prior to that, but the differences in the Malay-language literature of the two neighbors had already become apparent due to the different trajectories of their social and economic development. While the author writes about the Malay literary scene in particular, the larger processes of globalization, urbanization, and modernization that shaped Malay literary production also had a major role in influencing the larger cultural sphere in Singapore, especially the island’s vernacular literatures.—Dan Feng Tan 

Prior to the separation of Singapore and Malaysia in 1965, literary works produced by Singapore Malay writers were seen as “Malaysian literature,” a perception that persisted until the early 1970s. Even after the split, writers on the island still saw themselves as part of the larger Malaysian writing community due to the common language used.

Many Malay writers who had pioneered and influenced the literary scene in Singapore had chosen to move to Malaysia before the separation. Among the writers who were born in Singapore and who chose to remain, there was a resolve to continue to engage in creative writing as one body of Malay literature in its widest possible meaning. In Malaysia, newspapers and magazines published columns by Singapore Malay writers, especially between 1965 and 1969. Malay works on both sides of the straits were virtually indistinguishable in terms of form, theme, or style. It was only in the early 1970s that differences became apparent, due to the impact the different systems of governance had on language, the economy, society, education, and culture.

Singapore is a city-state located at the crossroads between East and West, exposing it to the world’s cultures. In the early 1970s, with the advancement of science and technology, the country underwent rapid transformation. To ensure its survival and growth, the government focused on industrial development, zoning various parts of the island for heavy and light industry. The government’s economic policy of encouraging foreign investment brought many multinational corporations to Singapore. Many new factories, especially those engaged in electronics manufacturing, were built. This provided jobs for the new graduates churned out each year. In addition, the government’s education policy emphasized training in English, mathematics, science, and a second language. There was a focus on turning out students fluent in at least two languages and bilingual ability was made a requirement for entry into university.

Other than focusing on economic development and industrial expansion, the government also placed much emphasis on housing the island’s population, a task that it carried out with great efficiency. High-rise public housing with comprehensive amenities was constructed. Over a short span of time, most villages were demolished and well-planned modern housing projects took their place.

All of this led to fundamental changes in the way of life of the island’s residents, regardless of their ethnic, linguistic, or cultural backgrounds. The Malay community, especially those who had lived in the zinc- and attap-roofed houses—such as those in the kampongs of Geylang Serai, Pasir Panjang, Radin Mas, Bedok, and Air Gemuruh—were resettled in the new housing estates. Most of the kampongs had residents that came from a single ethnic group. Many of the former rural residents now had to get used to living with neighbors of other ethnic communities. Gradually, they acquired a new way of life from their exposure to the common experiences shared by other Singaporeans across the island. They became used to life in a cosmopolitan city.

In the early 1970s, there emerged a new group of writers in their twenties. They had graduated from secondary schools that used the Malay language as the medium of instruction. Among the new breed of writers were Djamal Tukimin, Mohamed Latiff Mohamed, Nor Yusman A. Majid, Noorhidayat, and Ajaki. Their outlook and attitudes differed from the writers who emerged in the 1950s and 1960s, but we can see in them the legacies of the earlier writers. They were active in producing new works and often met informally to discuss literature. They also invited young poets from Malaysia to Singapore for regular poetry recitals.

This group of poets who began writing from the early 1970s got their start in a period when literature was disintegrating. Writing an authentic poem is difficult because the art of poetry is closely linked to finding solace in the midst of the noise of a city. The conditions of modern life make it almost impossible for a poet to achieve this state that is so critical to the creative process. While many new poems were produced during this period, an analysis shows that they were mainly responses to urban living on a cosmopolitan island. The poems are not dissimilar to poetry written in other cosmopolitan cities of the world.

It’s worth looking at some of this poetry’s more significant features here. First, with the advent of this poetry, the poet adopts his individual self as the starting point, that is, his own experiences. In my opinion, this stems from the pressure that the poet experiences within himself, which causes a psychological crisis, emerging as a main theme in the crafting of the poetry. The poet writes not for satisfaction or ambition, but because of a compulsion to write. These writers generally fall within the “romantic aesthetic” category. That is, they try to find their Self in the process of writing. Because what they experience or observe in reality is dark and depressing (unlike what they perceive in their imagination), their poems are a continuous struggle to appraise the authenticity of their feelings in confronting the discouraging realities of the world.

The young poets of this generation regard the writing of poetry as an artistic endeavor, meaning that their works must be based on freedom, authenticity, and criticality. They are individualistic in assessing deeper meanings beyond the surface. The poems are usually critiques of the problems they see within their own culture. At the center or the starting point of these poems lie the poet’s perceived victimhood by his culture and the political state. Hence, the poet becomes a kind of “cultural hero,” although perceived in the negative. The poet struggles to write poems that tell the Truth while confronting the issues that have victimized his community. But sometimes, the poet fights for art as a main source. Such poems usually have three characteristics. They draw connections through implications; they believe that the quality of artistic works can be judged by the concerns raised in them; and they show a deeper interest in the root causes of a perceived problem. The poet writes his poetry as a shield against the alienation experienced as human society and ways of life change under the impact of science and technology. Hence, the poems often involve Islam and an emphasis on faith in Allah. Often, the poems protest against injustices and express a desire for improvements to be made to the social, political, and other spheres of modern life.

In general, Singapore Malay poetry written in the early 1970s would feature one or more of these themes. However, one could observe differences in the thoughts and attitudes of the individual poets as they strove to develop their own identities.

Even though there were disagreements between younger and older writers due to differences in outlooks and perceptions about observing and exalting the human condition, these were never entrenched nor did this stop the flow of new creative works, particularly in the poetry and short story genres. Regrettably, there has not been any scholarly or comprehensive study that charts the continuity between the writers in the eras of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.

Thus, a new Malay literature gradually emerged in accord with the wider general conditions of Singapore society. After 1970, Singapore became an industrial society synonymous with the experience of an abstract society: human consciousness had become abstract. Clearly, the writers were “new beings” that could give life to society while experiencing society in a detached manner; Singapore is a pluralistic society, comprised of citizens of different ethnic backgrounds, with the Chinese making up seventy-five percent of the population and the Malays and Muslims making up thirteen percent. Indian and Singaporeans of other origins compose the rest; the government of Singapore recognizes English, Chinese, Malay, and Tamil as the official languages of the country; the education policy of Singapore allows schools that provide education in the four official languages. Every major ethnic group in Singapore—that is, Chinese, Malay, and Indian—has the freedom to develop their own culture.

Understanding the above allows us to better understand the development and progress of the new Malay literature in Singapore. Overall, Singaporeans today enjoy a better life. Singaporeans are more prosperous in the material sense. However, when we look at the development of culture, especially literature and, more specifically, new Malay literature, we see worrying signs.

With a higher standard of living, Malay Singaporeans in particular have become less interested in culture, especially literature. Those who are interested are mainly cultural organizations such as Majlis Pusat (a conglomeration of Malay organizations in Singapore), ASAS ’50, Perkumpulan Sriwana (focusing on dance), Perkumpulan Seri Kemuning and Kelab Panggung Negara (focusing on drama and theatre). These drama groups organize regular performances but see lukewarm responses.

