By Chia Joo Ming 
Translated by Wai-chew Sim 
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright October 2017)
The year it all started, Hok Leong had just entered secondary two. A new student came into their classroom. Her name is Lin Chiu-yun, the form teacher said. She’s from Indonesia. From now on—everybody—please help her out as much as you can.
Hok Leong’s tentative memories of school life began more or less from that period.
To welcome the new student, the teacher clapped his hands, willing everyone to join in. Hok Leong felt that this was a tad unsophisticated but was prepared to go through the motions. He raised his hands and was about to bring them together when suddenly he heard his name.
“Hok Leong. Your Chinese is pretty good. You should help Chiu-yun.”
The boys in the class started to hoot. Hok Leong felt embarrassed and put his arms down.
Teacher wanted him to start immediately the next day. Hok Leong should come half an hour earlier to school, meet Chiu-yun at the library, and go through the material covered in class, he said.
Teacher must be sleeping, Hok Leong thought to himself. He had to help out at his father’s food stall every day. There was no way he could come early. Even if he did he’d rather play football with the boys. How could he help the new girl?
Hok Leong did not respond to the teacher. His classmates continued to laugh uproariously at his discomfort.
The next day Hok Leong did not come early to school. He forgot about the task given to him. In fact he was late. His father’s won ton noodles stall enjoyed extremely good business that morning. Even for him, it was a tough job getting away. Who had time to help the new Indonesian classmate with her school work?
Hok Leong’s main impression of life before secondary two was the switch in the medium of instruction. In primary school, maths and science classes were conducted in English. In secondary school that all changed. The maths tests in secondary school were actually Chinese language tests. Although his Chinese was good, he couldn’t understand the question paper and failed all the tests. He asked his classmates—how did they know that one question meant “add up” the figures, another meant “subtract”? “Idiot,” his classmates said. “Jia-Jian-Cheng-Chu, He-Cha-Ji-Shang,” they chanted, repeating the sing-song mnemonics that they had learned in class to handle the matter.
Hok Leong didn’t understand the mnemonics and continued to fail the subject. It was also much later that he memorized the Chinese names for the chemical elements: Potassium-Sodium-Calcium-Magnesium-Aluminium, Zinc-Iron-Tin-Lead-Hydrogen, Copper-Mercury-Silver-Platinum-Gold. These were also couched in mnemonic form.
Apart from Chinese and Physical Education, Hok Leong failed every subject in secondary one. When he received his report book at the end of the year there were two words in it: “Provisional Promotion.” Father, who was illiterate, asked him, “Did you pass”? Hok Leong didn’t know how to reply. “Should be, I guess. Teacher didn’t say that I had to repeat secondary one,” he said.
Elder brother was two years older than him; elder sister a year older. Both had lousy grades. Elder brother had to repeat a year and ended up in the same level as elder sister for secondary three. Although they were from different schools, the schooling outcomes were similar, it could be said. Hok Leong had another sister, younger than him by two years, who fared better with her grades. Going by school results, Hok Leong ranked number two in their home, so his parents didn’t scold him too much.
Apart from not having the time, Hok Leong also didn’t ask father for permission to leave early because he figured father wouldn’t believe the reason given, namely that he had to help a fellow student. In all probability, father wouldn’t accept that. He would be shocked that Hok Leong’s ability to tell lies had deteriorated by that much. Hok Leong’s so-called good Chinese was obtained from reading martial arts novels and had nothing to do with academic ability. Why else would he obtain such poor results in Maths? Hok Leong didn’t know if teacher was serious about the task given to him. How could he help the new Indonesian girl? He couldn’t very well ask her to read martial arts novels, right? Hok Leong had started reading Chinese newspapers when he was in primary four. On the subject of martial arts novels, he liked “Duke” Wei and the character known as “little fish.” He fantasised about penetrating deep into a remote forest so that he could find some skilled kung-fu master to challenge and fight. His elder brother had several martial arts novels that he refused to share with Hok Leong. His brother treated them like gold, as if they contained all manner of esoteric secrets.
Mother hated it when she saw them reading such works. She said it distracted them from school work. Like father, mother was illiterate. She didn’t know why people read books. You either know something or you don’t know something, she said. If you don’t know, reading about it won’t help. Take, for instance, his Chinese. His Chinese was good because he was good in it. Even if he didn’t read much, he’d be good in it. For the rest, even if he read a lot, it’d be useless. It wouldn’t be of use to him.
Hok Leong forgot that he was supposed to help the new girl from Indonesia, but the girl didn’t forget. During the recess period she walked up to him and asked, “Why didn’t you come earlier today?”
Hok Leong was about to go to the canteen with his friends. He had forgotten about the matter and stood there, nonplussed. His friends waited for him. He didn’t say anything. There was no time. His friends yelled at him to hurry up. He continued on to the canteen, not minding in the least. But half way there he began to worry. What if the girl told teacher about his oversight? What would happen if she did that?
The girl didn’t tell the teacher. The next day, when everybody took the opportunity in between classes to visit the toilet and let off some steam, the new girl saw him in the corridor and repeated her question: “Why didn’t you come earlier today?” Hok Leong wanted to tell her: My father is a hawker. I help out at his food stall every day before I come to school. Sometimes I’m late for school because of that. Who has time to help you? To get such a long message across he needed time, but standing in the corridor he didn’t have it. And he was afraid that his friends would tease him. So he shortened the script. “I don’t have time,” he said. Then he left.
When he returned home that day, he decided that he had better ask his mother. From next week onwards we have extra tuition on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, he said. We need to get there half an hour earlier. “What kind of tuition?” his mother asked. “Chinese,” he replied. He didn’t say that he was helping to coach someone in Chinese. He believed mother was like father. If he told the truth, she’d find it hard to accept, suspecting that for some reason his ability to tell lies had deteriorated. He hoped mother wouldn’t give permission. He could give that as an excuse to the teacher.
His mother mumbled something under her breath. Eventually she said yes. She would tell father about it. Hok Leong’s elder brother and sister were both in the morning school session. If Hok Leong didn’t go to the hawker center there’d be no one there to assist father. Father asked mother to help out a bit in the morning. She could come home earlier to make lunch for younger sister before she went to school. Father didn’t want younger sister to get involved. She was too young, he said. Hok Leong had started helping out at the stall in primary five. Father cherished his daughters so elder sister didn’t have to help out a lot as well. Mostly it was elder brother who went to give a hand. Nobody went against father’s wishes. He didn’t talk to his children a lot, just gave orders. All fathers seemed to be like that.
On the third day, Hok Leong looked for a chance to slip away from his buddies during the recess period so that he could approach the new Indonesian classmate. He wanted to talk to her before she raised the issue. He told her: “I don’t have time this week but next week onwards we can begin the extra coaching. But it’s only Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Is that all right with you?”
Still sitting all by herself, the new girl took a bite from the little snack that she had brought with her. Slowly she nodded her head.
