Note: Rifle Range Flats are Penang’s earliest low-cost housing project (1970). The curious name dates back to the 1950s when the ground was used for target practices by the army. It’s infamous for its squalor, violent gangs, and heroin addicts. It’s also my childhood home of some 18 years.
Eyes opened – the cradle spring from the ceiling,
Soft light from without illuminating plastic flower
Remnants of the Flower Power Generation with dreams
That would shape a new life within these four walls of
Indestructible concrete. Child boy saw ma and pa
As a cocoon to which he wished he belonged, but
Pa rose up and left and the house of dreams
Shut its door to many possibilities.
Crying ma positioned herself before the vanity mirror
Like a parrot ready for mating,
And child boy watched with artistic eyes,
Internalising the laws of aesthetics.
Grandma said oh no there would be no tragedy in this house,
Not while she’s still around!
(But how long would you stay, grandma?)
She took child boy down to smoky hawker heaven
And they ate like the hungry ghosts of July.
Aunt #1 having lost her husband but not
Her sense of humour said boy child had his pa’s
Mouth (ha-ha) for it’s CNY again and the grass
Was aflame. ‘Ashes for new things,’ a random cousin quipped.
Night fell years later to find teen boy dreaming
Of a single streetlight lighting up the barracks across.
Lying sleepless he wished for dawn when the first reveille
Would sound bringing out the toy soldiers,
‘Colonel Bogey March’ bouncing off
The misty hillside.
He dreamt through the long sweet day,
Waiting for the thrills of hide and seek.
When his schoolmates came calling,
The classic game would unfold on the lowest level
Of the buzzing catacomb,
And boyish hoots would ring out
As their lightning footsteps thundered up
The foul dark stairwells, up and up
Towards the 16th floor, the seat of the stars
Where that other failed schoolboy had hurled himself off
They marvelled at the view, the boy’s courage.
Then came the realisation that
Many of his schoolmates had gone missing.
The maze had swallowed them and their futures.
Teen boy braced himself for the descent,
For down below all the great love songs had been playing.
(‘Just one night and we’ll have the magic feeling like we used to do.’)
In the very room where he had lain as a dumb babe,
The foreign lover now came and told him of
Tales of another land in the virgin snow.
He made up his mind then –
Say goodbye to Ferringhi Beach sensual white,
Say goodbye to grandma, ma and pa,
To all that’s his except for
What he had committed to memory.
His best pal cradling his knees said,
‘These buildings were built to last.
German technology no?
Go, leave this place if you must.
Go – but keep the faith that
This room in the Tower of Babel,
Its walls so strong and proud,
Will remember the music of our youth.’
29.5.16 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Lyrics taken from ‘Miss You Like Crazy’ (1989) by Natalie Cole. Writers: Preston W. Glass, Gerry Goffin, Michael Masser.