I Follow Cities

Little India Singapore

When I think of the 1980s, I think of the news. In English and Mandarin, both brought to you by Raymond Weil.

When I think of the 1990s, I think of Michael Stipe’s sonic-drenched wailing about his religion, or his lack thereof. And about the one sorry period of global history when everyone wondered too much about yellow lemon trees. Dookie.

If anything happened at all between those decades and now, they were these: the news was broadcast again two minutes afterwards, in a different language (the stories were the same). We flung playing cards at each other in school. We were told in many languages that New Zealand has nearly no people at all, and millions of cows, a fun fact all of us would remember for the rest of our lives. Between 10 and 11 many mornings, children stood by a very large (at the time) drain, brushing our teeth in unison. We rubbed our eyes to relaxing music to prevent the onset of myopia (too late for most of us). I carried a backpack from ages 7 to 13, which I know today to be nearly as large as the travel bag I would carry for the rest of my life, perhaps even as heavy. A battery of life-defining examinations — with as much relevance to my life as other acronyms like WITS and ACES — were survived, even surpassed, before I was deemed fit to be released into the world at large. In quick succession there were also the people I loved, the ones who left, the ones who migrated, or quite simply died. Raymond Weil faded into our collective memories like the playgrounds I never went to until they covered all the sand with foam so our children would no longer bleed when they fell. Perhaps they needed the sand to fill the new lands beyond our shorelines.

Sometimes, I moved one chess piece while my China-born grandfather brewed a pot of tea and filled out his little notebook with calligraphic scrawls I could not read.

We pretended, all the time, that I was winning.

I’d been acutely aware there were two worlds, even within this tiny country — I was born into one, and pulled into the second, kicking and screaming. Growing up I spoke no Mandarin, some English, but I spoke the sort of Teochew which made hawkers giggle as they scooped extra fishballs and minced pork into my noodles. “Girl ah,” they loved to say, beaming at me. “You speak this language like an old woman from Swatow.” My other grandmother brought me to the wet market and showed off my encyclopaedic knowledge of Hokkien classics, the kinds which sound like war cries and power ballads at the same time. “Sing”, she said. “Sing the song about what you’d do if you had a million dollars.”

I would sing. There would be more fishballs, more minced pork, more noodles for the little girl who could speak and sing the languages of her forefathers, but not say a word in Mandarin. I now speak Mandarin but I have forgotten the songs of my childhood.

The world I was pulled into was the one I entered against my free will when I turned 12. I had done well enough, they said, so I should go to the type of school which would improve my station in the world. My new classmates lived in large houses and apartments five minutes from campus, not 45 minutes away in a HDB flat as I did. They were chauffeured to school in Bentleys, Audis, and Jaguars; I took two buses to get there. Their mothers and grandmothers and even their father’s grandmothers had come to this school, which was proud of its secular, elite heritage spanning more than a hundred years. It took pleasure in taking in young, scruffy girls like me, and slowly it turned us all into the same people: young women with poise, education, and class. “I’ve never been to a hawker centre in my life,” my new classmate confessed. “I don’t think I ever will.”

In one English literature class, and we were the school known for producing writers and lawyers, there had been a discussion on the theme of protagonists who’d lost it all. “I imagine if my family lost everything we had, we might have to live in a HDB flat,” a classmate said in horror. “In Clementi. Or Toa Payoh. Or one of those places.” I lived in Clementi; I was pretty certain she had never been to any of those places.

For the most part, the school succeeded in turning me into the archetype. My Mandarin shaky, my English accented, my grades stellar, my sights turned not to Raffles Place and the local universities, but to Wall Street and Ivy League. I would be one of them. It was written.

What was also written: the writing on the wall. The boy in the boy’s school next door who’d gotten a public caning for writing my name on his school walls. I was to be the heterosexual young lady with poise and education and a District 10 lifestyle ahead of her, but that was never my world. I shuffled in my feet when the boy I dated brought me home, and home to him was a grand dining room with a painter mother, several Lamborghinis, and uniformed servants — all ten of them. I balked when I realized I did not have, nor want, a walk-in wardrobe filled with the spoils of shopping trips to Paris and New York. Or at least Hong Kong. Straddling two worlds: one foot in the Clementi hawker centre, delighted by my $0.60 chwee kueh, the other learning to like $6 lattes and $60 set lunches. I must be a communist, they said, because they’d found a copy of the Communist Manifesto in my bag. My father was summoned. He said he was glad I was considering the vast spectrum of political opinions. I am not a communist.

The social mobility that afforded me, with all its trappings of ‘station’ and ‘opportunity’, propelled me to anywhere I wanted to be. London. New York. San Francisco. Sydney. Dubai. Delhi. Bangalore. Beirut. Helsinki. It was all there for the taking. I flirted with other cities, angered by my city-country’s small-ness. Beware small states, the title of a book reads. I was afraid my city’s smallness would close in on me like a beast of the sea, its tentacles firm around my neck. I was afraid I would never learn to breathe, much less fly.

