Previously appeared in The Offing
[At dawn I will cross the stream, turning to catch one last glimpse of the riverbank—]
—Qu Yan, 涉江 [Crossing the River]
In high summer, the Melaka river dries
to expose its sharp underbelly. Above, the sun
streams through like salted egg-yolk
in dumplings the people offer to the water.
The river is an incisor: bisecting city
and village into a clean crescent, an open mouth
poised to swallow the other whole. The river
becomes mirror in triplicate, enfolding, unfurling.
The fishermen’s children play by the bank,
grown fat on rice-fed fish. Their laughter pours
across land, greedy fingers reaching into the river
to poach playful guppies from their mothers.
They dabble their feet in the water until their toes
become as white and bloated as blind worms,
creating lazy currents around the dirt
of my final resting place.
Closer to the city, dragonflies skim the surface
like flat stones, their wings reflecting the glint
of glass behemoths, obelisks to the sun. Tree roots
twine down into the river, drinking deep.
Summer develops into an incessant hum, the
background noise to tragedy. Heat clamps its
hands around us like a vice, squeezing the river
dry. Swathes of water shimmering in the air.
In the village, the first thing that goes is their voices,
like ivory fish bones sucked clean of flesh.
Then the nets, cast in again and again,
dragging up empty. Mothers wailing to the moon.
At dawn, the river had its teeth bared:
The dragonboats hid, for fear their wooden scales
would line the surface like fish-mail, lifeless,
skins stretched thin over a hollow drum.
As the river diminished, the waters parted.
My body spread out like a banquet, pockets full
of stones. But even the seaweed stoppering my heart
could not ease my anguish at their cries.
The city could not hear children starving: only
that their taps ran empty, the streets clogged
with cars on highways, roads that lead to
supermarket shelves emptied of water canisters.
Housewives complained of the exorbitant fish prices
in the wet market, noses flared
at the malnourished tilapia, glassy eyed kembung
lying limp on melting ice, unhearing.
A woman whispered to me her dreams of rain,
xylophone bones rattling a song of longing.
Like the river that night, I could only listen,
any reply drowned out by the unceasing cicadas.
ARTIFICIAL ORCHIDS (EXCERPT)
It was another July in the country of perennial summer. The car sliced through the humid air like a shark forging through water, its engine competing with the cricket cries coming from the oil-palm plantations on either side. The windows directly beside her were wound open as far as they could go, blasting her face with cooler air. The further one got from a city, the closer the palm trees loomed, some threatening to swallow highways—metal, asphalt, and all—whole under the impenetrable darkness of night. The moonlight waxed and waned in the skies as the clouds were blown across its surface, a yellowed, half-winking eye watching her journey across land.
The school holidays had just ended, which made it perfect for her trip—the highways to more remote areas of the country free of cars and families traveling back to their hometowns. Nothing between her except the open road and street lamps that lit the way.
She preferred driving at night. With the relentless tropical sun beating mercilessly down on you on a hot, unsheltered road, driving in the day time could be far more tiresome when you had a long journey in front of you. Staring at a phone screen while driving usually gave her headaches and dizziness, so she had checked her route the night before, trying to commit as much of it to memory as possible. Yue Lin didn’t feel tired at all, but there was an undeniable undertone of excitement lingering at the back of her mind, her skin buzzing quietly with anticipation with every mile that she drove.
She travelled out of Kuala Lumpur at 11.11pm, idly making a wish as the digital clock on her radio made the transition. After a while, everything began to look the same, except for the occasional highway signs indicating exits or diversions. The palms became ribbons of dark green, racing her onwards to the end. Every street light winked its single eye as she passed, bowing their heads in never-ending streams of light. Sometimes a car going in the opposite direction flashed its high beams in a salute, and she usually flashed hers back. Secret conspirators at the witching hour.
Perak was one of KL’s neighbouring states, so she crossed over easily into it, but her destination was on the other side of the state completely, closer to the island of Penang and the state of Kedah. Parts of her journey traced the curve of the coastline that surrounded Malaysia from all sides, the night-time horizons now devoid of light, dwindled into a vast gulf. At least the smell of salt was more welcome than the smoky haze that, though faint, had already begun to drift down from Indonesia in anticipation of their summer jungle burnings.