Many years afterwards, this scene continued to haunt Hok Leong, to stick in his memory. It was the first time that he spoke with Chiu-yun.
Hok Leong didn’t have many lasting memories of childhood. He didn’t remember much about his school life, or about things that happened outside school. Life consisted of mainly two areas. One covered the hawker center, the other covered his estate.
It was only in recent years that father managed to get a stall in the hawker centrer. Before that he operated a mobile food cart, went everywhere to get customers, and often got “Saman” or fined for illegal hawking. “Saman” was the Malayanized word they used for such offenses, derived from the English word “Summon.” At that time, Hok Leong was young and couldn’t assist father at the food stall, he only heard about all this later. For a while, a man, an “uncle,” came occasionally to look for father. Around half a year later, father started to operate a won ton noodle stall in the hawker center. When he got older. Hok Leong learned that “uncle” was actually a government inspector charged with regulating street hawkers, what they called a “Teh Gu” in local Chinese. Father went to see this Teh Gu, gave him some “coffee money,” which is to say a bribe, and asked the man to help him apply for a place in the hawker center. Much later, Hok Leong felt that it was wrong to use serious words such as “bribe” or “corruption” to describe things from that era. At that time it was commonplace. Whether it was a big project or a small one, everyone had to give a little “coffee money” when they wanted to accomplish something. So Hok Leong didn’t consider it a bribe. In fact he felt that this way of doing things carried a certain refinement and civility. It suggested a human touch.
The youngsters who went to the hawker center to help their parents knew each other but never said hello. They maintained impassive, stony exteriors while observing what each other did. Hok Leong didn’t like the other youngsters. Among them there was only mutual disdain or dislike. Even then two of the girls got his attention. At the coffee-drinks outlet two stalls away from them, there was a girl with healthy tanned skin and long silky hair that she kept pushing back over her shoulders when it slid to the front, which was often. The gesture was very pretty. She studied in a girls’ school next to Hok Leong’s but was unfortunately a year older than him. In his secret heart, Hok Leong called her Black Gold.
Another young girl helped out at a stall selling chee cheong fun or rice noodle roll. Hok Leong’s parents occasionally chatted with the girl’s mother who ran the stall, but he didn’t talk to the girl. This girl had a lovely, tinkling laugh and was the same age as Hok Leong, but liked to act grown up. Sometimes she even put on make-up. But she used so many hues and tints that she looked a bit gross, like an art palette of some kind. Hok Leong also gave her a nickname: Color Palette. Hok Leong’s mother didn’t like Color Palette.
Both girls studied in English-medium schools. Hok Leong’s English was super poor, so they couldn’t really talk to each other. They could have used one of the Chinese dialects to communicate but that would have been strange, giving the impression that they were unschooled or illiterate. But the main thing was that they didn’t get a chance to shoot the breeze.
Among their customers were a pair of university students who were dating. They often made Hok Leong feel like he’d done something wrong, that he was useless. Each time they came, they would ask: Been busy lately with schoolwork? How are things in school? A teacher in Hok Leong’s school was a classmate of theirs at the university, so they often asked about his situation as well. Before going off they always gave the same parting advice to Hok Leong, telling him to be diligent, and saying that it was okay if he had to repeat a year. A year older, a year wiser, the schoolwork easier to understand: very quickly he would catch up with the others.
Hok Leong always kept his head down when they spoke to him. He appeared to be listening, and also looked like he wasn’t. He always hoped that they would go away quickly, that they’d spare him the hassle so that he wouldn’t get singled out by his parents. Even then he liked listening to them. School seemed easy when they talked about it. He even had the urge to rush home and complete his homework or prepare for lessons. But the urge never lasted long. It was a momentary thing, especially when he got home and his friends came looking for him—very quickly he forgot about it.
Hok Leong’s friends were all from the same estate. At that time nobody came knocking on the door asking graciously, “Is Hok Leong in? Can he come out and play?” Nobody provoked parents like that. Of course, children liked to play; it was part of their make-up. But for many generations, it seemed, the words “play” and “wrongdoing” overlapped in the thinking of adults and couldn’t be separated. The funny thing was, the neighborhood kids always found ways to get around parents so that they could come out and fool around.
Hok Leong got along best with these kids. To get someone to come downstairs you had to do a “double-hand whistle.” The “skill set” behind this whistle has not been passed down properly so it is now practically a lost art. To do the whistle, you form a half-circle with your palms and cup them together, one palm tightly grabbing the other. You align the two thumbs at the top and blow hard through the crack in the middle. If you practice hard enough you can even make it play a short tune.
The double-hand whistle was effective because parents didn’t pay much attention to their kids. Whenever he heard the familiar tune, Hok Leong would go to the kitchen window to see who was downstairs and then try to find an excuse to slip out. Of course, his parents knew about it. On one occasion when he stepped out of the shower his mother even said to him: Hey, there’s someone downstairs looking for you.
The friends who came most often to look for Hok Leong were Hung Lung or Red Dragon, Gao Sai or Dog Shit (yes, there really is someone with that name), Ah Mei (referring to a guy lah, not a girl), Junior Brother, and Opium Addict. There weren’t many places actually for them to play. They just gamboled about the place, looking for distraction. For example, they would stand by the roadside and wait for a car to appear. When it came near, say about ten plus meters away, they would dash across suddenly giving the driver a great shock, and forcing him to apply the emergency brakes. Or they would climb a large tree with one person shaking it from below to see who fell down first. Or after a big rain they would jump into the giant monsoon drains, try to avoid being flushed away by the flood water. When they discovered later that copper and tin foil pieces could be exchanged for cash, they also kept an eye out for those treasures when they played.
Fisticuffs was the way to settle things if somebody crossed another person, or if you didn’t like the look of him. At that point they hadn’t progressed yet to fighting with weapons.
Hok Leong recalled that one time in secondary two, he got into an altercation with a classmate during Physics. He couldn’t remember the person’s name or the precise reason for it. Eventually they both sprang up from their seats, the tables screeching as they got pushed back, and giving the teacher, who was writing something on the blackboard, a big shock. The teacher, who was near retirement, blinked owlishly at the two young bucks from behind thick bifocal glasses. He knew what was happening. Hok Leong and his opponent sat down resentfully. The teacher turned back to the board to continue writing. Before teacher completed the turn, Hok Leong and his opponent had already made an appointment: after class that day they would meet behind the assembly hall to “settle the matter.”
Somehow Hok Leong made it through the rest of the lessons. When he got to the back of the hall, however, the other guy didn’t show up so he left it at that. Hok Leong didn’t know how “the back of the hall” became the designated place for students to settle disputes. Actually it was just a small five-foot-wide strip of land between the assembly hall and the perimeter wall of the school, the ground uneven, the grass cut irregularly unlike the athletics field, so that not many people went there. Because not many people went there it had gradually become the school “coliseum.”
