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.
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.