February 20, 2016

Tan Boon Chye

When I came home (to Singapore) a couple of days ago, I instructed the taxi driver to go to the Caltex station at East Coast. Most cabbies know this place, but he didn’t. He’s 74 years old, so he only knew this spot as “Tan Boon Chye & Co” (brain GPS never update firmware). Tan Boon Chye & Co was the 3rd Caltex station in Singapore, and that was its original name — in 1961.

Growing up in Singapore and spending most of my childhood (and teen-hood) around grandparents who spoke mostly Teochew (and more Malay than Mandarin, really), I’d always felt intimately connected to their brain GPS. If I was to tell them where I had spent all my time (and money — they can’t believe anything costs more than 50 cents in Singapore), I’d have to cross-reference the 1940s street directory that exists only in our minds, among the people of a certain stripe.

If I went to the jazz club at SouthBridge (way back when there was a jazz club), I’d have to tell them I was in 大坡大马路 in Teochew, dua pou dua beh lou (or tua po tua beh lou depending on your romanization preference, or if you said it with a Hokkien inflection). If I had to change money for my travels, I’d have gone to “ang teng” reminiscent of the red lights that once lit up Collyer Quay from Johnston’s lighthouse. My fave — instead of going to Cecil Street to work in the CBD, I’ve have gone to the “opium company”, where opium dens once stood instead of buttoned up, stuffy suits. Because corporate life is a different kind of opiate of the masses. Years after the passing of the two people I’d spent so much time with, existing in a different language and setting, I find myself grasping at anything that lets me learn a little bit more about the lives of people I loved but did not know fully. In part because I never had the language of their lives in full — I could order food, talk to them, talk to old people, even give speeches in this language they bestowed on me, but I could never have had the tools to create legends for their maps, their history, their worlds filled with poverty, civil war and world war.

I’m learning as much of their language as I can. Instead of being merely conversational, wet market level conversant, I’ve started to learn how to write it, read it, romanize it, and exist in this other plane of my life I’ve always inhabited but never occupied.

The taxi driver took me to Tan Boon Chye. From the way he pronounced the Tan, the same one that is present in my own name (pretty much like a surprised sound effect), I switched to it for the rest of the ride.

“Where did you return from?”

I don’t say Jakarta, as in 雅加达 (ya jia da).

I say I’ve just returned from 巴斜, pah sia, and he knew it. I wonder what destinations my grand dad saw at the port. 巴斜 (Jakarta), 金塔 (ghim tahp, Phnom Penh), or 坤甸 (khun diang, Pontianak)? Yet somehow he ended up here, the land of red lights and big horse carriage roads and small ones, so that when I go off into the world I feel I’m merely following the same sense of adventure (and need) from more than 80 years ago.

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