The school he attended had a decent academic reputation. A decade after he left, it even got selected for the “special” school program. How did a place like that get a student like him? The day after the altercation, he remembered, his new Indonesian classmate saw him and immediately asked: “Why did you act like that yesterday?”
Hok Leong didn’t have an answer for her. Why didn’t she know that fighting was bound to happen when people got together? Why didn’t she know that it was like doing homework and by mistake you write the wrong character or word? Bound to happen. Of course, he failed to remember that when his primary school friends organized a reunion one person would never appear, never get to appear. That person was beaten to death in a melee fight. His photo even appeared in the newspaper.
Hok Leong only realized when he started to help his Indonesian classmate that he didn’t know how to proceed. How does one do revision? He wasn’t a teacher. He didn’t know how or what to teach. He asked the Indonesian classmate, what do you want to revise? She shook her head. Eventually, Hok Leong got her to read a passage from the textbook. If she didn’t understand anything, he tried to explain it. When there was something that Hok Leong didn’t know, he said, I’ll go ask about it and get back to you. When he got home he’d thumb frantically through his elder sister’s dictionary, searching for an answer.
The Chinese standard of the Indonesian classmate wasn’t too bad. After five to six sessions they had covered all the material studied in class. Hok Leong said, “That’s it. We only reached this bit.”
The girl looked at him for a moment. Carefully, in a small voice, she said: “Can you continue to help me?”
Hok Leong was taken aback. He stared at her and completely forgot to say “No.” To continue meant he had it in him to be a teacher. Could he really do that? Softly, she asked again: “You can help me, right?” She mistook him forgetting to say “No” for him actually saying “Yes!” He was too lazy to correct her mistake. After all, he figured, a bit of coaching never hurt anyone. Nobody got killed.
But if they wished to continue, the same problem came roaring back. How do you revise? What do you revise?
Naturally, Hok Leong didn’t have any new ideas. So they returned to the same tried and true method. She read a passage from the material studied in class, and if she didn’t know anything he’d try to explain it. The funny thing was, she had even more questions now with the newly-covered material. When he asked her why, she said she didn’t know why. Was the teacher worse than him? That didn’t seem plausible. Anyway, fourteen-year-old Hok Leong felt that this coaching malarkey was a good thing. It didn’t give him all that much confidence in the subject, but it was still something to be proud about.
When the results came out at the end of the year, the Indonesian girl surprisingly obtained better results in Chinese than him. She scored eighty-six in the exam, he eighty-two. “Sorry,” she said. Hok Leong didn’t know how to respond. Eighty-two was plenty enough for him. He’d never gotten such a score in the past. He got to benefit as well because he gave her some tuition. The point was that he never thought of comparing his results with hers. What concerned him more was that his pedagogy seemed to work: it produced a good student. For a long time this gave him a great amount of happiness.
Apart from Chinese, Hok Leong also profited greatly in two areas. He passed his English and Maths. Passing these two subjects was immeasurably more important than the Indonesian girl obtaining higher scores in Chinese than him. It was the first time he passed those subjects in secondary school.
Hok Leong helped coach the Indonesian girl, but in the end it became a matter of mutual aid. After they became more acquainted, the Indonesian girl often asked—before they started the Chinese revision—“How’s your English?” Or: “Have you completed the Maths exercise given in class?”
Hok Leong only thought about these things when she raised them, usually shaking his head in response to her questions. On her part, she progressed from “let me help you with that” when they first got acquainted to the more severe “just because I don’t ask about it doesn’t mean that you should keep quiet!” after they became thoroughly familiar with one other. But still Hok Leong didn’t like to bring it up. Especially when it came to Maths. After he learned the Chinese mnemonics for the subject—Jia-Jian-Cheng-Chu, He-Cha-Ji-Shang—he more or less understood what was happening and could follow the lessons. So in the end it wasn’t clear who was helping who.
After the results came out, Hok Leong was put into the Technical stream. He had to switch to another school. The Indonesia girl was retained in the same school, where she would study in the elite Science stream. On the last day of school, the girl asked: “How will you help me with my Chinese if you get transferred to the new school?” Hok Leong didn’t have an answer. She added: “How about your English?” Again, Hok Leong didn’t know what to say. He never thought about things like that. All he knew was that he was put into the Technical stream because he did well in some aptitude test.
The Indonesian girl ran out of questions to ask. A large Mercedes Benz pulled slowly into the school driveway and headed towards them. She waved goodbye to him, got into the car, closed the door, and again waved eagerly at him. Hok Leong stared dumbly at the vehicle as it pulled away. He didn’t know that he was supposed to wave back.
A gust of wind appeared after the vehicle exited the school compound, blowing the leaves on the ground hither and thither. Hok Leong felt a tightness in his heart. It felt odd. He realized finally that it was the last day of school.
Hok Leong felt dispirited the entire holidays. He couldn’t find the energy to do anything. His mother said that he was like an old man, stuck in a rut. Hok Leong thought: going to a new school meant he would have to say goodbye to another bunch of classmates. Although he wasn’t that close to them, there were at least a few that he got along with, fooled around with, failed tests with, and even fought with. In the future he would have to get to know another bunch of schoolmates, to choose from among them those he liked, although the choices were getting limited, and it seemed like the only thing he could do was to contact former classmates, except that after switching schools there were now fewer things to discuss, less common ground, and at any rate they were too lazy to contact one another. It was like when he moved from primary school to secondary school—friends and contacts falling in droves by the wayside.
Having to coach the Indonesian girl was a bit of a bore, but it was also the only time he actually did some schoolwork. After the holidays that would go as well.
During the school vacation he did meet someone from his class, someone he didn’t know that well earlier, whose home was only two road-crossings away from his. The classmate asked Hok Leong to go to his house to play. After many years Hok Leong still remembered his name, Lim Tee Bo. There was another person who also went to Tee Bo’s home to play, but Hok Leong forgot his name.
What the so-called “come around to play” amounted to was calling female classmates on the phone and having a little chit-chat. For Hok Leong, this meant that he had entered another era, the telecommunications era. Hok Leong didn’t have a phone in his home. He had never heard of it, didn’t know that the sound transmitted over the line would be like that.
The first time he heard a voice coming over the phone was the voice of the Indonesian girl. It seemed so real. What made it hard was that it felt like she was whispering into his ear. It felt closer than when they studied together in the library. For Hok Leong, it was also the first time a girl spoke so intimately to him. She spoke to him because Tee Bo, after getting through to the girl, refused to reveal his identity and passed the receiver to Hok Leong. The Indonesian girl continued in a voice grown sultry and provocative: “Oh . . . Who is it?”
Hok Leong took the receiver from Tee Bo, heard her query and immediately replied: “Hok Leong!”
Tee Bo raised his hand and slapped the back of Hok Leong’s head.
“Ouch! Why did you do that!” Hok Leong cried.