She passed through the town of Taiping at around 1 a.m, and then it was a short distance to the village. The weathered sign that called out a welcome to all visitors had once been painted bright green, and had long since dulled to grey and white. Selamat Datang Ke Kampung Tualang Tinggi, it said, the ‘T’ in Tualang slightly askew. At this hour, the town hadn’t waited up for her—it had gone to sleep, which was not unsurprising for a community in the countryside.
Driving slowly through it and trying to avoid potholes, it became clear that this was a typical Malaysian town stuck in the transition to modern life. One foot had managed to make it over to modernity, with their modest flats and condominiums, and the typical trappings of a society that had begun to rely on technology—phone stores, franchises, computer cafes. The other foot was still firmly stuck in the past, refusing to move. Beyond the shophouses, nearer to the river, she saw more traditional Malay houses on stilts, and even some Chinese terrace houses with their corrugated zinc roofs, as well as clusters of orange-painted Indian houses. Indians usually thought that this colour would bring them luck.
Things began to look more familiar to her, even though when she tried to measure what she was seeing up to her childhood memories, it was like overlaying two different drawings: one done against a reference, the other with closed eyes. Had that car repair shop always been there, or was it new? Why was there a dead-end when she turned left when she remembered it should lead to a row of shops? It became more and more disorientating, and she soon felt exhaustion tugging at her reins.
Feeling slightly guilty at the noise her car was making, she pulled up on the side of the road, ignoring the signs that said not to park there. She lowered her driver’s seat as far as it could go and tried to curl up to sleep, but when she closed her eyes, she only saw the dark glow of the road. She tried to modulate her breathing, and put her earbuds in, turning on the recordings she had made of her grandmother stories before this journey.
Yue Lin, are you sure you want me to record this down? You’ve heard these stories so many times, I’m sure you can tell them better yourself. You should write it down for me, I have no patience for these things.
Nai Nai spoke in Mandarin, her voice still steady and clear for her age. And then, her own voice replying, sounding scratchy, but adjusting something that brought both of their voices into painful focus: One day, my children will want to hear these stories, Nai Nai. No one will ever be able to tell these stories better than you can.
Alright. I will tell it as I’ve always told you, for my adorable little great grandchildren. I hope they come soon, and then I can really tell it to them in person.
The last comment was said in her grandmother’s typically pointed way, so much so that she couldn’t help but laugh at it. And as Nai Nai continued to talk about all the things she hoped her grandchildren would be, she fell asleep before the first story had even begun.
She woke just as the sun was rising, and with her eyes closed, she could hear the hum of the highway starting up, daily traffic beginning to move to and from their usual haunts. On the other side of the road, a few people walking to work peered at her curiously from a distance, but left her alone. Rubbing sleep out of her eyes, she started up the car again and drove off to find some breakfast.
The village looked better in the daylight, with its vibrant colours restored by the sun. She saw some rubber tappers emerging from the thick forest that surrounded the kampung, their packs full of the white, milky liquid, with cloth masks around their mouths and noses. They trudged off back to wherever their headquarters were, work interrupted by the sun slowing the sap of the rubber trees to nothing.
She didn’t have to go far to find a mamak stall that was reasonably full—always a good indicator of the quality of food—so she slipped inside to find a quiet spot in the corner.
Like a homing pigeon, a waiter soon appeared to take her order, and she decided quickly on a roti telur bawang that came with three types of curry, and a teh tarik, with less sugar. There were never any menus in these places, out of, she liked to think, a spirit of adventure. Sitting two tables across, a man tucked into a plate of mixed rice with tandoori chicken and assorted vegetables, while someone behind her ordered a roti telur similar to hers, but with several specific requests for the dish that sounded clearly like the product of many rounds of experimentation.
While waiting, she pulled out a worn burgundy notebook, bloated with newspaper clippings and printouts that she had been compiling. The village was not her final destination. The picture on the inside of her notebook’s cover was of the British colonial house she intended to visit––the house in which her grandmother had been born and spent most of her childhood, attached to the family that her parents served.