The Singapore Malay community has become more focused on issues that advance material comfort. At the same time, community support or positive encouragement of literature is wanting. Writers have to struggle on their own, whether in terms of literary creation, activities, or even appreciation.

Given that many parents now choose to send their children to English-medium schools, it is very likely that we will see a decline in the number of people who have an interest in, and who are able to, appreciate Malay-language works. There is a small audience for new Malay literature in Singapore and it is difficult to integrate Malay literature into the wider society. There is a shortage of literary critics who are serious in analyzing and critically assessing the works of Malay writers; and it is difficult even for important and substantive works by Malay writers in Singapore to be published and showcased because of a shortage of willing publishers.

The younger English-educated generation express themselves better in English and have a stronger command of the language compared to their mother tongues, especially in areas related to culture and literature.

While I have described some worrying signs, that does not mean that I am in despair over the future of Malay literature in the face of the wave of cosmopolitanism that has swept the city-state of Singapore. This is especially so if we understand that the language of literature is deeply spiritual and not something where the benefits can be immediately seen.

I believe that cosmopolitanism will have both positive and negative effects on new Malay literature. One positive effect is that the Malays in Singapore, in being part of a pluralistic and cosmopolitan society that is exposed to the different cultures of the world, will be exposed to new experiences that can become basic ingredients in the production of their own literary works. In other words, with an exposure to and an appreciation of world cultures, there is the possibility of a deeper Malay literature that is strong in expression and that deals with the conditions of all humanity. On the other hand, there is a risk, in my opinion, that an inferiority complex may develop within the Singapore Malays, because the community is a minority in a cosmopolitan country. A sense of inadequacy could develop when interacting directly with other cultures or a way of life that is based on science and technology that is always in a hurry and rapidly changing. If such an inferiority complex takes root, Malays could be drowned in the wave of cosmopolitan urban life without being able to shine with their own unique identities. This will lead to literary works that are rife with self-pity and that wallow in anguish while begging for sympathy.

Based on what I have described above, I feel that there are many obstacles to the development of a new Malay literature in Singapore. For example, how do we cultivate an audience for the future? How do we protect works that have literary value? How do we compete with the popular entertainment magazines and popular novels that are mass-produced and draw a wide audience? And how do we find and plant the seeds for new writing talent so that the Malay literary tradition in Singapore can continue? To me, what is more difficult is how to raise the people’s consciousness with regard to the importance of having a cultural life (in the literary sense), one that is an integral part of them to the extent that they do not regard literature as solely the responsibility of writers.

Edited and condensed version by Dan Feng Tan of Masuri S.N.’s “New Malay Literature in the Wave of Singapore’s Cosmopolitanism,” 1982. All rights reserved.

October 2016
In Those Days and These: Multilingual Singapore
from the October 2016 issue: In Those Days and These: Multilingual Singapore

The Visitor

KTM Iqbal considers the inevitable.

You shroud us
in magic.
Wrapping you around us,
we vanish,
one by one.

You alone
can unravel
life’s tight knots.

You are not
but an awakening.

Eternal life begins
for all
who embrace you.

O death,
who ends all our deaths,
beloved guest.

All of us
to receive you, 
serving our lives.

© KTM Iqbal. Translation © 2016 by Kavitha Karuum. All rights reserved. Translated as part of Translators Lab 2015, co-organized by The Select Centre and Writers’ Centre Norwich. The Tamil-to-English track was facilitated by Subashree Krishnaswamy and Lakshmi Holmstrom.

October 2016
In Those Days and These: Multilingual Singapore
from the October 2016 issue: In Those Days and These: Multilingual Singapore


KTM Iqbal reflects on the condition of being a writer

With aching hands 
I walk 
the paper journey 
just to catch your eye. 

I strike out, rewrite 
just to earn a good name from you. 
Page after page, I tear out 
just so you will not tear me up. 

I write 
just so I can read you. 

In the bookstores, 
not only my books, 
but you are there too. 

Don’t search for me 
on the cover—
that is my mask. 

© KTM Iqbal. Translation © 2016 by Sulosana Karthigasu. All rights reserved. Translated as part of Translators Lab 2015, co-organized by The Select Centre and Writers’ Centre Norwich. The Tamil-to-English track was facilitated by Subashree Krishnaswamy and Lakshmi Holmstrom.

October 2016
In Those Days and These: Multilingual Singapore
from the October 2016 issue: In Those Days and These: Multilingual Singapore

Hauntings: International Ghost Stories

Halloween, once the province of preteens on sugar highs and the occasional minor vandal, has morphed in the last few years into the second most profitable retail holiday in the US after Christmas, as adults transformed from mere spectators into gleeful participants. With the persistent encroachment of American culture, much of the world has also embraced the holiday. (Interestingly, this corresponds to the increasing number of young adult books being read by fully grown people.) As you might expect, we’re observing Halloween with the theme of this month’s feature; but while the supernatural and the otherworldly might be foregrounded in this season, ghosts and all they represent lurk perennially in the universal consciousness and in literature around the world.    

In their most frequent appearances in folklore and fiction, ghosts appear as shadowy versions of their former selves. Some consider ghosts to be spirits trapped on Earth because of unfinished business, unable to transition to the afterlife until adding final punctuation to their lives. Two of the stories here feature the dead returning in corporeal form. The world is haunted as much by events as by the lingering spirits of those involved in them, and the third story details a survivor’s determination to report the shocking brutality of a political prison and memorialize its victims.

Malagasy writer Johary Ravaloson’s “Water in the Rice Fields, up to My Knees!” riffs on the urban legend of the vanishing hitchhiker. (After the 2011 nuclear disaster in Japan, a number of cabdrivers in the devastated Ishinomaki area reported picking up spectral passengers who disappeared in the course of the ride.) A cabdriver on the highway outside the capital, Tananariva, is approached by a bedraggled woman, clearly urban but now covered in mud and muck. She tells him she fell in the flooded rice fields and asks for an address that no longer exists. Spooked, he ejects her from his cab mid-drive, only to have her reappear hailing his cab, her decomposition more advanced with each ride. Her brief time in the backseat of the cab imbues it with such a stench that potential passengers flee, rendering it suitable for only the persistent unwelcome rider.

Japanese poet Takako Arai’s “Wheels” involves another unvanquishable ghost, who literally left work undone. A worker in a weaving factory who went mad and died at her spinning wheel assumes the form of a snake slithering through the childhood bedroom of the narrator and her sister. Though at first the phantom reptile seems to be the older sister’s attempt to frighten the younger girl, it takes on a life of its own. Arai’s father owned a factory adjacent to the family home, and many of Arai’s poems recount episodes relating to the lives of the women workers that she observed there as a child. Autobiographical or not, the poem confirms the staying power and effect of frightening childhood memories.

Aziz BineBine was released from Morocco’s infamous Tazmamart prison after serving eighteen years for his involvement in the 1971 coup d’état against King Hassan II. Over half of his fellow prisoners died in the brutal conditions. His memoir recounts the death of a prisoner whose body traps another man underneath his corpse in the jammed cell. The second man survives the gruesome night, but bears the emotional weight of the events long after his physical ordeal ends. BineBine documented the prison’s horrors to honor the friends and comrades lost; but he remains haunted by his imprisonment, and by the broken bodies and spirits left in its wake.