“Where are you?” the girl asked.
“Tee Bo’s house!” he answered.
Again, Tee Bo slapped his head. He grabbed the receiver from Hok Leong’s hand.
So for his first telephone conversation, Hok Leong fielded two questions, uttering two short phrases in the process. Tee Bo continued to talk cheekily to the Indonesian girl. After a while he replaced the receiver without passing it to Hok Leong. Then he called a few more classmates. They only stopped when Tee Bo’s sister came home from work and Hok Leong had to go home. He was curious how Tee Bo had managed to obtain so many of their female classmates’ phone numbers. He felt grateful to Tee Bo for this, his first time using a phone, so he always remembered his name.
For the next few days after that, Hok Leong went regularly to Tee Bo’s home. What he cared about was chit-chatting with the Indonesian girl. But she kept asking him about his new school, which Hok Leong had no clues about. So the talk became staccato. She’d ask him something, and he’d have to do it before he could give a satisfactory answer. For instance, she asked: “Where’s the school?” Hok Leong had no choice but to go home and check.
Really, he didn’t care two hoots about it. The next day when he told her the location she asked: “Have you been there?” “Er, no,” he replied. When he got home that day he told his mother that he had to go check out the new school. After scouting it out, however, he was again unprepared when the Indonesian girl asked: “Have you bought the new school books yet?” So he had to check up about that too. Indeed it was quite a nuisance. But Hok Leong also liked the feeling that he was being looked after.
She probably needed someone to look after, Hok Leong reasoned to himself, for the next moment she was telling him: “Here’s my home number. Call me this evening at seven thirty.”
Repeating the number in his head, Hok Leong stealthily picked up the ball-point pen from the coffee table top, strode to the washroom, and wrote the number down on the inside of his hand. He told Tee Bo that he had a stomach ache. He had to go home early.
It took forever for seven thirty to arrive. Time stood still. At home Hok Leong took out his school textbooks and began to read. Chinese, English, Mathematics—they were all from secondary two. He hadn’t bought the secondary three textbooks yet. Repeatedly, he ignored the double-palm whistle coming from downstairs, his estate friends calling him. When he could no longer stand the sight of the books he went to his mother: “Is dinner ready yet, mother? I’m hungry.” After dinner, he again checked the clock: six thirty. Hok Leong laid on his bed, he didn’t know what to do. His eyes grew heavy.
When next he opened his eyes, Hok Leong realized that he had dozed off. He jumped off the bed and again checked the clock: 7:35 p.m.! He gave a strange yelp and ran out of the house.
Hok Leong had prepared a stack of ten cent coins. He had transferred the Indonesian girl’s telephone number from his hand to a slip of paper that he brought along with him. The public pay phone was in the street across from his apartment block, propped in a corner of an Indian convenience store located next to the staircase area of a row of Housing Development Board (HDB) shops.
When the call got through he glanced at the clock in the store: 7:39 p.m.!
Hok Leong recognized the voice but forced himself to ask politely: “Is Chiu-yun at home?” This was the first time he used the Indonesian girl’s name—Chiu-yun.
He remembered her reply, her laughter: “Your voice sounds so strange!” she said.
Hok Leong didn’t say anything. After a while she said, “There’s someone talking next to you.” It was the Indian store owner chatting with one of his customers.
Hok Leong explained that he was calling from a pay phone inside a convenience store. Chiu-yun was surprised. She didn’t know that Hok Leong’s flat lacked the apparatus. Hok Leong didn’t elaborate. His self-esteem was damaged. When Chiu-yun learned that Hok Leong’s father operated a won ton noodle stall in the neighborhood hawker center, she wanted to go there to eat but he was discomforted. She was curious about everything that concerned him. For her, it was fresh and interesting. Hok Leong, not expecting that anything in his life could be attractive to her, tried his best to answer her questions. They kept talking, stopping only when the Indian store owner indicated that he wanted to close for the day. Hok Leong and Chiu-yun agreed that he would call again the next evening at seven thirty.
That night, Hok Leong kept tossing about in his bed, unable to fall sleep. He had the bottom bunk of a double-decker bed, slept in a “room” carefully fashioned from the clutter of a one-room HDB flat. Hok Leong ran over the details of his conversation with Chiu-yun. Everyone was asleep. His brother slept in the bunk above. Mother and younger sister slept on a wooden board on the floor right by his side. Elder sister was no longer a young girl. Mother let her sleep in the kitchen. Father slept in the small living room.
Chiu-yun probably had her own room and bed at home, Hok Leong thought. She found the details of his life interesting, unusual, different. Hok Leong was unimpressed by that kind of difference. What was so great about his house not having a telephone? In his corridor, none of the flats had a phone. His father being a food stall operator was also not something to shout about. What was different was that, in the hawker center, every hawker was the father of a different person. What Chiu-yun found interesting and unusual, Hok Leong had about it a wealth of feelings that he couldn’t enumerate.
When Hok Leong went to the hawker center the next morning, he paid additional attention to the other stalls where the children came to assist their parents. They were really not that dissimilar from Hok Leong and Chiu-yun. Black Gold and Color Palette in particular didn’t seem different at all. Hok Leong also scrutinized the younger customers—those around his age—who came to patronize their stall. They didn’t seem all that different from each other.
That afternoon, Hok Leong didn’t go to Tee Bo’s flat after helping out at the food stall. He went out with Red Dragon and his gang. Whenever the group went gadding about, Red Dragon was the one in charge. They were used to him being the leader.
Almost everyone in the group had failed his exams and had decided to stop school. Not counting Hok Leong, Ah Mei was the only one continuing his studies. The attention that Hok Leong paid to the young people in the morning had probably affected him, for now he found that, compared to those youngsters, this group whom he hung around with so much were actually quite different. Take Tee Bo for instance. Tee Bo liked to swear, but he did that only when he was angry. In comparison, Dog Shit and Junior Brother cursed all the time. They wanted people to know that this was how they talked. And, furthermore, they gave the impression that they were fighting whenever they opened their mouths. From the beginning, Hok Leong had not liked that. It was okay to fight, he reckoned, but there should be some method and rationale to it. Not crazy fighting like that. Another thing that pissed him off was their manner of walking. The way that Red Dragon and his posse walked made Hok Leong feel like he wanted to beat them up. Later on, Hok Leong also realized that while they occasionally borrowed money from him, they hardly ever of their own volition returned it. Like with Opium Addict, you had to practically push them to the verge of fisticuffs before they handed over the money.
When he called Chiu-yun that evening, she shared with him some details about her family. Her parents were both in Indonesia. Father was a businessman. Mother looked after her two younger brothers. Everybody was worried about her being on her own in Singapore. In about a year or two, her two brothers would probably join her as well. A friend of Chiu-yun’s father helped to look after her while she was in the republic. As before, they chatted till the Indian store owner indicated that he wanted to close shop. Before she hung up, Chiu-yun, switching to English, said “bye-bye” to Hok Leong.