Although the house should have been classified as a heritage site by now, several factors conspired to keep it elusive and abandoned, most of all its strangely remote and hidden location. While Kg Tualang Tinggi might have been important enough a hundred years ago to warrant its own little piece of colonial power, it had certainly fallen far since those days. Besides Nai Nai’s own stories, there was little else she could find online about the house and its previous occupants, the Armstrong family. If someone still had a claim to the house, there wasn’t any trace of them. The entire family seemed to have disappeared at the very beginning of the Japanese Occupation, and never re-emerged after it.
Yue Lin remembered that a few years ago, while reading the news at breakfast, Nai Nai exclaimed that a property developer was finally going to refurbish Hartstrong Hall.
‘Maybe they will turn it into a hotel,’ her father had suggested, cracking open the top of his half-boiled egg with a decisive tap. ‘Like Carcosa Seri Negara, or maybe Macalister Mansion.’
‘A hotel in the middle of a rainforest jungle?’ Nai Nai seemed unconvinced. ‘A museum, maybe… but there isn’t really much around there now, why would tourists want to visit? Such a waste of time.’
Her father shrugged, more focused on fishing out errant pieces of eggshell. ‘Maybe to get a taste of ‘authentic’ Malaysian life? In a real kampung? I think there’s probably a market there.’
In the end, it turned out neither Nai Nai nor her father had been right, for as Yue Lin had found out just weeks earlier when planning her trip, the company had barely begun work on the house before the CEO had gotten himself mired in a political corruption scandal, and fled the country. The company dissolved not long after, collapsed under the weight of bankruptcy. Hartstrong Hall was left untouched.
There was no news of anything else planned for the house, and she wondered how much had already been destroyed since the last venture. Maybe she wouldn’t be able to see much of it, but she’d at least be able to get an idea of what the great house was like in its glory days.
Yue Lin’s thoughts were interrupted by the food arriving, a freshly made, oily layered flatbread stuffed with eggs and just barely-cooked onions. The spicy-sour tang of the fish curry beside it made her mouth water, and she left the notebook aside to focus on eating.
The other customers in the mamak were reasonably old, probably around her parents’ age or older. Most were reading newspapers or squinting at their phones. Some had gathered to talk with friends, their chatter filling the room and making the shop feel bigger than its four walls.
Hunger temporarily sated, she began making a list of things she would need to get from the local stores before heading into the rainforest. While her mother had tried to pack the car full of things, the fact that she would be going into the forest with only what she was able to carry on her back and with her own two hands meant that space was limited. It would be better to get as much as she could in town.
‘Are you visiting?’ an uncle asked from behind her, in clear English. She felt a twinge of annoyance as he barely pretended not to be reading over her shoulder at the notebook, but forced herself not to flinch away or be rude.
‘That’s the old ang moh house in the jungle, right?’ he continued, coming around to stand over her table and make conversation. ‘Are you a journalist or something? Writing about these old houses?’
The fact that he had already seen the notebook meant that she couldn’t roll out her already prepared lie, so she settled for a quiet nod and smile, hoping that it would appease him. He looked about the same age as her own father, and his hair was immaculately gelled and combed to one side, in a way that she remembered her grandfather doing while still alive. Its shine and stiffness would have done a 1990s-era Tony Leung proud.
He pulled out the chair across her and sat down comfortably with his drink, clearly ready to talk. ‘Uncle join you for breakfast ah. Hope you don’t mind.’
On instinct, her mouth opened to uninvite him from his position opposite her, but she forced herself to close it. It wouldn’t do to have rumours spread of her rudeness, especially, she assumed, in such a small community as this one. Besides, it would be interesting to hear news of the house from a source other than the internet.
‘Have you lived here long?’ she asked politely. She hesitated over her plate of food. It seemed rude to eat when Uncle’s food hadn’t arrived yet, but she had technically already started, and he had been the one to rudely push himself onto her table first. The Uncle seemed to notice her wavering, so he encouraged her to eat as he crossed his arms and leant back in his chair––the striking image of an old Geography teacher she used to have who loved to tell stories about his life that were completely unrelated to the class curriculum.
