Excerpts

The Big Durian
(Originally published by the Ricepaper Magazine)



During Ramadan the pace of life on the islands of Indonesia slows down with workers going home early for dinner, self-reflection, and prayers. But in Jakarta it can be difficult to notice that anything has changed. The ‘Big Durian’ burns with a frantic energy, this city of millions clogged with rivers of cars and competing bikes and swarms of bajaj fleeing the urban crush at the north of the city for its outskirts. Under the grey smog guards in immaculate uniforms watch as the commuter trains donated by the Japanese clank past to Bogor and Bekasi, while locomotives at Gambir station scream past miles and miles of rice-paddy fields for Bandung and Surabaya. Workers toil underground to complete a massive mass rapid transit system that will finally bring the city into the modern age, while skyscrapers are in the process of filling the skyline. It is polluted, corrupt, and filthy-at the same time it is bold, proud, and determined.

Jakarta is yet another brash Asian city, competing to be cosmopolitan and sophisticated. But it is fighting against nature. Earthquakes wrack the country periodically. And experts predict that Jakarta will sink into the sea-it was built on marshlands and sea levels are rising faster than ever before. Crippling floods are already common, swamping low-lying areas like the Pluit district. But for now the city continues to burn with a manic energy.

I was not very interested in the proud new buildings-I wanted to see the colonial remnants of the city once known as Batavia when it was the capital of the Dutch East Indies. For centuries the Dutch had asserted control of the network of islands that constituted Nusantara, the Malay Archipelago, fighting for prominence against the Portuguese, British, and Spaniards, while the bitterly divided local rulers slowly fell. Batavia itself had been carved out of the swamps, tens of thousands of slaves and labourers under VOC Governor General Coen constructing the canals and walls of the city following its capture from the English. Fortress Batavia had withstood a massive siege from the Sultan Agung’s massive forces, and weathered epidemics and insurrections that routinely killed its colonial inhabitants, and from there the Dutch had steadily built an empire that stretched from the northern tip of Sumatera all the way to Papua and the glaciers of Irian.

We first ventured into Glodok, Jakarta’s Chinatown, where the majority of the Chinese had lived at one point. They had initially lived in the confines of Batavia, but following riots and their subsequent massacre, the Chinese were condemned to living outside the city walls in 1741. It was just one of the many battles, riots, and demonstrations of violence that would wrack the city periodically over the centuries. Glodok’s warren of streets teemed with familiar sights-seafood for sale on metal trays by the tiled roadside, tacky red lanterns fluttering in the breeze as shoppers squeezed their way through the narrow alleyways, stinking of desiccating vegetables and meat. Everyone spoke Indonesian there, even the old women in flower-print blouses, looking as if they would be right at home in the old parts of Hong Kong or Macau. In the years following President Soekarno’s ousting by the strongman Suharto, various decrees were passed and the new generation of Chinese was to speak only Indonesian, and names were to be changed with immediate effect. The Liems became Salims, and the Loeks became Loekmans. Roots were forgotten and remained unspoken, and I knew several people who were unsure of exactly who they were, their lineage muddled up in history.

Half of Heaven
(Originally featured in UBC Literature Etc's 22nd LeMook: Symmetrism')



In the beginning there were only two of us.
          

So much changed from the day we first met at the studios, on the sound-stages where fake snow billowed like a northeastern storm, the director in his leather jacket pointing and gesturing for the funeral sequence to be more elaborate, the cameramen with their machines clumsily wiping down the lenses. We were both among the mourners, so alike that we could have been sisters, and you later told me that it was like the night you caught the late train to Shanghai while the soldiers with guns encroached on the borders, while for me I had left the oppressive mansion and the stink of opium in Soochow in anger, the both of us ready to begin new lives in a fluctuating city. The studios were dream factories, manufacturing films bound for the theatres where hundreds of clerks and office-girls thronged the halls, awaiting yet another distraction from the chaos of the streets.

*

I was never really an actress; it was just one of those things I had to do to earn a living in those first few bitter years in Shanghai, but what I wanted was to tell my own grand stories, like how Ts’ao Hsueh-Ch’in had turned his life into art even when dying penniless in Peking. I remember when you asked me why I wrote during the long intermissions between sequences shot in replicas of the Empress Dowager’s throne room, and how your eyes misted over when I told you how badly I wanted to escape being just another faceless courtesan in the wings. I wanted to write a story about fleeting love and youth. But of course nobody cared what I had to say, to them I was just another actress with incomprehensible dreams. That was why I eventually left the stage, retreating alone to a rented room on Rue Pichon where I painstakingly wrote out lines of characters for books that nobody would read.

*

That was when we started to drift apart, wasn’t it, after we relocated to different neighborhoods when we once shared an apartment off Soochow Creek, kept awake by the sound of laughter from the bar girls in the motorcars on their way to the Bund? We saw less of each other over the years, but what I wanted was to tell you that I cared so much about you, that it was so painful trying to hide what I felt that it was a physical pain in my chest that never went away while you continued to burn brighter and faster, your affairs as widespread as the posters that I saw on the walls with you and a succession of handsome men staring longingly at each other.