Hok Leong had concluded earlier that day—just that morning in fact—that there was really no difference between Chiu-yun, Black Gold, and Color Palette. But now after chatting with Chiu-yun, he felt that she was different. How so? He couldn’t put it into words. He reminded himself that, before hanging up the next day, he should also say “bye bye” to Chiu-yun.
On the way home, Hok Leong suddenly realized that a group of four to five guys was trailing after him. He quickly crossed the road. Immediately, they crossed the road after him. Realizing that something was amiss, Hok Leong broke into a sprint, heading towards his apartment block. Behind him someone shouted “XXX your mother” in Hokkien dialect, followed by “Get him!” Hok Leong increased his speed. For the first time in his life he realized that being able to run fast brought certain specifiable benefits. The group behind him couldn’t keep up. They started to flag and fell further behind. Only then did Hok Leong glance backwards. He couldn’t make them out properly. Everything was indistinct. One person seemed to move with a pronounced limp. So weird, Hok Leong told himself. He hadn’t offended anyone. Why would anyone want to beat him up?
Secondary three—the start of the school year. From the first step that he took into the classroom, Hok Leong didn’t like the look of his classmates. The first time he stepped into the new school, he hadn’t liked it as well.
Apart from Hok Leong, there was one other student from his alma mater, still wearing the old uniform, someone he hadn’t met before. The guy came over to say hello. His name was Wong Ah Hor. In addition, two guys who knew Wong came over; they were from an institution located near their previous school. One was named Hong Ying-jun, the other Chang Tee Soon. Why did people have names like that? Ah Hor, Ying-jun, Tee Soon. Hok Leong wanted to laugh but controlled himself, nodding carefully as he made their acquaintance. During the recess period, they huddled together to shoot the breeze, discussing various topics like elderly people reminiscing about back in the days. Even so, it was better than sitting alone staring into space.
That evening at the appointed time, Hok Leong again gave Chiu-yun a call. Chiu-yun hoped that Hok Leong would come over to her house to help her with her Chinese when he didn’t have extra-curricular activities in the afternoons. At first Hok Leong said okay. Then he said that he had to discuss the matter with his mother. Unlike their previous phone conversations, they ended earlier that evening. They had to get up early the next day for school. On the way home, Hok Leong clutched carefully in his hand a stout stick that he had prepared earlier. The stick had a nail protruding from one end, forming a mace of some kind. Luckily the group from the previous night did not appear again. If they did, his lousy one-nail club probably wasn’t enough for self-protection, Hok Leong figured. He decided that he should find a new place to make his phone calls.
That evening, Hok Leong told his mother that teacher wanted them to stay in school after class to get some extra tuition. He couldn’t help out at the food stall. Mother hesitated. She didn’t know how to respond. They usually didn’t get many customers in the afternoon, Hok Leong continued, father should be able to cope by himself. Furthermore, elder brother and sister were now in the morning session. They could also lend a hand at the stall. Mother didn’t react to his words. He took that as de facto yes, she had given her permission.
Chiu-yun was overjoyed when she heard the news. She wanted Hok Leong to come over to her house the very next day. They agreed to meet at two o’clock in Katong Shopping Centre.
Chiu-yun had blossomed during the holidays.
From his seat on the stone steps of the Katong Shopping Centre forecourt, Hok Leong scrutinized Chiu-yun as she approached his location. The afternoon breeze caught her sleek black hair, blew it sensuously about her neck and shoulders. Without her school uniform, Chiu-yun looked taller, more mature. Hok Leong stood up to welcome her. He still wore the uniform of his former school, from secondary two, although it no longer fit him. Chiu-yun came close and reached out eagerly to shake his hands. Seeing his lack of response, she changed her greeting to a joke: “You’re dark and thin. Gosh, what did you do during the holidays?”
Hok Leong was quick on the uptake. “Sorry, you’ve got the wrong person.”
A vehicle drew to a stop next to the forecourt entryway. It was the one that Hok Leong had seen in school before the holidays. Chiu-yun went to it and opened the door for Hok Leong. Hok Leong took a step forward, then stepped back gallantly to let Chiu-yun go first. Chuckling graciously, Chiu-yun climbed into the car. Hok Leong felt that he had done something small but meaningful. He even spoke to the driver. “Thank you,” he said.
Chiu-yun gave a little laugh. “You’re not usually like this in school?”
Hok Leong knew that Chiu-yun enjoyed this other side of him. “This is the real me,” he said.
“You’ve grown up!” Chiu-yun said.
No, he grew up a long time ago, he thought, and gave a silly little laugh.
Chiu-yun’s house was located about ten minutes away from the shopping center. The distance was walkable. After that first time going by car, Hok Leong and Chiu-yun always preferred to walk. Many years later, he preferred not to dwell on the scenery along that stretch of road, especially the section near Chiu-yun’s house, so he avoided it religiously. He remembered a quiet street, the fierce sun, the shadows formed by huge trees on both sides of the road covering most of the road surface. He remembered vapor tendrils rising from the areas where the sun’s rays struck the exposed tarmac, sometimes the light so bright he couldn’t open his eyes. He remembered the hot wind, the leaves caught by the airstream, sighing like a broom in use, like something being swept away. He remembered long-drawn-out cicada cries that stopped suddenly—an iconic instance of a proverb he later learned in school to describe a sound that suddenly stops. Many years later he still hated going out after lunch, not only because he wished to avoid the tropical heat, but also to avoid scenes like that, scenes laced with memory, feeling, and passion.
The house looked ordinary from the outside. This was the impression that stayed with Hok Leong, his recall altered perhaps by the passage of time. A normal looking corner terrace house, but enough nevertheless to stretch the horizons of a young man, to open his eyes to the world.
What really opened Hok Leong’s eyes was the interior of the house. He had never seen such magnificence. Compared with Hok Leong’s one-room flat, “luxurious” was the right word to describe it. Everything from the ceiling to the floor caught his attention. And then there were the electrical appliances and accessories: it basically had the full range and lacked for nothing. Nowadays you could see such items in movies from the eighties, indeed they had become collectibles. The Hok Leong of that “period” saw something else too, another proverb meaning to gasp in amazement, to acclaim as a peak of excellence.
Shortly after he sat down on the settee, a maid bought over a glass of orange juice, a drink that you also didn’t see that often during that period. Thank you, Hok Leong said softly. Chiu-yun sat next to him laughing gleefully, enjoying his stupefaction. Hok Leong ignored her. When did she become so vibrant and cheeky? he thought to himself.
Chiu-yun took out a Chinese textbook from her school bag and handed it to Hok Leong. Hok Leong browsed through it. He could cope with that. No worries. Chiu-yun gave him other textbooks but he only glanced at them. Apart from Chinese, he wasn’t interested in the other subjects. Chiu-yun asked Hok Leong if she could see his textbooks as well. He hadn’t bought any, he confessed. He only had the book list, which he retrieved from his bag and handed to her. Chiu-yun inspected the list and gave a cry: “How come everything is in English? The only thing in Chinese is the textbook ‘Chinese language’!”