‘As long as I’ve been alive. My parents sent me to school in Penang when I was in secondary school, but I always knew I wanted to come back. City life lah. Not for me. You look like a city girl though.’ The last part was said in a tone that revealed the opinion he had of city people.
‘I’m from KL,’ she replied. ‘But my grandmother grew up here, in this kampung.’
She stopped, because that was strictly true––she wasn’t sure where her great grandparents had come from, but Nai Nai hadn’t really grown up in the kampung. After Nai Nai and her parents left Hartstrong Hall, and after the war, her family had bounced around from relative to relative, finally settling down in KL when Nai Nai was a teenager. But it was too complicated to explain all of that. Instead, she settled for: ‘Her parents used to work in that big British house, so she lived there too.’
‘Really?’ he looked interested at that comment. ‘And she made it all the way to KL after that?’
She didn’t know what he meant by that, but it didn’t matter, because he continued: ‘Actually, my mother used to work there too, but she settled in the city after––you know, the war and everything lah.’ He waved a hand non-committedly over their shared swathe of history. ‘Most people who used to work there moved out of the kampung a long time ago. That old house was already empty when I was born, but people used to gossip about it as if there were still people living there. That’s how much they respected the old family.’
Respect was an interesting word to use. Nai Nai often talked about her childhood in reverential terms, but didn’t have anything very nice to say about the family. She referred to them in pitying terms, as if they were birds in cages that would never be let out except within Nai Nai’s memories.
‘Is anyone who used to know the owners of the old house still in the kampung?’ she asked. ‘Or did your mother tell you anything about the place?’
He blinked and shrugged, shifting slightly to let the waiter put his breakfast in front of him. The waiter picked up her plate quickly, and it made her feel guilty, as if she was taking up a spot that could be used for another customer. But this wasn’t the city, and no one new seemed to be coming in. Uncle continued on: ‘I don’t think so. They moved out, or passed away. It’s been so long lah, I don’t know if anyone still remembers. The last time I heard of it was that year they planned to make it a hotel. Everyone was so excited, we thought it was our chance to become a hot tourist spot, like Tambun in Perak. One water park and suddenly they are the hottest place in the state. They are just as small as us!’
He took a sip on his still steaming drink, and gazed off into the space behind her. ‘My Ma used to say that Tualang was once almost as busy as Penang. Can you imagine?’
She thought about the empty, swollen roads she had driven on, and could not, but did not say so.
He went on, still thinking about the Hall. ‘Such a strange name, Hartstrong. Almost like their name, but then, so different. Ang moh really are creative about these things. Anyway, Ma should have worked there when your grandma was there. She always said that the wife at the house was quite pitiful, and she was so homesick! Like that, she shouldn’t have married someone who would have to travel. They liked the food here though. Ma said she never saw ang mohs who liked to eat Chinese cooking so much.’
As the story unfolded, it seemed that his mother had been a maid at the house, but hadn’t really told him much about her experiences there, only those of others. It seemed like the complete opposite of what Nai Nai had told her, where every story featured her rather prominently. Yue Lin found herself enjoying his company, as well as the vivid shading and colour that his storytelling lent to his mother’s experiences.
‘What are you trying to find at the house?’ he asked suddenly.
‘I’m not really sure,’ she said. That, at least, was the truth. ‘I’m hoping to go and find out.’
Previously appeared in Sine Theta Magazine
In three of her past lives, Ma had apparently been a jade ornament hanging off the silken clothes of a prized concubine, the muse for one of the famous classical gardens created by Ji Cheng in Suzhou, and a 1920s Shanghai shi dai qu songstress who, upon learning she would never sing again after an assault by a jealous ex-lover, tragically succumbed to an opium overdose.