The great British ghost story writer M. R. James laid out the requirements for a successful tale, all in the service of creating a “pleasing terror” in the reader. We hope you find that these three examples of the form both terrify and satisfy.


© 2016 by Susan Harris. All rights reserved.

October 2016
In Those Days and These: Multilingual Singapore
from the October 2016 issue: In Those Days and These: Multilingual Singapore

Water in the Rice Fields up to My Knees!

Malagasy writer Johary Ravaloson riffs on the urban legend of the vanishing hitchhiker. 


It happened in November. A sticky night, relieved by crisp poststorm air. I was waiting for passengers under a streetlight in Ampasampito, near the cemetery, when I heard squelch-squelch on the pavement. I looked up from my notebook and saw a faltering shadow stumble into the circle of light. Slathered with mud, her feet and wedge heels forming thick, slimy boots, the woman lurched frantically toward me, squick-squicking. She looked like she’d probably cut an elegant figure, one of the elite, before falling into a sewer. Her legs and hands, her raincoat, her face and hair were stained with grime. I locked my taxi, quick as a flash. Absolutely not, I couldn’t. Left my window open, though.

“Help me, please help me! Take me to Andraharo!”

“Wherever you’d like to go, ma’am,” I said, “as soon as you’ve cleaned all that off.”

“I’ll give you a hundred thousand!”

“There’s a pump on the corner.”

“Alohalika ny ranom-bary e!”

Water in the rice fields, up to my knees! I said nothing, just pointed to the street corner. Water in the rice fields, up to your knees: it suffocates young plants and destroys any hope of a harvest. But by this season, the rice plants were mature enough to survive that level of water. Frightened squelch-squelching toward the pump. Almost kinda sexy, actually. Keeping tabs on the operations in my rearview mirror, I realized how weird it was, that old-timey raise-the-alarm phrase coming from the woman’s lips. She was a city girl, even with the splotches of mud on her calves.

“Show me your hundred,” I said, when she got back from her rush scrubbing job. She pulled ten out of her splotchy handbag.

“I can give you thirty now, and my husband will give you the rest when we get there.”

I paused. Something moved on the other side of the intersection.

“Alohalika ny ranom-bary e!”

I looked at her and said nothing. Antananarivo really was that close to the fields, then. Deciding abruptly, I opened the door for her. The cold stench of damp earth gusted into the car with her. More activity around the edges of the light, but the shadows seemed unwilling to come any closer. I started the engine, turned on the headlights, and they disappeared.

“Where in Andraharo, ma’am?”

“Across from the gas station.”

“There aren’t any houses there, though!”

“My husband is at his office, he’s working late.”

“Your husband works late? What is he, a taxi driver?”

I laughed aloud at my stupid little joke. Then, slowly, her silence dampened my spirits. At any rate, I thought, even for thirty thousand, it’d be worth it. I rolled along, no rush, and snuck glances back at her every time that there was enough light.

“What really happened to you? You’re not exactly . . . dressed for the rice fields.”

She stayed silent, rummaged around in her bag. She fiddled with her phone, then met my eyes in the rearview mirror and decided against making a call.

Finally, she admitted, “I fell down in the rice field. I . . . I had to, well, let’s say . . . I really had to relieve myself. I stopped on the dike road, I . . . There were cars passing, with their headlights on, I climbed down further than I wanted to and I fell down. I lost my car keys in the mud. I tried getting people to stop, but they all sped up as soon as they saw me.”


That was months ago.

And then, tonight, I see her again step into the illuminated circle beneath the light post where I park. Squick-squick, covered with just as much mud as before. It can’t be, this can’t happen. I jump out of the car.

“Alohalika ny ranom-bary e!”

Stunned by cold and surprise, I don’t know what to say. My pupils are probably dilated. No mud boots on her, this time, but dirt-encrusted pumps that she holds in her hands, shivering in the frigid night. She was probably wearing all black before she fell—blazer, skirt, hose, and overcoat, now all smeared with mud that’s somewhere between dark red and brownish green.

“Alohalika ny ranom-bary e!” she says again.

I don’t have the heart to send her to wash up at the pump. I open the door for her. She slumps down onto the backseat. I spread my Chinese-made synthetic blanket over her. That smell . . . She didn’t fall down in a rice field.

“To Andraharo, ma’am?”

Is she nodding, or is her face drooping? She seems overly weary under the blanket. Fingers on the ignition, I ask her, “What’s all this about?” She rummages halfheartedly under the blanket, too slowly. She stretches out her too-slow, too-muddy hand to give me new, spotless bills. I don’t like that. I let off the brakes, let off the clutch.

I’ll still watch her out of the corner of my eye. But, I mean, it’s not going to be much help. I’m not going to ask her anything like: “Would you like me to take you to the hospital?” She’s obviously not that kind of woman. Or not anymore, if you know what I mean. Just have to keep calm.

Roundabout. Cobblestone cemetery road. The streets are empty. I speed up.

She’s saying something to me, her lips are moving ever so slightly in the rearview mirror. Andravoahangy. Ankorondrano. Route du Pape. Antohomadinika. She doesn’t really utter a full sentence through the entire trip. And I’m charging into the cold, yellow light.

Rue d’Andraharo. Then the gas station. I slam on the brakes.

She opens her mouth again, and I don’t give her time to repeat it. Why’s she bugging me with this thing? I throw her out of the car and take off. Like a shot. When the water gets that high in this season, they open the floodgates, so the water can run out to the ocean. I step on the gas. Probably at Antanimena by the time she gets to the middle of her sentence.

I reach the train station, Avenue de l’Indépendance. She’s probably at “knees.” I shiver. From cold or fear? Not even a dog around to watch the city’s fairytale fountains. Stop under the first streetlight. I get out of the car. Walk around it three times. And three times the other way. Sit on the warm bumper of my old clunker.

Soon, another taxi will pull up. The driver will say hello. He’ll ask if I want a drink. Because I’m thirsty. What’s he asking? I can’t understand what he’s saying, but I hear his voice, a woman’s voice.

It says, “Alohalika ny ranom-bary e!”

I open my eyes. I’m alone under the streetlight. It shows me real life, a calm reality. I stand up. Jump as my hands touch the cooled, moist hood. The decorative fountains in front of City Hall hum behind their gates. I scramble into the car. Twice as relieved to get back under my blanket. I wrap it around my body up to my ears, before settling down in my seat. One hand kept free to reach the thermos.

The pool stops gurgling. The lights shining on City Hall also go out. It must be midnight. I didn’t get any fares all evening. A shadow lurches behind the light. Squelch-squelching toward my taxi.

I drop the lemongrass infusion and take off. Like the wind.

Alohalika ny ranom-bary e!


Sitting on the biggest chair, a beer in my hand and Talking Heads in my ears, I rub my stomach watching her work the grill. She’s making masikita kebabs. I came downstairs as soon as I smelled the aroma wafting into the room. Now I’m in the big armchair. The TV is on, but I turned off the sound. Silent broadcasters are hilarious. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s like they’re not there, not a single one of them in that damn box. But you know what’s happening. Nothing changes from yesterday. The same faces in different places, or sometimes even the same places. A silent track. I picture Mike Brant crooning Qui saura. She pulls my headphones off and asks what I’m laughing at.

“The TV’s on mute!”

“You’re dumb,” she says.