“Really?” Hok Leong took the list from her hand. He hadn’t looked at it carefully yet.
Chiu-yun asked him about the new school. Hok Leong didn’t know much about it so there was a limit to what he could share. He could only listen to her talk about her school and class. The guy whom Hok Leong almost came to blows with was still in Chiu-yun’s class, she revealed. Tee Bo and the rest were in the same school but different class.
None of the teachers had assigned any homework that day, so Chiu-yun suggested that they sing some songs. She took out her guitar and asked Hok Leong to make a suggestion. Hok Leong shook his head. He only knew the songs taught in school during music lessons, or snatches of songs overheard coming from the neighbors. It wasn’t something he paid attention to. In the end he could only say: “you decide.” Chiu-yun didn’t hesitate. With a practiced hand she began to tune her guitar, then she launched into an English song:
When I was young, I’d listened to the radio,
Waiting for my favorite songs.
When they played I’d sing along, it made me smile.
Those were such happy times, and not so long ago.
How I wondered where they’d gone.
But they are back again, just like a long lost friend,
All the songs I love so well…
Hok Leong couldn’t recall what time he went home that day. He couldn’t remember what else he did with Chiu-yun, or what precisely happened after the maid fetched the glass of orange juice.
He only remembered that the first English song he heard was sung by Chiu-yun. It was “Yesterday Once More” by The Carpenters. Later he heard the original version sung by Karen Carpenter, but he always felt that Chiu-yun’s “cover” version was pretty good.
Hok Leong’s English was poor. He didn’t use it much, didn’t move in a circle where people listened to English pop songs. He didn’t know that an English-language song could sound so catchy and melodious. He asked Chiu-yun if she could give him the lyrics for it. On the spot, she began to teach him the words to the song. Hok Leong had little musical talent so she helped him. They spent a warm, magical afternoon learning the ballad, singing it again and again.
The guitar was something that Chiu-yun taught herself to play. Before that she had studied the piano, which they moved on to after a while. Chiu-yun played the piano and wanted Hok Leong to sing accompaniment. But he wanted her to do both. He enjoyed watching her perform. Languorously, she sang song after song while Hok Leong watched, transfixed.
Hok Leong felt like a protagonist in a martial arts novel, like he had entered another dimension where everything was fresh, beautiful, and fine. Chiu-yun, the person who brought him into this world, also seemed other-worldy and ethereal. Compared to her, Black Gold, Color Palette, and even Hok Leong’s two sisters seemed entirely different.
Hok Leong would have liked to stay there forever but eventually he had to return home.
A loud shrill whistle pierced the night air. The whistle sounded again. On an evening when Chiu-yun wasn’t free and Hok Leong had stayed home, checking up in a dictionary the unfamiliar words from the lyrics to the John Denver hit song, Take Me Home, Country Road, Red Dragon came looking for him.
Hok Leong went downstairs bare bodied. Red Dragon said that a few days earlier Junior Brother was beaten up at the fresh-produce market. Hok Leong immediately thought of the gang that had chased him a while back. The five of them—Red Dragon, Dog Shit, Junior Brother, Opium Addict, and Ah Mei—wanted to take revenge. They wanted Hok Leong to come along. Hok Leong went upstairs to grab a T-shirt. When he returned, Red Dragon led them to a nearby clump of tall grass, stepped in and emerged with six wooden clubs, one for each of them. Together, they headed for the market.
The market was dark, quiet, almost deserted. The rows of shops next to it were also preparing to close for the night. Hok Leong had telephoned Chiu-yun from the Indian grocery shop located there, the one next to the staircase area.
They hid at the place where Junior Brother got hammered—the car park behind the shop apartments. They broke into two groups. Red Dragon, Junior Brother, and Ah Mei formed one group. The remaining three formed another group.
While they waited, Opium Addict gave Dog Shit and Hok Leong each a cigarette. They lit up and inhaled. Nobody said anything. Red Dragon and his group lit up as well. Like in the proverb where the guy guarded the proverbial tree stump waiting for rabbits to appear, they waited. When their cigarettes were almost finished, three guys appeared. Red Dragon raised himself a little, took the still burning stub out of his mouth and flicked it away. Here were the rabbits, his action said. Everyone killed their cigarettes as well. They waited expectantly for the next set of instructions.
Their rivals, who were themselves hunting for rabbits, neared the lorry behind which crouched Red Dragon and his party. Red Dragon stepped out suddenly. “XXX your mother,” a guy in the rival group shouted out in Hokkien dialect. “This way!” he cried. Immediately they turned around.
Hok Leong recognized the familiar voice. It was the group that had chased him earlier. With Opium Addict and Dog Shit in tow he stepped out from behind his hiding place. Seeing themselves boxed in, the rival group turned to one side and ran. Hok Leong and his friends gave chase. The guy with a limp ran slower than his compatriots. Red Dragon reached him first, swung his club, and hit him in the back. “Arrrggghhh” he cried and continued to run. Red Dragon swung again, this time hitting him on the shoulders. After that Red Dragon stopped. He didn’t give chase.
Just like that the fight ended. Hok Leong felt his chest heaving, his heart pumping furiously. He gasped for air. The wheezing that he experienced was worse than on the previous occasion when they had chased after him.
The uniform code for Hok Leong’s new school was different from Chiu-yun’s school, meaning to say, his alma mater. Hok Leong, now in secondary three, wore long pants when he went to school. The boys in his previous school—both secondary three and four—still wore shorts. Hok Leong was glad that he had switched to a new institution.
Hok Leong studied six subjects. Responding to Chiu-yun’s entreaty, he had bought the textbooks for four of them: Chinese, English, Maths, and Physics. When they revised their schoolwork, Chiu-yun always insisted that he take out his textbooks first. First they covered Hok Leong’s four subjects, then they went through Chiu-yun’s four. Because the textbooks were different, they effectively revised twice for each subject. Hok Leong couldn’t find words to describe his vexation. In his entire life this was probably the first time he worked as hard as this. There were no textbooks for the remaining two subjects, metal work and technical drawing. In any case, Chiu-yun didn’t study those subjects and didn’t know anything about them, which was just as well!
The vexation and frustration didn’t last long, for Chiu-yun’s mother had decided to hire a tuition teacher. On Mondays and Wednesdays, the tutor came to help Chiu-yun with English, Chinese, and Maths. When Hok Leong encountered difficulties with these subjects, including Chinese, they directed his queries to the teacher as well. Hok Leong couldn’t understand why Chiu-yun needed such assistance. She was already streets ahead of him. Apart from Mondays and Wednesdays, Chiu-yun’s Thursdays and Saturdays were set aside for extra-curricular activities, that is, for Chinese calligraphy and guitar. Her mother had requested that she take up the former, while the latter she did for herself. Tuesdays and Fridays were the only days where Hok Leong and Chiu-yun could meet up.