It wasn’t that she remembered any of those past lives in any kind of significant detail. It didn’t even matter that she couldn’t point out Suzhou on a map of China or that she hated jazz. She believed in each past life with such passion and devotion that it very nearly convinced me, but less so Ba, who tolerated Ma’s superstitiousness with an air of quiet dignity. What meant even more to Ma was that in all her past lives, she had always been in close proximity to greatness, but somehow never seemed to be able to reach for it herself. In this life, she was a Mandarin teacher in one of the vernacular secondary schools in Malaysia that was big enough to have both a morning and afternoon session for two separate sets of sleepy-eyed, untalented students, but greatness had yet to reveal itself.
She had decided that I was going to be the source of this greatness, consulting her fortune-teller while I was only a mass of soupy cells in her womb. She met the fortune-teller at another pivotal moment of her life, on her way to the first day of her new job, aged twenty two. While they were hiding under the corrugated roof of a bus stop for shelter against the rain, the mystic told her two things: the secret ingredient to grandma’s herbal chicken, and where to find my father.
After waiting for Ba to arrive at the foretold place, marrying him, and having me, Ma set about recreating the herbal chicken recipe from scratch. By then, enough years had passed that the fortune-teller had become a fixture in our lives. I grew up watching Ma nod wisely while on the phone to this disembodied voice, squeezing the receiver between neck and shoulder as she cooked dinner. I remember seeing parts of the curly plastic cord lying across the hot metal of the stove, growing rough and half-melted over time. This was something that happened so often that I thought someone actually lived inside the phone, and was upset when no one replied when I picked it up to complain to them about my mother. I also knew that every major life decision I made—from which kindergarten I should attend to when I should have my first haircut—passed through this detached mouthpiece.
When I was old enough to hold a pen and write, my mother made me keep a dream diary in the hopes that memories from my past lives would cross the barrier into this one. When I dreamt I had been on a stage, bowing to an adoring crowd, piano lessons materialised in my life. The same with art classes, then new running shoes that were the envy of my classmates. But when my eight year old brain suddenly began to dream, with alarming regularity, of eating ice cream for breakfast, Ba finally caught on. After a firm discussion with Ma, she decided to only pay attention to the ones that seemed more abstract.
So when I started dreaming of robes spangled silver and a sinuous path strewn with lotuses at fifteen, Ma knew that this was probably the manifestation of a past life, and it was time to bring me to see her fortune-teller.
As we drove over to the fortune-teller’s house, we were caught in a traffic jam, cars slowed to a painful limp at three in the afternoon. I was in a bad mood after a day at school, and the direction we were headed in, west, meant that the blazing sun striped our faces red. The fortune-teller lived in Cheras, a place known for its endless rows of large, failing shopping malls, and enclaves of Chinese residences which had slowly grown more gentrified after our country gained independence.
‘You don’t know her name?’ I asked Ma skeptically, cutting her off mid-sentence as she told the story of how she and the fortune-teller met for the thousandth time. I was starting to get motion-sick from the constant starting and stopping of the car in the jam.
Ma opened and closed her mouth, but then shrugged. ‘I suppose if I needed to know her name, she would have told me.’
We passed by the cause of the jam: two cars that had bumped into each other on my left, the owners arguing and gesturing violently in the sweltering heat. Some bystanders were taking videos, which would make their way around WhatsApp groups and popular Facebook pages within the hour. Ma handed me her phone: ‘Take pictures of the car plates, they are lucky jackpot numbers.’ It was morbid to think of profiting off someone else’s misfortune, like stepping on their heads so we could climb higher, but I obeyed.
The fortune-teller lived in a two-storey terrace house, in a neighbourhood full of identical houses. No one came to greet us at the door, but it wasn’t locked. Ma knocked once and opened the door with furtive glances over her shoulder. It struck me that she was embarrassed for anyone to see us here, even though she must have visited this place countless times already.
‘Here,’ we heard the fortune-teller say in Cantonese. It was a tone I knew well. I looked around at the walls of the living room that we were in, which were covered in altars to local deities. Tua Pek Kong stared impassively down at us, his white beard frizzing slightly in the heat. Rows and rows of candle flames multiplied endlessly in the reflecting wet-slick of their oil, making Guan Yin’s face glow softly, as if she held the flame of life within her. I reached out to run my fingers over the irresistibly rough innards of an agate crystal geode that was half as tall as me, but Ma swatted my hand away. Pale-white jade beads trickled down the entrance of an inner chamber, which we swept aside into a room that matched the pulsing red of my eyelids.