Still, she leaves a few pieces of kebab for me. What a taste! I rub my stomach in anticipation as David Byrne’s voice in my ears asks where is that large automobile? . . . my beautiful house! . . . my beautiful wife!

None of it’s real! My car’s a clunker that I lease at night, my house is a bed that I can only spend time in during the day, and my wife’s a daydream that I chase through my notebooks beneath the city’s street lamps.

Nothing’s real except the smell of the kebabs. I’d stopped by when I smelled the familiar aroma of zebu meat fried in the fat from its hump. As a bonus, I get to take advantage of the heat from the brazier.

“Give me five,” I say to the kebab lady, “Come on. Six! Seven! Seven for the price of six!” She smiles, counts what she has left. “Ten for the price of ten, will that work?” My smile drops. I sigh, “Six’ll be fine.”

I try picking up the chair to scoot it closer to the fire. It weighs a ton. Packing pallets tied to a set of rims. I guess I’ll just stand near the fire. It’s not that much warmer.

“It’s cold, the charcoal’s not burning good, it’s not crispy enough,” she says.

“It’ll be fine.”

“Oh, is it you? Yes, you. I recognize you. Stop looking behind you, you’re the one I’m talking to.”

“Uh . . . ”

“You’re the taxi guy that drove the dead woman around. My boys know you real well. They wash your car. The first time, when you got back from Andraharo, you stopped here. I was there. They washed your car, they always talk about the smell.”

“Uh . . . ”

“Why’d you do that? Why’d you agree to let her get in your car? You don’t get any fares anymore, you know. You don’t even have enough money for ten measly masikita!”

I’d sat down on the irregular chair at the first word. The cold is seeping into me as it all tumbles around in my head, making my limbs and my whole body numb. Stiff as a lifeless sculpture. I can’t unclench my teeth, even if I wanted to answer. Frozen, like when I see her. Except that she directs my actions like a marionette. So, other people can see her, too. And they see me when I drive her all the way across Tana. Like a child, I had closed my eyes and thought I was invisible.

“Do you want some peanut sauce? Or chili?”

I’ve got to shake myself out of this. Concentrate on the masikita smell. Nice, warm thoughts. A Friday night outing behind Mahamasina where a client will keep me for the night and share his feast with me in the taxi. I just have to ask. The bottle of rum I used to share with Ra-Eddy before he left to claim his own corner in the sun, down south in Sapphire City. My mother’s masikita that she’d buy on the way home from work, that we’d reheat over the fire and gobble down with soasoa rice that was cooked at the end of the afternoon, kept warm under blankets, as soft as can be.

“Peanut, yes, chili, yes,” I say too forcefully, released at last. “ . . . She’s not dead.”

“Not dead? Ha ha ha! You’re the only one who sees her in flesh and blood. The rest of the world just sees her as flesh and mud! Ha ha ha! You’re driving a dead lady around!”

“She’s not a dead person. I take her to her husband’s office in Andraharo.”

“Have you ever seen her husband? What’s he look like?”

Masikita. Bathed in spicy peanut sauce. Mmmm. Some warm bread would be perfect. The kind that’s fresh out of the bakery first thing in the morning. Sometimes my clients give me a piece. I’ve never seen her husband. As soon as she gets out of the car, I clear off, I don’t ask for the rest of the money.

“It doesn’t matter, she’s not dead. She talks, she says things to me!”

“What does she say?”

“She said that there was water in the rice fields, up to your knees. Alohalika ny ranom-bary e!

“Ha ha ha! That’ll do her a hell of a lot of good! Since when do dead people care about rice? There are never any tombs underneath rice fields!”

“Hey, listen, one of my wife’s cousins, her grandfather appeared to her in her sleep and warned her about the same thing, and when they opened his tomb, it was all flooded from a crack inside!”

“Yeah, but he didn’t ask for a taxi ride!”

“Ha ha ha!”

Who are all these people around me? The masikita are getting cold. The fat’s congealed, and it’s scraping uncomfortably against my tongue. Why are they shouting like that? The chili’s not heating up my palate at all. Why are they all looking at me? The sauce is getting thick. Why are they laughing?

“Alohalika ny ranom-bary e!”

“Ha ha ha!”

“You don’t remember anything, do you?”

“What was it that happened? She appeared, squelch-squelch, covered in mud, was that it?”

“Ha ha ha!”

“You didn’t stop!”

“I was at the taxi stop, under my streetlight.”

“Ha ha ha, no, we’re talking about the first time. You didn’t stop, did you?”

“What are you talking about?”

“The first time, when she fell in the rice fields and climbed out onto the big dike next to the river, all covered in mud, asking for help, you didn’t stop.”

“She was yelling, ‘Alohalika ny ranom-bary e!’”

“But did you see her? No one would have let her get in their car looking like that.”

“She was beautiful!”

“She’d be gorgeous without all that mud!”

“Ha ha ha, a gorgeous corpse! Ha ha ha!”

“She’s not dead!”

“She’s more dead than dead. Left alone on that dike, abandoned by everyone, knocked down in a rice field. She died of that. Ever since, she’s been begging us to take her to Andraharo. You’re not the only one she asks.”


“You’re not the only one she relays her message to, either.”

“Oh yeah? You, too?”

Alohalika ny ranom-bary e!


Ten p.m. and not a single passenger. Read the whole paper. Headlines to classifieds. Nothing new outside the glowing halo beneath my streetlight. The daytime driver who left it in my clunker could have just as easily held onto it to keep himself warm. The nights are still chilly. The transitional government’s transacting. Grasshoppers are spawning. Murders and robberies give way to murders and robberies. Lots of people have been blessed with favors from the Sacred Heart (I stopped counting after seventeen and turned away from the page filled with thanks notices). Lots of used SUVs have arrived by boat, but that doesn’t make them any cheaper. So I guess tomorrow still won’t be the day that I’ll sit behind the power windows of my SUV and never see the random glances of children in the streets again. Oh well! Still waiting to pay today’s lease on my 4L (I have to do at least three trips). On the financial page, the World Bank tells me I’m not the only one. In fact, I’m one of many. Ninety-two people out of a hundred have less than the average taxi fare every day. No wonder I don’t have any passengers! Widespread poverty clogs the arteries of the city and plows the rice fields. Wrap yourself up tight in the paper and wait for something better.

Something moves in the side mirror. A young couple walks into the light. They come toward me. I smile at my good luck. They climb into the back on my side, I say good evening, they frown, shake their heads and climb out the other door. The two doors smack shut like a slap across both cheeks.

I rub my face, I don’t even have time to process what happened when the door opens again. The not-passenger. “Sorry!” he spits out, leaving a thousand-ariary bill on the seat and taking off again, fleeing me like I’m a curse. Smack again.

I get out when the coffee man comes by. I tell him he’d better wash a cup good and clean for me. He laughs and obeys. We swap stories around his brazier cart. He laughs when I tell him I haven’t had any passengers. He takes off without getting his cup back and before I can pay him. I laugh, too, when I realize it. I savor the last sip of my free coffee as long as possible.

Then, I see her coming into the circle of light. There’s a dog in front of her. She’s already grabbing the handle.

“Where do you think you’re going like that, ma’am?”

“Over to the Place du 13 Mai.”