Chiu-yun’s busy days were also “free” days for Hok Leong. Not having to revise his schoolwork, he could go off and play. Oddly enough, he didn’t yearn so much for such freedom after he started studying with Chiu-yun.
Chiu-yun often felt that she was too busy. She wanted to stop the calligraphy lessons. “What should I do?” she asked Hok Leong.
A part of Hok Leong wanted her to continue. But greater still was his desire to see her end it. “Just stop it!” he said.
Of course, Chiu-yun didn’t do that. She could handle the calligraphy. More than that she found time to revise both sets of schoolwork, his and hers, including the work that Hok Leong didn’t do because he didn’t go to her house on her busy days.
Chiu-yun was curious. Why didn’t his teachers assign any homework, she asked. Hok Leong explained: “Teacher said we’re grown up now. We decide for ourselves whether to hand in homework, whether to join extra-curricular activities.” Hok Leong never bothered much about ECA. He didn’t want to waste even more time in school. As an excuse he told Chiu-yun that he was busy at home.
What did he enjoy about school? she continued.
Metal work and technical drawing, he replied.
Chiu-yun frowned. She had taken such courses before with Hok Leong. He had secretly helped her to file down the metal pieces, to saw wood, and to complete the technical drawings. Female students tended not to like such subjects. They couldn’t understand why the school made them suffer through them. Continuing her line of inquiry, Chiu-yun posed the more pertinent, more challenging question. “What do you want to do in the future?” she asked.
Hok Leong shook his head. He had never thought about the issue. He didn’t know how to formulate a response.
“Then why do you study in a technical school?”
Again Hok Leong shook his head. “I did well in the aptitude tests!”
“So what do you want to do in the future?”
Hok Leong shrugged his shoulders.
That day, Hok Leong took Chiu-yun’s question home with him. When he went to bed that night he was still clueless, he didn’t have an answer.
His classmates didn’t have answers as well.
Everybody said: “Are you crazy? Why think so much ahead? The future is a long time away. You don’t know what will happen. If you think too much, you’ll go crazy.”
“Everybody” here referred to the three guys he met on the first day of school: Ah Hor, Ying-jun, Tee Soon. At first Hok Leong didn’t like them. But after interacting with them for a while he realized that they were all right. Responding to the topic that Hok Leong raised, Ah Hor added: “Why do you need to study so much? Just finish secondary four. That’s good enough. Why complete another two years of senior high? Those who take that option continue to study. We start work first and gain an additional two years of experience. Isn’t that more or less the same?”
Hok Leong felt that Ah Hor’s words made great sense.
The people whom Hok Leong hung around with all felt that “secondary four was enough.” Their teachers also treated them as grown-ups who should practice autonomy. So after the recess period, more than half of those on the class register often upped and “disappeared.” Hok Leong also joined the exodus, but for metal work and technical drawing he stayed behind. He liked those subjects. There was no pressure, the teachers for those classes were friendly, they liked to chit chat, to shoot the breeze. Hok Leong often wondered why other teachers couldn’t be like them.
“Disappearance” often meant going first to the library located near their school, but not to borrow books or to read. Instead it was to leave their bags at the check-in counter, stepping into the library premises and walking around a bit before leaving separately one by one. It was easier to go gadding about without their school bags.
Sometimes they went to the movies, where they might meet girls from neighboring schools who were also skipping classes. They found ways to get to know one another. After that they sometimes went to the hawker center together, or hung around in the public park or shopping centre. Once they even went to a photo studio and took some pictures. Everybody thought those meet-ups would continue, but one day when the appointed time came nobody wanted to go. Eventually Hok Leong and his friends didn’t get to see the photographs that they took with the girls.
If you wanted to meet girls who were skipping classes, it was better to go watch some human interest movie or drama. Girls tended not to like martial arts films. But boys also didn’t much like human interest movies.
During those halcyon days when happiness was ordinary, nobody thought about the question that Chiu-yun had raised. They bothered about where to play, where to find girls. The “secondary-four-was-enough” mind-set was indeed quite wonderful!
Soon Hok Leong had something else to be worried about.
A few times while studying at Chiu-yun’s home he saw her speaking on the phone. Finally one day he couldn’t control himself. “Who is it?” he asked.
Chiu-yun didn’t seem particularly concerned. “It’s Tee Bo. He’s great fun. He often calls me at home.”
Hok Leong had almost forgotten the name. He didn’t expect Tee Bo would still be in contact with Chiu-yun. Furthermore, his intentions seemed quite clear. “Isn’t Tee Bo in the same school as you?” Hok Leong asked coldly. “You mean school’s just finished and immediately you need to chat over the phone?”
Chiu-yun didn’t catch the implication behind Hok Leong’s remark. “He’s in a different class,” she said. “Anyway, he’s a good friend of yours, right?”
Hok Leong wanted to say—No, he’s not my friend. We just hung around a bit during that one holiday break. But feeling that those words might be too revealing, he took a different tack: “You sure have a lot to talk about!”
Chiu-yun gave a little laugh but didn’t respond. Hok Leong didn’t like the way she parried his thrust. Her laughter left him nonplussed. Unable to settle the matter, he had no choice but to let it rest.
He didn’t expect her to add, as if a light bulb had lit up in her head: “If you think it’s a bad idea, I won’t talk to him.” She seemed to want to figure out his feelings.
Of course, Hok Leong wanted her to end those conversations. But he continued to control himself. “It’s up to you,” he said in a cool, indifferent tone of voice.
Color palette had eloped with a guy.
Hok Leong overheard his parents talking about it. What happened to her seemed a great pity and Hok Leong had a lot of question marks about it. The impression he had of her shattered into many pieces.
Father wanted mother keep a good watch on the two young ladies at home, to make sure they didn’t go bad. Mother changed the topic. She said they should consider moving to a bigger flat after Hok Leong’s elder brother and sister finished secondary four and came out to work, when they had a bit more money. She said lots of sixteen to seventeen year-old girls in the neighborhood had eloped, or else they suddenly had big bellies—who knew what kind of unmentionable jobs they were doing? She said the neighbor living diagonally across from them, the taxi driver, had a wife who was over a decade younger than him. It turned out she was actually the “second wife,” the mistress.
Father said jokingly that he should also go drive a taxi. Mother first gave him a big scolding. Then she said that the guy who sold vegetables in the fresh-produce market also had a second wife. Father and mother started to gossip. They mentioned a lot of names, like they were reading from a class register of some kind.
Hok Leong wondered how his mother knew so much about so many people. His immediate response was that he mustn’t do anything to embarrass Chiu-yun. He mustn’t make her a butt of ridicule and gossip.