Besides the violent red of the room, it was surprisingly bare. A large ba gua mirror—eight sided—hung to the side, reflecting the walls back to us. The fortune-teller was dressed from head to toe in interlocking Gs that screamed tacky, the kind of cheap knockoff you could could get at any market. Her photochromic lenses were as dark as they could go, even in a room with no natural light, so I couldn’t make out her eyes clearly, except during their sudden, darting motions. Incense filled the air, as thick as haze in July.
After she waved us wordlessly into seats around a circular table, Ma gave her a gift of Korean pears and a red packet full of money while introducing me. I was mesmerised by the hypnotic trails that the golden nail-guards she wore left behind, each one connected to an anchoring bracelet by a fine-linked chain.
‘It seems like you didn’t drink the last few drops in Meng-po’s cup,’ she smiled at me after Ma had described my dreams. I squirmed awkwardly in my high-backed chair, parts of the character for fortune making dents in my back. ‘It seems like you were an astronomer in one of the royal courts, and divined for the emperor through numbers.’
To my mother: ‘That’s the reason for her troubled dreams. If you make some ginger tea for her before bed, that should boost her spirits and get rid of any bad energy.’
‘She will have great luck with numbers,’ she continued thoughtfully, staring at the oracle bones she had made me throw haphazardly into the centre of the table. ‘There will be good news within the next six months.’
My mother was on the edge of her seat. ‘Does that mean I should enrol her in Olympiad Maths classes?’
The fortune-teller shook her head and snapped her gold talons against the table in a string of satisfying clicks. ‘Not necessarily. Just be open to all possibilities.’
A week later, Ma was triumphant. The lottery ticket she bought with the car-plate numbers I had jotted down were just a digit off from the real number. Ma became convinced that this was merely a warm-up, a sign. It wasn’t quite greatness, but it meant we might have the chance to move up in the world, out of our house, away from neighbours that never cleaned their houses properly and invited vermin into the local area. She believed that I would be able to predict one of the jackpot numbers within the next six months through my dreams.
Each morning, before I awoke, Ma was there, pencil at the ready. ‘Quickly, quickly! Before you forget!’ She said anxiously. Sometimes she would wake me up mid-dream, as if she hoped to catch the numbers off-guard. They never came to me clearly—dreams in three acts, five faces I had been able to recognise and name, a clock stuck peculiarly between eleven and twelve—all dragged out of my sub-consciousness and scribbled down in a worn notebook that would be brought to the local Toto shop and checked once, twice, thrice.
But the longer the promised fortune took to arrive, the angrier Ma got with the fortune-teller. I didn’t understand why, given that her advice had been so vague in the first place. The numbers were printed each week in the newspapers, of which Ma had dozens of permutations of ticket numbers to compare against, her mood steadily declining as the numbers dwindled.
As the months went by, Ma and her fortune-teller were going through what Ba called a cold war, and Ma was no longer calling her. I knew that Ma was waiting to be called. As if the first to succumb meant an admission that they had been friends all along—proof that this wasn’t just a cheap scam.
I was taking a shower when I heard a shriek and then soft laughter which slowly rose in pitch. Dashing out so quickly I almost slipped, I saw Ma standing in the living room, the day’s newspapers scattered around her feet. She was doubled over, laughing so hard that she had to take in huge, rasping breaths that almost choked her, threads of saliva spilling out onto the ground. I shouted frantically for Ba, wondering if she was having a stroke, trying to bring her over to the sofa and calm her.
She would not speak a single word, and lay in bed staring blankly at the ceiling. A fever began to burn in the hollow of her forehead. Ba said we should let her rest, so we cast the room in shadow, and tried not to make too much noise.
When I picked up the newspapers one by one, trying to arrange them into their intended order, I saw it. A picture of the fortune-teller gazing out at me in blurred colour, without her glasses on, and a grin that was the brightest thing on the page. Her real name was Shirley Lim, and she had just won a record-breaking sum of money in the jackpot this week.