“ . . . That doesn’t exist anymore,” I say.

Even if I’d wanted to quickly hop in and lock the car, the dog’s weaving around my legs. Smack. She’s already forcing a smile at me through the window. She turns toward me, inviting me to stare at her hollowing face.

“Do I look like someone who wishes to go to a place that does not exist?” she inquires, purulent strips dropping from her cheeks, her neck, with every word.

I take my seat at the wheel and start off. Toward the Place de l’Amour, since that’s what they rechristened the square in front of City Hall. I try to say something, to prepare her. “It’s changed, you know . . . ”

I stare at her in the rearview mirror. I peer into the middle of the small rectangle, focusing on the light deep within her eyes.

“There’s a big pool and jets of water—it’s a fountain now.”

“A fountain? What a good idea, water for everyone!” She perks up, her eyes shining.

“No. There are gates.”

“There are gates?”

“You can’t actually get in, you just look at it.”

The light in the rectangle blinks.

“But it’s pretty!” I’m almost shouting. “The jets of water are choreographed with color-changing lights, they turn white, purple, red, green, and blue.”

It’s getting weaker and weaker. My words are what seem to be holding her above the water, like wax holding a tiny flame at the end of a wick.

“It’s wonderful! Families gather around the gates on Sundays. People come from all over the country to see Antananarivo’s fairytale. Country folk who might not know that running water exists, they just stand there, dumbfounded by the leaping fountains. They have their picture taken in front of them. Even I go sometimes. It’s like the pool’s sleeping, then it wakes up in a bunch of sparkling, humming springs, a magical sight with huge jets of water. I could watch it forever, pressed up against the bars of the cage, dreaming up a new life to replace my own. The sun sparkles in the spray, the water cools the surrounding air, the close city smoke feels a little more breathable . . . Ma’am? Ma’am! Are you OK? Do you want me to take you to Andraharo? To your husband’s office?”

She opens her eyes, and murmurs, her lips barely moving: “Please, take me to the Place du 13 Mai.”

We’re on our way. You don’t meet a lot of people in the dead of night. She sags into the corner of the backseat. I adjust the mirror to keep an eye on her, forget that I’m supposed to go under the Andravoahangy Bridge. Concentrate on driving. A few furtive nocturnal shadows let themselves be caught in the headlights. Three figures pissing into Behoririka Lake. Cops on the Rue de Pochard, but they don’t wave me over. Soon, we’re hurtling past the train station. Only half of City Hall is lit up. The water gurgles in the dim light. I park facing the fountains to give them more light. I cast a quick “We’re here!” behind me.

I slip into the yellow beams and pass through the gates with a daydream woman. Daytime, under the warm spring sun. We’ll walk right up to the pool. The woman will play in the droplets that rain down on her. I’ll scold her a bit like a child. She’ll laugh, twirling around on the paving stones. I’ll tell her to be careful. She won’t let anybody boss her around. Right when the jets of water shoot upward to form a tower of shining mist, she’ll shove me into the fountain. And then pull me out of it a few seconds later and kiss me, soaking wet.

“Place de l’Amour, really? ‘Love,’” my impossible passenger jeers, face drained of blood, staggering but upright, in front of the shimmering sprays. She mutters something I don’t understand. Something like Not the change I expected. Then she mellows, staring up at the dark sky above us.

“Dawn is breaking,” she says. “We’ll go give them a hand.” She points at the open square.

I clutch the steering wheel and shake my head. Clearly, we’re not seeing the same thing.

She shoots me a smoldering look and passes through the cage, leaving bits of putrid skin behind on the bars. I throw open my door and manage to vomit (almost) outside the car. I’ve emptied my guts and hurled my bile, and my eyes are watering, it’s hard for me to get back up. Her squelching, echoing steps sound wrong against the gurgling water. My headlights are glowing more and more weakly. I want to turn them off to save the battery, but all of a sudden I’m afraid of the dark. The squick-squicking comes back, louder. With rumbling moans. Every step is heavy with condemnation. A hoard floods the square, all victims of the rice fields. An unrelenting wave that swallows everything in its path. The water fountains, the pool, the gates. Shaking, I twist the ignition wires. The starter button. It whines like an animal in a trap. I’m the one who’s going to be trapped here. I mash the white button in desperation. More whining, then sputtering. I try again. The engine dies.

“Alohalika ny ranom-bary e!”


“Alohalika ny ranom-bary!” © 2016 by Johary Ravaloson. From Les Nuits D’Antananarivo. (Paris: Animal Pensant, 2016). By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2016 by Allison M. Charette. All rights reserved.

October 2016
In Those Days and These: Multilingual Singapore
from the October 2016 issue: In Those Days and These: Multilingual Singapore


Japanese poet Takako Arai conjures an unvanquishable ghost, who literally left work undone.

Video: Takako Arai and Jeffrey Angles read “Wheels” (credits below)

A fire’s coming! It’ll be here soon!
A female snake kept warning us
For ages it lived in the storage above the closet
We grew up hearing its voice
Each time we laid out the bedding
My sister and I could hardly stand it
We’d lie anxiously in wait, temples pounding
It’s coming! It’ll be here tonight!
It is out? It is out yet?
Has someone smothered it? Are there any cracks for it to get in?

We lowered our eyes to check

The snake was one of the factory girls three generations ago
She was so beautiful she turned the heads of men who passed by
The man she loved cheated on her
She started taking methamphetamines so often
She couldn’t leave the workers’ dormitory
She started having visions
She hallucinated about fire
A fire’s coming! It’ll be here soon!
Perhaps she wanted her own fires to burn
There were only women in the factory
They poured water into her mouth from a teapot
And she came to for a moment
One side of her face was smiling
But her expression looked so forlorn
With her hairline raised in a peak
A fire’s coming! Hot! Hot!
She steamed, went into convulsions, and died dreaming bad dreams
They say they gave her a funeral right there
Her brother didn’t come for her ashes
Even the locks of hair that her coworkers saved
Were stashed away in storage
It was that hair that cried out to us
Night after night

The fire in the kitchen range, the fire in the stove
The charcoal in the brazier, the cigarettes in the ashtray
The heater beneath the bath
The metal latch in the sliding door, the window key
We’d check them each one by one
When we grew too intent, we’d forget where we were
The snake would cry out, Look, it’s a trap! and we’d start all over again
A fire is coming! It’ll be here soon!
We had to crawl on the floor
Who knows how many times our eyes licked
The charcoal stoves by the women’s feet
In the spinning factory

I was terrified of the voice, it would get under my skin
It was my older sister pulling my leg
She imitated the factory girl
She turned off the bathroom light so it was pitch black
And imitated the dead girl, A fire’s coming! It’ll be here soon!
She made me cry
I cried and clung to my sister as she teased me
She was just trying to scare me
But even so
In the slowly cooling steam
Her eyes sparkled with a strange gleam
As if she were speaking the truth
A fire’s coming! A fire’s coming! Coming! Coming!
The factory’s going to burn!