*

Without you there is no longer any order in my life, all I feel is a pervasive loneliness. Soon I will put down my pen, the warm water in the sink awaiting me, while the noise in the apartment has died down, even the wireless reporters reading out the news from the wars taking their sleep for the night, the manuscripts that I have written remaining unpublished in a box while the last of my savings finally run out. Half of heaven is forever missing, and even if I live beyond tonight, I can spend my life never finding closure.


In Shanghai-Full Story
(Originally published in 'Cofeestory Issue 3, November 2015)



All of Shanghai seemed to be a party at 7pm in the evening on the Bund, where the lights of the Oriental Pearl flashed purple through the encroaching night and the soft orange lamps glowed to life amid the spires and domes of the colonial buildings, parades of brides and grooms-to-be with their retinue of photographers lining up for space with the skyscrapers of Pudong as the backdrop, amongst the crowds of tourists and revellers which never seem to end. All of this spilled back towards Nanjing Road, where the crowd merged with the traffic and the cacophony of horns blaring from the taxis and tour buses and electric scooters, and along the way I came face to face with grumpy promoters flinging cheap brochures printed with maps of the Metro on the reverse into the faces of the tourists in the tram-cars that motored along the shopping street, and the beggars shaking plastic cups under the noses of the crowd at the stop signs, the line-dancing women and public performers lining the stretch all the way from Zhongshan Lu to People’s Square, while workers in suits watched imperiously from the steps of the department stores as restless girls smoked in front of the quiet alleys, sometimes crossing the street in search of snacks overflowing with sightseers, while men march in Minutes to Midnight T-shirts, which for some reason seems disproportionately popular in China.


“You want girl?” A boy who must have been no more than ten tugged at my shirt sleeves as I wandered aimlessly. Naturally I ignored him but he followed as I snaked past Hongyi Plaza and towards the immense lines of the Forever 21 at 233 Nanjing Dong Lu. “You don’t speak Chinese? You Malaysia? Philippines?” the boy continued to follow me persistently, pulling out cards of women in low-slung tops. I sighed as we approached the entrance to the Metro, it was hard being a male solo traveller, approached by an assortment of pimps offering massages and prostitutes once you were on your own. “No,” I sighed as I finally got to the escalator, and off went the boy pimp, scouting the street for more unsuspecting customers.

When the city became too vast and chaotic, you could always slip away, and sometime later I found myself in the old French Concession. In the old days adventurers and politicians and gangsters set themselves up in the charming rooms of apartment houses that would not have looked out of place in a suburb of Marseille or the colonial streets of Hanoi, but now they were filled with stocks of rice and patchwork furniture and bicycles, the owners in singlets, standing at the windows smoking their cigarettes behind the shade of the wutong trees that Chiang Kai-Shek had ordered planted in the old capital of Nanking. The ground floors of those houses facing the street were open for business, I ventured into a coffeeshop with the pretentious name of C’est la Vie, which had become my usual haunt since I arrived.


Ah Beng's Wedding
(Originally published in KL Noir: Blue)


There is a lot about Malaysia that I can tell you, you know. Have you seen those advertisements before? Cuti-cuti Malaysia! Then they will show you a lot of pictures, you know those ones where there are smiling Malay men in their kampungs playing musical instruments and everything is all green? Ha! Not true. Those places don’t exist anymore. You go outside and you see nothing but oil-palms. Just oil-palms, all up and down the North-South Highway. If got kampungs the people are all poor and like boss says, they depend on government to give them free food and electricity. I know this because when I was young I was born there. I grew up among all those trees and then my relatives moved out of the estates. They wanted to find work in the city. But the furthest that most of them went was Teluk Anson.  But my mother and father didn’t want to go. We stayed in this kampung, in a shophouse. It was very old and you can see swallows nests on the ceiling. My father, he collect the birds nest and sell it. In your country you got drink birds nest? Here we drink a lot. He bought another shophouse and let swallows build their nests inside. But soon, business very bad. So he go and borrow money from loan sharks. That is where all the trouble starts.

The Boundaries in Men's Hearts

To sketch a map of the world,
All you need is a pen and a map
And a cabinet of ministers and a drawer of unanswered petitions
You just draw a line where it pleases you
Never mind if it cuts through states, kingdoms, houses, and
men.
Then you get up and tell the press what you’ve just done,
Pack up your old suitcases stamped V. R.,
And catch the last steamer
Back to the gloom of London.
But you have failed to understand that this-
What do you call it-Partition-separates
A people and makes them enemies, while you
Just watch the newspapers churning out page after page of
Protests, fighting, and mindless violence,
Pleased as punch until the reality comes back
To hit you, never realising
Just how easily you have sealed
The boundaries in men’s hearts.



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