The winning numbers—a combination of Ma’s birthday date, interlaced with mine.
The weekend my cousin got into the University of Edinburgh, our entire family was invited to Big Uncle and Aunt’s house for a steamboat dinner. This invitation was met with joy and excitement (on the part of my two younger twin brothers), but also dismay and dread (in the secret, but perhaps not innermost thoughts of Ma and I).
As we ascended the glass elevator that led to my uncle and aunt’s fancy apartment in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, Ma lamented the fact that she had such an incapable daughter, and warned my brothers not to follow my example, but to instead make sure that they looked up to and learned from my cousin. As usual, I pretended not to listen, while my younger brothers were too busy arguing about who had better aim and was more likely to hit a passerby on the ground with a mouthful of spit. It wasn’t that I didn’t care, but I had long learned to block my ears off from the words that spilled from Ma’s mouth like heavy rain during a period of haze. They left their oily-grey smoke trails on my skin, and I was so saturated with them I could sometimes tell what she was going to say before she said it.
Not for the first time that day, I wondered how different things would have been at these family gatherings if Ba had not abandoned us nearly ten years ago, and left Ma to bend over backwards to please her stuck-up family. We were so afraid of any shame that some of my more distant relatives did not even know that Ma was divorced—or pretended not to know. They assumed our father was always on a badly-timed business trip whenever we had to meet them. You must be so lucky to have a father that works so hard for you! They would say, while I would only grit my teeth and smile sheepishly, resenting my mother for putting us in this position. For all we knew, Ba was very well dead by now, or raising a mirror image of our family, one that was smarter and prettier and richer than ours.
‘Ah John, congratulations! We are all so proud of you. First in the family to go to university!’ Ma said, without a trace of resentment.
When my cousin opened the door, Ma handed him an ang pao and smiled sweetly, a rare event that would only occur five times across my lifetime, and directed to me only once, on the day I got married. She seemed to have conveniently forgotten the fact that I was already in a local university, having started on the January-December calendar rather than the Western one. Still, it didn’t count, since it was just a polytechnic. For many people, this didn’t seem like something to be proud of––it was a useful degree, but not as glamorous as the degrees from the exotic West. Never mind that we didn’t have the money for me to go overseas—it still somehow counted as a failing on my part.
For all his parents’ money, I was thankful that at least my cousin had some manners, and never rubbed anything in my face while we were growing up. The ang pao disappeared into his back pocket, and was tucked underneath his chequered shirt.
‘Come in, come in!’ Big Uncle boomed in Mandarin, face already red from early celebration, a sweating bottle of Tiger beer in his hand. ‘Why still standing in the doorway? No need to be polite!’
We crowded in and dutifully recited a roll call of greetings, from eldest to youngest relative. My Po Po was still in the living room catching the last few minutes of a Hokkien drama that never seemed to end. She was a small, bird-boned lady that always had her silver hair pulled back in a severe bun. Po Po also had perfect posture, regardless of whatever situation she was in––a trait that unfortunately not a single one of her children and grandchildren had. When I glanced at the screen, three characters were lost in an intense but circular argument about the identity of a child, eyes wide and earnest, as if this was the first time in the drama this had happened. Anyone who was able to maintain such dedication to their character over the course of five hundred or more episodes truly deserved an Oscar.
Po Po smiled when she saw us approach, flashing a full set of false teeth. I got a polite nod, while the twins got warmer hugs and head pats, my grandmother asking why they seemed to get thinner and thinner every time she saw them. She shook her head disappointingly at Ma, whose own lips thinned in response as she struggled to hold back a rude response to her mother.