Her voice, the voice evoked the snake
And came after me
It turned upon me and came after me
It got under our skin, swallowing
The two of us together, naked

We’d try to endure it as we rolled up the bedding
But we’d always crawl out
And the snake would lift itself up
The factory girl
Looked for the fire with us
We’d slither, slither, slither
The ceiling would spit out dust
The handles on the chest would rattle
I don’t get it! The more I look
The more fiery apparitions appear in the sparks

We’d check over and over to see if the fires were out
     If the gas on the kitchen range was out
          If the cigarette butts in the ashtrays were out
               If the burning embers in the hibachi were out
We’d light them
          By setting our eyes upon
     Those ghostly flames
I who was chasing my sister who was chasing the factory girl who was chasing my sister who was chasing me who was chasing
Me who was chasing me who was chasing the factory girl who was chasing my sister who was chasing . . .
We were mice, gasping, chasing one another in a big whirl
We were house mice, shaking our breasts in fear
We can’t catch you!
We called out to the sparks

While the spinning wheels smiled

We’d light fireworks by the ditch by the factory
We’d bring the brass candlestick from the family’s Buddhist altar
We’d bring the colored paper near the flame for our ancestors
And the powder would suck it in
It would choke a bit
Then the flame
Would spring up
Would turn, would kick the gravel
Would steal the children’s ankles
Would reflect in the water
Would explode and
Would scorch the straps of our sandals and at the same time
Would get under our skin
The flame had no feet
Nor did the dead
So the flames would try to swallow us
We were the ones being chased
We were the ones
         They were after

The spinning wheels smiled

There was a bright red quilt
Sewn from underclothes
The factory girl wore beneath her kimono
When I snuggled into it
My face would grow red
And wind would pass through my throat
Snuggle further down
The setting sun shone, flashing
The thick snake started slithering
From the storage closet
Coming for the two little mice
Its eyes clear, the color of flame

               The flame
          Crawled closer

It was on fire
              The factory girl, her hair had come lose
                              And had become the shimmering of the heat
It was on fire
               My sister, she stuck out her tongue
                              From behind her buck teeth
I stood
               On the edge of the ditch
The flame
               Burning at my ankles

The spinning wheels turn. They turn in the hot wind. They turn under the flames’ hot hands. They turn intently. They turn like a coiled snake. They turn staring at fate. The factory is a wheel of flame. It turns in a whirlpool of fire. It spins on and on to the end of the world. It spins on and on to the end of time.

It is spinning

It is spinning its bright red thread


© Takako Arai. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2016 by Jeffrey Angles. All rights reserved.

Video Credits:

詩 Poem 
新井 高子/Takako Arai

詩訳 Translation 
ジェフリー•アングルス/Jeffrey Angles

朗読 Poetry Reading 
新井 高子/Takako Arai
ジェフリー•アングルス/Jeffrey Angles

撮影•照明 Chinematographer/Lighting
川添 彩/Aya Kawazoe
中村 雄太/Takehiro Nakamura
鈴木 余位/Yoi Suzuki

録音 Sound  
川本 直人/Naoto Kawamoto

編集 Editor  
鈴木 余位/Yoi Suzuki
川添 彩/Aya Kawazoe

映像提供 Film Providing for “Shadows"
能瀬 大助/Daisuke Nose(「人のかたち」/“The Shape of a Man”)

助監督 Assistant Director  
イナン•オネル/Inan Öner

製作 Producer  
新井 高子/Takako Arai

監督 Director 
鈴木 余位/Yoi Suzuki

October 2016
In Those Days and These: Multilingual Singapore
from the October 2016 issue: In Those Days and These: Multilingual Singapore

From “Tazmamartyrs”

Translator’s Note: Tazmamart was a secret prison for political prisoners built in the wake of a second failed coup d’état against King Hassan II of Morocco in 1972. Aziz BineBine was one of the soldiers caught up in that day’s events who found themselves condemned to a 2 x 3 yard underground cube in notoriously inhumane conditions for eighteen years. Over half of Tazmamart’s prisoners died there.

Tahar Ben Jelloun’s This Blinding Absence of Light (which won the 2014 International IMPAC Award) was based principally on BineBine’s experiences in Tazmamart, but here for the first time BineBine presents his own account.

BineBine wrote his story in order to honor the friends and comrades who lived and died alongside him, by telling theirs. He dedicates it to the two women who brought him into the world: his mother and the late Christine Daure-Serfaty, a human rights activist whose relentless efforts to expose the prison led to his release,and to all those who are grieving the ghosts of Tazmamart: to you daughters, mothers, wives, and sisters. I love you.”

The radio didn’t last forever, the battery died and we couldn’t replace it. Playtime was over. The owl returned, taking the radio’s place, but bringing what news? It had come for Mohammed Abdessadki, known as Manolo, who had himself returned from the first building. He couldn’t have made the most of the better conditions there and he fell ill.

Manolo was a veteran, originally from the Rif, who’d knocked about all over the country, crisscrossing the Algeria of Protectorate days and working here and there in Spain doing all kinds of jobs, before ending up in the ranks of the army and taking part in the civil war. Like all of life’s adventurers, he knew when to express his joy and when to hide his tears. He was used to confronting difficult situations. The clearest memory I have of him goes back to the night he called out to us, sobbing, to say that he was cold. He said he felt as if needles were going right through him, all over his body; he was crying. I was shocked because I didn’t know you could cry from cold. Here was a man, a tough guy, who’d worked the most thankless jobs, who’d fought in the Spanish Civil War and lived through all kinds of miserable ordeals, sobbing like an abandoned child because he was cold. Illness didn’t make him cry—and nor did death, which he faced with dignity, like everyone in Tazmamart. But he cried from the cold.

Manolo was extremely weak and began coughing up blood; internal bleeding, no doubt, but where exactly? We couldn’t say. His condition worsened as the days went on, he was vomiting more and more blackish blood, and it stank. The guards were so revolted by the stench, they wouldn’t open his cell door. They called on one of us to give him food and water; we’d use the opportunity to bring him what comfort we could. On his last evening, fate decreed that Rashid Lamine was the one singled out to spend the night with Manolo, to help him through his last moments, hardly suspecting that his friend’s death would drag him into the worst kind of nightmare.

Rashid was a friendly, talkative lad, who’d definitely been spoiled as a child. That he was in the army at all had always amazed me; it was far easier to picture him working in a fabric shop than completing an army assault course. Not a bit of it! He was Warrant Officer First Class, in charge of air traffic control at the Kenitra base, Abounssi and Dghoughi’s superior. Rashid couldn’t bear the confinement and he told us he never slept, which wasn’t quite true. He’d doze off and later we’d taunt him when he claimed not to have closed his eyes all night. As with our other comrades who claimed not to sleep at all, we’d sometimes call out to him in the middle of a story or a conversation, and he wouldn’t answer. Clearly, he was in the arms of Morpheus. And yet, at the end, he could tell you the whole story almost word for word. Only when he was talking could Rashid forget his cell. He was an extremely poor listener. The silence at night was torture to him. As soon as the sparrows announced the guards’ arrival, Lamine would call out to someone and, like a drowning man coming up for air, begin talking. It had become a morning ritual: those who wanted to speak would wait for Rashid’s opening gambit. His moral and psychological suffering was far worse than ours. Lack of sleep doubled the time he spent in his cell; we’d deduct from our sentences all the hours we spent sleeping. He suffered, too, from not being able to talk as much as he wanted. There were other times, as well as the night, when silence was compulsory: when the whole building was listening to a story, to Koranic teaching or language lessons, or other things organized by our community. All these tensions eventually wore him down. He felt his right side growing heavier and heavier. It was hard to move at all and finally he had to ask for a stick to be able to stand up. The guards, who’d become more accommodating, knew just how weak we were, they knew we couldn’t try anything. Even had we been capable of it, a single one of them could easily have overwhelmed all of us survivors.