I sought flight: I flew, and still fly, 250 000 kilometres a year. I sought breakup sex with Bombay and Bangalore: my lover, my city, would never be as free and uninhibited as you are, I told my Indian dalliance. I sought space: the vast expanse of the Empty Quarter, the ancient civilizations, the churches which stand on precisely where Cain slew Abel. Then when I was done I sought adventure. I raced tuk-tuks, I washed my hair in the river Skrang upstream from where the entrails of dead boars lay before they were to be cooked. I boarded the modern-day successor to Agatha Christie’s Orient Express, after drinking bad Syrian beer at the Baron Hotel where she and Lawrence of Arabia had once lived. I donned burqahs and boarded the public bus to Aden, drinking tea with pirates real and imaginary, seeking refuge in hotels I associated with the James Bond movies I had come to love as a little girl in Clementi. I went to London and Kuala Lumpur in the pursuit of love. I flew too much in those years.

Then I came home.

I came home, road-weary, wanting to sleep in the bed I’d slept in as a child. The Sundays with ‘mee lay’, soggy yellow noodles simmered in pork and anchovy soup, boiled together for hours, helped. I came home, exhausted, wanting nothing more than to hold my grandmother’s hand for as long as I can, which is, not very much longer. I lost my grandfather to sudden disease when I was gone on one of my adventures, and I don’t know what I would do if that happened again. I came home to walk the streets of Jalan Sultan to talk to garbage-scavenging, tissue-selling old women who will never recall my name, but whose names and faces have been etched into my mind: Madam Chua. There are many Madam Chuas in this city. Madam Chua who walks with a limp, Madam Chua whose disabled children cannot work, Madam Chua whose family lives in two-room government rental flat, who makes a few dollars a day selling tissue to yuppies like me who most of the time turn our faces away and say, sorry auntie I already got tissue no need already thankyew. I can only speak to Madam Chua because my grandmothers made me sing Hokkien songs on demand. I can only speak to Madam Tan who swoops in on our beer cans because my grandmothers taught me to talk like the girl fresh off the boat from Swatow. That world is at once my world, and it is not. I came home to learn more about the Singapore I forgot.

At the Queen Street bus station at 6am one morning, I stood on the grass patch waiting for a bus to Johor. I imagined my grandparents making that same journey: the Johore Express, or whatever they called it back then. The decades-old ticketing office certainly still used tickets which looked just like they would have, when ah gong and ah ma boarded the bus in the opposite direction, to make a new life in Singapore after they got married. After they were match-made on a hill whose name they cannot remember. By way of Swatow, by way of Johor, here I am now, boarding the $2 bus to my grandmother’s city, the one she doesn’t even know anymore because she has dementia.

We build so quickly in this city, such that if I didn’t have personal geography here I would have never known what stood here before: on this very spot between Queen Street and Victoria Street, the tiny man that was my ah gong carried gunny sacks many times his body weight, every single day, gambling it all away, making the little boy who would become my father the most determined person I’d ever met, hell-bent on giving his children a life better than this.

When I experience other cities even as an insider, even as someone who has lived somewhere else for a long time, there is curiosity, and there is joy, in exploring their streets, in learning their names anew. When I walk these streets I know them by their old names. The ones on which there had been the stunted walk of my gunny sack carrying grandfather, once attacked on the head by a cleaver on these streets, lined with the washer-boards his wife had used to wash the laundry of the rich women who did not have to wash their own. The old names and the new overlap: I was born in the ‘bull pen’, not in the gleaming women’s hospital down the road. The policemen of my memories still wore shorts, and had their fearsome batons for the troublesome Chinese gangsters. The nurses were known as the white shirts, and the Hotel New World wasn’t just something I saw on TV, but experienced through my mother, a white shirt who happened to be there looking for something to eat after a shift, but spent hours attending to people who had been picked out of the rubble just like in the movies.

Then there are the landmarks, some of which no longer exist: on that grass patch and its adjoining streets, near the wholesale market which no longer exists, my grandfather carried spices and dried goods for decades. Five decades later, memories of bittersweet happiness would be formed just around the corner: of being shy and 17, stumbling out of a movie theatre, holding tightly the hands of the first woman I’d ever come to love. They were the neighbourhoods we came to know, and the places we’d called home.

The other cities will always be there. The bright lights of our imagined better places will always be on. I can build a life anywhere I want, whenever I want. For now, perhaps it is nostalgia, perhaps it is misplaced political optimism, but I choose to build my life in my late twenties, right here where it all began. Even if I can never call my wife my wife, even if I have to adopt my own children before the state will let me call myself her mother, it is the home which was set into motion for me: sixty five years and a bit ago.

Even though people like us live a life on the move, we still need a place to call our own. I choose to walk these streets, to call them by their old names, and to remember the reason I love this home is because I have one foot in this Singapore, and the other in the one that will only get better.

  • Tweedledum

    Overly twee