Big Uncle and Aunt’s house had always seemed so big when I was a child. It was certainly expensive—Big Uncle was a businessman who had gotten lucky in the property development market, and was the more successful sibling on Ma’s side of the family. Their family could afford expensive trips to Europe, good international schools, and luxury cars. Meanwhile, it was a treat for our family if we occasionally got to take a road trip down to Penang or Melaka, local haunts which were more food adventures than life-changing cultural experiences. Big Aunt had once given me a small souvenir from Paris, a camera obscura with a tiny pinhole that gave me a panoramic view of the courtyards of the Louvre. That whole year, I nearly ruined my eyesight by squinting through the tiny thing to capture every detail, dreaming endlessly of walking those halls, escaping the moist heat of the tropics.
My Big Aunt was busy in the kitchen, preparing the cooked and raw ingredients that would make up our family steamboat. Every inch of the kitchen counter was covered in dishes, and my stomach grumbled at the sight. She was the perfect stay at home mum and wife. Every time we visited, I couldn’t help but marvel at how immaculate the kitchen was, or how artfully yet another room renovation had been done. While my mother used Big Aunt’s life of leisure as the reason everything she did looked so perfectly put together all the time, I secretly thought that my Big Aunt had just never known bitterness, and so she couldn’t imagine any bitterness in the lives of others.
‘Mei-ah, how’s school?’ She asked, while arranging cloud-coloured, deveined prawns on a plate. They were so large that she was able to build them up into a small Jenga tower, black eyes spilling out of their heads. I replied that everything was fine, and nothing was too hard yet.
She turned off the bubbling pot of broth on the stove. ‘Your mother must be so happy that you’re living close by,’ she continued. ‘Xin tong ah, when I think about John going to Edinburgh. My big boy, all grown up now! I don’t know how I’m going to cope when the youngest will have to go too.’
I was handed a plate of fish bladders and beancurd to bring to the dining room, as she followed behind with four stacks of thinly cut shabu-shabu meat. In a matter of minutes, the spread was transferred from kitchen to table, with the huge steamboat pot taking the place of pride atop a portable electric hot plate.
‘Lai chi ah!’ Big Aunt called out loudly to everyone.
Steamboat is a meal that both embodies unity while promoting bitter divisiveness. The order of ingredients that go in are a hotly contested topic, and there is only as much space as the pot allows, so for hungry stomachs, it’s important that the things they like most go in first.
Meat first—for Ma and Big Uncle, who were rarely in accord on anything. Big Aunt and Po Po protested, saying that the vegetables cooked slower, and were needed to counteract the heatiness of the steamboat’s pork broth. The twins and our younger cousin tore their eyes away from their computer games and came over to add their noisy voices to the fray, calling out for meatballs stuffed with cheese and crab-sticks to be thrown in. Big Aunt lamented the fact that they didn’t have a pot with a divider in the center, so that we could have different soups and broths.
Eventually, all eyes turned to John who had already started on the side dish of fried dumplings while the adults bickered.
‘I like both meat and vegetables,’ he said. ‘But the vegetables do take longer to cook, so we should just leave them in while the broth boils. When everything is hot enough we can just dip the meat in and cook it instantly, so no one has to wait for anything.’
It was the obvious solution, but no one ever wanted to compromise in the beginning. The ingredients went in: huge leaves of Chinese cabbage that would shrink down as they were boiled, local Kai Lan that Big Aunt swore was a hundred percent organic, then some meat and fish balls to please the children. Ma and Big Uncle dipped in meat with their chopsticks directly into the boiling broth, and then into the mixture of soy sauce and chilli flakes in the smaller dishes in front of them.
We ate peacefully, as the talk turned to politics. Big Uncle laughed about another Malaysian politician’s alleged sex tape, while Big Aunt scolded him and said there were children at the table. Another corruption scandal. One of our relatives working in the government civil service had mentioned something or other to Big Uncle, ensuring that the rumours would spread further and further through the country until even primary school children had worked the words into their schoolyard games. Ma asked John about university—where was he going to live, and who was going to help him move all his things? Then to our younger cousin—would he miss his older brother? He shrugged in response, mouth full of food.
Listen to "i was all over her" by salvia plath, selected to accompany Kwan-Ann's work, below:
KWAN-ANN TAN (she/her) is a Malaysian writer, a medievalist-in-training, and an occasional quartet player. You can find her at kwananntan.carrd.co or on Twitter: @KwanAnnTan