Since now the guards allowed us to help our sick comrades, they authorized Rashid, who was in an equally bad way, to support Manolo, who was on the verge of death. The warning signs had been with us for a few days: the owl and the foreboding dreams that no one dared report for fear of causing the dying man to despair. Then came the smell, removing all doubt that someone was going to die—a matter of hours, at the very most. Manolo could no longer get to his feet. It was Sergeant Baghazi, on duty that evening, who nominated his neighbor, Rashid, to help him in the night. This was a rare favor and Lamine could not refuse, in spite of his own poor health. So he went to spend the night with Manolo, who lay on his bunk, semiconscious, hemorrhaging, continually spewing blood, which coagulated on his face, his neck, on the rags he wore. A repulsive smell overlaid the stench of the cells and their inhabitants. When Rashid leaned over the patient, to prop him up and tuck him in as best he could, he gagged suddenly, almost bringing up his food, so unbearable were the odors coming from his friend’s mouth. And yet, God knew we were used to bad smells! Overcoming his disgust, he covered him up as best he could and sat down by the concrete slab that served the sick man as a bed, so he’d be ready to assist. In the middle of the night, he was woken by a raucous noise, a kind of angry snore, followed by loud gurgling. He didn’t have time to stand up to see what was going on. Manolo was jerking up and down, as if being strangled, so violently that he was catapulted from his pallet and landed face down on top of Lamine, who could not move, paralyzed by surprise, fear, disgust, and the weight that was crushing him, suffocating him, by the smell of death that assaulted him, that penetrated his senses and all the pores in his skin. He wanted to run away, to faint, even to die, but his brain and body would not obey. Blood dripped onto his face, his eyes, his ears. He shut his mouth so he wouldn’t swallow this liquid death. With his whole being, as if his life depended on it, he wanted to vomit—but nothing. Hiccups rose from his stomach and stopped in his throat, unable to go up or down. He concentrated, every fiber straining to move his arms and push off this burden that was bent on dragging him with it into the chasms of approaching death. He pushed with all the strength of his failing limbs, with everything he had, he prayed and he pushed, he called out to his mother and he pushed, he thought of his wife and his children and he pushed, he begged his brother for help and he pushed, he summoned all the fury accumulated over nine years in Tazmamart and he pushed, he wanted to die and he pushed. Sisyphus lay flattened by his rock. The mountain no longer existed; nothing existed beyond the rock and the curse that bore down with full force on his already sickly health.

So he passed most of that night under the corpse—the night that wouldn’t end, the night that decided his fate. When the guards arrived in the morning, Rashid was more dead than alive. His comrades extricated him, barely conscious, and took him back to his cell. For several days he remained lethargic—unable to talk at all now, paralyzed down his right side, dragging his feet and slurring his words, now and forever lugging the weight of that corpse, to the grave. He dragged it around for two long years before flinging it, along with his own body, to be consumed by the quicklime. 


From Tazmamort. © 2009 by Éditions Denoël. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2016 Lulu Norman. All rights reserved.

October 2016
In Those Days and These: Multilingual Singapore
from the October 2016 issue: In Those Days and These: Multilingual Singapore

“Martutene” by Ramon Saizarbitoria

Reviewed by Carolyn Silveira

Martutene is the eighth novel by Basque writer Ramon Saizarbitoria, a sociologist who has also published books of economics, perinatology, and poetry. The novel’s name refers to a neighborhood in San Sebastian, which once had “baserris, large apple orchards, rich kitchen gardens that were fertilized using waste material brought from the tobacco factory . . . and elegant Belle Epoque mansions with beautiful gardens.” Saizarbitoria creates, in his winding exploration of contemporary Basque society, a novel as large as the stately old mansion at its center, with room enough to house his wide-ranging intellectual interests: Literature, music, painting, medical ethics and sociology, history, and translation.

The home belongs to a mercurial writer named Martin, who shares it with his longtime girlfriend/translator, Julia, and his new tenant, an American woman named Lynn. His friend Harri has just fallen in love at first sight with a mysterious man at the airport, who tried to give her a copy of the book Montauk by Max Frisch. Harri’s search for the mystery man runs to absurd lengths, at turns comedic and pathetic, and functions as a slow-speed chase through Martutene, with the reader knowing nearly from the start that he’s practically under her nose. But it is only one of the many veins of narrative braided into this book.

Lynn the tenant adores Montauk, which is a novelization of the author’s affair with a younger woman, also named Lynn. Lynn’s business in San Sebastian is participating in a sociological study at Harri’s hospital, where she meets Dr. Abaitua, an older OB/GYN who is mired in the fears, compromises, and constrictions of his own life. He and his wife, just like Martin and Julia, are living in relationships operating mostly on muscle memory, avoidance, and the slow-burning fuel of resentment.

These older characters, languishing from professional and emotional stasis, all think the young American will lift their spirits. And indeed she does set them into motion, helping Harri chase down her mystery man, and encouraging Julia to pursue her own writing. Just like her literary twin, she also has an affair––with Dr. Abaitua––that will change both their fates. And running through the whole book is Montauk, whose plot is the subject of many of their conversations as it also refracts various facets of their own relationships.

Saizarbitoria and Lynn both believe that art imitates life imitating art––or, to put it more mystically, that they are inseparable. Would you believe me if I told you that while I was reading Martutene, I encountered Montauk, a book published in 1975, on the table at the McNally Jackson bookstore in Manhattan, looking up at me with its vibrant new aqua cover and bold title? It’s out again just this year from Tin House. I imagine Saizarbitoria’s characters would.

If you are a romantic, a daydreamer, a nostalgic, a food lover, a history lover, a linguist, a traveler, you may have already fallen for the story and myth of the Basques: The Basque hunted whales from rowboats. They probably sailed to America before Columbus. Their blood runs to type O negative and their language is without a relative on the European continent. They wear berets. They are built thick as trees and like to play handball. If you are a tourist in San Sebastian you might take a picture of some separatist political graffiti. You might eat exquisite food at a Michelin-starred restaurant and say to yourself, my god, these people are incredible.

So the availability of this book in English also presents an incredible opportunity to understand Basque identity and culture on a deeper level, from the perspective of some of its insiders, with a gorgeous level of nuance (all nations and groups should be so lucky as to have their inner life and emotional history so well documented). Martutene’s characters––particularly Julia and Abaitua––have parents who lived through the Spanish Civil War and themselves were young adults in the era of ETA. Now Julia and Abaitua wonder what legacy to leave their children. Do they encourage pride in their culture, or wariness of nationalism? How do they celebrate the sacrifices of those who resisted oppression without glorifying violence? What is lost when you compromise for peace? These are questions that should be attended to in every society. When Julia’s son comes back from spending time with family members who are still heavily invested in Basque independence, she muses:

There’s no reason to feel ashamed of the Basque troops, and she’s proud of that. A pride she has no reason to feel—children are neither to blame for nor to be credited for what their parents did. But she does want to pass that feeling on to her son, and she is sorry, in a way she wasn’t when she was young, that the old patriots have left that source of pride—the fact of having lost well, in the right way—behind them.