Before the June holiday break several things happened all at once. First, Hok Leong’s school work improved tremendously. This was an important “event.” He scored above seventy in his Maths, Physics, and Chinese exams. He didn’t do so well for English, which he had expected, and also for metal work and technical drawing, which he hadn’t. He didn’t mind that at all and was in fact quite happy. The most important thing was that, overall, he had improved.
Chiu-yun naturally did much better than him. She had higher marks even in Chinese, for which she was a little embarrassed. Hok Leong didn’t see what there was to be awkward about. He never thought about being better than her in anything. Her lowest scoring subject was already higher than any of his. He knew that she represented something entirely different in his life. That was enough.
Chiu-yun had to return home to Indonesia for the holidays. She would only be back a week before school re-opened. Hok Leong felt despondent when he heard the news. He couldn’t very well ask her not to go. The whole experience made him spoil for a fight.
After that two other things happened in quick succession. The first was that his classmates wanted to go camping. He agreed immediately when they asked him. Then Red Dragon came to see him. He said that the guy they jumped the other evening had contacted them via intermediaries saying that his group wanted to negotiate a truce of some kind. The guys in the rival group were from block thirty thereabouts. They agreed to meet at six in the evening in two days’ time at the playground located between their domain, which was around the block ten area, and the rival group’s domain.
Hok Leong couldn’t refuse. He felt like he wanted to beat somebody up.
Red Dragon said that on the appointed day they would go to the playground at around three in the afternoon to hide some weapons in preparation for the face off. Hok Leong didn’t respond directly. He said if there was time after school he would join him.
After that, Hok Leong and his classmates got busy “collecting” utensils and tableware from the school canteen so that they could use them for their planned camping trip. On the appointed day for the negotiations, Hok Leong’s classmates wanted to leave during the recess break to go buy provisions for their trip, but he said he couldn’t join them. He wanted to go home early so that he could help Red Dragon.
On the day in question, the boys followed the same “route” they always used when they skipped class, making their escape from a large sewer located near the back gate. The back gate was not much used and was usually locked. But because they didn’t consult their astrology almanac that day, they weren’t prepared when the principal suddenly showed up at the perimeter fence, unlocked the metal gate, and stepped through. In one shot he caught the whole lot—they were all lined up preparing to sneak out.
The principal raised the centimeter-thick rattan switch in his hand and brought it down hard on Hok Leong’s backside. He hit him again, and then again. Each time, Hok Leong gasped and arched his body into a bow. He crooked his knees sideways so that he could clench his buttocks tight together. He grabbed his buttocks with both hands and his eyes started to tear.
The principal pointed to the three boys he had just punished, indicating to Hok Leong that he should join them. He was still angry. The boys stood in a row staring at the principal, awaiting his next move. Hok Leong was so terrified he couldn’t remember most of what the principal said earlier. He remembered him repeating, “You’re supposed to be in class and you want to scamper away. What do you take school for?” The nagging went on forever, like something his mother might have said.
The form teacher came to fetch his charges. The principal told the teacher to give them half an hour after school to eat lunch, and then to return them to his office. In the future, they were to attend every class, hand in every assignment. He would check personally to make sure that they did as instructed.
1:30 p.m. Hok Leong found himself again standing at the same spot in the principal’s office. He wondered what time he would get to leave school. If they didn’t release him soon he would miss the appointed time for stowing the weapons.
The principal wasn’t as angry as before, but he didn’t speak to them, just made some phone calls and left the room. The boys stood in a row, not talking, just standing. The door to the staff room was located just outside the office. They couldn’t really talk to one another.
There wasn’t much in the office: a cabinet, a settee, a low table, a larger office table, a chair. On the table stood a stack of files. There was also a telephone, a potted plant, a porcelain cup, a stationary cup with several pens in it, and a sheaf of paper. The centimeter-thick cane used earlier to inflict pain laid on the sheaf of paper.
The walls were empty. Only the area behind the principal’s chair had a picture. The picture had many words in it that Hok Leong couldn’t understand. Above the picture was a clock. With nothing to do, they followed the clock, tracked the second-hand as it swept around the clock face. They listened to the footsteps of teachers entering and leaving the staff room, heard them cough, heard them shuffle paper. Not much talk went on inside the staff room.
The sounds outside the room grew faint, less distinct. The stipulated time for stowing the weapons came and went. By the time the principal came back it was already four o’clock.
He wasn’t angry anymore. He sat down, took a sip of water from the cup, and set it down again. With a great show of concern, he asked each boy what job the boy’s father did.
Ah Hor’s father worked in a shipyard. Ying-jun’s father drove a taxi. Tee Soon’s father was a barber. After he heard this, the principal slowly puffed out his cheeks. He looked from one boy to the other. “Look, guys! These jobs are really tough. You mustn’t disappoint your parents.” He flashed them an unaccustomed smile: “Go home! Your parents are waiting for you!”
Many years later, Hok Leong still remembered the expression on the man’s face, the way he excused their transgression, his encouragement and support, his high hopes for their future.
When Hok Leong got home it was already five o’clock. Immediately, he felt something wrong when he reached the foot of his apartment block. There was nobody downstairs. A hush had settled over the area, but it wasn’t the kind of hush where everybody was too busy to come downstairs. It was the kind where a great dispute had happened. Everyone wished to avoid it.
When he reached home, mother cautioned in a harsh tone of voice: “Make sure you stay home after dinner! Don’t go running everywhere!”
Hok Leong went to look for his elder brother. “Red Dragon is dead,” he said. “He was supposed to go for some negotiation talk but he tried to stow weapons at the meeting place before the appointed time. They beat him to death.”
 Exile and Pursuit (放逐與追逐), by Chia Joo Ming 謝裕民, was originally published in 2015 in Singapore by Fuhao shidazhong chuanbo jigou (富豪仕大众传播机构). It was awarded the Commendation for the 2016 Singapore Literature Prize. Underlined words/sentences in the text appear in English in the original and are not translated. The full translation of Exile or Pursuit will be published by Balestier Press in 2018.
 Born in 1959 in Singapore, Chia Joo Ming (谢裕民) won the Singapore Young Artist award in 1993 and participated in the Iowa international writing program in 1995. He was also writer-in-residence in the Chinese program, Nanyang Technological University, in 2014. Chia is a three-time recipient of the Singapore Literature Prize, in 2006, 2010, and 2016. His works include: The Most Boring Nationality (最闷族, 1989), New Words of Worldly Tales (世说新语, 1994), The Insignificance of Being (一般是非, 1999), Reconstructing Nanyang Images (重构南洋图像, 2005), M40 (2009), 1644: The Year A Dynasty Was Hanged (甲申说明书, 2012), and Exile or Pursuit (放逐与追逐, 2015). He is currently a senior executive sub-editor in Lianhe Zaobao (联合早报), Singapore main’s Chinese-language newspaper.