The legacy of the Spanish Civil War and of ETA reverberate throughout the book in the most fascinating ways, perhaps even more so for an outsider who couldn’t hope to imagine the myriad emotional and psychological consequences of so much violence, which repeatedly failed to bring about its stated goals of democracy and self-government.

The translation from the Basque by Aritz Branton reads wonderfully. In a book that dramatizes the act of translation, the retention/inclusion of both Basque and Spanish are effective and pleasurable, especially for those with some familiarity with Spanish. For example, the following could probably been have written with less explanation in the original, but deft translation allows the reader a remarkable window into the nuances of local culture:

The fat resident doctor says his extended family name has Etxebarria in it twice, ‘in the Biscay fashion,’ he specifies. On his coat pocket, it’s embroidered with the Spanish ch spelling in the place of the Euskara tx, which Abaitua thinks might be one of the reasons he doesn’t like the man.

In its eight hundred pages, the rich and even exciting plotlines feel as if they unfold slowly, surrounded as they are by so much other material, but that is also one of the book’s pleasures and surely why others are predicting it will be a classic. Like the Basque people, Martutene gives so much.

Sulosana Karthigasu

Masuri S. N.

from the October 2016 issue: In Those Days and These: Multilingual Singapore

“Limbo Beirut” by Hilal Chouman

Reviewed by Emily Lever

Limbo Beirut is a novel in short stories that most definitely requires rereading. Each of its five constituent stories unfolds over different spans of time and is centered around a different character. What unites them is that they are anchored by a specific time and place—Beirut, May 2008, when the ostensibly dormant embers of Lebanon’s civil war briefly came to life again. Lebanon had been stable after fifteen years of war from 1975 to 1990, and the country’s young adults had been born in war and raised in peace, with the war as a permanent, grim presence in the background. The armed conflict was the final escalation of political turmoil that began in 2005 with the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and continued as coalitions led by Hezbollah and the Future Movement vied for power.

These details aren’t laid out in an expository passage––the basic facts would be universally familiar to the book’s original audience––but even a close reading wouldn’t yield much historical information. The slightly overlapping stories––connected by brief moments that take place in two or three of the stories and hold varying levels of importance in each case––retell the violence of that time in a way that nods to the fable in which several blind men grasp at different parts of an elephant (the trunk, the leg, the tusks) and, based on their sensory experiences, give radically different descriptions of what an elephant is. While this narrative seems at first to withhold the truth from the reader, it ends up conveying a collective, multidimensional truth that is richer than any one individual narrative. The butterfly effect appearances of the main character from one story as a bit player in another conveys a sense of community, and suggests that everyone, even in a city as large as Beirut, is bound together by a common experience. The reader might not understand an event when it happens but only when they see it again through another character’s eyes, creating interdependent narratives that have more meaning together than they do alone. This device, with its emphasis on togetherness, is particularly important in the context of war, which necessarily involves a fragmentation of community, of mutual understanding, and even of narratives themselves.

The 1998 novel The Gate of the Sun by Elias Khoury––perhaps the most prominent Lebanese writer today––took a similar approach in recounting a more distant historical event, the Nakba, or Palestinian exodus, of 1948. The Gate of the Sun incorporates the stories of many characters whose lives are affected by the events of the Nakba. In the epic sweep of his novel, Khoury captured a historical moment that was massive in its scope and consequence through an accumulation of the stories and myths of a multitude of different individuals. The shared trauma of the Palestinian people is recounted through dozens of fragmented narratives, a device that mimics the reality of diaspora. The form of the narrative imitates its subject.

Limbo Beirut is also about a traumatic event––the violence of May 2008 in Beirut––but this event was far smaller and briefer than the massive displacement of the Nakba. The narrative strategies used in Limbo Beirut paint a picture of the conflict of 2008 that emerges as an eruption of violence in the midst of an uneasy, unstable peace.

Violence enters into the lives of characters dogged by neuroses and uncertainties that seem to mirror their environments. Walid, the central character of Part One, watches the media say in the run-up to May 2008 “that the government was fighting itself, that the country hated itself, that an explosion was inevitably coming.” Similarly, Walid’s body is fighting itself––he has an ulcer brought on by consuming basically nothing but coffee and cigarettes––and he is wracked by an inner conflict resulting from the fact that he was never able to reveal his sexual orientation to his father, no matter how much he loved him. Walid never explodes in the way the country does––he is too timid for that––but he nevertheless observes that “this war, so very well organized, so very limited, so very local . . . resembled his brain.”

Salwa, the protagonist of Part Three, identifies more with the war in the past, the one that defined her childhood. She manifests what also seems like a kind of Stockholm syndrome for this time in her life, a period that she spent mostly inside for safety, tearing through magazines dedicated solely to crossword puzzles: “She wouldn’t be exaggerating if she said that these magazines were the war for her.” Crossword puzzles generate a sense of a knowable and interconnected universe; the cruciverbalist decrypts what is encrypted to populate an organized and self-contained little world of black and white boxes. At the same time, clues reach into every area of knowledge so that each puzzle seems to span the entire universe. For Salwa, each clue––“the ancient Canaanite god of the sea” or “an Umm Kulthum song based on a melody by Riyad el Sunbati”––is as evocative as a Proust madeleine. Perhaps this is why she is so dejected when she sees these puzzle magazines progressively disappear from newsstands at the same time as the war fades from people’s memories. As an adult she remains obsessed with crossword puzzles to the point where she is almost seriously injured in her quest for a magazine issue she might not have found and gone through yet. That which gave Salwa comfort in the first war puts her in danger at the outset of the second war––she is hit by a car when crossing the street to look at a magazine, and is rushed to the hospital, but the casualties of the violence clog up the halls, impeding her access to medical care.

All in all, this is a bizarre episode, one that could be read as a straightforward condemnation of dwelling on the past––perhaps a parallel to the way the 2008 war can seem like a resurgence of the 1975–90 war. But that’s too simplistic. What really puts Salwa in harm’s way is a universal reflex of people who have experienced trauma: to preserve and perpetuate a coping mechanism long after the occurrence of the trauma that made it necessary. And isn’t that the way history seems to always work, every action generating an equally harmful overcorrection?

Genevieve Chua

Kavitha Karuum

KTM Iqbal

Iman Childs

Dan Feng Tan

Kuo Pao Kun


Yamuna Rajoo


Cristina Viti

Yeng Pway Ngon

Tina Sim

Lee Chee Keng

Nurul Hannah

Nur Izzati Jasni

Jeffrey Angles

Ian McLellan Davis

Jennifer Zoble

Aleksandar Bošković

Dragan Aleksić

Bedřich Václavek

Paulina Duda


Bradley Gorski

Irina Denischenko

Lászlo Moholy-Nagy

Chart Korbjitti

Phu Kradat

Uthis Haemamool

Duanwad Pimwana

Susan F. Kepner

Sri Daoruang

Peter Montalbano

Win Liaowarin

Prabda Yoon

Mui Poopoksakul

Takako Arai

Johary Ravaloson

Aziz BineBine

Miranti Silasudjana

Sa’eda Buang

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